Randidly sat with his legs crossed in the half-light of this strange place. In front of him, the Grim Chimera raised its head and howled until Randidly felt the vibrating hate of the noise in his diaphragm. Its hunger was a physical thing, tugging at Randidly’s clothes. Around the two individuals spiraled thousands of motes of ash, sucked upward into the endless maw of need that was birthed by fear and fury.
It seems that my senses were right, Randidly reflected. Something is… off here.
Then the Grim raised its wickedly sharp claws of its left hand and the ground beneath them was covered in a sea of ants. They marched in formation toward the horizon, commanded by a higher purpose to seek the edge of the world. All of this information flowed into Randidly naturally, connected as he was to the substance of the Grim Chimera.
Then the terrible monster at Randidly’s core raised the bone spear covered in dried blood that was its right arm, and the horizon shifted. One thousand towering pyres appeared like open mouths.
With a predictable fatalism, those innumerable ants marched into the fire without any complaint. Their population swiftly dwindled. The only proof of their existence was the small pops their body made as the air inside their thorax was heated to the point that their exoskeleton was torn open by the super-heated air. The howling of the ash grew louder as more and more drifted upward into the vortex.
Randidly smiled sadly at the Grim Chimera. “They were not mindless ants. They were people. Monsters that grasped intelligence after being exposed to Aether and opportunity. And although their nature drove them to refuse to concede… I hold the responsibility for their deaths. There is no need to try and comfort me with this pointless spectacle.”
Gnashing its invisible teeth, the Grim Chimera spun. Its body twisted and morphed, sucking the images of the ants and the funeral pyres into itself. In its place, the severed head of Ki-Kunot sat on top of a spear. Unlike the head that Randidly had actually received, the image projection that the Grim Chimera made was rotted until the lower half of its head was nothing but a bone and beak.
“You look similar to a very old image I had,” Randidly said quietly. Seemingly not caring that Randidly could see it moving, the Grim Chimera raised its left arm. Thin wires of ash wove themselves downward from its deadly fingers to connect to the skull. Then the dead thing that was meant to be Ki-Kunot began to speak.
With a clacking rotten beak, Ki-Kunot asked. “Why did YOU murder my people?”
Despite how contrived the situation was, Randidly softened somewhat. Until he understood why this was necessary, he would play along. “All blades belong to the King, even if he does not wield them. I will not shift blame to my Riders.”
Waggling the jaw of the dead puppet side to side, the Grim Chimera seemed to think about that. Then Ki-Kunot’s severed head opened its disintegrating beak. “Is humanity truly the most important thing? What is sacred in your crusade to save Earth?”
“All things have a price,” Randidly said tiredly. He had asked the number of monsters they had eliminated in that strange cave system. It was nine thousand one hundred and six. “I’m doing my best.”
“Ah, the conscious of a King is a broad thing, to shrug off the guilt of strangling an entire people in its cradle.” The skull said with a skeletal smirk.
“It fucking sucks,” Randidly said bitterly. The ash floating around them paused in its constant upward rotating. It began to drift without destination, filling the air with smoky butterflies. “It wasn’t a perfect solution because I’m not a perfect person. It hurts to know I could have saved those lives but didn’t. But I would do the same thing again.”
“Doesn’t your justification give you succor? You have continued for a week without stopping your Riders from slaughtering the other small rebellions. You must be confident in the price you would pay for their lives.”
“I’m not.” Randidly shrugged helplessly. His eyes studied Ki-Kunot then the Grim Chimera. Finally, he began to carefully examine those lines of ash that connected the two. “But I don’t have time and I am not a person who can afford to wait for certainty to take action. I offered them three choices. That was the best I was willing to do.”
“You don’t have time? HA! What do you have but time!” The puppet roared.
Shrugging, Randidly said. “I might be the first to possess an Aether Crossroads, but the System has dealt with enough Heretics that it has an automated response. The Judgement is coming.”
Ki-Kunot sneered at Randidly. “You have an eternity here, if you want it. You can minimize the danger-”
“I’m not so arrogant to believe that I’m the first person that has found this loophole. And also not the first to find a way around Aether Sickness. Yet what I find funny is that the Judgment sets a date and descends based on that timeline. Because I received the information on normal time, Dungeon time gives me room to prepare. Could I have gone into a deeper Dungeon while in that time accelerated jail and put off the Dungeon? I actually counted on the Judgment at that time, but if I had wanted to… was that an option?”
Randidly leaned forward. “If that’s the case, the System is built as though it's less important that it is coming, and more important that I know its coming. Which is the reason I have a hunch that this Judgment will be slightly more complicated than just another fight. I’m not in here just to prepare for the Judgment.”
For several minutes, the skull was quiet. The Grim Chimera didn’t move. Then, like cut power had finally been restored, it spoke again on a completely different topic. “Three choices? You gave us only two choices: join you as slaves or die.”
Randidly smiled. “There was a third choice. I urged them to leave that base and flee. They could have left and started a new life elsewhere.”
“Your Riders burned our homes and extracted the raw materials. Not just ore and lumber, but you also gather less intelligent species and use them to harvest food and textiles.” The expression on Ki-Kunot’s face was bitter. “What choice did we have? You would have steamrolled our culture and way of life. Without that, what would we be but monsters?”
“Culture…” Pressing his eyes closed, Randidly breathed out slowly. “Yours was a culture of violence before you achieved self-awareness. You killed each other heedlessly. LIkely for thousands of years.”
“It was tradition-” The skull hissed. But Randidly also sensed he was close to the core of the issue now and didn’t stop.
“And what you are saying now is that your lives meant less to you than your culture.” Randidly bared his teeth. His hands tightened to fists. “So not only do I need to spare your lives, but when you threaten to harm your own lives to protect other interests, I need to respect that as well? No. I will not do that.”
“YOU SPEAK SO GRANDLY OF YOUR VIOLENCE.” Ki-Kunot bellowed. The ashen butterflies were moving in a frenzy now, crashing into each other in small explosions of grey. “Yet how could we trust you? You came in a frenzy of fire and killing. You did not bother to learn about us. There is so much that we could have done for each other if you would have given us the chance!”
“I don't think I'm better than you. I simply was stronger. And the bottom line is that… I didn’t care about you.” Randidly said truthfully. He took several steps forward to stand above the rotting head of Ki-Kunot. Nine thousand one hundred and six. Just another pile of lives lost under the rules of the System. “...But I do care about something you said: trust.”
The hundreds of ashen butterflies froze. Their wings glittered in the half-light of what Randidly considered his source of images. Effectively, what he could see by right now was the light of his own soul.
“It’s trust that caused this, isn’t it, Grim Chimera?” Randidly’s lip curled and then he looked down the ashen strings connecting his image to the rotting projection. “Trust fueled by a deep guilt that is too fresh and raw to truly cope with. I’m sorry I left you down here with it.”
“How can you know you haven’t doomed your humanity by slaughtering us?” Ki-Kunot whispered.
“I don’t,” Randidly said frankly. He scratched his head. “Your potential for growth, your stubborn determination… I can admire those things. You could have joined my Alpha Cosmos and become a part of me. But, in the end, I couldn’t truly believe that it was solely my Aether that pushed you all to this. Until I understand that plateau... I cannot dislodge the suspicion I hold. I was afraid.”
“We died for suspicion.” Ki-Kunot’s expression was bleak.
But Randidly looked at the Grim Chimera with luminous emerald eyes. We died for suspicion, eh…? Isn’t this taking this ruse a little too far? Or...
With a single finger, Randidly reached out and touched the ashen threads that bound the projection and his image together. “Grim Chimera… I wonder… who is speaking through who, here? I’m… surprised you were so easily devoured by guilt.”
The ashen butterflies disappeared. So did the Grim Chimera. What remained was the bloody and rotting head of Ki-Kunot. “You should be happy that guilt has taken root at least somewhere in your vicious soul. What sort of king kills for suspicion and feels nothing?”
Nine thousand one hundred and six. Compared to the total number of people who I could have saved and didn’t… it's truly insignificant. But it is not nothing. “Trust me, I feel the weight of the lives I’ve ended every day. And those lives I’ve let end themselves when I could have easily acted and saved them.”
“HOW CAN I TRUST THAT YOU HAVEN’T DOOMED US TO DIE?!?” Suddenly the Grim Chimera was back. They were buried in ash.
“You are afraid too, aren’t you? Of course you are, you are a part of me.”
Randidly brushed the unending sea of ash all away. They were suddenly alone in the half-light. “I wonder that every day, with every second I spend on different activities. What will end up being the Skill I need to survive tomorrow? How will the System try and doom Earth next? The stream of threats doesn’t seem to end. And before we came here… well, you know.
“That being inside the crystal thought we were as insignificant as dust. And it wasn’t wrong about our relative power. But I will never again be nothing.”
The Grim Chimera shook its head. Its limbs split and merged. “If you truly feel these things, WORRY. CONSIDER. You are just calmly refusing to look away from your Path. The things you are missing due to your stubborn pride… And if your Path is the wrong one-”
“There it is.” Randidly grinned. He reached up and grasped above his head. “You are me, but you are also Ulaat, and also Alta. You are corrupted by the emotions you feel, and you assume that the fact others aren’t corrupted means that they don’t feel the same things. Or they don’t feel them with the same authenticity. But let me demonstrate something to you.”
When Randidly grabbed above his head, his fingers closed over the Crown of Upheaval and Gloom. The Crown hummed softly, gleaming like polished bone in the half-light of Randidly’s soul. Extending his hand, Randidly offered it to the Grim Chimera. There was a flicker, and suddenly it was KI-Kunot’s bleeding head that was sitting before him. With a small smirk, Randidly placed the Crown onto her head.
“It is not expressive to let your emotions control you,” Randidly said quietly as he adjusted the Crown. “It is childish. We have so much more to do. We have so many more foes to face. This… well, I can’t say it wasn’t a mistake. But in moments like this, where the fate of Earth won’t be affected… those mistakes can happen. I can’t be perfect every moment. So then when push comes to shove, I’m in a better position to not make a mistake. Because I am the King here.
“Do you know what helps no one? Whining when you fail. And fuck…” Randidly gritted his teeth. “I can’t deny I failed here. I didn’t take the time to make a perfect solution. I was too rushed to respect these lives. I faced my own foolishness and turned away without a second glance because I believed my other tasks were more important. I was… arrogant.”
“You believe your numbness to be a virtue?” Ki-Kunot muttered, but Randidly knew that it wasn’t any real spirit that was talking. “We have done terrible things. We deserve-”
Because of how the Crown was never truly worn physically by him, it was difficult for Randidly to fit it on the decapitated head’s rotting flesh. It came down to minute adjustments to the image itself to make it possible. But still, he labored at it. “You know what I detest more than anything? Making someone else’s tragedy about yourself. Focus on your own shit, Grim Chimera.”
“You feel guilty too!” Suddenly the Chimera was back, its arms stretched wide to as if to embrace Randidly. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone and buried all the bodies-”
“I mourned then in my own way, rather than torturing myself and feeling self-righteous about it,” Randidly said. Then he smiled; the Crown finally was in place. Suddenly, it felt like chains of cold iron were jettisoned off from his shoulders. Releasing a long sigh, Randidly savored the tingling sense of freedom that came over his soul space.
Increasing the power of images didn’t occur without a commiserate cost. And for the first time in a long time, Randidly was freed from that cost.
When Randidly finally had the Crown sitting as he wanted, a connection was established between this small manifestation of his emotions and his Crown. The head of Ki-Kunot screeched in agony for a second before it was squelched like a rotten grape. Then the Grim Chimera began to roar, its fabric ripped to shreds by the swirled doubts and fears that plagued the Crown.
For several seconds, Randidly let the image bear that weight. It will hurt to the point of damaging the image. But it needs to learn this lesson. Just because I do not panic and flail does not mean I need these victories any less.
Then Randidly took back his Crown. “...do you understand now? Nine thousand one hundred and six is only the most recent pile of bodies I have created. They won’t shift my resolve. Even if I’m making a mistake… I won’t know until I reach the end of my Path. Don’t get in my way.”
The Grim Chimera didn’t have any strength remaining to reply. It faded to nothing in the dark half-light of Randidly’s soul to lick its wounds.