“So what is Neveah up to?” Randidly asked, finally moving to the topic at hand. The strange interlocking concepts of responsibility that were present were starting to unnerve Randidly.
Randidly didn’t regret the time spent sitting in his hut and refining himself in order to be prepared to face the opponents that would soon be coming his way. He needed quite a bit of power to deal with the impending Judgement, after all. For all that it sometimes felt he was letting life pass by, it was necessary.
But even Randidly would admit that it was easy. While he was in the hut, he was cut off from most of the consequences of his choices.
It was quite hard to walk out of the hut and see those who suffered because Randidly had focused on improving his own strength rather than building a base for Donnyton. In his mind, Donnyton wouldn’t have grown half as much as it had if he had remained and led the town forward. But there would have been lives saved, Randidly didn’t doubt.
Randidly pressed his eyes closed.
All Paths have consequences. It’s precisely because the other Paths seemed worse that I have acted this way. I probably didn’t make the perfect decision, but I made a decision. I can only do so much alone.
To wear a Crown is to bear the weight of lives you were not able to save.
“…It’s probably easiest for you to simply see her in… her element.” Decklan said. His voice was still rather subdued, but there was a certain amount of awe in his tone as he spoke of Neveah. “It was… a creative solution. One that required her constant presence, but it bought us time. Which we desperately needed. These Frog People, generally, are much stronger than the average humans.”
“How much stronger?” Randidly asked. Idly, he turned and looked over the ship’s railing. Behind them, the Long Minnow was bobbing after Decklan’s huge vessel. Small lives, dragged haplessly along after Randidly as the proceeded directly toward the World Crater, as the Danger Zone was called. After his recent train of thoughts, he suddenly paused and considered that impulse to bring them along.
Perhaps he should not have brought these two innocent and low-Level sailors along with them. Perhaps he should have forced the sapphire-eyed girl to accept his assistance. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
“All of them are above Level 50, and they are a relatively warlike people. Most have combat-related Classes,” Decklan said. “Plus, they can leap off their own vessels to swim up and catch human ships unawares. They are a dangerous foe without numbers. And even one escaping and living to talk about the state of Earth would ruin Neveah’s plan.”
Once more Randidly’s eyebrows rose. But Decklan just smirked and shook his head slightly to indicate that would be spoiling the surprise. Shrugging, Randidly settled back to wait. In the meantime, he closed his eyes and practiced visualizing the patterns necessary for Engravings capable of growth.
Endlessly he practiced, refining his ability to create mental images. After seeing how useful the patterns had been in the lead up to creating his arm, Randidly had a newfound respect for the process. Even if it didn’t rise to the level of a Skill, familiarity meant something. Using these precious seconds…
Maybe this can prevent more lives lost down the road…
Luckily, he didn’t have to wait long. For all that the Long Minnow had been fast, it paled in straight line speed in comparison to sea leviathan that was the Incognita. Three tall and sturdy masts seemed to reach out with their sails and snatch the wind out of the air to glide rapidly across the water.
At some point, Randidly could cleanly feel his connection to his Riders snap back into place as he came within range of the Skill. Instantly, he felt surprise and relief radiating through the connection into hiTheirere emotions hit him like a wave from the sea he was gliding across.
The images were mixed at first, but Randidly quickly was able to parse apart a sense of what they were telling him. And first, he gritted his teeth in annoyance at the bad news. Of the Riders he sent, one remained out of the first two, one remained of the second group of three, and only two remained of the final bunch he sent off.
All of them sent confusing requests that they be allowed to leave the service of Neveah, who was a brutal taskmaster in their eyes. That caused Randidly to chuckle. Neveah, a taskmaster? That free spirit used to barely pay attention to her actions? It was good to see that Neveah was learning to accept responsibility as well. They would need it, as the System upped the ante on the threats it was throwing at them.
Immediately, Randidly felt bad for how suspicious of her he had been. He should have put two and two together when she insisted that he fulfill the gardening promise she had made and refused to leave the Danger Zone to do it herself. Even if her priorities were still a bit confusing, she was clearly someone who stood by her word.
When Decklan’s boat arrived, the dock was so barren that Randidly shook his head. It didn’t look like any force had been left here to man the docks. Sailors swarmed down from the heavily built ship to pull it to the mooring. Luckily it seemed that the harbor was plenty deep, and the dock extended far out into the water in order to allow this ship to do precisely this.
Hopping to the ground, Randidly called back to Kerrar. “Wait here. If I’m not back before nightfall… well, I suppose you can sail well enough to find your way home, right?”
Even from afar, Randidly could see Kerrar flush with indignation at the jab at his ability, but Randidly just grinned and turned away. Instead, he followed Decklan’s loping form as he headed toward the center of the island.
Most of the island seemed consumed by a vast marsh, but they followed a carefully constructed series of wooden platforms that kept them out of the water. Feeling with his Grasp of the World Seed, could sense that the water was only about knee deep in most places. But that still meant quite a bit of discomfort from drenched shoes for most people, so he could understand why they had made the wooden path. And yet…
Randidly sighed inwardly.
No wiggling my toes in the mud today, I suppose. Besides, I’m here on official Earth business, so…
Deprived of one of the great pleasures of moving around barefoot, Randidly woodenly followed after Decklan. He could sense Decklan’s surprise as Randidly managed to keep pace with the man. Honestly, Randidly didn’t know why people always seemed to want to challenge him to footraces. It was pointless. With even the passive from Yyrwood Body of Yggdrasil, his physical capabilities were far beyond what they had originally been with his stats.
And his Agility stat was not low. Decklan probably focused heavily on Agility, but Randidly didn’t think that the man would have broken 600, as Randidly had. The victor of a race was a foregone conclusion.
To pass the time, Randidly used his Aether Detection to feel through Decklan’s status screen to try and determine how high his Agility was. Unfortunately, it was a somewhat arduous process. As near as Randidly could tell, Decklan was close to 400 Agility… but wasn’t there yet. Which was certainly impressive.
Or at least Randidly thought so. His sense of perspective was so skewed that it was difficult to know.
Eventually, they arrived at a strange pyramid. Without hesitation, Decklan plunged into the System made construct. Randidly followed. Inside was clearly a maze, but there was a large hole punched in the ceiling that Decklan simply leapt toward. Beyond that, there was another ceiling hole and then another, until they climbed easily up through the shortcut made in the pointlessly obtuse maze around them.
Honestly, Randidly was relieved. He hated mazes.
Finally, they had climbed through so many holes that they stood at the flat pinnacle of the pyramid, which was a raised platform about the size of a basketball court. Still without pausing, Decklan continued through the floating grey portal that formed the center of the area.
Although this was very different from how the Ogre Ravine looked, Randidly definitely felt the same sort of warped Aether in the surrounding area as the two worlds bled together. Sensing his Riders and Neveah on the other side, Randidly followed.
There was a second where the transition was extremely disorienting, and then the entire world around Randidly snapped into focus. And once he was there, with his bare feet planted on the spongy ground, he looked around and took in the world of the frog people.
Rain quickly splattered on his face, but he wiped that to the side to get a better look.
The first thing he noticed about this world was a tall and twisting castle that dominated the surrounding landscape. Its high towers and dark walls spoke of money and influence. There was an overflowing moat and a high wall of black stone that protected the bleak looking keep within its encirclement.
More rain hit his face. Frowning, Randidly looked upward. Across all of the sky that he could see, a low layer of clouds spat a chill drizzle of rain downwards over the countryside, framing this ominous castle perfectly. Thunder cracked and rumbled, illuminating the austere architecture.
Randidly’s gaze drifted lower. From the slopes of the castle, Randidly could see an encampment below of a vast army. There were probably twenty thousand people below, ordered in neat rows across the marshy ground.
That caused him to frown. Not only did they have such a twisted and gruesome fortress looming immediately above the portal, but they also had an army waiting below…? Things here were worse than he had guessed. No wonder Neveah believed she needed to be here constantly; the frogpeople were prepared to deal with Earth.
Beyond the army, Randidly caught something that caused him to blink in alarm. What he had initially taken to be a low hill was actually a vast and blank wall of stacked stone. As he slowly spun, Randidly saw that the entire surrounding area was encased in the wall, giving the people of this world the perfect staging point to attack Earth, while preventing any counter-attack from being feasible.
Clearly, the wall was hastily built. As Randidly peered at it, flaws quickly began to emerge. There were gaps for small groups of people to slip through. But none were large enough to allow any more than ten or so people to proceed through unmolested. It would carefully control the flow of any army that attempted to attack.
Grimly, Randidly followed after Decklan’s shadowy form. Not the construction matter. Even if it was well constructed, it wouldn’t be hard for Randidly to break the wall with brute force to send a message to these fools as to what would happen if they fucked with Earth. As they walked forward, Randidly glared around and saw that a small group from the army was heading up toward the castle.
“Good timing,” Decklan said idly. Then he upped his speed.
Randidly’s eyes sharpened. It would be good to see these frog people up close, and have the chance to scan them with his Aether Detection. Because he dearly hoped that this situation wasn’t so dire that he would need to postpone his challenge against Donnyton in order to conduct a campaign here.
On the other hand…
Randidly’s new left arm flexed experimentally. It certainly would be a good opportunity to test the limits of his new equipment. Even if he had to miss the challenge fighting here, getting an understanding of his strength would be a positive outcome.
Randidly and Decklan were moving much more quickly than the small detachment from the lower army, so they arrived at the castle gates at the same time as them. The frog people were… well, basically what Randidly would have pictured if asked to picture frog people. They were squatter than a human and had rubbery blue skin, but otherwise looked a lot like people.
What threw Randidly for a loop was that the frog people flinched and ducked their heads when Randidly and Decklan arrived. Decklan didn’t say anything, so Randidly scanned the group.
None of them were particularly strong, above Level Fifty-Five, yet why had this group come to this Frogpeople Fortress. Could they be messengers or scouts sent to report? Then why-
With a creaking groan, the castle gate slowly lowered before the group that stood waiting. And flanking the opening gate were two of Randidly’s Riders and a dozen people wearing the regalia of one of Donnyton’s Squads.
“You may enter,” The woman who seemed to be in charge intoned, and the frog people scurried forward.
Frowning, Randidly checked what his connection to Neveah was telling him. That Neveah was directly forward, deeper within the looming castle that seemed to ooze an evil villain vibe. A strange suspicion began to emerge in his chest as they proceeded deeper into the castle.
The hallways were ornate and dim, leaving the frog people to stumble around into archaic furniture. At the very least, they were out of the constant rain. Somehow, Randidly suspected it wasn’t often in this world that it wasn’t raining. That might be why the intelligent life had evolved from frogs.
Finally, after almost ten minutes of watching the panicked frogs, they reached a grand hall. Upon entering the room, the frog people flung themselves on the ground. Their leader, a rather rotund frog, called timidly, “Great Demon King! Please have mercy upon this humble messenger, but… the Toad Lords refuse to surrender. Please-”
“If I do not get what I desire…” Neveah slowly stood as she spoke. She was in her natural form at the moment, a twisting evolution that combined human features and that of the bone wyrm. Wide bone wings spread behind her back, hanging above her open maw and burning red eyes.
But most annoyingly, she was wearing on her head a crown that was clearly a cheaply made imitation of Randidly’s Crown of Upheaval and Gloom.
It was honestly kind of insulting.
“…then I will bleed this world dry to teach these fools a lesson!” Neveah roared triumphantly.
Blinking, Randidly tried to rationalize what he was seeing. The frogpeople flinched and begged for mercy, pleading with Neveah that they be given more time to convince the other Toad Lords of the Demon King’s power.
Randidly just watched the whole thing play out. He had quite a few questions.