“They would call me firebringer, for that night. Almost the entire village burned down.” The Patron of Ash narrated with a dispassionate voice, as he watched in real time the house, and then the tree, and then the whole village go up in flames. “My people worshipped plants, so they prepared certain magicks to combat fire. But fire grows strong quickly. And with our best and brightest fighting on the frontlines… none who had the strength to quell the fire were in the village. My parents died.
“I have come back and watched this memory so many times, and yet I still don’t’ know what the scrolls said. Why my mother left, why my father followed. When the weight of my crime does not haunt me, that ambiguity does.
“Seeing the flame, the nearby reserve army moved to assist, assuming it was a raid. By a terrible coincidence, a raid really did occur, in the opposite direction. Two villages lost in one night. There were a few survivors from my village, but none from the other. Rumors about me spread before I could even speak. Parents told their children not to be a firebringer. Kids had a game called run away from the firebringer. My early years… were hard.”
In the smoking eye socket of the Patron of Ash, a cherry red ember became visible. “But although I was hated and shunned, there was a bigger problem. We were losing the war. With all of the land lost to the Scourge, the World Seed was much weakened. The ceremonies were not as effective as they once were. Our people were being pushed back. It seemed like doom was upon us.
“Perhaps due to all of the hatred towards me, I hated the Scourge more than anyone. All I did was train until my bones were broken and my muscles mush. I needed to matter. I needed it to be their fault. I needed an outlet. But it wasn’t enough. I was a middling talent. And my nights were haunted by nightmares of smoke and fire.
“I don’t remember why I thought about it. But I once suggested that rather than taking a safe amount of juice from the World Seed, we take as much as we could. Although the World Seed might be damaged, at least we would be able to rally and seize our world once more. Shouldn’t our own survival be the greatest priority?
“The elders were appalled. Even the most hardline war types were appalled. As I said earlier, my people’s culture was based upon the worship of this very present force in their lives. To sacrifice it for their own benefit… it was anathema to everything that had given us stability to this point. We would, the elders told me, be effectively turning ourselves into the Scourge. That was not the answer. They seemed adamant about this.
“I was not so sure.”
The view shifted once more, very quickly. The world twisted, and suddenly a young man was standing in front of a strange sort of flowering vine. The man visibly hesitated, then picked the vine clean of flowers, leaving nothing behind. As he departed, the vine didn’t wither, but it… seemed to age. Initially green and robust, the vine darkened and seemed to be covered with wrinkles.
Randidly panted and wiped some sweat from his forehead with a grimace. It seemed that as the world was getting affected, so was he. And dammit, the heat was growing painful.
“I experimented. I sought the truth. And the truth was… my path to power was clear; I must do right by my name. When burned… the flowers and fruits of the World Seed were a hundred times more powerful for a brief time. That very night, I struck, annihilating the hive that was closest to my people. I felt… unsure at first, but then it was swept away by the smell of ash.
“I felt powerful. I felt like I had purpose. I felt like a righteous God.
“From there, I simply fought more. As my enemies were more and more of the Scourge, I required more for my bastardized rituals. I kept winning… by the time the elders realized what I had done, I had driven the Scourge off of our planet. Although it was a wasteland, we reclaimed it. I was filled with joy.
“But, with the passage of time, the World Seed… did not heal.”
Once more, the view pulled back. The thick, green jungle of the land had grown thin. The fields were barren, and no longer thick with wheat. And as Randidly watched, that greenness receded. Brown became the dominant color. It spread like a sickness across the world. The few remaining cities of the Patron’s people grew smaller and smaller.
“At first, I thought I had the answers. I burned large swaths of land, thinking that if I cut off the green from the brown, I could save it. But the brown kept coming. Then I thought that some of the elders were performing rituals behind my back, and sapping the World Seed’s strength. I burned them alive. I was in too deep, and desperate. Nothing changed.
“Within 57 years, I was the only remaining thing on the world. And around me was ash. I just felt… bleak. And sadness. And betrayal. I had been a hero. I had defeated the enemy. So why had I failed…?
“What a fool I was. When the System came to elevate me to a Patron, I didn’t even really notice. The burned world of my past became my power and my prison. All due to this small thing.”
Randidly slowly spun, seeing the familiar ashen and lava covered world where the Patron of Ash lived. Finally, he spun all the way around and was looking at the Patron, who still held that tiny ember in his hand. Such was the heat from the ember that Randidly felt like he was being consumed from the inside out by a fire.
“Thank you for telling me,” Randidly said with a sigh. The pain was approaching unbearable, but he pushed that aside for now. He didn’t think the Patron of Ash would take kindly to a show of weakness.
Instead, he thought about his own choices. He had taken up a heavy mantle when he had decided to act more like a liege for Earth. It was a heavy responsibility, but he felt the world needed the power he could offer. It wasn’t difficult to see the parallels. But Randidly’s actions hadn’t, yet, had the same disastrous effect.
The Patron of Ash gestured dismissively with the hand that wasn’t holding onto the ember. “Your emotions are meaningless. Like my existence, my reactions have calcified. This is meaningless to me. You are a piece that I have raised for this purpose. Now, I simply must ask: will you take this burden from me?”
“…and if I refuse?” Randidly said slowly, looking solemnly at the Patron of Ash. In response, the Patron only smiled.
Sighing, Randidly tried a different tack. “Then what is the third secret.”
“You do not yet have the right to know,” the Patron of Ash rumbled. Now that they were once more in his world, lava and ash began to flow upwards and form a huge face around his constantly disintegrating body. That face expanded until it was the size of a large building, while eyes that cried tears of lava. “And here we are. You must make a decision, without knowing either of the consequences. Such is the lot in life when you choose the Path of the Fool.”
Randidly felt bitter, but mostly because it was difficult to deny that he had done some foolish things in his time. His rebellion against the creature, choosing the Patron of Ash at all, assembling his own Soul Skill, destroying a Skill because it exerted a strange influence over him…
Above all, Randidly had slowly realized that he was a very instinctual person. To follow his instincts could be of great benefit to him in some situations, but now he was faced with the inevitable eventuality of that path: a decision you know could burn you both ways.
Could he have avoided this…? Perhaps.
Out of habit, Randidly reached for his Skills, then smiled bitterly. His immediate instinct was to attempt to use Inspiration with Erode Image to weaken that powerful image of ash. That might change something. But, cut off from his Skills… Which was especially annoying, as the heat was starting to approach the point that he wouldn’t be able to hide the damage it was doing to him from the Patron. Fuck, to think being
the image of ash would be this painful.
That thought sharpened Randidly’s eyes. In a demanding voice, he asked, “Why can’t I use my Skills?”
“It is part of the power I possess.” The Patron of Ash rumbled. “Make your choice boy.”
“Make a choice…? You were never this soft-hearted, even when I came here. From the beginning, you were trying to kill me. Do you really expect me to believe I can say no without any consequences-”
For the second time in this discussion, Randidly froze.
“Oh fuck, it’s worse than that isn’t it. All of this… it was just buying time to see how it would play out.” The pain in his chest made his vision swim. Randidly was on fire. Everything was burning away, even his consciousness. “There was never a choice; you have already placed that bit of ash inside of me.”
Loud and booming, the Patron of Ash laughed as the illusion that had covered them cracked and shattered.