Randidly touched his heart lightly with a wince. That Chillip burger he had bought from a C Corporation pop up appeared to be giving him heartburn. Heedless, he meandered around the streets of Hastam. It had only been two hours or so since he had fought Helen, but he still felt that strange heaviness on his heart.
Part of it was the strange moment he had shared with Azriel in the participant’s hallway. But also…
Randidly reached under his shirt and removed a small cloth packet that hung around his neck. Within, he could feel the thin parts of energy that he could always sense associated with plants. The tiny seeds were an impulse purchase from a small stand not an hour ago. The stand had advertised that the grains that would grow from these seeds were the finest in the world.
Randidly had just wanted to know if he had perhaps finally found the answer to the Ashen Image that had altered so many things about himself.
Looking down at his ash-stained hands, Randidly could only smile bitterly. It was true that Randidly now could choose whether his plants would eventually be flooded with the deadly cold or the overwhelming heat after losing the touch of his Mana. The cold Mana didn’t result in the plants exploding in a rain of fire as the hot did, but they simply withered and turned into slimy grey ash. Ultimately, not much different.
Randidly also attempted to use his insights into using images like lite-versions of Skills, but that was also impossible in the short term. Even as Randidly tried to recapture the feeling of using the image of Frigid Ash, Extinguishing Storm, Randidly was only able to reproduce a tiny speck of its power. It was a balancing act, and he was probably in the wrong space emotionally to get a true knack for it.
Complicating it even further was the fact that his normal Skills didn’t have a true image associated with them. To put it more concretely, Randidly could have an image of a general, simple effect like the cold. But to have an image for the specific action of flooding Mana into plants to control them…?
It was mental gymnastics of a sort he hadn’t encountered before. Although that didn’t stop Randidly from becoming frustrated by his failures.
Some part of Randidly knew that the best option was to find a way to take his mind off things. Perhaps by meditating, or throwing himself in training. Some part of Randidly was looking for something that he knew he wouldn’t find out alone in the city at night. Yet his feet continued to carry him forward, as though humming along with a completely different tune.
Randidly chuckled, his mood dark. Strangely, it reminded him of some of his memories from before the System. Times spent in strange places, where his very human need for something more than what he had driven him to walk into the unknown.
Randidly remembered very clearly one night visiting his grandparents, he was so profoundly lonely that he had walked to the beach. The irony of the choice was not lost on him, but he went anyway, clambering over a fence to get there. With only the sound of the surf for the company, he walked slowly out into the ocean, praying for a sign.
And when he stepped on the cool sand by the water's edge, he found it. When he stepped, the ground lit up around his feet. They were small, these pinpricks of light, but they quickly became everything.
Later, Randidly would find out it was a weird function of the local algae that they glowed in response to pressure. But that night, the truth wasn’t so complicated. Randidly had desperately needed an answer, and the universe had been there for him.
Randidly hoped this night would be half as fruitful.
“Mr. Ghouthound? How strange to encounter you here. Perhaps a word, if you have a moment?”
Randidly’s scalp prickled. Very slowly, he spun around to face the figure that had spoken. They were alone a cobblestoned street. “Ah…. I believe your name is… Aiden Darke. You work for the Engraving Guilds, do you not?”
Aiden’s smile was wide. The sky was overcast, so his teeth glowed a pale yellow in the dark. “Your memory is quite impressive. Exactly the sort of memory that I would expect from one who engaged in the forbidden task of Mana Engraving.”
Randidly just looked at Aiden Darke for several seconds. His earlier mood fell away like water through a thrown open sluice gate. There was little chance that this meeting was a coincidence. Had the man arranged to meet him? That was not a good sign. Although Randidly was unclear of the exact details, during the Northern Regional Tournament, Darke had promised a certain amount of comeuppance after Randidly had been eliminated from the tournament.
Of course, Randidly avoided that by fleeing from an incarnation of a Master right after the semi-final fight. But those memories made Randidly very aware that he had just conceded his way out of another tournament.
Breathing out slowly, Randidly forced himself to relax. “You came here to talk, right? You don’t need to beat around the bush. I’m not someone who wants to play games.”
“You are correct, what you are is a fool,” Darke said while winking at Randidly. “I have what I believe is a firm grasp of capabilities. You were the superior in the contest. You have touched upon the realm of a Pontiff. Yet you conceded. I cannot help but think you have a foolish idea about being too good for the under 25 tournament. And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you are… just so-so.”
Randidly simply looked at the strange man in front of him. He was one of the minorities of people on Tellus that had a third eye, and as they were speaking, Randidly saw it stir.
Aiden Darke laughed. “You are truly so… well, you. An unrepentant fool. Either way, you still have a debt to pay to the Engraving Guild, and no longer are you protected by the Spearman School powers that be. So please, accompany me back to the Engraving Guild headquarters so we can have a little chat.”
Aiden Darke extended a hand. Randidly did not take it. Sulfur slowly slid around his body, settling into place. It was a small thing, but Randidly could tell that Sulfur was already pleased from the earlier fight, where he was hit multiple times. The prospect of more violence pleased him.
Meanwhile, Acri slithered up from its hold around his waist toward his hand. Randidly squeezed the warm plant and felt something inside himself simmering. He hadn’t found an answer, but this was an opportunity to get rid of the nagging sense of helplessness he felt in his heart. Some part of him whispered that challenging Aiden Darke to fight was a bad idea. Randidly knew that this was an entity that was not bound by the Level 25 rule that most of his previous competitors nominally followed. The fight would be beyond anything he had encountered previously.
But he craved the struggle.
“You know what is the most aggravating? Beside your incessant need to feel superior.” Darke said softly. “I have an associate, you know. One who specializes in interrogation and information gathering. She would have been able to pull the information as to where you acquired the gifts to Engrave with ease. But, watching your fight, I recognized the victor far before the end of the match. And I sent her away, thinking you would be protected for another few weeks by the slow behemoth that is this tournament…”
Aiden Darke clenched his hands into fists. His eyes were red coals, glowing brightly in the dimly lit streets. “But as always, Mr. Ghosthound, you make me into a fool. For that… I must insist that we take some time to teach you manners tonight.”
Randidly smiled, but his instincts seemed to have other plans. His Crown condensed over his head and the fiery heat and desolate cold of ash filled him. And yet, all he knew was fear.
Darke’s laughter was the crackle of thunder on a moonless night. “Perfect. Then let’s begin.”