Copper Lifeblood was a unique Skill for several reasons. When she had heard about it, Mrs. Hamilton spent several hours pouring over the details of the Skill. It could not be used on the user, but only those who served the user. In addition to the buffs it provided, it also served as a very functional set of armor.
It was a buff to Strength and Agility that increased based on the amount of Health that the user was missing. Perhaps most strange was that the boost, when Eli’s Health was very low, was such that often the affected individuals couldn’t control their own power. They didn’t have enough Perception and Reaction to manage their new capabilities.
As such, Eli Iron had worked hard to form a Squad that purposefully kept their stats in line to take advantage of the Skill. As such, they weren’t able to stay at the top of Donnyton’s Squads very long. If Eli was ignored at the start of the fight, the rest of his Squad could be eliminated.
It was only when Eli was wounded early that they could demonstrate their peculiar power.
“Was this worth it?” Mrs. Hamilton asked with a heavy voice.
Stan just shrugged. “You asked for a chance. This is the beginning. With this, we might be able to learn something about his capabilities. Without more information-”
“You can’t be ignorant to what this means,” Mrs. Hamilton said quietly. The grinding agony of that strange crown that hovered above the World Tree continued to dig a screw into Mrs. Hamilton’s temple.
And if she felt this much, even with Alana who was blazing with fighting spirit, the audience…
“I guess we will found out,” Stan said. The numbness kept his face completely blank. He seemed almost disinterested in the storm that he had caused. The sky was dark. Agony was spreading like a plague across the arena. And Stan simply looked bored.
Her gaze even, Mrs. Hamilton turned back to the arena and saw the vicious hunger in Randidly’s emerald eyes. One problem at a time.
This is a man I need to kill for Donnyton.
As Randidly slowly picked apart Stan's motivations and the benefits he could have expected to receive through this series of events, that violent thought cut through everything. It was fueled by fury and Randidly’s protective inclinations toward Donnyton. So compelling was the thought that Randidly briefly lost control of himself.
Yggdrasil rose tall over the arena, judging the condemned.
Unbidden, the Crown of Upheaval and Gloom had manifested in a cloud of cold energy. As its bearer, the World Tree seemed to grow more luminous and holy. Allowing the emotions to flow free, Randidly didn't bother to control the explosion of Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil. The air hummed with his fury. With waves of power, Randidly’s displeasure was made known to all
And yet his pale Crown still trilled, demanding more.
He was a monarch. It was time to punish the children for playing at being adults.
Randidly felt himself raising his hand to point at Stan. The crowds were seething; the distance dispersing the power somewhat but they still tortured by the singing Skill of righteous fury that Randidly radiated outward. Narrowing his eyes, Randidly brought his will to bear. All of that power concentrated to a point, and the air around the VIP section began to warp as Randidly's will pressed down against it.
But he stopped himself. The singing ceased. All that vicious energy that was torturing the surrounding people was sucked back within Yggdrasil, as if it had never existed. Only the sounds of the panting audience members remained. Above, the emerald leaves rustled softly.
Attempting to steady their breath, the crowd struggled to rationalize what was happening. Their eyes traveled upward, tracing the immense form of the World Tree. And inwardly, Randidly struggled. The blow was prepared and ready, but he did not loose it.
Around him on the arena, the Squad members struggled to their feet, attempting to put up some sort of resistance. Honestly, Randidly was slightly impressed they had recovered so quickly. They were well trained and had high enough defensive stats to be a problem.
Well, perhaps they could be a problem once they understand how to use images, Randidly thought darkly. For now...
Yet Randidly was frozen, holding that tightly condensed judgment in his chest. An image he had carefully cultivated now tore him in a dangerous direction. He knew there were drawbacks to images, but this impasse was rather unexpected. And the only reason it occurred was due to the flamboyant gall of Stan to attempt an attack on Randidly that would destroy Donnyton's credibility.
The unthinking act of a fool became the start of a slippery slope.
Because Randidly's Crown had been devouring Donnyton's image of invulnerability for the entire challenge. These images that weren’t calcified were relatively simple to plunder and absorb. He felt himself growing heavy with its weight, increasing its potency at a speed that had his eyebrows scrunched together.
This image of the Ashen Phantom was one that he was offering as a threat to Donnyton so these people could learn the necessity of strength in this world. It was a desperate path he had chosen, one where he was attempting to put Donnyton on the right path at any cost. This whole challenge was about them.
He would drag them, kicking and screaming, toward dominance under the System if it was the last thing he did.
Stan's actions had clearly indicated that he should be eliminated. Otherwise, his shortsightedness might prove ruinous to Donnyton's future developments. He was a man that could not even face himself. Perhaps for that reason, he possessed unusual insight into the truths of others. But without knowing oneself, what strength did he truly have?
Threats needed to die. Otherwise, all this effort might be wasted..
Yet... that was the Spearman's Path, was it not?
Grinding his teeth, Randidly stared at Stan. Without looking away for even enough time to blink, Randidly examined him. His emerald eyes seemed like a terrible inferno, intent on devouring all things. Stan stood frozen, held by the intensity that Randidly considered him.
A surprising branch in his Path, triggering all of the darker tendencies that he had allowed to grow within his Crown and his image. He wanted to use force during this process but was careful to arrange the Challenge against Donnyton in a way that would not result in any loss of life.
The Ashen Phantom was truly an image designed to kill. But it was not a weapon that Randidly meant to use against the people of Donnyton.
Randidly was callous in his strikes, but he wasn't aiming to kill. He had never believed that he possessed the right to determine who lived and who died. Randidly just believed that his experiences gave him a wider view on how to survive the System. By teaching Donnyton the danger of images, he was guiding them without seeking definite control.
If he killed Stan here, that fine distinction would be washed away by blood. He would have eliminated someone who threatened his plan. Someone who threatened all of Donnyton, in Randidly's mind, but that didn't make it necessarily correct.
So his images demanded Stan's death. He had created the Ashen Phantom in accordance with the pride of his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom. Both led to eliminating this known threat.
An image's strength was related to its purity and conviction. Refusing to follow what his image dictated would weaken the image immensely.
And so, Randidly paused.
Strangely, Randidly was reminded of the first time he had encountered the Creature, when it had buried him in darkness, intent on taking over his Aether Crossroad. Just like now, he felt lost and frustrated. Yet this time, what bound him was not darkness but the intersection of thousands of decisions. Many of which were his own making.
That weight he had gathered in the fight against Donnyton, which gave his images potency, now pulled him down toward a dark Path.
In the world of Earth before the System arrived, many people often discussed destiny and free will. Specifically, they discussed whether there was a grand design from which you couldn't stray, or whether humans had the capacity to control their Paths through life. Much of this was framed by religious undertones, but it was a secular philosophical argument as well.
But it was one that Randidly had never understood; Destiny and free will were two sides of the same coin. Humans were complicated, but it never seemed to Randidly that they were more than the sum of their parts. Being unable to quantify or understand inputs didn't mean that inputs didn't lead to discrete outputs.
Put more concretely, both destiny and free will existed. Destiny was the Path you took and free will was why you took it. No matter how detestable one found their lot in life, free will meant that you would choose it if given the choice again without the benefit of hindsight. Because that was who you were.
An omnipotent destiny could account for you trying to avoid it. Because inputs and outputs were always fixed.
Randidly closed his eyes. Rather than hearing it, he could feel Stan slump against the walls of the VIP section. Was there no magic in the world? Are we truly all inputs and outputs…? Will I truly walk this Path?