With nothing else to do, Randidly began to walk. The direction was random. And likely, variable, as he couldn’t very well track anything in the darkness. There was just himself, and the feeling of his body, hanging in the deep abyss around him.
Honestly, the feeling of his body would quickly disappear if he didn’t keep his hands on himself. It was like he was unmoored, drifting around. The longer Randidly walked, the more it seemed like the darkness was more liquid than anything else, and it had buoyed him away from the ground to carry him off into the deep sea. It was a profoundly disconcerting feeling.
Randidly was also rather annoyed because although darkness wasn’t off-brand per se, it was a bit away from the typical MO for Patrons. Now he was slightly annoyed with himself for not asking Azriel and Skarch more pointedly about Patrons before he made the attempt. Perhaps his excitement got the better of him.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t be the last mistake Randidly had the pleasure of making.
To keep his mind moving, Randidly thought about drone designs and the making of Ghost’s physical body. He wondered what had happened on Earth with the different Zones, and whether more had connected. He wondered whether Tessa’s Orders became anything. He wondered what Lyra was up to, and why she refused to listen to reason. Randidly wondered about that strange cockroach being that seemed to be related to the Creature, but he had never been able to track down after the incident in the powerplant.
Randidly also wondered why the powerful Masters of Tellus didn’t move to stop the Wights. And once his mind was on the war, Randidly took great care to examine every memory he had of those that had fought by his side and died. Their mannerisms and names. Their Styles and spear Skills. Randidly immersed himself in it all.
Perhaps it was Visualization once more, but it was very easy to immerse himself in the images. They felt real around him. No longer was Randidly walking in darkness, but he was walking through his own memories. It was strange, because Randidly was like a ghost, and he watched himself move and talk with these people.
Then came fights he had in the past. It was almost painful to go back and watch his haphazard early fighting style. Although Shal had drilled Randidly on the principles during their time together in the dungeon, it wasn’t until he went to Tellus that he truly learned to use the spear. His fight against the Sphinx was almost comical.
Randidly watching himself run into the room and find Lyra’s human corpse, and the shapeshifter that would assume her face.
Randidly also saw the Creature in all of the faces she had shown him. Mostly, they were variants on Lyra’s face. But there was always a deepness to the Creature’s eyes, that for all her self-proclaimed wisdom, Lyra did not possess. Randidly might deeply hate his longtime enemy, but he couldn’t deny that it possessed great knowledge and capability.
Grimacing, Randidly amended an earlier thought. If more Zones connected, he hoped it would take as long as possible. The Creature would have incarnations in each Zone or some of them. Coming back to an active version of the Creature would be a headache, especially because Randidly suspected it wouldn’t do anything overtly against him until the third Calamity.
It would be content to prepare and watch until then.
After a while, the memories fell away and Randidly was in the darkness once more. But this was a brief stay; very soon the darkness had bled away into color. First maroons and golds, but then browns, dark greens, and finally navy blue. And once the dark colors made their appearance, there was an explosion, and the world around Randidly became a shifting land of color that moved like a lava lamp. Shades pooled on the ground and then floated upwards to separate and stain the sky.
Through it all, Randidly continued walking. Time began to twist. Randidly suspected it had been almost a day since he had arrived here, but it was difficult to track. Everything was a different shape than it normally was in his mind. Parts of his inner world seemed to be humming, even though he couldn’t utilize Skills as far as he could see. If anything, this made Randidly only more cautious.
Which was why he jumped when words split the darkness.
The voice was soft, and not one that Randidly recognized as the Patron of Ash, but it struck like a bolt of lightning in the darkness. For a second, the words seemed to burn a path into Randidly’s memory. Then it slowly began to fade. But it was enough.
Randidly turned to his left and began to move with more speed, trotting across the shifting ground. It felt like underneath the layer of ash was sand and each step grew more tiresome. Not that Randidly grew tired, but it seemed that his pace refused to increase as much as he would like to due to the terrain.
Now as Randidly ran, he thought about his father. About how he needed to consume human life or slowly weaken. In the wake of killing Father Foster, Randidly had spent some time looking for Ezekiel, and he spoke to Hank. But no one seemed to have seen him.
Perhaps it was familial affection, but Randidly did not force the issue or utilize Ghost’s information network. Because it occurred to Randidly that Ezekiel had killed hundreds of monsters knowing that the possessed the minds and hearts of humans. It weighed heavily on Randidly’s consciousness.
Where exactly had Ezekiel’s hunger come from…?
But Randidly didn’t want to think of that now. Instead, Randidly remembered the altered memory with his father that occurred in his first visit to the Patron of Ash’s world. There, he had spoken to Ezekiel where in real life he had remained silent out of fear. It was a good memory.
The smell of the backseat, the sound of the rain and the windshield wipers… the way the seatbelt cut at his neck...
The colors around Randidly shifted, and he was there. Moving like a phantom, Randidly stepped out of the car and into the road. Rain fell in sheets, creating huge puddles even along the side of the highway. When their car blazed through in its dash to the hospital, huge waves of liquid were thrown up.
As Randidly continued to walk in the rain away from the setting of his memory, the world faded. Soon there was nothing but the sound of rain. Then that too was gone.
But more sounds rose to fill Randidly’s awareness. First the sound of his breath, and then the sound of his heartbeat.
Stopping, Randidly looked up in shock. He saw… a light? A real one?
It was difficult to tell because the colors continued to swim everywhere else, but there was a low glow in the distance that seemed to ground the rest of the chaos. There was something. A beacon. It was a little off of Randidly’s path, so he hesitated. But as he couldn’t trust his sense of direction, Randidly began to head towards it.
Time had stopped. There was only the walking and the light.
And then, after what felt like a year, Randidly arrived at the light. It was just brightness, and he stepped into it. The world shuddered.
Suddenly, Randidly was on a vast plain filled with living grain, although none that he recognized. It shifted and rustled in the wind, and Randidly spun around slowly to take it all in.
“I have three secrets for you, boy.”
Randidly spun around. Standing a few meters behind him was a figure with pale green skin and a cat-like tail that flipped back and forth. But his eyes were grey ash, and every second more flaked off and drifted down from his face, like some sort of terrible tears.
“You are… the Patron of Ash?” Randidly said slowly.
The being nodded. “For now, know me to be called Ulaat. This is… how I looked before. Except for my eyes. Not even I can escape what I have become. Now look, it is beginning.”
Randidly’s gaze followed along where Ulaat pointed, and he saw nothing but the field for several long seconds. Then there was a soft ripple in the air. The grain in the surrounding area was blown away as if by a sudden wind.
Something akin to a cloth tearing sounded out, in the same way that setting a porcelain teacup down sounded like an earthquake. The whole area was consumed by the noise, and Randidly winced. The air distorted further, and suddenly there was an opening there, midair. A portal.
“The first secret you earn for being patient and determined. Although I dislike the necessity of that test, age has taught me that I have no time for the fools who cannot manage it. The secret I offer you is the truth of the Second Calamity. Do you desire this truth?”
Unsure of whether this was a trick question, Randidly nodded slowly.
The Patron of Ash, Ulaat, smiled. “Simply put, the great second Calamity… is yourself. A parallel world where you have chosen a different image for yourself. The darkest alternative, in your own mind. And it is that possibility that has given Tellus nightmares for so long.”