Alana closed her eyes. Even now, she could see those three attacks. When Randidly moved that first time-
A knock came at the tent flap, causing her eyes to snap open. The voice was low and relaxed, but just slightly hoarse. “Are you ready?”
“Politics right now, Donny? Shouldn’t we just sleep?” Alana asked.
Donny chuckled quietly and then fell silent. As the silence dragged on for a few seconds, Alana recognized that he was likely just as affected by the challenge as she had been. Maybe he used those few seconds to fantasize briefly about his own bed. “Perhaps. But after being shown our limits, we can’t just avoid the other Zones; too many people saw what happened.”
Alana quietly dragged a brush through her hair to remove any bits of scorched ground and debris. Honestly, she needed a shower; after the fight, she had just isolated herself and attempted to improve her image. She wasn’t ready to meet with a delegation from another Zone.
Yet what choice did she have?
After putting on some high-quality armor for appearance sake, she quietly laced up her boots. Although her main pair had been destroyed in the fight, Alana had several identical pairs made so she wouldn’t have to go without. They fit snuggly and would provide excellent footing on any surface. Then she walked out to join Donny. “Who is it?”
“Zone Eleven,” Donny grunted. Without any more explanation, the two walked through the dark night toward the center of Donnyton. They passed the many whispering Squads and civilians, doing their best to ignore the long stares.
No one spoke to them. They just watched Donny and Alana. Likely, they were waiting to see what this meant for Donnyton. After all, Donnyton had lost.
As they approached the wide oak doors to the Village Center, Alana’s heart seized.
Really, the only thing Donnyton lost was the support of Randidly Ghosthound.
Within the front room, four individuals were waiting.
“I guess we are all here,” Sam said sourly.
Alana did her best not to grin. Despite Sam’s understanding of the necessity of this meeting, he was the most unreasonable of the assembled group. As such, he didn’t bother to hide his irritation that he had been dragged away from his studies for a political matter. Likely, he had done almost the same thing as Alana had, except Sam’s focus had been on forging. If he had been given a few more hours, Alana had no doubt that Donnyton would have a few more high-end weapons to test.
Mrs. Hamilton and Donny looked tired, but their faces were studious neutral. Perhaps correctly, they believed that right now was a time when Donnyton needed defending from political damage more than anything else. Regina’s expression was mild, as though she hadn’t just dragged back a dozen people from the brink of death.
Likely, the reason that the meeting had been delayed this long after the challenge was because she refused to participate until everyone that could be healed had been seen to.
Ed wasn’t present, but Clarissa was, quietly nursing a strong cup of coffee that Alana could smell across the room. It was clearly spiked with rum. With these six, they had the clout necessary to speak with the representatives from another Zone. After a few quick glances to check-in, the five walked through into the ornately designed library where the delegation from Zone Eleven waited.
There were three individuals in the room. All three immediately registered as minor threats to Alana’s Danger Sense Skill. A fiery hair young woman was spinning the expensive globe on the reading table, looking profoundly bored. She wore long leather boots that were practically designed and had a golden sword strapped to each hip. As Donnyton’s group entered, she looked up at them and then back down.
Not the one with power, then.
A teenage boy with large spectacles leapt to his feet as soon as the group entered. Then he blushed and sat back down next to his tall bow. He toyed with an extremely small dagger, seemingly unnerved by the sudden arrival of Donnyton’s group.
Not him either. So…
The third individual was sitting with his fingers steepled on the comfortable leather couch that was pressed up against the one wall not lined with books. His bearded and tanned face immediately split into a grin as the group from Donnyton entered.
“Thank you so much for meeting us on short notice,” The bearded man rumbled. His voice was so low that Alana could hear it resonating in her chest as he spoke. “I don’t want to waste your time as you… deal with the aftermath of that battle, so I’ll make it quick.”
The man pointed at the woman with two swords. “She’s Melanie.” His finger moved to the bespectacled young man. “That’s Kirk.”
Standing, the man offered the group a short bow. “And I’m Warlord. We are here to request assistance with a certain matter. After seeing the strength of Donnyton… well, I think that there is no one more qualified to help us.”
“Unless we just asked the Ghosthound to help,” The swordswoman Melanie turned away from the toy globe and graced them with a smirk.
Mrs. Hamilton’s face twitched, but she easily smiled at Warlord in the next moment. “It might be a chaotic time for us, but we are all individuals struggling underneath the suppression of the System. Tell us, what kind of assistance do you need?”
“Military force,” Warlord said with a sigh. “As I’m sure you know, new Zones are assigned certain random magical benefits, for lack of a better term, as well as Danger Zones. To encourage expansion. From what I understand, Donnyton was given a mine filled with very rare ores. The carrot and the stick, provided by the System.
“However… our Zone received a very strange random benefit.” Warlord’s face twisted. “Instead of a mine, or a forest, or an enchanted river… we received something dangerous.”
Kirk straightened his glasses. “A Dungeon. We received a Dungeon.”
Warlord studied Donnyton’s group for reactions. Alana realized he was waiting to see if they responded at all to his words. Ultimately, his gaze fixed upon Clarissa. Because from the moment he had mentioned a Dungeon, she was beaming with excitement.
Warlord continued to speak slowly, enunciating every word clearly. “An “Epic” Dungeon, it calls itself. An Epic, Level 75 Dungeon. And every week, a wave of Level 70 monsters explodes outward. We’ve resorted to building physical impediments to guide them away from our cities, but the Zone is close to filling with the runoff. We were hoping that Donnyton could help us deal with this problem.”
Roy moved his jaw slowly from side to side, enjoying the loud pops the bones made as they slid in and out of place. The Toad Lord that had been assigned to guard him had looked up at the noise at first, but over the past few days, it had largely grown accustomed to the skeleton man’s strange habits. Now it just ignored him.
Roy diligently continued to practice popping his fingers in and out of their respective sockets. Then, because he was bored, into the wrong sockets.
To these frogs, I am a monster, but for all of the wrong reasons.
Roy couldn’t suppress the thrill in his chest from that strange irony but knew better than to try and explain the humor to his jailor. Theosmum had made it quite clear early on that the interactions Roy had started with the various Toad Lords that hung around this swamp bottom would trigger commiserate punishment.
So Roy sat in his damp cell, with thick strands of algae wrapped around his hands. His jaw popped mechanically and then was replaced with popping from other joints. Mostly, this was just a distraction from the constant din of noise from next door.
Drake’s pained screams echoed out of his own cell and into Roy’s. That Drake was screaming could mean only one thing: the daily delight of seeing Theosmum directly would soon be upon Roy.
Roy frowned. There was no consciousness to Drake at the moment, but still Theosmum diligently visited Drake each day in order to pry more information out of him. Despite the lack of results, Theosmum did not tire of his pursuit. In fact, he seemed to grow more enthusiastic every day.
It seemed that despite Theosmum’s professed hatred for change, he quite delighted in the new arrivals to his kingdom. Perhaps his curiosity about the other world was stronger than Roy had expected.
…That, and he had developed a taste for causing them pain, of course. Drake’s hoarse shouts and howls were the constant proof of that.
If you continue to torture Drake so painfully…
Roy looked up at the ceiling of the cell, doing his best to convey the depth of regret that he felt in his largely imaginary heart. The packed mud was a poor audience, but it would have to do.
Won’t I, as a hero, be forced to take up the cause of breaking us out of here?
It took almost an hour, but Theosmum eventually finished with Drake. The screams abruptly cut off. After experiencing it himself for several days, Roy knew that Drake had been thrown into a pool of ice water.
It was a brief oblivion, but the poor fool deserved it.
Roy shook his head sadly as he continued to pop his jaw in and out of place.
Truly, it is a tragedy that Drake has to endure so much… ah, if only I could travel back in time… perhaps my comments about being useless to East End were poorly timed… He was already so distracted with struggling to cope with the bonus Stats from clearing the Danger Zone… and condensing a Fate at the same time.
Such ambition he had. Such hope. And how twisted he has become…
The small spots of fire in Roy’s eye sockets brightened slightly.
But if I want to use Drake to draw Sydney out to play, I’ll need to handle this Boss first…
With a high pitched whine, the metal door swung open and revealed the extraordinarily fat and flabby body of Theosmum. Roy, as always, enjoyed the rather revolting sight of Theosmum’s saggy body. Strange mosses and mold covered him, giving him a slightly motley appearance. It seemed like the head toad of this world had been patched together from spare cloth.
A costume befitting a jester, not a Boss,
Roy thought sourly. But this was the lot of a hero. Constantly forced to face off against deranged and distasteful villains.
“Roy,” Theosmum croaked, as he did every time he paid a visit to him. “Submit to me and allow me to manipulate your life energy. Otherwise, I will create unending pain.”
Roy sighed, unable to believe what he was hearing. To ask for quality discussion with this motley toad was a pointless endeavor. But Heroes never gave up. “It’s like you haven’t taken our talks to heart. Threats are woven from thread, not violence. If I don’t have a shred of hope, and if you don’t subtly make me realize why my hope will not come to fruition… ah, I simply can’t gather any sort of tension about fighting you. A terrible villain. Are you sure you aren’t being manipulated by someone else?”
“I’m simply an old toad that would like nothing better than to be left alone. Who else would there be?” Theosmum chuckled softly. Its legs carried his vast body forward with remarkable grace. After a few steps, it settled down next to Roy, studying the skeleton carefully. “That’s why your presence is so worrisome. I would like nothing better than for that Demon King to successfully keep all of you people out of this world; I’m comfortable here. But… will that really happen? I think not.”
“Undoubtedly some evildoers would eventually allow greed to blind them of the dangers of antagonizing you,” Roy said helpfully. It was truly a tragedy, Roy reflected, that he felt compelled to be unfailingly honest. “As long as it wasn’t a verbal exchange. You really are rather dull in that regard.”
“So no answers?” The toad asked quietly.
Roy shook his head fearlessly. “Unfortunately, my life has already been given to protect the Earth; I will not be swayed from my eternal mission, even in death.”
Bringing its hands together, Theosmum concentrated very intently on the space between its palms. “Truly, this is my first time encountering a being that has gone beyond the veil and returned. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that normal torture hasn’t been able to sway you. But that just means I need to become more creative.”
A violet flame emerged between Theosmum’s hands.
Roy stilled, looking at that thin flame very intently.
“It’s not that I cannot learn,” Theosmum said slyly. “Just that it has been a long time since I’ve needed to. For hundreds of years, I perfected my mastery of life energy to the point that it became the tool I use to rule this world. Without my Feed, this world would collapse. I am the spine of this world.
“After gaining control, I was content to play. With the tools I had… I had reached the limit of my mastery. So I indulged in the small comforts of rule. Yet now your presence is an unspoken threat to the way of life I have cultivated. And you bring with you new life energy in strange flavors. It reminds me of the old days when the System sought to suck us dry…”
Theosmum considered the flame, then looked at Roy. Then its vast mouth opened, revealing rotten and stinking teeth. “Now. Reveal the information about the Demon King I require. Or I will burn away your soul.”