Randidly’s breathing had risen, and his mind was spinning. There was too much to absorb. This strange female seeming creature was feeding him a lot of information, about Aether, about himself, hints about how he had come this far… but he still had a question burning in his heart, one that he had previously asked and she had refused to answer.
“Why…. are you telling me this?”
“Because, we can help each other. Like I said, I’ve been waiting a long time for someone like you; someone with a functional Aether Crossroads. As you have no direct connection to the System, although you have existed inside of it, you can isolate yourself from it. With your images and your Soul Skill… you can create an independent world where everyone from Earth can live. You can possess freedom, a return to your previous existence.”
Frowning, Randidly said nothing. The creature just smiled and raised her hand, touching Randidly’s cheek. Her flesh was insubstantial, but it burned him like fire where her fingers traced his cheekbones.
“Is returning to that life really so repulsive that you would deny the rest of your species that chance? The chance to live without fear of death?”
“And the price? Why would you do this?” Randidly growled, his eyes narrowing.
Her hand dropped away. “I wish to avoid the being that has created the System. Unfortunately, any actions I take… would be detected. But if you hold the world inside of yourself, fueling it with that Aether Crossroads… it would be nestled in a coincidence that has slipped past the notice of the System. Undetectable.”
“The price?” Randidly repeated, his temper rising.
The creature was silent for a long time. But as Randidly looked at her, her eyes, no, its eyes, seemed to grow larger and larger, until there was a giant sea of interlocking Aether constructs, monotonous and monstrous, flowing in front of his very eyes.
“The hiding effect will only work if it’s your Aether, but… You would give me control.”
Randidly showed his teeth at the creature. “You would be the… god, of this hidden world?”
“A very reclusive and inactive one,” The creature whispered, her luminous eyes still locked on his. “But… yes.”
“Fuck you.” Randidly said, his tone even and his delivery short. But the creature simply smiled.
“You misunderstand so much, my dearest Randidly. This is a courtesy. You will do this. You have no choice. I am already far too deeply invested inside of you for me to let go.”
Randidly gave her a long look, but she simply continued to talk. “It is very simple. You have a cycle, and we will expand it. The emerald crystals are the life energy released by the Aether Crossroads in exchange for your meaning, and will serve as the core of the planet. Your images will build a world on this base, a powerful image of your world that will let your people live in peace. It won’t be ideal, but the system will run on your understanding of time, with rot as your fall, rain as your spring, killing intent as your winter, and ash as your summer. If you focus hard enough-”
“There’s something I’ve been wondering about.” Randidly drawled, interrupting the creature’s explanation. It had been almost exactly what he had been expecting, that his Soul Skill would become a whole world. It was just the fact this stranger wanted to rule it, and was offering to give humanity passage to its relative safety, that he wasn’t expecting.
Before he directly acknowledge her rather straightforward threat, Randidly wanted to verify a few things. “What is that strange little seed of power floating in my chest? What will that be used for?”
“As you say, it is a seed,” The creature purred, taking a step back and walking across Randidly’s soul space to the floating seed. As she reached for it, the bell chimed lightly, and the lock fell away, and the seed dropped into her waiting hands. Her fingertips were light as she traced around the surface of it.
“...you want to plant it in our world then? How can you expect me to agree without telling me what it will grow into?” Randidly said slowly. “It is all well and good that you promise that humans will be free from the System, and will no longer need to fight, but… what are you offering?”
“Again, you reach above yourself, but I suppose there is no harm in telling you; it is a weapon.”
A weapon. It was strange, because it was the first time that Randidly had encountered it, but he instantly understood what was going on; that creature had said a word and somehow infused it with Aether constructs.
A weapon. The end of life, 1000 screams cut abruptly short. A deep, deep darkness beyond anything that Randidly could have ever imagined, a deep silence and pressure that would kill him as sure as being at the bottom of the sea would. Bone and ash and rot, but not the vivid, powerful forces that animated him, but darker, ancient and cold things that exist only as outlets for hatred and violence.
A weapon. Even when he pictured the word in his mind, it seemed to writhe and twist, resisting being tied down in certain ways. It was more and less than he had ever encountered. It was simply a weapon, but it was so much more, and even those letters twisted in his mind, forming something strange and violent and vivid and bloody.
Randidly came back to himself, breathing heavily. Shaking, he sat down, hating the weakness, but in that moment, he abruptly felt it, the difference between them. Eons of time, power, and knowledge. This creature… he had known that it was indeed far beyond him, but it was impossible to understand the breadth of that difference until you were brought face to face with it.
The creature laughed softly, but said nothing. Randidly swore to himself that someday, he too would hold that level of power. For the moment, however, he simply got himself up and looked at the creature.
“I don’t trust you.”
It shrugged. “You are a small flower, freshly bloomed, and still far from being fully grown. Is it any surprise that you do not trust a gardener? That you do not understand the use of a spade? I have guided you to this point, why do you now lose your nerve?”
“What you say seems impossible,” Randidly began slowly, but she smoothly interjected.
“Did not all of what you have experienced since the System arrived seem impossible before?”
“That’s not the point-”
“The point is you don’t have a choice.” The creature said coolly.
Randidly ground his teeth, but said nothing. He withdrew slightly, considering. It was foolish to talk overmuch with this strange thing to begin with, especially when it had such power and was inside of his soul already. It was practically coexisting with his thoughts.
Her power was clearly beyond him, perhaps even at the level to accomplish what she promised. Creating a space where humanity could exist, outside of the System, hiding in plain sight. Was that not something that he desired? To be freed from the mandate of the system? To not have the threat of monsters hanging over their head constantly? For Donnyton to return to being a normal town, with normal people and normal places…
I hated it.
Randidly’s hand tightened to fists and he bit his lip. That unbidden thought that rose to the surface was true. His life before… he was a bland person, sleepwalking more than living. He was extremely socially awkward, and was able to coast through life on societal expectations and imitation, never filling his lungs with a true breath of fresh air. And every second was as though he was living in a fog, and he felt powerless and bitter. Even his friends… They were…
Strangely, in that moment, their faces sprung to his consciousness, clear and fresh. Ace with his hair shaven, kept short, his body tall and comprised of lean muscle. His eyes were grey and his easy smile was constant. Sydney her eyeshadow thick and vivid, short hair to her chin, the roots dyed black, the rest of the hair a vivid teal. Never shocked, never phased, just looking at him with her unearthly yellow eyes.
There would be no way of ever knowing for sure, but Randidly felt that they had died in the aftermath of the System’s arrival. Sure, the System had forced him out of himself, growing to feel like a real person, but it had done so at the cost of death. At the cost of Ace and Sydney.
He would trade his growth for the presence of his friends… wouldn’t he…?
And even if he didn’t, it was on the scale of an entire population, it wasn’t just his friends that he would be saving. If it was possible, he had a responsibility-
Strangely, Shal’s voice echoed in his head, unbidden. ‘You are yet weak, don’t overcomplicate things. If you have spare time to think of extra things, we perhaps need more training such as this.’
It had been said to him by Shal, as he attempted to expand his Inevitable Phantom Arrives even further, adding more power. It had been a reminder that even the best and most talented spear user, or the most common man, can only be one thing at a time. Steps were only a single foot’s length apart, but they could eventually devour impossible distances.
People had died sure, but hiding now wouldn’t change anything. It would simply be running away. And based on what the creature had said, there was a being even more monstrous at the center of the Nexus, and hiding would just allow its influence to spread further. If it ever found them… if, as Randidly expected, this creature was one of the things the being was looking for...
But really, the unwillingness in Randidly’s chest came from two very simple facts: He didn’t trust the creature, and he didn’t negotiate with terrorists.
He would refuse to deal with those who wouldn’t treat him with respect.