“It’s been a while,” She said with genuine sweetness. Her smile was picture perfect. So perfect that Randidly felt thrown back in time to the days were airbrushed actors and performers stared out with glassy eyes from glossy covers. From a time where surface became substance.
Randidly grinned in response, but there was very little pleasure in the expression. He did not believe in this for a second. To find Lyra here of all places certainly warned him that there were more cooks in the kitchen of his Soulskill than he had realized. “...are you on your best behavior? Is that what this is? Like a child with her hand caught in the cookie jar?”
They stood surrounded by the shifting images of Randidly’s past. The Seventh Land’s strange magic churned around them, heedless of their obliviousness of its endeavors. Right now, they were suspended at the moment that Randidly passed through the first test of the Patron of Ash. Where he was required to walk down the steps of a huge, amphitheater-style area with different levels. And at the center, there was a strange crystal that pulsed with the power of ash.
Now, Randidly knew that crystal was the physical manifestation of the Ashen Image, but at the time he hadn’t thought deeply about it. He had simply passed through the memories each circle contained for him, receiving the chance to redo some of the tensest moments of his life.
Then he touched that bit of ash and was reborn, tainted by that image implicitly. All in preparation of his receiving that terrible power within his body. It did not help Randidly’s mood to be reminded of how others who were wilier than he had used him to their own ends.
Lyra pressed her lips together. It did give Randidly a good deal of pleasure to physically watch her suppress a sarcastic response. After centering herself, Lyra’s expression softened and she said, “Maybe. But I wanted to understand you. And you know what? The more I watch, the harder it is for me to understand.”
Randidly remained silent but tilted his head in an invitation for Lyra to continue. Randidly had a lot of questions about how and why Lyra was here. For all she stated it was to understand him, Randidly didn't forget that Lyra was originally an actor. And a very good one, at that. Her existence inside of his Soulskill made everything all the more surreal.
Was this a dream? Part of the trouble of the Soulskill? Or...
And he couldn’t forget her involvement with the Creature. She was a poison that it would be so easy to ignore and swallow.
“I’m wondering… do you want to fight until you are annihilated?” Lyra said. “I’ve gone through many of the memories of in this place I’m not saying that your alternatives were ever easy, but you always choose to stubbornly refuse the influence of others. You value freedom and independence above safety. From my entire viewing, I could only find a single example of you accepting another’s help: the Ashen Image! And I think I know why. You value purity and innocence. That is what you are trying to protect. But purity is dangerous. Fragile. Brittle. Such a world is a utopia; it collapses when exposed to reality. That’s all I’m trying to say.”
Randidly just looked at Lyra. Purity? Innocence? Lofty goals. Was she being honest? Was that truly what he appeared to value?
But she was right about one thing; Randidly dearly wanted the Earth to be free from the influence of the System. That was the reason he fought and trained so tirelessly. Because aside from gathering strength, he could see no way to change the course of Earth’s fate.
“It’s funny that you are here,” Randidly said quietly. “I… had a thought to look for you when I returned to Earth. To apologize. To listen to what you had to say, even if I would not agree.”
With flashing eyes, Lyra spoke with a hint of hostility. “And the way you say that makes me believe you have since changed your mind?”
Lyra’s hair was pulled up in a messy bun. Strands of golden hair curled down along the sides of her face in loose and glittering strands. Her eyes were still a piercing red-violet, the System’s Aether made manifest. And his Aether too, mixed in there. Her nose and chin were still sharp, but her face had grown more defined since he had seen her. With broad and high cheekbones, there was no denying that hers was a face that broke hearts.
And as Randidly watched, her expression softened further. “No matter what you think, the Path you follow leads to a dead end. That’s why I had to come to hear, to understand. The world is much, much messier than that. Pure things can be chased… but never found.”
“So this becomes a warning for me?” Randidly said slowly. He studied her face. The red of her lips. The barely visible shifts in facial muscles as they stared at each other. The tips of her ears. The soft movements of her jaw as she spoke.
Lyra sighed. “This is a peace offering. I… likely should have asked to be here. And to find me thumbing through your memories… is undoubtedly not an easy thing. I just want to help. Even though you don’t agree with my means, you cannot deny that, dog-... Randidly. And if the only difference is the means, I believe there should be a certain amount of… civility between us.”
Randidly chewed on his lip, thinking. Why was Lyra here now? Two possibilities emerged in his mind as sinister objectives, with a single genuine alternative coming to mind.
The genuine object was, as she said: a peace offering. Certainly a twisted one, but… Randidly couldn’t deny that even during the height of their… affair, Lyra was a strange bird. But that was assuming a lot, considering that Randidly had only given casual thought to how much work it would have taken for another to build a bridge into his Soulskill without an existing connection, and it was not an easy thing.
One sinister objective would be to either figure out more about the Calamities or rather what Randidly knew about the Calamities. The more worrying possibility was that she was here to somehow warp Randidly’s Soulskill. Which gave Randidly quite a bit of stress. Managing the Soulskill without outside influence was already hard enough.
And the Creature had already demonstrated a willingness to interfere with his Soulskill…
Randidly looked up sharply. “Are you still working with the Creature? If so, there is nothing for us to talk about. My opinions remain… firm.”
To his surprise, Lyra smiled. “I am not. I should be clear, not that I wouldn’t. I still believe her experience in the matters of the System is invaluable. But… she is currently sleeping. As I’m sure your earlier victory against her taught you… she is constantly weakening. She currently rests to preserve her strength for later.”
“Later?” Quirking his brow up, Randidly’s expression turned increasingly dark. Both because of how much Lyra seemed to know about his knowledge and because of what the Creature resting implied.
Lyra continued to speak as if she hadn’t heard. “Let me offer you something; I’m willing to tell you exactly why she would rest, and why you need not to worry for quite a while about what the Creature is doing.”
Randidly’s eyebrows lowered once more. Randidly watched Lyra’s tongue flick out and wet her lips. “I’m… listening.”
Some part of him cursed himself for listening to her. Lyra was a professional liar, first and foremost. But… he couldn't forget how gentle his feelings for her had been before they soured. Betrayal couldn’t destroy everything he had felt. More than that, Randidly had been struggling against his looming fear of the Creature for quite some time. The fact that he hadn’t seen any trace of the Creature… aside from that strange power plant in Zone 1, made him anxious.
Lyra’s smile was brittle as if she could read Randidly’s doubts on his face and was intensely burdened by it. Honestly, she probably could, Randidly reflected. He was not very good at hiding his feelings.
“Because… because of the second Calamity.” Lyra lowered her voice to a whisper. “You chase purity. And your image will dominate Earth at this rate. You simply have too much influence. Even the Ogre invasion won’t change that. And do you know what you fear the most?”
Ogre Invasion…? Randidly thought with a frown. Then he recalled that in beating the Ogre Ravine, he had connected Earth to a world without Aether. His frown twisted further into a scowl. Did the Ogres discover the portal so soon? And they gathered up enough manpower for an invasion?
That would mean war on Earth, one which would be difficult to win, based on the Levels Randidly had seen on that other world. Well, maybe Donnyton had improved, and if Erickson Steel and Ghost worked together to make drones-
But with a shake of the head, Randidly focused on Lyra’s original question. He could contact Neveah to find out the truth of the matter. “What do I fear? The Earth being destroyed?”
Lyra grinned. “True. But those are big fears. Isn’t it most common that the fears at the core of people are the smallest?”
Randidly just looked at her.
Lyra couldn't resist rolling her eyes and then said, “I believe you will find, what you fear the most, is what would have happened if you accepted the Yystrix’s influence. The Randidly who is a puppet. A kept being. Doesn’t the thought set your teeth on edge? She doesn’t feel the need to move, because the System will create a version of her that could destroy you all on its own. Not one of us, including Yystrix, can escape our own demons.”
Randidly closed his eyes. For all that Randidly took everything Lyra said with a grain of salt, these words rang true.
Although perhaps Lyra was barking up the wrong tree in terms of him fearing himself taking the influence the most, he certainly had a deep fear of others giving themselves over to the Creature. Lyra was a very special case that he had hitherto ignored, but if there was a larger segment of the population following the Creature, Randidly wouldn’t know what to do.
“So this is what you came for? To shape my fears in the guise of warning me?” Randidly asked with a small smile. Lyra’s violet eyes just watched him. “Thank you, but it's unnecessary. The Creature is right; it is nothing before the System. That is why it lives an existence filled with fear. Perhaps I’m nothing too, but I’m going to fight this big fucker. For my whole world.”
“You would have the world gamble their lives on you?” Lyra asked quietly.
Would I? Randidly asked himself. For several seconds, he paused and considered.
Then he nodded. He would. That was what it meant to wear the Crown.
Seeing his nod, Lyra did something that surprised Randidly more than he would like to admit; she smiled and laughed. “Truly, this is why you stand at the pinnacle. The reasonable do not climb to your position. And I can see why you would assume this is done to shape you… but know that I would like nothing more than the Calamities to be simple. But think on this: everything you have faced thus far, and will face until the final Calamity descends, is something that was defeated by a Calamity.”
Then she was gone. Immediately, Randidly reached out to touch the small connection that Lyra had used between them to bridge the gap and tore it to shreds. Then Randidly erected a shifting barrier of Aether around his inner world to keep any interlopers out. But even then, he felt an uncomfortable prickling on the back of his neck.
She didn’t leave, Randidly said to himself as he stepped out of the Seventh Land and stood over the entire world tree. She simply is hiding. Somewhere inside the Soulskill, she bides her time. But for what?
But brooding would get Randidly nowhere. So he shook his head and departed from the Soulskill he had learned all he could for now, and there would be a little time before the conflict between Carthak and the Procession. For now, Randidly needed to spend some of the PP he had earned the past few days.