Randidly raised his eyebrows as he looked down into the pit in front of him. Gleaming azure waters about ten meters down from the edge of the hole on which Randidly stood seemed to obscure a strange light that filtered up to his eyes. “This is the Fate armory?”
In addition to the two guards that had escorted Randidly and his three subordinates down the mountain face opposite the Great Rift, there were around twenty nervous-looking guards that stood around the pit with their weapons raised defensively. These score of guards were, as far as Randidly could tell, an emergency group that wasn’t generally together based upon their widely divergent uniform and armor choices.
But it’s not like the System seems to demand any sort of uniform from its soldiers. Maybe I’m reading into their posture too much.
When he received the affirmative nod on this being the armory from one of their two guards, Randidly turned to face forward once more. As he looked down toward the dappled light coming out the pit, he wondered idly what had occurred that had convinced Lord Miln to station so many people here.
And why are they jumpy as rabbits?
“It looks like a lake,” Zagnal said as he rubbed his chin. Randidly agreed with him, but he was still sour enough at Zagnal’s presence that he didn’t vocalize his thoughts. There was a need to keep up a united front of disdain toward this spy, after all.
The more talkative and dismissive of the two guards snorted. “Heh, a lake? Are you fucking blind? This is one of the most tightly guarded locations on the frontlines. That is no mere lake-”
“-it’s liquified Aether,” Randidly supplied quickly in order to deprive the know-it-all guard of the satisfaction. His eyes widened as he looked down into the hole in front of him, trying to judge its size and depth. Compared to the Dungeon that Randidly had been led to on Earth that possessed a similar Aether feature, this ‘lake’ was nowhere near that size. But as Randidly focused, he could tell that the depth in front of him was deceiving; likely the Aether was being used to stretch or shrink the area below.
And with the light coming up, it was basically just guesswork on Randidly’s part to try and determine how deep it was.
Which made a certain amount of sense. This was supposed to contain thousands of years worth of Fates. Some things could be among the gleaming lights teasing from within that liquified Aether, but this armory wasn’t as impressive or militaristic as Randidly had been picturing in his mind.
The guard looked at Randidly with a disappointed look, likely because he had ruined his moment of verbal superiority over Zagnal. All of which was likely fine, was it not also wasting Randidly’s time. But as the guard glared at him, Randidly’s breath caught in his front because he noticed something else about the armory below. A shiver ran through his image body, starting from the tip of his toes and running to his black hair on his head.
There was no evaporation. Not a hint of the titanic energy that was contained below was wafting upward. Although the surface of the liquid Aether was covered with playful ripples, there was no whiff of energy.
Randidly slowly spun around on his heel and surveyed the surrounding area.
To control that amount of energy… it’s absolutely insane. It’s hard to know how much Aether gets condensed to become liquid, but it isn’t a small amount and keeping it there requires pressure. The individual who is in charge of this…
Recovering some of his haughtiness seeing Randidly’s shock, the guard chuckled. “Yes, pure, liquid Aether. And I don’t even know why the Supreme Commander allowed you to come here. Heh, maybe it was a sense of humor. He even let you choose two fates… but do you images think you can handle the pressure of liquid Aether? And you-”
The guard’s focus shifted once more to Zagnal. Zagnal could only clench his scaled hands and endure the overt mockery. “You with all of the strength of my farts, can you resist being corrupted by the powerful Fates that lay within this pool?”
Randidly ignored the talking and continued to survey the surrounding area. He had ignored the guard’s earlier boasting about this being one of the most heavily guarded locations on the front lines, but after seeing that someone managed to completely keep the liquid Aether well behaved, Randidly felt that it might not be too much of an exaggeration. Someone with a lot of fucking power was in the surrounding area.
Of course, I bet the place with the most protections is Lord Miln’s sick fucking body chamber…
Randidly thought with distaste. But then he focused on the task at hand and continued to scan the surroundings.
The armory was in a small valley hidden between two steep ravines. In terms of location, it was one that would have been extremely easy to overlook, if they hadn’t known what look for. Even with the correct path, the way they arrived was through an extremely narrow passage with high stone walls on each side. Inside the valley itself, the space widened somewhat to allow four or five larger tents to be pressed up against the gentle slope down to the roiling liquid Aether below.
But aside from the pit, the tents, the guards, and some common necessities to living, there wasn’t anything else in the valley.
As Randidly looked around, he was once more convinced that most of the guards there were extremely nervous. Randidly ignored those people; those shaky soldiers were just here as window dressing. Instead, he continued to allow his Grim Intuition to guide him and spun to consider all of the surrounding individuals.
And then Randidly found two people that seemed completely absent to his Perception. They sat by a fire quite a distance from any tent, squeezed up against the high stone walls of the valley. An old man was tending the fire with a stick and an old woman was smoking a bone pipe. Although they felt completely ordinary, they were anything but.
After taking a deep inhale, the woman blew out a thin stream of smoke that spiraled up in the air in front of her to form the fluttering silhouette of a bird. Its wings beat rapidly and it hovered in front of her with its head cocked to the side.
Then, shaking her head, she raked her hand through the bird and it dispersed to nothing. She took another deep breath of smoke and held it in her lungs, seeming to consider. Then she released her breath, this time from the corners of her mouth. The smoke drifted downward to form two grey squirrels, and due to the coloration of the smoke, they possessed a remarkable likeness to the actual animals. Randidly seemed to be able to see every individual hair on their bodies, comprised of delicate strands of smoke.
The old man turned and said something Randidly couldn’t hear and the old woman laughed. Grasping with his thumb and forefinger, the man pinched a tongue of flame from the fire he was tending and tossed it to the side. It hit the ground between the two smoke squirrels and blossomed upward into a rapidly growing flame. But as the fire stretched and spread, Randidly realized that it wasn’t truly the shape of fire he was seeing.
The old man had sculpted a meter tall tree out of a pinch of flame. Delighted, the smoke squirrels darted up the tree and chased each other frantically. The flames of the tree spread and suddenly it wasn’t just the trunk and branches but luminous red-gold foliage that Randidly could see. The casual display left Randidly floored.
Yea, those seem like the people who are in charge here,
Randidly thought nervously. After releasing a steadying breath, he walked over in their direction in order to speak with him.
Randidly’s reasoning was twofold: first, he wanted more information about the armory. And second… Randidly couldn’t stay away after witnessing that power. It was a small thing, not on the scale of what he had seen from Lady Iellaya or Commander Terith, but it was this effortless use of imbuing image into smoke and fire with such potency that it became a medium for life that truly made Randidly tremble.
These two were stronger than the Commanders. And although it was more hope than based on any facts, Randidly believed they were also more powerful than Lord Miln.
The guards who had brought them here glanced at Randidly, but ultimately let him go; they were more concerned with the continued harassment of Zagnal. But as Randidly began to walk away, one of the nervous-looking guards stepped in Randidly’s path. Although Randidly could sense his unease, this tall, furry guard seemed much more composed than some of his fellows.
He leaned forward and spoke in a quiet voice that only Randidly could hear. “It is not smart to approach. If they do not like you… well. Many have died in the armory. Even guards go missing on occasion.”
The Grim Chimera instantly was on guard as Randidly met this guard’s eyes, but they were completely clear and guileless. Slowly, Randidly relaxed. It was unfortunate to learn, but Randidly was still tempted by the casual power he had witnessed. At least this explained why the guards in the surrounding area were twitching and exchanging uneasy glances after their party arrived. They were likely afraid one of the arrivals would do something to upset these two powerful figures, and the negative emotion would be taken out on them later.
Even so, the Grim Chimera hungered for the slightest whiff of power, and Randidly agreed.
But it was not selfish worry that motivated this guard, Randidly could tell. This furry fellow seemed genuinely concerned about Randidly. So he offered him a grin and asked, “And if they like me?”
“Obviously your task of selecting Fates becomes more manageable. But I have heard rumors about you. You are an image that Lord Miln is sending to his death,” The guard said slowly. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Could you have ended up in this situation if you were a likable individual?”
Randidly genuinely laughed. “Certainly, it seems that Lord Miln is a popular leader. His soldiers follow his lead in many areas.”
The crinkles around the guard’s eyes deepened. “How could it not be so? All soldiers are loyal to their commander.”
Well, well, well. What have we here,
Randidly thought with interest as he continued to look at the guard in front of him. The man appeared more beast-like human, likely something akin to a wolfman. But his eyes were honest and amused as they spoke with obvious sarcasm.
Someone who isn’t so keen on Lord Miln. Offering me that warning, even knowing that I will probably die soon… is it kindness, or guile?
“Randidly Ghosthound. Thanks for the warning,” Randidly said as he offered his hand.
The wolfman’s long tongue lolled out between his jaws. “Colhnan. Don’t underestimate the Armory, Mr. Ghosthound.”
Nodding, Randidly moved past the guard and left the circle of idle individuals that were watching the worthwhile pursuit of knocking Zagnal down a peg. Randidly kept his pace even as he approached the area where the two old looking individuals were sitting around a fire.
Part of the reason that they caught the eye was their tranquil atmosphere, but they both also appeared to be completely human. At perhaps 10 meters, neither of the two had looked up toward his approach, and Randidly found himself forced to slow down. Both because he wished to be respectful and because the air became distinctly heavy.
Too heavy to be natural,
Randidly thought as he stopped about 5 meters away from the backs of the two individuals. The weight had grown to the point that each step took a titanic effort. Neither of the two figures looked over at him, but Randidly noticed that both of the two had stilled in their movements somewhat. They were waiting.
But waiting for what?
Randidly gritted his teeth and took another step forward. Instantly, the pressure in the air doubled. If Randidly had possessed a physical body, a hiss would have escaped his lips as the air in his lungs was physically squeezed out of him. As it was, he managed to bring his other foot forward and stand while enduring the ominous pressure in the air.
The old man chuckled and picked up a stick. Rather whimsically, he began to draw glowing characters in the air with the glowing ember at the end of his branch. What was fascinating is that the light from the flame lingered far too long to be natural. Whole strings of runes appeared in the air before the old man waved his stick like a conductor and dismissed them.
Randidly grimly considered the two powerful people. Having them right outside his reach was maddening. And this strange atmosphere seemed to indicate that it was possible to reach them and speak with them. Again, Randidly remembered that casually constructed image of the smoke squirrels and tree of fire.
Their images were so powerful that they seemed entirely real. Yet the path forward was both difficult and confusing.
Unfortunately, the Grim Chimera was just as split as Randidly was. On the one hand, Randidly wanted to appear respectful and it was pretty clear that this pressure was meant to keep individuals away. However, this army might be twisted and dangerous, but it had been pretty uniform in respecting capability. Perhaps the barrier was present for people to prove their capability by pushing through it.
The more aggressive part of the Grim Chimera urged action. But it also cautioned patience before an individual with this much casual power. Those manifestations of life with smoke and fire had left a deep impression on the Grim Chimera.
Perhaps Randidly would have stood there for quite a while if a shift hadn’t occurred between the two individuals around the fire. All of the old man’s whimsical nature slowly dissolved as time crept past. Suddenly, his mouth firmed into a line. Meanwhile, the old woman raised her arms above her head and stretched languidly. From several meters away, Randidly could her the slow and satisfying pops from her back as she extended her limbs toward the sky.
The old man prodded the fire with his stick, his expression unamused. And as he did so, Randidly had to grit his teeth as a wave of unmistakable weight spread outward and buzzed against the edges of his image body.
There isn’t one right answer,
It’s just a matter of which of the two paths I take. You either force your way forward and pass the old woman’s test or endure and pass the old man’s. And if I have to choose between smoke and fire…