Randidly nodded to Ulaat's question.
With a small, cocky grin on his face, Ulaat spread his hands wide. Then he brought his hands together with a loud clap. When Ulaat pulled his hands apart, a portal opened between them. It was a small thing at first, but as Ulaat continued to spread his hands it widened until it was large enough for a person to walk through. With extreme delicacy, Ulaat placed the portal onto the ground.
“The third secret… is this. But it is also the move of mine you inherited, first partially as Ashes to Ashes, and now totally as All is Ash.” Ulaat frowned at the portal and then gave Randidly a meaningful look.
Randidly just blinked. “Where does this go?”
Ulaat tsked. But then his gaze turned to the portal and his gaze softened. It was bright blue and fuzzy at the edges. Waves of energy distorted the light coming through, so it was all but impossible to see anything. “This… leads to what I assume is the Third Calamity. When it appeared, a notification came that informed me that if I did not Ascend as a Challenger within a year, my world would be reduced to dust.”
As if remembering something depressing, Ulaat looked blankly at the ground. The skin of his face twitched, the only movement on his whole body. “...I was in a very dark place then, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Reduce my world to dust? What did I care? But…”
Gesturing to the world of ash around them, Ulaat said, “This is only an imitation I conjured with my abilities as a Patron. A year from the day I completely burned through the images of my world, my homeworld was annihilated. A being came… and no matter how I had grown with my abilities, I was nothing to this being. It seemed simply to smile, and I was alone. The pain of losing your home planet… it is difficult to describe. I thought the emptiness of my world was worse than it not even existing, but…”
“So you kept the portal?” Randidly asked with a frown. He considered the portal. Randidly intended to take a step closer to it to examine it, but as he tried it, there was a powerful repulsive force that pushed him back from it.
Ulaat grinned. “It was only made for one person. Although…”
Randidly felt it too. In his Soulspace, the mantle of the Patron he had stolen was humming softly. It was a key, in a way, to the portal. But Randidly wasn’t sure what other side-effects would be involved if he attempted to use it. Better to learn before he forced the issue.
“...why is it still here if the one year has passed?” Randidly asked.
Grimacing, Ulaat waved towards the portal. “There is a Path there, although I do not know what it is. ‘Enter at your own risk,’ it says as I approach. Although I will cease, I will leave the portal here. With All is Ash, I expect you to be able to return if you ever possess the power to do so. In the memory of my people, I hope you will grasp victory on the other side…”
No matter how good of an idea you think it is, Randidly sternly told himself. You will NOT go through this strange portal that is meant for a Patron.
“Anyways, I must give you a little guidance, so you do not kill yourself with my powerful Skill. I must warn you, I expect that my circumstances were a little… special. I believe that very few with images as powerful as mine became Patrons. They likely challenged the Third Calamity… although it is difficult to say what the outcome was.” Ulaat rubbed his chin. “My… cowardice was not because I didn’t have faith in my strength, but because some part of me died along with my people. The rest died with my world.”
But as Ulaat looked up and met Randidly’s gaze, his eyes were blazing. “Still, I have finally found you. It is not a high hope, but I will give you one wish of a dying soul; find the maker of this System that made fools out of my people and forced them to combat their darkest fears and turn that individual to Ash. Salt the fields of their home. Turn all they love to dust. Only then may I rest quietly.”
As Ulaat spoke the end of that sentence, the world seemed to shiver. Those burning eyes seemed to take up all of Randidly’s vision. Abruptly, Randidly realized how lucky he was that this hadn’t turned into a combat sort of test. The Willpower that was palpably wafting off of Ulaat, even in this weakened state, was intimidating.
This is the being that had killed his people, watched his world die, and become a Patron. It was a sobering reminder in the differences of their levels, and Ulaat still hadn’t been able to protect his world.
“All is Ash is primarily a Perception enhancing Skill,” Ulaat said, shaking the strange hypnotism his implacable will had on Randidly. “Although you have used it as a method of escaping death, that is purely a side effect of the true function of the Skill. A convenient one, of course. But overuse of the side effect slowly reduced your body’s resistance to the transformation to ash until there was a point that a portion of yourself didn’t return. The pain you experienced was an existential doom hanging above you. If I had not intervened, your soul would have been permanently changed. Perhaps for the better, but how often are things improved by subtraction?
“But I am getting ahead of myself. I developed All is Ash in order to hunt down the Scourge. It is primarily a worldview so powerful that everything around you shifts. ‘All is Ash’ as it were. This makes everything weak and hollow. You have not yet developed the sophistication to do so, but you will one day be able to strike at things using the Skill, and will find that others will blow away like ash before your might.”
“Will they recondense as I do? Because-” Randidly asked.
Ulaat chuckled. “Of course not. Because they don’t believe that All is Ash. They are simply struck by a Skill they don’t understand. You would recondense because you understand you are naught but ash. But remembering to gather just the right of ash in the right combination to create yourself… it is difficult. You will need to practice just sitting in the All is Ash state, learning yourself. Otherwise, you are doomed to lose yourself with this Skill. The next time, I will not be able to save you.”
If Ulaat was giving the whole truth, then All is Ash was an incredibly powerful Skill. To think something was so, and shift the whole world to follow it…? That was a monstrously powerful Skill if Randidly could master it. But the road to mastering it led through that pain that had struck him when the Patron of Ash had to save him.
Shivering at the memory, Randidly asked. “...that’s all fine. But when… the accident happened last time, I felt like… I was in a place where nothing was something. Where was that?”
“Ah. Let me explained what occurred. While you were in the All is Ash state, a part of you did not return to form your body. It was… unfortunately, a very vital part. Perhaps an emotion or a goal, but some necessary ingredient was left behind. That absence hurt. Missing that one piece of Ash was enough to send your soul into full panic mode.
“Once it started sending pain to indicate something was wrong, the pain destroyed your concentration; you lost the focus to stay in the state. Suddenly, you were not a part of the fabric of existence, you were an individual. And something was lost. But nothing had changed. So it had to go somewhere. But where could it have gone? Nowhere.”
This time, it wasn’t the world that trembled, but Randidly. Ulaat continued to speak. “I have encountered the Nowhere a few times while using the Skill. At first, I speculated it was the area of space not yet covered by the System, but now… Now I believe it is something much more terrible. All my attempts to investigate have been… unfruitful. I recommend you put it out of your mind while using it. It will only bring you suffering.”
With a sigh, Randidly stretched, feeling his shoulders pop as he put his hands towards the grey sky. Although it was a dark place, Randidly could feel the peace of this ashen world. It was a retreat. Perhaps some of the emotions that Ulaat felt bled into the making of this place.
Wanting to waste no time, Randidly sat on the ground in front of Ulaat and closed his eyes. Ulaat wouldn’t persist forever, and if there was anything wrong with the Skill, Ulaat would know.
Burning his Mana at a huge clip, Randidly activated All is Ash.
There was only a little color to this world aside from the red of some exposed lava, but all of that color was bled out of the world as the Skill activated. Rather than moving, Randidly simply felt. He felt how small he was. How fragile and breakable everything was. All was Ash. Everything would disintegrate to nothing from just the slightest breeze. This world had been hollowed out by an all-consuming fire.
His breathing began to speed up. More than the fragility of life, Randidly could feel a deep undercurrent of… commonness between everything. If all was Ash, everything was connected. He was one piece in a grand machine. He bore his current form, but when he died the substances that constituted him would be recombined in different shapes. Life was eternal because it didn’t exist. Everything had its place in an endless dance with no sound, but only hollow remnants.
Was there true existence in the past? Possible. But the real world had been burnt away. They were all that was left. It was all that is left.
All is Ash.
Randidly let out a gasp as his Mana ran out, and the thinness of the world left him. Although it was purely a comfort thing, Randidly took several deep breaths. At his level, breathing wasn’t strictly necessary. But it certainly calmed him down.
Ulaat nodded with a grim expression. Then he waved his hand and Randidly abruptly felt energized. “It is still my world, and I can assist you regaining Mana. We need to train as much as possible before I go. I won’t allow my first Chosen to bring shame to my name. I have a reputation of some import, you know.”