Randidly chuckled, despite the panic fluttering in his stomach. It was hard to suppress the memories of the time they had spent together, working on understanding Mana Engraving. “Of course you did. You lost sight of why you are fighting. What did you expect?”
Instantly, some of the old spunk of Lucretia appeared on her face. Her glower had physical weight. “Hmph. What would you know of my failure, oh lofty Progenitor?”
Randidly’s grin shrunk. “A lot. You fought here, in my Soulskill. Now that I’m looking, I can feel the threads of meaning running through it all.”
“So you offer me salvation once more? Another chance at life?” Lucretia asked, her gaze fixing on Randidly with a strange desperation. Then Lucretia began to cough, her upper body shuddering while her lower body lay completely still a small distance away.
After she had finished coughing, Randidly slowly shook his head. “I’m not giving you any special treatment if that’s what you are asking. I can’t. It wasn’t my power that gave you your first chance, Lucretia. It was your own.”
“So I die,” Lucretia said. With the slowness of failing capability, she brought her had to her chest in wonder. “To think… I am so sad. And scared. I don’t… There was so much to do. I must… I must watch Alta to the end. Has she-?”
“Not yet.” Randidly stood and looked West, where Alta battled against Allica and Rejt. Then he lowered himself down on his haunches to be next to Lucretia. “She fights, even now. It seems like she should be able to overwhelm them. But she is not doing that. Such is the Path she has chosen. Too blind to see the way forward.”
Lucretia seemed to think about that. Blood continued to pour out of her wound. Randidly could sense that the time for Lucretia was growing short. If she wanted to speak, she had better do it soon.
But Randidly realized that he couldn't force these conversations. That was what he had learned from trying to talk to Cailm so often.
So it always is, between parents and children, Randidly thought as he stared at the bloodstained stones beneath Lucretia. That the adults have the understanding and the preparation, but the children have all of the control. Because I made this world, it was always my responsibility to make myself available to guide them. And I didn’t.
They asked for me over the years. And I wasn’t fucking there.
“Why…” Once more, Lucretia licked her lips. “Why did I lose?”
“Because you didn’t want to win,” Randidly said softly.
Lucretia gave Randidly a death glare, that had him chuckling again. Randidly shrugged. “No, it’s true. You were so fixated on being there for Alta that you stopped listening to what you wanted. You were just… like a security camera. Watching, under the guise of protection. But for it, Alta grew spoiled.”
“What’s a security camera?”
Randidly sourly looked up at the sky. Really, this was where the System translation failed him? But explaining would take too long...
So Randidly shrugged again and said. “What I mean is that there is more to being a parent than being there. You also have to communicate. You stopped communicating. You allowed a child to shape the future before she was ready, and this is the result.”
Lucretia gave Randidly a hard look. “You are certainly acting knowledgeable these days.”
He winced. “Yes. My crime is a hundred times worse than your own. But I intend to fix that. Do you?”
Lucretia bared her teeth. “I’m dying.”
“And you’ve died before,” Randidly said as he straightened. “Do you remember what you were thinking when the Autarch unwound the fabric of what you once were? There was a spark there. Something that refused to be extinguished. That sustained you then. It might do so again. Good luck.”
Walking away, Randidly ignored Lucretia’s desperate pants and approached Cailm. He had collapsed and was now leaning up against a small stone boulder. When Randidly arrived before him, Cailm looked up with suspicious eyes. “I suppose you have some thoughts on what I should do now, yes? I am uninterested. My life is my own-”
“Do you know why the Emperor was so powerful?” Randidly said as he crouched before Cailm.
“Well… this is a little roundabout. But do you much about chemistry…” Seeing Cailm’s expression, Randidly hurried along. “...well anyway, suffice to say that matter, all that exists, is made up of bonds. Bonds are stored energy. To create a bond, you need to remove energy from the world. Reciprocally, when you break a bond, energy is released. Understand?”
Cailm was frowning. An improvement.
“The reason you will never be the Emperor is that you are attempting to reach his power by creating something. By building an empire with a heavy crown. But you can’t wield that power while creating. Energy is stored during the creation of something with the longevity of a crown or empire. You need to destroy a bond to get there.” With a flicker of will, Randidly conjured the Crown of Cataclysm and Gloom above his head. He reached up and tapped its grey metal. “The Emperor you so worship gave up his crown, destroyed his kingdom and his lineage, laid it all aside, to protect his people. That was his strength. That was why the world still trembles at his name. Nothing in this world comes without a cost, Cailm.”
Then Randidly stepped away, proceeding deeper into his Soulskill. Honestly, he was beginning to like this godling stuff. Always getting to have the last word was a feeling that he could get used to.
Allica pressed her hand to her side to stem the flow of blood. Most of her other wounds had been cauterized closed by the Metal Queen’s attacks, but when Allica had been slammed into the wall, a long shard of stone ripped open a gash in her side. Gritting her teeth, Allica channeled every bit of healing she knew into the wound.
She would even drink a bit of that emerald essence if she could, but she was too far away from any of the surrounding pools. And the nearby pool they had dumped on the Metal Queen in order to put out the vicious waves of flame that surrounded her like a cloak.
“I can’t fail here. We had a dream… our dream… will change this whole fucked up world-!!” The Metal Queen bellowed. The flames around her rose higher. She was barely visible in the core of that fire, a thing of blurred shapes and fury rather than a person.
In front of her, Rejt flashed a tired smile. “For the Progenitor, there is always more work to be done. Come then, abomination. Let me lay you to rest.”
Both figures cracked the ground as they launched themselves forward. The Metal Queen ripped forward and slashed out, sending claws made of flame chasing after Rejt. Rejt skipped sideways, cutting with his palm that shot sharp blades of air at the Metal Queen. The blows ripped through the fire surrounding her and smashed into her with enough force to stagger her, but after a single unsteady step, she twisted around once more. Fury built in the air around her.
“I can’t fall here.” The Metal Queen panted. “For Creta… for our dream… just BURN!”
There was an audible snap in the air, and then a beam of hyper-concentrated fire and ash shot outward toward the spot where Rejt had just landed. Allica paled as Rejt raised his hands to conjure a blade of air, but he held that concentration for far too long.
But Allica knew that had no other choice. If he didn’t empower that blade, it wouldn’t cut through the Metal Queen’s attack. But that meant-
There was a blur from the side and a body superimposed itself between Rejt and the beam. A wave of heat followed by a booming crack smashed into Allica. She felt blood spurt between her fingers as the blast aggravated her wounds. The heat was such that her eyebrows were burnt away, even from the thirty-meter distance between Allica and the epicenter of the blast.
As Allica blinked, the ash was ripped aside by a blade of wind so large that it scared the ground and ceiling with its passage. Like a cold Northern wind, it blew and extinguished the fire that surrounded the Metal Queen. Underneath the flames, the remnants of the woman were thin and sickly, with withered skin between hissing cherry-red plates of metal.
“But…” The Metal Queen stumbled. “I won’t fucking let-”
“You are beyond your depth.” Rejt rumbled. He walked over and touched the charred corpse of Tessa, who had thrown herself between him and the blast. His face was covered in deep shadows as he considered his three-year companion. “Sleep. Your dream dies here.”