It was four days before the arrival of the promised Judgment that Lyra finally returned, bearing as innocent smile as she came for her Class. She cut through the bustle of construction that surrounding Randidly and appeared within his workshop more quickly than Randidly’s distracted senses could follow.
Which, of course, was not the way to put Randidly in a good mood.
“You are late,” Randidly said shortly as he set aside the bracer he had been steadily Engraving over the last hour. His tone was sharp, but he knew that it wasn’t truly anything to do with Lyra. She might have rather flippantly used some of her abilities as a Village Spirit to move, but that wasn’t a reason for him to grit his teeth like this.
No, Randidly was constantly grinding his teeth because he felt so close to figuring out how to manage the Levelable Engraving and yet he couldn’t manage it. No matter how much Randidly relied on All Else Succumbs, Yet Time Whirls the Earth, there was a limit he couldn’t seem to overcome.
It had been almost two days of constant Engraving, while Ghost and his mechanical spider drones that Randidly had Erickson Steel producing handled the lion’s share of the final construction work. Even now, the scuttled in the dark tunnels beneath the compound, assembling the bones of the being that would soon come into existence. Their industriousness was exactly what the project needed to come in within his time limit.
Yet, in Randidly’s mind, his Levelable Engraving had become a keystone of the project. Without it, there would be little difference between the Erickson Steel compound and the flying city that drifted above the Royal Sea. There was still plenty of time to go into a Dungeon if it proved ultimately necessary, but Randidly still didn’t wish to rely on more time to brute force the issue.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed.
But what I don’t need right now is a lengthy distraction… Hopefully, Lyra will be on her best behavior today.
Lyra inclined her head and agreed. Which was a good start, for her. “So I am. But… you’ve been busy, right? I wanted to wait until you had spare time. However… it seems like you aren’t getting the results you want correct? And I knew you would still wish to know what became of Shal, so I chose to step forward anyway.”
Randidly swallowed the previously prepared acidic reply he had been preparing. It was obvious that Lyra was making an effort to be civil, and he should respond in kind. Some of the tight ball of frustration that had been hissing in his chest finally dissipated. Sighing, Randidly stood.
Of course, it was never about Lyra. It was about Shal and learning more about the System. This… should take long. This will be worth it.
After sending a message to Nathan, Randidly cracked his knuckles. “Fine then, let’s begin immediately. I don’t have much time to spare.”
Lyra kept her smile in place, even if Randidly’s words felt like a hammer against her heart.
“Fine then, let’s begin.” How did things go so wrong…?
With her ribs as the steel bars of a cage, the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ couldn’t manage to escape their tight prison. So Lyra did the same thing she had done for almost two years in regards to Randidly. She wrapped her role more tightly around herself than ever.
“Is there anything I need to do to prepare for our connection?” Lyra the Village Spirit asked in a light voice. Through exposure to the inner workings of the System, Lyra’s familiarity with Aether had skyrocketed over the past few years. Although she was completely bewildered by the complex Engravings that Randidly had inscribed onto the many bracers lay half-forgotten around his workshop, Lyra was confident that no human understood the shape of the System better than she did.
Randidly Ghosthound included.
And yet, the things that Randidly Ghosthound could accomplish with the Aether Crossroads inside of himself turned everything that Lyra understood on its head. That was why his existence had been able to turn all of the hitherto cast-in-stone rules of the System on their head. That was why even the Creature grew fascinated with him.
That was why this whole divide started,
Lyra thought sadly.
Just like with me, you showed Yystrix a magic she had never seen before. Is it truly so hard to understand that she lost herself in her excitement…?
“No, just come over. The connection part is simple.” Randidly beckoned, his irritation clear in the tight line of his mouth.
Lyra walked over with light steps, wondering how a Village Spirit should walk. Being raised from a young age to be the perfect actress, Lyra the human had been taught many ways of walking. A seductive sway. A joyous skip. A depressed slouch. An elegant glide. A business-like march. An athletic lope.
Maybe that was why she had found it so reassuring to become the Village Spirit. Suddenly she had a role to play; her small emotions quickly drowned in the function that she was currently serving. Much easier to bury herself in the expectations of others than to really look at the mess that her ascension to Village Spirit had left in its wake.
Easier still when Yystrix had replaced her to become closer to Randidly. She had a face and a soul but those things had been cut off; she had only been a pretty doll to be posed and played with. Just like Lyra remembered from her childhood.
It had been so easy, too. For both of them were endlessly fascinated by what Randidly could accomplish, even if their ultimate goals didn’t align.
But I can’t be those things any longer.
Lyra’s heart was pounding.
If I’m just a Village Spirit… he will keep hating me. I have to be me… I have to stop running. Because you, Randidly, are the reason that I… realized I wanted to live. Which is exactly why I couldn’t let you doom the Earth. And you are also the reason… that I have one more mission remaining from the Creature that I will fulfill no matter what.
And yet, such thoughts were ultimately useless. There was only one important thought as Lyra without her role continued forward
…how should I walk? What sort of steps does Lyra the human take.
Randidly glanced impatiently up at Lyra. Just beyond an arm’s length away from Randidly, Lyra stopped her rather awkward gait and looked intently at him. “I… I just want you to know, I won’t ever use this connection to hurt you. I swear it on my life. I swear it on the existence of the Earth.”
From the bottom of her heart, Lyra wished to make things right with Randidly. He had shown her magic, had transformed the world from a dollhouse to a place of wonder and splendor that was worth cherishing. But that transformation also meant that Lyra dearly cherished this world. So much so that she had turned her back on Randidly when Yystrix demonstrated how hopeless it was to fight directly against the System.
To her solemn vow, Randidly replied with a bunched eyebrow look of disgust that someone would give the maggots they found at the bottom of their too-old can of trash. It was an expression that said he didn’t believe her; how could he believe her, after all that she had done.
Lyra’s smile became increasingly strained and hollow.
How proud you are, Randidly Ghosthound. Did you truly expect me to choose to believe in you when there was so much evidence to the contrary? When I had experienced first hand how powerful the Yystrix is? The fate of your lovely world was at stake. IS at stake. I just-
Randidly reached out and touched her shoulder. And Lyra couldn’t breathe for a split second. Randidly had… reached out to her?
“Alright it’s done,” Randidly said simply. His arm dropped back to his side. After cracking his neck, he walked over to a side table and poured himself a glass of water. “It will take a few minutes for Nathan to get over here. Now that you have a source of Aether, it should be easy for him to make you a Class. After that, you owe me an explanation”
Lyra pivoted away from Randidly slowly like a weather vane nosed North by a strange wind. She wasn’t sure what her face was doing. It felt so heavy and stiff. There was a buzzing in her ears. So she turned her attention inward and felt carefully around the highly organized internal Aether constructs that were her constant state of existence. Most of her Soulspace was filled with the dense script of Aether with which the System was built.
And there, at the corner, was the small area where her human self hadn’t been completely consumed by the rules of a Village Spirit. It was that strange, almost misplaced portion of herself that had given Lyra the idea of giving herself a Class in the first place. It was that portion of herself, Lyra liked to believe, that still believed this world was a beautiful place.
It now had a small trickle of Aether dribbling in to congregate in that area. Unlike the bright violet color of the System’s Aether, this Aether was a much more innocuous thing. It was almost translucent, but it was filled with motes of gold, emerald, and black. The new Aether spread slowly in constantly shifting shapes through the available area, almost exploring.
In her Soulspace, the Aether flowed toward the small tendril of Lyra will that she had sent out questing toward this strange new energy. And it responded instantly, swirling around her will and forming a kaleidoscope of light and warmth.
A tear rolled down Lyra’s cheek.
That’s me. I have… a part that’s me.
“I-I can tell you about Shal now,” Lyra volunteered without turning around. “While we wait. I trust… I trust you won’t back out now that we’ve come this far.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Randidly said rather gruffly.
The tear had rolled down over her cheekbones, past her lips, to settle on Lyra’s chin. It hung there, stubbornly sticking to her jaw. Desperately, Lyra wanted to reach up and wipe the tear away. But she simultaneously didn’t want to stop being the girl who was crying and didn’t want Randidly to notice that she was the girl who was crying.
It truly is a terribly selfish thing I’ve done, isn’t it?
Lyra wasn’t trembling. She was just standing still and looking away from Randidly and listening to the small noises that his bare feet made against the ground.
And yet that’s what being human means to me, I suppose…
So she spoke into the air to keep the terrible silence from hanging between them. “You should have heard about it within the Dungeon… but the System is a machine designed for war. Overcoming the Second Calamity demonstrates a depth of strength that finally means you might be valuable to the Nexus… so you are given the opportunity to prove yourself. That is the challenge that Shal attempted.
“The details are rather simple; at least as far as the current rules go. You fight the preserved spirit of ten fellow challengers who also failed. Such is the cost you pay by attempting it, that a portion of you be preserved to test future generations.
“Shal ultimately failed the test, but he was rewarded for what he was accomplished. He defeated eight of those that failed previously. You can think of this reward as receiving a commission in the army; when he eventually is taken to the front lines to fight against Nether… he will have subordinates. Representatives from other worlds who will fight under his direction.”
Randidly sighed audibly. And when he spoke, it was clear that most of his antagonism toward her had been forgotten for the moment. “That’s a relief. Heh, so even Shal wasn’t good enough for the System, huh? That probably means I have my work cut out for me. Do you know how they preserve a portion of you for the future?”
Lyra knew what Randidly was wondering. Whether he would be able to attempt the challenge without revealing to the higher-ups in the System what he was. “Unfortunately, I do not know.”
On this one thing, at least, both Randidly and Yystrix agreed; giving the System unfettered access to another Aether Crossroads was not something that could ever be allowed to happen.
Which was exactly the last mission that Yystrix had given Lyra before that ancient being had disappeared from Earth. Which was at least half of the reason that Lyra had gone to so much trouble for the information about Shal to tempt Randidly. Which was the final lie that squirmed in Lyra’s stomach like a suicidal tapeworm.
If we are connected like this… I can find you no matter where you are.
Another tear wound its way down from Lyra’s eye to slowly traverse her cheek.
So that if the System ever discovers you and tries to control what you hold in your chest… I can kill you.
Even as Lyra tried to put words to this horrifying truth, her mouth remained still. Because Lyra could see the terrible accusation that would be waiting in his eyes if Lyra revealed this last secret: that Lyra was working against Randidly with the Creature.
But was that really the case? Lyra was just… insurance for the worst.
“…there is one more thing,” Lyra said softly. Her mind pushed away that secret and refocused on the information she meant to give Randidly.
Lead with the good news, then follow with the bad.
“There was a… change, for Shal’s world. Unfortunately, even I don’t know the details. I can only tell what I was able to discern from investigating directly… it seems that after the challenge, Shal has gone under the wing of someone very powerful within the Nexus. And because of that… Tellus is proceeding directly to the Fourth Calamity, completely skipping the Third.”
“What…?” Randidly asked.
Lyra shook her head slightly. She felt a slight movement on her chin; the tear was still stubbornly hanging there. Its twin had bypassed her cheek and was now hurrying to join the first. So Lyra didn’t turn around. “Even I… am unaware of the particulars of the Fourth Calamity. It is essentially the recruitment, as far as I can tell. I am… I don’t know more. But what I did learn was the name of the individual who oversaw Shal’s challenge. The same individual who interceded on behalf of Tellus.
“His name is Illeot Swacc. In the Nexus, he is referred to as the Duplicator.”