The effect was immediate; the entire hole began to shake around Randidly with violent aggression. Engravings that Randidly hadn’t even recognized as existing began to glow brightly, snaking outward. Randidly hissed in displeasure as he scanned them. No wonder the Aether was difficult to detect from far away; these Engravings were designed to siphon off the Aether to fuel other workings: likely the Engravings that maintained the arrows.
The shaking continued to intensify. Cracks seemed to simply fade into existence along the lines of the crystal coffin. Then the pieces began to buckle and shatter along its surface. Within the coffin, something shivered.
Randidly stored away the glove and spread his arms. The Indomitable Mien of Yggdrasil exploded out from him, pushing away the overwhelming image of timelessness that shined out of the broken coffin. Even with it spewing its own indomitable image, Randidly was slowly losing ground to that light.
Gritting his teeth, Randidly’s mouth spread into a manic grin. You fucking want to compete with me, you dead thing? There’s more than one way to learn about another image. One way is to simply devour. So if you-
But just as Randidly’s focus and tension were spiraling upward to the pinnacle, the light of the supernova-like image flickered off. The shaking shuddered to a halt. In the silence, Randidly stood frozen with his arms spread dramatically wide.
A dark hand reached up and pressed aside the broken shards of the coffin. Then the previously trapped individual sat up.
An ancient red-haired monkey with milky white eyes looked slowly around. Finally, his gaze settled on Randidly. He seemed to sigh and offered Randidly a small smile. “You are not… one of my people, are you? It seems… my suspicions were correct, but… I’ve slept for far, far too long...”
Randidly remained silent.
Without waiting for an answer, the monkey leveraged himself up from the coffin. His legs were skinny and frail, with the hair so thin that Randidly could see the milky skin of its legs. But what drew Randidly’s eyes was the monkey’s side.
A wriggling black darkness sat there, slowly consuming small chunks of the monkey’s flesh and devouring them. The image of timelessness seemed to be concentrated in that area to resist the darkness, but it was a losing battle. Seeing his gaze, the monkey chuckled. “Heh, I see you are familiar with this then? Good… that will make my explanation easier. But before I begin… I have a question for you, youngster. No need to be scared, I mean you no harm. Just tell me… where are we?”
Randidly considered the question. The figure in front of him was made of such dense Aether that Randidly couldn’t even begin to parse it apart in a short amount of time. Even injured, he was far beyond Randidly’s capability. The monkey was correct about one thing though; Randidly felt a slight sense of recognition when he looked at the monkey’s side. He was being devoured by Nether, as had come from his Touch from Beyond Skill.
But what Randidly couldn’t figure out was why the first question the monkey had was where they were. Was the reassurance the monkey offered genuine?
Some part of Randidly was furious that he had so thoughtlessly cracked open the coffin. But there was another part of him that believed in that image and trusted this strange individual who appeared to have been sealed long ago.
As the silence between them stretched, Randidly cleared his throat. “We… are in a lake of Aether on a plateau-”
“No, no,” The monkey feebly waved a hand. Then he winced and brought his hand to his side. “Perhaps it’s better to ask how you got here, youngster. This is not your homeworld, correct?”
Randidly’s mouth twisted. “You are correct. I came here through the System. This place… is a Dungeon.”
The monkey’s mouth stretched wide and revealed a mouth full of rotten and broken teeth. “Of course. My precious world, relegated to a fucking Dungeon. After everything I sacrificed… but what did I expect? That is the way of the Nexus; to toss aside all those angels and devils who are deemed no longer useful.”
For just a second, a ripple of raw fury spread insidiously outward through the image of timelessness. Instantly, Randidly was back on his guard. But just as quickly, the monkey sighed and that poisonous rage disappeared from his image. Everything returned to its original, immaculate state. And strangely, the liquid Aether eased up around Randidly flowed away from him. Drop by drop, the monkey absorbed all of the Aether in the surrounding area until they were standing alone amongst the partially stained bone piles.
“Youngster, it seems you are aware of some things in the System. But I want to warn you… do not trust it in the least,” The monkey’s milky white gaze was intense as he stared at Randidly. “Please, listen to my story. My world was part of the fourth Cohort. We slew the First Calamity. We overcame the Second Calamity. We endured the Third Calamity. And then-”
“The Third Calamity?” Randidly blurted out. “Can you tell me what it is?”
Even if this particular bit of knowledge was all that Randidly gained from this strange interaction, it would be more than enough to justify the risk he had just taken.
Of course, you can’t use that to justify the risk blindly taken in retrospect… Randidly winced. But at least it will have a definite benefit.
Rather patiently, the monkey nodded despite the interruption to his story. He opened his mouth, but no noise came out. Panting, his grin spread wide once again. “Heh, do you think you can stop me now from saying this? The Third Calamity- is a lesson.”
After heaving out a loud sigh, the monkey continued. But Randidly couldn’t help but notice that the inky black creature that was eating into its side had grown marginally larger. He could resist the restriction of the System… but it had cost him. “It is surviving a year as though you had failed the Calamities. Aether becomes incredibly sparse across the world. Without a reliable source of energy, strong individuals need to monopolize a high-Level Dungeon and periodically clear it to gather the reward. Otherwise… they will suffer from Aether Deprivation and weaken. It was designed, I learned later, to keep the worlds hungry. To add ferocity and viciousness to the images.”
Randidly nodded solemnly. If what the System was really looking for was a strong image, it made sense to continually refine these images in different ways. It was just unfortunate for the System that Randidly was a direct counter the Third Calamity, which was a relief. One less thing to worry about, at least for the time being.
But I can’t forget about Octavius’ warning that some things may be changed due to the fact I caught their attention with Tellus...
Randidly gestured to the monkey. “I’m sorry for interrupting. Please, continue your story.”
The monkey chuckled. In fact, he seemed to gaze at Randidly with a good deal of kindly nostalgia. “Heh, no need to worry. I was in your position in the past. So desperate to protect my homeworld… but as I said, none of it matters. Because even though I surpassed all but the fourth Calamity and was promised peace for my world… look at this. Millennia later, my world has been chopped up and suppressed down to a Dungeon. My people have regressed to the level of monsters…
“I know that a change was made in the distant past, but the fourth Calamity that I encountered was to join the Great War. It is exactly this war effort that the System was designed to further. There on the frontlines, I was required to fight against the invaders for one hundred years. I was daunted, but I resolved myself to pass this test and earn freedom for my world.
“But there was a problem. Time on the battlefield was… strange. The creatures of Nether seemed to interfere with my perspective. I returned after what I believed to have been almost a dozen years for a break, only to discover that five days had passed in my test. In fact… I believe that the System incorporates some of the Nether’s power to create the functioning Dungeons. Or perhaps… Those are worlds that have been abandoned and are slowly being consumed by Nether. If so, my world-”
Again, the monkey gritted his teeth. The darkness in his side flared higher. Shaking his head, he finally said. “Suffice to say, I failed. I returned home wounded, as you see. Poisoned by Nether. It was considered to be my failure. After so much success in my word, it was a bitter result to have failed the Fourth Calamity. The final time I was credited with… was one year out of my hundred. I was not even close.
“Still, I had earned full citizenship rights in the Nexus over the course of my adventures. My wound would kill me eventually, but I could use my strength to suppress it and retire to my homeworld in peace. As I could feel myself slowly aging and dying… I at least comforted myself with the knowledge that my world would be safe.
“As I grew weaker, it seemed that time was slipping further and further away from me. At first, I would close my eyes and a few weeks would pass. But soon, every blink seemed to capture years in that brief darkness.”
The monkey looked sadly down at the wound in his side. His expression was bitter. “This strange power of Nether… it was slowly taking away my understanding of time. You might not know this, looking at me now, but I was a powerful warrior that grew out of an artist. My image was always to make an eternal and enduring piece of art… and strangely, Nether gave me a small clue into that truth. Even if my physical Strength has been consumed… my image…well, you can feel it now, can’t you? I sense it on you.”
Suddenly, the monkey’s smile became almost apologetic. “In fact… that was the only reason that I came out assuming you were one of my people, due to the similar image. If I hadn’t sensed that, I might have...
This time as the monkey trailed off, his eyelids began to flutter. Randidly jolted into wakefulness. “Ah… your name is Chulroon, isn’t it?”
Once more, the monkey’s eyes opened wide. He smiled at Randidly. “Ah, yes, it is. You found my chisel, correct?”
Nodding, Randidly produced the glove and offered it to Chulroon. With great care, Chulroon took the item. He cradled it in his arms like a favored grandson, smiling down at it with crinkled eyes.
“Ah… yes.” Chulroon hummed in pleasure. Then he looked up at Randidly. “As I was saying, time passed quickly. But my wits weren’t gone. I began to realize… that something was wrong with my world. Most others wouldn’t notice it, but I had almost reached the pinnacle of the Nexus. I felt as the quantity of Aether in the air slowly dropped.
“At first I assumed it was a mistake on my part. Or perhaps my own weakening led to the Aether losing its robustness in my world. It was, after all, my image that overcame the Calamity. But hundreds of years passed and it grew worse and worse. Due to my failure, I had been largely cut off from the Nexus so my wound couldn’t hurt the supply of energy to other individuals. But I did understand Aether.
“A suspicion began to grow in my heart. A suspicion that everything that the System had promised for passing the Third Calamity was a lie.”
Chulroon slipped his hand into the glove. His aura instantly sharpened into something towering and deadly. The timelessness quality swirled into something closer to inevitability. Randidly felt like he was standing at the lip of an abyss as Chulroon whispered his next words. “Which was fine. I have been betrayed before. But I knew one thing for sure. If my suspicions were true, I would make the Nexus bleed for this.”