Lazareth’s face flushed red. “Do I look like the type to whose feelings are so mediocre that they can be described with the term ‘crush’? And you… now that I have given you a look… I recognize you as well. Not your name, or your face… but I can feel the energy that flows through you. Which means… you are the key to leaving this forsaken world.”
Randidly raised his eyebrows. Not that it should be surprising that Lazareth could recognize their connection, but his motivation seemed strange. “Oh?”
“I felt your call… when all the strange happening began occurring in this world.” Lazareth said quietly. His smile was wide enough to show his razor sharp canines. “I’ve lived one hundred and fifty years here, struggling every day under the burden of this cursed place. And I can sense that you hold the secret to escaping. You’ve connected me to the world… and when I seize control of it-”
“Ah, so your emotions fall somewhere between a crush and just one more meaningless event within this cursed place?” Azriel smirked. “How… genuine.”
Lazareth immediately flushed. “No… I… this… this and that are… Azriel, for you…”
While Lazareth was stumbling over his words, Randidly watched the lion man with serious eyes. Although it was somewhat shocking to hear, what he had said wasn’t wrong; Randidly, Lazareth, and three others were intimately connected in a stabilizing formation to anchor his Domain on this side, just like his physical body and his original four Aether connections attached him on Earth.
Therefore, it seemed theoretically possible for Lazareth to use that connection to usurp Randidly’s control of the connection. But Randidly didn’t have the faintest clue how one would go about accomplishing that, or what it would concretely mean if it occurred. Would Lazareth then be able to possess Randidly’s body on Earth while Randidly was stuck here in the Alpha Cosmos?
Lazareth’s panicked eyes settled on Randidly. Undoubtedly, Randidly’s puzzlement was clear on his face as he considered the implications of what Lazareth suggested. It seemed that this was enough of a provocation for Lazareth to roar and leap toward Randidly.
“This is your fault…!”
The ground beneath Lazareth cracked and shattered from the physical strength of his charge. His hands spread outward and long claws emerged from his fingers. Randidly grinned; it seemed it wasn’t just his head that looked like a lion.
Randidly had somewhat expected this. When Randidly touched Lazareth in order to make the connection, he felt a brief impression of who Lazareth was. And that was someone who was motivated by a deep loss that had been contained in his chest for so long that it had slowly curdled into hate and fury. Honestly, his path was quite similar to the one walked by Alta.
But Lazareth had no Lucretia to carefully arrange the situation to his benefit. Which lowered the threat of Lazareth to the point that Randidly hadn’t bothered to keep tabs on him, but it might also make him more unstable.
Seeing that Azriel was simply amused by the display of emotion, Randidly sighed and hopped to his feet in a flash. He didn’t bring Acri into the Alpha Cosmos with him, but Randidly had been studying the spirit of his Skills for the last several months. Even without a spear, Randidly was nowhere near harmless.
Molten Fang of the Pariah.
A cherry red glow gathered around Randidly’s right hand as heat condensed. HIssing from the sharp pain of the burning heat, Randidly raised his right hand and prepared to meet Lazareth.
Although this man was only a denizen of the Alpha Cosmos, and therefore didn’t have any real grasp of how images could be used yet, Randidly knew that Lazareth was powerful. He immediately scanned Lazareth and saw that the other man was a staggering Level 72. More than that, when Randidly looked at his Skill Levels-
Randidly frowned imperceptively.
Wait…why is reading his Aether so difficult?
But by that point, Lazareth’s claws were about to land. Randidly’s hand speared outward to intercept. The collision shook the air, causing the nearby bushes and trees to sway. Azriel delicately crossed her legs and watch the confrontation with amusement.
“…how…?” Lazareth seemed genuinely shocked that Randidly had been able to stop his attack. Randidly was surprised too, but he just tightly pressed his lips together.
Seems like being Level 72 wasn’t just for show.
Sidestepping quickly, Randidly moved to the side and slammed his leg against the side of Lazareth’s knee. Grunting, the other man endured the blow and stalked forward with blazing eyes. It seemed like the fact the two of them possessed similar levels of Strength wasn’t enough to shake his mentality for long. And Randidly had a rather critical weakness.
Even if I have the essence of my Skills pretty well fixed… fighting with only one arm is difficult,
Randidly thought with a grimace. But in the few breaths before Lazareth attacked Randidly was able to determine why the reading of Lazareth’s Aether was so difficult.
It was somewhat like a doctor trying to perform an examination on himself. Although it was theoretically possible, the difference in perspective and feedback made some of the seemingly effortless judgment calls he usually made much more difficult. What was most disturbing about this realization was that it corroborated Lazareth’s theory about seizing control here in the Alpha Cosmos.
Of course, it gave no true insight on what would happen if this beast man was able to accomplish that… It wasn’t that anything would really change. Randidly’s physical body and the Alpha Cosmos were one, connected by Randidly’s soul. But the Alpha Cosmos being connected to Randidly’s body was somewhat… unusual. So unusual that it hadn’t been seen in the history of the System. As Randidly was pioneering and had done it while under extreme duress, he had been rather haphazard in his anchoring.
Did that give this monster an opening…?
Randidly’s emerald eyes refocused; once more Lazareth lashed out at him.
Chimera Weeps, But Man Mourns.
Randidly’s one good arm struck out eight times in quick succession. His blows smashed into Lazareth’s chest and arms, bypassing his defense simply on the virtue of pure speed. And although Randidly’s hand wasn’t a weapon, his powerful physical improvement passives gave him the ability to leave deep gashes with just his fingers.
However, Lazareth didn’t take these strikes lying down. While Randidly was inflicting wounds on him, his body shifted. One of his arms became covered in thick scales. The slash abruptly shifted into a thrust, and Randidly’s arm was too busy striking to defend.
Lazareth smashed Randidly downward into the ground, shattering the cobblestone path. Randidly’s bones groaned uncomfortably from enduring the strike. Thankfully, Randidly had started putting more on an emphasis on his Endurance, or he likely would have quite a few fractures in his torso. Again, Lazareth was shocked by Randidly’s continued resistance. His eyes widened in surprise, and there was a split second where his focus slackened.
Man is Proud, but the Chimera Craves.
With his hand curled into a claw, Randidly ripped into Lazareth’s side. The Skill that was the combination of Spear Advances, Ash Trails and As the Sun Stills threw both of them across the courtyard and buried Lazareth into the wall. Rumble clattered down, burying Lazareth in a short pile of stone.
Breathing heavily, Randidly walked back over to Azriel.
She quirked her eyebrow up at him. “You weren’t surprised by his abilities?”
Randidly shook his head slowly. “No… I was not.”
In their original moment of connection, Randidly had felt Lazareth and his capabilities. Lazareth didn’t truly have any active Skills at all. Instead, he had created a body that was extremely powerful and was able to switch the constitution of its muscular structure at the drop of a hat. Dangerous and erratic, and almost impossible to beat in a battle of stamina, Lazareth was not an easy foe to fight. Especially with one arm.
But for the same reason, Lazareth was nowhere near the threat of Alta, even though he was the prince of the Armgrast Empire. He was a man focused on improving his individual power through training and repetition, not by modifying himself into a metal monster. And he didn’t have access to images yet.
Striking with enough force to knock him out, therefore, was all Randidly-
But of course, as Randidly had that thought, the wall quaked and rumbled. Huffing in irritation, Lazareth pushed himself out of the collapsed wall. “You… do you think this will stop me…? Even if you win this fight, all I need to do is try again until I defeat you.”
For a second, Randidly was consumed by the impulse to kill Lazareth right here. It might destabilize his Alpha Cosmos, but it would eliminate a threat that could sabotage him from within in the future. Just like Alta, Lazareth could perhaps turn the whole Soulskill against him. Even if he was currently a lesser threat, images were spreading in the Alpha Cosmos. Soon, Lazareth’s abilities would grow.
But just as quickly, Randidly sighed and shook his head. To be fair, he didn’t really understand what Lazareth could accomplish, the man’s poisonous optimism aside. Did he really pose a threat against Randidly? How would he seize control of the anchoring point?
And also, Randidly was somewhat exhausted. It seemed like too many times in the past year he had been forced to make decisions regarding the lives of others. HIs Crown weighed heavily upon his head.
The question he had half-jokingly asked Azriel came back to him in a flash.
Which came first, the king or the Crown?
One of Azriel’s questions buzzed in his mind.
The sort of world that you can create by being good at fighting… isn’t that what we have already earned?
With a small smile, Randidly turned to Azriel. “I suppose you’ll be fine here?”
“Quite so,” Azriel smirked. “If I withhold first aid from him, won’t he just bleed out? Go on, I’ll take care of things.”
“Don’t ignore me,” Lazareth spat. Randidly shifted his gaze to the wounded man. Although Azriel had exaggerated the state of his wounds, Lazareth was definitely not in a good state. Anger wafted off of him like a pungent smell. Just like he had been hoping to surprise Randidly with this quick switch of tactics, he had been blindsided by Randidly’s sudden attack and was now paying for it.
Am I a hypocrite?
Randidly wondered. Just a month ago, he had calmly allowed his Riders to kill a minor threat out of fear and preoccupation. But now that this man was before him… Randidly felt his determination to kill waning.
Setting aside the damage it might do to my anchoring here in the Alpha Cosmos… I’ve always wondered what I should have done, or said, to Alta to prevent what happened. Maybe this… is just my chance.
Guilt, responsibility, grief… I can’t really even tell which is which anymore…
Randidly’s smile as he gazed at Lazareth was sad. “Don’t destroy the old world before you have the strength to build a new one, Lazareth. I’m sure we will meet again.”
Then Randidly turned and walked away.
I always thought I had finally found what kind of Crown I wore… what sort of man I was. But… perhaps the truth isn’t so simple…