Kurag chuckled without humor at Randidly’s comment. “Is responsibility always such an accurate predictor of men? By that logic, the Progenitor himself would come down and solve all of our problems… But of course, that does not happen. In this world, the only thing that one can count on is their own strength. The fact that I had to be saved just means that age…”
Kurag trailed off. With great care, he pulled himself up on the shatter stone stalagmite into a standing position.
At Kurag’s mention of the Progenitor, Randidly winced internally. But it was not like he could do anything about all the mistakes he had made so far in regards to his Soulskill. All he could do now was work on himself moving forward. “The Progenitor’s help would do more harm than good for many. You are strong, Kurag. These opponents-”
“Don’t comfort me boy,” Kurag spat. His glare was white hot on Randidly for several seconds, but then all the fight drained out of him. Instead, he harrumphed and seemed to test his legs.
The silence stretched between them as Randidly waited to see what Kurag would do. When Kurag eventually spoke, the words were so out of left field that Randidly was briefly floored.
“Are you single Randidly?”
“Married. Children. Do you have them?”
Randidly blinked several times, looking at Kurag’s wrinkled and rough face. But there were no answers there. “…no. I am single, I suppose. Why do you ask?”
“When you… spoke to me previously, it reminded me of… of something said to me by my daughter. She was always proclaiming how strong I was, even as I was… bitter. You two would likely be of an age with each other.”
“Oh,” Randidly said, unsure of how to respond. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Kurag. The bloodstains on his threadbare robes were certainly getting worse. The old Earth Golem probably believed that he was permanently injured. As Randidly reached for the energy of his Soulskill to craft a potion from nothing, he asked a quick question to make conversation. “Where is she now?”
“Dead. She rode under the High King’s banner.”
Randidly winced. But to his surprise, Kurag kept speaking.
“…You two would have gotten along.”
In spite of himself, Randidly’s lips quirked upward. With a small effort of will, energy curled down into Randidly’s palms, forming a beaker and a bright emerald liquid. “Kurag, are you saying you would set your daughter up with me? This is a pretty sudden change of heart.”
“Bah! There is no way she would have accepted you as a suitor. You are far too thin,” Kurag said, shooting Randidly a dismissive glance.
…which is not a no…
“Perhaps I’m just feeling my age,” Kurag said with a sigh. He gestured to his wounds. “To think I was so injured by this rabble… and you. I misjudged you. Both your willingness to help and… I never expected you to be a believer in the Progenitor.”
Well, it was hard not to believe in yourself…
To his the awkward expression on his face, Randidly held the fully condensed potion out to Kurag. “Here, drink this. It will help with your wounds.”
“Hmph, is that why you are tiptoeing around with your words? You believe me convinced of my own death? Hardly. When you grow as old as I am, kid, you’ll understand the need for an occasional… change of pace. That is all this discussion is. Things have not changed between us. But… after seeing that spear attack… well, there are a few things that you can only know about someone by seeing them fight. You did not hesitate.”
Randidly felt an unexpected throb of relief that the other’s wound wasn’t deadly. For all that Kurag was annoying, there was something about the practical old man that you had to respect. Grinning, Randidly said. “Such lack of hesitation is undoubtedly reassuring in an ally.”
“And horrifying in an enemy. My people are too freshly butchered by yours for me to trust you.” Kurag said softly.
Randidly had no answer to that, so instead, he asked. “And your daughter? Was she like that? Decisive?”
Kurag smiled slowly in the dark cave, but even so, the light of his pride was clearly visible. “She was more than that. She was strong. She would have crushed you in combat.”
“Stronger than you then?” Randidly teased.
“Well… no. I am stronger,” Kurag said, his face once more tightening up. “That is why I still live and her body lies cold and forgotten on some battlefield. But in terms of bravery… my daughter was far braver than I. When the High King came calling, she went forth to once more chase the dream of the Great Empire.”
Dream of an empire, huh…
Randidly thought sardonically, thinking of his growing power with his Crown and his responsibility toward Earth. When it was phrased like that, Randidly got a strange sense he understood. He understood why the Earth Golems struggled so hard and seemed to so constantly be wracked by war and strife. Because their path forward required strength, more strength than could be imaged. And that fighting for that strength was the only way they knew.
“For all that you are a religious man,” Kurag said, turning to Randidly. “You are a man of the blade. You are strong. But not strong enough, yes? What you do not constantly struggle for, you will lose. Why did you come here, boy? What are you running from?”
And with that, something side inside Randidly clicked. “I know where this is! These caves are ruins!”
Kurag gave him a weird look. “You have been here before?”
“Technically no but-” Randidly’s words skittered to a halt. He couldn’t very well say he knew this because he was the Progenitor, but perhaps… “Well, follow me. I want to show you something.”
Randidly turned and hurried away, purposefully moving quickly back toward the cave that he originally dropped into. Kurag followed slowly and stiffly behind, passing through the cleared and ashy path that Randidly left in his wake.
When Kurag finally caught up, Randidly had basically cleared the large cave he had initially hopped down into and set up several torches so some of it was revealed. With the hint of light, the room had strangely become more ominous. Along the ground what had once seemed like small stones revealed themselves as crumbled bone. The low hill at the center that began to sparkle as the crystal and metal that composed it was revealed.
“…this was… a battlefield,” Kurag said slowly. His eyes scanned the small debris. There were huge stones, but also… weapons, old and rusted. Bones. Scars covering the ground preserved almost perfectly inside of this cave. Preserved far beyond the time they should have kept for.
“Not just any battlefield,” Randidly said quietly. It was the Touch from Beyond energy that set his teeth on edge. That was why it was so inexorably mixed with the Creature’s energy here. “The oldest and greatest battlefield the world had known. The place that the King of Monsters and the Spriggit Thief destroyed the invader and the old world was sundered. And in that breaking, the Seven Lands of the World Tree were born.”
“…you certainly believe some strange things. That is a very unpopular retelling of the story. Don’t you think it peculiar that as a Monster, you were taught to believe that the great champion in the Holy War was a Monster?” Kurag said, scratching his chin. “Meanwhile, there are multiple historical accounts of the great Earth Golem Emperor-”
“No, the Emperor part of it,” Randidly said, cutting Kurag off. That strange spell that he felt early was back, even stronger.“But this isn’t about religion. It is about strength and debts. The weight of a crown. To help himself long ago, the Progenitor beseeched the Great Earth Golem Emperor for his assistance. He was the greatest warrior who ever lived in the world, and he obliged, only asking that his people’s be guarded, so they wouldn’t be punished in the wake of his great war that unified the world…”
Wait, why had he started talking about this…? Why had he brought Kurag here to see? At first, it was just the excitement of remembering this place, this battlefield where the fight against the Creature had been pitched. But now…
Karma dragged him forward.
“Thousands of years later, when the invader came, the Progenitor asked once more and every race rose at his call. Without the sacrifices they made, the war would have been lost, and this world… the Progenitor himself…”
Now Kurag was giving Randidly an even stranger look. “What is it you are saying?”
Randidly pictured that grey flower growing in Alta’s chest, that terrible image of ash that had taken root in the attitudes of the world. And strangely, here with Kurag, he caught the scent of a dream that ran counter to that. The Dream of an Empire. Was there an answer there…?
“What I’m saying,” Randidly said slowly, feeling his mouth moving even as he resisted the heavyweight of karma that formed around his words. “That twice, the Progenitor has asked and the world responded. I do not consider myself religious, but I promise you this: someday soon, the Seven Lands are going to ask of the Progenitor to pay his long-owed debt to the world. And I just wonder…”
Randidly walked slowly forward to the base of the hill where the Creature was struck down. The tang of ozone was still strong here. How long had it been?
Why had he never thought of the karma between himself and his inner world?
“I just wonder what sort of world is dreamt of these days.” Randidly finished awkwardly.
Randidly could feel Kurag’s eyes on his back, but he didn’t turn to meet his gaze. He simply waited. The problem of the Ashen Image was larger than he expected if he owed such an obvious debt to the world. If it could convince them that only doom awaited…
“My daughter… she believed in the Progenitor too.” Kurag’s voice was soft. “And she…”
Randidly felt the spark of hope forming in his chest, but then Kurag trailed off. He never finished that thought. Instead, Kurag eventually said.
“…well, we still have a job to do. Let’s try and do some more exploring before we eat dinner” Kurag finally grunted. Randidly nodded, feeling slightly cold inside. But as they made to return to the doldrums of their dark and lonely task. A soft mewing, wandering through the large cave.
Randidly frowned. “What is that…?”