When Randidly returned to Earth, he did so silently. He popped into existence on the same low mountain West of his Erickson Steel headquarters on which he departed. The dry stones rattled as he poofed into existence on top of them. Clouds spread out like a flax blanket across the morning horizon in an endless expanse.
But he didn’t even look around at the beautiful sunrise. Instead, his mind was on the talk he had with Octavius Shrike a few days ago.
To Randidly’s surprise, accepting the invitation to talk meant that he once more received a teleportation request. At first he was suspicious, but ultimately Randidly decided to take the risk and meet with Octavius.
It wasn’t a demand, it was a request. If Octavius wanted to make trouble for Randidly, there was no doubt in Randidly’s mind that the strange figure could. So he accepted the teleportation and was immediately brought within a cramped little office. There was a small fire in the corner and everything else...
More than Administrator of the Seventh Cohort, Octavius’ office reminded Randidly of the cluttered abode of a professor. Piles of papers and scrolls formed towering stacks. There was an impressive-seeming wooden desk that served as the centerpiece of the room. Or at least Randidly assumed it was impressive; it was largely obscured by the clutter.
Some of the papers were crumpled while others were covered in a tightly packed scrawl. It was clear that this room saw quite a bit of use.
“Please,” Octavius said, gesturing ambiguously toward two stiff looking wooden chairs that were both overburdened with boxes of metal knick-knacks. Dubiously, Randidly moved to stand behind one. He put his hand on the back of the chair.
Immediately, Randidly blinked. This wood… for all that it was being largely reduced to obscurity, just from a touch, Randidly could tell how smooth and dense the grain of the wood was. It was closer to metal than any wood he had ever seen. This level of materials was far beyond anything he had seen, even on Tellus.
With solemn respect, Randidly looked around once more at the surrounding office with a newfound curiosity. But with Randidly touching the chair, Octavius took that as leave to speak.
“I’m so glad you could come and speak with me. Because of your… particular situation, I figured it would be best to break the news to you directly; you are being carefully observed.”
Instantly, Randidly’s gaze sharpened. Was this somehow related to the Creature?
But Octavius raised his hands before Randidly could speak. “Wait, hear me out. You brought this on yourself. Although Tellus was still technically a viable planet in the Fifth Cohort, most of the Village Spirits that had been assigned there had already retired. They left proxies to divvy out Classes, but they were largely returned to their home planets. It happens a lot; a world is very close to passing a Calamity, then fails due to infighting, or politics, or just the whim of an influential person… There’s no actual failure, but the writing is on the wall.
“Seven hundred years had passed. Some of the Village Spirits might have even died during that span of time. So when Tellus passed the Second Calamity, not only were all the remaining spirits yanked back to the planet to divvy up increased benefits, but the Fifth Cohort was also alerted of the new planet proceeding to the Third Calamity. And when they investigated what had caused this… I did my own investigation, of course. And will report that this aberration was a result of the deviant actions of a Nemesis. But that Nemesis was dead when most scanned the situation. All they found there… was you.”
Octavius grimaced. “Which was why I was… involved. Now, so you understand, there is a whole society of administrators and meta-System employees that have raised a fuss about someone from a lower Cohort rising and gaining a knowledge advantage over their incoming Calamity. Most of this is simply fuss in response to a surprise, but…”
Grimly, Octavius looked at the piles of scrolls on his desk. “Most will settle. Some, however, will not. There is a whole Nexus, waiting on the other side of the Calamities. Administrators are drawn from worlds that have passed the Third Calamity but failed the Fourth. Some, however, still dream of being able to pass the Fourth Calamity and meet God. I suspect that… forces will move to understand how you managed to drag a world back from the brink of failure.”
Randidly frowned. “But… It’s not like I did anything special.”
“Perhaps…” Octavius was contemplative. Then he looked up knowingly at Randidly. “Yet… when these old, powerful, suspicious, and desperate entities do some research into you… do you think they will believe that it was just a coincidence? That there are no… untoward influences moving within your body?”
Suddenly, Randidly felt like he had been doused in cold water. From Octavius’ tone, it seemed like these strangers would be able to gather information about him. And if they could gather information about his self-made Class and Soulskill…
Especially when it came to the Soulskill, Randidly didn’t doubt that they would have… designs on him. It was bad enough dealing with the Creature… did this mean he had come to the attention of a dozen entities similar to the Creature?
“Is there anything you or I can do, to… make sure that doesn’t happen?” Randidly asked slowly. It was only implied, but Octavius seemed to be on his side in this situation. Obviously, as Administrator of the Seventh Cohort, he wouldn’t want others sniffing around his job site.
Plus… a whole society of administrators, huh… That got Randidly wondered about what exactly the System was.
But to Randidly’s surprise, Octavius waved a hand. “Oh, don’t worry. For obvious reasons, the System will prevent them from doing anything while the Calamities are testing the worlds; and your world hasn’t even qualified to receive the first Calamity. For this, I just wanted to warn you; there is a small chance that someone will pull strings to include… variance, in your Calamity. It has only happened once before, but there is a precedent, when a world has foreknowledge of what is to come…”
Then Octavius coughed lightly. “But the real danger is elsewhere. Both your Heretic Path passing 40… and also that mark you received for being on Tellus when Shal Ascended.”
Frowning, Randidly crossed his arms and waited for Octavius to continue.
“Your image cannot Ascend now. You are marked. And because you are so widely credited for intervening in another world to defeat a Calamity… I am required to report even the smallest change in your… status.” Here, Octavius Shrike grimaced. “So as much as I would prefer not to, I am bound to report if you were to… attempt to remove the mark from yourself.”
Randidly just looked at Octavius.
Octavius shrugged. “Yours will not be the image your world uses to Ascend. I am sorry. They can be influenced by you, but-”
“What?” Randidly felt like he was struck with a physical blow. For several seconds, he scrambled to understand what Octavius was saying to him. “My image… is marked?”
Octavius nodded with relief. “Oh, I thought this would be more difficult. I’m glad you understood so quickly. Much more quickly than I anticipated. Onto the next order of business; your status as a Heretic. As you might have noticed, once you pass Heretic XL, your Path will tick up automatically after a certain amount of time. Essentially, facing the final Judgement at fifty becomes inevitable.”
Pointing at Randidly, Octavius continued without seeming to register Randidly’s continued shock from his prior statement. “Based on what I can sense… you have about three months. Which will be accelerated by actions the System deems… deviant and normally impossible. So… perhaps less than three months in your case…”
Randidly stood there, still struggling to gather himself after the statement about his images that hit him harder than he had expected.
Your image will not be the one your world uses to Ascend.
It honestly shouldn’t matter, but-
“If you don’t have any questions, that will be all, Mr. Ghosthound.” Then Octavius leaned conspiratorially forward. “Although your actions have been decidedly disruptive, I am quite pleased. It is a faint hope, but… every Administrator dreams of having a planet from his Cohort passing the Fourth Calamity. It’s a very exclusive club, at the moment. Only the Second Cohort can boast such.”
“What-” Randidly began, but then he winked out of existence and appeared back on Tellus.
Randidly sighed as he finally raised his gaze from the ground toward the kaleidoscope of colors that soaked slowly out from the rising sun into the sky.
Octavius Shrike had told Randidly three things, and Randidly wasn’t sure which he was most disturbed by. First, that his actions on Tellus had brought individual attention to himself by ancient entities that had been able to pass the Third Calamity, and now were possibly plotting a method to pass the Fourth.
Randidly almost fondly remembered his time of just having to worry about the Creature.
Second, and perhaps the least worrying, that his Heretic Path would now grow naturally, as he had passed the point of no return. At some time in the next few months, he would face the final Judgement. Perhaps this was the most imminent threat, but Randidly somehow couldn’t work up any tension toward this trial.
He had beaten Judgements before, and he had been much, much weaker at that time. Unless it scaled at a mind-boggling (basically Randidly-esque) rate, it would be manageable.
Third and finally, Shal’s image gave him benefits, but also prevented his image from being the one used to allow Earth to ascend. In addition, due to the attention Randidly had gathered, they would be watching him very carefully in order to make sure he didn’t circumvent this restriction.
So even though he probably possessed the capability to remove the mark, Shrike seemed to warn specifically not to attempt it. He hadn’t been specific as to why, but the fact that he had finally been motivated to contact Randidly couldn’t bode well.
Randidly sighed. For several seconds, he simply watched the majesty of dawn. It felt somewhat flippant, especially after conspiring to kill Aegiant, someone who used images of dawn. But at the moment, Randidly needed a rest. In the starburst colors, he found it.
The logical conclusion of this tiring truth was that, eventually, someone else would need an image strong enough to support Earth.
And so it comes full circle, with myself as the Spearman, aiming for someone else’s Ascension because my own image is insufficient…
In spite of himself, Randidly chuckled.