As Randidly watched, the image in front of him reformed into a muddy training ground. To his great relish, it seemed he had begun watching the scene in his Nether Ritual right as a large group of people was nearing the image stones that Randidly left for the Order Ducis to use to train. Even though Randidly had continued to periodically face the Eidolon Crucible, he still worried that his people would fall behind in terms of image without him present to prod them forward.
It seemed, however, that Randidly’s worry was in vain.
Naffur seemed to be explaining the image stone to a new group of people who stood somewhat apart from the older potential inductees. The reason that the difference between the two groups was obvious was their garb; the individuals that had spent the past two months as part of the Order Ducis recruitment camp seemed more like refugees than well-trained soldiers. Their leathers were ripped and worn from long hours of fighting without the chance of a break.
In addition, the Order Ducis aspirant’s legs were slathered with mud like they had already trooped to the training field once today already and had done more violent work than that besides. Faded bloodstains were clear on their armor and their eyes looked extremely unfocused as Naffur faithfully recounted the information Randidly had given him about the stones. It was almost like the Order Ducis aspirants were taking advantage of this explanation that they already understood in order to recover some mental strength.
Randidly’s focus quickly shifted to the individual he had focused on to see this spectacle, Vye. Randidly had considered Naffur as the target, but he didn’t really care about what large scale actions the Order Ducis was engaged in right now. After seeing the strength of Mjolnir, what Randidly wanted most was to confirm that the Order Ducis had continued to furiously train itself while he was away. To that end, Randidly considered Vye the best target.
Vye currently stood at the front of the crowd of people who had clearly been a part of the Order Ducis for a long time. Next to her stood two men, one of which Randidly recognized as someone Naffur considered to have the highest potential in the camp and the other was someone who Randidly was pleased to see didn’t wear any shoes.
It’s good to see that some people understand the simple pleasures of mud on bare feet,
Randidly grinned. Then he released a breath and calmed his heart. As he forced his own Perception to slow down, the actions of the figures he was watching steadily accelerated to normal speed.
But instead of using this chance to listen to Naffur’s words, Randidly inspected Vye more closely. It was hard to see the image through the lens of Nether, likely because of its antagonistic relationship with Aether, but Randidly could definitely feel that there was a powerful image slowly taking shape in Vye’s heart.
While he had been gone, the Order Ducis had not been idle.
However, Randidly could tell that this momentum would very soon peter out. As he looked at the image stones, it was clear that a lot of their potency had faded. These people had been forced to grow from exposure to his powerful images, but they were not permanent items that could hold his image; they looked to have depleted to only half of the original power.
If only he could send-
Randidly blinked. Because as he earnestly wished for something he could do, Randidly suddenly
that he could do something. The Nether Ritual whispered in his ear some sort of instinctual explanation, but he couldn’t quite understand what it was saying. The sensation… the sensation itself was quite similar to what Randidly had felt when he had been watching Vualla. There seemed suddenly to be an obvious path between him and Vye that Randidly could use to reach and affect the situation.
There was a humming connection hanging between them, built of inky black darkness and lined with pulsing blue veins.
But why do I feel this now?
I didn’t feel it with Mrs. Hamilton. If I hadn’t felt the sensation with Vualla, I would just assume it was because of my Aether Connection with Vye. But this…
Shaking his head, Randidly didn’t worry about it any further. He wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth now. He could figure out why later. For now, he reached
Vye blinked dully as Naffur continued to explain the use of the image stones to the group of people from Zone 19 that had gathered around as Kharon, the Wandering City, settled down next to their Village. After understanding that the city was part of one of the rumored ‘Orders’ from New Earth, there had been quite a bit of interest in applying which had led to a staggering amount of travelers heading to Kharon’s temporary resting place.
Considering that the eight hundred or so applicants that had gathered over the last week for the trial had been narrowed down to two dozen, Vye assumed that Naffur hadn’t really bothered to adjust the entrance difficulty to match the fact that these individuals only recently passed their Raid Dungeon.
Honestly, Vye was a little disappointed she hadn’t been able to witness it. After two months of hard training to be a member of the Order Ducis, Vye was tired. She possessed a lot of pride being a part of the Order Ducis and raising her Level to 49, but to Ajax, Naffur, and Helen. This was nowhere near enough. To them, Vye had much more to accomplish before her body was allowed to give out and they used her as such.
Vye’s dull eyes looked up at the sky.
I always understood how difficult it would be… but I guess I thought about it as struggling against individual enemies. I didn’t realize how much of an Endurance game it was to so unrelentingly pursue the dream of independence. And I…
Hesitating, Vye bit her lip. She still wanted to walk to the cusp of the world and look over the edge. She had taken up sketching to maintain her sanity, and now she had a secret dream of mapping the entire world. She had already begun to use her precious spare time to make composite drawings of the landscape they passed as Kharon moved.
Perhaps these actions just exacerbated the problems, but Vye felt… wrung out. There wasn’t much substance left to her. There was just wariness.
Maybe it was better that most of the people had been rejected by the Order Ducis. She was also certain that many had a very rude awakening when they realized-
Don’t let this be all you ever accomplish.
Vye took an unconscious step forward as her fist clenched in burning desire. Then she shivered it felt like someone had struck her with lightning. All of her wariness disappeared and suddenly the rather washed out surroundings popped into sharp relief.
For a split second, it seemed that Randidly Ghosthound had stood right beside her and placed his hand upon her shoulder, sending electric thoughts through her body. The imaginary spot on her shoulder where she had believed he touched was still warm. Vye shifted uncomfortably as those strange currents of energy continued to spark through her limbs.
Aldo’s eyes refocused as Vye began to twitch in front of her. Folding his arms, Aldo unleashed a big yawn. The trio at the front of the group from the Order Ducis was currently the top three ranked in the camp and had spent all night hunting entrenched Raid Bosses in the surrounding area as a way to win favor with the local. It also had the added benefit of attracting talented individuals to the recruitment. Certainly, it was a better activity than training with Helen, but that was only because that woman was a taskmaster.
It wasn’t necessarily hard to kill the Raid Boss, but sometimes it was exceedingly tiresome to cut through enough of the subordinates to find the progenitor.
Especially so since these Raid Bosses had several powerful lieutenants that possessed superior growth rates to even the Raid Boss itself. As such, Vye, Aldo, and Valor were using this explanation time as a chance to recuperate a bit before they approached the image stones. Even if image stones had lost a lot of their bite, they were not simple things. The fact that they continued to hold so much power even two months since Randidly had left…
Yet suddenly, all the exhaustion in Vye’s body was gone. Her hands flexed.
Don’t let this be all you ever accomplish.
Again, the shocks spread through Vye’s body. She glared up at the heavens, unsure of why the hell she was feeling this right now but absolutely sure it was Randidly Ghosthound’s fault.
I’m not going to just accomplish this. I’ll keep improving. My weakness… its just a passing thing. But if your training tools wear down, what am I supposed to do? I want to find the power to freely explore the world, but-
Valor also refocused as Vye continued to twitch so obviously as the energy ran rampant through her body. He pushed his golden blonde hair back away from his eyes. “Eager to start, Vye? This time, I solemnly swear that I will overcome you.”
Vye rolled her eyes, not even bothering to answer. All three shifted from foot to foot in expectation and turned their focus to Naffur. Very soon, he would ask for an explanation of the image stones and one of them would be chosen to walk forward through the image as though it was nothing to them so the new arrivals would be suitably impressed. Of course, it really
nothing to approach now compared to the original strength of the image stones.
Ajax had let them known to be prepared last night before they even left to track down the Raid Bosses. It was just part of a broader strategy to demonstrate Kharon’s strength for the newcomers, so they understood what they were up against. And also so word of the impossibilities of the Order Ducis would spread.
But in the short term, it was a harsh lesson to teach these recent arrivals how hard it would be to stay in this recruitment camp for the Order Ducis.
Yet just as Naffur finished speaking and his eyes moved toward Vye, the electricity made her shudder once more. All the power that had shot outward through her limbs was suddenly spiraling back to gather in her core. Abruptly, there was this terrible weight on her chest and she couldn’t breathe. She could only watch Naffur move slowly to meet her gaze.
Am I… having a heart attack? I thought most normal ailments were just cleared up by the System…
Vye panicked as she found herself unable to move her body. The electricity in her limbs continued to build as her body rigidly refused to move. Larger and larger, pulses of power blasted outward from the tight ball in her chest. Frantically, her mind carefully examined the food she had so casually eaten in the last several months, cursing herself for not really caring about calories or fat content.
Tears formed in Vye’s eyes as her only possible movement was blinking.
I refuse… like this…
Not like this…
Don’t let this be all you ever accomplish.
Vye heard once more. Clenching her teeth so tightly that her jaw began to ache, Vye wished she could scream at the fucked up energy that bound her.
I will NEVER give up.
Then the pressure was gone and she collapsed to her knees feeling extremely light. Her body seemed practically insubstantial as Vye tried to recover her bearings. Strangely, when she looked up, she thought she saw the figure of Randidly Ghosthound walking forward toward the image stones. His steps left the impression of boots in the mud. For a brief moment, he stopped and smiled over his shoulder at her. And then he continued forward to press his hand up against the stone.
Something so much more powerful than the electricity passed through Vye’s body then, worming its way into her body and then metaphysically ripping itself out of her chest and out into the world. Even as her vision went empty and spotty, she could feel the huge, impossible darkness that stretched between Randidly and herself as she knelt there on the ground and he reached out to touch the image stone. They were intrinsically connected.
Or to put it another way, they were one. That strange darkness bridged the distance between them and there were no lines between their existences.
As they brushed like this, Vye was suddenly swimming in Randidly’s mind. She could not hear his thoughts or emotions, but she could see an endless string of memories leading back into the past. Every emotion or action he had ever taken, stored as memories like some sort of DNA for his personality. Those brief moments of memory began to flicker in front of Vye’s eyes, too quickly for her to follow or truly understand. Yet some whole of them seemed to be coalescing inside of Vye’s core as she was exposed to them.
Suddenly she understood his determination. She saw the long and agonizing moments of his struggle. Vye saw how difficult the Path was that Randidly had to follow in order to rise to this point. The horrible lows he had experienced at the hands of the powers of the System had taught him valuable lessons that he refused to forget. She felt the bitterness he felt as he could only lower his head and endure his situation. For years. The memories of his thoughts while he struggled against that task of enduring flowed around Vye. And one of them…
Don’t let this be all you ever accomplish. The inky black connection between them pulsed with power.
And suddenly, she was Randidly, standing in front of the image stone with her hand on it. Once more, her body possessed weight, but this heaviness was so terrible that Vye was inwardly shocked. The image leaking out from the stone in front of her seemed fragile and mild to her sensitivities. Which, considering that these stones were made by Randidly-
The situation was exceedingly strange. Electricity danced through her body. Somehow, she seemed to be Vye, but this was clearly Randidly’s perspective. Perhaps the worst part was not the strange heaviness that his presence added to her body, but the weight it gave her attention. The heavy shift of his focus eviscerated Vye’s mind with spikes of pain as he poured over the state of the three images in the stones. The raw weight behind his Willpower…
Then, Randidly or Vye or whatever mixture of them that stood before the image stone grinned. A hand reached across the void, through Vye’s body, and pressed against the image stone. Something bright and precious passed through Vye.
Suddenly the sense of Randidly was gone, but Vye still couldn’t control her body. Her stubborn limbs turned her away from the image stone and stiffly walked back toward the watching group. Dazed by the strange series of teleportations she just experienced and feeling incredibly drained, Vye wondered what had just happened. The whole of Order Ducis training camp looked blankly at her as she walked back to join them.
Then the image stone behind her seemed to awaken. The seed that Randidly’s hand had passed through Vye to plant began to sprout. Huge banks of grey clouds began to swirl outward. The air smelled like ash and spilt blood.
When she reached the group, she stood still for a few seconds. Finally, after what seemed like quite a long time, the electric energy in Vye disappeared.
There was a dull roar and suddenly Vye could move again. She spun around and looked up at the image hovering about the image stone. Although the area was now thick with ash, the towering figure that stood in the center of this storm was clear. It somehow was the same Grim Chimera of ash and loss from the image stone Vye trained with most often, but something had changed within it on a fundamental level.
For one thing, the image revealed itself clearly before one even approached the image stone. The Grim Chimera was no longer obscured by clouds of ash that needed to be pierced through to see him. There was a wild challenge in his naked presence that was shockingly palpable. For another, the Grim Chimera now possessed Randidly’s face.
More than that, the pale skin of his torso now seemed almost translucent, illuminated from within by a strange light coming from his chest. Meanwhile, the skin around his neck, arms, and legs was much rougher and almost… corrupted looking. Long blue veins curled up from his claw-like left hand, which had been greatly expanded. His long, dark talons gleamed in the mid-morning sun.
But setting aside all the aesthetic changes, the more obvious change was the feeling. The image that Randidly had left here was an unconscious weight that demonstrated to the people of the Order Ducis the power than an image could possess. But this…
This was a living, thinking predator. It watched the surrounding people with amusement as the weaker ones went pale and the stronger ones trembled as they more fully understood this ungodly powerful image that suddenly appeared in front of them.
Is this… is this really the same image?
Vye wondered as she considered the shudder-inducing intensity of the image that had descended before them. Its gaze swept back and forth as though measuring them.
If this image is really from Randidly… what has he endured over the past two months to reach this point…
…and if he can endure, I…
Suddenly the image smiled. Then the swirling clouds of dark matter and ash around him withdrew toward the image stone. A split second later, the air was clear and the day was bright and warm. Even so, the ominous feeling remained while you looked upon the stone. Everyone knew that the new version of Randidly’s Grim Chimera image waited within for challengers to approach.
After several heartbeats of silence, Naffur coughed light. “Ahem… thank you, Vye, for activating the image stone. So which of you new arrivals would like to try approaching it first?”