They settled in a small tea house in the largest border town in the Spriggit branch. Around them, Spriggits talked quietly with White Hunters and a strange lizardman style creature that seemed to be some descendant of the monster race that was rather populous in the area. The server didn’t bat an eye at either of their appearances, although there weren’t any real humans in the area. They were too large to be spriggit, and too… harmless looking to be descended from the monster race.
It was with some chagrin that Randidly realized they likely looked most like some of the smooth-skinned Aether Thralls that the Creature had used to invade. As was the usual occurrence, Randidly had grown caught up in other things and had lost touch with a lot of what went on within his Soul Skill. But it seemed that it was largely peaceful, aside from the usual power struggles over land.
“It’s been about 250 years in here, although I slept for most of it,” Lucretia said quietly, watching him with some amusement. “They wouldn’t recognize us really… you know, in the religious sect, the Progenitor and the Great Mother are now just distant figures, behind the savior that let them weather the great Reckoning where the land split and the World Tree Yggdrasil grew to protect the people from the Deepness. There is quite a bit of disagreement over the Savior’s race.”
Randidly raised his eyebrows. “Are they talking about Tziech?”
Shrugging, Lucretia said, “Well, in part. But there is also a good case that they are speaking of the Thief. They talk of how the savior fought his way to the Architect on the Deepness and slew them. Then the savior returned and lead the people into an era of prosperity in the midst of great adversity. Oh, and the Rock Golems still believe their own version, where their emperor descended and gave his two weapons to a ‘prophet’ and that is why the war was won…”
Thinking of something, Randidly looked at Lucretia. “Is the Thief-?”
“She died. She fell in love and hung up her cloak and dagger. She worked on a farm for 40 years after she left the seat of power of the Spriggit’s. She lived to see her great-grandchildren. Actually, that’s why I brought you here. Our server is one. His name is Zeke. Spelled differently, but-”
As if on cue, the young man showed up at their table, a smile on his face. “Welcome! Are you ready to order?”
But when Randidly looked at him, even with his special vision, he could only see a sliver of this boy’s namesake and great-grandmother. All people are shaped by context. This Zeke had never struggled. To think the blood of those who had sacrificed themselves for Randidly would turn out like this...
It was hard to handle the strange dissatisfaction that he felt looking at him, but Randidly was as polite as possible. After they had tea, both sat a little straighter. It was time for business.
“We have been connected… for several months of real time, but it feels much much longer than that,” Lucretia seemed to admit while wincing. “But… if my understanding of our situation is correct, I am able to leave when you return to Cohort 5. I will leave at that time.”
Randidly looked at Lucretia. She looked back, strands of her lilac hair falling around her face.
That was that, he supposed.
They discussed the details and parted with an understanding that she would bear no ill will towards him for what he had done. To Randidly’s surprise, he believed her. Or perhaps he simply wanted to. Either way, he didn’t want to consider the fact they might need to fight. It would be difficult on multiple levels, not the least of which was that Lucretia knew basically every trick he had.
When he arrived back at the farming compound, de facto Erickson Steel headquarters, there were documents to sign and decisions to make. Tatiana and Dinesh were still out training her up to fighting shape, so Randidly promoted both of them without waiting for their consent. Then he went down to talk to Gregory and Sonya who reported on the progress of the dozen steelworkers that were starting to work in the furnaces in the caverns he had hollowed out. Most seemed to prefer the open air above while the forged. It made them feel less like they were warping into dwarves.
These were built mostly by accident when Randidly underestimated how much the tract of land weighed. And because he overestimated the structural integrity of the walls. He didn’t have any real training in construction but thought that the amount of ground he had destroyed with Earthquake gave him enough knowledge to eyeball it. It hadn’t worked out, and a portion had caved in.
So now Randidly had to talk with an architect or the young woman with bright pink hair that passed for one at Tatiana’s compound. Luckily, Randidly could have roots stick directly up from the spots that marked the edges of the underground caverns so they could see what areas were above the place they had planned to install the furnaces.
It turned out quite a bit of the farm and furnace was above that area. So Randidly had to decide whether to shift the furnaces, which they had just finished bringing gas and air lines down to help with the lightning process and ventilation. But then Randidly had a vision of his company being built in a large crater made up of slowly descending circles of stone. And at the center…
Remembering the first trip to the world of the Patron of Ash, Randidly shivered. At the center was death, of a sort.
Although Randidly was happy with his decision to pivot the plans into something more iconic, it would cost money. So, with an aggrieved heart, Randidly went to the borderlands near them to hunt high-Level monsters to sell their carcasses, like some two-bit adventurer.
The cameraman gave Tessa the thumbs up. She kept her hands folded on the table in front of her, although she had a strong temptation to fidget or check her hair. Instead, she began to speak.
“Hello, Zone 1. My name is Tessa DiCatto, and I am a Councilwoman from Franksburg, the largest city in Rawland. But I come to you today not as a politician, but a fellow citizen of this new Earth. Because right now, there are people in offices making decisions that will change our world. They seek to define what it is to be human by exclusion, and today, I hope to stop that.
“You likely have not heard, but there are 12,000 people in the Northeast section of Zone 1 that live in a junkyard. Their children have lived on rats and rainwater collected from sheets of tin for five weeks. No one has helped them or asked them if they needed help. Among them, all were victims of physical and mental abuse. They are not a well off people. But they can’t go for help, for all that they need it. Because they look like monsters.
“Undoubtedly, you have noticed that Father Foster has disappeared from the public sphere. That is because Father Foster was a megalomaniac that threatened and manipulated those true believers of the Unity Church for almost a year. During that time, she performed cruel experiments on people and monsters alike for a singular purpose; she wanted to see why we could obtain Classes, and the monsters could not.
“Eventually, her unfettered power and twisted curiosity led her to perform a series of transplants, where the organs and brains of humans and monsters would be examined. Bit by vital bit, this power-hungry woman moved flesh between hundreds of people to see when human shifted to monster. It is with great sadness that I admit that she was able to perform her experiments so many times that she succeeded. She found the line that separates human from monster.
“Once she found the line, she pushed past it. Could monster bodies be used to strengthen people? Always, her mind obsessed over the collection and consolidation of individual power. She became one of the most fearsome Classers the world had ever seen. It was only due to the brave sacrifices of many heroic individuals that she was stopped. If you require proof of her ills, look to the massacre that happened along the shores of Lake Apollo a few weeks ago.
“And now, I return to my first point; in Zone 1 there are thousands of people scared and alone, locked in the body of monsters. They are the remnants of one mad individual’s corruption and greed. It would be simple for your politicians to decide to exclude them based on how they look, without a drop of sympathy for their plight. But truly, you are the ones who will make that decision. And I would like you to remember those first terrible days after the System arrived. Remember how viciously you were pursued by changes you didn’t understand and nightmares that were more real than you could have imagined.
“Would you have survived then without receiving the help from a stranger?
“We are a people that have endured an apocalypse. Our backbones are straighter, our gazes are more clear, our hearts are stronger. Although it will be difficult to empathize with these poor people due to their scars, it is not impossible. Just like it was not impossible for that stranger to reach out and take your hand when you needed it. Because empathy and social connection are what it means to be human.
“We each hold more power in our hands than at any other point in history. And that comes with great temptations. The temptation to do nothing. The temptation to support the status quo. The temptation to abuse your power towards selfish ends, as was done by Father Foster. But we also have the power to work together to build great things. To build a future.
“Which is why, people of Zone 1, I have two pleas for you. The first is to contact your Senators and demand that these tragic victims of cruel and disfiguring experiments be protected. A society’s worth can be seen in the care that they give to the victims of the unimaginable. We are at that point of unimaginable, my friends. Rise up and be the innumerable shields that the vulnerable need right now.
“And second, I would like you to consider a proposal that has been accepted in my hometown of Franksburg. To support the founding of a Chivalric Order. Rather than holding onto the back of a powerful individual who will no doubt soon lose control, what we instead need is to focus on building organizations with broad foundations and the rule of law.
“Chivalry is a word with some weight, isn't it? It harkens back to when heroes road together in formation to fight the singular might of a dragon. And I have no doubt that there are dozens of bright individuals out there who have felt frustrated as they failed to grasp how to use their own abilities to help others. This could be that method. With enough motivated and committed individuals living the virtues of chivalry, things can change. We can build a future in these orders, by taking the best and brightest and giving them a scaffolding upon which to build a brighter future.
“Please, if you understand the struggle of living in a world dominated by the System, join me. Join me in protecting your fellow man. Join me in crying out against excluding suffering people simply because they were warped by an individual driven mad by power. Join me in creating a world where those powerful individuals are no longer renegade disasters scaring the canvas of our world with their wild crimson actions. Instead, we need the infrastructure to ensure they are bounded and controlled by peers, relegating them to puzzle pieces that snap into an orderly and prosperous world.
“Join me. Take a breath, and rise above yourself. Become the knights this dark world needs.”