The aisles were filled with people standing in solemn rows. The stared upwards, towards the main body of Arbor, burning brightly in the vaulting cathedral. Small motes of ash drifted downwards from the branches, catching the light like snow.
Kiersty stood at the front of the congregation, her expression serious. They had been like this for several hours, waiting for what was to come. Arbor hadn’t been able to explain fully what would happen, just that it would happen soon. So they waited underneath the silk walls of this cathedral they had built. Their eyes were locked upon the swaying branches.
The leaves flared, first at the base, then racing upwards. It was like someone had turned on the Christmas lights and in the next moment, the whole tree was ablaze. Arbor stood before them, resplendent.
The entire tree trembled. Across the Zone, and into Zone 1, every one of Arbor’s trees trembled.
Kiersty didn’t smile, but she felt something hot burning in her chest. Arbor was changing. A change that he had chosen. Kiersty couldn’t wait.
“How many?” Lucifer grunted. He slowly stood and stretched, his joints cracking.
The two men glanced at each other. “We… we can’t confirm. Maybe as many as 10,000. But at least 2,000-”
“Useless,” Lucifer said, cutting them off. He walked over towards the wall, where his swords lay. He had four now. His original iron monstrosity, which he selected. The scythe he had obtained inside the Raid Dungeon was there too, but he ignored that one. There was one created from the shoulder blade of an eagle-type monster, but he didn’t choose that one either. The second sword he selected was one made for Lucifer by Sam.
It sat in its sheath, even now. Lucifer had not used it, out of respect. This was a sword he would only use against the most powerful opponents.
Gently, he touched the hilt. The entire thing seemed to throb. Lucifer shivered. Sam had indicated that… it possessed its own sort of life that could be ignited. Even the creator wasn’t sure what would occur when the sleeping beast inside of it woke.
…but, Lucifer didn’t think these enemies were worthy of waking it up now. Let it sleep a little longer. Lucifer reached over and selected the eagle shoulder blade. An army of humans wasn’t something that he needed to bother his baby with.
“So,” Lucifer said slowly, walking out of the room. The two men followed after him, but he wasn’t speaking to them. They were simply extra baggage that he was forced to handle. “A new Zone has connected. And the late arrivals think they know how to bloody a nose? Let them come. Franksburg will welcome them with open arms.”
To Randidly’s surprise, they took him to Lake Apollo. They bundled him into a submersible and carried him down into the deep waters that he hadn’t bothered to ruin because they were close to the bases. At first, he was slowly mystified as to how they would repel the monster with this tiny vessel, but his senses informed him this wouldn’t be necessary; the monsters didn’t even glance at the thing.
In his chest, Randidly felt a cold premonition of the looming presence of something terrible.
They brought him with surprising delicacy out of the craft and into a hanger. Carrying him quickly, the led him down hallways while Randidly’s senses were furiously scanning outwards. Around him, he felt Raid Bosses moving among people down the hallways. And outside of that, he felt the entire base and instantly became furious.
He saw people struggling in the gym restraints. He saw people being drained of blood. He saw individuals open on the operating room table, with their organs being slowly removed. He saw groups of scientists pouring over data. He saw a child screaming as he waved around the muscular arm of a beast, while someone simply stood there and took notes.
His first response was to strike out, but he quickly suppressed that. With so many people here… what could he do? There were so many people… and they were down here, surrounded by monsters.
While he was thinking at lightning speed, they brought him into a closed room and placed him on an operating table. Immediately, the 9 people with him moved to strap him into the table. This, of course, was too much.
Randidly lost his temper.
Three seconds later, he lowered Acri, looking coolly at the bodies around him. They didn’t even have time to struggle. It was rare that Randidly relied so heavily on his stats to dominate opponents but now felt like an appropriate time. This was his world. These… monsters, whatever they were, needed to be removed. They would add nothing to the chances of this world’s survival.
Slowly, Randidly moved and took all of their black masks off. They all had the same youthful female face. Father Foster’s.
Then it all clicked.
His visage stony, Randidly walked out of the small room. Even as he was furious, he knew he couldn’t risk letting any hint of his presence leak out. Or else the people here… He would need to move fast to save them. Even now, he sent messages to Dinesh and Tykes to bring people to assist him. But they would be hard-pressed to handle the threat alone.
Abruptly, he felt a pang of loss that he had cut himself off so abruptly from Donnyton. He looked to the East, where that strange new Aether could still be felt, albeit dimly as it merged with the Aether of this world. He had to, in a way. He couldn’t stand Lyra and recognized that she was perhaps just as powerful as he was, in her own way. What she had accomplished… Well, Randidly suspected he didn’t even know the half of it.
But he couldn’t trust her. She thought she knew better than him. And in her mind, that was that.
Sighing, Randidly turned back forward and froze. Down the hall from him, a figure was standing. Her gaze was on him, a small smile on her face. Randidly’s eyes narrowed.
She spoke before he did. “Fascinating. I had worried that you would be a rather capable warrior, but I figured the sedative I prepared could knock out anyone… Do you have a Skill for recovery? A high Level one too. Fascinating.”
Her steps were loud as she walked down the empty metallic hall towards him. Randidly was acutely aware that they were at the bottom of a deep lake. The weight of water around them was enough to crush all of the normal people being slowly sliced apart in this facility by the monster before him.
“No hard feelings,” Father Foster said, flashing a smile at him. “Just fulfilling a request. I believe I would have eventually sought you out to discuss different projects on my own, eventually. But this concerns the fate of the entire Zone. Your body will be an unfortunate casualty. But worry not, the transfers have an incredibly high success rate, all things considered. Even without the suspension field, we still average above 40% retention of Skills. Ah, don’t do that.”
Randidly was clenching his hand into a fist. Father Foster waggled a finger at Randidly like he was a naughty child. “You are strong. Perhaps as strong as me, Mr. Baloo Erickson. But the people in here are not. Based on your previous actions… I suspect you wouldn’t want them to die in the fighting? And let me assure you, they would die.”
Randidly relaxed slowly. But inwardly, he wanted to laugh. This man really thought he was still just Baloo Erickson…? Maybe this disguise was worth something after all. It’s a good thing that he hadn’t blown it away when dealing with Maude.
Randidly’s change made Father Foster’s expression turn even more serious.
“…as expected, you are no fool. I wonder. Well, we can have a true conversation after the procedure. Please, follow me.”
Father Foster turned and began to walk down the hallway, without glancing backward. But in her straight spine, he saw the implied threat. If Randidly did not follow, she would make good on her promise to kill those people here.
Barely restraining a chuckle, Randidly closed his eyes. Mana flowed out of him like water. When he opened his eyes, he calmly walked behind Father Foster while matching her pace. They walked in cool silence down the halls. Finally, Randidly let his curiosity get the better of him.
“How did you do it?”
This seemed to annoy Father Foster. “Bah. A simple question. If you are half the man I believe you to be, you can figure it out yourself.”
Grimacing, Randidly switched tactics. “I was imprecise. What I meant to ask… was how did you realize such a thing was possible? Why did you want to become a Raid Boss?”
“Ah.” Father Foster was silent for several seconds, and then she sighed. “It pains me to admit it… but discovering the idea to become a Raid Boss was a natural extension of a coincidental line of research. A fool named Ezekiel Ghosthound came to me with a problem. He couldn’t live without killing humans, you see. Monsters wouldn’t do. The cost over time was enormous. So we started looking for alternatives.”
The corner of Father Foster’s mouth quirked off. “What, after all, does the System define as a human? You would honestly be surprised how loose the definition is. With that problem solved, we then wondered if humanity can be transplanted… what else? Stats? We have experienced modest success. Skills? Of course, especially if they relate to a particular part of the body. Soul Skills? Maybe even Classes…. Well, those will be for the future.”
Father Foster’s eyes were deep and dark as she smiled down at her hands. “Then of course… the next question was what we could transplant from monsters into ourselves.”