Vye frowned down at the motes of green light that were floating out of the ground. As though drawn by a weak magnet, they began to drift toward her. “Why isn’t anyone more worried about these? Does anyone know what these are?”
Aldo, the man who mimicked Randidly Ghosthound in all of the weird ways that didn’t seem that important, opened his mouth and bit down on one of the floating green lights. After chewing thoughtfully for a second, he said hesitantly. “It certainly seems to taste like the Ghosthound, but I’m not sure about the origin…”
You, sir, are an idiot. Vye thought with a sigh. She glanced around at the surrounding people who regarded the lights with little more than bemusement as the floated upward. Although I guess its not like we haven’t seen plenty of strange things, but really? To have no reaction at all? If this was poison, the entire Order would be fucked.
The “entire” Order Ducis had been standing around at the East gate of the Erickson Steel compound for about five minutes when the motes of light began to float upward from the ground in unsteady waves. These bits of soft light seemed to seep directly up out of the ground and drift through the air like motes of dust riding the air. Even though it was almost noon, the lights were bright enough to catch the eye. Certainly, they weren’t natural.
But when green lights started to rise out of the ground, it was pretty clear that most people assumed it had something to do with Randidly Ghosthound. Perhaps because of that, Vye was torn between curiosity and a strange dread toward the many motes of light that floated upward around their group's feet.
After she had received her sub-Class from Randidly Ghosthound, she felt… different. Mostly in good ways, but her growth had suddenly accelerated so much that she didn’t trust the sensation. Some part of her worried that she couldn't accomplish her dream if she relied on someone else’s help like this.
But finding something like this is exactly why I applied to join the Order, right? Vye grimaced at two motes of light that floated upward and merged into one larger bit of light before rising another meter and slowly dispersing into nothing. Don’t sabotage yourself now that it’s actually happening.
When she used the Rituals, the resulting pain in her hand was now much less pronounced. In addition, it felt like the shape and extent of the Rituals was much easier to control. Plus, she already had the new Ritual, Consume, and had gained two Levels in the sub-Class. It was immediately clear that this would be of tremendous benefit to her growth.
“Relax, and don’t worry about avoiding the lights,” Naffur said lightly. Although he had frowned just as much as everyone else when they had emerged from the ground, his face eased up after a few minutes. “I’d heard that Randidly was working on the final touches for the training area this morning… and this is related to that. No need to avoid them any longer, those of you who have some extra energy. Don’t worry; you’ll need it later. Randidly Ghosthound will be arriving soon.”
That made everyone among the applicants for the Order Ducis share a worried glance. Vye coughed into her hand and hoped that whatever Randidly Ghosthound had cooked up for them wouldn’t be so brutal that she would feel guilty for what she had caused. Yet somehow Vye sensed that it was a fool’s hope she held in her chest.
Now that Naffur had given the affirmation that the strange phenomenon wasn’t dangerous, Vye stretched out her hand and allowed several motes to soak into her fingers. The motes of light themselves were similar in appearance to fireflies but were a slightly darker shade of green than the yellow-green of the insects. They were, in fact, almost forest green.
As the motes touched Vye’s hand, she felt a sudden rush of warmth fill her fingers. And that warmth-
“It’s the same feeling as his fire,” Vye muttered to herself as she stretched out her bandaged left hand and allowed some of the small motes to drift upward into her hand. Although most of the pain had gone, there was still a rather constant dull ache. Very quickly, that warmth began to wash away the lingering pain in her hand.
Although admittedly, part of that persistent pain might be because she had become more comfortable using the Rituals through her hand after the resulting pain had diminished and had overdone practicing a bit…
For the next two minutes, most of the Order Ducis participated in their own private experiments with the motes of light. As it turned out, the lights began to dim and dissipated after rising about three meters off of the ground, so rather than a natural phenomenon, many people began to suspect that it was radiation from something else.
If individuals were near, the motes drifted over toward them. But otherwise, they simply rose off the ground and dimmed to the point of invisibility. Whatever energy had created them quickly ran out.
The mood took on an even more relaxed tone after Naffur’s statement indicated that the lights were related to the construction of Randidly Ghosthound’s new project. So although the phenomenon was strange, everyone quickly accepted it as par for the course for Randidly Ghosthound.
As his followers, they simply needed to accept this sort of thing would happen quite a bit around him.
Besides, for the Order Ducis applicants, this lull between training was a time where they didn’t need to do anything. It was a long-awaited period of rest. Combined with the rejuvenating properties of the motes of forest green light, many people began to doze and ignore the lights continued mild attraction to their bodies.
Which, Vye believed, was a mistake. Because those people, therefore, didn’t notice that the number of motes of light that was seeping out of the ground was gradually increasing.
But just as Vye was noticing the shift in density among the lights, Randidly Ghosthound appeared. His eyes were somewhat hollowed and he seemed profoundly exhausted, but he seemed to step out of the very ground and arrive before the grouping of them. For several seconds, the Order Ducis applicants who were paying attention seemed frozen in surprise. Many people continued to doze without even noticing his arrival.
“Ahem,” Then, with a deliberately soft noise, Ajax coughed. That familiar nudge had everyone who had endured his training leaping to their feet and preparing for the next threat.
When they noticed that Randidly Ghosthound stood before them, no one dared relax entirely.
Despite his obvious exhaustion, Randidly grinned at the assembled people. “Good, everyone’s here. For about a week of Dungeon time, I’m going to be personally accompanying you and overseeing your training, so I hope you’ll be sure to show me your own strengths. I will be passing on my thoughts on every individual to Naffur, as my input for the remainder of the training camp. So believe me; now is not the time to slack off.”
Randidly scanned the group, which was gulping as one at his words, Vye included. Her left hand clenched into a fist. She thought for a second that their eyes met, but Randidly seemed to be inspecting the entirety of the assembled individuals. Despite the bags under his eyes, there was a dense heaviness to his gaze that made Vye realize that this man truly was the source of the Image Stones.
Even though he’s just standing there… why is there such a dense aura of images coming out from him…? Vye gritted her teeth. And if she was feeling the vague sense of pressure from him, she had no doubt that the rest of the applicants were struggling with the same thing.
“Ah, one last thing,” Randidly said as he chewed on his lip. “Has everyone allowed some of the moss spirits to soak into their bodies…? Those green lights coming out of the ground. Part of the new base will be a recognition system based on being touched by those light, so be sure that plenty has soaked into you. But if you’ve been standing here… it should be sufficient by now.”
Then Randidly clapped his hands. “Alright, follow me.”
True to his promise, Randidly quickly led the group from the Order Ducis across the Western plains to a Dungeon that was only a thirty-minute jog from the Erickson Steel compound. Very quickly, Randidly guided the entirety of the group into his party and entered into the Dungeon, which was Level 29.
Within, Vye found herself standing in the middle of a warm, golden field that looked very similar to the one that she just left. Aside from the vegetation, which possessed a strangely uniform and crystalline structure. Reaching out, Vye brushed the edge of the tall golden grass. Rather than crystal, it felt more like stone. But it was definitely extremely cool and smooth.
Vye looked around in wonder at the strangely perfect environment. It was night in the Dungeon, and the strange golden grass gleamed dully in the bright light from this world’s three moons overhead. Vye wondered inwardly if they would be forced to break apart the delicate-seeming ecosystem here in their training.
But Randidly was already moving, and Vye hurriedly joined the Order Ducis in following him away from the entrance to the Dungeon. They encountered a few groups of monsters, but Naffur, Ajax, and Madelyn ripped them to pieces without missing a beat. Randidly didn’t even acknowledge the attacks.
Eventually, the group arrived at a placid silver lake. Randidly stopped and smiled at his reflection in the water, then turned and faced the people who had followed him. Rather than speaking, however, he shook his arm. A looping band around his right arm that Vye had originally taken to be some sort of tribal jewelry straightened out and became a long and deadly looking spear.
Immediately, the air around Randidly became even heavier. It was like some huge beast released a long and humid breath down over the assembled talent of the Order Ducis applicants.
“So we will start with some light sparing,” Randidly Ghosthound said easily. “No need to worry about fairness; with my Stats, I’ll have an advantage no matter how many people come at me at once. But I suppose for demonstration’s sake, let’s start with you three.”
Randidly Ghosthound gestured to Naffur, Ajax, and Madelyn. Each of them had different responses. Naffur paled but bit his lips. Ajax bowed deeply. And Madelyn hopped from foot to scaled foot, clearly overwhelmed with excitement. Vye had her suspicions after overhearing Madelyn talk, but it was clear that the lizard woman worshipped Randidly.
Each of the three took a few seconds to ready themselves and then spread out around Randidly. The Order Ducis applicants backed away to create a circle of space. As if from some unspoken signal, the air around each of the three began to ripple.
Everyone watched with wide eyes. It was clearly weaker than the images that Randidly could create, they were all astounded to see that each could manifest a phenomenon in the air with just their will. Naffur’s was the strongest, but both Ajax and Madelyn created a distinct feel in the air that seemed to indicate they were all on the right track.
Ajax moved first. With a roar, he dashed forward toward Randidly with a long knife in each of his four hands. Naffur seemed to become a ghost, flitting side to side and rapidly closing the distance. Madelyn raised her hands and condensed a spear of black light that she tossed toward Randidly.
As the fight started, Vye had the presence of mind to start counting. Without relying on anything but his body and his spear, Randidly Ghosthound began his counterattack.
Two minutes and ten seconds later, the bloody and unconscious bodies of those three were left to recover next to the placid lake as Randidly walked toward the rest of the ground and rubbed his neck. Each body had been left in its own small crater after Randidly had forcefully caught up with them and smashed them into the ground.
“Ah, looks like I’m a little more mentally drained than I thought… my images are all over the place.” Randidly shook his head and gestured sharply with his left hand. Out of the ground, hundreds of vines exploded upward and wove themselves together. Vye blinked rapidly as, a few seconds later, seven human-looking puppets made of woven roots stood holding roots in front of the people of the Order Ducis.
“Seriously, don’t stress too much about the results here. I would be very impressed if you were able to beat me. This initial spar is just to push you closer to your edge,” Randidly said easily. But each word was heavy and ominous in this strange crystalline Dungeon. “Because this is what you will face in the future if you follow me. Impossible odds in exotic locals. This is where you will need to fight to save lives. So show me how brightly your spirit can burn. Let me see how much blood you can lose before you stop moving. How much do you want this, applicants, to the Order Ducis? Demonstrate your resolve to me and I’ll teach you how to become strong.”
As Randidly barred his teeth in overt threat at them, the seven beings of vines began to stalk forward. The applicants to the Order Ducis shivered.
But one by one, they raised their weapons and struck toward the root beings.
What followed made Vye miss Ajax’s training sessions.