Nathan smiled brightly at Lyra while sparing a speculative glance for Randidly. Even now, his expressions shifted like mercury. “Your Class is a whole moon, huh? That’s powerful. Honestly, aside from Randidly, your Class is the most powerful one that I’ve ever seen.”
“Is the moon really that powerful?” Lyra said quietly. She was still staring at Randidly, whose mind was slowly computing the name of Lyra’s Class. He reached out and felt around with Aether Detection, very quickly confirming that Lyra hadn’t lied. He could feel the shape of the Aether slowly blooming in her Soulspace in that small corner available to it.
Meanwhile, Lyra continued to speak. “Honestly, the moon seems like quite a pitiful existence. Imagine, to have thousands looking at you and complimenting your beauty and romance… but what those people truly see is light reflected off of you from another source altogether. The moon is nothing but a stand-in for the sun. All the good… and ill… that people know about the moon is simply misattribution. Isn’t it tragic? Aren’t those viewers cruel?! Do they think the moon feels nothing just because she appears distant?”
At the end of her final question, Lyra’s voice turned shrill. Nathan’s smile slowly faded away.
Meanwhile, Randidly’s eyes narrowed. “...I can understand how difficult a time you’ve been having. You are an impossible existence. No one understands that better than me. But you earned this, Lyra. You can’t escape the Creature’s shadow because you chose the Creature. There is no tragedy in this justice.”
“You are speaking to me about justice?” Lyra said scathingly. “I’ll be honest, I have watched you almost obsessively for your year in the Dungeon; after all, I have to, don’t I? And can you guess what I saw? Was what I did any different than what you did to the people of Ki-Kunot?”
Randidly blinked and looked at Lyra. Despite the fact that he had made his peace with that decision, all the feelings he had been plagued by in the wake of that blunder surged upward.
Lyra continued to speak. “I bet you thought you knew so much better than them. I bet you thought their dreams were a mistake. And yet what do you know, Randidly Ghosthound? You cannot beat the System alone. You can’t even triumph against the Creature! So why are you being so fucking stubborn-”
"I made a mistake, but I can't just spend eternity torturing myself," Randidly felt that strange helplessness again, that same feeling that had been planted in his chest by that strange tears on Lyra's face. That helplessness wanted him to back down and apologize. To weep for the innocents that Randidly had allowed to die due to their ignorance and his own preoccupation.
Yet she admitted that she had been watching. A small flame of anger ignited in Randidly’s chest. She had this dagger and was just waiting for the opportunity to use it. I don’t know what she’s trying to accomplish now, but...
Randidly's suspicion she had shed that tear purposefully hardened into certainty around his heart like plaque in an artery. "That's exactly why I need to fight for Earth now. Making that mistake once is enough."
"Yet I need to be perpetually punished for my mistake?" Lyra's voice was rising in a scathing flood now. "You get your second chance at virtue and mine is forever lost? I hope this isn't because I'm a fucking woman, Randidly because I will seriously-"
"It's BECAUSE you don't regret what you did. You would make the same choice now as you did then; you believe that the correct choice is to use the System to hide so we don't get churned to nothing by this grand war machine. And if you still think that's the right answer... how can I trust that you aren't going to just sell out the Earth once more?"
Lyra released a low chuckle. "So, you get rewarded for making a dumb fucking decision to begin with and I get punished for making the one borne out by facts?"
"Lyra, I'm warning you," Randidly growled. There was a tumbling roar in Randidly’s ears, like the sound of a slowly building avalanche. "We are connected now. We cannot escape one another. Don't say something you will regret."
Don’t push your fucked up agenda too far. I won’t let you.
"And so the helpless ruler defaults to threats," Lyra's expression was mocking. Randidly was distantly aware that Nathan was backing slowly away from the two of them, both from Lyra and Randidly. Despite the fact that he knew that was a bad sign, he couldn't see past the fury that was burning in his veins.
I thought we were past this, Randidly seethed.
But Randidly was equally determined to not give Lyra the satisfaction of being right. So he forced himself to calm down and spoke to her in a low voice. "We are getting off topic. But the fact of the matter is you believe the Creature's methods are the right ones. You agree with it even knowing the Creature would happily sacrifice millions of lives. Even knowing the experiments that the Creature supported in Zone 1. Even then, you take its side over mine."
"Her side. Are you really so small minded that you cannot even concede that she’s a person…? As to why… Your side is a dream, Randidly." Lyra said quietly. "And you sound so sure of the results... but how can you back up these promises?
“Was there ever a moment where you asked for my opinion? Where you explained your plans and asked for input? Of course not. You would barely even talk to me, back when we were…” Lyra gritted her teeth and shook her head. “How dare you claim to know what I would choose if I was really asked to help? Do you think you know me at all?"
Randidly barely resisted the urge to pull a handful of his hair out. "You JUST admitted you don't regret your decision!"
"AND HOW CAN YOU BLAME ME!" Lyra thundered. She gulped down several breaths of air before she could continue in a normal volume. "Despite all the evil that the Yystrix has done, she sat down with me and explained her side. Don’t you dare claim you’ve done the same? If you had enough human decency to sit down and talk with me rather than just assuming, maybe things would be different."
"You would excuse all the crimes she's committed because she talked with you...?" Randidly shook his head slowly. "You are a sociopath, Lyra. Besides, what more proof do I need that you would choose the Creature than your Class? The remnant of the Creature within my body manifests as the sub-Class Longing of the Banished Wind. And you... the Violet Moon of Yearning. Is that resemblance really just light reflecting off the moon?"
Lyra just looked at him. Randidly's hands clenched into fists. "Both you and the Creature are driven by some hole in yourselves that makes you crave and take from those around you. And that's why-"
"Is wanting something such a crime, Randidly?" What Randidly heard in Lyra's tone made him freeze.
Even Nathan, who was slowly backing away from the escalating shouting match was seized by that tremor in Lyra's question. As Randidly looked at Lyra, he saw that she was crying again. Her expression was as devastated as a rabbit warren that had been run over by a lawnmower. All slack flesh and terrible silence.
"It's not the wanting... that damns you..." Randidly managed to spit out through gritted teeth, but he couldn't continue to speak. In his chest, the World Tree stirred.
Listen, it said to Randidly. Truly listen. In this... I fear you have erred mightily.
"It must be hard for you to understand it. Perhaps that’s why I’m damned?" Lyra's voice was wide and empty. "I've been waiting for so long... for you to treat me like I was... I was anything. Like I wasn’t just a kid who didn’t know what she wanted or had the autonomy to reach for it. For you to treat me..."
Lyra shook her head sadly. "But you can't, can you? You are just the perfect little soldier who has been instinctively fighting in battles. The enemies get badder and your weapons get bigger and you keep stepping forward. It’s all you know. And now you found a Crown has been placed on your head. People rely on you for protection. They need you. And you certainly understand need, don’t you?
“Was that the difference between the mollusks you so capriciously raised into little engineers and the people of Ki-Kunot? That one group needed you and the other wanted something on its own?
“Patterns shift but the mindless instinct does not. Constantly protecting, constantly changing to face new threats, never bothering to stop and think what lies at the end of this Path. And now you truly believe you are capable of making a place where your people will be safe?”
Strangely, Randidly heard Azriel’s words from that small courtyard coming back to him.
“The sort of world that you can create by being good at fighting… isn’t that what we have already earned?”
Randidly felt exhausted. He looked at Lyra and just shrugged. He refused to admit that he didn’t know the answer to her question. But no matter how much Randidly wished he could, he wasn’t able to simply answer in the affirmative.
Lyra’s violet eyes flickered. “You need to stop acting from instinct. Randidly... what do you want? Not to survive, not to help the Earth survive. Nothing related to survival. I don't want to hear about your struggle; I want to see you be fucking vulnerable. Be a real person. Be someone that... reaches for something that you don't need to possess in order to survive.
Spreading her arms wide, Lyra seemed to be begging him to say something with her eyes. Then she brought her hands together and offered them to Randidly. “Reach for something you might not be able to get. Something that will hurt not to have but that you can live without. That's what being human is. You think it's hard to trust ME? How do you think it feels to interact with someone who is only nominally human?
"If there is something you truly desire... I can be there for you. Just ask for my help. Tell me your dreams and I can..."
Lyra trailed off. Randidly stared at her.
What I want…?
It was a dumb question, especially now. Time slowly ticked past as the two looked at each other. But that helplessness was back. Gritting his teeth, Randidly took a step toward Lyra. He didn’t have time for this. He wasn’t in the Dungeon anymore. He couldn’t indulge in these pointless thought experiments. Right now, he needed…
As Randidly opened his mouth to ask something, Lyra cut in before he could speak. "If you don't yearn for something... you are just a tool. And no matter how convincing it may be to other people, being a tool isn't being alive. No one was ever saved by a tool. Just by the person using it."
Then Lyra was gone, vanished in a whisper of fabric. After several seconds of silence, Nathan muttered something and hurried out of Randidly's workroom.
Which left Randidly alone in the dark. Obviously, he could have snapped his fingers and filled the room with the emerald light of the Ignition Essence, but he didn't. Hell, he could probably generate enough friction with a snap of his fingers to start a real flame.
But he didn’t. He just stood in the dark of the workshop with only the dim ambient light from failed Engravings to keep himself company.
"Why can’t our fights ever make sense," Randidly muttered darkly. In the aftermath, all his frustrations about the Engraving were tightly entwined with his anger and embarrassment toward Lyra. Because some part of Randidly knew that she was right about one thing: he couldn't have it both ways. If Lyra was damned by her decision to side with the Creature... Randidly was damned for his decision to kill Ki-Kunot.
But Randidly knew it wasn't about being damned or not; even he could admit that he still had to bear the guilt of that decision every day. Even thinking about it now, a tremor ran through his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom Skill. Which, now that there was a fracture within the Skill, was actually quite painful. A small bit of karma that constantly nagged at him.
Scars from an emotional wound that hadn’t been able to heal right.
No, the issue came back to trust. It was easy for Randidly to consider his own feeling and conclude that he could trust himself. Yet when it came to Lyra, the issue was nearly impossible to resolve.
I walked into the meeting with Chulroon knowing it could be a trap, but trusting the image I sensed around the place, Randidly reflected. But the image around Lyra... it is so similar to the Creature's I can't just...
"Fuck me," Randidly muttered. Idly, he picked up one of his failed attempts at Engraving and spun it in his hand. He shouldn't be this affected by this. He had already resigned himself to staying distant from Lyra. He had accepted in his heart that despite her methods, she at least was trying to help the Earth. That was supposed to be the new normal for their relationship. Independent, sometimes at odds, but ultimately both fighting for the good of Earth.
And now… as for her second argument that had completely taken them off of the rails.
"What do I want, huh...?" Randidly sighed. "Obviously, I just want..."
But Randidly couldn't answer the question. Not with anything more meaningful than protecting Earth from the System. And why wasn’t that enough?
Just as he had found in the Dungeon after he had spent almost eight months there, without the constant demands of necessity, Randidly lost something precious. While he was within the Dungeon, he had done his best to incorporate persistence in the absence of necessity into his images. But Randidly had been so long shaped by need that it was difficult to put a name to his emotions without it.
Perhaps that why Lyra's words had so stilled him, Randidly reflected. Because what he heard in her trembling voice was genuine concern. She was worried about him. Which was infuriating. Which was confusing.
No matter how convincing it is... being a tool isn't being alive.
"Bah," Randidly threw his bracer sidearm against the wall. With a clang, it rebounded off the wall and skittered across the floor to spin slowly to a stop t his feet. Strangely, Randidly was incredibly incensed by this unconscious act of defiance by the bracer. A vein in his temple throbbed.
"You are just a tool," Randidly hissed. He raised his foot to stomp down and destroy the offending object. But then Randidly paused.
"Being a tool isn't being alive," Randidly said aloud, feeling the shape of the words in his mouth. Licking his lips, Randidly crouched down and picked the bracer up with a trembling right hand.
"...if to Level is to live..." Randidly said wonderingly. "Then it's not enough to just give the Engraving a powerful image to give it shape. Even if it can grow, there is a limit to its growth because it's practically random."
Randidly's eyes were emerald fire even as he knew he was distracting himself from an important issue. "...because it needs a why. Because to create something living, it can't just serve a purpose. It also must want."
It also must yearn, Randidly thought sadly. But he quickly banished that thought. And he got back to work.