Vye’s eyes struggled to cope with the sudden change in light. Whereas she had just been within the warm caress of an immaculately sunny day, now she found herself wading in waist-deep mist. The brilliant sun was now a weak amber disk screened by layers and layer of deep grey clouds. There was no real noise here, just a soft howling that didn’t seem to emanate from the wind.
Still, although the scenery was strange, Vye did not waver.
Vye took a step forward and instantly she stiffened. Although it had previously seemed that she was in an endless sea of mist, a single step was enough to draw her even deeper into this strange place. The howling grew louder. The level of the mist had crept upward until it enveloped her whole body. She was swimming in endless darkness.
The vague disc of the sun had lost its power here. It was completely sealed away by the seething grey mist.
But that step also brought a vague outline into Vye’s view. Within the mist, something waited.
Panting, Vye stood as still as she could manage and did her best to calm her rising heart rate. She also grimaced and rubbed the bridge of her nose. This was an unwelcome place, devoid of life. Vye didn’t know how she had come to be here, but that really didn’t matter to her. At her core was the voracious desire to travel everywhere.
Even in this strange place of shadows and mist, even if whatever was at the core of this place didn’t want her here. Those truths only made her eventual triumph that much sweeter; these denials would not stop her forever.
So she took another step forward. The blurry figure in front of her became slightly more discernible. She seemed to be even deeper in that dusk-grey mist, approaching the swirling core of this place.
It was a man or at least something that had a form similar to a man. His limbs seemed twisted and warped, but he had a head, two legs, and two hands. But the shadows at the edge of him meant that some portions of his body seemed to evaporate off of him into black mist, shrouding the whole of him in additional darkness.
Well, he had limbs that were close to arms. They seemed to twist and rupture before her very eyes. Vye blinked. It was hard to tell whether those changes were actually occurring, or if the strange evaporation that seized his body was simply warping her view...
He still was quite some distance away, so Vye took another step. And immediately she regretted it.
It wasn’t pain that hit her, but a desolate wave of loneliness that slithered into her chest and took up residence there. Poisonous feelers instantly spread out from that feeling in her chest, questing toward Vye’s secret fears and insecurities. Which honestly, weren’t hard to find. Immediately after it had aligned itself with those emotions already present in her chest, more negative emotions flowed outward in a sludge-like deluge.
The new feeling was a dim understanding that all effort was meaningless. Time inevitably slew all challengers. It was a vicious rage at the world that surrounded them and also the strange impulses of instinct that forced them to struggle. If nothing has meaning, why ingrain the existence of a fake meaning named ‘survival’ into their genetic code?
‘Why desire?’ The dark figure seemed to project out from his defeated stance. His limbs were still blurry, but Vye could now see the dark shadows surrounding his eyes and mouth. ‘Why exist? All will become nothing in the end. This pain… it was forced upon us. We don’t need to bear it. It is better to just-’
“Don’t try and stop me,” Vye hissed in the misty darkness. “You may have given up on your dream, but I have not. Nothing will stop me. One day… my dream… I’ll hold this entire world in the palm of my hand. And you… your fucked up world… I REJECT this.”
Pain roared upward from her hand like hungry flames through a forest on a dry summer day. But for a second, the sense of ominous pressure that filled the surrounding air parted. Her rejection roared in the air. The grey mist spun away from her. The veil of pressure parted even as the wind roared ever louder.
Vye was able to grit her teeth and take a step forward. And then another. But what awaited her after the second step was a shudder-inducing silence. Around her, the wind had died.
Very quickly, the details of that sitting figure resolved themselves. And just as Vye studied him, he moved.
In the silence, he shifted. His neck cracked. Vye abruptly realized that he had no true eyes or mouth, just deep pits of despair that dotted his face. That horrible creature looked up and their eyes met-
Vye gasped and sat up. Garret was crouching next to her with his familiar dour expression.
He pointed to the rope tied around her waist. “You were right, tying it from the beginning is much more efficient. And there isn’t any danger of just pulling someone’s shirt off, as happened with Valor…”
Which, at the time, had been rather fun to watch Valor be humiliated even further. But when people realized it would soon be their turn, they quickly developed counter-measures.
“Shit,” Vye sighed and leaned back against the ground. Then she brought her left hand to her chest and winced. Fiery daggers seemed to be ripping into the flesh of her forearm from the Ritual she left there. It seemed that she had activated it subconsciously while she was trying to approach one of Randidly’s image stones. And holy fuck, she wished she had not.
She studied the inflamed skin carefully, looking for any sort of deviation that could be causing the pain. This was much worse than it had been, even after the desperate gamble that had earned her the marred appendage. She didn’t find anything wrong with the limb or the Ritual, but… was it a bit larger than it had been previously…?
“I didn’t know you were talented with Engraving. But its probably still a bad idea to use it on your own body.” Garret said as he followed her gaze to her hand.
The corner of Vye’s mouth quirked up. “It’s not an Engraving… it's a Ritual.”
When Garrett just raised his eyebrows, Vye continued to explain, as though naming it would do something to stop the constant agony of her hand. “My parents weren’t very close to my grandma. I always wondered why… until I met the woman. Sally Ann Holladay. She was a little bit crazy. Worshipped a pantheon of strange gods I couldn’t find a history on no matter how I researched them and called herself the Priestess Primero.
“Probably because it made my parents mad… but I learned the weird Rituals that she practiced. And honestly… it wasn’t spiritual, but… calming. To have my grandma there, insisting that things be done just so. The details, the specific rules, the careful timing… I don’t know, I always felt better afterward. So I started performing the Rituals to help cope with stress. Then, after I woke up and the System was here, I was struggling to deal with the fact that the world effectively ended, and I got a Path for my troubles. A Path that made all of those Rituals my grandma made up become real.”
Garrett chewed on his lip. “Well, it looks a lot like an Engraving.”
Vye didn’t bother to respond. Although it might just be her imagination, it did feel like the pain had diminished somewhat. She simply looked up at the sky above them and hoped it would recede further. It was dusk, so she must have been unconscious for a while. And now that she had experienced the image stone for herself, her confidence in being able to seize that free day shrunk and withered to almost nothing.
But there was still a seed of possibility that remained. Vye didn’t plan on giving up. Part of the problem was how strong the… well… image was in there. I wasn’t ready for it. But if I work on it, I’m sure that my Willpower is more than enough to overcome one lonely monster...
“Oh, also, I’m glad you awakened so quickly,” Garrett said. “We were given the night off. Naffur waited until most people were passed out from attempting the Image Stones to announce it, but we of the Order Ducis are encouraged to participate in Erickson Steel’s festival. We are officially required to do no training until dawn tomorrow.”
Vye leapt to her feet with such force that she immediately had to gasp and fall to one knee as the movement sent a wave of pain through her already agonizing hand. It really seemed like using the Skill inside of the Image Stone had some weird effect on her hand. Hopefully, the pain would fade enough that she could enjoy the festival while they had free time.
As she staggered back to her feet, Vye paused. “Ah… why hasn’t anyone pulled him out?”
Vye pointed toward Aldo, who had collapsed at about the fifteen-meter mark, just like everyone else had. At this point, he was twitching occasionally, his fingers and toes spasming as he remained unconscious within the area of the Image Stone. Aldo had gone in right before Vye, so if she just now recovered, he had probably been in there for almost an hour.
“He said he wanted to ‘submerge himself in the Ghosthound’s image’,” Garrett said with a smirk. “So he requested to be left in there for a while after he went unconscious.”
“That can’t be healthy,” Vye frowned over toward Aldo’s body. Was the body wiggling?
“Yea well, everyone wanted to know how long they could afford to leave themselves in the Image Stone’s area afterward. And to see if it would improve their chances the next time. So I’m sure someone will remove him in another few hours.”
“Not if everyone just leaves to go enjoy the festival.”
Garrett’s frown deepened. “What, you want to wait here then and babysit him?”
“Nope, just wanted to be sure we were on the same ethical page.” Vye turned away from Aldo’s twitching body. “Let’s go; I’m dying for a deep fried oreo.”
“Oh, didn’t you want to know how far you got?” Garrett asked as he scrambled to catch up with her.
Vye had to use her other hand to steady her left; when it was jostled, she wanted to walk back into the range of the Image Stone just to knock herself out. “Nope.”
“I really think you do,” Garrett insisted. “You… well-”
“Did I even reach the ten-meter circle?” Vye grimaced.
Garrett paused and looked back toward the Image Stone. “Well, technically no.”
“Then let’s go. Don’t be so fixated on external validation,” Vye muttered irritably. The pain was making it difficult to even concentrate on what Garrett was saying. Instead, Vye pictured all of the deep fried goodness that she would soon ingest.
After the judging, Randidly enjoyed the sensation of standing on top of the hastily erected reward stage and savoring the surrounding images of the festival. He had clambered up on the metal scaffolding, putting himself beyond the edge of the festival’s halo of light. As the stage was currently dark, the reward ceremony wasn’t for another two hours, even if someone stood directly below Randidly and looked up they wouldn’t be able to see him.
Which gave him time to think. And to examine the people within Erickson Steel.
Oh…? After about fifteen minutes of moving through extremely gratifying images of progress and hope, Randidly found an exceedingly strange image. One of jealousy and desire. Honestly, finding the image made Randidly smile; he knew such images would be a part of Erickson Steel, so he was relieved to finally find examples of them. Fears were much more intimidating when you couldn’t find proof of them. Now that he found it, he could prepare.
But the more that Randidly felt the nuances of the image, the more amused he became. ...you want to take everything I have created? You believe you deserve to control Erickson Steel? That you are the leader that this place needs…?
Randidly couldn’t even help it. He began to guffaw, leaning forward and holding his stomach to control the bubbling laughter.
After a few minutes, Randidly was able to ease up on the laughter. Have I been making this look so easy that anyone thinks they can do what I do? Well, I do consistently disappear from the public eye to work on other projects… but that’s not because Erickson Steel doesn’t require more work; its because other things are even more important.
Grasp of the World Seed whirred into action. Randidly felt all the tiny-micro bacteria on the skin of the man who held this image deeply in his heart. He could feel the blades of grass underneath his feet. With Aether, he could peer in and see the shape of his Soulspace. What he found there made Randidly shake his head.
There are dreams… and then there are obsessions, friend. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.