“Thanks, by the way,” Randidly said.
The corner of Lucretia’s mouth quirked upward. “Think nothing of it. Perhaps it's revealing my hand a bit to say this… but for anyone who reads energy, it is easy to sense when you enter and leave the world. And when you entered and left so quickly… Well, I knew that there had to be a very compelling reason.”
“Either way, thank you,” Randidly said again. Especially for that bit of information. Was it a warning? Well, for now, it’s probably fine, but it's something to keep in mind…
The two of them were deep within Lucretia’s stone home in the newly established city of Radice in Randidly’s Soulskill. This city was the first expansion from the starting location for these refugees and the camps underneath the various lighthouses that were slowly being uncovered. It was a city made specifically to serve as a capital.
After taking care of the Nemesai, the first thing he had done was return to his Soulskill to check on Kiersty. When he rushed back to her side, he was already fearing the worst. Luckily, she was already being cared for.
Apparently, from sensing his arrival and departure, Lucretia had gone to the spot and seen to providing Kiersty medical attention. As such, the young teen was only unconscious when Randidly returned her to Earth and put her into the very capable hands of Regina Northwind and her team of doctors. Under their watchful eye, Randidly could rest assured.
After which, Randidly returned to the Soulskill to speak with Lucretia. Because they had received a big haul this time. And not much time to benefit from it. If it hadn’t been Kiersty’s life that was at stake, Randidly likely would not have waited this long.
As if sensing Randidly’s change in mood, Lucretia beckoned for him to follow her and they walked up the stone stairs to a rather large room on the highest floor of her house. Randidly quickly scanned the area and took in the dozens of large slabs that were covered with intricate runic engraving. There were so many covered in a densely packed script that his eyebrows rose.. “You’ve been busy.”
“I’ve had a lot of time,” Lucretia said with a smirk, throwing her lavender hair over her shoulder. Then she proceeded to the central table and cleared a space.
Without much fanfare, Randidly produced the thing that brought them together immediately, despite the fact that chasing after the Nemesai was perhaps the best current course of action. The thing that Randidly had snatched up immediately after it had been discarded like an old snake skin. The thing that was slowly disintegrating as the animating energy dispersed and unwound.
“A Nemesis’s Cage…” Lucretia said in wonder, approaching quite close to the floating bundle of Aether. The edges were frayed and wane and that unwinding process would slowly destroy the entire thing. But that boar-faced Nemesis had no other way to display his true battle prowess; the weight of being a Nemesis was too tight.
He had needed to cut his way out to fight image with image and left them a perfect piece of data regarding the System in exchange. Randidly didn’t like allowing the other Nemesai to escape, but this was sufficient compensation for him to not dwell on it.
Very quickly, both Randidly and Lucretia were immersed in the process of examining the construction of Aether. As the thing was slowly destroying itself at a visible rate, both were unwilling to waste time. Starting from the edges, they worked their way inward, pouring over every single inch.
Despite its relatively small size, the Aether was densely packed together. Which was a benefit, because it slowed the destruction, but it also made it exceedingly difficult to understand. Without any background knowledge of how the System’s Aether was shaped, neither would have been able to make any headway.
But the two of them had now been studying this for years.
All in all, the process lasted about fifteen minutes. Part of Randidly’s focus at the end shifted to attempting to slow the disintegration, but no tricks he could manage worked. The energy seemed like something from another world. The best he could do was memorize what he saw now.
Afterward, both were thoughtfully staring at the ground in silence. There were a lot of things to be learned from what they had seen, and each was mulling over their personal lessons. Lucretia had brought over a few slabs and was working on some little experiments when Randidly finally spoke.
“...you saw that core array, right? So… why then does the System give us Stats?”
Lucretia pressed her lips and paused in her experiments. But she said nothing in response.
“Because it’s clear that this whole thing could function without Stats. They…” He trailed off and Lucretia remained silent.
Randidly hadn’t expected her to answer, honestly. Perhaps it was being stuck in Tellus for so long, but Lucretia’s ability to take the tricks they learned with engraving and turn it into insight wasn’t her forte. She could solve a problem. She couldn’t use the System’s solution to figure out what the problem was.
The array had been intricate and elegant. And it had something that left Randidly exceedingly puzzled. After chewing on his lip in thought for several seconds, he straightened and looked again at Lucretia. “That array… had a way of converting the powerful images that the Nemesai brought and converting them into raw Stats. Dumbing down the energy, as it were. Emphasizing Stats for the Nemesai. There were restrictions based on the average Level of the world, but… Why would it give them Stats?”
“What else would it give them?” Lucretia asked indifferently, finally lifting her head.
That made Randidly pause. His mind continually spun, moving them forward. “Well… their images. The System’s goal is to create and extract images, is it not? So by giving Nemesai their images the people will learn how valuable images are. Plus, the point is that the Stat System is completely irrelevant to that goal. Why not simply empower the images themselves, if what they wanted was to increase the challenge?”
Lucretia rapped her fingers against the stone of the experiment tablet she held in front of herself. “Hmmm… there was a rather common custom in the Death School while I was active that I believe is an appropriate explanation for this question. The Death School did not put much stock in blood; all they cared about was the power of the young spear-users. To that end, the did something extremely unusual to choose their inheritors of the great Styles. They gave a group of children spears without informing them how to use them and forced the young women and men to kill each other. Often with about one hundred to a cohort.
“The rationale was that the Death School broadly already had many ways to kill someone that worked well enough. They didn’t need someone who had been well trained,” Lucretia continued. “But what they were searching for was someone born to kill someone. It became a numbers game. As more children died, they uncovered more killers.
“And I have to say,” Lucretia added. “Oftentimes those of the cohort that already knew well enough how to use the spear and mimicked remembered images would die early. Because it was never about learning a Style; it was about killing.
“Those imitators simply weren’t powerful enough. They became a reflection of what wasn’t theirs, and their images suffered for it. Although the victor of these battles would often by somewhat limited in their strength, the clarity and density of their image of killing was beyond reproach.”
Randidly considered that. “...so rather than guiding us forward, we are treated more like monkeys at typewriters seeking Shakespeare, huh…”
“Shakespeare?” Lucretia asked.
Randidly shook his head. “A reference from my world. But I wonder, are you saying that images aren’t the goal? That there is a specific task, and the System is looking for the appropriate image for the job?”
Lucretia shrugged. Very quickly, she was becoming absorbed in the small runic experiment that she was tinkering with on the table.
There, Randidly paused. One thing that the System wanted to avoid was contamination from the previous Cohort’s Skills. Which was why likely the motivation for setting up the System so that people from the upper cohorts cannot descend. In addition, the System was assisted by an overlay System, which provided numerical representations of the Stats that they were given.
It was one thing to feel yourself growing more powerful as you train. It was quite another to be shown the satisfying numerical progression of your own Stats. It was very easy to fall into the trap of pursuing that growth as a goal. If one did that, it would be easy to get drawn in by the temptation of tripling your own Stats.
Which was why it was so confusing for the System to emphasize Stats like this. If the System’s goal was what Randidly thought it was, the System was shooting itself in the foot.
Because that was a purposeful trap that the System seemed to set with Stats. Early Stat growth was refreshing and rewarding. Yet as the Levels of the foes you face grew, stats became harder and harder to rely on in order to triumph. The same went for Skill Levels, although Randidly suspected that this was a relatively weaker association. Because, after all, Skill Levels essentially just gave you a way of adding extra Stats to certain specific actions.
Thinking very reductively, giving Stats and drawing attention to them was akin to teaching everyone how to punch very hard and telling people how hard they could punch. Some would learn different ways of punching, but ultimately everything was still a boxing match.
Over time, the System would provide increasingly competent boxers as hurdles for these individuals swept up in its influence. To the point that it was impossible for someone who relied on boxing to win. If they didn’t cheat, that is.
And it was clear that this happened in Cohort 5 as well. Aemont had fought against the Propagators to no avail. They were a hurdle that couldn’t be cleared with Stats and Skill Levels. He had done as much as said so during the strange dream Randidly had experienced after finishing the Ashes Path associated with Aemont.
So he had been faced with the ultimate choice that the System presents those whose lives it seizes; evolve or die.
Then… is that moment of clarity what the System is after? To guide you down a Path with a dead end to force you to jump ship while your life was on the line?
Because the scaffolding for evolving beyond yourself was always in place. The System just never told people about it. It lectures on Stats, Skills, and finally Classes, but those are all just ways to convince the people under the System that they are in a box.
They are crutches you rely on… so that the System can rip them away and you can be overwhelmed with fear.
But no one is in a box. Because the System also gives people space to create images. And with those images, it’s possible to warp the entire world around you. Randidly could clearly feel it in the fight against the Nemesai. Without images, they had to accept his vision of the world. Ash, Emerald Fire, the World Tree, and the lustful Phantom became the truths of that battlefield.
Images had the capability of becoming truths. They ruled the surroundings. In effect, Randidly’s ease of fighting opponents thus far could be explained by him cheating; he didn’t fight the way everyone else did.
It was like the world had agreed beforehand to a series of rules that were extremely favorable to Randidly before the fight had even begun. And no one would say anything as Randidly brought increasingly elaborate weapons to the boxing matches. Until the boar-head sacrificed his life to display comparable power.
However, Randidly felt very little lingering pleasure from the battle against the Nemesai. It was clear to him that his advantage was so absolute that he should have been able to prevent Thea, the Serpent, and the Obsidian man from escaping. But he just hadn’t understood exactly how much of an advantage he had for most of the battle.
Until the strange boar-head man countered Randidly with his own images. With that sense of restriction, Randidly had another realization. When there were two images that fought for dominance over a space, the way to spread your image’s influence was by relying on the Skills that evidenced them.
But when the opponent had no images… that meant you could use that image to do anything. Skills no longer bound it.
As long as it was within the purview of the image, there were no bounds to what could be accomplished with an image.
Suddenly, Randidly was very much looking forward to the Donnyton challenge.