Before Randidly left his Soulskill, he sought out someone who was the closest thing that Randidly had to a friend.
To his surprise, he found Azriel standing in an ornate courtyard quite deep within the continent of his Soulskill. And after he arrived, it took not a little doing just to try and get inside the ornate courtyard. The courtyard was located in the capital of the largest political entity on the continent, the Armgrast Empire. From the little that Randidly heard about it, the Empire was not kind to the new arrivals in the continent.
If there was a war soon, it would start with the ambitious Armgrast Empire and its bloodthirsty emperor.
In addition to being in one of the largest and most bustling cities in his Alpha Cosmos, the tiny courtyard itself was extremely well protected and tucked within the grounds of some noble’s estate. Plus, four people with a Level of 40 or higher stood around the courtyard, preventing anyone from entering without their permission.
For a place that had only had Classes readily available for eight months, having so many who were above Level 40 instantly made Randidly suspicious of who owned it. But when he scanned them with his Aether, it was clear that they were locals. These were not people that Randidly had brought with him from Tellus.
Unfortunately for them, these people didn’t benefit from the knowledge that Classes were important, but not as important as Skill Levels. As such, it was clear that they had relatively few and unimpressive Skills and Paths available to them. Therefore, they were more like scarecrows than true warriors who had obtained Level 40.
Ultimately, Randidly was able to rely on his extremely high Agility and Reaction to just brute force the issue of sneaking. When he entered, Randidly whistled quietly. The courtyard was filled with flowering bushes and paper lanterns. It honestly seemed like the sort of place used for a lover’s tryst. Which made Randidly even more confused.
The third and final shock was probably the one that hit Randidly the hardest. When he entered the courtyard, he saw Azriel.
…at least that explains the decor of the courtyard… wait, fuck, no, now it makes even less sense!
Now, Randidly was always aware that Azriel was beautiful in a stark, intense sort of way, but he had never seen her in a moment where she had taken pains to highlight that side of herself. Tonight, Azriel was dressed to the nines. She wore a flowing crimson silk dress that stopped mid-thigh. Her eyes were bright and luminous in the dark night. Her pale ivory hair seemed to catch the light and refract it to illuminate her thin and sharp features.
“Azriel, you dressed up?” Randidly blurted out.
Azriel tilted her head to the side and looked over toward Randidly. She didn’t seem very surprised at his sudden appearance but she offered him a half smile. “Based on that reaction, you seem not to be the one who called me out here. Interesting. But yes, I’ve tried over the past few months to… slow down a bit in my training and experience the small joys of existence. It’s really quite thrilling.”
Randidly thought to himself in awe.
This fourth surprise is the one that is the most stunning.
“Did something happen? You want to slow down? And someone called you out here, huh?” Randidly’s questions skittered out of his mouth like nervous lizards. This was Azriel. The one who pursued speed and strength to perfection. A quick Aether scan indicated that she had obtained the Class Mourning Star Vanguard. She wanted to slow down?
Azriel shrugged and then pushed her hair up behind her ear. She was wearing obsidian studs in her ears. “Nothing has really happened… aside from having my soul emptied out and used as a vessel for my master’s image, and almost dying from it… So nothing specific. I’ve just… Traveling with Rejt and fighting monsters… I don’t know. For the first time, I don’t have a concrete goal. It disturbs me. I think that’s why I came here at all.
“I received an invitation that demanded I come to this address… and look like a queen. It seemed amusing, and I’ve quite enjoyed the process.”
Randidly was silent. Setting aside the issue of this strange invitation, it was hard for Randidly to imagine the glory and image-focused Azriel switching to… take things easy. How long had this been going on?
“You are still very poor at controlling your facial expressions,” Azriel commented. She shook her head. “But I understand, well enough, what you are feeling. Rejt’s expression was even more exaggerated when I told him. He thought it was a joke for almost a month before he believed it and tracked me down. So I’ve had plenty of time to think about why I… felt compelled to do this.”
“…how long have you been taking a break?” Randidly asked.
As she chuckled at Randidly’s continued surprise, Azriel brought up her hand to cover her growing smile. “Ha, truly, terrible at hiding emotions. It’s been almost six months. I still participate in daily training… but I don’t worry as much about pushing my limits. I’m more focused on experiencing the essence of the moves I use. And honestly, I’ve continued to grow. In a different way… but it’s somewhat fascinating.”
“Six months…?” Randidly frowned as he tried to understand what Azriel was saying. She had slowed down her training personally? Azriel? The one so driven that she had been willing to sacrifice her soul for the plots of her Master?
Although Randidly’s thoughts stuttered back to the same point like a broken record, that was because Randidly was still scrambling to understand the situation.
Azriel sighed. “Admittedly, I have no doubt that you would be able to kill me within a minute if we were to fight right now. I am growing in a way I cannot put a value on… but it wouldn’t have been enough for me in the past. But for me now… it is just enough.”
When Randidly was silent again, Azriel snorted. But then her expression grew sad. “Randidly… I’ll just say this. The sort of world that you can create by being good at fighting… isn’t that what we have already earned?
“Not that I plan on ceasing my efforts to improve.” Azriel shrugged. “But I am simply attempting different methods of growing stronger. Without the goal of assisting my Master… Even though I came here to help you grow… There are many ways to grow. Perhaps I will someday be the key for you to evolve beyond your current means.”
“Azriel…” Randidly couldn’t find words to explain what he was feeling. This strange twist came too suddenly. Perhaps a reason that it felt like such a strange betrayal was that it smelled suspiciously similar to the slow corruption that Alta experienced. In this case, it pushed Azriel toward a peaceful Path… but it definitely wasn’t something that felt like a positive development.
Again, his Alpha Cosmos seemed to be slipping out from his fingers while he dealt with other things. Even though Randidly’s talk with Lucretia about letting this place developed as it would was still fresh in Randidly’s mind, that didn’t mean that this didn’t send a fresh sliver of fear crawling into his heart.
But Randidly seized that sliver of fear with an iron fist of Willpower.
And this is exactly why the Grim Chimera was so affected. I’ve kept my insecurities too tightly bundled to let them breathe.
Randidly thought sadly. Then Randidly shook his head wildly.
God damn it, spending so much time working on images had made me almost maudlin in terms of self-reflection. It’s a double-edged sword…
“…Thanks,” Randidly released a deep breath. His heartbeat slowed to deep, even strokes. Azriel’s eyebrows rose. Randidly shrugged. “I just mean… I’ve become more and more of a leader to the people around me. It’s honestly… kinda a relief that you don’t give a shit what I’m doing and you are looking for your own Path.”
“Ha! No thanks is necessary. The relief of not having to rely on you is reward enough.” Azriel smirked. Randidly punched her shoulder lightly. The glittering curtain of her hair swayed as she took the blow in good cheer.
“Also, I feel compelled to ask…” Azriel studied Randidly’s face. “Why did you feel the need to take up the reigns of leadership now? You had avoided them for so long. And you certainly don’t have any natural talent in that area.”
Randidly’s expression turned sour. “I have a question for you: what came first, the king or his Crown? Recently, I’ve discovered-”
“Well, well, well…” A low voice cut Randidly off. Both he and Azriel turned to regard the new arrival to the courtyard. Striding out of the lantern-lit paths, a tall man who looked like an anthropomorphic lion regarded the two sitting on a bench with blazing eyes. “I’m glad to see that you arrived here safely, Azriel Blanche. But what I wonder… is how did this man slip past my guards?”
Azriel looked at Randidly in amusement. “Ah, the mysterious host has arrived. So you were not invited?”
“… I was not,” Randidly said slowly. His eyes began to glow emerald. “But… I do know this man.”
“Indeed? Then let my introduce myself; I am Lazar Stone, the finest diamond merchant in the capital.” The man’s gaze flickered as he studied Randidly, but then his eyes were drawn to Azriel, like metal to a lodestone. “Azriel, after seeing you once, I… I had to admit that it hit me like a physical weight. I’ve been watching you from afar for weeks-”
“Liar,” Azriel interrupted the lion man in turn. Then she frowned slightly. “Well… not about the watching. Has that been you? That’s good, it seems that I won’t have to go looking for the culprit.”
Then she turned to Randidly. “You know his real name?”
“Strangely, I do…” Randidly said quietly. Even now, he was surprised he hadn’t realized the other man was approaching. After all, Aether flowed cleanly between the two of them. This man was one of the four individuals who responded when Randidly needed to ground his connection to the Alpha Cosmos when he had created the Domain. “His name is Lazareth Armgrast. Prince and heir-apparent to the Armgrast Empire. And it appears… he has a crush on you.”