Randidly stopped as Kurag raised his hand. Rejt also paused. They exchanged glances in the dimly lit stone corridor. Then, as one, all three listened.
“Paths emerge because you look for them. For too long, we have chased the same dream without questioning its validity. So much is possible right here. And you would have us go a-conquering to another world? No, Talim. The same dream elsewhere is still useless. It is time for us to imagine other dreams. Perhaps then our people’s children will sleep less fitfully.”
In the darkness, Randidly could feel Kurag smile. “Well said, girl.”
But Randidly was looking past the words to the forces that were colliding. One had been clearly threatening to overwhelm another, and then… and then an image had arisen that allowed Allica to continue on.
What was most disturbing, and illuminating, was that the image was not one of Randidly’s.
It came from Mrs. Hamilton.
Although the voice was low, Randidly’s hearing clearly picked up the rumbling response. “It is not your decision to make. Without you, without the money even, Earth Golems are drawn toward glory. Despite your madness, blood will show through. When the High King rides on a Crusade, the people will follow.”
“I’m sure your procession of ghosts and orphans will strike fear into the hearts of your enemies.”
Randidly felt that shard of Mrs. Hamilton shine brightly, infecting all that was Allica. There wasn’t a construct of Aether at her core, as the Soulskill wasn’t truly a thing of energy or images, but Randidly knew that she was being altered.
Very quickly, he spared a glance for Rejt, who was staring intensely toward the door to Allica’s office. Then he was… Alana…?
But a few seconds of examination instantly ruled out that option. This wasn’t Alana’s hand, this was Sam’s. Ritual and refinement. To forge a more perfect instrument.
Carefully, Randidly’s gaze slid back toward the wall. The silence continued to grow and build. In it, the mess of Randidly’s thoughts slowly assembled themselves into something akin to understanding. And with it, it felt like a bomb was dropped in his mind.
I’m not alone.
Because of Neveah and the connections of Aether he had made, energy and images were flowing into and out of him. Compared to the huge amount that Randidly drew each day, it was not as impressive individually. But as he continued to make new connections and help those people grow with his images…
They would provide images back to him. Even under the strain of the Ashen Image, his world would persevere. He didn’t need a way to solve ash in the short term. He would manage with help from others until he could create the image he needed.
The realization was basically just a reassurance that taking the time to figure things out wouldn’t be damning, but that was an incredible relief. In the dark passageway, Randidly grinned.
Kurag noticed his expression and nodded approvingly. “Truly, the girl says some things that fill the heart with boldness. If I was seventy years younger…”
Both Randidly and Rejt twitched. Luckily for Randidly, Rejt was more than willing to jump onto that grenade. “Errr Kurag, how old…. are you…?”
Just as Kurag’s face twisted into a scowl, the door slammed open. An absolutely gigantic Earth Golem filled the threshold, glowering down at them. After a second, Kurag snorted, and some of the derision and frustration fell away from the new arrival’s gaze.
“…ahem, you must excuse me. This meeting did not go as I had planned, Sir Kurag.” Gigantor said quietly. Then he reached up and scratched his neck before saying, “Am I to understand that my sister’s position is yours as well…?”
Kurag folded his arms. “Honestly, I am deeply suspicious. But I will follow Allica to the end of this experiment. She can give the people hope.”
To that, gigantor had no response. He briefly scanned Rejt and Randidly, but then just brushed past them. Very quickly for his size, the Earth Golem disappeared in the branching tunnels.
“So,” Kurag said without missing a beat. “I assume the two of you have something to report, considering you have left your assignment several hours early. Well? Let’s hear it.”
Randidly and Rejt stared helplessly at each other. Just as Randidly was resolving himself to saying fuck it to hiding his powers so he could just clear the entire chapel out in one go, a voice rescued him.
“Randidly? Come in. I believe… we should speak.”
Randidly put his hand on Rejt’s shoulder. “I’ll have to trouble you to explain the details to Kurag.”
Without a backward glance, Randidly walked into the room. That would hopefully teach him a lesson for encouraging the children to treat him like a pariah.
When Randidly entered the room, Allica was pouring out a clear liquid from a polished wooden canteen into two glasses. She smiled wanly at him. “How much of that did you hear?”
“Enough,” Randidly said. She had certainly painted a pretty picture of the world and leadership. That was the ideal, sure. But in practice…
Still, to have the goal of a leader be creating an environment where others could grow? That truly felt like Mrs. Hamilton. Without her tireless work in Donnyton, the city wouldn’t even be a fraction of what it was now-
Which of course, made Randidly confront the many similarities with his behavior in regards to Donnyton and how he had treated his Soulskill until recently. Of course, there was the complicating influence of Lyra as the Village Spirit acting willingly with a nefarious and ancient entity to sell out humanity, but…
But the point was the same. Randidly needed to respect the connections he had made. And the connection he had with Donnyton was one of his strongest. Those connections grounded him and gave him strength. And ultimately, if he was to progress, it was due to the influence of those connections.
“He’s right, you know,” Allica said. “If word leaks out that the High King yet lives, many will run to his side. I can promise fleeting comfort, but… but if they wish to bring honor to themselves, the only path is to follow the King. And if they were to actually succeed in conquering this new land and founding an Empire-”
“They will not,” Randidly said with deep certainty. It would certainly be amusing to have an army of Earth Golems somehow open up his chest and climb out. The experience of being completely suppressed in that deep, dark room would be an interesting learning experience. But Randidly felt rather confident they wouldn’t be able to manage it.
Still… considering his thoughts about how karma was owed to his world…
If the people asked to leave… would he be forced to grant them that wish…?
“You sound so sure. I wish I had your… pedigree. I was not born to do this.” Allica sighed.
Randidly grinned. “To be honest, my origins are more common than you would think. We don’t like to talk about it, but… I suspect the first half of every success story is just luck. Being at the right place at the right time, and then suddenly you are…”
After taking a long drink, Allica grimaced and said. “The voice of reason?”
Chuckling, Randidly nodded. “Something like that. You happen to be at a spot where you possess both knowledge and capability. Or you act without the knowledge and things work out. Suddenly, when other people lack knowledge, they feel comfortable relying on you to act. You become their foundation. I think, when you talked about leaders, that is what you were getting at.”
Allica nodded slowly and the two stood in a strange silence. As the silence stretched, Randidly began to wonder why it was that Allica called him in here. It took almost eleven minutes, but finally, Allica set down her glass and continued the conversation.
“Speaking of being foundational… You’re fired.”
If Randidly’s jaw could come unhinged, it would have hit the floor. “What?!?”
“You heard me. I appreciate what you are doing. And why you are doing it, but… we both know this isn’t where you belong.” Allica offered her hand. “You are needed elsewhere, Randidly. We can hold down the fort here. It’s time you bring peace to your own lands.”
Smiling, Randidly took Allica hand and nodded. Well, it was about that time anyway. His plants were likely close to grown enough to create seeds. And while he allowed the now batch to grow, he could fashion a torch and begin the work of escaping.
Randidly wondered if he could gift her with a skill as a little reward for letting him stay here for a short time, but Allica had continued to speak. Immediately, Randidly’s face was warped by disbelief. “Normally, I would over a severance package, but due to your unique circumstances… I have no doubt the amount I could offer you would be more insulting than useful. Imagine, a prince receiving a dozen or so silver! I might as well offer you a hand-me-down wind poncho. So go with luck! Know that we will always be behind you.”
This conniving penny-pincher! Mrs. Hamilton, is this your influence?!?