After the world shifted, the first thing that Randidly became aware of was a thin, constant buzz in the air. The shock of light made it difficult for his eyes to adjust, but a high Perception and Vitality quickly overcame that. A scan around informed him that the portal location was made next to Sam’s old workshop, which had been further upgraded in his absence.
Indeed, Randidly’s quick glance showed that the whole area had gone through huge changes, moving towards a strange psuedo-industrialization. Still, the air was thick with ambient Aether, which acted like a smoke screen of sorts, keeping the vision of those around him, and outside of the teleportal formation, too, obscured, and just a little bit foggy.
So Randidly had time to slip away, which he was all in favor of. Sure, meeting the people here in Donnyton was important, for dozens of reasons, but they could all wait a bit, and there was some Aether experimentation items that Randidly believed he could accomplish on his own. Honestly, the only thing that he needed to be present for was Thea using the Stone of Fate, but-
Randidly froze, finally laying his eyes on the source of the buzzing noise.
Hunched over Donnyton, floating in the air like the pallor of a sick man, was a huge, swirling construct of Aether. Instantly, when seeing it, it was clear that this was not a common thing for the System, but a strange, dangerous apparatus erected by Randidly’s most hated enemy, the Creature.
What it was there for, and how it was created were on the back burner, but Randidly knew that this was a rare chance to both investigate the habits and thoughts of the Creature, while it was to the North in the Raid Dungeon, and also increase the proficiency in his Aether Skills.
The Aether formations were most dense at the center, where they spread slowly out in a strange circle of overlapping, spinning spheres. There was a …. spine, of sorts, to the apparatus, but it extended upwards, into the sky, seeming to cause the thing to hang from the clouds. From the outer edges of the spheres, a thick, Aether composed mist spun lazily, and long thin cords of Aether stretched downward, draping over the town.
They looked eerily like tentacles, falling down and touching the people of Donnyton. It made Randidly shiver with fear. What… what the fuck is this…? What was the Creature doing to
Fury flooded his body, eating away at any hesitation, and Randidly leapt directly into the air, heading for this grotesque frankenstein of Aether. He headed towards the thin tentacles, which resolved themselves into very tightly woven, dense Aether runes. These tentacles were definitely more complicated than simple drapery. There was a purpose here. But scan them as he might, Randidly couldn’t make even the slightest dent into the dense artistry of them.
He could only slowly pull himself up towards the thing above him, intently staring at his goal, even while Lucretia was taking furious notes, trying to study every facet of what he held.
It was huge, almost as big as Donnyton was, and when he pulled himself into it, Randidly felt the world shift from pure Aether, and he found himself in what appeared to be a stone castle. The switch was a harsh one, swimming in that Aether mist, grabbing onto thin lines of Aether, stepping into an opening, to this…
As Randidly looked, wide-eyed, his Skills activating, he could still see the underlying Aether, but the way it was arranged tricked his normal senses into believing in the castle. There were walls, torches, hallways, doorways… He could see every grain of the wooden trim around the window, where he had just entered the area.
Even his bare feet, pressed against the cold stone, couldn’t find a flaw in the illusion.
That was… slightly disturbing. Which meant that without this Skill, he couldn’t have been able to tell in the past had he been in something constructed out of Aether…
Which made Randidly freeze, because he realized it was entirely possible that he was currently in something completely composed of Aether, at a more fundamental level, but he wasn’t able to tell due to his low Skill Level. All in all… it just made him more wary of the Creature. This was an old thing; something that had enough experience to know all the true uses of Aether. It was not just fuel for Skills…
It could be used as the fabric of a world.
Still, this might be his only chance to move against the Creature without repercussion, while it was distracted to the North. Even though there was only a small chance that it was truly distracted, Randidly had to take it. He couldn’t keep letting it dictate his decisions. And the best way to fight that was to eliminate the information disparity between them.
Slowly, Randidly explored this castle, finding potions, weapons, floating sigils, large chambers with huge constructs of clockwork, portals…
Every elaborate doorway and nuanced detail on the upholstery spoke of a being far above Randidly’s level. Even Lucretia was nonplussed at what they found, and Neveah, whose physical body was far away, couldn’t really make heads or tails of it from afar. It was layered Aether, where each layer was a order of magnitude higher than Randidly could understand.
And the layers interacted with each other, playing off of one another, giving life to the illusion that Randidly found himself so disturbed by.
Eventually though, Randidly found the door he wanted. Reaching for the iron ring, his hand trembled, his eyes scanning the worn metal, which had clearly been used often, probably by the Creature. Which added a whole dimension of confusion, because Randidly couldn’t figure out
it would use this strange manifestation of Aether, rather than interacting with the Aether directly. But then the trembling stopped, and Randidly moved his hand forward, and opened the door.
In the room, there was a wide pool of water, a dirty floor around it, and stone steps leading up in every direction from the water to the walls. She was lying there on the ground, almost draped across the stone steps, light from the bumbling pool of water swimming across her, her eyes half closed. But the lashes fluttered when he opened the door, and she sat up, her blonde hair, almost to her mid back now, shifted to cover her face.
Her mouth, the only part of her visible, twisted in irritation, and she brushed the hair out of her face. She managed this with surprising grace, despite the fact her hands were bound together with iron loops. Her hair seemed to settle perfectly after that, half revealing her sharp, but decidedly feminine features. Her smile was soft and tragic.
“Took you long enough,” Lyra said, her violet blue eyes glittering in the darkness.
“I’m not very good at being a hero.” Randidly said, his mouth twitching in a grin, all of the happy banter flooding back to him, all of the heated moments and pointless fights. Their conflicts were brief and bright, and they brought him a certain… something, that he relied on, even now. A certain perspective, perhaps, that kept him balanced.
“But really…” Randidly said, his face twisting further, into a self deprecating grin as his eyes used his Aether Detection to scan the strange cell. “I’m a much better hero than you are a damsel.”
Lyra grinned, waggling her fingers at him, and the runes on the iron loops darkened, and then the metal fell to pieces, her hands instantly free. “I’m an actor, Doggy. I play my roles. Just because I can manage to do a little more with my screen time, doesn’t mean I can ignore the director.”
“You never struck me as the type that took instruction.” Randidly said, shaking his head, and stepping slowly down the steps towards her. She was small, almost smaller than he remembered, and she simply sat and watched as he approached.
“What I don’t accept is baseless criticism.” Lyra said dryly, holding up her hand. Her skin was just above bone white, settling on a soft ivory color. Twisting his mouth, Randidly stretched out his hand and grabbed hers. It was likely just the time she had spent kept here, but the skin coloring… did not leave him with a good taste in his mouth. But Randidly supposed that was just another sin to lay at the Creature’s feet.
His hand, for sure, was larger than hers, and calloused from two years holding a spear for every second. Although he had originally been almost as pale as she had been, those same two years had been spent outdoors. Now it seemed that his Vitality prevented any sunburns, but he had definitely tanned to settle on a warm bronze.
She was as light and as beautiful as a white lily as he helped her stand. Randidly knew that she was taking most of the weight on her own, but still, he appreciated that she had let him help her up. After all, he had spent quite a lot of time not helping her, even after he had learned from the Patron of Ash’s test that she was in danger.
Sure, she was in another world at the time, and when he finally arrived here, he was injured, but still… there was a heavy guilt in his chest, and that small action eased it somewhat.
“I’ve learned a lot of things, stuck here, staring into the water,” Lyra said abruptly, turning to face him, raising her gaze to lock with his own. He could almost feel his own Emerald energy mixing with her Violet, sizzling as they met. “Do you know what yours is, Doggy?”
His mouth quirking at the annoying nickname, Randidly said. “…to rescue you.”
Lyra gave him a scathing look. “Truthfully, I
aiming for the female lead in this great farce, but no, think bigger. What is your archetype? What role do you play?”
“Uh…” Randidly floundered for a moment. In his mind, he was clearly an important character, practically the
character, but that was just from his perspective, wasn’t it? Saying he was the hero would probably come across as a bit… arrogant. But when she said archetype, that made him think he couldn’t just be a side character…
Or was that just his vanity talking….?
“…An anti-hero?” Randidly finally said, scratching his chin.
Snorting, Lyra turned away from him and walked to the pool. “Still too small. Because we aren’t characters, you and I. No, we are forces of nature. You, Doggy, are the
. You always have been. You have started something, much, much bigger than you. The question is… what happens to an Inciting Action in a play after it has served its purpose?”
She didn’t wait for Randidly to answer, but instead turned back to him, her eyes blazing. “You have shifted the System, subverted its patterns, and now it’s spinning out of control, going further and further from its original purpose. And at some point, it will go so far that it will break. Why this is important is almost irrelevant, for our purposes, although there is the very real worry that our world will become the setting for this greater plot. No…”
Her hands, glowing in the dimly lit room, flowed forward and touched his face, gently testing the feel of his skin, running over his bone structure.
“What I want to know is… what happens if the Inciting Action… never stops inciting…?”
There was silence between them. But it was not a normal silence. It was a silence that reminded Randidly of the strange force he had felt when he gave Lucretia the three gifts. There was a thread of Karma within this question, a hint at something more. They were moving between other forces, much larger than them, but now Randidly had room to breathe.
Room to answer.
“…Then I guess..” Randidly said slowly. “…that action would eventually change the ending.”