Naffur’s face twisted into a frown as the fool Roland lost his cool and unleashed an attack at his full strength. Immediately, he barked out. “Ajax!”
“On it,” the giant cockroach man buzzed as his wings carried him down from the viewing platform to the arena below. Naffur had been aware that Roland dearly wanted to be a part of the Order Ducis since the man had seen the Fate that Ajax and Madelyn had been able to condense with Nathan’s help. Naffur just hadn’t realized how deep the man’s greed went.
Inwardly, Naffur felt an incredible amount of anxiety at the moment. If this talented woman was seriously injured or even killed now, he wouldn’t be able to deny that it was his fault. Despite knowing Roland was an unstable element, Naffur had allowed them to fight. He had seen Vye’s unwavering will in her brilliant yellow eyes and had to admire her bravery.
Under the influence of his second aspect, the Aspect of the Wandering Knight, Naffur’s gaze remained passive. He was the face of the Order Ducis and had been for several months. He could not let this throw him, no matter how unfortunate the outcome was.
That was the heavy weight that Randidly had given him to bear.
“With these hands…!” The woman, Vye, bellowed. More quickly than even Naffur would have been able to mimic, her hands surged into motion. Right before the Ion Bolt and light beams arrived at her, her left hand was glowing with a piercing brightness. Without protecting her torso at all, Vye swung her gleaming hand in a vicious cut toward the Ion Bolt.
Naffur’s eyes twitched. For a second, around her…
But there was too much light, so it was hard to confirm. The attacks crashed into each other and after only a brief pause Vye was smashed backward. Ajax arrived just at that moment, his one hand steadying Vye while his other hand struck out and ripped apart the beams of light that pursued Vye.
Naffur was gratified to notice that whatever Vye had done, it had dispersed the Ion Bolt totally. Even if she was knocked unconscious by the effort, it was not a small thing.
Coughing lightly, Naffur said. “Ahem. Congratulations, Roland. It appears you won the final duel of this year’s lottery. Thank you so much for your hard work.”
Roland’s face was extremely pale as he looked numbly at the crumpled and bleeding form of Vye that Ajax brought up toward the waiting Nathan. “Sir Knight-Errant, I-”
“No need to speak,” Naffur hissed. “I believe we have all seen enough.”
Flushed with stymied ambition, Roland’s mouth moved wordlessly for several seconds before he simply nodded and walked off of the central arena. Two men with mops moved up onto the broken ground and began to wash away both of the contestants’ blood.
While Randidly was in the Dungeon, he intermittently visited the Alpha Cosmos to track of the developments within his Soulskill. Because it was now based exactly on the time he experienced, the Soulskill would also go through a one year jump before he returned to Earth.
Which basically didn’t matter much to anyone but Helen, who would benefit from Randidly’s increased understanding of the connection between his body and the Alpha Cosmos. As he spent more time with it active, the bonds that limited her power would gradually loosen. Which honestly, gave Randidly a headache.
It was too easy to imagine Helen growing bored and making trouble around Erickson Steel. It was better to immerse himself in his Soulskill and do his best not to think about it.
The Monster Prince’s interim government continued to integrate with the nearby kingdom to avoid an all-out war between the new arrivals and the original inhabitants of this strange continent. It seemed that things would proceed peacefully for now, but Randidly didn’t want to be blindsided as he had in the past; once a week, Randidly would head into the Alpha Cosmos to have a discussion with Lucretia.
While he was there, he would also check in on the progress of the youth from the Willow Tree Spear Style. Honestly, Randidly was endlessly impressed by his determination. Despite the grueling series of tasks that Lucretia had set for him, he stubbornly continued to Engrave past the point where he had a sufficient amount of Mana to accomplish the task. It was somewhat endearing so see him so feeble that he could only stagger away from a test, unsuccessful and exhausted.
Randidly sighed inwardly. I suppose it's unrealistic to think that Shal’s brutal training methods wouldn’t rub off on me...
Lucretia and Randidly sat in rocking chairs on Lucretia’s engraving complex while they watched the kid struggle. The tall shadow of Lucretia’s ranch style home rose behind them. Randidly’s fingers danced across the wicker arms of the chair idly, looking over the problems that Lucretia had set for her apprentices. Only after he had solved them all to his own satisfaction did Randidly turn to Lucretia. “Anything worth reporting?”
“Nothing over in the political sphere, but I’ve continued to investigate the lighthouses present in the wider continent, per your request.” Lucretia took a long sip of a drink made from the pulp of the sanu, a sour fruit indigenous to the area that tasted kinda like pomegranate. She licked her lips in satisfaction and tilted her head toward the pitcher in askance.
Randidly shook his head. “None for me, thanks. So, what did you find?”
“Although the lighthouses existed before, the didn’t work in a straightforward manner; most people couldn’t get a Class from them.” Lucretia frowned down at the red-violet drink. “To them, the arrival of the refugees from your previous Soulskill and from Tellus is less a cause of what happened than a symptom of a larger change in the world. There are some religious organizations here that predict a time of judgment is approaching-”
“Quite accurate, actually,” Randidly muttered.
Lucretia had spent enough time with Randidly not to be dragged into his asides. “-but the larger point was that the mainland doesn’t have as much of an advantage as we thought when it comes to fighting strength. A few, exceptional individuals had previously been able to activate the lighthouses at great cost, but by and large, the Levels of our two groups are comparable. There are just about ten times as many of them.”
Sighing, Randidly leaned back in the rocking chair until his center of gravity shifted backward. “If we assume that these people are the accumulated subconscious influences from those I’ve encountered, it’s still somewhat worrisome that I’m only one tenth of the population inside the world that is somehow my literal body.”
A ghost of a smile flitted across Lucretia’s face. “Honestly, how much of that remaining one-tenth isn’t also just influences of other people? I think it’s pretty impressive that you had direct control equalling ten percent of the rest of the realm.”
Randidly regarded Lucretia mutely. Lucretia couldn’t resist the urge to chuckle. “I’m just being realistic. How much of ourselves is truly us and how much is just the environment?”
Waving a hand in irritation, Randidly said, “I don’t want to have a nature versus nurture discussion right now. This world is my body; I need to have some semblance of control-”
Then Randidly blinked. His grin was then wolfish. “Ah, of course. You are saying the number doesn’t matter much. Ultimately, it is the ten percent that has the images; that is what matters. Have there been any hints of my images spreading?”
Lucretia nodded. “There are a few places that I’ve seen concrete knock-off image, but most are fuzzy and malformed. Apparently whatever sort of status existence this world endured previously didn’t allow any real images to develop. The country we have allied with, Noran, has already employed several of the individuals from Tellus who can use images as visiting scholars for their military college. Which, ultimately, means we bear increased influence in our ally but also increased exposure to political trouble.
“And although I said there was nothing overt… Noran has been pushing its military college very aggressively these past few years; I would be shocked if they didn’t make a move in the near future. If we want to prevent war, we need to intervene soon. But to do so, I’ll require some time to gather more information,” Lucretia said seriously.
Randidly opened his mouth and then paused. His immediate reaction to conjure a group of Riders for Lucretia, here in the Soulskill, so she would have a group of reliable troops. But the more Randidly thought about it...
At that moment, Randidly could feel his two images on his separate shoulders. Nurture and growth from the World Tree. Destruction and entropy from the Grim Chimera. Releasing a breath, he followed both of those paths forward in his mind, attempting to predict the outcomes of the different stances he could take in regards to his Soulskill. The entire time, Randidly could feel the fragile feeling of security that he had finally managed to develop over the past four months shaping his perspective.
The longer his gaze followed the branching paths leading toward a series of political interventions in his Soulskill, the heavier Randidly’s emerald gaze become. His mind drifted back to the sordid and twisted series of covert operations that the United States green-lit in South America and all of the far-reaching consequences that resulted.
With Randidly’s Control, Focus, and Intelligence, he felt reasonably confident that he could predict the broader consequences and costs of what Lucretia was suggesting. Which was perhaps arrogant. But Randidly’s Crown seemed to resonate as he calculated the lives they could save by preventing a war between the countries present in Randidly’s Soulskill.
The fragile feeling of security flickered and shrunk. Was what Randidly was considering protecting the people of his Alpha Cosmos or simply babying them? We don’t have time for careful calculation or soft solutions.
Lucretia studied him. Then she blinked in shock as Randidly’s face settled into a grimace. “You… you don’t think we should intervene to stop the coming war here?”
“In this land, I wear no Crown,” Randidly said quietly. He could see the unmarked graves of his fellow soldiers along the Hallat, even now. In the dark space of his mind, when it wasn’t populated by images, that was the scenery that was conjured. “What right do I have to impose my will upon these people?”
Lucretia just looked at Randidly.
Helpless, he shook his head. “Do I possess the prerogative to save them from their own foolishness? And more than that- should I?”
“This is your body, for good or for ill.” Lucretia waved her hand in the air. But her eyes stayed on Randidly’s face. “But I can see… well, I was always wondering how the Spearman’s vision would affect you. If this is your body then this war will be a refining process for the unconscious images that you've collected. You would benefit greatly from the war, in a sense.”
Randidly opened his mouth to say something, but Lucretia raised her hand. “I didn’t mean it as a criticism. As it happens… I totally agree that the best course of action is to allow things to resolve themselves. But I suppose I assumed you would find the truth of this situation distasteful.”
“I cannot be gentle. Especially with myself,” Randidly replied.
Grinning, Lucretia said. “Ah, perfect. This is what I wanted to point out to you.” She spread her hands to indicate the world, then brought them together toward Randidly. “You cannot have things both ways. These lives we are talking so casually about are both you and also separate individuals. It is not an either/or. Don’t hide from the ethics by only considering the definition that is convenient for you at the moment.”
Randidly playfully punched Lucretia’s shoulder. “Alright, alright, I get it. No more lectures, please I don’t need them.”
“Really?” Lucretia raised her eyebrows.
Randidly spread his mouth wide, but his expression was not a smile. Her disbelief was clear, so it was time to remind her of his growth. The Crown of Upheaval and Gloom manifested above him and the air began to tremble. Lucretia’s fingers tightened around the arms of her chair while Randidly spoke. “Even if they are just the accumulated unconscious figments that I’ve gathered, do you truly believe their deaths cause me no grief?”
After a few seconds, Randidly released the Crown and the air settled back to normal. Slowly, Lucretia straightened. They returned to their observation of Lucretia’s apprentices for almost ten minutes.
Then, right before the air returned to normal, Lucretia spoke. “Alta would have been happy here. The original Alta, I mean. This land relies heavily on chivalry and unspoken etiquette to get by. Alta… her favorite stories as a child were about bands of heroes.”
Randidly looked upward toward the overcast sky. “Heroes are just the shards of a broken society that refract the most splendid light. Their edges will cut you to the bone. Let’s hope my Soulskill won’t need a hero for a while longer, yet.”