Randidly was very annoyed. Because he couldn’t find this Naffur and had spent a few hours summoning riders and sending them against monsters of various Levels. At Skill Level 1, his Rider had about as much strength as something who possessed a Level in the low 30s. At Skill Level 20, he gained the ability to summon a second one, which made them at least capable of harassing these above Level 50 monsters, if that monster was alone.
For a while, at least. Ultimately, the Level 50 monster could absorb the wounds to break out of the encirclement, likely crushing one of the riders in the process. Having them capable of fighting Level 30 monsters was already a good start, but Randidly suspected that was due to the Skill absorbing other Skills.
If it hadn’t, he might have a little baby summon on his hands.
But he couldn’t just grind this new Skill all day; he finally asked Neveah more directly how to find Naffur. Her response was why the main reason Randidly was annoyed.
Just follow the Aether connection. I gave him one.
Which, of course, made Randidly check his Aether connections. It was immediately clear that two were very near to his position. One must have been Naffur, while the other was Arbor.
Part of the reason Randidly was pissed was that Neveah hadn’t told him to check the connection, but he was also annoyed at himself for not thinking to use his Aether Detection. He had just assumed that it wouldn’t be very helpful because he was looking for an individual and not one like the Creature that would have an easily identifiable energy signature. Turned out that was wrong.
So Randidly immediately made a beeline for Naffur. During that time, Randidly looked at his Skill Levels.
Overall, he had another large haul. But most of the gains were from a few concentrated Skills: Erode Image, Crossroads of the Alpha Cosmos, Riders of the Baleful Court, and Cycle of the Gloomy Wood. The last two were due to the few hours Randidly had spent farming monsters for likely looking materials, in case Sam needed them.
It ended up being 136 PP. Which, unfortunately, didn’t finish off the Ashen Aura Path that Randidly hastily had chosen during the fight against Aegiant. Even more damning, there still wasn’t any benefit from pouring PP into the Path. Still, Randidly enjoyed his new rider Skill. His two new companions had some independent thought but seemed very content to ride behind him on their strangely rocking spider-rhino-camels.
In spite of himself, it was amusing for Randidly to watch. So Randidly allowed them to slow him down, and continued to dash forward. As he did so, he took one glance at his current Status screen.
Class: Lord of the Baleful Wood (+x5)
Level: 40 (46%)
Health(/R per hour): 5046/5087 (2513)
Mana(/R per hour): 3986/5492 (1967)
Stam(/R per min): 4713/4900 (802)
Skills (Soul Skill): Figure of the Alpha Cosmos Lvl 872
Combat: Spear Mastery Lvl 200, White Phantom’s Half-Step (Un) Lvl 93, Heavy Blow Lvl 113, Iron Skin Lvl 47, Dodge Lvl 111, Fighting Experience (Un) Lvl 156, Block Lvl 77, Phantom Onslaught Lvl 42, Calculated Blow Lvl 102, Roundhouse Kick Lvl 76, Idiosyncratic Cut (Un) Lvl 120, Stalemate Breaker Lvl 66, Talon Strike Lvl 90, Counter Lvl 86, Flowing Momentum Lvl 5
LoBW Class Skills: Grasp of the World Seed (L) Lvl 222, Spray Holy Sap (Un) Lvl 25, Sharpness Lvl 110, Earthquake (Un) Lvl 47, Invigorating Call (Humanity)(Un) Lvl 14, Reach of the Jade Slag (Ru) Lvl 104, Erode Image (L) Lvl 29, Spriggit’s Tinkering ® Lvl 94, Aether Understanding (A) Lvl 65, Aether Infusion Lvl 47, Volatile Ash (A) Lvl 36, Visualization ® Lvl 183, Fruit of the Planting of Enmity (L) Lvl 25, Absolute Timing (Ru) Lvl 56, Cycle of the Gloomy Wood ® Lvl 27, Riders of the Baleful Court (A) Lvl 24, Lantern of Harsh Truths ® Lvl 3
The 7 Kata of the Ashen Spear (L): The Spear Advances, Ash Trails Lvl 106, As the Sun Stills (A) Lvl 79, When a Shadow Departs, Fireflies Dance (Un) Lvl 64, All is Ash (L) Lvl 100, Frigid Ash, Extinguishing Storm (Ru) Lvl 53
The 6 Signs of the Spear Phantom ®: The First Sign- The Inevitable Phantom Arrives Lvl 117 (Un), The Fifth Sign- The Wild Phantom’s Embrace (A) Lvl 196, The Sixth Sign- The Breath of the Spear Phantom ® Lvl 82
Aether Skills: Aether Detection Lvl 122, Aether Manipulation Lvl 121, Living Aether ® Lvl 111, System Interference Lvl 40
Spells: Yggdrasil Soul Seed ®, Inspiration ®, Ignition Bolt ® Lvl 108, Verdant Nova (Un) Lvl 79, Burning Footsteps Lvl 23, Touch from Beyond ® Lvl 37, Influence of the Molten Core ® Lvl 85, Eruption of the Blazing Leyline (Ru) Lvl 76, Ignition of the Emerald Essence (L) Lvl 60
Crafting: Potion Making Lvl 73, Farming Lvl 34, Analyze Lvl 29, Refine Lvl 72, Extract Lvl 58, Mana Engraving Lvl 174
Yggdrasil, the Tree of Upheaval: Glittering Leaves of Yggdrasil (L) Lvl 132, The Golden Roots of Yggdrasil (L) Lvl 161, the Emerald Sap of Yggdrasil (L) Lvl 152, the Yyrwood Flesh of Yggdrasil (L) Lvl 174, the Deific Mien of Yggdrasil (L) Lvl 146, the Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil (L) Lvl 141, Crown of Yggdrasil: Cataclysm and Gloom (L) Lvl 100
Auxiliary: Sneak Lvl 56, Acid Resistance Lvl 22, Poison Resistance Lvl 21, Pain Resistance Lvl 91, Fire Resistance Lvl 107, Sewing Lvl 11, Digging Lvl 5, Cooking Lvl 77, Clockwork Mastery Lvl 25, Aether Connection (A) Lvl 21, Soul Bond Lvl 112, Chef’s Palette Lvl 33, Nether Resistance Lvl 20, Child of the Rain (Un) Lvl 45, Chosen of Ash (A) Lvl 133, Engineering Savvy ® Lvl 113, From Darkness, Genesis ® Lvl 13, (Domain) Crossroads of the Alpha Cosmos Lvl 31, Connection to the Alpha Cosmos (U)
Just as Naffur finished the “knighting” ceremony, a chill wind swept across the clearing. Leaves rustled and then… simply stilled. Naffur looked around wildly, his instincts suddenly screaming… something was coming.
There were about fifty people in the clearing. Naffur, the three kneeling in front of him, and then the four dozen or so individuals that had answered the call to defend against the ogres creeping around in the hill after the broken body of a monster child had been discovered. They were mostly monsters, but about a fourth of them were humans.
The humans were individuals who didn’t mind the new forms of the monsters and had agreed to come up and assist in the search when the Knight-Errant of the Order Ducis had decided to lead the search for the culprit.
Naffur hadn’t realized ogres were involved, at the beginning. He likely wouldn’t have said anything if he had. After all, what had ended up happening was three weeks of high-stress guerilla tactics against vastly superior foes. There were times that he couldn’t breathe because the wrong noise would alert the enemy to their position.
And as they quickly figured out, fighting directly against the ogres only meant one thing; death. For all the group had been lucky, there had still been losses. Those losses had been gruesome.
Naffur believed he would never stop having nightmares about some of the bodies they found.
There were a few exceptional people in the crew that made a real difference. These were three individuals who had been able to, if not hold their own, delay an ogre long enough for others to escape. Which was why, after great consideration and confirming with Neveah it was alright, Naffur decided to exercise his ability induct people into the Order Ducis and Knight these brave individuals.
Neveah had told him he could choose five if he so wished. But Naffur was too nervous about making too many waves to use all those spots. After all, he had witnessed the deference with which people treated him just because he was a member of the prestigious Order Ducis. He didn’t want to ruin that by letting the wrong individual into the Order.
Because Orders were growing rapidly in popularity, and because Order Ducis meant the Ghosthound, Naffur was the face of the most widely respected Order in existence. Mostly, that manifested as fascination, because the Order Ducis was the least present of the Orders, due to its low member count.
Hopefully, this would help with that.
But when that cold wind came across the clearing, Naffur froze. Behind his Ghosthound mask, he began to sweat. The temperature didn’t matter; this was something instinctual.
It seemed that the crowd sensed something as well because they began muttering to each other. Only the three kneeling figures seemed oblivious, content to savor the honor of being named to the Order Ducis.
A branch snapped at the far end of the clearing, and then three figures walked out into Naffur’s line of sight. The people at the edge of the crowd turned with a frown at the interruption, then gaped in shock. Like the red sea before Moses, the crowd parted and an aisle between Naffur and the figures opened up.
Naffur sucked in a breath; because looking critically across the clearing at Naffur was his hero, in the flesh: the Ghosthound.
Perhaps most intimidating of all, he was flanked by two… well, Naffur didn’t know what to call them. An honor guard of emerald flame and sharp horns. The two riders were the stuff of nightmares and moved completely silently behind the Ghosthound as he walked quickly across the clearing.
As soon as he approached, the muttering in the crowd ceased. There was… something in the air around the Ghosthound that simply stilled the talk. It was almost an inner illumination that filled the clearing. Besides, considering that what was happening was that three individuals were being named to the Order Ducis, it made a certain distant logical sense that the Ghosthound had shown up.
Had Neveah told him? What was his response?
Perhaps the crowd assumed that they were witnessing history. The Ghosthound descending to add his mark of approval to the appointment. Meanwhile, Naffur was horrified that the Ghosthound was here to reprimand him for his choices. Or… or….
Naffur’s gaze was held by those burning emerald eyes. And a strange and slightly surprising thought emerged in Naffur’s mind. The reason he became the Ghosthound… is focus. What holds his gaze holds his full attention. That energy and ability to throw himself into any activity before him, at the expense of all others… that is his greatest strength. And I… don’t have that…
The Ghosthound stopped at the front, behind the three kneeling figures. Suddenly, the three seemed to realize something was amiss because they twisted around. One thing that Naffur found interesting was how different the three’s reaction was. The leftmost kneeler, Arbor, immediately leapt to its root legs and threw itself at the Ghosthound for a hug.
The rightmost kneeler, Madelyn the scaled lizard person whose fire breath had saved several people’s lives, stood slowly and bowed to the Ghosthound. Her excitement and nervousness were obvious, and seeing her so flustered helped Naffur calm down. After all, at least he was wearing a mask. No one could tell his thoughts.
The central kneeler noticed who it was and froze.
The Ghosthound’s chuckle broke most of the tension in the clearing, in spite of the looming presence of the two monstrous riders behind him. He hugged Arbor warmly. “Did I hear correctly? You’ve joined the Order Ducis?”
Arbor let go of the Ghosthound and hopped excitedly from leg to leg, gesturing wildly its assent. Naffur noted with relief that around the Ghosthound, Arbor didn’t at all fear that its fire would burn the man. Likely part of that was due to the fact the Ghosthound apparently created Arbor, but Naffur also liked to think his talks with Arbor about fearing things less had helped.
I’m not the Ghosthound… Naffur thought slowly. But… I have friends. Hopefully… that’s enough.
The Ghosthound then turned to a trembling Madelyn. “And you are?”
“Madelyn, ah, Sir.” She bowed twice more and quick succession. “I promise to never fail or waver. I’ll be an exemplary standard of virtue for the Order.”
The Ghosthound’s smile cut through Naffur’s nerves; it was incredibly sad. “Do your best. But don’t fear failure. Perfection doesn’t exist.”
Then the Ghosthound turned to the kneeling figure, Ajax. And his face changed into something grim and ominous. Because his back was to most of the crowd, they couldn’t see the fury that tightened the Ghosthound’s emerald eyes. Arbor wilted just being near it, and Madelyn’s smile faltered.
“And you,” the Ghosthound said, derision clear in his tone. “You, too, have joined my order?”
Ajax slowly stood, his antennas twitching. Although he looked like a giant cockroach, Ajax had always been at the front of the harrying efforts. It was only due to his tracking Skill that they were able to find the ogres and successfully pull off the harrying campaign. “Yes. And I can assure you that my intentions are pure. Whatever you think I am… where ever I was spawned from, I have risen beyond that. I am my own person.”
The conversation clearly indicated the two had a history, but Naffur couldn’t figure anything out from their worlds. If Ajax knew the Ghosthound, why hadn’t he mentioned it before? Madelyn especially always liked to talk about the Ghosthound’s accomplishments but never had Ajax said a peep about meeting him.
For several long seconds, the Ghosthound stared at Ajax. Ajax didn’t move.
Finally, the Ghosthound sniffed. Then he seemed unhappy, but said, “I’d like to believe that. And everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves. One chance. Welcome to the Order Ducis. I’ll be watching you.”
Then, turning on his heel, the Ghosthound walked back out of the clearing.
Some of the solemnity of the moment was spoiled by Arbor waddling after the Ghosthound, dancing to and fro.