It took only a half hour to catch up to the scent. Once Randidly had the familiar tang of Earth’s Aether, his eyes took on a whole new intensity. Although his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom and been dim to that moment, his fury ignited it back to full brilliance, emanating cold light in the overcast world.
A paradigm shift came over Randidly. His strides lengthened, the distance in front of him shortened. Randidly wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but from a faint whiff came the definitive confirmation in a short span of time; he had caught up to Roy, the Undying Hero. And he stopped because the lumbering figure was not one that he remembered.
The figure was positively bestial, a hulking thing that resembled a bone ape more than a human. It possessed huge arms designed to crush and shatter. It walked on its knuckles and bounded forward. And there was a large bone dome covering its head, that appeared to function something like a helmet. Underneath a bone exoskeleton, there didn’t appear to be any real flesh… just more bones.
And Roy was loping forward casually, seeming unaware of the possibility of pursuit. Ape-Roy ran across the countryside, the dull noise of bone grinding against bone barely audible above the patter of rain on the soaked grassland. Randidly spared a glance to the side and saw a familiar figure of the boar with the giant maroon arm.
The presence of that monster slowed Randidly’s advance, but only slightly. His eyes narrowed. Once more, the arm was gesticulating aggressively at Randidly. But the boar regarded him stoically, almost critically. Had it led him here?
Randidly’s attention returned to the loping figure of Roy. His gaze tightened. Either way, he would just beat down anyone that tried to stop him from accomplishing his task. He had found Roy; now was the time to bring him to heel. All he needed was a moment to drop a yelping Shual and lower his stance.
Spear Advances, Ash Trails.
Like a bolt of darkness across the marshy fields, Randidly streaked toward Roy’s back. As he approached, it wasn’t until the last second that Roy seemed to notice. The ape-like figure spun around, bringing a brutal fist upward toward Randidly as though he had been expecting the attack the whole time. It was a familiar, and dangerous, punch. And yet…
Not sharp enough.
Phantom Half-Step gave him a small advantage, moving him a meter closer before Roy could respond. Randidly’s spear thrust took him low in the right part of his chest, ripping through the bone exoskeleton and piercing through to the core body. Shards of bone were smashed away, giving Randidly a shot at the vulnerable insides.
Or at least Randidly hoped that was about to happen. But his spear stopped dead as it hit an inner layer of bone that was much more structurally sound than the prior layers. So much so that a brief hint of shock crossed Randidly’s face. But then his face transformed into a crooked smile.
So, not all talk, eh Roy? I’ve been looking forward to seeing what tripling your stats can do… If only just to confirm that focusing on image is the better method.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed as thousands of roots surged upward out of the ground at his urging. The slithered upwards and surrounded Roy on all sides even before the other man had been able to catch his balance from the initial strike.
Not that I’m giving you much time to make your case… no hard feelings.
Even as he could feel the boar bounding toward Randidly’s current position, Randidly grinned. Not going to get here in time. Like hungry leeches, the roots were swarming in the crack that Randidly had made in the exoskeleton, seeking the body beneath. When almost a hundred had dug into the wound and stuffed it so tightly that no more could intrude, Randidly sent his roots a new command.
As one, the vicious roots developed thorns and rapidly exploded in size. At first, there was a moment of stillness as there was nowhere else to expand, but Randidly continued to flood those roots with Mana. Eventually, something gave way against the irresistible tide of energy that Randidly was capable of producing.
Even as Roy realized the threat and roared with fury, it was too late. His torso exploded into a huge wave of disintegrating bones that filled the surrounding area with dust and cracked shards. With a python-like viciousness, those same vines that destroyed the exoskeleton quickly encircled and bound Roy’s body within. There wasn’t a chance to recover, because the vines were already there; Randidly had him.
Smiling grimly, Randidly continually tightened and empowered those vines, even as his eyebrows rose at the strength of the resistance. Truly, this amount of Strength was far above what Randidly possessed. Better to keep him bound than to-
“He… hahahah… Ah, Randidly, it took you long enough didn’t it?”
Randidly spun around, only to see that the disintegrated bones shards that Randidly had ripped away were slowly coalescing into the familiar form of a skeleton. Very soon, the skeleton disappeared as an illusion replaced the guise of flesh that covered the bare bones. A classically handsome middle-aged man with a strong jaw stood grinning at him. His brown hair was swept back and the man’s smile was wide and impossibly white.
Trumpeting its fury, the boar rumbled closer. Randidly’s eyes slid sideways from Roy to the boar, then his Perception slid backward to the figure still struggling in the clutches of his roots behind him. What was going on…?
“Confused, right?” Roy said blandly, seemingly unconcerned with Randidly’s presence. “Well let me just say this bluntly: you are the key we had to unlock to Earth’s future-”
Randidly activated the Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil and smashed that smug piece of shit with a bout of physical and mental agony. Cursing, Roy stumbled backward even as Randidly used Raucous Phantom’s Finale and brought his fist directly into Roy’s chest. Seeing how easily that Roy had recovered from being ripped to shreds, Randidly threw everything he got at him.
At the last second, Roy was able to sidestep out of the way and only have most of his left ribs shattered by the blow. Randidly’s lips twitched.
But even as the dust was falling toward the ground, time seemed to pause and float back upward to reform into a skeleton.
After a bit of flickering, the human guise returned. Roy held up his hands. “Hey! Slow down! No good can come of senseless violence. At some point I’m going to run out of Mana, and then-”
Acri crashed downward in an Idiosyncratic Cut, splitting Roy from collarbone to hip. Strangely, the illusion of humanity was kept over Roy’s face the entire time, so that he was a fleshy head above a failing skeletal body. After staggering for a single step, the skeletal frame couldn’t withstand it and collapsed.
“Heh, will you be my second trial, I wonder?” Roy muttered. The boar’s roar was almost deafening now. “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you, Randidly my friend. We are on the same side, after all. Who doesn’t want to show Earth its perfect Path?”
Randidly didn’t even bother to respond to that. He simply stalked forward, causing another wave of roots to slither up out of the ground and wrap around Roy. But Randidly stopped in abject shock as he felt the almost house-sized mass of vines he had conjured up behind him ripped to shreds.
Spinning, Randidly turned and looked at the figure standings in the aftermath.
Roy’s laugh was long and loud. “It’s truly a tragic Fate… almost as tragic as being a hero. To be a blind, deaf, and mute tool, only suitable to be used by your betters… I’ve been keeping him under control as best as I could, but now that my Mana is depleted…”
Randidly recognized the figure. Or at least most of the features. It was Drake, Sydney’s right-hand man, the main pillar of East End. Yet his eye sockets were scraped and bare, with a jagged series of maroon spikes surrounded by the popped and rotten remnants of the eyeballs that had been housed within. From his mouth, a spike of that same maroon crystal parted his lips just a little, like a facsimile of a tongue.
His ears were completely covered with the crystal, giving him a strange resemblance to a science fiction villain from an 80’s television show. Other than that, Drake looked exactly the same.
Except for the dried blood across his face and hands that made it seem as though he had been crying and wiping away crimson tears. Except for the deep circles under his eyes. Except for his hunched shoulders and ripped clothes.
Randidly thought dazedly. Almost as an afterthought, Randidly reached out with his Aether Perception to feel him. He had been so focused on locating Roy and Earth’s Aether that he hadn’t peered too closely at what he was looking at. Now he regretted that decision.
When he looked at Drake now, he still couldn’t get quite a clear view of what was going on because he was once more obstructed, in the same way that his scan of the boar had failed. And this time, Randidly had a very good idea of what he was sensing.
He was being screened by a Fate. A Fate that had taken root deeply inside Drake and somehow warped him.
“What did you do?” Randidly hissed. But Roy only laughed harder, even as his body was tussled up and bound into the ground. Because it was clear now that Roy hadn’t been the one to clear the Danger Zone and achieve the triple stats.
It had been Drake.
After taking an unsteady step forward, Drake paused. Then his queer gaze drifted upward and locked onto Randidly. The boar arrived, its roars fading into a soft keening, even as the maroon arm continued to smash the ground in vicious glee. Those maroon forks that stuck up through Drake’s eye sockets remained fixed upon him.
In his chest, Randidly felt a slight tingle. His instincts warned of the presence of danger. In spite of himself, his face split into a grin.
“I?” Roy inclined his head dramatically, even as he was surrounded by thick roots that prevented any real movement. “I simply served as a veil; with my body surrounding him, it confused poor Drake enough that his more violent impulses were suppressed. Yet now that he has his gaze locked upon you…”
When Randidly squeezed with his roots, Roy’s illusion faded and all that was left was a bony grin, despite the increasing pressure. “He will serve his purpose as a blade that slays the foes in front of him. Ah, but it is ironic isn’t it… to have gained such power, but have lost the ability to discern friend from foe. Tragic, is it not? A lesson perhaps, for those who aren’t so permanently afflicted”
Growling, Drake ripped forward toward Randidly, conjured a bastard sword of bone. With a short side step, Randidly avoided the vicious blow. But there was still enough strength from the attack to cut into the marshy ground and leave a deep scar.
The tripled stats were the real deal. The air pressure from the sword…
After rolling his neck, Randidly put both of his hands on Acri. “About damn time. Let’s test how well this arm works.”