In the aftermath of the explosion, Zoey found herself running towards where Athena had been standing, hoping that her friend was OK. She did not know if the Alpha Gnoll's detonation was due to something Athena had done, or if it was a last-ditch-effort to harm Athena.
However, Zoey's concerns were alleviated when she saw the still standing form of Athena through the smoke and haze that the explosion had thrown up.
"Athena! Are you OK?" Zoey called out as she approached.
"I'm good hun, just... I think I may have stood too close to this one." Athena replied with exasperation coloring her voice.
A moment later Zoey realized what she meant. Athena was splattered from head to foot with blood and parts of the Alpha Gnoll that had been scattered in the explosion. Since she had been the closest to the event, she had not been spared from the aftermath.
Zoey grimaced as she handed Athena a towel from her inventory. It didn't just look bad, it smelled bad too. What was left of the Gnoll corpse was a steaming pile of flesh and bone that in no way resembled its original form.
"Did you do something to make it blow up?" Zoey asked Athena. "All I saw was you stabbing it with your spear after I shot it."
Athena wiped her face clean before responding, "Yeah, that was me. My spear has an ability that causes a reaction when it encounters a corrupt essence stone. This time though, the reaction was more than I expected."
Zoey was a little confused by what Athena had said. "Wait, what is a corrupt essence stone?" she asked while handing Athena another towel.
"I'll answer that."
The two of them were startled by a low, melodic voice that suddenly came from behind them. They both spun around wondering how someone got so close without being noticed, and found themselves face to face with a person that they both recognized instantly.
Short, raven black hair and rose colored, almond shaped eyes, and wrapped in a silky black cloak that seemed to bend the light around it, Sethrii herself was standing there barely two meters away. Zoey and Athena both had similar reactions as they realized who it was. Their expressions showed shock, surprise, then curiosity as Sethrii approached.
"You may have plenty experience with these corrupted creatures Athena, but this is likely the first that Zoey has seen, is it not?" Sethrii asked as she walked over to inspect the Alpha Gnoll corpse.
Zoey nodded in answer. She had never even heard of whatever a corrupted creature was.
Sethrii continued, "This corruption occurs when a creature or person of sufficient strength gets infected by a corrupt essence trace. These corrupt essence traces are exceedingly difficult to track down. The only thing we can do is try and destroy them when they show up. When one of these corrupt essence traces infects a suitable host, it will completely take over the mind and body, increasing the strength of the host by several-fold and beginning a transformation that cannot be stopped without killing the host.
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We have yet to see what the finished transformation is capable of because none of the infected we have found have lived long enough to completely transform. It takes a large amount of life force for the transformation to complete, and we are usually able to respond in time to prevent these corrupt creatures from getting enough of it to complete the transformation."
Athena nodded in confirmation as Zoey looked at her questioningly. According to this information, this was some kind of ongoing conflict that Athena and Sethrii had long been a part of.
"So these corrupted things have been showing up randomly and you have been trying to stop them and figure out who is causing it?" Zoey asked.
Sethrii answered her question with a nod as she lifted her hand and extracted an essence stone from the Alpha Gnoll's corpse. The stone was cracked, but Zoey could see a strange corrupted growth growing from the cracks on the stone's surface. Sethrii encased the essence stone in a prism of pure energy and stored it away, then turned back to Athena and Zoey.
"I originally found Athena when she was attacked by one of these corrupted creatures, and by some twist of fate, you two managed to meet each other and actually kill one of them. Ever since these creatures started appearing here on Darren I have been investigating their origin. Athena asked if she could help me when I saved her, and she has been acting as my Arbiter to hunt them ever since."
Athena nodded with a cheerful grin at Zoey, confirming the story.
"So what now? Do you know where the next one will appear?" Zoey wondered aloud.
"No," replied Sethrii. "But they do have a habit of showing up anywhere there is a person that is connected to a deity of this universe," Sethrii said as she pointed at Zoey's left arm where her tattoo was. "Since the two of you are linked to me, you will likely attract this corruption or whatever it is more often."
Sethrii turned thoughtful for a moment, then she looked at Zoey said, "I never intended to involve you in this since you are a new arrival in this universe, but how would you like to work with Athena and me to hunt these creatures? In return I can officially recognize you as one of my Arbiters."
Zoey was surprised at the offer. She was not sure about it though...
"I have a few questions before I can agree with that," She said apologetically.
Sethrii simply nodded and motioned for her to ask away.
Seeing the go-ahead, Zoey laid out her concerns. "First, these corrupted creatures. Why are you hunting them? I do realize that they don't seem like a good thing, but I don't know why. Second, what exactly is an Arbiter and what does it entail?"
Surprisingly, it was Athena who stepped up to answer her questions. "To answer your first question hun, right now we are in a dungeon, so the damage a corrupt creature can do is not apparent. If we had encountered this thing outside? there would be an entire area around us sucked completely dry of all life. This happens anywhere these things show up, and nothing grows there for years after. If they are left to their own devices, they spread the corruption around everywhere they go. The worst thing is they get stronger the more corruption they spread. The Alpha Gnoll was about as strong as a Rank 7 veteran warrior in their prime would be. If we fought it outside the dungeon, it would have been even stronger."
Athena paused to see if Zoey was still following, then continued. "Second, the Arbiters act as connections for the gods to the world we live in. Without the Arbiters, Sethrii would have to expend a tremendous amount of energy to monitor what is happening on Darren, so we act as her eyes and ears on the ground. Also we have access to Sethrii's power which is extremely effective on the corrupted. That's the ability I used on my spear to kill the Gnoll. Plus, it makes it easier for her to protect us if we end up in a bad situation."
After Athena finished, Sethrii nodded to confirm, and then they waited as Zoey thought about what they had said. In the end, Zoey decided to accept Sethrii's offer. She was already connected to Sethrii in a way after all, and becoming an Arbiter was not a bad deal for her. If she would continue to run into these corrupted creatures in the future, she would need every edge she could get.
She looked up and met the eager eyes of Athena, who was clearly hoping Zoey would take the offer, then to Sethrii, who's rose colored eyes showed approval.
After a moment, Zoey spoke. "I agree. I will be one of your Arbiters." She said with her voice filled with purpose.
Zoey was immediately grabbed by an exited Athena in a big hug that swept her off her feet. She couldn't help but smile at Athena's happy excitement. She was clearly happy that Zoey had agreed to join their group. Sethrii on the other hand just waited patiently until they separated and calmed down a little before she continued.
"Let me see your hand Zoey."
Zoey rolled up her left sleeve and presented her arm to Sethrii as asked, presumably for the process of becoming an arbiter. She couldn't deny she was a little excited about it. Sethrii lightly laid her fingers onto Zoey's tattoo and closed her eyes. A moment later Zoey felt a warm magical energy flowing into her body. Zoey also closed her eyes as this took place, letting the process complete its work.
When the Sethrii's magical energy reached Zoey's inner world and gently dripped into her essence lake for the first time, Sethrii's eyes flew open in astonishment. Shock and surprise was clear on her face, and Athena was the only one to see it as Zoey was still in a trance from the process. Athena was alarmed when she noticed Sethrii's expression, but after Sethii collected herself and quietly assured her that everything was OK, she calmed down. Only Sethrii knew what had given her that shock, and for now, the goddess of the Exta universe would keep that to herself.
Maybe one day soon, she would get to see something amazing bloom from this young flower called Zoey.