“Oh! Like I’m so glad I finally found you. Ah, Mr. Ghosthound… is that you…? It’s a little dark… ah! Oh, that’s definitely you!”
Randidly looked up. He had sensed the unfamiliar woman wandering around the stage area for about a half an hour, but he hadn’t thought anything of it. He had sensed her talking to Tatiana plenty of times from afar, so he had just assumed she was an aide here to work on something for the award ceremony. Which was why he had paid her no mind and allowed himself to laugh loudly as he examined the greedy man’s images.
How was Randidly supposed to know that she was looking for him?
“Ah…? Did you have something for me?” Randidly asked as he scratched his head. Perhaps he was spending too much time thinking about broad images and not enough familiarizing himself with the individuals that made up Erickson Steel. But it was just a rather daunting task for a naturally introverted individual like Randidly to become acquainted with everyone.
It was already bad enough that Randidly would be giving a short speech later...
The woman shrugged, causing her extremely thin hair to drift outward from her frizzy head like a jellyfish’s tentacles. She teetered back and forth haphazardly as she walked across the scaffolding and then plopped down next to Randidly with a relieved poof of air from her mouth. “I’m Sherry! I’ve like, heard so much about you. Tatiana said you wanted to see me…? Which, considering you are the secretive owner of Erickson Steel inviting me to an isolated location with pretty enough scenery… I wasn’t sure… you know…”
Randidly’s expression turned suddenly serious. He certainly did not know. And he definitively didn’t know why Tatiana would send this woman Sherry-
Ah, wait. I think that Tatiana said her assistant’s name was Sherry… and at the time she did seem very surprised that I complimented her assistant… did I have the wrong individual…? Randidly sighed inwardly.
While Randidly was reflecting on his own thoughts, Sherry continued boldly forward with her own audible train of thought. “Actually, I have a rather consistent online following among people in Zone 1… I like, write classy smut. Like real classy. People call it erotica, even. That’s how classy it is… and since you are just so brooding and mysterious… since it’s practically research… whatever you need, I am here for. I’ve… prepared. Like by showering... not by anything weird, haha-”
“Let me just stop you right there,” Randidly said, raising up a hand. “I think there’s been a miscommunication. I did ask for you, but what I really wanted was for you to help- help introducing me for the award speech.”
Randidly mind thrummed with activity as he carefully considered whether this would be fine. Although she might be rather… strange, she was bold enough to clamber up onto the scaffolding and seek him out. And Randidly could clearly see that she had no climbing or balance related Skill; her accomplishment was all her own will.
Or foolishness disguised by fortune.
Either way, Randidly continued to speak. “So you’ll just need to come out before I speak and introduce everyone involved. It shouldn’t be difficult- but Tatiana wanted to make sure you were rewarded for all of your… ah… dedication to the company.”
Let’s let Tatiana sort through the fallout of this… this is exactly the sort of thing I don’t want to deal with...
“Oh,” Sherry honestly seemed to wilt a bit. “So then… us being up here…”
“Just a coincidental meeting. Actually, I need to head out.” With a lithe grace, Randidly stood and nodded to Sherry. Then he quickly hopped off the edge of the stage’s scaffolding and quickly dropped down to the ground below. To keep his impact from shattering the surrounding tiles, Randidly created a half dozen thin roots that curled outward from some of the bare dirt and cushioned his fall.
After walking several steps away, Randidly spared one glance behind him toward the rather shocked form of Sherry among the high framework of metal. He could feel images around her, more ephemeral and capricious than the images around most people, but no less dense.
It takes a lot to build a city, Randidly reflected as he turned away and moved through the darkened alleys behind the Erickson Steel’s industrial grade furnaces. They loomed above him like dozing beasts, waiting in silence and shadow for the dawn. It takes a lot of hope and a lot of very brave people each letting their own strange dreams out into the open.
In his chest, Randidly felt the heavy weight of his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom humming softly. Perhaps it was because the aura of timelessness from Chulroon’s claw was balancing out his images, but he had abruptly felt quite… vulnerable while moving around Erickson Steel. Something was changing inside of him.
Extending through Randidly’s entire body were thin veins of weight and power that stemmed from the growing image that began with the Crown at its center. It was a strange growth that had emerged half-formed since Randidly began spending more and more time at Erickson Steel. In Randidly’s vast Soulspace, it had been easy to miss it amongst his other bright images. But now it demanded attention.
Those thin veins that spread outward from his Crown Skill seemed to resonate with the images that were percolating upward toward the near-cloudless night sky above Erickson Steel. Randidly had felt the steadily growing ache from that resonance from walking around with Wendy during the festival proper, but at the time he had assumed that it would pass. That part of that strange feeling in his chest was the result of being so superfluous to the divvying up of the rewards.
It’s necessary… forging this image for Earth, even if it is mainly kept isolated, will greatly increase this world’s chances of passing through the trials that are arrayed before us. Randidly paused in his trek through the compound and clambered up an exhaust chute to the top of one of the larger warehouses. When he flipped himself lightly over to the roof, his eyes were immediately drawn to a very yellow and low moon. Even if I’m not the perfect man for the job… no one else can do it. It has to be me. Only I can house this image. Only I have the composition to bear it and help it grow.
“But it’s hard,” Randidly said softly to the moon, and only the moon heard his exhausted voice. Yet it wasn’t the housing of the images itself that was so tiring. It was his own insecurity that interfering with his own peace of mind.
It was most likely because of his time in the Dungeon, but Randidly had previously rushed forward with an impending sense of necessity. That sense had done a lot to pacify his own emotions. Randidly simply spent too much time struggling against foes that were greater than him to dwell on how all of his actions made him feel.
But in the Dungeon, his mentality had broadened. For both good and ill. Although Randidly had accomplished more than every human had managed so far… that felt so distant as he thought about facing future challenges.
Housing an entire town’s image within himself? That wasn’t something he had managed to before. And Randidly wasn’t optimistic about the damage that would be done to the image if he were to fail partway through the process.
Sighing, Randidly closed his eyes and lied down on the gravelly roof. Slowly, he isolated his senses, letting his sense of touch and smell drift away. With his eyes closed, what was left was hearing and those vibrating capillaries that extended in branching forks through every nook and cranny of his body.
Randidly could hear laughter and the sound of food sizzling and the low hum of the engines of the drones and footsteps and the excited swearing of a teenager and the sound of a tarp flapping in the breeze and the sound of a glass bottle shattering and the low crackle of open flame and the pure ting of a tuning hammer being struck and the labored breathing of a man heaving a crate up onto his stall and the sounds of grass rustling and the small taps of his Legion of the Unavoidable Pivots patrolling the area around Erickson Steel in precise loops.
And when Randidly breathed in, all of those small noises were drops of water becoming a river, sucked in from the tips of his Crown’s weird image network and funneling steadily into the center, where the gleaming Crown of baleful metal sat in his chest. Those drops that became rivers became a sea at his core, pooling and shifting, the different sounds and the images present were spliced onto those sounds surging together through Randidly.
Again and again, they were blended, becoming a perfectly distributed mixture.
Then Randidly breathed out.
Those refined images rushed up away from him like dandelion seeds snatched up by the wind. They drifted and settled amongst all of the people, disappearing just as a single snowflake landing on bare skin would. The resonance in Randidly’s chest increased. He whose body was a world acted as a filter and as a guide, slowly raising the quality of images in and around Erickson Steel.
Randidly’s attention narrowed even further. It wasn’t complete yet, but Randidly felt something growing in that sea of images that seethed within him. If things continued like this, it seemed like-
A new noise in the surrounding area brought Randidly back to himself. Shaking his head, he stood slowly and painfully, feeling strangely numb after his time on the roof. To his shock, Randidly discovered from his Absolute Timing Skill that he had laid on the ground for almost fifty minutes.
Only a little bit more and he would have been late to give his speech. Which, while rather predictable for garden variety speech-givers, was something that would have annoyed Randidly to no end.
...and it only felt like a single breath, Randidly reflected with a frown. That’s… dangerous. It definitely has the effect of aligning the surrounding images with myself, or vice versa, but going that deeply means it's easy to lose track of time. With only two weeks left before the Judgment… it might be good to avoid doing this too often…
Tap, Tap, Tap.
The sounds of footsteps came again, cutting cleanly through Randidly’s thoughts. And when he sent out a questing pulse of Aether, he sat bolt upright; he recognized one of the individuals. The irony of it set Randidly chuckling. After a split second of hesitation, Randidly hopped over the wall and landed in the two figure’s path. Slowly, he straightened and considered him.
They both started in shock from the sudden arrival, and the tall, gaunt-looking man raised his hand and unleashed a Frost Bolt that cut through the air toward Randidly. Immediately, the man’s eyes widened in horror at what he had instinctively done.
“Ah, fuck, I didn’t mean-” The man bellowed, but he fell silent as Randidly simply reached out and dispersed the Skill with a single tap of his finger.
To be honest, Randidly used his left arm for this. Therefore, most of the power came from the Chisel of Chulroon. But still, he appreciated the sudden and dramatic effect. The alley went quiet, illuminated only by the slanted light from the moon hitting the tin walls above.
“You…” The man looked at Randidly with an extremely strange expression. Something close to worship… but also near to hatred at the same time. “You are Randidly Ghosthound. I’m Garrett Tysfen, applicant to the Order Ducis. The… the pleasure is all mine.”
Randidly nodded, an easy smile slipping across his face. “I think it’s fair to excuse the sudden attack then. You are part of the group that Naffur brought in? Seems like he’s certainly keeping you on your toes… Have you enjoyed the Image Stones I provided? I’m busy with other things at the moment… but I hope you don’t think I’ve forgotten the importance of developing the Order Ducis.”
Which isn’t exactly true… Randidly thought guiltily behind his smile. He had been rather focused on Erickson Steel for the last few weeks and only ordered Naffur to come on a whim. But now that they were here, Randidly made a mental note to spend more time checking in on their training.
If Erickson Steel became the base of the image, the Order Ducis would, therefore, be the peak of it. It was those individuals who would take up the task of advancing the image. They would be the ones who would possess the most power… and from whom Randidly would need to ensure no image emerged that would threaten another’s Great Path for Earth.
A delicate balance to strike… but I suppose that’s a problem for later… Randidly turned to the second figure. His smile widened. “And you… we meet again. Weren’t you previously Tatiana’s assistant…?”
“I was, in a sense. I’ve done a lot around your company. My name is Vye Riversen. I’m honestly a bit surprised you… remember me.” Vye said with a small bow.