With deliberate steps, Randidly ascended the long staircase toward the surface of the ship. The return trip went much more quickly than the descent. Without any of the confusion and uncertainty, the stairwell was a smooth ride.
“Like all the stories of my generation, it is a story of love.” The Oracle had whispered. “We were demigods, descended upon Tellus. Chosen by the System to represent two sides. The side that sought to help Tellus ascend. And the side that sought to allow Tellus to descend into chaos.”
“…You were the Champions and the Nemesai,” Randidly had said slowly as recognition dawned in his eyes. He licked his lips in shock. “You ARE one of those two beings, even now. That’s why you are so old. And why you feel so… different.”
The Oracle’s crystalline eyes flashed. “Heh, you are smarter than you look. You know the old words. That will make things easier. Yes, we were the Chosen, descending from higher Cohorts to assist with Tellus. This… influence I now have is a remnant of that. I am bound, descending to a lower cohort. But what you feel is part of my true power bleeding through the bonds of the System… it truly has been so long…Even the System ages, boy. The bonds grow weaker. Time will claim us all…”
After trailing off for several seconds, the Oracle looked up sharply. “Now, Mr. Ghosthound, can you answer me this: why do the Chosen choose to descend to a lower Cohort?”
Randidly opened his mouth to guess but then frowned. Based on the way the System operated… the grandest manipulator of them all. It would threaten first and then offer a carrot while treating it as a favor.
As he reached the deck of the ship, Randidly passed the stump of the burnt out candle to the old man, who took it stiffly. “I trust the discussions below went well, Mr. Ghosthound.”
“We disagree on methods. There isn’t anything more to talk about.” Randidly said with a sharp look. He walked to the edge of the deck and dropped onto his waiting longboat below.
As he landed, the many ship captains hopped from boat to boat to see what had happened. All knew of the Oracle, and they were delighted to find out that the Oracle herself came out to support their expedition. Randidly could see in their expressions that it filled them with hope. That they were energized the presence.
Yet Randidly now felt plagued by questions.
“Understandable. That you would mistake that the System steals us based on aptitude. Your mistake is because you are missing a very obvious assumption about those that are Chosen.” The child-Oracle had stood and performed a little curtsy. “We Chosen… we all come from worlds that failed the third Calamity. The System has deemed our worlds to have no further use. Capable, but that isn’t enough for the System any longer. The very planet we live on rots beneath our feet. Coming to a lower Cohort and fighting is not for our own sake, but for the sake of our entire world.
“It is the only way we can obtain life energy for our world.”
“So what next?” Platton finally asked. The group of captains had gathered around Randidly and waited impatiently as he contemplated.
“What do you mean?” Randidly asked lightly. He turned and looked up at the looming ship above them. “We continue on toward the Death School.”
“So what happened?” Randidly had asked.
“There is a task before the First Calamity. You are forced to… name the world. Ha, to think the System still insists that the sharing of information be taboo. Well, it is more complicated than that, but for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. We had eight Champions and eight Nemesai. Fighting to control… the factors necessary to complete this first task.
“You must also understand that our worlds were well aware of what was coming. A hundred years prior to descending to the lower cohorts, we had been found wanting by the third Calamity. Even I don’t know the details, but each world was broken in a way… Life slowly died. Dungeons were inert. Monsters disappeared. Crops slowly failed…
“Then a notification appears, offering a Path to salvation: in twenty years time, the System will require a Chosen. Should they succeed in their task, the world will be granted a measure of respite for their world. Not the thick and rich life energy of when the world was being tested, but… enough.
“So each chosen was carefully picked and trained. At least in my world, it was a bloody business. We might have been traditionally peace-loving and nature-focused people, but… one hundred years of watching your world die changes you. I killed thousands to seize my spot, and I was proud. Oh so proud…”
Randidly had suppressed his impatience as the Oracle’s explanation wandered, even as he wondered if this story could be believed. But it sounded like how the System operated. So he had waited while the Oracle gathered her thoughts.
Then she said. “My apologies. When you have seen so much, sometimes it is difficult to know reality from memories. But yes, eight Champions, eight Nemesai. I was a Nemesai. Auto was one as well.
“And the other… even now, I have forgotten her name. I knew her for the glaive she wielded. A Champion. The strongest. The fastest, the one all we Nemesai feared.
“As we struggled to prevent the naming of the world, there were three years of long war. Millions of those of Tellus died to our machinations. Fighting a war they didn’t fully understand. But those were not all of the losses that occurred. Five Champions and 6 Nemesai died. From sixteen, we were down to five.
“In addition, Tellus was slowly changing. The process of Naming the World shouldn’t have taken as long as it did; already, life energy was slowly leaving the world. As we fought and struggled, we each experienced the acute fear that we would once more watch a world die…”
Sitting cross-legged, Randidly gathered his Willpower and returned to steering the hundreds of longships. The wind across the surface of the sea had picked up, so some had drifted apart to mill around the large Oracle cruise liner. But within five minutes, he had gathered the ships back into formation and began to head out toward the Death School.
To his amusement, the Oracle’s large ship began to follow. Randidly attempted to lose it by increasing his speed, but the huge thing sped up with remarkable alacrity. He grimaced, but then shrugged. If the Oracle followed, so much the better. Randidly had an idea to hasten his construction plans on the Death School.
Even now, he began to make subtle changes to the position of his ships into a different formation.
The Oracle’s eyes had been misty. “We found ourselves at an impasse. Too many had died for this to continue. Fighting shifted from direct wars to subterfuge. The world slowly weakened. Even we Chosen felt our life energy drying up. In order to escape the weakening of our Skills, we all developed images that we could use independent of the System. And of us all… Auto was the best. He wielded needles, and with his images, he could pierce anything. Without the benefit of her Skills, Auto was able to fight the glaive wielder to a standstill. So they made a deal.
“We would cease fighting. Perhaps it was the dying of Tellus, but… we all felt ourselves losing the will to continue. Perhaps it was better… to just accept what had come to pass and live out the rest of our days peacefully. So we did. We allowed our strength to slowly diminish. We had normal lives. Farms. Businesses. While Tellus collapsed around us. It was just easier. Although we each felt our own shame as we let down the homeworld which trained us, that guilt was a double-edged sword.
“For all that we had struggled so hard to obtain such honor, we now resented our worlds that put so much pressure on us. Or at least I did. Auto as well. We developed a deep hatred for those that forced us to this point, and living like peasants was a satisfying sort of revenge. The only sort of revenge we could manage.
“This likely would have continued until we were the last living beings on Tellus. But… something unexpected happened. Part of our peace was that for all that we were weakening, our lives continued. We developed hobbies. Painting, poetry… eternal things. But that illusion of safety was shattered.
“One of the Champions grew sick. The weakness had advanced to the point that even we were no longer immune to the rapidly returning diseases of Tellus. Immediately, we sought each other out. We had felt superior. We had… we had thought we would have so much time.
“I once again ventured out alone after ascertaining that our fellow was dead, but Auto and the glaive user stuck together. I don’t know what happened between them, but even if I did I wouldn’t have the words to describe it. Some truths are secret not because it is not commonly seen, but the only way to understand is to feel it in your hands and in your beating heart. As they say, they fell in love. And as a backdrop, the sickness began to affect us all. Without life energy, the bindings that the System placed on us began to fail. Rather than freeing us, the bindings were killing us.”
Here in the explanation, the Oracle cackled once more. “Quite like these heavy bindings now are more dangerous than they are useful…” Then she had shaken her head.
“Then, the final act to break Auto. The glaive user died. In the wake of her death, Auto had a bitter decision. I am not sure what drove him to think of it… but he decided he was going to save the world that had birthed the woman he had loved so dearly. She had been a Champion, so her world would receive support if Tellus thrived. So Auto butchered his way through the traps we had laid and accomplished what eight Champions could not: he named the world Tellus. And then he slaughtered the First Calamity, hiding the fact that he was a Nemesai.
“And when the Second Calamity came, none of us were surprised that our deepest fear was realized: a world where puppet soldiers were manipulated by distant overseers. At this point, the memories of the survivors toward their home planet… well. Hopelessness seeps into the bones and turns bitter to the taste. The surviving Chosen united and followed Auto in crushing them to bits. His image dominated Tellus, and he prepared to ascend to complete the Second Calamity.
“But the System was watching. It provides no perfect Paths, only appropriate ends. When he was about to ascend, he received a notification: the System was aware that he was a Nemesai, and due to his clever manipulation, the Nemesai worlds would receive the life energy reward for what he had done, not the Champions.
“Ultimately… turning all of his hard work to nothing.
“He stopped the process by severing himself in half. It was the only way. After all, he hated his own world. It was only the memory of his love that Auto attempted to protect now. And the System told him directly that his hands were poisoned; he could not protect another world. Generosity was barred to him.
“Instead, he had to follow in the footsteps of his darkest memories and worst fears; he had to create a puppet soldier from the native population to ascend. He had to become what he hated the most in order to save his love’s world.”