Randidly found it academically interesting that the people in his Soulskill subsisted mostly on using secondhand images of his to fight, but it swiftly became clear that this Alta was not someone who could be a fair benchmark of Randidly’s mastery of images. Hell, if what Randidly believed was correct, no one could match him here.
After all, he was the source of everything. The best they could hope for would be to pull him into a draw.
So he waved his hand and hit the smoldering ash that Alta had summoned with an image of frigid ash. Like a sandcastle, Alta’s image collapsed and the air was suddenly clear.
Still, the fact that she could do so much with her images was pretty impressive. Especially since the images were essentially his. That line of thought, of course, made Randidly wonder whether he and the woman in front of him were similar in some strange way. But ultimately, Randidly knew it was more than that. Randidly felt it deeply, the karma that he and this woman shared.
But he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. In the air around them was a… magnetic attraction. This moment was supposed to happen. Yet it was thought Randidly was pushed into an acting role without being fed his lines. He felt lost.
What he had been able to figure out was why he was having such periodic chest pain. It seemed like there were several places on his World Tree that people were drilling into it and extracting its energy for their own uses. Normally, this wouldn’t have affected Randidly quite as much as it did, but he could also sense that the Ashen and Frigid images that he was flooding his Soulskill with could not be easily handled by the tree.
The combination of the damaging images and the siphoning of his energy were combining to destabilize the Seven Lands. That much was for sure. Now all that remained was to speak with Lucretia at length and figure out if there was anything he could do about it.
Abruptly worried, Randidly reached out and felt realty. His Absolute Timing Skill informed him it had been a little less than 30 seconds. That was reassuring. Although it wasn’t as great as laying in that dark suppression chamber, being out in the air certainly let him practice his images much more freely…
And more than anything, light-!
It had only been a week, but Randidly had been surprised to find how much he missed the warm light of the sun. Well, it wasn’t really a sun. It was a magical phenomenon that mimicked the behavior of the sun here. Still, it was satisfying to feel its light on his skin.
More than the Mana Engraving, Randidly had a newfound appreciation for what light could accomplish.
“You are very strong,” Alta said suddenly.
Randidly looked over at her and couldn’t keep a twisted smile off his face. She looked up at him with an expectant expression, but he had no answers for this thing of karma twisted to look like a person. “What is strength…?”
After all, although he was able to overwhelm her image, was that really impressive? She was a minor figure inside of his soul. And in the real world, Randidly was stuck in a room that he couldn’t escape from. Sure, he was using the situation as a whetstone to improve his strength and he had some ideas as to what to do, but…
He was long way from being strong. The brief and violent clash against the Propagator had proven that.
Randidly’s expression turned grim. That was the lowest level of opponent waiting on the world stage, and already Randidly had fallen. It was a temporary setback, Randidly knew. But the brief taste of fighting against real powerhouses made him wary. As much as he could, he needed to improve himself now.
Some part of Randidly knew that after this, his next opponent would not be so gentle with him.
Abruptly, Randidly looked guiltily up at Alta. But it seemed that instead of feeling ignored, she was… oh, she was thinking about his question. That was fine in Randidly’s eyes.
After a few minutes, Alta had an answer. “…strength is the prerogative to consume. It is the ability to control how this world will end.”
Randidly’s eyes were sharp as he considered Alta and her strange answer. “That is not a what. That is one possible way it can be used.”
“Is it?” Alta said lightly. It seemed that some of the deference she had gained after their fight was rapidly departing. Instead, she offered him a teasing smile. “What is strength but the ability to destroy? You are a user of ash, you should understand it as well. All things are Ash. From ash we have come, from ash we will return. That is life.”
Randidly’s gaze held Alta’s for several long seconds. Somewhere deep in his chest a tightly wound ball of sadness sighed.
But now Alta was building up steam. “You ask what strength is, but it is a false question. Strength implies an absolute value, whereas the only important thing is the relative positioning. Compared to me, you are strong. But compared to Creta…? You are just as helpless. Because strength is a label given to those that have the clout to dictate how the world will be consumed.”
Randidly pressed his lips together. He didn’t mind the strange reference to Lucretia’s strength, but what was worrying was Alta’s philosophy. Could his image really warp the mindset of people in the Soulskill?
Finally, Randidly said, “You seem to think… this world is dying.”
“Isn’t it? Living beings consume to live. They build some things, yes, but they are not as efficient as the World Tree. Every bit they take means a little more waste. There is a finite amount of energy in the world. To have strength is to claim for yourself a larger share of the world’s energy. By holding strength, you hasten the world’s end.”
Randidly’s expression turned contemplative. “So the world is not dying, it is being inefficiently recycled. Interesting. And yet, I do not hear any fear in your voice. In fact, it seems… you are looking forward toward this end for the world. Do you hold no fear toward death?”
Alta laughed and it was a hollow sound. “Perhaps. To me, death… feels like kin. It seems like every person I touch is eventually overcome by that same inevitable end. To be surrounded by death… that is my lot in life.”
As she spoke, Randidly sensed the mood abruptly changed. It seemed like the whole of the Soulskill around him shifted. The light around him felt filmly and false. Alta was staring at the ground, but Randidly felt the karma between them shifting. Something was changing in Alta’s heart as they spoke.
“Everything…” Alta whispered. Her eyes glazed over. Even in the Soulskill, Randidly could feel that his chest was beginning to burn. “To consume it all… to let it all end… that-”
Grimly, Randidly said, “Your life has been touched by death, I am sure that is true. But before me… do you really dare wallow in self-pity?”
With Randidly as the epicenter, a wave of the heat that formed the unwilling core of his Ashen Image blasted outward. It struck Alta like a physical force, and she cried out in pain as her skin began to blister and pop. In order to control the force of it, Randidly’s crown of Cataclysm and Gloom formed above his head. He eased back on the strength, but color swiftly drained out of Alta’s face.
Then he cut it off, careful to keep the damage he inflicted to a minimum. The simmering heat in his chest faded. But even with that, Randidly’s mood turned abruptly sour.
Alta stumbled backward and fell on her ass. She stared up at him, something akin to wonder in her eyes. “You… what are you…?”
“Someone trying to protect his home. To have strength in the face of the impossible. To walk toward darkness with my head held high,” Randidly said with a sigh.
“…so a fool,” Alta said with a small grin. Randidly rolled his eyes as Alta brushed herself off and stood back up. It certainly showed that this was someone who spent a long time with Lucretia. Similarly, Randidly could do little to intimidate her.
“A dreamer, some of said,” Randidly said dryly. He thought about Helen and her desperate desire to keep him from fighting against beings like the Propagators. And so far, it seemed like she had a very good point.
“Have you and Creta ever fought?” Alta asked suddenly. Randidly chuckled. It seemed that Alta was going to let that brush with Randidly’s true image pass without comment? Perhaps that was for the best. At least in the short term. Randidly was beginning to suspect that the trouble in his Soulskill was tied directly to the this Alta. Was that why Lucretia was with her? It certainly made sense.
Not that Randidly believed that she was the cause, but it seemed that somehow, this girl had become the crux of the issue. She seemed so twisted and confused… but Randidly was too tired to figure out how to unwind this knot. Besides, he had his own troubles…
“…not directly no,” Randidly said, looking up at the sky. There were low clouds moving back into their area. They had been blown away when Randidly released that image of heat. “We were certainly at odds at one point. But she… didn’t take me seriously. I was was a part of a side game to her. So when it came to blows, I lost the first two battles… but then I took the third and won the war.”
“War? You certainly make it seem dramatic,” A light voice cut in. Randidly grinned up at Lucretia, who looked from him to Alta with an exasperated expression on her face. “And I leave for an hour and you have already fought. I suppose I should have expected as much. You two have a lot in common.”
“Do we?” Both Randidly and Alta said at the same time. Then they stared at each other for several seconds.
After a pause, Alta snorted and twisted around. “I’ll be back. I need to change.”
Inwardly, Randidly felt pity for the figure of the girl walking back toward her manor. Her clothes were burnt and falling away from her slender shoulders. The gauntlets she had worn were probably melted into lumps of slag. Alta was clearly accomplished and talented. But compared to Randidly, she was hopelessly out of her depth.
Randidly shivered. Truly, he hoped that Lucretia was incorrect about how much they had in common.