First, Randidly settled himself and focused on recovering his Health, Mana, and Stamina to their ideal state. He even considered going outside, to have Weeping Cloud’s rain fall on him, increasing his mental recovery even further, but somehow Randidly was profoundly worried about being discovered at the moment.
If perhaps Shal was here….
But Randidly quickly crushed that train of thought. He would be fine. His mind was already sharper than it had ever been before with the addition of the belt, and he wouldn’t need the support of anyone else for this. In the back of his mind, he knew this outlook was foolish, but he was blinded by fury over the irresponsibility of Shal’s behavior, so he continued irregardless.
When his breathing was even, and he felt completely focused, Randidly finally opened his menu and looked at the PP he had earned over the latter part of the Challenge of Tarnak.
He had gained 4 more Skill Levels in Physical Fitness, 9 in the Golden Roots of Yggdrasil and Mana Strengthening, 3 in Empower, 7 in Rejection and Absolute Control: Freeze, 4 in Meditation and Second Wind, 3 in Superiority and Bacterial Regeneration, 10 in Struggle, and 1 in Root Control.
It was overkill for a single PP to complete a path, but it was something Randidly was glad about. Hopefully after… there would be a path worth moving towards. After another breath, he put the last PP into the Weeping that Falls Like Rain Path, completing it.
Congratulations! You have completed the Weeping that Falls Like Rain Path! The path is long and winding, and you feel completely separated from the world around you, isolated by curtains of falling rain. The only constant presence is your reflection in the puddles that surround you. But still you step forward through it, regal and proud. As you continue, your mental acuity continues to grow. This is your path. Willpower +5, Resistance +5, Reaction +20. You also obtain a powerful shard of energy that can be used to create a Soulskill, or merged with your current skill.
The stat completion bonuses were nice, but they were ultimately a small thing. What was important was that newly awakened form of energy, the cool blue energy, floating inside of Randidly’s chest. After a moment of hesitation, he reached out and touched it.
It began to vibrate slowly, and inside of his inner world, a resonance emerged. Those tiny bells began to ring. It was a slow thing, as the tiny bells around the icy murderous energy, and then the small sphere of energy began to ring. Then, ponderously, the larger bell that was attached to his Soul Skill began to ring with huge, ringing booms, its sound spreading through Randidly’s whole being. The noise set his teeth on edge, but he could only grit his teeth and endure.
This was still within expectations. He knew that this would set off a process within himself, just that-
Randidly blinked. What he didn’t expect was for a figure to slowly take shape before his very eyes. Long limbs, smooth skin, big, round eyes. A female form slowly condensed in his chest, starting as just a doll, but slowly coming alive, lifting its head and looking at him. But even then, it didn’t stop. Aether swirled and moved, shifting into shapes and being drawn into that body. And the more Aether it absorbed, the more real it became.
The bells continued to ring, and the body became more real, and Randidly clenched his fists powerfully. So this… this was the architect of all of this bullshit? Although she was clearly feminine, her hair was completely shaved, giving her a strange, childlike innocence. Her eyes were extremely large, but even more strangely, they were completely robin’s egg blue, a solid sheet of it.
Her first action, as the last bit of Aether curled in and completed her body, was to take in a large breath. Then she smiled. “Wonderful. Wonderful, wonderful. I’ve waited a long time for a man like you, Randidly Ghosthound.”
Randidly remained silent, sizing her up. Her voice was light, but he couldn’t relax around a woman who so naturally shaped Aether in the way she had just demonstrated. And besides, now that he finally found himself face to face with the being that had interfered with the way that the System worked on him, he found her to be more and less than he expected.
More human, almost familiar in a way.
Less approachable, as her casual demonstrations of mastery over Aether left him shocked and intimidated.
“But I know you. I’ve been watching you. You are happy, yes? But you must believe me, we are after the same thing; saving humanity from the catastrophe known as the System. Is that not correct? Is that not what you want?”
Randidly stirred, but still said nothing, looking at the creature in front of him. She laughed lightly, and began to walk towards him with extremely heavy steps that coincided with the ringing of the large bell that locked his Soul Skill away.
“Do you fear me?”
Randidly looked at her for a long moment, and when he answered, he ignored the creature’s most recent question. “Why me?”
“Do you wish to be special? This world will leave you quite disappointed.” The creature answered, smiling. “I planted many seeds, you are just the fastest to bloom. What I needed was one who was not giving his ‘meaning’ to the System. One without a class, or a connection to a village. Your development… was unexpected. But it was a pleasant surprise.”
The creature paused, right in front of him. She was only as tall as Randidly’s shoulder, and had to look up at him with her wide, blue eyes. Like a frozen and poisoned sky. “Let me tell you a story. There was once a being who discovered a magical hole in the world. At first the being feared this hole, but the being quickly recognized its power. When the being pushed “life” through the hole, “meaning” flowed back out. And when the being supplied “meaning”, the hole produced “life.”
“This being was satisfied at first, but then his desire grew and grew, so he began to use that hole to expand his power. He gave his “life” to form enough “meaning” to create a “System” that would help him expand his influence. It grew and grew, and his hunger grew and grew, and so the being began to split small pieces off of the magical hole in the world, covering them with restrictions of “meaning” and planting them like seeds, allowing his influence to grow. But still the being sought more. So more “meaning” was created, and he began to use his seeds to syphon the “life” of the denizens of other worlds, fueling his expansion even further.
“For this being was willing to do anything to find what he was looking for…”
Randidly frowned, slowly parsing apart what the creature was saying. “What… is this being looking for?”
The creature just smiled. The bells around them continued to ring. Randidly ground his teeth, but then sighed, changing his tack.
“Why are you telling me this?”
Again, just a smile.
“What… is the difference between “life” and “meaning”....? What are they? What is life without meaning, or meaning without life?”
Finally a response: the creature laughed lightly, a beautiful, tinkling sound. “That… is a very good question.”
Again, the silence began to stretch. Then Randidly asked. “That hole in the world… it was an Aether Spring? The first one?”
“Technically no. In your language, it is an Aether Crossroads. It could exchange both life and meaning, producing both. The Aether Spring is the later invention, the seed given to villages. It absorbs life from the people for power, but only takes meaning from the central Aether Crossroads, through a series of intermediaries.”
Trembling, Randidly turned slowly and looked at the seemingly endless well of Aether inside of himself. And he peered down until he saw that strange empty space, that hole, inside of him.
“So that thing in my chest… is absorbing my life?”
The creature shook his head. “That’s the great surprise of you; you have grown yourself your own primitive Crossroads that can absorb both life and meaning. The system was designed to be split between two Aether Springs, the Village and the Tribulation. They were designed to absorb meaning from the Nexus, which is what the great Aether Crossroads is referred to as. But when one would fall to the other, those extra restrictions would be purged, and it would transform into a more easily absorbable form: something without those restrictions. A pure Aether Crossroads.
“Both Aether Springs included restrictions on how such things could be absorbed, so that neither of them could cause this to happen. What wasn’t expected…. Was that a person unrelated with either would have the strength to defeat the Tribulation, who had somewhat fewer restrictions on the absorbable form left behind. It would effectively establish itself as an independent existence within the system, becoming a dungeon and losing its ability to absorb life from its subjects, solely absorbing meaning from the Nexus after its success, so the bindings were less complicated.
“After a few nudges…” Her eyes curved into half moons. “..they were practically nonexistent.”