The effect was immediate. The air around Randidly suddenly felt thin and transparent. His awareness blasted outward, swirling around him like a maelstrom of invisible currents that swam and spiraled erratically as they dragged against monsters and landmarks that surrounded him.
Randidly’s eyes flashed emerald. Even though he wasn’t relying on either Aether Detection or Infinite Fingers of Yggdrasil to sense in the surrounding area, he still now possessed a very detailed picture of the environment in the surrounding hundred meters. So detailed, in fact, that Randidly couldn’t help but shake his head wryly.
Honestly, it’s good that I made this decision to pair it with my extremely high Control. Otherwise, it would be extremely difficult to manage all the information that is being fed into me from this new Perception… I probably should also make sure to put some more points into Intelligence as well, so I can parse apart all the signals that I’m receiving…
It became apparent very quickly that his new Grim Intuition was so good that it was somewhat overwhelming to be on the receiving end of it constantly. But there didn’t seem to be any way of diminishing it… so Randidly would need to get used to it. Taking long breaths, Randidly stopped trying to handle each bit of information that flowed into him and simply rode the wave of sights and sounds.
Some of the tension left his shoulders.
What is within, without. What is without, within. And now I can finally see both sides at the same time…
The monsters seemed to be wreathed in bloody light. The normal animals had the distinctive taste of dirt and plants hanging around them. There were no people, but Randidly anticipated that the aura he sensed from them would be the most complex of all.
And this was just the normal examination. When he would focus on people, it was undoubtedly going to be even more difficult to maintain his focus. Perhaps heading to a battlefield was exactly what he needed. There wouldn’t be any complicated layers of intentions for Randidly to peel apart there; most people would just want to kill him.
And what a relief it will be to not need to worry about all these forces conspiring against me. Not even against me, but against my company and the people I’m trying to protect.
Randidly pressed his eyes closed and sighed.
All I will need to do is battle… just like the training with the Order Ducis, it will be a mental break that’s definitely needed. I’ve been so focused on Engraving and images to strengthen myself for too long…
Randidly’s temple twitched as an image sprung unbidden to the forefront of his mind.
Lyra, her violet eyes flashing, her small fists clenched and pressed to her sides. Her glare burning a hole in his forehead. Demanding that he stop using the screen of necessity to avoid thinking about the things that he wanted.
Yet sitting alone on the vast grasslands with his Grim Intuition swirling around him, Randidly found an answer in his heart. A heavy answer that he found in the Grim Chimera’s defiant roar to the overcast sky.
After licking his lips, Randidly spoke to the air with a lifted chin so his eyes were on the clouds, as though he didn’t want to see the words after they left his mouth. “I want… to make sure no one has to become a monster as I’ve done to seize control of their own destiny. I want to build a world where people will be safe.”
With a heavy sort of reluctance, Randidly looked down at his own calloused hands. Although he made some grand and self-righteous statements about knowing how many lives he had ended or destroyed with his own hands, that was hubris. Randidly didn’t know any longer how many beings he killed. And he couldn’t avoid the knowledge that those many slain monsters were just desperate and starved individuals from worlds that had been consumed by the System.
To grow as strong as he had, he had feasted on the flesh of the dead. He had consumed the corpses of heroes and even Patrons. He had piled their bodies into a pyramid that he was now using to ascend toward the Nexus to demand the long-owed blood-soaked vengeance.
Randidly blinked. He reached up in wonder to touch his cheek. When he pulled his hand away, a glistening tear sat fat and useless on his finger. Smiling bitterly, Randidly flicked his hand away and discarded the tear. “…it’s not like I didn’t know where I was heading, even at the beginning. Shal made sure I was very aware of what I was becoming. But to look back at it all now… No matter how many graves I dug along the Hallat, it was nowhere near enough to hold all the lives that I’ve ended to get here.”
The Grim Chimera condensed next to Randidly in that field, its limbs warped and twisted. It’s one arm was a spear of bone and the other was a claw covered in dried blood. Proud and defiant, it roared to the sky. Dark clouds began to gather overhead. As Randidly stared intently at his images, a crack of thunder and fork of lightning lit up the afternoon sky above them.
Randidly reached out and touched the parchment-like skin stretched over his image’s skull. “I told myself when you were formed that your physical appearance was because of the lingering touch of the Patron of Ash, but… that wasn’t true, was it?”
Another bolt of lightning split the sky, so close that the thunder arrived at the same time.
“You… you look this way because this is what I think about myself. About what I’ve become. You are the monster I’m afraid to see in the mirror.”
The thin skin around the skull of the Grim Chimera ripped underneath Randidly’s probing fingers. A cool wind blew and pulled away the flaking skin in large chunks. After thirty seconds, enough skin had been removed that features began to come into focus. But still, more and more skin flaked and was pulled away.
After a couple more gusts of wind, a dark smudge of hair could be seen. Then the clear shape of a nose. Next was a sharp and prominent jaw covered by a short layer of stubble.
Randidly reached up and gripped the flaking skin and simply tore the rest off, sending dead cells flurrying outward like a sudden snowstorm. Then he released a breath until his lungs were so empty they trembled.
He looked at his own face, staring stoically back at him. The only difference between them was that the eyes were pure black, like coal and the deep dark places hidden within the bowels of the Earth. The Grim Chimera used Randidly’s face to smile viciously at him. The teeth were gleaming and white and filled with hunger and violence.
Randidly shivered. Suddenly he was tired. Far more tired than he had even been even after spending half a dozen hours Engraving over the whole of the moving city. But this was not exhaustion that stemmed from his effort. No, this was something that originated from a truth that Randidly had spent quite a long time avoiding. To face it after so long was a relief in a way, but it also made all the distractions and justifications that Randidly had used to avoid facing this truth seem pointless.
And nothing was more exhausting than futility.
What do I want, Lyra…?
“I want to not have to do this,” Randidly said softly. “I don’t want to be the one who needs to sacrifice himself in order to protect the Earth. I don’t…. Goddamnit. But there’s just no one else-”
There was a ripple in the air and suddenly Neveah was there, standing next to Randidly. For a split second, he froze, horrified that she had come here, now, and seen the Grim Chimera for what it was: not an imagined creature designed for power, but the own true state of Randidly’s soul.
But then Randidly brittlely smiled. From Neveah, hiding something like this was almost impossible. Although they had both been too occupied by their individual tasks over the past several months, each could read the other’s emotions. So she had known, Randidly had no doubt. And now, she was likely here to comfort him-
Neveah kicked Randidly in the chest. He was so surprised that after he was knocked to the ground, Randidly spent several seconds staring up at the sky rather than getting back up.
Neveah came and crouched next to him. Her bone teeth clicked together as she shook her head. “It’s a hard truth, what violence has done to you. But don’t go getting all mopey when I was born like this,” Neveah pointed to her skull of stark bone with a maw lined with razor-sharp teeth that she had inherited from the Bone Wyrm. “Ever since I came into the world, this is the only face that has been truly mine… does that mean I’m a monster?”
Sighing, Randidly got to his feet and rubbed the back of his head. “…I suppose it’s too much to expect that you came here to comfort me. I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ve been hiding this truth from myself, but you-”
“No, that is
why I’m here.” Neveah took a step forward. For a second, Randidly thought he was going to receive another kick, but instead Neveah spread her bony and horned arms and pulled him into an embrace. When he gasped in surprise, he smelled the scent of peat and rot wafting up from her; it seemed her work in the Toad world hadn’t ceased.
Neveah pulled back to an arm’s length away and regarded Randidly steadily. “Know that you will never be alone again when you face your demons. We are bound, Randidly Ghosthound. Never forget that. And because we are bound… remember this; that girl-child Lyra was more insightful than you give her credit for. Because no matter how monstrous you look… it is not our forms that define us. It is our desires.”
Randidly clenched his hands so hard that his metallic limb began to emit groaning complaints. “And what does it say about me that my deepest desire is to cast aside all the momentum I’ve built up and shirk the responsibility I bear?”
“That was your fear talking.” Neveah leaned forward and butted her head sharply against Randidly’s. Randidly was rather annoyed by how much it hurt. “When you hide away your internal fears so long, is it any wonder they warp your desires? Do not take it to heart. I know your desires just as well as you do. And it is not to run away from the monsters that rule this fucked up System.”
Randidly felt it too, at that moment. Even when he had faced that image of his own monstrous actions in the past, he had not cried or mourned. Perhaps that made it even worse, but what he had pictured was himself using those broken and rotten bodies to build something.
Something that would let him strike back.
For several seconds, they stood like that with their heads resting against each other. Randidly closed his eyes. “I don’t know what I would do without you, you know. We don’t interact much, but when I need you-”
“You would have died without me. Many times.” Neveah said bluntly. She leaned back so their foreheads were no longer touching. A strangely guilty expression came across her face. “Of course… I cannot deny that I’ve… uh… also caused you a fair share of problems…”
Randidly grinned at her as he recalled her using his own body to become engaged to a pop singer. “I’m glad that I didn’t need to be the one to bring it up. It’s good to see you have grown enough to own your mistakes.”
“Hmph. Well, I have learned by watching you, to be fair.” Then Neveah shook her head. “Also… I wanted to be here in person, just to say goodbye. I do not know what this Judgment will mean, but I’m worried. If something were to happen to you-”
“I know. Same with me.” Randidly punched Neveah’s arm lightly. “So be careful with the Toad world while I’m gone. Whatever exists in there… its control of Aether is sublime. Even for you, who has such an instinctive understanding of Aether, it will undoubtedly be dangerous.”
“Heh, I’ve actually learned much by studying the Aether of that realm,” Neveah said smugly. “You may be able to create letters with the Aether to cause your will to persist… but in terms of shaping raw Aether, none can match me. Not even this shadowy toad.”
Randidly smiled but didn’t bother to call Neveah out on her boast. There didn’t really seem to be any point. Instead, Randidly began to stretch. “So, for old times sake… since I’ll be heading away soon… maybe a little light exercise?”
“Truly, while I’ve been gone you’ve become cocky. I’ve learned many Skills in the Toad World. I’m no longer simply a powerful juggernaut. Watch as I run circles around you with my finesse.” Neveah cracked her bony knuckles.
Barring his teeth, Randidly said. “That’s exactly why I want to fight you. Show me what you’ve learned. Do you think I haven’t grown? I’ve spent a year in a Dungeon. It’s time to teach you a lesson for relying on your raw Stats to bully me in the past.”
Perhaps because she had inherited the body of a Raid Boss, Neveah had always had Stats that were truly mind-boggling. Even though Randidly’s growth in that area was monstrous, she was likely four hundred or so Stat points ahead of him in Strength, Vitality, Endurance, and Resistance. Attacking her felt like a normal person using his barefoot to try and cut down a tree.
But with the completion of his Physique of the Grim Chimera, Randidly wanted to test how his new body and Grim Intuition felt in battle. Plus, his new Skill Catalyst of Agony would slowly help Randidly narrow the gap between their physical capabilities if he could gain some Skill Levels.
With an almost regal sort of pride, the long and bare wings of bone spread out from Neveah’s broad back. “Fine then. Let me remind you of the difference between us.”
Randidly shook his head. “You’ve spent too much fucking time pretending to be a Demon King.”
Then they both moved, and the ground around them shuddered and buckled like a collapsing building.