Randidly found Lucretia in front of a grave.
One reason that the city around the first Obelisk was so crowded was that everyone had agreed almost immediately that part of the area currently cleared of mist needed to be used as a graveyard to mourn the passing of the so many who had died in the past few years. From king to pauper, everyone had lost someone.
There were a few enterprising individuals who carved fancy gravestones for a copper coin, but the average citizen just cut down trees and scratched the names of their loved ones into planks of wood. Rows of uneven and mismatched graves meandered in strange diagonals across each other until they formed strange, complex patterns of grief.
Quietly, Randidly took his place beside Lucretia and looked down at the grave. It was small but made of stone. The sides were crisscrossed with glowing runes that Randidly recognized would make the stone very difficult to destroy. On the front, in simple letters, was the name Alta Bounty.
“You decided to live.” Randidly said lightly. It was hard to conceal the happiness in his voice.
Lucretia nodded with her eyes on the grave. “Really, it wasn’t a hard decision. I was brought here by guilt, by an urge to rectify it. And after what happened with Alta… well, I don’t think anyone would say that I succeeded and righting my wrongs… If anything, my selfish guilt poisoned your entire Soulskill. If I hadn’t let Alta run wild-”
“We all made mistakes. Now this place is where we correct that,” Randidly cut in, unwilling to allow Lucretia to proceed further down that line of thought. He had struggled with that very question of whether he could have done more, for far too long. Then, after a long hesitation, he also added. “...I’m sorry for your loss. I know how close you two were.”
“I wonder at how bright and beautiful she used to be. And how it slowly died and left… something there, wearing her skin. But that was her too. No one is solely composed of heroic traits. We hold just as many apportionments of the anatomy of a villain…” Lucretia whispered.
Sadly, Randidly nodded. He knew that truth far too well.
Lucretia nodded. A tear ran down her cheek that she didn’t bother to wipe away. Then she turned to face Randidly. “I’ve been… keeping tabs on the real world, you know. Others here shouldn’t be able to, but because of our connection, I can sense some of what was occurring above. The First Propagator has begun to move, aiming to stop the Autarch from accomplishing his goals. I believe… I have some insight into what will happen next.”
Randidly gestured for her to continue.
“During my time as a Wight, all of the Autarch’s work creating was done in his solar, where his coat rack sits in the center of the room. It is a steel pole thrust into the ground with such force that the foundation was bored into by the thrust. It is obviously not just a coat rack; it was the fount of power that let him tinker with the Wights. To that end… I have a theory of what it truly is.”
“If it wasn’t a coat rack… not that it matters…” Randidly said slowly. “Why would he hang coats on it?”
Lucretia’s smile was wan. “This, at least, I can be certain of: the Spearman hated the trappings of power. It pleased him somewhat to insist that none of the Wights may ever have influence over each other. Only he would orchestrate them.”
“That doesn’t seem like someone who has eschewed power,” Randidly pointed out. “That’s someone irreverent who wants all the power to himself.
Making a dismissive gesture, Lucretia moved on. “However, back to my theory. It is known that the Spearman defeated the first Propagator a long time ago. Even the Wights were aware of it. It was rumored that the Spearman defeated the first Propagator by destroying its heart, which was why the Wights must always seek vengeance against the Spear users. So I suspect this… ‘heart’ of the first Propagator lies impaled beneath the Spearman’s spear, forming a coat rack. That is why the Spearman stayed near it for his experiments; the power leaks out of it and into the room.”
“And therefore if I was the resurging first Propagator…” Randidly said slowly. “I would be rushing back to the Wight capital, to try and take back his heart.”
“Also remember that the Spearman severed his images, leaving the Ascension half finished,” Lucretia said levelly. Her eyes scanned the rows of uneven graves, filled with extreme sadness. “The Spear images became the Spearsource, but whatever image the Propagator held will be there, damaged by preserved. If they were not still in working order, the Spearman never would have been able to control the Wights as he did.”
For several minutes, Randidly just stood next to Lucretia and considered. The Spearman was proud, but more than that, he was obsessed with saving the world of his love. For that, he had dragged them all through seven centuries of this elaborate experiment.
But Randidly needed to back up a bit. Put himself in the Spearman’s shoes, because something was strange. The Spearman had defeated and broken the First Propagator and sealed its power. Then, as he was ascending, he had the terrible realization that he himself couldn’t be the one to ascend, lest he destroy his love’s world.
If he had truly captured the First Propagator’s images… why hadn’t he used those to ascend?
Originally, Randidly had been told that his images were one of replaceability with an all-powerful puppet master pulling the strings. Therefore, the Spearman relying on Wights would demonstrate how far he would go to save his love’s world. And yet… that couldn’t be true, could it?
The Spearman had displayed no real remorse about using the Wights. So why hadn’t he used it to ascend?
The only logical explanation was that he couldn’t. Just like his own, the Second Calamity’s image emerged from a Nemesis and would doom the world he wanted to save. Which of course it would because that was the Spearman’s worst fear. He couldn’t allow this other image to succeed, because it would mean sacrificing the thing that brought him here.
That brought Randidly to a stop. Because that was the Spearman’s secret fear. That he couldn’t save his love’s world. But how did the Second Calamity prey on that fear…? There was something Randidly was missing.
“I suppose I need to talk to the Spearman,” Randidly said with a sigh.
Lucretia nodded. “It is for the best. For all that he has warped this world… no, because he has warped this world. His help is necessary. But I have a thought.”
Randidly tilted his head to the side in askance at Lucretia.
She shrugged. “It is something you need to consider. What will you do if the First Propagator genuinely just wants to foil the Spearman by helping Tellus ascend while achieving a victory for the Nemesai? Would you fight to stop it from doing so and force Tellus to remain in suspension?”
Icklid was as it had been described to Azriel. Rather dull, even by Tellus standards. There were some decorations in the halls, but it was a sparse and utilitarian area. Very little fun was had here; everything was designed for a purpose.
“This was your work?” Azriel asked her master.
Her master clicked one of its claws. “I was young. I didn’t understand the world. To describe what it is to be a Calamity… it is a confusing experience. But it is over now. Soon, we will be finished.”
The sound of its crystal legs and Azriel’s leather boots echoed through the empty city. Although the part of her Master that controlled the Wights had been vivisected from it, it still looked pained as it considered the slumped bodies laying like trash beside building and in corners. Even here- even here Randidly’s strange spell that had stolen their life energy had worked.
Truly, he requires watching, Azriel reflected as she struggled to manage her throbbing headache. To underestimate him is to invite doom.
“Master,” Azriel said slowly. “I wonder if this course of action is wise.”
“What do you mean?” The duo passed through the outer halls to the main sanctum. Very soon, they would arrive at the suite of the Autarch, which had once housed the First Propagator in all its glory.
“Is me…” Azriel was surprised to find that her tongue felt heavy in her mouth. She nervously licked her lips and chided herself. This task wasn’t forced on her, as nothing ever was with her Master. He had asked it of her, and she had acquiesced. Therefore, it was reasonable for her to offer a perspective. “Is my body truly necessary? To accept your images and ascend?”
“Mmmm. Not in particular. There is nothing special about you that would make this a good decision,” Her master said after a moment of thought. “Yet the Spearman must be prevented from interfering with the ritual. There is a higher degree of certainty that I will be able to manage this than you. Therefore, you are the better choice. There is no one else we can trust.”
Azriel reached up slowly and touched a lock of her hair, rubbing it between her fingers. It was still soft, but it’s color had changed; after absorbing the violent images of Silo, it had turned black. She was now raven-haired. Which was the least disturbing of the changes it had caused in her. Likely her earlier show of emotions and lack of faith was related to the images she was housing.
They were likely wild bulls, resisting her attempted to corral and bridle them. They smashed into the sides of her head, causing the dull ache that she had dealt with for the last several hours.
Finally, she mustered up the courage to speak again. “I already hold the Spearman’s image, is it really necessary for me to hold both to ascend? Already my mind-”
“Yes, it is necessary,” Her Master said, as they entered into the final room. A tall poll of steel, covered in a coat, stretched out of the floor at the center of the room. If you looked closely, it was possible to see the tiny cracks in the floor where it had been smashed into the ground with deadly force.
“For two reasons. The first is because it is the only way to continue the aborted Ascension from seven hundred years ago. Both must be present. Otherwise, we would need to start over, as the Spearman desires. The second reason…” Her Master scuttled to the spear sticking out of the ground and struck it with its tail lightly. The spear sung clear as a bell, vibrating in the marble floor.
“The second reason was that this Second Calamity was rather special. It wasn’t a tribulation… but an offer from the System. I came in peace and offered in confidence a deal to ascend without violence. Of course, at the time I had no idea that the peaceful offer was in itself a test. So we were to ascend. Together. And I was betrayed. ‘The cost was too high,’ he said, as he pierced through my back and pinned my heart to the core of this place.”
Her Master drew its tail across the ground, scoring a large mark and causing a screeching noise. “By Auto Rach. By the System that birthed me. And I will make both of them pay.”
Azriel was troubled, but she inclined her head and focused on addressing the growing headache that was consuming her. Hopefully, this would be over soon.