From the shadows of the corner of the chapel, a tall and gaunt figure walked calmly out to face Randidly. His face was twisted in a slimy smile, and his skin itself seemed to ooze a strange sticky substance.
Randidly felt an entirely different sort of headache coming on. He was really just in this Soulskill to observe the philosophies here. Where did this two-bit villain pop out of?
“Chancellor Kellock, there is no need-” Lazar began, but now the Chancellor gave him a condescending glance. With a grunt, he stumbled backward again with the force of the gaze. It was blunt what this strange slimy Skeletor managed, but Randidly couldn’t help but be impressed by the strength of the image he had.
“You have played your part, Lazar. It is time for the Prince and I to finish this.” The chancellor said sweetly. His voice gurgled when he spoke, reminding Randidly of the vocal range of an emaciated frog.
The Chancellor walked forward until he was only a few meters from Randidly. But instead of addressing him, he gave Rejt a dismissive glance. “Leave us, if you value your life.”
“I value my paycheck more,” Rejt drawled. “I have to clear rubble here. So I’m going to stay and do that. Although it might be time for lunch…”
Rejt set down the stone he was carrying and sat on it. Then he raised his feet and put them on a nearby pile of broken chairs. With a flourish, he produced a baked roll filled with meat and began to noisily munch on it. Randidly rolled his eyes.
The Chancellor sneered. “Truly, your race has the brains of mice. Fine, if you wish to be a pest, do not hold grudges if I exterminate you.”
“Chancellor,” Randidly said softly. The other man’s beady eyes swiveled to regard him. It truly seemed like there was no Path but either revealing himself a god or continuing to pretend to be a prince. Truly, the insulting nature of this confusion was ironic. Few people but Randidly could claim to be slightly insulted that they believed him but a prince.
“Prince, must you continue to protect these… chattel?” The Chancellor said with great distaste. “My plans are already in motion. Within Carthak, we have almost eight thousand highly trained warriors. By this time tomorrow, this place will be naught but a grave. Those that survive will be put to work. Join me, Ishmael. This is your last chance. You are not a child anymore. Open your eyes to the way of the world.”
I’m not even Ishmael anymore, you jackass, Randidly thought. But he only said, “And what is the way of the world?”
Immediately, the Chancellor’s eyes brightened to a fanatical gleam. Over on the side, Randidly saw Lazar talking quietly to some other figures, who hurried off. Randidly settled in for what he assumed would be an extremely unhelpful bit of monologuing he was being subjected to. He had half a mind to stop the Chancellor before he began, but in a way, this interaction was still a form of observation. There would be the had of the Ashen Image here, and Randidly was willing to waste a few minutes in his Soulskill to get a better handle on it.
“Boy, I have watched you since the day you were born,” The Chancellor began. “You have lived a life free of wants. You were safe and educated, loved and pampered. You cannot even begin to understand the blessings afforded to you. I might even go far to say that a soul is more likely to be reincarnated again as a prince than they were to be born in such an idyllic utopia as you had the pleasure of inhabiting, if only briefly. And like all things, it came crashing down due to the foolishness of your parents.
“They allowed travel between lands. They allowed other Races to settle in our ancestral lands. They allowed traveling Weavers and technology from Spriggits. And with every acquiescence, their power was whittled away. They became figureheads. And when the High King of the Earth Golems rose to prominence, they were the first to be crushed beneath his heel. Their weakness…” The Chancellor raised his hands to his chest. “It disgusts me.”
Then he smiled Randidly as if trying to charm him. It was altogether so disturbing that Randidly came very close to stopping the man immediately. But he refrained, barely. “You asked me the way of the world, and this is it. Power. I thought you would learn the lesson from your parent's deaths, but you did not. You sued for peace. You made allowances. It was only when the countryside was in flames that you finally gathered up the nerve to fight, and you did not stand up for yourself. No, you went crying to your economic allies.
“And after the war was won and you were heralded as a hero? The Land of Monsters was slowly dying. The seasons are changing in the lands. The harvest season has been getting shorter for the last decade due to the tinkering of Spriggits with our World Tree. The Soulless grow more powerful and numerous. There are too many hungry mouths and not enough food for this world to continue. A great reckoning is coming, and I for one mean to ensure that the Monster Race survives it.”
“Which you will do at the cost of other Races,” Randidly said. It wasn’t truly a question, just a confirmation.
“A cheap price to pay.” The Chancellor said lightly. “It would sicken you to know the horrifying prices I have paid to reach this current position. Life is cheap in the lean months, Prince Ishmael. Even you must admit it is so after the war we just experienced.”
Randidly looked at the man before him. After all, everything in here was him in some way. Ultimately, he was glad he listened, if only briefly to this man. Because this was a version of him that was twisted by the harsh realities of a world and left without hope. This was a result of him allowing his Soulskill to operate without interference for so long.
But this was just a small, desperate rot given power by the arrival of the Ashen Image.
“And if I refuse? If I give the order, your army will be brought to heel,” Randidly said lightly.
“You overestimate yourself,” The Chancellor answered coldly. He shot a sharp glance at Rejt, but the man was still obviously eating his lunch. With an extremely disgruntled expression on his face, the Chancellor hissed to Randidly. “Your words might sway the masses, but will those who know of your weakness follow you? Your intelligence might be formidable, but you are just one man. A man who has never taken another’s life. With those lily white hands… do you truly think you can wrest from me an entire army?”
Randidly didn’t bother to respond. Already he was reaching for the images in the surrounding area. It seemed to him that a talk like this could only end in one way.
And just as he predicted, the Chancellor did not take the silence well. His sneer grew even more pronounced, and he made a sharp gesture with his hand. Several figures stepped out of the shadows of the rubble and surrounded Randidly. “Out of respect for your bloodline, I was allowing you to remain the figurehead you were raised to be. But if you refuse even that… you shall become something even more honorable. You shall become a justification.”
The shadowy figures drew short iron blades. The Chancellor continued to express his condolences that Prince Ishmael was ambushed by Earth Golem extremists during his humanitarian efforts, but Randidly couldn’t be bothered to listen any longer. Instead, his attention was elsewhere.
To Randidly’s surprise, Rejt leapt to his feet and stood in front of Randidly as the figures flourished their weapons and moved closer. Looking over his shoulder, Rejt asked, “Is it true? That you’ve never killed another person?”
Randidly grinned at Rejt. “It certainly makes for a good story, doesn’t it?”
But Randidly’s smile slowly faded as Rejt gazed at him quite seriously. All of the usual cheer was gone from his face. Instead, he just frankly studied Randidly’s face even as the assailants began to move close enough that a dash would have them engaged in battle.
“I’ve killed before…” Randidly said slowly, then he shook his head. That was hiding the truth. And perhaps it was because Randidly was pretending to be someone else, but he found the truth in his chest demanding that it be released. “...more than killed. I’ve bathed in blood. Both enemies and allies. The Path I’ve walked… It is paved with bodies. Some deserved to die, but… others I simply killed out of convenience. My life cannot afford to end here.”
“This isn’t a confession,” Rejt deadpanned, his half smile once more covering his face. “Don’t be so serious.”
Before Randidly could reply, Rejt turned around and drew two large knives with jagged edges and crossed himself. “Dear Progenitor, please forgive me for spilling swine blood in your holiest of temples. Truly, I would have preferred to do anything else but… Why pray? Why now? Why him…?”
Even though Randidly couldn’t see Rejt’s face, he could picture the broad grin there. “Because there is no harm in respect. Because Earth Golems need to stand by their principles. Because he is my friend. So… come Mr. Chancellor. Let me show you the resolve of ‘chattel’.”
Randidly was touched by Rejt’s display. So much so that he didn’t want to risk an accident happening due to inaction. This world needed Rejt, which was to say that Randidly needed Rejt, in some strange way that he couldn’t understand. He wanted people like Rejt to continue to exist.
So Randidly reached for the hunger image of Sharpness, and the wind answer.