Despite Randidly’s misgivings about simply following the servants of the Toad Lord down into an underwater base, there was no vicious ambush waiting for him beneath the surface of the water. Just a long causeway of shells embedded into the settling mud that stretched off into the depths of the lagoon.
In addition, it looked rather well maintained. Rather bemused, Randidly gathered some algae and plant matter from the surrounding water and attached it to himself to form a rather effortless propulsion system. Because he created thrust by rupturing the cell wall of his algae, he had to continually replace it. But within such a lagoon… continually gathering the requisite plant matter was extremely simple.
Which gave Randidly time to consider his surrounding.
When Shual had said that others had attempted to reproduce what happened in these “Deep Cities” to no success, Randidly hadn’t quite understood the difficulty. Because he had just been picturing barebones buildings that frogs swam into and out of with impunity.
As Randidly and his guides drew deeper into the lagoon, that wasn’t what he saw. Instead, each building maintained a bubble of air within that allowed people to behave as though they were on land, even underneath thirty meters of water. These bubbles were often wider than they were tall and included dirt and mud to create a walkable surface within.
Strange, semi-living vines snaked up from the buildings to lily pads that Randidly could sense above, allowing recycling of the air within. Honestly, it was a pretty impressive engineering feat, even if it was slightly ungainly to look at. Yet even so, the strange bubbles filled the underwater world with color and life.
Shual’s second statement also came true; the buildings that dotted the Deep Sea were beautiful.
Randidly floated forward through the water without apparent effort and he studied the city. If he believed that he had witnessed the suburbs on the shore of the lagoon he was dearly mistaken. The trickle of people he had seen back out on land was barely a drop in the bucket that was this city. Under the water, people were buzzing back and forth, flitting quickly with powerful strokes of their legs through the water.
More than that… the group of them was approaching a blimp-like bubble of algae that held within it a living and breathing… park. It was rather dim down here, and the entrance seemed to be a complicated series of sequestered bubble spaces, but within there were trees and paths and… playground equipment.
Small Frogpeople hopped gleefully in play, unaware that a powerful being from a rival world was floating down past them in order to speak with their leader. The whole thing set Randidly’s teeth on edge somehow. He didn’t like this side of things. It was easy enough to focus on a powerful enemy that was taking advantage of you. But to fight against a populace that was largely innocent...
Strangely, his Crown pulsed, calming him down immediately. Such was his Path. There was no point in quibbling with himself about it.
As the neared the city proper, there were even more of these strange bubble spaces. Most were arranged in elaborate chains that extended upward, almost like a strange underwater equivalent of apartment buildings. And at their base, strangely luminescent choral twisted upward, varying between shades of red, dark orange, and green.
Without light from the surface, the choral slowly grew more bright by contrast. Proceeding deeper took them further away from the light above, but it also adjusted their eyes to the alien light emanating from below.
Likely due to the constant cloud cover above, the Deep City was awash with shadow. This deep place was a domain of shade. And surrounded by the strange semi-darkness, Randidly felt his mood shifting to something more focused. Was bringing him deep into the Toad Lord’s territory supposed to cow him?
Am I supposed to be impressed? Randidly thought sourly as his guards continued to slowly swim forward. They displayed none of the speed that he had seen some other Frogpeople possess, especially when an individual was in their path and recognized the armor worn by these guards.
It seemed that this Toad Lord was not a kind ruler.
Unfortunately, the one problem with being underwater was the fact that he really didn’t have any way to communicate. At least communicate non-aggressively. So he couldn’t make conversation and he couldn’t urge the Frogpeople forward. Randidly simply had to endure the slow speed and allow the guards to lead him as they wished.
After almost fifteen minutes, they arrived at a large dome that stood in the center of the bubble chains. Whereas the other bubbles were semi-translucent, allowing some vision of what was within, this dome was completely opaque. Algae grew thickly along the surface, granting a strange fuzziness to the extremely large building.
Just as soon as Randidly paused to study the dome in front of them, the guards moved. With a sudden burst of speed, they surged downward to a tunnel that led beneath the dome. They hadn’t even gestured or indicated that Randidly was to wait here. They had simply bolted.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed. I knew they were moving slowly to show off.
But if they also didn’t tell him to stay, he could casually ignore their attempt to ditch him and have plausible deniability about it later. Grinning, Randidly swept up handfuls of the thick algae covering the dome and used it to torpedo himself downward after the guards, into the tunnel.
Within, they were in almost complete darkness. The two guards continued to accelerate, and Randidly chuckled to himself. His little micro-organisms redoubled their efforts, and soon he was effortlessly keeping pace with the frogs. However, they seemed completely oblivious as they swam through the darkness. Likely they didn’t possess anything like his auxiliary Perception abilities.
Eventually, the tunnel turned upward. And they emerged into the air. Randidly came up slowly and suspiciously, not daring to take in a breath until he could ascertain the area was safe. Not that poison was really that much of a concern, but still. Traveled from air to water was when he felt the most vulnerable.
Certainly, the interior of the dome was at least well lit. There was even a strange apparatus installed on the ceiling that provided a light source that felt an awful lot like sunlight. But the area was still annoyingly swampy to Randidly’s eye.
At least it’s out of the rain, Randidly thought dourly.
Apparently, his ascent to the surface of the water was so well controlled that the two guards still hadn’t noticed his presence as they leapt out of the water. Immediately, they saluted toward a large weeping willow-esque tree that dominated the nearby area and said. “Sire! The Demon waits outside for your pleasure-”
The word was spoken with such vehemence that the ground trembled. A large… well, toad, hopped out from under the willow tree and surveyed the guards. Then its gaze shifted to Randidly. “If he is awaiting my pleasure outside… who is behind you?”
In typical lackey fashion, the two guards spun around and gaped at Randidly. Their shock was so visceral that Randidly had a hard time believing it was genuine. With narrowed eyes, he slowly stepped up the staired tunnel and onto dry land. The ground squished pleasantly beneath his bare feet. Was this song and dance done for his benefit? Or-
The Toad Lord, which looked like a grey toad the size of a bear, waved one of its forelimbs. Before Randidly’s eyes, the two guards withered to nothing within a second and two small glittering spheres were ripped out of their desiccated corpses to fly toward the Toad Lord. Without batting an eye, the Toad Lord opened its mouth and its tongue shot out and snagged the orbs.
Not a song and dance then, Randidly thought as he distastefully regarded the corpses. Just foolish guards.
Randidly looked up to find that the Toad Lord was studying him, waiting to see how Randidly responded to the casual show of power. To see whether Randidly would balk at violence. Randidly responded by not commenting at all, simply walking past the bodies and inclining his head. “You must be the Toad Lord of this city. I am the Demon Prince.”
If it was confused by Randidly’s lack of reaction, the Toad Lord didn’t show it. Its mouth opened into a wide expression that was likely the frog version of a grin. “Ah, of course. I am Nirfik. Welcome, welcome. Come through to sit with me in the mud and talk.”
Curiouser and curiouser… Randidly thought as the Toad Lord turned around and lumbered back beneath the shade of the tree. Before he moved, he spared a glance for the dried and consumed corpses. Because what had just happened had been interesting, and likely informed him slightly as to the nature of “Feed”.
He pulled the Aether right out of them… Randidly thought as he walked forward to the tree. I could feel multiple claims to that Aether, and his was strongest. But… how did he leave such a powerful mark on the Aether…? And that Willpower he used...
Also, wasn’t the Toad Lord’s response to Randidly… too amicable? He had come peacefully, but he hadn’t expected to walk in so easily. After all, Neveah had opened this game with the Frog People by killing two of their ruling class. Or was this a game of chicken, to see which of them would flinch first?
Shrugging, Randidly followed after the toad to the tree. He was surprised as he walked into the screened area because he instantly stepped into knee deep mud. Very warm, bubbling mud that appeared to be connected to some sort of hot springs. As he moved, the ground beneath his feel sagged and slid, guiding him deeper.
Without any real sense of urgency, the Toad Lord hopped deeper while spraying large chunks of mud, until it sank almost completely into the mud. Then it turned around and grinned at Randidly with only its eyes and mouth above the mud.
“Please, follow me to the deeper portion of the mud. It is extremely beneficial for the skin. At my age, there is no such thing as being too careful.”
Vanity? Definitely posturing, then. Randidly thought. He grinned right back and waded after the Toad Lord. His metal arm flexed. Even if the Toad Lord planned on using this mud as an opportunity to attack Randidly, he would be sorely disappointed. Woven all throughout the mud were small bits of algae and plant matter. Even now, those gathered to form a protective halo around Randidly.
Randidly was in his natural element.
As Randidly sank down up to his waist, the Toad Lord Nirfik continued to speak. “Tell me about your journey. Has traveling through our world been comfortable-”
“I appreciate your welcoming attitude,” Randidly cut across the Toad Lord’s speech before he could build up a head of steam. Wasting time here wasn’t an activity he needed to engage in. “But I am in a hurry. What did you wish to speak with me about, Nirfik?”
Nirfik’s yellow eyes regarded Randidly, completely inscrutable. “Hoooh? Did you not come here to speak to me? I simply thought to display my generosity by guiding you to my humble abode.”
Randidly pressed his lips together. Fine then. Let’s try the direct method. “I came to fetch someone who is spreading rumors to your Toad Lords. I believe you have spoken to this individual. I would appreciate your cooperation.”
“Someone that I’ve spoken to…? Well, it is possible. But it seems in bad faith to sell out a business partner...What will the other Toad Lords say of me?”
Randidly remained silent, just looking at the Toad Lord known as Nirfik.
Perhaps sensing the shift in Randidly’s mood, Nirfik said, “If I refuse?”
The Toad Lord’s grin grew even as it continued to sink into the mud. Randidly could feel its legs spreading beneath the surface, finding a comfortable position to consider Randidly. Deeper and deeper it sank, its body slowly devoured by the grey-black mud. Very quickly, all Randidly could see were those eyes and that leering mouth.
“Then everyone in this Deep City… will die.” Randidly spoke in a monotone voice as the Crown above his head grew increasingly heavy. To wear the Crown is to choose the Path. And to be bound to follow the Path you have chosen.
Thea cracked her neck as she looked across the plains to the plumes of smoke rising up on the horizon. Donnyton certainly was as peaceful as ever.
Her eyes scanned sideways, regarding the four figures with her. “I suppose it's about time we got started, isn’t it?”
No one answered. They just smiled.