In the darkness, Randidly saw fire.
It wasn’t dreaming but a sort of hyperfocus that Randidly had found himself falling into if he let his mind wander down the path of images. Although he didn’t know for sure, Randidly had a deep feeling that he wasn’t simply imagining a fire. No, he was peering at the memories of the Ashen Image.
He was experiencing a fire that could consume a world.
It is one thing to say the fire was loud, but it would fail to capture the physical force that simply the sound was.
This is how Randidly slowly developed his images. One piece at a time he sliced them and modified them, before putting them back together. Although it was largely an unasked for boon, Randidly believed that this would be of great use for when he attempted to do something similar with his Class.
The sound was something like a lion roaring, and something like a china shop collapsing on its. It was something like the moans of the earth during a disaster tier earthquake. It was the grinding friction of an avalanche and the raw ferocity of a dragon’s bellow.
And it continued. It vibrated the listener's bones. It slowly shook you to pieces with its ever-rising volume. Because at its core, what you were hearing was a crossroads of energy. Fire was exploding with bright vibrancy and heat. While below, there was Ash.
That was the key. Ash was this terrible remnant of a horrible cataclysm. It contained the warped remnants of an infinite number of memories and life. It was the curled and shattered bits of life. It was sulfur and carbon, a fossil cast in the material of worlds.
The heat was so concentrated that if you were immersed in it, you might as well have your skin flayed off by sandpaper and your bones devoured by flaming jackals. Your flesh would bake and blackened so quickly that you wouldn’t even realize it. You would probably attempt to move normally and find your body slowly reduced to ash even as your thoughts slipped down toward the final darkness.
Fire was hungry. And ash was that few minerals that the great devourer saw fit to leave to our world.
Randidly closed his eyes and a millennia passed. Then he opened and his gaze fell on an entirely different world.
Here, the ash had remained while the fickle flames had moved on. What was left was a world covered in deep darkness and silence. Just like the volume of the flames had been deafening, the silence here was so oppressive that your voice caught in your mouth as you went to speak. It was as heavy and thick as granite. It covered the broken world like the burial shroud.
But it was not exactly that the world was entirely silent. There was a soft ringing that would fill your ears. An impossibly small chiming that made the hairs on your back stand on end. It was the tinkling sounds of the pieces of the old world settling in the darkness.
And once they settled, it became cold.
This was not the cold of ice and frost. This was the cold of stillness and eternity.
Stretching toward antiquity were one thousand years of exactly the same as the previous thousand years had been. They were not bound in place, but the world had become static. The numbness that seeped out of the stillness slowly infected the surroundings. Nothing could approach while retaining its life. At the core of this world was a skeletal hand which held tight to its memories with gnarled fingers.
The hand was connected to a Phantom, and that Phantom breathed death. In its eyes were reflected all the small sins of this broken world. It did not judge, it simply witnessed. Because the stillness had infected the Phantom until the Phantom was stillness.
If by some miracle you arrived before the Phantom, you would not leave. Because in the frigid fields of ash around the deific figure, your feet would never move. Those who came before the Phantom had only one hope; that the Phantom that had reduced them to endless ash would take pity upon them and allow them to move on.
But that was not the prerogative of the Phantom. For the Phantom was still because it was waiting.
With a sigh, Randidly opened his eyes. He definitely felt that dwelling in the image was strengthening them at an astounding pace. But that wasn’t the point of this current exercise. The point was to follow the logic of his images and see if he could find a way to resolve the destructive tendencies that the Ashen Image had added to his psyche.
Perhaps it was possible to make… some sort of lifeform out of ash? It was definitely a possibility, but that would require quite a lot of time and imagination. Without any sort of inspiration for an ash creature, it would be an extremely slow process. Beyond just creating a Skill related to it, he would then need to refine that Skill to create a transition image so he would once more have a cycle…
It was not a solution in the short term.
Randidly’s sense of timing informed him that six hours had passed, so he stopped that train of thought and closed his eyes. For several seconds, he allowed himself to be completely immersed in the feeling of the cool rock against the skin of his neck.
Then the five seconds had passed, and Randidly’s eyes snapped open. His face instantly twisted into a frown. Unfortunately, this portion of his day wasn’t much more fruitful. Now was generally the time that he practiced Mana Engraving to slowly deconstruct his prison, but he encountered a problem.
Randidly needed to be able to see what he was doing to check his work.
Perhaps it was an overstatement to say that he needed to see what was going on. But with both the restriction on his movement and the lack of any sight, Randidly was swiftly running into a brick wall with the Engraving. If he was to make a single rune on the ground, it was fine. His senses for Mana were much less finely tuned than Aether, but he could still detect them with a decent amount of specificity.
The problem was that Randidly was creating a complicated series of interlocking runes in order to destabilize the array surrounding this room and allow him to escape. Without careful construction, it simply wouldn’t work.
Randidly considered just using his hands to measure the distances exactly. His fingers were extremely deft, and with the amount of Stats he had, it was very possible to do just that. But doing that wasted Randidly’s valuable Stamina. He was already barely scraping his way through the Engraving as it was. If he added an extra 30% expenditure to check the distances…
Ultimately, the eyes were simply an incomparably convenient tool for something like this. And it was a sense that Randidly never would have guessed he would need for the Engraving. It gave Randidly a headache. It seemed like he had come in this room with a firm goal in mind, but every day he found more problems ended up cropping up. At this rate, even if he solved all of the problems, would he have enough time remaining to finish his escape…?
Well, that wasn’t a thought that was fruitful to entertain. So Randidly turned his attention to ways to create light. Using Grasp of the World Seed on one of the small seeds he possessed was the easy answer. It would create light that the could use to check his work. The light would be relatively brief as the plant was consumed by fire, but it was controllable. The problem was that he only had so many more seeds.
Another option was the ideal solution, which was to create light by a powerful image of light. That had met with… precisely no progress.
Randidly couldn’t get around the fact that when he opened his eyes, his brain told him it was dark. All his belief in the image of light vanished. Besides, he didn’t even know what the room looked like illuminated. Still, Randidly had attempted it for a few hours. He had a sinking suspicion that the room was well illuminated while his eyes were closed and he could concentrate on the image, but he had no way of proving it.
The final method… would be to create a sustainable fuel source. Randidly had his wool shirt and leather pants for tinder, but he would actually need something to burn. He considered trying his blood, but that seemed to be untenable.
No, the best answer was to use the seeds he possessed to grow actual plants. With the System, they would grow to a great size in a day or two. Then, Randidly would have a more consistent way of making fire. But to cause something to grow in the area…
Randidly was on top of a rock island. Although water wasn’t a problem, soil…
But as Randidly considered it further, his expression turned thoughtful. After all, what was soil but tiny rocks, moisture, and plant matter? If he broke all those pebbles he gathered, he would likely have a fair amount. Water could be brought in… well, maybe blood would have to suffice for that. Without a cup, transporting the water would be a bit…
As for the plant matter…
Randidly closed his eyes. Exactly two hours later, his eyes snapped open, and a fruit fell out of his open hand.
Something of a waste, but… I suppose these will have to do, Randidly thought with a smile.
His mind indicated four hours had passed. Instantly, Randidly let go of his thoughts for five seconds, then came back to himself focused on a new task: reaching his Soulskill. So he began the frustrating process of exploring the Aether that constituted himself. It was slow work, but it was one more task that he needed-
Randidly blinked. Then he grinned.
He had found it.