After her first movie success, Lyra’s career exploded. Although she didn’t always duplicate the rave reviews she received for her first performance, and there were duds mixed in with her work as an actress, she never seemed to lose that spark that drew the eye, that “it” factor.
When she was 15, a famous tabloid named her the hottest rising young actress. Due to that, she was invited out to a photo shoot that provided hair and makeup arts that completely changed up her look.
A consummate professional, Lyra took it in stride, and said nothing even as she paid attention to the ways that they sexualized her. She noted the outfits they picked, and the poses they had her in for the pictures.
Later, alone in her room, she did her best to duplicate that hair and makeup, and did a rather excellent job. Then she looked at herself again, slowly turning back and forth, examining her from every angle.
Both her parents had sent her congratulatory texts, but didn’t call. After all, they understood how busy she was. They would be thrilled to see her, at the Hollywood premiere of her next new movie.
“I am beautiful.” Lyra said, and she knew it was true. She heard it from every source. Even her own eye couldn’t help but notice her smooth skin, her symmetrical features. But hearing the words aloud made her incredibly tired.
The next day, Lyra had her agent cancel all of her appointments, and talked to an middle school friend with the right sort of connections. Lyra had her friend buy cocaine, and bring it over to Lyra’s loft.
After they had snorted the drug, Lyra moved to sit in front of her mirror, while her friend did cartwheels over Lyra’s soft carpet, laughing endlessly.
“I am beautiful,” Lyra whispered to her reflection, the whole room vibrating with her words. Then she smiled, because there was no sadness this time. There was only joy, and up, and up, and up. Her body was soft and curved and Lyra allowed herself to wiggle in her chair, appreciating the amazing way her body could move.
Even as her friend began to frantically cook food, Lyra stayed in front of that mirror. For hours she sat there, watching for herself, hoping for a change.
The change came, of course, and it was exactly as she feared. The high faded. Her heavy lidded eyes looked back at her, dull and unfocused. She was not beautiful. She never was.
Lyra disposed of the rest of the cocaine, sold her loft, and never spoke to that friend again. She threw herself into acting, search for an answer. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe it wasn’t her, but the roles. Maybe she was just a conduit for the beauty.
But that too, seemed wrong. It was definitely her, and others like her. But she couldn’t seem to see it, that factor that took her facial symmetry and made it irresistible. She was just a bag of skin holding in blood, just like everyone else.
6 Months before the system would come to the world, on her 17th birthday, Lyra received a call, to star in an action movie that had a budget that doubled the most expensive movie she had ever starred in. And Lyra said yes, not for the money, because also starring in the movie would be Vivian Plath, who, the world agreed, was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Randidly rushed onwards, dodging around the Yeti illusions that continued to form around him. They sought to distract them and slow them, and would continually form on his path, but they weren’t strong or fast enough to be able to box him in and restrain him.
Still, they were annoying, and they kept trying different tricks to lead him astray. But luckily Randidly’s pathfinder skill guided him due North, keeping him from any false paths.
It would get a little bit more hairy as he neared Donnyton, because he would no longer be able to rush straight North. But hopefully he would recognize the area he was in at that time.
What complicated things was that slowly but surely, it seemed like Kim-Lath was able to create more and more Lyra illusions, along with the Yeti illusions. It seemed like its strength was growing. But perhaps it was more that Randidly was nearing its locations, so it had more influence here.
But then something occurred that caused Randidly to slow, and then stop, raising a stamina potion to his lips; the illusions were gone. He was alone.
Randidly drank the potion, then began running again. He had been traveling for about an hour, and was about halfway back to Donnyton. His speed on a flat sprint was something that only a car could have replicated in the days before the system.
Feeling disturbed by the sudden lack of illusions, Randidly picked up speed, rushing North. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew that if the village faced a problem, Lyra would find it. In all their interactions, even while she was flippant and teasing, she was also eminently competent.
She only traveled with him after she had developed the Teleport skill. Then, when she had been useless against the centipede, Randidly bet that she had trained furiously, until her birds of mana could cut through just about anything. And then she had started making larger objects as conduits for her power.
Lyra had always seemed to Randidly to be the type that was dishonest about it, but was an obsessively hard worker. And examining his own memories, he couldn’t really pinpoint when he got that impression.
Maybe it’s the way she looked into your eyes, direct and challenging. As if daring you to underestimate her. Maybe there was just a connection between them, which was why, even though she seemed so young…
But Randidly shook his head, banishing those thoughts. That was for later.
Activating Haste and Empower, not bothering to keep a Stamina reserve now that the illusions were nonexistent, Randidly began to blur, racing forward, hoping he arrived in time.
“You have lost,” Kim-Lath whispered, using its own hollow sounding voice. “It was cute of you to do this, forcing me to move before I had all the preparations I wanted, but...The Village Spirit is almost dead, and once he becomes a part of me… I will evolve once more. With an entire dungeon’s worth of warriors, trained by your precious Ghosthound, who can stop me, so early in this Zone? I will rule, and prepare for the next step.”
Lyra just stood there, her eyes closed, a wistful expression on her face.
This seemed to displease Kim-Lath, who spoke again, this time using Randidly’s voice. “Are you afraid? Are you ready to die?”
“Yes and yes…” Lyra whispered, her eyes still closed, only half listening. Because in her mind, she was still racing forward in her memories, dragged along by time.
VIvian was beautiful, sure, but she was small minded and petty, constantly taking the opportunity to thrust herself into the limelight, and making snide comments about Lyra to the filming staff.
It all just seemed so dull. There was no beauty in the posturing, in the jockeying for influence. There was simply strange compulsion, as if this was the only thing that kept Vivian going. She was good at it too, Lyra couldn’t deny, but her competence in such a useless activity did very little to calm Lyra’s sinking mood. There was no answer here.
Her “Love Interest” seemed very interested in her, and not in a professional way. His hands always would linger just slightly longer than they needed during the scenes, and he would very obviously check her ass out when she walked away from him.
In a clinical way, she derived a small satisfaction from this, and was able to distract herself from Vivian’s exhausting games. After all, she worked very hard, daily, to cultivate the physique she had. Diet and exercise and more exercise, and supplements…
But it did not feel glamorous, or beautiful. It just felt…
Felt like she was coming down from a high, a very long one, fed to her by her star struck parents, who were constantly out at parties, talking about how proud they were of Lyra, enjoying their imagined piece of the pie.
Strangely, Lyra found herself spending more time with one of the men who worked as a sound grip, drawn by his even keeled temperament and relative lack interest in fawning over her because she was in movies, a grizzled man named Mr. Hoss, and was able to stomach the bloated special effects and the over the top script. But Lyra wondered if she would ever act in a movie again. They started to seem so empty, from the inside.
Not that she could get acting out of her system, not now, not after so long. Her relationships were a series of masks, which only had one thing in common. That she was beautiful, seen.
But she didn’t know what existed under the masks. Although perversely, Lyra had begun to hope that what was deep down wasn’t so beautiful, after all.
Then the system came.
In a detached manner, she watched her male love interest, who had stared so longingly at her ass, get his intestines ripped out by 3 wolverines. Sam Hoss had dragged her, and the nearby Kal, Vivian, and Ellaine, away, and managed to get them all into the truck. Then they drove out of there, hoping for a piece of sanity.
Lyra carefully read the notifications. She had never played games, but she recognized some of their qualities in these, which was exceedingly strange. The next day, still on the run, they had crashed, and had been subsequently saved by the man who would change her life, although Lyra didn’t notice anything in particular about him at the time.
Only later, at Randidly’s suggestion did Sam drive to that small valley, with the squabbling teens and the deserted hut.
Then, one night, against Sam’s suggestion that they stay hidden, because their identities might cause trouble, Lyra wandered away, and saw a figure standing alone on a stump, in the dark. She had crept forward, to get a better look at the weirdo, who was raising his hands above his head.
Then, equally slowly, he lowered them, pointing at a tree across the clearing. A bolt of blue energy shot forward, smashing into the tree, burning away some bark. The dazzling bolt of energy remained burned into her wide eyes, forever etched on her retinas.
A notification popped up.
Congratulations! You have unlocked the Path of Wonder 0/10. Although it is a strange path, your feet itch, and in your heart, you know there lies your destiny.
Of course, that figure was Randidly.
Over the course of the next day, Sam had taught them what little they had learned about skills from Randidly, and Lyra had gone off in the woods and practiced endlessly, getting the Physical Fitness, Dancing, Singing, and Acting skills high enough that she could finish off the Path with her PP. Then she received another notification.
Congratulations! You have completed the the Path of Wonder! Although your eyes see, more than that, your heart yearns. As you continue to climb higher, following your path, you only find more wonders that lure you deeper. You walk quickly into the deepening night, unafraid of its mysteries. You have learned the skill Eyes of Wonder Lvl 1. Mana +50, Mana Regeneration +5. Wisdom +10.
Eyes of Wonder Lvl 1: See the truth and beauty in all things. As Skill Level rises, your gaze shall grow more discerning.
Lyra went back to the camp, and noticed that she could now see auras around people. Soft colors about them. Sam’s was a deep purple, Vivian was a mustard yellow, Kal pink, Ellaine a mauve.
Then she sought out Randidly once more, and as she watched him produce large orbs that exploded with force, she opened her Eyes of Wonder. For a long time she had hesitated, afraid of what she would see, but she shouldn't have. He burned emerald in her vision, a deep green of the forest. The aura around him pulsed, shrinking visibly as he used his magic, but seemed to grow more intense at its core all the while.
It was forest green, with flashes of light green, the color of warm grass in summer, and golden too, like the gaze of a wild beast. It pulsed evenly like a heartbeat, and it seemed to come alive under her vision. As she looked more directly at him, she saw the dozens of strange formations within the aura, strange shapes that the energy flowed. The were mesmerizing and complex, but Lyra couldn’t get enough of them. For whatever reason, she felt very strongly that these shapes were him, told in dozens of simple truths about himself.
They flowed together, continuous and multifarious and endless, smoothly transitioning into the next.
It was… beautiful. It took her breath away.
Although the youth was rather plain by Hollywood standards, his gaze was direct and strong, and he blazed with an aura that kept Lyra enthralled all night.
The next day, when he had surprised her by coming to their camp to speak to Sam, she had dumbly blurted out the first thing that had come to her mind.
“...it looked like fireworks.”
“Huh?” The man who would be Ghosthound, glanced at her, seemingly shocked to find her there.
Lyra gestured awkwardly, for the first time in her life, tongue tied. After all, she wasn’t sure at all what sort of mask she should wear around this strange man who burned emerald in her vision.
“Fireworks. You were doing magic earlier, right?” Lyra said, pictured the way his aura would gather and burst to produce the spells he made. Then she looked down at her own hands. She had worn herself ragged finishing the Newbie Path, and earned the skill Mana Bolt, but her own aura was colorless, to her eyes. And exceedingly small. “Mine don’t look like that at all.”
To demonstrate, Lyra shot her own pathetic Mana Bolt, hitting a nearby tree.
“Your skill level is just low. As you raise it, and your Intelligence, it will get stronger and brighter.” Randidly responded, his voice brusque. Lyra nodded, doing her best to hide her embarrassed blush in the shadow of her hood.
In the present, Lyra opened her eyes. Gathering her energy, she began to condense her strongest move, using the volatile violent energy in her chest, scraping the well of her body clean.
Their relationship continued like that, Lyra struggling every waking hour to impress this beautiful emerald man, Randidly gazing at her with mild eyes, like everything she managed, every spell and trick she learned to practiced incessantly with, was only just enough for him to acknowledge her.
Even after she realized those shapes she saw were the skills he could use, and she began to try and imitate them, creating her own, resulting in some fascinating results, she didn’t know how to bring it up with him. His gaze stopped her dead, filling her with anxiety.
She quickly learned that mild gaze was just how he dealt with people, but that only drove Lyra more insane, and she made up snide nicknames, and poked at him, and mocked him, wishing for something. Some change in that mild look, some proof that she wasn’t working so tirelessly, every day, every night, for nothing.
Wishing for some indication he viewed her differently than everyone else.
For some indication that she was….
Shaking her head with an uncharacteristically sad smile, Lyra pictured Randidly the day he had left. As he grew stronger, so did the dominance of his aura, growing larger and more multifarious, taking aspects of all of his choices, paths, and skills.
And also, Randidly had obtained the beautiful, pulsing heart of violet energy, from his battle with the sphinx. It was similar to the strange veins of energy that others would get when obtaining a class, but his was different, in a way that Lyra couldn’t quite discern. Whereas others had small tributaries flowing through them, polluted somehow, Randidly had a pure spring.
Opening her eyes, Lyra looked at her strongest skill.
A man, 7 inches taller than her, made of mana, stood their, holding a spear. The mana construct was gazing at her. Lyra, who, barely able to stand, simply nodded.
The figure turned and thrust forward with his spear.
The world seemed to explode in a wave of concussive force, but standing behind the figure, Lyra felt nothing. The barrier around Kim-Lath shattered, the spear barely slowed. It rushed forward, Kim-Lath’s eyes widening with shock, and the spear sank into the flesh of its body, blowing a huge hole in the tribulation.
Before her very eyes, it seemed to deflate, energy seeping out of it.
The spearman raised his spear once more, but then dissipated, the power inside of Lyra all spent. She raised a mana potion to her lips, but she couldn’t maintain her strength, and the bottle fell to the ground, shattering.
She allowed herself a small smile; Randidly would be so pissy. For a man, he was oddly protective of his glassware. Then she too fell, no strength remaining in her body.
It’s not like the potion would have done anything, the resource Lyra had expended was much more vital than mana. It was that violet energy that Randidly seemed to be swimming in. But unlike him, Lyra did not have a spring within her chest. She only had the small amount she could slowly gather over time.
As she collapsed, she wished, deeply, that she would have the chance to see Randidly again. She had told the truth to Kim-Lath: she was ready to die, to protect the village nurtured by Randidly. And she was afraid, that even then, she would never know what face he would make when he found out.
Would that mild, if intense, gaze finally waver….?
Yearning, Lyra opened her Eyes of Wonder, gazing forward.
Then her gaze sharpened, her eyes glittering.
Then she began to crawl forward, her body slowly dying.
Nul sat up, some of his color returning. “She… she really did it. The tribulation is dying! Now, I can-
But that Nul squawked, and rolled over on his side, writhing back and forth, as if in the midst of a seizure.
Sam just looked down, his mouth wide open.
What the fuck was going on?!?!