Even without Randidly pumping out some of the many images he could use to pressure Ki-Kunot, the air around him was heavy. In the past few years, Randidly had stood on too many battlefields. He had faced too many dooms. When Randidly made no attempt to suppress that wafting darkness that still clung to him, the air around him became humid and sinister. When he released a breath, his exhale came out as stormy grey mist.
In spite of the weird subconscious image, Randidly couldn’t help but be slightly amused. Is this truly the figure of a hero? Of a King? A CEO of a company? It’s hard to say what I am these days...
Although it was almost impossible to pinpoint the moment where he had reached this juncture, Randidly could now recognize that it wasn’t just the Crown that was an oppressive weight on the chest of these monsters that considered him. The other part of it was him embracing his growing influence. Seize the control that people offered him.
Well, perhaps influence wasn’t the right word. It was just an inherent quality of his growing stature. Randidly Ghosthound cast a long shadow.
No matter what Path he took forward, Randidly had gathered such political and anecdotal capital on Earth that he couldn’t escape his own story. And that brand became a strange magnetism that could be used to grasp the world and guide it toward his will.
“...unfortunately, it would appear that we have very different opinions as to our relative strengths,” Ki-Kunot said gravely. Her dark eyes were very solemn as she studied Randidly. They methodically examined every exposed inch of him. “If you believe that we would surrender, we have nothing to talk about. But I will extend to you the same offer; surrender now while your precious scourges still run as rampant as locusts across the countryside. By the time we finish with them… your power here will be broken, Randidly Ghosthound.
“Our homes have already been destroyed… we are at rock bottom. In this battle… we aren’t the ones with everything to lose.”
Randidly blinked. Well, certainly, these fools have more spine than I would have suspected. Are they hiding their true fighting forces somewhere else? If those four guards she has are truly their elites… Or do they truly believe that killing seven Riders was a sign of more things to come? I almost… feel sorry for these monsters.
How could reef sharks recognize a bolt of lightning?
From the monster’s perspective, they might not even be aware that they are currently inside of a Dungeon and being exploited by the System. As they were minding their own business, suddenly Randidly and his Riders showed up and quickly began harvesting the natural resources available in their home. And just as abruptly, they discovered a growing clarity to develop ungainly tools to address the situations.
But even if Randidly could empathize with their struggles, he was not the sort to simply stop in his own plans to right the cruelties of fate. Although he was powerful, Randidly didn’t have a god complex; he couldn’t save everyone. Everyone’s karma was there own. Whether this was sowing or reaping for the monsters, Randidly would not take their plights onto his shoulders without sufficient payment.
“...let me just say this once.” Randidly smiled at the broad-shouldered guards that were standing around Ki-Kunot. “What you’ve done is very impressive. But we both know that your foundations here are relatively unstable. And even if you think you can defeat the foes you are currently fighting… believe me when I say they are just the tip of the iceberg.
“But if you surrender to me, you will become my people. I will protect you and fight for you. Your world… well, there is a lot about your world that you don’t understand. If you agree to my terms, I’ll take you out of this closed off area.”
A Path forward for them was the best Randidly could offer. And as he considered how he would now have to manage another force, Randidly felt a headache brewing. Hopefully, they wouldn’t take as quickly to architecture as the Riders had.
But of course, this is just a flight of fancy, Randidly’s gut twitched in distaste. With the choice of phrase I employed… is there really any chance that this woman would see what I’m trying to save her from becoming?
Ki-Kunot regarded Randidly silently for quite a while before she spoke. “...I have something of a sixth sense about liars. But you… you’re not a liar, are you? You truly believe that we will be crushed by your scourges.”
“Yes,” Randidly said simply. For all that it would mean a lot of extra mental stress for me, please let my authenticity be enough.
Continuing to talk, Ki-Kunot walked several steps forward, until there were only a few meters between her and Randidly. Her guards stirred nervously but she waved them back. “In addition, I can tell from your eyes that you believe that even if we would win… you truly have no hope that we could defeat what waits beyond this… place. Even… even about yourself, you are unsure. That is how terrible your foes are that have forced you here.”
“...Yes, there are certain enemies that I don’t dare fight right now.”
Ki-Kunot took several more steps. Suddenly they were only an arm’s reach away. Looking at him, she asked. “We are strong. Stronger than you know. In exchange for information, we could assist you.”
“It wouldn’t be enough,” Randidly said softly. “I don’t have time to wait for you to grow.”
“In your eyes, are we truly so weak?” Ki-Kunot’s gaze turned sharp. Then she slowly shook her head. “Even if you truly believe the danger that awaits us, I still cannot surrender to you. Nay, there is no need to surrender to you at all.
“You might not understand this, but these are my people,” Ki-Kunot spread her arms wide. “We might not understand the wider world, as you said… but we know when to stand up for what’s right. Your scourges are consuming our homes… that’s not just. No matter what boogie monster has you so frightened that you felt it necessary to hide here and recuperate, it doesn’t justify what you are doing. So please, I’ll ask one last time. Surrender to me. With your knowledge, we can prepare for what is to come. You might be right that we are recently evolved to this state, but we sure as hell won’t stop until we control our own destiny. Betting on us would be the best decision of your life.”
The bright light of determination and hope in Ki-Kunot’s eyes settled down into grim resignation as she calmly listened to his laughter. The two of them were still standing only an arm's length apart, although that distance seemed to stretch into a vast chasm.
And in that chasm was Randidly’s long shadow. It seeped out from him and filled the cracks and corners of the cavern, dancing in those dimly lit locations that weren’t protected by the light of the torches. Randidly saw the hands of Ki-Kunot’s guards tighten on their weapons as they regarded him with growing hostility.
“There’s only so much you can do with idealism,” Randidly said quietly.
Ki-Kunot huffed out a deep breath. “And selling out your humanity can only earn you so much, Randidly Ghosthound. As a show of respect… you can leave here peacefully. But don’t expect us to be so merciful again.
How strange, Randidly reflected. Somehow… I became the Creature and this valiant heron became the bold defender of humanity. And yet… now I firmly believe she is wrong even if I would have made the same decision, faced with the same choices. If I had been born to her Path, I would likely have chosen to resist and make a stand here. To them, I am the ultimate villain.
Still… I am not the Creature. I will not force them to choose to follow my lead.
But neither will I let guilt cripple me because they won’t demonstrate even the slightest instincts in regard to self-preservation.
Of course, Randidly acknowledged that he wasn’t giving the monsters much choice in the matter. But he didn’t believe he had much wiggle room either. Randidly turned around. “Fine. A word of advice, Ki-Kunot, War Priestess of the Silver Wings. Don’t let early victories go to your head. You are deep within the food chain of this System. Until you fight your own way out… your people will suffer tragedy after tragedy.
“Oh, and one more thing. My Riders already know this location. By this time tomorrow, they will come in force to exterminate you. I recommend you vacate this location by then.”
KI-Kunot was silent. She gestured sharply, and two guards stepped away from the door to open a path for Randidly.
As Randidly walked out of the room, Ki-Kunot spat out one more parting salvo. “It is the duty of those who wear a Crown to protect, Mr. Ghosthound. I hope your desire to consume never eclipses your duty.”
Grinning, Randidly looked back over his shoulder. The almost liquid shadows that had dripped out of Randidly into that shadowy room flowed back into him.“If you don’t carefully define who you owe a duty to, Miss Ki-Kunot, the world will bleed you dry.”
Randidly moved quickly back to his dome and began to work on his forging process, even though it was past midnight. Strangely, the talk with Ki-Kunot made him realize a few things about his utilization of Grasp of the Molten Core.
As he became more familiar with its ability to manipulate gravity, Randidly became more adept at making the distribution of bones in the molten metal truly perfect. As the uniformity and pattern in the metal became more exact, the overall strength of his alloys improved. With Ignition Essence, Randidly could easily melt all of the materials down to liquid form. But he had eventually hit a plateau in terms of material quality.
But somehow, this gave him the insight to understand why he had stopped improving recently.
What he was quickly learning was that the longer he kept them as a liquid, the weaker the final alloy would be. The metal attempted to bond with the ground up bones during a drawn-out process, creating tiny inconsistencies. Because Randidly was applying constant heat to keep the materials as a liquid during the process, those attachments would be broken, creating infinitesimal flaws.
But the longer the metals stayed liquid, the more of these piled up.
Therefore, it needed to be as perfect as it could be as quickly as possible.
The work tables around him were covered with engraving bracers and ingots. With a flick of the finger, Randidly used Infinite Fingers of Yggdrasil to clear a space and got to work. Faster and faster, Randidly whirled around his molten metal to form his ingots. Then, while those ingots were cooling, Randidly would form the next batch. Then he would test the new ingots, let the new ones harden, and then begin the next batch.
By morning, Randidly had created almost a hundred ingots of the highest quality. It wasn’t a perfect process, but he was learning how to use his Skills to their limits.
It was during just that good mood, probably around lunchtime of the next day, that the Riders brought Randidly the severed head of Ki-Kunot to prove that they had accomplished the task he had set to them.
Contrary to his warning, the rebels hadn’t left that base. They had simply spent the last twenty-four hours of their lives turning that area into an approximation of a fortress. Unfortunately for them, the deaths amongst the Riders meant that the two Legions grudgingly worked together on the extermination mission. When the Riders arrived, they were forced to march into a cramped tunnel filled with enemies and traps.
Which of course, the Riders did so without hesitation. They were Riders for the Baleful Court. But more than that, they had spent the last five months tinkering with traps and construction. Nothing that the rebels could manage in this cave system in only twenty-four hours had any chance in hell of being able to stop them.
Never mistake the result of an ambush for a predictor of what would happen in a direct confrontation, Randidly thought as he stared at the bloody head of Ki-Kunot. Her beak was cracked and oozed blood. But still he delicately took it from the Riders who had made the report. That’s a lesson I had to learn early. And still, I often make that mistake. I could have taught you that. I wanted to teach you. But… I wouldn’t force the issue. Your life is your own.
Randidly dismissed the Riders and promised them a special reward for this. But Randidly kept the head in his hands. It was so light that it was easy to forget it was there. Some part of him regretted taking the head from the Riders, but another knew it was the right decision.
Strangely, Randidly knew he had more to say to it. Although lessons meant nothing to the dead, that didn’t mean it meant nothing for Randidly to try and impart those lessons.
Perhaps it is a harder thing than I thought to steel myself for the lives we destroy as we reach for enough power that we, in turn, are not destroyed. Randidly raised his hand and touched his chest. Then he shook his head and hefted the skull of Ki-Kunot.
“Is this what I looked like to the Creature…? Well, is this how the Creature thought I would end?” Randidly said aloud.
The dead head didn’t answer. Sighing, Randidly shifted his grip to the beak and carried it outside into the warm glow of the sun. A sliver of Mana created a root shaped like a shover piercing up out of the ground. Randidly took it and considering the surrounding area. Finally, he settled on a spot near to the stone monolith and began to dig.
“What makes us different except luck?” Randidly asked the air. He stuck his shovel in the dirt, tossed the loosened soil to the side, and then repeated the process. In the face of his single-minded determination, the ground slowly gave way. “If the Creature had been less interested in seeing how I would grow… if the Creature had conspired to put me in a Dungeon with someone less exemplary than Shal… if I had made a single mistake in dozens of situations… if Aegiant had just dived into the pool of lava to kill me...”
Randidly paused. “If I didn’t meet Neveah…”
Just like there were similar mindsets which indicated that Randidly could have gone down the same path of foolish resistance that Ki-Kunot, there were reasons that it hadn’t happened. And all of these reasons were not things of his own doing. Rewards that he had fought and earned, but nothing that made Randidly believe he could have done any better in Ki-Kunot’s shoes.
There was even a grudging admittance in Randidly’s chest that he owed a deep debt to the Creature. In seeking to shape his environment, he had been indelibly shaped to be a monster. Just like he had learned a deep determination from the Spearman. Mercy had been beaten out of him by the cruel hand of reality. Perhaps if the lessons hadn’t been so harsh, Randidly wouldn’t have felt only small qualms at the thought of allowing the monster resistance to run itself through on the blade of Randidly’s Riders.
So many other Paths. So many choices I could have made that would have made it almost impossible for me to survive.
“...but I did survive.” Randidly tossed the head into the hole and began to fill it in with dirt. Several shadows crawled out of the grave and joined the thousands of others that rejoiced in the sea of shadow that Randidly cast behind them.
With great care he watched those shadows join him. Although they appeared like shadows, they were truly threads of karma. But what I can’t tell is if these are chains that will behind me or a Path I will use to walk forward.