The Soulless behemoth bellowed its fury. The former High King of the Earth Golems just snorted. With a step, he had crossed the distance to the behemoth and slammed his palm into its torso. The bright yellow carapace cracked, pink juices oozing around the jagged cracks in the monster’s natural armor.
The thing staggered backward while yowling in pain. It had once been a tiny crustacean, grown to the size of a small building by feasting on the emerald essence that turned the lowest of the Seven Lands into a twisted dreamscape. Several Earth Golems that the High King had taken under his wing had thought very seriously about trying the stuff, but the High King forbade it.
Whatever it was, it was dangerous. So much death resulted from their constant struggles against the Soulless that were warped by its touch. There were too many volatile elements in their situation currently to introduce one more.
The low cave worked to the behemoth’s disadvantage; with its newfound size, it couldn’t squeeze out any of the side passageways to escape. After smashing its claws against the stone walls for a few seconds, it scuttled back toward the High King with its pincers raised. It had realized that there was no choice but to fight.
The second punch the High King threw was enough to completely crack the shell and reduce the flesh of its brain to mush. With a rumble, the thing collapsed. Curling his lip in distance, the High King approached to gather the flesh of the thing for food.
Him, reduced to making foraging runs. Truly, the Procession-
The High King spun around. This presence, this voice… Although he found himself faced with the Monster Prince’s smiling visage, this time, the High King was not fooled. Unlike the actual Monster Prince, the eyes of this face burned as emerald as the purest gemstone. This was an outsider, one who had confused him in the past.
It would not happen again.
“Meet me, foul spirit, and you will find yourself shattered,” The High King intoned. He took another step and crossed the cave to appear before the fake. The palm he threw at the interloper possessed an even more fearsome momentum than the previous two that had slain the Soulless Behemoth. With such a strike, he would easily shatter a Soulless Godbeast, let alone this-
Hissing, the High King was barely able to stabilize his body. His hand was largely so numb that he couldn’t move it. Most infuriatingly, the interloper’s hand was curled into a very familiar claw. One that the High King had seen only the Queen of Talons use. And to his eyes, it looked like the Queen of Talons was slightly inferior to this individual.
The sharpness it radiated… even now, the High King had a sense of foreboding as he looked at that hand.
“Who are you?” The High King asked. He massaged his hand, rapidly trying to restore the feeling in it.
The edge of the interloper’s mouth quirked up. Truly, the High King wondered how he had been fooled upon their first few meetings. This man had none of the inborn arrogance of the Monster Prince, and none of the malicious guile. But rather than making the High King more comfortable, the absence of such obvious defects actually filled the High King with a deep fear.
It wasn’t that this individual wasn’t arrogant.
It was just he was so sure of himself that he felt no need to posture. And that surety was so deep and strong that not even the High King could pierce through it. To this emerald-eyed individual, the High King was truly not a character worthy of notice.
Yet, if that were true, why does this specter continue to haunt me?
The High King wondered.
“Honestly, I am feeling quite wronged. Would you believe me if I told you that this face was in fact mine originally mine? Your Monster Prince only inherited from me.” The interloper said with a smile.
The hairs on the back of the High King’s neck stood up straight. That would make this man… old Monster Royalty. Bad, viscous blood. He wasn’t overly familiar with the many Princes and Kings and Dukes that have killed each other over the past few generations in order to how sway over the Land of Bones, but it was enough to understand that being a leader amongst the Monsters was a bloody business.
The Earth Golems fought honorably to find a Path toward greatness. The Monsters fought in order to find out who bled the reddest blood.
“Perhaps. But that does not explain why you continue to appear before me. I am not your kind; speak to your Monster Prince if you wish to offer counsel.”
“It might be too late for counsel, especially for that one…” The interloper mumbled. Then his focus returned and he grinned at the High King. “He’s a tool. So I come here instead for understanding. On whose side will you stand, when Alta erects her great device?”
“…truly, even the dead gossip. It is none of your business. Now leave me in peace. If you are aware of as much of the goings on in the Procession as I suspect, there is nothing more for us to talk about.”
This seemed to puzzle the interloper. “Is it really so strange that I would speak with you as the Procession nears its end? You have located the runes that you have so desperately sought. Even now, thousands toil away to excavate the site of the ritual. Alta promises to deliver on all of the promises she has made… even as her constant ‘operations’ have rendered her unrecognizable. A metal queen that smells of brimstone and ash. Tension fills the air. This world seeks clarity. I have a way of brute forcing the issue, but I would rather not. Instead… I would much prefer you stop this yourself.”
The interloper’s expression darkened. “If I am forced to move… it will not go well for you.”
“Is that a threat?” The High King asked quietly. His hand was only now starting to regain feeling. He had no true confidence in facing this foe. But still-
But still, some part of him wanted to fight so badly. Wanted to struggle and scream. Only then could he test the edges of himself. Only then would he be able to understand how badly he was left scarred by his dethronement. Every day was one that he lived in fear that he would never be as much as he had been. For each Soulless that he struck down-
“Oh High King, you have fallen quite far to reach this land, have you not? Careful you do not forget what caused you to rise to such distant heights in the first place.” Then, as quickly as he appeared, the interloper vanished.
Randidly opened his eyes, somewhat annoyed to be pulled out of his Soulskill so suddenly. But in the last few minutes, a wave of Aether hit the fleet that caught his attention immediately. There were very few entities that could produce Aether on Tellus, and all of those were at the level of being dangerous to Randidly.
So he returned to himself and considered the problem at hand.
Despite Platton’s very pessimistic predictions, the assaults on the fleet down the Hallat were relatively few. Part of that was due to the Wights gathering for what was clearly a major offensive against Hastam, but also it was because of their speed.
Platton had the trip from Hastam to the sea taking three to four days. Randidly managed it in nine hours.
Most of the individuals on the boats were locked in their own meditations, attempting to further comprehend Randidly’s images. As such, Platton was mostly isolated in his slack-jawed shock that they had made such a brisk time. To Randidly, to take so long was already starting to wear on his nerves.
Not that it was Platton’s fault that Randidly was becoming increasingly irritable. The real problem was his Soulskill. Randidly was hoping he would be able to push through his mission on the Death School continent before he was forced to deal with the problem of his Soulskill. One of the solutions he was aiming for required some preparation there.
But the timetable had escalated. Not due to his actions, but…
It appeared Alta had realized that she was going to die soon. She had become truly desperate, relying on violence and threats to bind the entire Procession to her cause. With her growing familiarity with the image of Ash, she also had the firepower to back it up.
Honestly, if the image of Ash wasn’t constantly burning away at her body, Alta likely wouldn’t have been able to survive the infection so long. At this point, her and the burning image of Ash were starting to blend together.
Still, that was an issue for another time.
Following the scent of the Aether on the salty sea air, Randidly’s Perception spread farther and farther. Very soon, his face was twisted into a scowl. Cursing softly to himself, Randidly stood and gathered Platton’s attention. “Platton, careful. We’ve got company. A boat is coming. A big one.”
Platton didn’t question Randidly outward, but his eyebrow twitched. It was clear from his expression that it would be highly unusual to encounter another vessel here. Randidly shook his head helplessly. The other man would know soon.
When the other ship arrived, it dwarfed the longships that Randidly’s crew was using to sail. Normally, vessels the size of which Randidly now utilized would be just begging for trouble on the high seas. They simply couldn’t handle the waves of a true deep sea storm.
Of course, Randidly simply shifted the wood of the longboats until they were a more capable vessel. But most people did not possess the advantages that Randidly had.
This vessel was the size of a cruise liner from old Earth. It was a massive thing that must be able to house thousands of people. For all that its presence here was concerning, at least it was clear that this wasn’t something that had been made by Wights; this was the work of one of the descendants of the Spearman.
As the ship was making a beeline for the fleet, they didn’t have to wait to find out which one.
“Mr. Ghosthound, I presume?” A serious older man announced from the bow of the ship as it loomed over them. The old man stood at the edge and bent at a 45-degree angle and then shouted down toward them in order to communicate. “Excellent. You have been summoned aboard. The great Oracle has seen fit to venture forth. Your presence is required.”