Within a second, Randidly was back to himself. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the pain hit him with even more vicious vigor, shaking his consciousness. A snapshot of the world around him appeared in his mind.
A raised obsidian platform had risen out of the molten lava of the volcano, upon which Randidly stood. And he stood on the corner of the platform because it was covered with almost 200 grey and still figures, standing frozen in various positions of agony. Even from that brief glimpse before Randidly hurriedly turned his attention inward, he saw the panic and fear in the hollowed out and burned bodies.
But then Randidly was within himself, checking for the danger. Although his head swam, the Aether Crossroads in his chest was already galvanized into motion. Aether howled into his body, struggling to reinforce himself. Distantly, Randidly noticed that there wasn’t another foreign energy pouring into him. It only took him a second to recognize it as the Patron of Ash, due to the flavor. To his surprise, the energy was keeping his Health high.
Gritting his teeth, Randidly’s mouth spread wide. Well, at least
wasn’t something that he needed to worry about. When he died, the Patron of Ash wanted it to be due to the overwhelming image of Ash, not being burned alive, inside out. It was an arrogant sort of help.
Now, however, was not the time to look a gift horse in the mouth. Breezing past the condition of his body, Randidly’s attention turned to his inner world. It seemed that the Ashen Image was placed directly into the center of his soul, and when Randidly looked at the circumstances, he grew immediately cold.
Several of his Skills were gone, burnt to ash.
Those Skills nearest to the Ashen Image had turned to ash themselves, and the surrounding Skills were struggling to flare up in rebellion to the spreading contagion of ash. Furious, Randidly flooded those Skills with Aether to fight against the spread. If the Skills were considered giant floating shapes of light, the ash was coming through and slowly infecting that light and dimming it. Besides the Skills that now stood inert and unresponsive to him, grey statues that were eerily reminiscent of the figures surrounding Randidly on the platform, there were several that had spots on them that had dimmed to ash. Around those spots, the light of the Skill was flickering as the ash spread.
Roaring, Randidly pulled. TO his surprise, the Skill he grasped moved. Aether howled and reinforced them, but simultaneously the Ashen Image spread its influence wider, seeking more Skills to corrupt.
All of this was occurring within the purview of Randidly’s Class. At least the Class still seemed structurally safe and the effect hadn’t yet spread to his Soulskill. But there was only so much room in the area of his Class, so some of his Skills needed to be moved to the surrounding area to restrain the Ashen Image until Randidly figured out what to do.
Cursing, Randidly moved some of his lesser used spells around the Ashen Image, like Mana Bolt and Arcane Orb. Immediately, Randidly considered the damage done to himself during the time he was distracted by Ulaat.
What he saw gave Randidly a tension headache. Right now, two of Randidly’s Skills that were still flickering were almost reduced completely to Ash: Manuel Labor and Hammer of the Dawn. As he watched, the Skills dimmed to nothing even as he poured Aether into them. There simply wasn’t enough energy or strength of image remaining in those to save them. Soon, they became nothing but frozen ash by the power of the Ashen Image.
Then Randidly scanned quickly through the other wounded Skills. Inspiration was almost halfway lost, so he focused on there first. Besides that, Summon Pestilence and Refine were perhaps one-third of the way taken by Ash. Of those two, Randidly focused his attention on Refine. For the good of his metalworking, replacing Refine…
…if he lost these Skills, what would it mean for him? For his Skill gathering and PP…?
But there were no answers. The heat seemed to be intensifying, and Randidly stuttered mentally. That split second of confused Aether was enough that Randidly lost Summon Pestilence. He swore and threw all his Willpower into fueling the recovery of Inspiration and Refine. Because he was more focused there, Inspiration was still about 50% alive. But immediately prior to that it had been almost 65%.
Randidly noticed that he was gaining points in a few things, Chosen of Fire and Pain Resistance, but more than anything else, Visualization. But he ignored them because he didn’t have the luxury of enjoying the growth right now. Not when so many things were crumbling inside of himself. And with the constant waves of pain…
“Fuck,” Randidly whispered, because those Skills he had arrayed around the Ashen Image were quickly being overtaken by the image. The images fueling them simply weren’t strong enough to resist the influence of the Ashen Image, even with the support of a sea of Aether.
But it gave Randidly another moment to reflect, and he considered for the first time the four Skills that had already been reduced to Ash: Pollen of the Rafflesia, Healing Palm, Body Control: Freeze, and finally…
Randidly felt a strange numbness as he saw it. That was… that was one of his first. It had evolved numerous times to reach its current form, and there was rarely a fight that Randidly didn’t use it. Its image was powerful and strong. It occurred to Randidly that this was probably why the damage to himself was so minimal, comparatively, even when he was being distracted for so long by the Patron’s story.
And also why the pain in his chest felt so melancholy. Something precious had been ripped away from him. Struggling for its owner, that Skill had been snuffed out without any fanfare. Randidly could accomplish the same thing with Plant Dominance, perhaps, but the image-
Caring and familiarity are the most important. Repetition is strength,
Skarch seemed to whisper to Randidly. He never could overcome her in their battles of images, but Randidly had begun to come close as time went on. Steeling himself, Randidly considered the Ashen Image. In his heart, he knew he could win; the Patron of Ash didn’t care about the image, and therefore Randidly would gladly crush it.
But in his initial haste to save his important Skills, Randidly had made a miscalculation; it became immediately apparent that the Skills that had been turned into ash were resonating with the Ashen Image, and adding more strength to it. The pain struck at him like a whip, curving around his mental defenses and slashing at his weaknesses.
Those Skills in the surrounding area began to turn to Ash, and Randidly growled. He needed to make a decision, and now. Closing his eyes, he mentally shook his head. This is foolish. You never meet a superior strength with strength.
But his Yggdrasil Skills shifted to the forefront, burning brightly against the Ashen Image. Golden Roots of Yggdrasil was the brightest of all, flooded with more Aether than he had ever poured into himself before. He could feel Neveah’s concern suddenly, as she asked what was all, but just as quickly the energy of the Patron of Ash rushed to mute that connection.
Randidly’s grin was vicious. That was fine. He didn’t plan on relying on anyone else’s help anyway.
No matter the brave face he put forward, Randidly couldn’t help but feel a flash of despair as the corner of the Golden Roots of Yggdrasil began to blacken and smoke. Then, as he watched, it became dim and transformed into ash.
The pain did have one positive effect. It served to numb Randidly somewhat. As he watched his self-created Skill slowly become corrupted, he didn’t feel anything but cold fury. Again, he ignored the improvements to Visualization and focused on stubbornly resisting the Ashen Image.
It was difficult, not just because of the strength of the image that could make one a Patron, but because of the image itself. It was all about igniting a substance, hollowing it out of substance, and turning into ash in a blaze of power. It was obvious why no previous Chosen had been able to resist this. But Randidly refused to simply be another
Still, Randidly didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on it. Randidly pulled more Aether and reinforced the Skill. Immediately, it became apparent that there was another problem. His Class was beginning to shake. Perhaps he had spoken too soon in regards to the structural integrity earlier. To buy himself some time, Randidly advanced the Crown of Upheaval and Silence, which was feasting on the chaos inside of the Soulspace. He could feel it growing at a noticeable pace. Its powerful suppressing effect smashed into the Ashen Image.
Not a permanent solution, but it would have to do.
The thing was vibrating, causing a dull sort of ache in Randidly’s chest. Such was the constant assault of the pain of losing his Skills that it was barely noticeable. But his instincts screamed something was going on here, so Randidly paid more attention to the vibration. Suddenly, his perspective switched, and he cursed. He didn’t have fucking time for this.
But he paused as he looked around. The pain receded somewhat. Randidly was standing in a circle of fire trees. The trees were partially grown, and their branches twisted upwards like gnarled fingers grasping at the sky above. The Planting of the Forest of Enmity.
One tree glowed with a feeling of justice and comradery. Another seemed twisted and malformed as if something vital had shifted within it, and it hadn’t yet adapted. Another was cold and desolate, but proud amongst its brothers.
It was the final two that caught Randidly’s attention. Because both seemed to speak to him at that moment. Both offered him Paths forward.