Randidly woke up with a wicked smile plastered across his face and a headache that drummed against his frontal cortex more violently than even the vilest hangover he had ever experienced as an undergraduate. With a groan, he rolled onto his back and attempted to sit up. The world began immediately to spin. His stomach gurgled unpleasantly.
Randidly obediently leaned back against the ground and stared at the ceiling of the tent. After the rotating world slowly settled back to only the normal amount of extra motion, Randidly raised his fingers to his temples and tried to massage away some of the pain. But of course, his bone spear simply smacked against his head and the claws of his left hand drew blood as he pressed them against his temple.
Groaning, Randidly rolled over onto his stomach and pressed his eyes shut. They weren’t wrong about image growth being rapid during those trials… I feel like the Grim Chimera really took a step forward after that. I even gained almost 20 Skill Levels… but the difficulty is a bit…
“Here, let me-”
Randidly jolted upward as his instincts screamed that there should be no inside the tent with him. That terrible paranoia that the Grim Chimera held roared to life with a vengeance. His spear was already blurring forward when several thin vines twisted upward and pulled his reflexive attack off of its previous course toward the being’s heart.
For a split second, Randidly was lulled into a shocked numbness as a golden and emerald treant stood in front of him. It didn’t have a face, but Randidly could sense form it a kind sort of patience toward his violent response. And of course, he was intimately familiar with the details of the treant’s body-
Then Randidly’s eyes caught up with his movement and the world began to spin. And then the two misbehaving layers of the world once more demanded his attention, heightening the wild movements of the world to an even more nauseating degree.
Randidly returned once more to the ground and took several deep breaths to steady himself. The cool feeling of dirt against his back was like his only anchor preventing him from willingly letting his mind drift away from this miserable moment and settle into oblivion. It grounded Randidly.
The golden treant, who Randidly now recognized as the personification of Yggdrasil, leaned over him. “...I didn’t mean to startle you. Let me assist with the healing. It’s the least I can do after your bore the weight of the Eidolon Crucible for all three of us.”
Randidly’s eyelids flickered. “Thanks. I”m glad you woke up. I was beginning… to wonder whether something had been done to the tents that suppressed images within it.”
Although he could not see them, Randidly sensed roots curling out of the ground to surround his head in a complex pattern. Tiny, immaculate leaves grew out from the roots and began to glow. Almost immediately, a cool sort of relief began to worm its way into the inner workings of his mind. It was like someone was pouring a bucket of chilled aloe directly over his overheated brain stem.
“No, it wasn’t the tent. When we… the three of us I mean, were ripped out of Randidly, I rapidly felt the connections between us deteriorating. We don’t have much in common, after all. I worried that without the presence of Randidly Ghosthound… we wouldn’t be able to work together well enough to escape this strange predicament. So I used every bit of my strength to forcefully remove the bits of Randidly’s personality that were present in myself and Ignition Essence… and pour them into you. That’s why I was so exhausted I needed to sleep. And Ignition…”
Yggdrasil seemed to wilt a little. “I worry… that I did something that I shouldn’t have done. The wounds I left… might be a bit too deep for it to recover from in the short term.”
Randidly's mind buzzed faintly as he processed that news. But very quickly, he realized that the much more important task was to recover from his own wounds. So he let those thoughts fall away and simply enjoyed the sensation of that cleansing energy and didn’t worry about what it all meant.
Randidly floated. He breathed. Other than that, Randidly bothered to do absolutely nothing.
Of course, such a reprieve couldn’t last forever. Or even for very long. After only two hours, Randidly leveraged himself back up to a sitting position and sighed. The one benefit that had come with experiencing that image trial from his Skill was that Randidly was briefly teleported to a location where the two fabrics of reality weren’t constantly spazzing away from each other and creating headache-inducing visuals.
But considering the fact that he was so swiftly brought back to this damned tent, it might be more of a torture device than a reprieve. Already Randidly felt the seeds of irritation at this damned place burrowing into his mood.
Still, Randidly felt much better than he had earlier. In addition, he could cope with the visuals without any difficulty once more. So he turned to Yggdrasil and said. “So, I’m not… actually Randidly?”
Yggdrasil shrugged. “Who is to say? Certainly, in terms of similarities to Randidly, you are the closest being in the universe.”
Randidly, who might still just be a weird amalgamation of personality quirks thrown onto the Grim Chimera, scratched his cheek. Yggdrasil’s answer was rather unhelpful, but he took the point; in addition, that wasn’t the most important issue to address.
Randidly crawled over to the corner where Yggdrasil was standing and pointed at the curled form of the Ignition Essence in its gnarled hands. Perhaps because Randidly had already accepted this body was of an image as well, Randidly felt somewhat shaken by the inert form in Yggdrasil’s hands. “So… is there anything that I can do? If you need to take back the part that you gave me…”
“The emerald color of your eyes came from Ignition,” Yggdrasil said sadly. Its roots continued to undulate around the flickering tongue of emerald flame, each root covered in dense golden script. But then Yggdrasil shook his foliage. “No, I believe something fundamentally changed in you when all the traits I could gather came together. For now, I wouldn’t even have the slightest idea how to go about helping Ignition. The best thing we can do is wait.”
Yggdrasil turned its trunk and Randidly was abruptly struck with the realization that it was looking intently at him. “Which means we will need to survive here for a while. The fastest way to make sure Ignition recovers would be to recover our true body, but I am… unsure how easy such a process would be. Although the language of Engraving is a pat of me, I cannot read Aether as our true body can. For now, we should be cautious and come to understand this place before we begin making plans to escape.”
Randidly’s lips slid backward to reveal his teeth. “If there is one thing I’m confident of, it's fighting. Leave that to me.”
After that, the two beings who were limited by their images compared their findings regarding the capability they currently possessed. By and large, Yggdrasil had discovered the same limits that Randidly himself had regarding the Skills that it could access. The only meaningful difference was that Yggdrasil had some capability of manipulating Aether. The problem with that discovery was it didn’t possess any real ability to see what sort of effects its manipulation caused.
In effect, Yggdrasil using Aether was like a blind man swinging something he thought was probably an ax but might also be a broom with a heavy brush. Certainly, it might have an effect when swung at the right time, but only as a surprise attack; once the opponent saw the strike, Yggdrasil didn’t stand a chance.
Once the discussion was over, Randidly returned to focusing on his own recovery. Even if Emerald Leaves of Yggdrasil could do a lot to gather clarity to his mind, he was still deeply exhausted by the image trial. Yet as soon as he closed his eyes, Randidly couldn’t stop seeing his claws ripping through the flesh of a woman holding two swords, his bone spear sliding into a skull, his legs smashing an image’s knee with enough force to shatter the bones…
It was an intoxicating sort of violence that Randidly found in his head after the image refinement. Some part of himself whispered that giving into the violence wasn’t always the best answer, but Randidly ignored that. For the short term, Randidly would be fighting on the front lines. He couldn’t afford to be distracted or hesitate.
After all, the Grim Chimera was a creature that was the ultimate survivor. It fought and struggled in order to exist. The great gift that the image refining of the Eidolon Crucible had given to him through that trial was to make that struggle for survival seem concrete. The endless fighting… the intimidating odds… the constant presence of danger…
Randidly could feel the depth of his image slowly increasing. And part of him wondered if the methodology of the trial would change as the needs for his image changed. It was probably an area that would be worth considering for the future.
But, unfortunately, he only had another few hours to prepare. Because after the three days had passed, Zagnal once more turned up outside the tent. As Randidly suspected, he could also sense that many other images in the surrounding area were stirring and leaving their tents to head off in long lines toward the South.
Randidly left the tent and straightened to look at the dragon-headed man. “...my fellow images are still recuperating. Would it be alright if only I go to the frontlines to battle.”
Behind him, Randidly could feel Yggdrasil’s unwillingness to allow him to fight alone even while Yggdrasil begrudgingly accepted the knowledge that its current role was to remain and protect Ignition Essence. They hadn’t talked about it explicitly, but Randidly expected that they wouldn’t have to; Yggdrasil would understand what needed to be done.
In the darkness of the tent, Yggdrasil remained completely still while Zagnal’s gaze slid to examine the depths of the tent. From the rather tired expression on Zagnal’s face, it wasn’t that he disbelieved Randidly. It only seemed like Zagnal didn’t approve of Randidly’s choice.
Then Zagnal’s gaze back to Randidly. “...it is not impossible. Although your first battle is easy, it is still a battle against the cursed abominations from Nether. If you choose this Path, it is open to you. But you risk a crippling wound if you go alone. Are you willing to take that risk?”
Randidly nodded. Of course, it barely matters to you at all what I choose, does it…? We images… we are just fodder. If we die, there will always be more worlds to suck life from so the System can grow.
For several seconds, Zagnel looked at Randidly. He considered every inch of him. His gaze was extremely heavy with pity. But ultimately, he said nothing to dissuade Randidly further. Turning away, Zagnal said. “Follow me then. It’s time you see the Great Rift.”