“No need to wait on my account,” Randidly said dryly, walking into the room, not bothering to get off of his giant Root Spider. Instead, he focused on Glittering Leaves of Yggdrasil as much as possible, Mana rushing into him to fill up his pools.
“Well, I only thought it polite,” The Creature said, its mouth twisted into a smirk. “After all… you are an inspiration for most of this. In your feeble and foolish struggles, I saw possibilities I hadn’t considered before. In that, at least, you may hold a bit of pride.”
The Creature was still wearing Lyra’s face, but it had been stretched and wrinkled, into the form Lyra would most likely have at 40 years of age. It was still a distinguished and lovely visage, for all that the Creature’s control warped it. In addition, the Creature, for whatever reason, had kept her eyes closed, so Randidly had the displeasure of talking to a person who wouldn’t look at him.
Next, to it, there was another familiar face: Cyndra. She stood calmly, her arms at her sides, but what disturbed Randidly the most was that her gaze was curiously mild, and she regarded him with none of her previous disgust, but now with a mild curiosity, as one would a new and relatively strange bug.
It seemed… that for her at least, the Creature had called in the favor that these people owed it, taking some manner of control of her. Likely in exchange for her people’s freedom. And based on the Aether he could sense coming from her…
Slightly furious, Randidly said to the Creature. “You made her do the same thing that I did. You had her kill the Tribulation without getting a Class. Inside of her… she holds an Aether Spring.”
The Creature laughed, and every tinkling edge of Lyra’s cultured laugh set Randidly’s teeth on edge. “Well, of course. You demonstrated how easily it could be utilized as a path to power. Of course, I wasn’t able to take advantage of the Blessings you have had, so evolving it into a proper Aether Crossroads will take some time. But I almost wonder… if perhaps the Founder of the System was right in this regard; a true Aether Crossroads is pointlessly dangerous to those in power. An Aether Spring is much more palatable.”
Randidly gave Cyndra a look that was filled with pity. Then he turned his attention back to the Creature. “What is this then? Why did you give me an aspect of my Class? You are pushing me, and polishing me, even while you try to sacrifice this Zone for your own ends. What do you truly intend? Is this all a training plan, with real consequences? Or do you truly-”
But Randidly stopped speaking, because the Creature began to laugh, in a completely different way than Lyra would normally laugh. This was a deep, sinister, giggling thing. It made him shiver, almost involuntarily.
“Hahaha! You are such a self-centered race. It’s true, I’ve been testing you, pushing you increasingly far, but that is only because I was being honest earlier; the way you have grown, connecting with the Aether Crossroads. It is… unexpected. But truly, it’s like… how would you Earthlings say it… it as though you were watching a snail develop the ability to play music. Well, perhaps that accurately captures your weakness, but it loses some accuracy as to why I indulge you… it is like having a pet dog teach itself to steal apples from your neighbor's yard. Although I truly could care less about the petty trick, it is fascinating that the neighbors don’t have a system in place to notice the thievery… It makes me wonder what else is left unguarded.”
It trailed off for a second, the Lyra’ body tapping the Lyra jaw, and then, abruptly, she continued. “Which is why I don’t mind continually giving you outs, so I could see how adaptable and useful such a trick is. And now, I am content with having learned all that is possible from you; to be able to create a Class, haphazard and almost contradictory as it is, is a coop against the founder of the System for me.”
“You wish to strengthen… your little puppet?” Randidly asked with a curled lip.
The Creature seemed petulant, as it looked at him. “I know you listen better than that. I have no desire for my dog to have a full Aether Crossroads… I will be taking yours for myself. As you have seen, I have been experimenting with that weak-willed Champion, the Wild Rider, to understand how to safely cleft apart a soul, extracting what I want. I am confident that I will be able to accomplish it with minimal damage to the valuable pieces.”
“...I suppose it’s needless to say that I won’t allow that to happen.” Randidly said solemnly. His face still. Inwardly, be marshaled everything he could manage. Aether began to howl in a circle around him, as he drew more and more Aether forward, forming it into a torrential maelstrom, surrounding him.
On it, She replied, and Randidly began to feel the Aether crashing around him resolving itself into a more respectable form, taking on simple, repeatable constructs of Aether designed to repel the Creature’s advances, and slow it down, allowing their other plans to work. Though Randidly wasn’t nearly as skilled as Lucretia in manipulating Aether, the boost from Aether Understanding gave him a surprising amount of insights even now, as he watched her work, his neck tense.
The Creature’s mouth twisted into a smile, “Is the parlay portion of the evening over? Excellent, onto the fun part.”
Like a sharp swimming among minnows, Randidly sensed the two probes sent by Lucretia ripping through his spinning wall of Aether like it was nothing. Very quickly, it had penetrated through ¼ of his defenses, heading straight for his Soul Space, aiming to establish a direct connection to him. Randidly didn’t doubt that at the same time, the assault in his Soul Skill grew more desperate.
He wished he had a few more seconds, to check in on them, to determine if there were any forms of assistance that he could give. But instead, he remained in the moment, his eyes narrowed. From his spatial ring, Randidly produced a pistol and raised it to aim at the Creature.
It clicked its tongue at him, amused. “A firearm, yes? You must be aware that such things would do little but destroy this pretty little body. So why bother? Do you have a plan-”
The probes had slowed somewhat, wary, but they still had gone through 60% of the outside of the maelstrom of Aether constructs, even as Randidly and Lucretia combined to churn out more and more. As he had expected, he was still far from the ability to repel her by simply relying on his Aether Skills. In that, he was a distant second to her.
Randidly fired the bullet. When it hit the Creature’s body, the capsule inside of it collapsed, and the Tellumurite continued with it ignited in the air. As Mrs. Hamilton had discovered and showed him, all that time ago, upon being released, there was a slow burn in an average person’s Aether, thick and impure and constrained as it was. But in pure Aether, it ignited in a second, burning it out of the air.
Even though he had prepared for it, the immediate conflagration and disappearance of his Aether seemed to knock the wind out of him. Immediately, he felt extremely weak. But his emerald eyes flashed in a pleased gleam; the Creature’s two probes had been annihilated in the explosion of his Aether.
If Randidly was somewhat knocked off his balance, the Creature was completely floored. It stood stock still, its face twisted and hideous, almost double as much as usual. Immediately, it recovered and sent three probes rushing towards him. All the while, Randidly had been flooding the air with more Aether, that Lucretia shaped in those same simple concepts to slow the Creature down. Calmly, Randidly raised his pistol again, taking aim once more.
The Creature’s probes paused, hesitating before it sank into the thick cloud of Aether around him. Grinning, Randidly produced more and more, thickening the air with energy, trying his best not to get carried away by the expanding energy.
After a time, at which he was more confident in holding against her for a few seconds, Randidly said, “... you were interested in my ability to create a Class because you have no way of obtaining more Aether than you already have, right? So you wanted to isolate yourself with a VIllage and do experiments, finding a way to obtain your own Aether through the System. Failing that… you would take mine.”
“Which is less than desirable at this point, because you are marked by the System,” The Creature finished, its face healing back to immaculate. But the Creature’s voice seemed tired now, and extremely acidic.
“It must have hurt you a lot to have lost those probes,” Randidly said slowly, unsure of how true that statement was. It was a loss for it, yes, but as to the extent of the damage… the Creature said nothing, nothing bothering to humor his fishing attempt. Undeterred, Randidly said, “I have to ask though… seeing my strength… why are you so intent on causing our Zone to fail, and fall off from the Earth? Did you ever consider combining forces to fight the System?”
Honestly, one of the worst-case scenarios was that the Creature would immediately agree it was a good idea, and ask to be allies against the System together. He already had to deal with Lucretia as a possible traitor constantly, and although that stress had become a constant, the Creature was an existence on an order of magnitude higher. Maintaining constant readiness against it…
Luckily, it shook its head, the blonde hair swaying. “You do not understand. There is… even together, although how that would not just be myself with you as cheerleaders I an unable to fathom, we cannot escape at this point. If the Calamity comes, it will take us all.”
“You cannot know that.” Randidly retorted, frowning.
“Ha, how foolish you are. If your puny planet passes the first three tests of the Calamity, and the final test descends… well, that fourth test might as well be an executioner’s blade. All of us will die.”