Randidly’s eyes were locked on the flickering violet liquid that he saw at the base of the staircase for almost a full minute. But even as that sight dragged him inexorably forward, the presence of the towering piles of bones reminded Randidly that he couldn’t approach this strange water casually. In haphazard piles, the bones stretched up so high that stacks teleported Randidly from a staircase into a corridor, leading down toward the flickering luminous liquid below
It’s the same color as Lyra’s eyes.
Randidly thought with a distant sigh. For a second he pictured Lyra’s playful smirk, but he quickly banished that memory and focused on the task at hand. Whirling his Aether defensively around himself, he proceeded down amongst the tall walls.
However, one thing became abundantly clear as he moved downward. As Randidly approached and could examine every detail of the almost unnaturally placid liquid Aether, he could also sense that the Aether itself was slowly evaporating. It was extremely minute, but the natural laws of the world were forcibly pulling up the unnatural liquid Aether and spreading it in the air.
That would explain the sharp change in Aether around here, but…what sort of process can liquify energy…?
Randidly arrived at the last unsubmerged step and looked down at the tranquil red-violet barrier in front of him. Its light painted the surrounding bone walls like some freshly used torture chamber of hell, all shadows and fresh blood. By this point, the bones around the staircase were like towering mountains. The staircase was several meters across, but all but the center portion of the steps were covered in small bits of bones that had rolled down to settle on the staircase.
For almost a minute, Randidly just looked downward, mesmerized by the sight. A violet-red reflection of Randidly looked back up at him. The liquid served as a distinct and constantly shrinking boundary. Yet there was no distinctive runic marking to show what Randidly should do next. Which probably meant…
“…I’m supposed to just walk down into the water….?” Randidly wondered. He glanced around at the bones, which sat in the Aether. That set Randidly’s teeth on edge. Because if the Aether was slowly becoming gas, and this particular spot held no meaning, it meant that this entire hole was once filled with liquefied Aether.
Therefore, these bones were the remains of those who had attempted to walk the staircase in the past. The boundary had no real meaning; it was just part of the journey to follow the maker’s plan. With a grim smile, Randidly squatted next to the edge of the liquid Aether and stuck his toe into it.
Immediately, Randidly felt even his body slowly being eroded by the incredibly dense and volatile energy. The pain started as a dull throb but quickly shot upward toward roasting his foot over an open flame. Even as Randidly’s gaze began to shine with a luminous emerald light, he did not move his foot.
He let the pain build and build, savoring it. Then, as it neared a white-hot spear that shot up to his thigh, Randidly wove his own Aether together and slipped it around his limb like a sock. Almost immediately, the pain died down to nothing. His body was bitterly sour, but it the damage after exposure wasn’t permanent.
Was the boost from the glove supposed to somehow negate this…?
Randidly was skeptical. One hundred of Endurance and Vitality wouldn’t swing the needle at all in regards to something like this.
The liquid Aether was, Randidly realized, perhaps the most physically demanding substance he had ever encountered. Immediately, Randidly couldn’t help but be rather impressed with its ability to destroy. It would be a better weakening liquid than even his activated blood…
Assuming all went well with whatever the maker had planned, Randidly planned on stealing all of the remaining liquid. It might be a bit troublesome to find a substance to contain it, but Randidly was used to being creative. But for the actual descent into the liquid Aether…
Randidly focused and the twisted form of the Grim Chimera superimposed itself on his body. Gnashing its teeth, the Grim Chimera scowled at the liquid Aether and stepped down into the dangerous substance. This time, the pain was much more slow to build. But as the Grim Chimera waded deeper, the Aether covered his legs, his waist, his chest. Breathing felt like dragging a rather dull knife repeated through an open wound.
But the Grim Chimera’s body had an incredible power of adaption. Very soon, Monstrous Physicality caused the monster’s skin to shift and warp. The pain diminished somewhat as somehow the Grim Chimera began to absorb a portion of the liquid’s energy and use that to heal himself. Honestly, Randidly was impressed at the rather impromptu evolution.
With the problem of the liquid taken care of, Randidly proceeded downward at a slightly faster clip. Soon he was completely submerged, but luckily there wasn’t any buoyancy that slowed his descent. Which was good, because even if he could manage to resist the Aether right now, the damage was accumulating to the Grim Chimera. And the threat of an ambush made Randidly continually on edge.
Finally, after five minutes of drifting slowly downward through the ooze like liquid Aether, Randidly was smacked in the face with the image of timelessness. One that was so strong that Randidly had to press his Willpower more tightly over his Grim Chimera incarnation in order to maintain it.
Strong… unbelievably strong.
Randidly thought rather solemnly as he peered the perspective warping red-violet energy surrounding him.
But this also confirms that the maker of the arrows and the originator of the image are at least related. It probably shouldn’t, but that makes it easier to believe the arrows weren’t some elaborate trap…
Huffing out a breath, Randidly continued downward. The last few steps of the staircase were warped and semi-melted, but they were clearly usable.
So Randidly took the final step and stood at the bottom of the lake of liquid Aether, before a maroon crystal box. For several seconds he studied it; honestly, the box was rather damaged. The corners appeared to have crumbled off. But as Randidly leaned forward, the skin of the Grim Chimera began to sizzle from the proximity to the box.
Two things occurred to Randidly at once. The first thing was what this crystal might be. The second thing was why the crystal appeared so familiar to Randidly. HIs heart pounded in his head and the incarnation of the Grim Chimera flickered and faded. Randidly’s shocked face was all that remained.
Aether swirled like a cyclone around him to push away the foreign Aether. Because Randidly knew this crystal. Or at least, he had seen a crystal like this in the past. One with the same structure. A crystal so vast that it had more in common with a continent than a piece of expensive jewelry.
“It’s fucking…” Randidly sucked in a sharp breath. His hands clenched into fists and veins bulged out like tenacious worms on his arm “Solidified Aether… That means that the being at the middle of that huge continent of crystal…”
Almost reflexively, Randidly’s high Intelligence began doing some idle calculations. Based on a brief observation of the liquid Aether, Randidly estimated it was about one hundred times as potent as its gaseous relative. It was weak logic, but if the conversion from liquid to solid was a similar matter of quantity…
Ten thousand times. It was no wonder that fucker shook Randidly to his core and ripped apart his Class by glancing at him.
It took several minutes for Randidly to control the surging sea of emotions. In this regard, his Crown was extremely useful. As it manifested above him, it cowed the surrounding energy. Although partly, the aura of timelessness he had infused into his Yggdrasil image likely marked him as a friendly entity to the uncontrolled Aether. Immediately, the pressure on him from the liquid Aether lessened as it seemed to recognize a kindred spirit.
Once Randidly had control of himself, he examined the crystal box more carefully. There were runic markings around it, but the function of the box was immediately clear. Randidly’s face twisted into a smile. “So, I was right about this being a tomb…”
The body was obscured by the cracked and pitted crystal, but there was clearly someone lying within. The only problem was the carved message in front of the coffin. As with the arrows, there were dozens of engravings around it, designed to make sure that the Engraving would not fade easily with the passage of time.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed. The maker of this place had brought Randidly here to open up the coffin? That seemed… like a gamble. Even setting aside the dangerous liquid Aether that was greedily devouring Randidly’s skin even at the moment, the rather quiet image of timelessness that Randidly was used to had grown to a mammoth of determination. It was the potent image that was ultimately more difficult to deal with than the Aether.
After all, Aether needed a master to be put to use. This image persisted without someone guiding it for quite a long time. It might even be that the maker of this arrangement had been one that Tellus referred to as a Master, so the body within the coffin might be the sleeping image.
The size of this crystal box and that continent of crystal were incomparable. But they both signaled that the two associated individuals were at a higher tier of existence than Randidly. They were beings with true power. Did that mean it was too dangerous to risk following the instructions on the Engraving?
The other option was just to steal the remaining liquid Aether and leave without attempting to break the coffin. But not only was Randidly unsure of how to store the liquid Aether, Randidly also believed that the liquid Aether lake was just a byproduct of the coffin slowly decomposing.
Which made Randidly wonder how impressive this place had originally been. Perhaps there was once a whole temple made of solidified Aether on the plateau? Until it began to fracture and flood the surrounding area.
Idly, Randidly commanded the root that was waiting outside of the lake of Aether to shoot toward him. Almost immediately, the root began to disintegrate as it bravely dived downward. But Randidly forced more and more Mana into the root in order to delay the inevitable decomposition. By the time it reached him, it was nothing more than a gnarled and dehydrated branch. With a deft movement, Randidly snatched the glove that was hanging off the end.
It was clear then that this was meant to be the key. This chisel was the way to break the coffin.
The maker of this place had never hidden their intentions to lead individuals here. The only true question was why go to so much trouble. And that question had bothered Randidly so much in the past that he had rather casually allowed the deaths of Ki-Kunot and her people.
But something shifted now that Randidly knew definitively that the creator of the timelessness image was also the maker of these signs. Randidly had spent so much time seeking the truth of the image of timelessness that it was difficult for him to not associate that image with himself.
More than that, the timelessness of this image that Randidly had thoroughly injected into the World Tree was very different than the begrudging resistance to change that the Grim Chimera possessed. That was an energy fueled by unwillingness and spite. It thrived on negative emotions. Yet this timelessness was just… endurance. A will that had stretched beyond exhaustion to simply persist as a force of nature.
There was no malice there, only determination. It was a Willpower usage that was based on acceptance.
While Randidly awkwardly wiggled his fingers so the left-handed glove was on his right hand, he turned and bowed slightly to the West.
I’m so sorry. Nine thousand one hundred and six. I won’t forget. But I’ll learn from this.
Then Randidly turned and struck the crystal coffin.