In the darkness, Randidly smiled.
During the time in his Soulskill, he had left behind this place. The strangeness was gone, luckily, the sense of dissolution of self. But now he was even more aware of the crushing restrictions on his Stamina and Mana usage. It was completely maddening. Yet, even so, Randidly smiled.
In the darkness, his fingers traced the tall plants growing out of his homemade farm. They felt like silk and gold. His hands were trembling. He was so excited that he lost track of his Stamina and his arm physically collapsed on top of one of his plants as he was left without any energy to speak of.
But this just improved his mood further. His gaze turned toward the ceiling. It was time to leave.
According to his Absolute Timing Skill, it had been twenty days and two hours since Randidly had come here. He wondered when his jailers would check on him next. His original thoughts were around now, which meant he had to hurry. But Randidly also wondered what was going on with the under 25 tournament. He had felt the arrival of messages but had no way to check them. It was outside of his understanding of the System to determine where they were kept.
As Randidly recovered his Stamina, he began to harvest the plants. With only his touch, they seemed to be some oversized variety of scallions. There was a firm stalk that extended about an arm’s reach above the ground, and then beyond that, it was leafy and soft.
Randidly wondered what was the edible part of this “super grain” even as he knew it didn’t matter.
Examining the produce filled him with a deep sense of satisfaction that he hadn’t felt in a long time, but Randidly knew he couldn’t let that emotion distract them. He needed to begin work immediately. Without any knowledge of timing, he could only assume the worse. Without an efficient transition to his next phase of the plan, he would be in deep shit.
Luckily for him, the Sharpness image was relatively easy for him to reproduce. In the pitch black room, the plants were quickly felled and then much more slowly gathered. If Randidly had thought that moving his arm depleted Stamina quickly, he had never even considered how quickly the very necessary task of moving the plants would deplete his Stamina.
In order to conserve energy, Randidly used his Sharpness image liberally. After about a half hour, he had several hundred meter long thin strips of plant. The fibers of the plants were strong enough to stand straight but also possessed enough flexibility to move in the wind.
Randidly considered the problem in front of him for a few minutes, savoring the darkness. Sometimes, it felt like he was at the deep bottom of one of the sea trenches on Earth. Overwhelmed by the pressure and kept in complete darkness, he wondered what sort of being he was these days. After all, a lot had changed for him while he was in here, had it not? His ability to form images… his understandings about his Soulskill…
Randidly shook his head. That stuff could wait until later. Instead, he began to plan how to create his light.
After careful consideration of his supplies and limitations, Randidly decided to try making a torch by weaving the thin fibers. If he made the weave tight enough, the light would hopefully last for a longer amount of time. It might not be an important consideration now, but Randidly knew that it might sometime come down to keeping the cave lit for a longer period of time. Although it might seem overly cautious, rationing now seemed just prudent.
So Randidly wove. To make the weave tight required extra Stamina to tighten, but Randidly was growing more in tune with his own body in order to lower Stamina exertions. Where before, movements were wholistic things, Randidly was slowly breaking them down now into pieces. When each small thing cost a tenth of his Stamina pool, it wasn’t enough just to do some tasks one part at a time. Some things couldn’t be separated. So creating a more efficient exertion was critical.
The darkness felt cold pressed against Randidly’s skin, but it was a familiar chill. It sharpened Randidly’s mind. As his hands continued to move, he considered his plans going forward.
Once he had a light, begin work on the rough counter to this room that Randidly had figured out. If the initial stages are successful, draw the outline such that the rune isn’t operative, but could be completed under very short notice. Make any final necessary preparations. Break out.
Beyond that… Randidly felt helpless. His goal leaving the tournament was to find Shal and also help solve the problem of the Second Calamity that Tellus was facing. Part of the second goal was to figure out the process so Randidly could help Earth succeed where Tellus had not. Partially that was accomplished, but Randidly sensed there was one further trick to the whole production.
Still, the whole reason that Randidly had gotten put in this situation was that he had faced a Propagator, one of the true powers of Tellus, and been beaten. It had been close, but Randidly had caught it by surprise in many ways. His Skills gave him so much flexibility that it hadn’t been able to recover in the short time that Randidly had tried to target it.
But would that happen again?
Sure, Randidly had improved while in the darkness, but…
“It’s like I’m being born again,” Randidly muttered quietly. “But when I walk out of the darkness… what will I find…?”
After recovering the Stamina he had wasted by speaking, Randidly continued to weave. With the thick darkness wrapping around his skin, his thoughts rolled forward without end. The space in front of him shivered and began to fill with the images that he was thinking of. This deep darkness was an empty world asking to be filled. Randidly could not help but oblige.
Even aside from the problems he had relating to accomplishing his plans, Randidly had two very large and related problems. The first was the instability in his Class that he had discovered. Because the upper level of the System, the one that so often reported his happenings and raised his Heretic Level, was not present here, Randidly had thought to address the problem. If possible.
That brought him face to face with the second problem: The Ashen Image. Be it his Soulskill or his plant Skills generally, it had infected him. In small ways Randidly found himself fighting back, but he felt like he was missing something.
Previously, Randidly had the Cycles of Rot and Ash. He obviously knew about death and reincarnation, the conservation of matter, and various other forms of recycling. But for whatever reason, that deep heat and vicious cold that he had found in his ash now seemed like the end. That image had become something so unshakable that it couldn’t be transformed further.
Or even if that was an exaggeration, it could not be transformed quickly. With the help of his Aether connections, he found small ways to neutralize the Ashen Image. Allica and Rejt were proof of that.
Randidly paused in his weaving to close his eyes. Not that it did anything, as it was just as dark without as within his eyelids. But it did wipe away the drifting images that Randidly had been previously thinking about. With that blank slate, he reached toward his core and felt through the conflux of Aether that sustained him. At this point, the currents and eddies were too complex for Randidly to manage. He was a spring and a drain and there were large and small rivers and streams running into and out of him. Images mixed and formed together in strange combinations. The weak ones broke apart and drifted until they could find their match.
The strong connections formed images that clung together and began to create a small whirlpool in the surrounding area. With that small current, similar images drifted over. Very slowly, larger clumps of meaning were being created inside of Randidly. And of course, hovering over it all was Randidly’s Soulskill, growing on this places fumes.
With a sigh, Randidly removed his perception from that part of himself. For all that he wished to be able to make sense of that place and find an answer there, it seemed impossible. Even if the answer was there for the taking, it would take some time to form in its right iterations. Not even part of the answer would be right.
What could transform Ash?
That was what Randidly was looking for at the moment.
Randidly opened his eyes. The same darkness was waiting, same without as within. But now Randidly had a weapon cradled in his arm. His clumsy woven torch was ready. It felt so incredibly light, leaning against his chest. Although weight didn’t necessarily relate to power, after three weeks in this place Randidly was almost hyper-aware of the weight of his body. It was overwhelming.
Now, to rely on such a slight thing to help him escape…
The process of weaving had taken four hours, so Randidly wasted no time in placing the woven torch back into the ground. He shifted it left and right, so it had enough support to stand straight up. Then Randidly shuffled over, waited, and then shuffled closer again.
With great care, Randidly positioned his elbow on the ground, waited, then straightened his elbow so his hand was resting against the top of the torch. Leaning not enough to knock it over, but enough to lower the Stamina expenditure.
What’s ironic, Randidly thought with a smile, is that this will, in fact, create more ash. But even if it does fire also gives me-
In what felt like the slowest moment of his life, Randidly blinked. His eyelids moved glacially across the thin membrane of his eyes.
Then Randidly laughed once, loud and tinged with disbelief.
“I was an idiot,” Randidly said to the darkness. It had pressed so close to him for so long, it felt wrong to keep the answer from it now. “Ash isn’t a step in the process- well, it obviously is. But obsessing over ash is a dead end. Because ash is the byproduct, if that becomes the core, the whole system collapses.”
Randidly pressed with his will lightly to the world, building toward an image. His fingers were light on the top of the torch. “There are other byproducts. Heat, light, and by that light, vision. But my system needs balance. My plants have become stricken by ash. So to counter…”
Although Randidly was building toward something large, all his focus went toward the small point at the tip of his fingers. A seed slowly took form. “...to counter, I will give the other side growth. Warmth. Inspiration. Understanding. Because sometimes, all you need is a good story. And in the stories, humans were nothing before Prometheus.”
Randidly lowered his voice and the darkness huddled closer, straining to hear. Randidly thought perhaps it was cruel, but drew the darkness closer anyway, even as he prepared to decree its banishment. “Because the true catalyst is the fire. Fire is what changes humanity from beasts to men. Gathered around its hungry light, all of civilization grew.”
There was a spark. From that tiny, concentrated seed there was a flash of light as the image grew strong enough to bring it to life. There was a crack and a sizzle, and suddenly a thin plume of smoke rose upward from the torch's tip. When nothing followed, Randidly pressed harder with his will.
Grow for me. Illuminate. Show me the land on which I will build my world.
Silently, a tongue of flame flickered upward from the torch. With a strange shyness, it flickered and shrunk and grew. Its hue was brilliant emerald.
Randidly bared his teeth.