Chulroon walked slowly toward Randidly, his hands raised. There wasn’t any aggression in the movement, so Randidly simply watched. But he couldn’t help but notice that there was a slowly growing circle around the inky tentacles on his side where Chulroon’s red hair faded to white and began to wither.
“Which is why I gathered all the strength I could muster and sealed myself away, taking care to make the method of freeing me abundantly clear. However…” Chulroon’s face turned bitter. “It turns out that my preparations were inadequate. I did not foresee that my coffin would slowly break down, flooding the surrounding area with caustic liquid Aether. I suspect… my people noticed too late what was happening. These bones…”
Chulroon’s gaze was sad as he stared around at the towering piles. “...are likely hundreds of generations trying to reach me. I…”
Randidly felt a flicker of kinship with Chulroon at that moment. Randidly had plenty of skeletons in his closet. Without Randidly noticing, his previous Soulskill had slowly begun to devour itself. Hundreds of thousands of people died. And Randidly could have prevented it. Even if he didn’t know a perfect solution, it wasn’t so complicated a problem that he couldn’t imagine a less disastrous outcome. That weight had been incorporated into his Crown, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a painful subject.
With a sigh, Randidly said. “Mourning the past is important… but it’s too late to save them now.”
Chulroon nodded. HIs eyes refocused once more. “And although you are not of my people… you have a fraction of my image inside of you. It is a small thing… but for that, I will give you the three gifts I have prepared for my descendants. In exchange… I hope you will help me accomplish my wish: make the System pay.”
“I hold no love for this System, or what it has transformed my world into,” Randidly said bitterly. “I might not have reached the point where I’ve declared my war, but I swear to you that I will not balk from striking out at them.”
Chulroon nodded in approval. “As I said previously, the System is nothing but a glorified recruitment drive for a war against oblivion. Therefore, the time before the Calamities is the equivalent of a boot camp. It brutalizes you until you possess some capability. Then, the Calamities determine where you fall in the grand scheme of the war effort. Are you trash? Simply feed for other worlds? Reserve forces that will have your Fates extracted for weapons? Or do you truly possess the capabilities to fight on the front lines?”
“Wait,” Randidly spoke out before Chulroon got too far along in his explanation. “Fates… the things you condense at Level 50… those are used for weapons?”
“Ah, of course,” Chulroon’s face darkened into a snarl. “There is so much you don’t understand about the System. Undoubtedly, you have wondered why some people are partially scarred or consumed by their Fate, yes? It is because the powerful resonance that an individual can have with their own Fate is only secondary; essentially, at Level 50 the System injects individuals with unstable energy in order to transform them into a harvestable raw material. It serves as an assurance that the investment in the world is worth it. Even if a world cannot pass the Calamities… the System can take the condensed Fates from the world and equip its other soldiers. The Aether spent to grow those individuals to Level 50 would have borne some fruit, at least.”
Chulroon indicated his glove. “This chisel was made from the most powerful Fate of a fallen world. With the strange methods that the Nexus possesses… it was made to align perfectly with my own image and Great Fate. Needless to say, the original owner… did not survive the process.”
Randidly dragged his teeth across his lip, considering this new information. What effect would Nathan’s interference have then…? Well, the Villages did sell areas to help focus the Fate, so it was likely an insignificant change from the System’s perspective.
“But as I was saying… I was strong enough to be given a place on the frontline. There I fought for the System across countless battlefields. We won more than we lost… but there is a deeper problem.” Chulroon sadly looked down at his side. “But Nether… stains Aether. The reverse is also true, of course, but we all fight using the System’s energy; it is only the images that we individually provide.
“Even if individuals like me are used like gloves to protect the System itself from danger… we eventually become wounded and are poisoned by this sadistic Nether. The System then cuts off our worlds and lets them die to prevent the contamination from spreading… but across millions and millions of wounded or dead soldiers, do you think the System has avoided all damage? No, it must be festering and resisting the Nether even now. That accumulated Nether is its weakness.
“Which is why the first gift I’ll give to you… is a bomb.”
Chulroon began to laugh, but quickly the laughter turned to hacking coughs. Doubled over, Chulroon spat out green bile that splattered across the large stone steps. Straightening, his face was twisted in a grimace of pain. But he still indicated his side. “I cannot overcome this. But I can use the remaining Aether I have here to imprison it, along with an ignition Engraving that will spread the Nether in a wide area. Keep it… in case you ever get the chance to hit the System where it hurts…
“The second gift is my chisel.” With trembling hands, Chulroon removed his glove. His fingers were so weak that he dropped it. Smiling weakly, Chulroon nodded toward the dropped piece of armor. “It… it was the only thing on which I could rely on the frontlines. I hope… I hope it serves you as well… as it served me for so long.”
With a point of his finger, the air around Chulroon dimmed. The aura of timelessness in his body dispersed, while the glove began to glow with power. Randidly’s gaze softened as he saw that almost all of the hair on Chulroon’s body has turned white. Now it began to fall out in large chunks, while the greedy blackness in his side grew.
“The final gift… ah, you’ve already had someone bless you with a Disciple Path. That is… unfortunate. But still,” Chulroon coughed into his hand. Wiping the filth he coughed out on his side, Chulroon studied Randidly for several seconds. “There is something else I can do for you. The Aether around you… you are a Heretic, are you not? Ha, the System certainly does detest your kind. I will not ask how you came by your Aether; that karma is yours alone to bear. But I can tell you what you will be facing for the Level 50 Judgement.”
Instantly, Randidly straightened. “So... as I suspected, it’s not just another fight.”
Chulroon’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “It is a fight, in a way. But the System’s thought process is simple: If you won’t obey our rules or follow the correct Path we designed, fine. But that does not mean it won’t expect you to pay your dues. So it will stop nitpicking over your methods as long as you can prove you are powerful enough to be valuable to the System. And there is only one place that truly matters to the System.”
Randidly’s mouth was dry as he licked his lips. “...the frontlines. But isn’t that-”
“A death sentence? Yes of course.” Chulroon bared his teeth. “Normally, there would be no doubt. However, your requirement will be nowhere near the requirement to pass the Fourth Calamity. But even if it is just a single year, that same time period was all that I could manage, at Level 100, with a Level 99 Fate, at the height of my power. Tell me, youngster, could you manage to endure for the same amount of time?”
Randidly kept his mouth closed. Part of him wanted to say yes, but…
Chulroon chuckled. “Arrogance is dangerous, youngster. So I’ll just say this. All you truly need to do is prove that you are powerful enough to belong to the Nexus. If you cannot survive on the frontlines on the short lease they give you… don’t you just need to triumph over the lease?”
Randidly’s eyes glittered in understanding. But as he opened his mouth to ask something, Chulroon was consumed by another bout of coughing. For five long minutes, Randidly watched rather helplessly as more and more of Chulroon’s hair fell out. Now that the aura of timelessness was gone, the air began to smell like sulfur and charred skin. The black poison on Chulroon’s side seemed to recede, but that made Randidly even more worried.
Through Chulroon’s thin and pale skin, Randidly could see the black tentacles moving within his torso and focusing their damage on Chulroon’s internal organs.
“Heh, time’s almost up. So I want to know one thing, youngster. Why do I smell the scent of Nether on you? Why did you recognize this terrible darkness?”
“I…” Randidly began, but he trailed off. His mind drifted backward in time to a much simpler point in his life. Where no one was relying on him to survive. Even at the time, Randidly had been suspicious of the Path that had given him access to Touch From Beyond ®. But now it seemed like an avoidable truth that it had originated from the Creature.
Rather than trying to explain, Randidly simply raised his right hand and looked at it. It was a Skill he hadn’t used in quite a long time, likely since he had given this terrible Skill to a denizen of his Soulskill to resist the Creature’s mental invasion. The damage it had inflicted on the wielder was more than enough proof that Randidly wouldn’t risk using it casually. And then slowly, Randidly’s Skills became strong enough that it didn’t even cross his mind.
This time, he maintained a careful focus on his Soulspace and the Skill as he activated Touch from Beyond. During the several year interim since he had used the Skill last, his understanding of Aether constructs and Skills had improved to the point that the old Randidly was as helpless as a child.
So this time, when he activated the Skill, Randidly could see the Aether carefully unfolding within the Skill to create something akin to a portal. And from that portal, a small spec of darkness drifted outward and manifested in his palm.
Despite the increases in his physical prowess, the pain was just as achingly debilitating as Randidly remembered. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to keep his hand aloft as it began to glow with that luminous blue-black darkness. Chulroon just stared for several seconds, aghast.
And at that time, a string of notifications popped up in front of Randidly.
Warning! The Skill-
Danger! Please proceed directly to the nearest Village Spirit! Your soul will soon be corrupted!
Congratulations! Your insight has revealed the hidden function of a Skill. Touch from Beyond ® has unfolded to reveal its natural form: Nether’s Caress (M). Skill Level will be maintained.
“He...hehehe….HAHAHAHHA!” Chulroon burst out laughing. Even as vomit and blood mixed with his laughter, he didn’t stop.
The blue light on Randidly’s hand grew as the Skill evolved. From a spec that seemed to devour all surrounding light, it stretched to form a small triangle that whispered of death in the night and eternal rest.
“Truly… perhaps destiny did have a plan for me after all. For you to come to my Dungeon, out of so many… well, I suppose there might be other’s like me, but…” Chulroon wiped his excrement from his mouth. “I will die gleeful after leaving my gifts with you. For some reason… heh, it’s like you were designed in a laboratory to be used as a dagger against the System, isn’t it? What a cruel fate you bear, youngster. Before I go… tell me your name.”
Randidly looked at that blue-black triangle. The pain was piercing, but even more intimidating was the slowly spreading numbness down his forearm. Randidly tightened his hand to a fist and extinguished the Skill, already sweating.
“My name… is Randidly Ghosthound.”