After their afternoon sparring session, Vye lied on the packed dirt of the arena and distantly considered the sensation of blood drying on her face. It itched, as the moisture was sucked out of the crimson liquid by the low hanging sun. Which left Vye with only the scent of iron and her thoughts.
Number three, huh… it definitely must not be from sparring. I’m average at best in the fights; I lose as much as I win. And I might have worked for Erickson Steel, but that was only for a short time. So then, my points probably come from…
Image evaluations. From walking stupidly toward that strange being that lives within the cloud of ash…
When she had first seen her ranking, Vye had been rather dubious. She had a very anxiety-inducing worry that perhaps Garret had been right about Randidly’s… motivations for inviting her somewhere alone. And now he was putting his thumb to assist her more directly, perhaps…?
Of course, she didn’t think that was true at all, but in a paranoia induced frenzy of thoughts, she didn’t think it was impossible. She likely would have continued on that downward spiral if she hadn’t the presence of mind to notice that no one else seemed shocked by her ranking. Several people even offered her congratulations. So Vye began to consider.
Scraps of conversations floated back to her. A few complaints that she had overheard about how difficult the image stones were to approach, that were then abruptly cut off as she had walked closer and the speaker had noticed her. At the time, Vye had thought it was just people trying to prevent her from overhearing their secrets. Vye didn’t mind that. After all, there were several cliques appearing in the Order Ducis training camp.
Part of it was natural friendships, but part of it was that Naffur had mentioned offhandedly once that each new initiate into the Order would be able to have two direct assistants that were acknowledged by the Order Ducis. Therefore, the groupings took on a rather political edge as some of the less successful applicants tried to curry favor.
Still, Vye didn’t plan on getting involved in that. She had considered herself a work in progress, in terms of results in the training camp. She had improved, certainly, but so had everyone else. She wasn’t mesmerizing anyone with her combat ability.
But at rank 3…
In addition to the strange conversations she had overheard, Vye remembered the expression on Garrett’s face when she had stated she didn’t want to know how far she had proceeded toward the Image Stone. Also, the words Edith spoke as she had regained consciousness lingered in her mind.
“Now, now, no need to be so upset. If this sort of result is unsatisfactory, you’ll make the rest of us blush.”
“So that’s it, huh,” Vye said softly. “I guess images are something… that I’m good at…?”
The sharp shout had Vye scrambling up to her feet on instinct beaten into her over the last month. Ajax, their instructor for the combat sparring, was striding over toward her. Although Vye had gotten over the fact that he was an anthropomorphic cockroach, the repeated beatings that Vye and all of the other members of the Order Ducis training group suffered at his hands was enough to keep the fear she held toward him very real.
He stopped only an arm’s length away and considered her.
Vye clenched her jaw.
I refuse to flinch. He may have mouth mandibles, but he’s still a normal person.
“Oh good,” Ajax said lightly. “I was worried I had beaten you unconscious. Good effort today, you are improving. But, you’ve been requested. As the current leader in the Image Evaluations… you will receive a small reward. Proceed to the command tent immediately. You won’t be given a break before the Raid today, so be quick about it.”
Around her, several previously boneless bodies propped themselves up on their elbows to watch Vye hurriedly limp away. Vye could practically see how their ears perked up at the mention of a reward. The memory of the “ultimate” reward that could be reached by touching one of the Image Stones was still fresh in their minds. Now, as a minor reward was mentioned, they wondered what it could mean.
It wouldn’t be a break day, but if it was even just a meal they didn’t have to inhale on their way to another battle?
As Vye walked out from the arena, she could practically hear the small gears in their heads turning.
If touching the stone is worth a break day… what will she receive by being the closest…?
Perhaps Vye shouldn’t get too comfortable on top of the Image Evaluations. If the reward was good enough, she knew that most people would throw themselves at the Image Stones with renewed vigor.
By the time Vye arrived at the command tent, she had imagined dozens of possible awards that she might be receiving. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a full day, but if she would get even a little bit of the day to spend just by herself…
Well, I’d just sleep. But still…
The prospect had Vye salivating. Non-necessary resting felt like something from a day-dream.
Which was why she hastily wiped her mouth when she walked into the tent and saw Randidly Ghosthound sitting there. She froze like a groundhog caught rustling in the bushes by a bear.
Randidly looked up sharply and then smiled. “Ah… you’re the one with the strongest images? I should have guessed, with your-”
“I’m so sorry!” Vye blurted out, bowing at a 90-degree angle to Randidly. She had assumed that Naffur would be the one to award her the reward. But for Randidly to have made the trip out to the Order Ducis base himself…
Vye peaked up at him, then resumed her downward stare toward the ground. Not that she owed him anything… but as her boss, both in Erickson Steel and the Order Ducis, it was simultaneously tue that she owed him absolutely everything. It was exactly because Randidly took a proactive attitude toward the borderlands that she had been rescued and was brought to Erickson Steel.
If Randidly hadn’t worked together with teams working out of the Orchard to help with the expanding borderlands, thousands of people including Vye would be dead.
Vye bit her lips as she looked at the thin green carpet that had been laid out to cover the packed dirt ground. “I… you asked me to come to meet you after your speech, but I simply wasn’t able to. So… I’m sorry if you waited for me.”
“…really, it’s fine. No need to bow. I’ve found that these things… have a way of working out for the best. Choices have a way of panning out so that things happen at the right time.”
Hearing that Randidly’s tone was relatively cool and civil, Vye straightened and looked at the man who was an engine that made all of her experiences with the System possible. Currently, he was sitting in a canvas chair while idly making a small knife dance across the fingers of his metallic arm. In the low candlelight of the tent interior, both the knife and the gleaming ridges of Randidly’s arm reflected small glints of light.
And Randidly was smiling at her, seemingly somewhat bemused. Whether it was at her bowing or what she said, Vye didn’t know, but her secret paranoias had some ideas.
Vye purposefully repressed her urge to flush with embarrassment.
Ugh, of course he wasn’t just WAITING for you that night. He’s the busiest man in the world! He was probably spending the entire night working on that new training facility that the Order Ducis leadership keeps whispering about… and it must really be something if they aren’t even willing to tell us the details…
“So,” Randidly said lightly. “If you don’t mind me asking… why couldn’t you make it? If you don’t want to answer, that’s fine. I’ll just give you the reward for having the best response to images and then I’ll be on my way.”
“Ah, I don’t mind telling you. It’s just… more strange than anything else.” Vye shrugged. Reflexively, her left hand clenched. “My… hand hurt. Quite badly. There is… a weird scarring, from one of my Skills and it aches now when I use it. But after I met you… I remembered something my grandmother told me. She was the one who… taught me about the Skill that damaged my hand.
“And she always said that everything has a price. So after performing the ritual, there should be an offering to even our debt to the world. I thought I would have time to head back to my tent and do the offering while the festival was dying down… but I just spaced out during the offering. When I came to, four hours had passed, and by that time I needed to go back to training.”
Tapping his cheek with a finger, Randidly studied Vye. “Huh. Interesting. You lost track of time while you were doing the offering? And let me guess; when you came to, the pain was gone and you had gained several Skill Levels.”
Vye’s eyes widened. “…yea. I’m not sure where that instinct came from… but it felt right. Feels right. And I was rewarded for following, so I cannot say I regret missing our meeting. There’s still so much I don’t know about the System, so every time I learn something new, it’s valuable.”
“No, I understand. I would encourage you to follow those feelings in the future.” Randidly cracked his neck. Vye’s mouth twisted; she always got the chills when someone so casually cracked their neck like that. It got under her skin somehow.
It would certainly be an anticlimactic end for Randidly Ghosthound to pinch a nerve and die…
Then Randidly chewed his lip in thought for several seconds before saying. “Before I give you the gift, can I see your hand? Specifically, the scarred place where the Skill marked you?”
Immediately, Vye wanted to say no. Mostly because her hand looked like a leper’s, and no matter how progressive and self-aware Randidly Ghosthound was, it would be hard for him to set aside the sight of her warped and feverish flesh whenever he thought about her in the future. And then another part of Vye snidely asked why she cared at all how he would think about her in the future and a third part of Vye interrupted by pointing out that there was no harm in the gesture.
So she slowly unwound the bandages she had wrapped around her left hand and offered her limb to Randidly. To her surprise, he didn’t touch it immediately. Instead, he leaned over and looked at the inflamed ridges and deep scaring very carefully. His emerald eyes were only a few inches from her hand, but he squinted and studied it with a powerful intensity.
Then Randidly leaned back and rubbed the back of his head. With his human arm, he reached out and brushed his fingers across the scar left by the Ritual. Vye flinched instinctively, but Randidly’s hands were surprisingly soft. It was hard to believe these were the calloused hands of a warrior. After he had traced the entirety of the Ritual with his fingers, Vye felt a flood of warmth to her hand.
At first, she was rather alarmed at the prospect that the touch had caused her to activate the Ritual subconsciously. The last thing she needed right now was to blast Randidly backward with a Reject.
Although, if it’s him, will he notice my Skill hitting him at all…?
But as Vye focused on the spot where their hands were touching, she realized that it wasn’t her Ritual that was activating; Randidly’s hand was wreathed in emerald fire.
“I could heal this, if you want,” Randidly said softly. And as he spoke, Vye felt the cleansing warmth drifting down into her ruined hand. “However… you would lose a lot of the power you have now. This ritual… created a space in your hand. Something… isolated from the rest of you. That’s why it’s so painful. But it’s possible… to heal it, if that’s what you want.”