Han Yazhu was exchanging a few quiet words with Donny when Sam and Mrs. Hamilton caught up to the group. The expedition from Zone Seven had been able to fly beneath Donnyton’s radar only because there were only five people, including Han, within the group. Therefore none of the patrols they had passed made not of them.
Which was unfortunate, because that meant that they were caught unawares by this arrival. From his conversations with Mrs. Hamilton, part of the reason that they had come was to be present in case Donnyton had a response to the weapons that Zone Seven had sent ahead of them.
And if they failed to return the goodwill with an equally valuable gift… From what Sam understood, it wasn’t good. Something like a pride thing. Which Sam identified with very strongly. He didn’t want to lose.
Not in forging. Not to anyone.
The inscrutable diplomat looked up and smiled when he noticed Mrs. Hamilton approaching their small group. “Ah, Mrs. Hamilton. It is unfortunate that I will not be able to speak with you further. Some of the theories advanced by Donnyton in your library… certainly extraordinary. Another time, we will need to exchange pointers.”
Mrs. Hamilton smiled. “Indeed. Zone Seven and Donnyton certainly have much to give each other. Mutual growth… is for the best.”
Nodding shortly, Han said. “Exactly so. Well then, I must depart-”
“Just a moment,” Sam growled. He cracked his knuckles absently to hide his nerves and said, “Donnyton still owes you a gift for those beautiful weapons that you brought from your Zone. Leaving without paying you back… wouldn’t that be rude?”
“How generous.” Han’s face shifted lightning fast to barely controlled shock and then settled back onto placid observation. Certainly, he hadn’t expected Donnyton to possess anything worthy of being the equal of those weapons, which was exactly why those weapons had been given away for free.
Yet Han Yazhu recovered from that shock almost instantly. He certainly was a cold fish. “But I couldn’t possibly accept any more hospitality from Donnyton. Besides, our great Zone has more than enough weapons-”
“They aren’t weapons. And I insist,” Sam said shortly. Then he bared his teeth. Mrs. Hamilton had given him a little background on Chinese culture, so he understood the need to push past the initial rejection of the gift. It was only polite to refuse at least once to take a gift, after all. “Please, if not from Donnyton, accept a gift from myself, a humble craftsman who admires the work of your Zone.”
For several seconds, Han Yazhu was still. His stiff expression didn’t shift at all as he weighed the options available to him. Finally, he smiled slightly. “Alright, but only as a symbolic gesture between our newly interconnected economies.”
Without waiting for him to change his mind, Sam waved his hand and used Shape Stone to make three clean and flat areas to display the furniture. Then he removed the items from his interspatial ring and placed them on display for this foreign dignitary to inspect.
The first was something that had been inspired by a common canvas chair, but Sam had added some extra details in order to examine the effect of Form on the item. Instead of canvas, Shal had used some of the finest golden silk that Donnyton produced to form the body of the chair. The color was rich and metallic, giving it a regal and sophisticated feel.
The chair itself was large, with the glittering silk draping over the sides to form a golden halo on the ground around the chair itself. The back of the chair was elongated and from the top, streamers of gold hung down, sparkling in the sun. With the cascading gold color grabbing the eye, it was very difficult to sense exactly how flimsy the chair itself was.
With careful engraving, Sam had worked in some empowering runes into the armrests that caused constant breezes to circle the chair. The effect of which was that the chair constantly sparkled and glimmered like and uncovered diamond. But the movements were generally small, preserving the illusion of a shimmering golden throne.
Sam believed it wasteful, but he wanted to move as far away as possible from the form of an average chair. And this was what he had created. Originally, he had planned on giving it to Donny, but already Sam had a headache imagining how insufferable the boy would be if he got his hands upon it.
The second chair was also ornate but was Sam’s attempt at mastering Function. Rather than an actual chair, this was a jade sculpture that used engraving and careful carving to
like a chair from every direction. However, the arrangement meant that anyone who attempted to actually sit on the chair would find not enough space for comfort.
Some of the Earthen essence sent from East End was used in this chair. Harnessing that power, the chair would shift very subtly to trick the viewer constantly. In addition, the chair possessed a powerful grounding effect. A useless piece of furniture that instead provided strength to the surrounding individuals, so that they wouldn’t need a chair at all.
A chair that would never work as a chair, lined with beguiling engravings that drew powerfully from the Champion of their Zone, Simon. It was a chair in all but form. And for his effort, Sam was rewarded with an item that was labeled as a jade throne.
The final chair…
Sam would have preferred to make something more flashy for his attempt to play with the Image component of the furniture, but it hadn’t worked out like that. Creating an original image wasn’t something that was easy to do. Instead, Sam had spent almost four hours slowly carving names into gears. Common gears that he had borrowed from a watchmaker friend.
Thousands of gears. Small bits of copper and brass and badly smelted iron. Nothing sophisticated, just pieces that would assemble an image that was not his.
Then he had painstakingly assembled those gears in meticulous order to be a clock in the shape of the chair. Included in the construction were panes of glass so that the inner machinery could be seen and yet wouldn’t be bothered, so the ultimate result was a bronze colored clockwork chair. The clock face was part of the chair back, so it would be impossible to sit in the chair and read the clock, but Sam designed it so there would be a tactile shift in the armrests that could be used to read the clock.
It ticked incessantly, a testament to the intricate clockwork that served to animate this strange machine.
But of all his chairs, it was the clockwork one that Sam was the proudest of. After all, due to the time taken to write individual names, he had achieved his goal: the third chair included the option Unity of Ten Thousand III. It wasn’t exactly the option that was included in all of the Zone Seven equipment, but it was close enough that Sam was pleased with himself.
To copy that image was the goal he had set for himself. It was meant as a test because he hadn’t recalled at all that he needed to prepare anything as a counter-gift. He was too caught up in experimentation to stay focused. But it turned out to be a delightful bit of serendipity to give such a chair to them.
Plus, the chair had reached the Legendary rarity. Which was enough for him to raise his head high in the face of Zone Seven’s Level of weapons.
Han Yazhu looked at the three chairs, which had been so ornate to receive the designation of “Throne” from the System. Time ticked past. There was something… strange in the air. Han reached out and touched each one, in turn, examining their effects. As he did so, his face visibly became increasingly pale. Each brush against the three thrones that Sam had created seemed to steal a portion of Han’s Vitality until he was as white as a ghost.
Was this yuppy dissatisfied? Bah. There isn’t anything like these on Earth. Be satisfied, prick.
Just as Sam was about to open his mouth and demand an answer, Sam felt Mrs. Hamilton’s hand on his shoulder. Very casually, she shook her head. But her eyes were gleaming with barely controlled amusement.
That made Sam even more confused. Why was Mrs. Hamilton so happy?
Without a word, Han Yazhu stretched out his hand and gathered all three chairs into his ring. Then he turned and headed toward the portal. But Mrs. Hamilton did not let him off easily.
“Is there anything else?” Came the hissed response from Han Yazhu. As he spun to face them, his face was now beet red. Even Sam was taken aback by the sudden animosity.
Mrs. Hamilton just smiled. “Three… is such a lucky number. Don’t you think?”
Han didn’t answer. He just spun on his heel and walked toward the portal. His companions followed.
“What was that about?” Sam asked, completely bewildered.
Mrs. Hamilton just shook her head. “No idea. Perhaps something he ate?”
Before Sam could lay into her for feeding him something that was obviously a lie, there was a pop above them. A firework had gone off. Both looked up immediately. Sam’s mouth went dry.
It hadn’t been a firework, it had been a flare. Which now hung red and fizzing above their heads, slowly drifting lower over Donnyton. It only took a second from the moment that they saw the firework to when the alarm bells began to ring.
Although they had drilled until their actions in such a situation came without thinking, there was still a moment of shock as both attempted to cope with the news that was hanging above their heads, glowering down at them from an otherwise clear and blue sky.
Donnyton was under attack.
Contrary to Randidly’s expectations, the Toad Lord simply chuckled as Randidly’s bald threat. “No need to be so serious… I was just teasing, teasing! Actually, I will tell you a secret; we also wish that you would handle this… wild element contacting Toad Lords.”
Pursing his lips, Randidly said lightly. “Oh?”
Nirfik nodded emphatically. “We Toad Lords… we have ourselves set up pretty well. Perhaps if your world was weak… even I have to admit that things would be different. We are not a kind people. But despite their… questionable quality, your Demon King killed two Toad Lords. Due to that obvious strength, it is not an easy thing to antagonize the Demon King if he does not force our hand. We have lived comfortably for quite a long time; if possible, we would like to keep it so.”
Grimacing, Randidly said. “So you are claiming that you would prefer that our worlds… keep from interfering with each other?”
“Exactly. Look at me, my youth has fled. I no longer hold bold dreams of conquest; now I just want to retire and manage my estates. Such is also the feeling of the leader of our faction, Toad Lord Tisha. Scrambling after riches is not what we want at all.” Then Nirfik paused. “But of course… there are some younger Toad Lords who will be swayed by this interloper’s words.”
That focused Randidly’s attention. He wasn’t quite sure if he believed Nirfik’s statement that there was very little interest among the Toad Lords in the new world, but Randidly certainly wanted more information on Roy. “So, can you tell me what you remember about the one that came and spoke to you?”
For the first time, the Toad Lord’s eyes flashed. It was surprised that he knew it had spoken to Roy? Then did it think he had simply wandered South?
“Ah… well… He spoke to one of my administrators… but I received a description of what he said.” The Toad Lord opened its mouth and belched, then continued to speak. “Very emphatically, he told us about the rich energy of your Earth. Spoke of the politically fractured States. Described how easily we could overwhelm your defenses…. Ah, actually, I have a question. Why is it that you look different than both this emissary and the Demon King? They are both creatures of bone. You are… a fleshy thing.”
Randidly chuckled in surprise at the sudden shift in the discussion topic. It was true, he had wondered when someone would point out his differences from the Demon King. “Well, that’s not wrong…”
After considering it for a moment, Randidly shrugged. Nothing much wrong with explaining some version of the truth. “Most people from Earth are like me. At least in look. The Demon King… is a very special existence. Not in power, but in form and temperament.”
The Toad Lord nodded sagely. “Which is why he so hastily invaded? That sort of decisiveness suits a Demon King. Just like… the bravery to so casually enjoy my personal hot springs suits a Demon Prince.”
Randidly’s smile was razor sharp. But largely he ignored the threat. He was still confident in his ability to defend himself. Instead, he considered the confirmation that Roy was traveling through the area as a victory. Yet Randidly was puzzled why Roy was revealing his natural skeleton form and not using illusion to seem human.
Did the constant rain interfere with the illusion? Was that also why Neveah used her natural form?
Before Randidly could decide where to move to next, the Toad Lord spoke again. “And this… emissary? The wild element? Is he also a bold and groundbreaking existence?”
This time, Randidly’s laughter was caustic. Despite him not activating it, Deific Mien of Yggdrasil activated as he gritted his teeth and envisioned catching Roy. “Heh. In a way, yes. He is a being that has died before. And somehow he crawled his way back into existence. Let me assure you that the mistake will not happen a second time.”
Although Nirfik’s expressions were difficult to read, Randidly was able to catch a flicker of unease as he listened to Randidly.
So this was the limit of your nerve, Nirfik? It seems there was less to fear than I had thought.
Randidly shifted. “Thank you for the information. I’ll go take care of this issue immediately.”
Yet immediately the mood shifted. Underneath the mud, Nirfik’s legs tensed. But he did not move. He simply watched Randidly as the younger man stood and calmly worked his limbs free of the grasp of mud. Some part of Randidly was ready to wash this shit off in the lagoon.
Then the Toad Lord laughed. When it spoke, its voice was low and smug. “Hehe, I doubt you will be leaving soon. My poisons have no doubt entered into your porous skin at this point. It was a mistake to jump so quickly into this mud. Brave… but foolish. I’m afraid I will not provide the antidote until you answer me about the state of Feed in your world. I am quite curious.”
After blinking, Randidly began to laugh. Poison? Did this fool mean the organic compounds in the mud that Randidly had steadily gathered to use as a defense against an ambush from the Toad Lord? Although he had brought them in close proximity to himself, he didn’t casually let any be absorbed into his body.
Not that it would matter. What could the poison do once it was absorbed into his body? Randidly’s blood was one of the most destructive substances that he was aware of. Combine that with his images of ash and fire…
Randidly didn’t believe that his Images, Resistance, and Skills would totally inoculate him to poison. But from every scrap of evidence he had been able to gather from this Toad Lord, this being wasn’t one who would be able to overcome him. Even if this shifted to a fight, Randidly remained confident.
“I don’t fear poison,” Randidly said languidly. He stood and stretched. Then he turned and walked out of the mud pit.
Behind him, he could feel the waves of fury rolling off Nirfik. In the depths of the mud, the Toad Lord’s legs drew themselves together, preparing to spring.
Randidly continued to walk forward, grinning.
I’m so glad you chose to do things the hard way.