As the Patron of Ash continued to speak, Randidly looked behind at the portal. Strange skittering bug creatures were exploding outwards, expanding in all directions. Strangely, Randidly felt his perspective lift up and shoot up into the sky. From just the field of grain, Randidly could now see the edges where the field touched a river and the thick jungle beyond that. A small distance from the edge of the jungle, a small village of the blue creatures that the Patron of Ash hailed from were working to gather fruit.
“To be fair, to call it yourself would be inaccurate. But that is how it feels to face the Second Calamity. ‘What if I had embraced the sword? What if I had focused on ice? What if my sibling had not died?’ Such questions that make up your fragile core will define the challenge. Sometimes, such questions might warp the reflection you must face beyond belief. The enemies you face might have no resemblance to you and your people. Such was the case with the Calamity that came to my world.”
The Patron of Ash inclined his head towards the jungles below Randidly. “My people worshipped the World Core. It is rumored that every plant, even the tiniest blade of grass, possesses a system of roots that lead to the World Core. Our take is to tend the growth of the World Core and life on its bounty. We were a stable and peaceful population, despite the arrival of the System. We persevered. Such was the strength of our culture that we weren’t shaken in the slightest…”
Randidly was slightly taken aback how… human the Patron of Ash seemed, Ulaat seemed, in his normal form. But his gaze on the images below turned stony. The bug-like creatures were moving farther afield, and eating everything in sight. In their wake, there was only barren ground.
“…why are you telling me this…?” Randidly whispered. He, of course, wanted to learn about the Second Calamity, and how to defeat it. But he purposefully reminded himself that the Calamity was a later challenge. At the moment, all of his attention was focused on passing through this trial with his life.
“To be an Initiate is to have my attention. To be Anointed is to carry my blessings, and touch the world of Woe that I had crafted for myself.” Ulaat said slowly. The bug creatures reached the village of Ulaat’s people. It took them by surprise, and viciously butchered those unsuspecting people. “To be Chosen means a different thing to each Patron, I believe. Other Patrons mean that the images of the proteges are sufficiently similar, so, therefore, they should inherit a portion of this cursed mantle we Patrons are made to bear.”
As his people were slaughtered below, the entire village to the man, Ulaat turned and gazed at Randidly. His ashen eyes continued to disintegrate. “Do you know the agony of being eternal? Of becoming an idea, and therefore unable to die or evolve? How could you? How fickle and bright your potential burns, Randidly Ghosthound. Your surety of success is admirable, if only for its continued existence without reliance on fact.”
Tightening his hands into fists, Ulaat leaned towards Randidly. As he did so, Randidly couldn’t help but notice that there were spots on Ulaat’s hand and shoulder that began to smoke and disintegrate. It seemed this body that he had conjured was slowly being consumed from the inside. “But no intelligent man who believes it impossible will reach the moon; you need a fool to not even think about it. To be chosen by me is to be asked to reach the moon.
“I am wracked by guilt. I cannot die. I cannot leave my world but to test fools like you, who have not heard of my reputation. I am so very tired. I am so, very, tired. And a Patron cannot cease… but I believe my consciousness can… if the mantle of what I am passes to another.”
Randidly just looked at Ulaat, now slowly burning away his body and reverting to the Patron of Ash. Below, the bug creatures were spreading across the world, murdering as they went. At some point, word got out and the people began to resist. Randidly saw grand ceremonies involving the exotic plants of the world, empowering the warriors of Ulaat’s people. It was a slow thing, as the bug’s expansion ground to a halt.
But, in a way, it reminded Randidly very much of how the Wights were overwhelming the spear users. There were simply too many of them. Randidly supposed that this might be a common theme in the second Calamity then, an unending tide of opponents. He made note of that but kept most of his attention on the Patron of Ash.
When the Patron continued to study the war being waged below, Randidly looked up slowly. “…you want to pass your power onto me? And based on the fact none has even been chosen before, the process-”
Then Randidly froze. He gritted his teeth. “No… you don’t want to give me the power. All you want to give is the…”
Smiling, the Patron of Ash held up his hand. Almost the entirety of his body was crusting and falling away now, as the burning heat at his core overwhelmed whatever glamour he had weaved. “Yes. This image. The one strong enough to emerge from the second Calamity without peer. All else had been devoured by this tiny image. Take it from me, Randidly, make me no more.”
Randidly just stared at the glowing red-orange coal in the Patron of Ash’s hand. Carefully, he thought through it. Based on his interaction with the Creature and the information he plundered from its memories, the System was looking for something very specific. On the way, it didn’t mind gathering strong images for its own purposes. If the Calamities were considered a way of intensifying or isolating images, then each process was a way of weeding out those that were useless to the Calamity.
First by strength, and then by… Randidly paused as he considered the second Calamity. It seemed to test the poignancy one more time, but also resilience. Because the Calamity itself was a personification of the deep fears of the world’s image.
Narrowing his eyes, Randidly tried to be very careful about what he said next. The Patron seemed to be waiting for something. The battles below grew increasingly bitter as the blue-tailed creatures stopped the bugs. What Randidly was suddenly struck by was that the Calamity was based on the worldwide image. It was very easy to see why the world’s fears could be terrible and perverse beyond what you would expect. It made Randidly wonder what Earth feared most right now.
Perhaps… it was actually him.
But the problem at hand was daunting. An image that survived two Calamities would be strong. In terms of Skill Level… Randidly estimated somewhere between four hundred and five hundred. And that might be conservative. More worrying, the Level didn’t account for the fervor that the holder believed in the image. If he had learned anything from Skarch, it was that this was of paramount importance. Taking such a powerful image directly into himself…
It was no wonder why others perished. In a small sample, Randidly had noticed the way that the strange Aether that Silo had been absorbing has altered him. Altered him to the point that even though Randidly sensed Silo behind enemy lines, there was almost no movement from the guy.
Even then, that wasn’t the same, because Silo was absorbing someone’s processed Aether. It wasn’t just image, there were thoughts and memories and emotions and life energy mixed inexorably into that Aether. That was the fabric of somebodies existence.
If the metaphor for Silo was trying to swim against the current of a vast river, what the Patron of Ash was suggesting was to take one-tenth of the weight of the river, condense it into a fist-sized ball, and ask you to catch it. The sheer difference and density were tough to understand.
In order to buy some time, Randidly gestured at the world below. There was something about the air here… the heat was getting to him. “…where are you in all of this?”
“Ah, a good question, boy.” The Patron of Ash said with a wide smile. “The boy named Ulaat is still growing below. This brings us to the second secret: the life of Ulaat. This one you earned for asking the right question. But first, let me set the stage.
“Generally, the Second Calamity will result in one of two things happening. First, there is a victor; either the original image triumphs over the fears or the fears were superior and they assume the legitimate reality. The fears are, after all, a glorified projection unless they seize the other side’s validity. From the System’s perspective, it cares not; all it seeks is strength.”
The Patron of Ash waved his hand and their viewpoint shifted. They were floating above a small village near the border of the territory between the two sides, but not so close that they had to be worried all the time about raids from the bugs. “The second option is that worlds stall out, for one reason or another. Sometimes the images are equal, sometimes although one image is stronger, the people wielding it do not optimally fight against the opposition. The Fifth Cohort World, Tellus, is one such place.”
The view zoomed in further, and suddenly Randidly and the Patron of Ash were in a small treetop house in the village. The house didn’t look special at all from the outside, and within it appeared similarly normal. A man and a woman were there, playing with a baby. There were scrolls in racks at the wall. Night was falling, and the man lit a candle so he could read a few of the scrolls that had piled up on his desk.
“Like all things, accidents sometimes happen, even in the awesome System,” The Patron of Ash said slowly. “Some days I believe I was beloved by fate because I survived. But. I have not had one of those days in a thousand years. Instead… I like to believe I was cursed from the beginning.”
The man began to read out loud from the scrolls. The woman slowly grew more and more distracted. Her hands stilled from playing with the baby, and she looked worriedly towards the man.
Obviously, the baby couldn’t understand what was going on. He was young, but he was able enough to push himself into a sitting position with his tail. Seeing that the woman was too enthralled with the man’s voice, the baby began to crawl away.
Abruptly, the woman stood and stormed out of the room. Hurriedly putting down the scroll, the man followed. Without missing a beat, the baby crawled over towards the flickering candle. His eyes were wide as he stared up at it. It took a while, but the baby managed to open his hands and grab the leg of the desk. When that did nothing, he spread his tail awkwardly upwards. To Randidly’s surprise, the baby’s tail was probably twice as long again as his body was.
It barely reached. After several clumsy swipes, the baby knocked the candle down underneath the scroll rack. With wide eyes, he watched the flickering flames grow. As Randidly watched, he could feel himself beginning to burn along with the heat. It was almost a painful feeling, all across his chest.
“Sometimes, a third option happens: in the chaos, an image is born that is so strong that it sweeps the other two images away… that is my story.”