“Youngster, my apologies, but my vision isn’t what it used to be.” The old woman said cheerily as she turned around and smiled at him. “I didn’t even notice you. Please, come join this old woman next to the fire and talk awhile.”
Randidly opened his mouth to reply but could only release a groan. It had taken a full hour of standing and enduring the waves of force the old man produced before the old woman had deigned to take notice of his swaying presence. During that time, Randidly was reduced to an extremely groggy state from the constant assaults.
They weren’t necessarily mental attacks, but without a body, Randidly needed to rely on his mental strength in order to resist the mind-boggling pressure. It was like image, but not. It was an expression of image without an image. It was made possible by these individuals believing in something that had no existence. Randidly supposed it was somewhat similar to the myth that those who were extremely powerful with a sword or spear could transform any item they held into that weapon and display fearsome combat prowess.
To an exhausted Randidly, it seemed like this was a realm of image that was beyond the Tellus understanding. It transcended giving sentience to image and allowed these two to give weight to nothing.
The Grim Chimera was salivating. And it seemed the foolish gamble had paid off.
Now, if only I can get my body to behave…
So Randidly staggered up next to the old woman and did his best not to collapse onto the stump next to her. It was only by relying on the healing from his cores, the defense from his bubbles, and Chimeric Avoidance that he had been able to manage to endure to this point, and it had been a close thing.
Over the hour, Chimeric Avoidance Leveled up six times, which was a testament to how grueling a trial it had been.
For the old man’s part, he huffed in annoyance as Randidly approached and walked away with his arms folded behind his back toward slender tent that seemed in danger of toppling into the Armory below. The old man entered into the tent and didn’t look back. It seemed, for better or worse, Randidly had chosen his poison.
Chuckling, the old woman said. “Now where are my manners? My name is Nadia. Would you like some tea?”
“Yes,” Randidly managed to croak. He pressed his eyes closed and opened up a bit more of a flow of Nether from his Nether Wells. It was somewhat frightening to do so next to such a capable old woman, but Randidly didn’t have much choice. Otherwise, he would just pass out. And somehow he sensed that such an action would be considered a failure.
Besides, after learning that Nether principles were a part of the System, Randidly had a bit more confidence in being able to explain away the Nether.
To Randidly’s surprise, he sensed that to prepare the tea Nadia simply took another long drag from her pipe and blew out smoke into the palm of her hand. When he opened his eyes to confirm, a grey cup filled with grey tea was swirling on her palm. She offered it to Randidly with a small smile. With some misgivings, Randidly took the cup.
The substance might have been smoke, but the object felt smooth and cool to Randidly’s overly large claw. He tilted the teacup to the side and watched as the smoke-tea sloshed around, as a liquid normally would. Randidly stared down at it, wondering what the consequences would be for drinking another person’s image. For the first time, Randidly hesitated.
Perhaps talking to these two will end up being more trouble than it was worth…
Apparently, his misgivings were clear on his face, because Nadia chuckled again. “Relax. There is some of my power in it, but none of my grip. And for an image like you, it will be incredibly beneficial to ingest. Consider it a gift.”
So Randidly took a sip of the tea and carefully scrutinized the flow of warmth that flowed into him. But his eyes quickly widened as Randidly realized it was an extremely familiar feeling.
This is the same sort of thing that I receive from the Eidolon Crucible. It really is just more potency and weight to an image… And so much strength is concentrated…
Satisfied, Randidly gulped down the rest. As soon as the cup was empty, it dispersed into smoke once more, flowing around Randidly’s sharp talons and dissipating into the air. With that extra strength reinforcing him, Randidly turned to Nadia with a renewed self-control.
“Although you are but an image, you possess three stars,” Nadia said musingly. “And you are solid enough to survive Kailm’s trial. Interesting. I’ve never seen an image with stars, you know. And I’ve been alive for quite some time. Your kind simply dies too quickly to be that tempered by Nether. Considering how you are essentially suicide soldiers, your growth is nothing short of a miracle.”
Randidly remained silent during Nadia’s musings.
She tapped her cheek. “Plus, you have been given the chance to obtain two Fates as weapons. Fascinating. It will be difficult for your insubstantial body to endure while in the liquid Nether, even with my blessing. Harder still for you to not be corrupted by the Fate you choose, as it possesses physical form and you do not. I would recommend you turn back.”
“You sound like the guard that told me not to approach you,” Randidly said slowly. “But… I believe it will be worth it to make an attempt.”
Even if its just the Skill Levels and the image weight I got from the tea, it was probably worth the hour of misery…
Hell, just seeing the way you can shape smoke and fire with your images would have made this trip worth it. That’s a goal I can pursue.
“Fine then, you would know your limits better than I,” Nadia said with a smile that seemed to imply that the exact opposite was the case. “One more question: why did you pick me? You started walking forward quite aggressively, just the way Kailm likes. Yet then you paused. What changed your mind?”
Randidly saw no reason to lie. “It was your… game? The squirrels and the tree. Once I realized that I could either approach or wait to earn your approval, I judged by with whom I was most aligned. My image… the image that I am… is heavily based upon ash. So I chose based on your ability to manipulate smoke.”
“What…?” There was something strange in her tone that made Randidly look sharply up. Nadia stared at Randidly in slack-jawed amazement for several long seconds. Her mouth began to twitch. Then she was slapping her knee and guffawing, her laugh booming out through the entire valley.
Even the guards who had been nervously watching Zagnal being continually berated paused and looked over at the booming sound.
“Did you hear that Kailm?” Nadia giggled. A snort echoed out from the tent that Kailm had walked into, hitting Randidly with such force that he was knocked off the log on which he was sitting and sent tumbling backward.
Frowning and rubbing his back as he straightened, Randidly stood and regarded the still giggling Nadia. “Is that strange…?”
“Not strange, just… unlucky for you.” Nadia chuckled. “I use smoke and he uses fire as a way to… mock each other. Our relationship is… no longer what it once was. To tell the truth, my image is related to the fires of rebirth and Kailm is the ashes of war. So in essence, we deceived you into choosing the opposite of what you wanted.”
“Uh…” Randidly blinked.
“To make matters worse,” Nadia continued to speak as her smile quickly shrunk. “I am… well, I won’t beat around the bush; I am less potent than Kailm. Not considerably so, but I am not his equal. If he truly wishes to kill you while you are in the armory, I wouldn’t have a hope of stopping him. So it could be said that you made the worst possible choice, given your particular circumstances.”
“To be honest, I’m only explaining this so perhaps Kailm will find it in his withered heart to pity you and refrain from smashing you between two current of liquid Aether. And because this is quite far and away the most amusing thing that has happened here for quite some time.” Nadia’s cheer returned. “But! Don’t lose all hope. There is one… benefit I can offer you that Kailm would never be able to equal.”
Randidly blinked rapidly, scrambling to keep abreast with all of the casual revelations coming from Nadia. “And that is…?”
“Our daughter’s Fate.” Now Nadia’s face was completely devoid of a smile. “She… took her own life, so there is some inherent danger to interacting with such a Fate. Yet it is based upon fire, and it is an incredibly powerful weapon. My purview is fire, so that weapon is mine to give. I guarantee, if you manage to completely harness the power of this Fate, no one on this battleground aside from Kailm and myself would be your equal.”
However, the Grim Chimera had Randidly narrowing his eyes. Not only was Randidly inherently suspicious of relying on external power, but the sudden proposition sounded too good to be true. “But why would you offer such a precious weapon to me?”
“If I’m being honest…” For a second, Nadia’s eyes were filled with flame. “My daughter and I can both be considered distantly related to phoenixes. And I hope that her Fate will devour you and allow her consciousness to be reborn.”
That gave Randidly pause.
Well, at least that was an honest answer…
A split second later, Nadia’s cheery smile was back. She waved her hand and dispersed a spray of sparks that sank into Randidly’s body and left him tingling.
Grimacing, Randidly opened his mouth quickly before she sent him away. “Can you answer me one thing? What are Fates, truly? When I pick them out… what am I getting?”
Nadia paused and studied Randidly. Then she shrugged. “There isn’t really harm in telling you. Classes in the System, and Fates by extension, are prayers for an impossible connection. A Fate is a guidepost forward toward that goal. It seeks to create a path to make the ideal, imagined form of yourself real.
“Which, of course, is impossible.” Nadia continued. “No matter how real or powerful an image becomes, it never is
, not in the same way that we- well, not you, but, not in the way that physical bodies are real.”
Randidly was honestly rather shocked by that frank admission. “What do you mean, it’s not real? We can use images to affect the real world. They take up space, they can be seen and felt. Isn’t that real?”
Nadia gave Randidly a disappointed look. “What a strange thing to say. Isn’t reality affected by basically anything? Paranoia, emotions, rumors, and culture, they all warp our reality. But aren’t they all substanceless constructs? We are never bound by them, no matter how powerful they are. We can walk through them if we wish. We can transcend the limits of those who seek to define our nature. Because we are
To Randidly’s surprise, Nadia reached out and touched Randidly’s face. “You… cannot understand yet. To truly understand, you need to lose something incredibly precious. Someone. Because no matter how powerful my image or my ex-husband’s became, we could never recreate our daughter. Not truly. Image can mimic but never achieve substance, no matter how thin that distinction becomes, no matter how much we pray it was not so. Just like how the Nether can never return to its glorious past, no matter how united it becomes with the memory.”
Again, Randidly had to scramble to try and pull apart the dense train of logic Nadia was following. Finally, he opened his mouth and asked. “Then why? Why have Fates at all if they are just failed attempts?”
“Has impossibility ever stopped us from wanting the impossible?” Nadia laughed rather sadly. Then her face grew somewhat stormy. “And eventually, with so many failed hopes and prayers piled up… who knows what the being who holds all that unrealized power would be able to do. Perhaps if quality is not enough, quantity will be.”
Then, with a sharp gesture, Nadia tossed Randidly over the edge of the hole and into the swirling currents of liquid Aether.