In the darkness of the area outside of his soul space, Randidly felt oddly cold, and oddly exposed as he shaped Aether. But there really wasn’t anything out here, either to help or hinder. There was just a strange sluggishness to the Aether, and a resistance to be shaped, as it wanted to expand and fill the area given to it.
But not today. What is needed was a much sharper hold of the Aether to resist it, a higher Control, and a very distinguished Skill. And those Randidly could handle.
First, he started with a simple mirror. That was the basis of what Stan had said, after all. Of all the things Randidly had learned through his experiences with the System, and he had gone through a lot at this point, what stuck with him is how many different ways that this System allowed one to gain power.
Some powers came slower, some more quickly, but what came the easiest was the simplest things. And although it was a bit ambiguous, this was simplest and most honest of the answers that Stan had given.
Randidly’s Aether very quickly swirled around, and very easily began to shift and morph, holding onto that image of the mirror, as if its strange existence depended upon it. Then, Randidly began to expand the mirror, folding and shaping it.
Because the second thing that Stan had referenced was not really himself, but his relationship to others. He was someone who interacted with others, shaping and capturing and catalyzing what others give him. In terms of vision, the easiest way to do that was to change the shape of the image of the mirror so it would send off different light than was reflected on it. But larger than that…
The mirror rippled, the substance of it becoming liquid, then swirled upwards, becoming a 3D shape. It was a little jerky, due to the shaping out in the world, in front of him, but… after a stern press from Randidly, it generally snapped into place, accepting its role. It wasn’t a shape that Randidly created, which left him dissatisfied. Instead of stopping, he continued to work the mirror, changing the shape, again. And then again. Then again.
“Keep speaking…” Randidly whispered, barely emerging from his trance to address Stan, who had fallen silent, content to continue to stare intently at Randidly. Briefly, there was a flash of panic on Stan’s face, but then a strange stubbornness emerged in his expression. Even distantly, through the haze of handling so much Aether, Randidly could feel that this reaction, for sure, was one that came from him.
Perhaps it was a good thing that Randidly had taken his first answer so literally. But this did clarify what he meant with the second half of his earlier statements; it was more than a reflection, it was a copy that was played back to the original. Stan could apparently very easily mimic people, although why he didn’t use this ability more accurately was difficult to understand.
Almost unconsciously, the shape that Randidly was aiming for changed, forming into curves and long, widening lines. It was an instinct, and Randidly let it flow through him, while he let the words Stan began to supply flow through him. All the while, Aether came together, swirling in a tighter and tighter spiral, funneling to the object that Randidly was creating.
“…I…. I’m not sure what to say. I think… What I am is just that. I’m not anything special, but I can listen, I can… I can change. I can be anything, if someone asks it of me. I’m just… the way I am is though…. I just…. Everyone flows through me, you know? And I can feel them all. I think that I…”
Randidly’s focus fell away from the speech and drifted towards the Aether image. It had twisted itself into a gramophone, made entirely of mirrors. It was a small object that was composed entirely of the mirror substance, warped and shaped to the small object, with the curving amplification horn on top of that. But also below, unbenounced to Randidly, there was a large cage.
Honestly, when he turned his attention downward on the image of his creation, and found that strange, uniform square cage, he was extremely shocked. How had this emerged, without him attempting to shift the image…? Perhaps the answer was the location; this had been created inside of Stan’s body, and something about… the host had affected the result….
Or perhaps this was of a much more sinister origin, and placing this inside of the man would have… consequences. Randidly’s mind immediately jumped to the Creature, shifting the image from afar, while he was paying attention to other things, but that didn’t feel right. Randidly’s knowledge of Aether, and his ability to track it, was increasing by huge margins everyday, with the constant research. If something was different, it was hard for him to believe he wouldn’t have noticed it.
“You underestimate Aether.” Lucretia’s voice was soft, and Randidly was beginning to get annoyed with how she kept chiming in, as if she could read his thoughts, without him conversing with her. “It has much in common with my ability to manipulate the threads of karma. Can’t you feel it? After you set out to create this… some sort of connection has allowed his words to guide your creation.”
Inside of the cage, a shadow formed, small, and amorphous, a blob of shifting, pitch black mist. It seemed sometimes that there was a figure within that shadow, but a new wave of mist would billow outwards, obscuring it, and by the time that wave was close to dissipating, the form within the shadow had changed into something else. It was a new creature, a new form, even if what was at its core animating it stayed the same.
The Aether in the air began to rumble, even as Stan’s increasingly wild whispers, and Randidly’s silence continued. As time went on the ability of Randidly to feel the connection between the two of them grew. They were… drawn together. This Soul Skill was taking shape, partially by Randidly’s will, but partially because it would snap seamlessly into Stan’s soul shape.
There was not so much a sense of completion with it, as much of a silence. Abruptly, the Aether rumbling stopped, Stan’s whispers cut off, and the quicksilver mirror gramophone floated quietly above the cage, in which the mist creature was kept.
Randidly let out a slow breath, holding that image in his mind, and then pressing, sharpening, focusing, deepening. His Control and Willpower were at a level that there was a qualitative change in how he could use his will upon the world, and with that extra bit of influence, he refined the Soul Skill, making the details brighter, and the whole project much more distinct.
Of its own accord, the Soul Skill floated through the chasm between their bodies, buoyed by Randidly’s will. It sank into Stan’s chest.
Stan’s eyes widened.
Two hours later, Donny looked grimly down at the shivering body of Stan. The Ghosthound said nothing, his arms folded, his expression guarded. Ptolemy was sweating, and seemed profoundly disturbed.
“So he’s fine?” Donny asked slowly. He had been initially interested in what the Ghosthound had offered, wondering if he could acquire a second Soul Skill based on his association with the Ghosthound. After all, his Village Chieftain Soul Skill had the opportunity to grow, and seemed to be very close to that level, but having one on an entirely different track that he could draw strength from would be the ideal. But after witnessing Stan’s reaction to it…
Ptolemy shrugged. “Well… physically he’s only exhausted now. There is no damage to him, or any lasting damage. He does, however, continually have the Status Effect ‘Crippling Fear’. After using my Skills on him for a time… it’s clear this isn’t really a side effect of this Soul Skill inside of him, but rather his reaction to it.”
Sparing the Ghosthound a glance, Donny checked his reaction. He wasn’t agreeing, but he wasn’t disagreeing either. Instead, the other man just continued to frown. The Ghosthound was the one with a better view of this issue, Donny knew, so he wished he would speak up. Ptolemy was only basing his understanding on second hand information he could glean through a combination of a physical and some basic diagnostic related Skills. Some confirmation would be nice….
“Some people…” Ptolemy continued slowly, his expression sad. “…Cannot handle seeing themselves. I suspect that Stan is one of these people. Based upon what I’ve heard, he’s a very distant and stoic individual. Although he won the Tactics competition, that seemed to have been through a complete lack of fear of losing, and several bold strategies that worked out for him. If what you’ve said about Soul Skills is true, Randidly… perhaps what you showed him, especially the shadow in that cage… was something his psyche didn’t want to accept.”
“I… hadn’t thought of that.” The Ghosthound admitted, rubbing his chin as he looked at Stan’s crumpled form. Some of the sweat from when Stan was writhing and screaming earlier still remained on the man’s body, giving his hair a matted, sullen look. Donny felt a headache coming on. The more he learned, the less likely it was that this man would actually be useful as a tactical leader in a real battle…
Better to find out now, like this, than in the middle of a campaign, Donny supposed.
“…Then let’s let him rest,” The Ghosthound finally said, his voice tired. The two other men nodded.
“That sleep powder will last for a few more hours,” Ptolemy offered. “Would you want to remove the Soul Skill before that time’s up…?”
The Ghosthound just shook his head, but the frustration in his posture was clear.
Donny wanted to reach out and pat the man’s shoulder, tell him that they didn’t need him to be perfect, just to give it his best, that they knew how difficult this was, that he was not truly a myth, but a man in front of them, with flaws, who made mistakes.
But Donny’s hands wouldn’t move. Instead, he simply watched the Ghosthound walk away, carrying the weight of this man’s previous torment on his shoulders.