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A note from puddles4263

5/14

Cracking his neck, Randidly walked over to the bustling industrial center of the Erickson Steel headquarters. Although Tatiana seemed to have a rather grim outlook on Erickson Steel’s future, it was hard to be anything but optimistic while looking around. Men and women in thick leather aprons were hurrying toward the various individual smelting chambers, but also there were several large groups standing around in the plaza and enthusiastically chatting.

With Randidly’s Perception, he could hear them discussing the finer points of temperature and mixture ratios in order to create a more stable metal. Not exactly the sort of discussion someone who was worried about their job would have. But then again, Randidly supposed that for these people, who owned Erickson Steel didn’t matter. Perhaps they would be just as happy to chat while employed by the government.

Randidly looked at Mark with a wry grin. “Really seems like this isn’t a place under constant threat of government oppression.”

“Most average people wouldn’t feel the weight of the dagger at our throats,” Mark said slowly. He seemed like a rather reserved and morose person, even if he had been extremely helpful to Randidly thus far. “Erickson Steel has that much clout. Anyway sir, would you like to examine our current products first…? Or do you want a room to work yourself?”

“Current products first. Just a few examples of each. But no rush,“ Randidly shook his head and then looked curiously around at the constant flood of slightly singed people. “There are… a few personal things I need to take care of before I begin. In the meantime, I’ll just be seated at the cafeteria area over there. Find me when the materials are prepared.”

Mark gave Randidly a careful look. “Ah. Is there… will you require any… assistance with these-”

Randidly shooed the man away. “I’m simply selecting what Path I should take next, don’t act like everything I do has some deeper meaning. Like everyone else, I have taken several long Paths to get where I am.”

“But I’m quite sure your… variety of Paths are quite enviable.” Mark frowned. “You will… wait for me here then? Do you need-”

“I’ll be here,” Randidly said with a sigh. He shooed the other man away once again, hoping that he would take the hint this time.

Seemingly relieved by the answer, Mark nodded and hurried off toward the towering stone building belching out smoke. As Randidly walked over to the much smaller cafeteria tucked next to the stone goliath, he idly considered the pillar of pitch-black smoke running upward, looking like a corridor of asphalt into the sky.

The System means we don’t have to worry overmuch about pollution… right…?

Randidly took a seat and turned his attention inward. He hadn’t lied to Mark, but he had only given him half of the truth. Randidly would pick out his next Path, but he also wanted to spend some time examining his images. It wasn’t that his images were damaged, per se… but that they were spreading their influence too far. If he didn’t act now to restrict them, the images might bleed into each other with unpredictable side effects.

In addition… from the way the Grim Chimera image had been acting, Randidly had a suspicion that the combination between the Ashen Kata and the Spear Phantom had thrown off the delicate balance at the image’s core. Some of the annoying and insidious elements of the Ashen Image he had picked up from the Patron of Ash were beginning to manifest.

Nothing concrete now, but hints that foreshadowed a return to that poisonous image. He had kept his images inert over the past day to simplify the task, but Randidly would still need to delve deeply into the images in order to figure out what he could do to focus the images away from each other and keep the Grim Chimera under control.

Well, let’s take the easy part first… Randidly thought as he opened up his Path screen. He twisted his lips as he considered the three options that he had settled on: Ashes of Ulaat, Perfect Soul Bond, and Physique of the Grim Chimera.

The first decision Randidly made was to exclude Physique of the Grim Chimera as a choice. Physically, he was in the best shape of his life. Both due to high Skill Levels and extremely high Stats. Yet he couldn't deny that his physical gifts had been insufficient to handle using the Skill All Else Succumbs, While Time Whirls the Earth.

Even at his peak, that Skill reduced him to a shuddering mess.

But rather than brute forcing the issue by continuing to raise his body’s capabilities, Randidly believed that it would be more prudent to work on his understanding before attempting it again. That way, he could use his understanding to lower the demand the Skill placed on his body without seeking the diminishing returns of higher stats.

Between the other two, Ashes of Ulaat and Perfect Soul Bond… Randidly finally settled on learning the Perfect Soul Bond Path.

Ashes of Ulaat was a Path that Randidly wanted to take eventually, likely as he gathered himself into the shape that would transform his Ignition of the Emerald Essence into a Skillset in its own right. But at the moment, Randidly’s focus was on Yggdrasil. To that end, Randidly knew that unity and growth would aid the World Tree image.

Plus, his experience heading to the land of the frogpeople impressed upon Randidly how strange and dangerous the Aether in that place was. Someone had adjusted it so it was possible to forcefully rip Aether out of a being with an inferior claim. That sort of ability spoke to an individual who was talented but vicious. Someone with enough mastery of Aether to threaten even someone who had been made aware of the threat.

Randidly ultimately didn’t worry much that Neveah would influence his Riders into defecting to her side. Due to her influence, the Skill was a tool that wasn’t as useful, but Randidly didn’t mind providing her with assistance. And hopefully, finishing the Path would connect them even more intimately, thereby increasing the passive assistance that he could provide to her.

Plus… Randidly looked down at his fingers splayed against the worn metal of the mass-produced dining table at which he sat. Becoming closer to Neveah is moving closer to Aether. If I can increase my understanding of Aether, everything becomes easier. Perhaps I’ll be able to give the engraving capable of Leveling another shot…

Unfortunately, that caused Randidly’s mind to move nimbly to the looming problem of Lyra. Irritation immediately bloomed in his heart but was just as quickly snuffed out as Randidly purposefully shifted his focus. That problem had another five and a half days to settle. No need to torture himself with it now.

With the decision made, Randidly poured 1000 PP into the Perfect Soul Bond Path. Every 100 PP, he earned himself 10 Willpower and 1 Endurance, which wasn’t a bad payoff for an extremely PP intensive Path.

Congratulations! You have completed the Perfect Soul Bond Path! The Soul Bond is like an entire being in and of itself, existing between you and your partner. A third, combination, existence. To put it crassly, a child between two willing beings. As time has advanced, parts of your two souls became increasingly intermixed. Through that process, the substance of the bond has grown strong. As Attributes and Skills flowed freely between you two, a deep foundation of what was to come has formed.

It is clear from this proceeding down this Path that you two are different existences. Your substances are flesh and energy, only finding an anchor in each other as the world continues to advance around you. The Path you walk is not forbidden, but the connection is one that goes against your own Destiny. Warning, to proceed is to go beyond the point of no return.

Warning-

Some blessings are too heavy to bear, Randidly Ghosthound, Lord of the Baleful Wood, Loyal Benefactor of the Weak, Lighthouse of the Boundless Worlds, Lodestone of the Black Wanting, Lesson for those of Brittle Will, and Longing of the Banished Wind.

Error! Recalculating-

WARNING! Interference detected-

I’ve finally found you, Yystrix. My one and only love. Wait for me.

Even as the confusing notifications continued to pop up before him, the rest of Randidly’s vision was casually wiped away. Instead of the noisy and jovial atmosphere at the Erickson Steel cafeteria, Randidly found himself standing below an enormous translucent crystal continent and was flanked by obsidian spikes. The crystal itself was so large that Randidly’s entire vision was filled with it. As he quickly scanned left and right, he couldn’t see the edge of it; it was like standing in front of a giant crystal wall.

Yet somehow, he knew there was an edge to it. It was a truth of this place. This was not an eternal being, only a vast and powerful one.

To his left and right were enormous mountains of obsidian that seemed to be acting as a natural barrier around the crystal. But as his scrambling mind caught up with him, Randidly paled further as he looked at these mountains.

They weren’t made of obsidian… in fact, Randidly saw a flash of copper when he focused his Perception as much as it could upon the mountains. Instead, they were simply covered with an extremely dense web of writing.

Engravings that sucked light away, rather than producing it.

Crack.

Although the sound was that of a crack being made, it felt more like someone reached and casually ripped a piece of paper. A rift opened in the crystal. Hair-thin and filled with a deep darkness, it ran from bottom to top of the crystal continent, as far as Randidly could see.

At this point, Randidly was all strained nerves as he struggled to understand what was happening. So his gaze instantly jumped to that thin crack that appeared in the crystal. Around him, the mountains began to hum and produce an even thicker veil of blackness that spiraled upward around them, but before it could spread and smother him, Randidly saw something.

It wasn’t anything specific, it was just something stirring. A small movement deep within the rend created in the crystal, something so far away that Randidly’s Perception couldn’t reach it. Something old and vicious waking up. As it moved, its attention focused on Randidly.

Something akin to a physical force hit Randidly in his Soulspace, eventually impacting his Class directly as it ripped through him. The carefully constructed structure of Aether buckled and cracked underneath the sudden force. For several seconds, Randidly couldn’t breathe.

Rather than being hit with a cudgel, it suddenly seemed that this strange being had reached out and was now gripping him within a tight fist. The pressure was so much that some of his Skills shivered in protest. But the weight was too vast and heavy. Randidly’s images couldn’t even gather themselves to move.

Everything was casually smothered.

Then, just as quickly as it came, the feeling was gone. Randidly’s Aether Detection was barely able to sense that weight quickly departing, following the line of one of Randidly’s karmic connections. Toward someone else.

There was a split second where Randidly was able to dazedly intuit that this thin karmic line, so thin that he hadn’t even been able to sense it previously, was a karmic line that led to the Creature.

But at that point, the pain of having his Class partially shattered hit.

Biting down on his lip, Randidly barely suppressed the urge to scream. What hit him then was a pain that he hadn’t felt since his Skill was reduced to cracked pieces by Aegiant’s Skill incarnation. It was an existential sort of helpless agony, starting from his inner world and spreading outward to his physical body. It came in pumping waves, washes of crimson agony that splashed against his psyche with unending determination.

Unfortunately, Randidly noticed too late that his hands were spasming. While gritting his teeth, Randidly pulled his trembling hands away from the metal mess table, leaving ten holes and two hand-shaped impressions on the table.

Just as the fifth wave of agony came from his Skill, something changed. His Soulskill began to hum, sending a wave of warm energy outward to counteract the pain. It was not enough to overwhelm it completely, but it certainly took the paralyzing edge off of the agony. Once the worst of the pain was gone, the energy spiraled into cones that began to carefully nurse his Class back to health.

At which point Randidly realized that he was receiving notifications agony.

-ning!

Recalculating...resuming display…

Congratulations! All Stats +50. You and your Soulbound companion have gained the Skill Soulbound Doppelganger (L) Lvl 1!

Soulbound Doppelganger (L): Create a projection of your Soulbound partner. The Doppelganger will possess all of your partner’s Skills, and a portion of their stats. Effect increases with Skill Level. Periodically, it is possible to possess the doppelganger of yourself, vastly improving its power. Cooldown decreases with Skill Level. Current Cooldown: 170 hours.

Well, at least I got some Stats. Randidly thought bitterly. His Soulspace throbbed painfully, even while his Soulskill provided more energy to heal the damage done to his Class. It seemed it would take a bit of time before it recovered.

But… what the hell was that?

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