“Legend has it that in the past, we were part of a wider world. But because of a great sin of our people, the Dintan, we were exiled from our home, and sent here, to this purgatory. Although the area we are allotted is quite large, and the climate here is mild…” Aratta shook her head, her hair swishing back and forth. “…it is known amongst us that this is a lesser life. But with our options restricted, we focused on the only real thing we could control: Skill Levels.”
“Although we Level naturally, as we age, honing our Skill Levels does give us some measure of control over our strength, and our own pride. For generations, we existed in harmony, split amongst 20 or so villages in our area, and if we were not content, we were at least… surviving. But then a change came.
“Originally, our main opponents were those creatures we call the Death Cultists. They are much less focused on Skill Levels than we are, but their bodies… are almost impossibly powerful. They were our perfect foil. But then the monsters came. The monster hordes that you have fought, with great success, I might add. If our warriors were at the level of your group… or even close to it…” Aratta sighed, and looked at the ground. Randidly couldn’t see her eyes due to the cloth, but he assumed she was lost in her strange melancholy.
“One on one, or two on one, or even five on one, we would be fine. But against 100 per each villager… In a blink, we had lost half of our villages. Originally, the Dintan leaders suspected this was a plot of the Death Cultists, some strange ritual of theirs, unleashed upon us, but… No, they were just as surprised and devastated, pushed back by the waves and waves of monsters.”
“After a month of being pushed farther and farther back, consolidating our people into fewer and fewer villages, a young woman with golden hair and a wicked smile appeared at the edges of our village. Clearly an alien, but also an enigma. She offered us a secret method that would boost our power, giving us the ability to fight back against the monsters. All we had to do was to sign an oath, that we as a people would owe her a great favor, to be called in at any time. It would be bound to each individual, through our bloodlines. Once we agreed, the woman warned, we could never escape that debt until it was paid.
“It did not feel as though she meant to be threatening, with how she delivered her offer, but many people did not trust this strange, golden-haired woman. She came out of nowhere, in our hour of need, and coincidentally offered a solution? No, this had to be a scam. For three days and nights, the debate raged, before the King and Queen of the Dintan. By the end, the Queen was swayed, yet the King remained firm.
“‘What about our children,’ the Queen famously asked, tears pouring down her face.”
“‘Exactly,’ the King said, his face firm.”
There, Aratta stopped speaking for several seconds, just looking at the ground. The fire crackled. Or at least, Randidly assumed she was looking at the ground; the more time he spent with Aratta, the more he learned to annoyed by the presence of the cloth over her eyes. But with the strange Aether fluctuations that were coming from it…
Randidly was almost positive laying beyond that innocuous looking piece of cloth was a trap laid by the Creature, although he couldn’t figure of what kind, or why. So for now, it was fine to just leave it there, untouched.
Based on the modus operandi of the Creature, the choice would be taken from him eventually, and he would be forced to face her influence. From Aratta’s story, it was clear the Creature had a heavy hand in moving the dungeon towards the current state of affairs. She had shown up, probably using the form of Lyra, and offered these people a method to power.
The Path of the Heretic.
And Randidly didn’t want to spoil anything, but the ending of this story… The images of those twisted, frail bodies buried haphazardly in the dirt were at the forefront of his mind.
Aratta looked up. “The King sent the golden-haired woman away. What followed were the hardest in the Dintan history, at least the history we have of this place. But… after two years of struggle, of shrinking down to only 6 villages… there was an equilibrium. The Dintan’s champions had grown so strong that they could push back the monsters. In addition to that…”
Now a shadow crossed Aratta’s face. “…In addition, the Death Cultists were taking the brunt of the monster’s assault. Because they had accepted the gift of the golden-haired woman. They had become Heretics. Luckily, it seemed that there was a tacit agreement that we would not go back to a war between the Death Cultists and Dintan, not as long as the monster hordes kept appearing.
“Time and time again, our best and brightest would investigate the origins of these monsters, to no avail; they sprung up from random places, in random amounts, filled with violence and bloodlust. The first villages that the horde would encounter would struggle for the first several hours, before assistance from nearby could arrive, lessening the pressure. It was a… stressful system, but one that worked.
“Then, about 3 years after the monster horde’s appearance, there was a change.” Aratta looked up, her eye cloth pointing towards Randidly. “Mixed in within the mix of monsters, that generally had Levels between 40 and 46… there started being higher Leveled monsters. 48s and 49s. For monsters too, it takes a great deal to get above 45. And each Level is a qualitative change. By the time they reach Level 50… they will have completely evolved.”
“With the higher Levels appearing, the pressure increased. Of course, with increased pressure, there was an increased danger, but also increased gains. Our warriors, our warriors were forces of nature, almost unstoppable when they appeared. Even against the higher Leveled opponents… until they began to grow sick, the great hunger gnawing away at their insides.”
“Aether Sickness,” Rose supplied, her eyes narrowing.
Aratta nodded. “There are many names for it. But such was the weight of their strength that their physical bodies could no longer sustain them; however, that was just the surface level of the problem. Within our small world here, life works in a cycle. There is but one pool of energy, and everyone takes a pinch of it when they are born. When they die, that pinch returns to the pool. When these warriors became exceptionally strong, not only were they taking larger pinches but… the pool itself was being depleted. Some of our children…”
Aratta fell silent. Randidly was frowning. Although he had never seen that in person, or heard of it, it wasn’t hard to imagine how twisted and weak a being born without any Aether at all would be. It would be more husk than person.
It’s fascinating, however.
This Creature… the more I learn of it, the warier of it I become. It is effectively manipulating the Aether ecosystem in the Raid Dungeon to push the people towards the Path of the Heretic. Those floods of monsters… based on what this girl is saying, they are not from inside the Dungeon, right? So as she increases their strength, the Dintan have no choice but to get stronger, or die…
‘But why?’ Randidly wondered back.
Lucretia seemed to shrug and started thought whispering to herself. Shaking his head, Randidly refocused on Aratta.
“Of course, the golden-haired woman wasn’t unaware of this; she once more approached our people. In the equilibrium era, we had once more expanded to 12 or so villages. But to suddenly find out that we had effectively lost the ability to bear children… She… was aware of this problem, and could not solve it, but if we agreed to her terms, at least she could beat back the great hunger from our warriors, and ensure the safety of the living. In a show of good faith, she even explained the process…the… consumption of other life, to fuel your own…” Aratta trailed off.
And if the children were dying anyway…
Lucretia said softly. Again the vivid shape of those twisted bodies in Aratta’s flower garden appeared in Randidly’s mind. Instantly, his expression hardened. It was difficult to recall, but she was just like them. For her own existence, she was willing to sacrifice the lives of others. It was almost as if she didn’t notice the contradiction, in her current regretful stance.
It was almost like she had become so numb to the act of consuming another’s life that she didn’t even notice.
“Still, the King stood firm, refusing. The Queen begged and begged, but was unable to sway her husband. Even when their only child, the Dintan’s greatest warrior, fell to the great sickness, becoming completely bedridden, he did not falter. Following his lead, the head warriors agreed.
“However, one among them, the holy Zith, felt a deep sense of responsibility and resolved herself to approach the King in private to ask him to reconsider. While they were speaking, there was a noise from the Queen’s chambers; the two rushed into the room, fearing a monster attack, but only found the Queen. Her lifeblood was draining out of the slit in her neck.
“She had taken her own life.” Aratta stood slowly, standing. Then she turned her face upward and looked towards the overcast sky. “In the wake of that… the King crumpled. He was a shell of who he was. Zith took word to the golden-haired woman, and agreed that the Dintan be bound to a single favor in return for the method.”
“…So you took it and became Heretics. You started stealing life… so you could live longer.” Rose said.
“Selfish.” Lucifer simply said, shaking his head.
Aratta just sighed and smiled at them, her expression so brittle the hairline cracks from age were visible on her skin. “How easy it is for the young to imagine ways around old problems. Let me give you a hard truth; it is the new problems that you will need to deal with, not ours, not the ones that have grown clearer in retrospect. And when that day comes, who knows how deeply you would be willing to sell yourself to the devil, for his hand.”