“So many questions, but not an answer in sight,” Randidly muttered to himself. He exchanged a few quick messages with a worried Neveah, who had felt the damage to his Class without knowing how extensive it was.
After assuring her that he was fine, Neveah demanded that he produce their new doppelganger so she could possess it briefly and get a good look at him in the aftermath of what he went through. Exasperated but understanding that this came from a place of worry, Randidly did as she asked.
The doppelganger took the form of Neveah’s human version, an androgynous faced young woman that looked to be Randidly’s sister. For several seconds, the doppelganger was still. Then, as though a light was switched on behind her eyes, she looked sharply up at Randidly. After inspecting him critically for several seconds, Neveah shook her head. “Dangerous. Very dangerous.”
“Yea, that response has occurred to me,” Randidly said with a sigh. Considering what he just experienced, Randidly could finally understand that distinct dread that he had felt in the Creature’s memories. If the System was run by beings like this, Randidly could understand wanting to hide from them at all costs.
“Do you feel it? Some of that energy still lingers.” Neveah lowered her head to next to Randidly’s shoulder and sniffed. “Powerful. Very rigid Aether. Barely any flexibility remains.
“But powerful,” Randidly sighed. He leaned back in his wooden chair and allowed his body to go boneless. Even now, the same helpless feeling he had acquired the moment that thing’s attention came on him hadn’t fully departed.
“Mmm.’” Neveah continued to sniff around, as though seeking more information. As Randidly sat with his eyes closed, he could distantly feel understanding of Neveah’s extremely acute Aether sense that was flowing through their connection. “Well, there is also good news.”
“Oh?” Randidly didn’t bother to move more than his mouth as he answered. Hell, how long had it been since he had taken a breath?
“I do not sense any marks. This is not a subtle power… just a brutal one. So as long as we produce enough Aether to wash these traces away-”
“How long with that take?” Randidly asked. “And are you saying that it is possible to hide from something like that?”
“Perhaps a week. It is certainly slow to leave. Raw energy barely sways it. Only prolonged exposure will work.” Neveah leaned back and shrugged. “And not hide. But make it inconvenient to locate us again. It isn’t a kind truth, but the fact the attention hit you so hard is a good sign; it meant that being had to make a concerted effort in order to reach you.”
Randidly’s mouth crinkled into an unwilling smile. “I like to play hard to get.”
Neveah just gave him a look. “I understand human humor enough to notice that you are no longer speaking literally. But who knows, perhaps to rid yourself of these traces will be enough. In the future, it might be for the best that we undertake no Paths relating to my… special gift I was born inside. It seems those might be a lightning rod for trouble.”
Shaking his head, Randidly said. “I don’t think either of us believes that just getting rid of those traces of Aether will be enough. Which is why-”
“Which is why you are scared,” Neveah said. “You have grown strong. Here on Earth, you have grown into the whole of your strength. Slowly you realize the value of the Crown you bear. But we do not fight against our peers, Randidly. We have always been fighting against the whole of the System itself and the heartless tests it insists upon.
“Did you truly think your enemies would be any less than this?”
“I’m not-” Randidly began, but he begrudgingly shut his mouth. His hands were still trembling as they were clasped loosely in his lap. Showing his teeth to the air, Randidly forced his focus to turn itself inward.
Neveah was right. He was scared. For the first time in a long time, Randidly had encountered something that was so far beyond his own personal ability that he could not see any way to close that gap.
So he was afraid. So he panicked. So he briefly lost his grip.
So Neveah was worried enough that she wanted to speak with him in person.
Randidly released a breath.
Even four years later, the depths of the System is still enough to scare the shit out of me…
Neveah’s right through. This doesn’t change anything. This isn’t any new information.
His emerald eyes refocused. The trembling in his hands slowly ceased.
This was always the caliber of foe I needed to overcome to accomplish my goal. This is just the first time we encountered one another. And although it cannot be denied this one was my tragic loss…
… that doesn’t mean the same will be true for the next time we meet.
……which will hopefully be later rather than sooner…
“Ah, the connection is fading,” Neveah muttered. “It seems we much increase the proficiency of this ability slowly so we can communicate more effectively. For now, do not forget to release a large amount of Aether at all times; only through constant pushing can you get rid of those traces. Good luck.”
Then the Neveah next to him was just a puppet with a fraction of her real Skills and abilities. Randidly dismissed it immediately. There was no point in keeping it around at the moment. Instead, Randidly took several more breaths and enjoyed the quiet of the testing room. Here, finally, he had the chance to reset himself.
The shock of being under the gaze of that… thing had given him a wake-up call. Perhaps the equivalent of the wakeup call that he had spent so much time and effort giving Donnyton. Although the threat that was nearest to arriving was his Judgement, that was never the foe that would make or break Randidly’s struggle.
More than anything else, Randidly knew that it was time to center himself, which he had prepared to do since becoming conscious after the strange mutation of his Grim Chimera image. Without finding his inner balance, he wouldn’t be able to improve. He couldn’t make the decisions that needed to be made in regards to the future. So Randidly closed his eyes and let himself slip into his Soulspace.
Once there, he looked up at the deep cracks and gaps left in his Class. Although the worst of the damage was slowly being nourished by his Soulskill, it still left a rather uneven and haphazard Class that remained in the pressure’s wake. The immaculate pattern that Randidly had been able to weave was largely demolished. The five legs were crooked and patched together.
Well, these were things he had made before. He could make them again. Shaking his head, Randidly turned and walked away from his Class, into the deep darkness of his Soulspace.
After traveling for a few minutes, the Skills and Class and Soulskill were all left far behind. Because it was only once he was alone that the images slowly rose to the surface in the darkness.
To Randidly’s left was a vast tree that stretched upward toward a night sky populated by millions of stars, the tree illuminated from within by a crown made of fire and light. In front of his feet, the thick roots off the world tree stretched down to the infinite depths of the dream ground. The soft sound of rustling leaves filled his ears as a small breeze played its way through the canopy.
To his right, a dark and twisted figure sat alone in the darkness. The ground around it was soaked in blood and smelled like charcoal. As a creature born of resentment and unwillingness, the Grim Chimera did not respond at all to Randidly’s presence. Instead, it remained perfectly inert, a killing machine that was keeping energy expenditures low until necessity urged it into motion.
Surrounding both of these images, small balls of emerald fire flickered and danced in the air. It was this emerald fire that added dimension to this realm of images. Because of that Ignition Essence, it was possible to distinguish between the two images. It became the border between the influence of these two images.
In that road on the boundary between two worlds, Randidly first proceeded to the left. He departed from the boundary word and was soon standing on a field of grass leading to the enormous trunk of the world tree. As he walked, Randidly saw several small roots poking out of the ground and glittering with golden light.
Very soon, Randidly crossed the distance to the tree and was able to lay his hands against the glimmering bark. His first impression was how warm the substance was. After he closed his eyes, that warmth felt like a physical force, radiating outward toward him with an energy that was filled with kindness and understanding.
The World Tree was ultimately a being that supported the world. Of all things, it understood the misery of resistance more than any other image. Undoubtedly Randidly’s struggles seemed very familiar to it.
“We aren’t strong enough, not yet. You can grow even taller at this. Your history can grow longer. And if we don’t manage that…” Randidly said softly. Above him, the rustling of the leaves slowly ceased. Then, in the silence, the ancient branches of the tree moved slightly, creaking its assent to his statement.
Then the warmth underneath his hands grew even more intense. Randidly smiled wryly and shook his head. “You are too much. But… thank you. Your support makes this easier.”
Then he dragged his finger across the pitted bark, feeling the rough and jagged natural runes that covered the bark. Nodding to himself, Randidly turned and walked away, heading back toward the road of emerald flame that let him arrive here.
As he had suspected, the easiest factor to address was the runes themselves. They were increasingly becoming a part of the World Tree image, but they were still shallow and rough; if he wanted to create a Skill that was part of the World Tree Skillset, he would need to address that deficiency.
After reaching the road once more, Randidly continued to the right. There he found darkness and the Grim Chimera.
As he approached, the monster that was born of loneliness and frigid hatred and resent stood tall. It spread its arms wide. The screened blacked of its mouth opened wide, seemingly to question why Randidly had come after restraining it for the past days.
If you want me, take all of me,
the black figure of the Grim Chimera seemed to say.
I am struggle! I am strife! I am war! I am truth!
“You are arrogant,” Randidly said lightly. “You are strong, but you aren’t that strong. You need balance. For without it, you will rush toward the enemy’s bared blade and handle the task of slaying yourself.”
The Grim Chimera just looked at Randidly.
To those weaker, fight. To those stronger, live and evolve. Eventually, all things will become weaker.
Randidly nodded sagely in return. Strangely, he was thrown backward in time. Before him, he saw in the Grim Chimera, but with his own innocent figure imposed upon it. A figure adrift in a world without perspective, drunk on its own improvement. A figure doomed to die if left to continue upon this Path.
“Ah, I see. I, too, required quite a lot of time to learn this lesson.” He held out a hand and his spear condensed within it, born of his pure and focused image.
Randidly leveled his spear at the Grim Chimera. “If you refuse to cooperate… well, that certainly makes things simpler. Let’s make a deal; Beat me now, and you can take control of my body whenever you want. That potency of your image will become permanence.”
The Grim Chimera took an aggressive step forward, but then it paused. It looked uneasily over his shoulder toward the road of emerald fire and the towering tree behind it.
Randidly chuckled. “Do you really think I need to rely on another image to fight? You were born of my will, beast. I know you..”
The Chimera growled, lowering itself into an aggressive stance. For several seconds, Randidly waited, watching it. But the Chimera settled like it was planning on becoming a status. Its blank gaze was fixed upon Randidly, waiting for his move.
We cannot and should not run from ourselves. Now that we finally have time to grow… we cannot cloud it by losing sight of who we are and what we should be doing. You are not an image of destruction… but of survival. You need to remember your core essence.
Then Randidly launched his first attack and was over the course of an hour able to finally relax as he relayed to his Grim Chimera those same lessons about Strength that he learned from Shal all those years ago. Truly, physical exertion carried with it the ultimate sort of release.