“What do you mean,” Alta hissed.
Creta gave Alta the look that meant she needed to watch her words. They weren’t alone. Some of the influential figures who formed the core of Alta’s faction were present. With great difficulty, Alta reigned in her emotions.
“Empty,” Edmund said. He was an old spriggit man, who likely would like nothing better than to be in another faction. But besides being intelligent, the man was also an unrepentant racist. Because Alta was Spriggit, he had no choice but to ally himself with her. “No people, no clothes, no nothing. It is empty. Carthak left.”
“Fled into the cave Systems beneath the city,” Creta cut in. “And a long time ago. At least a month. If they truly are running, we will not catch them.”
“So, what can we take? We need to keep the faction happy,” Alta said, breathing through her nose.
Creta grimaced but said nothing.
Edmund, the old fuck, chuckled. “Didn’t you hear? Nothing. It’s empty.”
Randidly watched with mixed emotions as the girl-turned-cyborg burning the entire mountain to the ground in order to make sure the people of Carthak had nothing to return to. Both because of how he could sense the infection that had set in around her heart, and because he could feel how far away Allica had led her people. It was a useless gesture. The tantrum of a child.
But even from this distance, he could see the violet and grey bulb that was swelling from Alta’s core. The reckoning would be soon. Whatever karma she held, it would soon bloom.
But Allica’s decision was one that made even less sense to him. To leave? Randidly had thought her focus had been on developing a home. That sense of growth was what Randidly was going to rely on to combat the karma that Alta may claim.
Still, there was something enjoyable about not completely understanding the goings on in his Soulskill. Her exodus delayed her ideas conflict with Alta’s. Her group was already down another Land, in the realm of the Soulless. Even as Alta howled and burnt everything they had left away.
During the chaos, Randidly found Lucretia.
“Almost over,” He said with a sigh. He didn’t relish saying it.
Lucretia’s smile was bitter. “She’s sick, isn’t she?”
Randidly nodded. The two stood on a low hill and watched Alta determinedly melting stone. Then he asked, “Her karma is growing ripe. She will force my hand soon.”
“She cannot force your hand, the whole world couldn’t even force your hand. Are you not the god of this world?” Lucretia said wryly. She looked at Randidly with a glimmer of amusement. “Truly, your understandings of karma are shallow.”
Frowning, Randidly said, “It is owed. Twice they have sacrificed for me.”
“Twice you have asked for favors,” Lucretia said softly. “All that matters is what favor you ask for next. By that… you will be damned. Such is karma. Such is a pattern.”
With a laugh, Lucretia waved her hand. “Now, please leave me. This… is hard enough to watch as it is. But I must. Such is my karma.”
After a brief hesitation, Randidly left. He slid back out of his Soulskill and to the world once more. He checked the time, finding to his amusement that there was still a half hour to sunset. It seemed like recently, he had lost his knack for arriving right on time for occasions, for all that he had a Skill that gave him the absolute time. But increasingly, Randidly found himself with downtime.
And with those opportunities, he allowed himself a few spare moments where he didn’t ponder or think or refine. He simply existed.
Meditation, he would have once called it, but it wasn’t that either. Meditation was a Skill that involved focusing to gather Mana more quickly. It was absorbed into one of Randidly’s other Skills, he seemed to recall. This…
The whole point wasn’t to think. The point was to loosen the gaps in himself, so the whole of him could be taken apart, cleaned, and reassembled into a more streamlined machine.
After twenty minutes of this delicate process, Randidly’s emerald eyes cracked open.
The tall man and the woman were nervous once again. But as promised, when dusk fell, a voice filled the value.
“Open space in the middle.”
The voice was powerful. More so than either the tall man or the woman could understand. When they heard the voice, they felt… energized. In fact, the more they moved, the more the sense of untapped potential filled them. Both stared at their hands in wonder. When they came to themselves and stared around furtively, they found that everyone shared this strange feeling.
Within a few minutes, a large circle had emerged in the middle of the thousands of people who filled the sloping field. As all watched, four figures emerged out of the ground, made of roots. They walked like people, gracefully moving around in the space around them. They made two circles; one was 50 meters away from them, and the other was 10. Then the four plant men settled in the center.
Everyone looked on with curiosity.
“There are four tests. Each is… related to a different Style. Passing only one is sufficient. Pick the one that you feel suits you the best. You will begin to feel the effects when crossing the first circle. A pass will be for those who can reach the second circle. The first test… the Ashen Spear.”
One of the plant men raised its leafy hands. A rippling grey spear formed solely of images descended from heavens and landed in its hands. The air surrounded him filled with strange waves of energy. Some moments it was hot, the next it was freezing.
“The second… the Spear Phantom. Let me again emphasize, mastery of the spear will not help you here. It is a matter of will.”
Darkness descended over the area where the second avatar stood. A figure seemed to hover above the plant man, a thing of shadow and bone and screams and too many eyes. It never seemed to move, but you would always notice it turning to look at you when viewed out of the corner of your eye.
The tall man shivered.
“The third… the Emerald Essence.”
Emerald light exploded outward to fill a quarter of the field. It flickered and grew, and at the core was the leaf avatar who had been consumed by the playful green fire. Yet the man didn’t burn. To look at the emerald fire was to feel a spiritual cleansing. It was mesmerizing in a way because it seemed to suggest an entirely different world from our own. It was an alien thing, a fire that inspired and grew rather than consumed.
“Finally… and this is likely the most difficult of the tests…” The voice paused. There was a rumbling from that circle. The plant man trembled, seemingly struggling to bear the image that was being imparted upon it. “Yggdrasil, the World Tree.”
The plant man exploded. His legs twisted like serpents, growing thick and powerful. They dug into the ground and formed roots. His arms split into a dozen different branches, forming the canopy and foliage. And the plant man’s torso thickened and darkened until it possessed a strange, glittering brown thickness that only the most vibrant trees could possess.
After it clearly formed the image of a tree it continued to grow, stretching further and further upwards. The higher it grew, the more one could barely breathe while looking at it. It was overwhelming just to witness.
The woman greatly feared what it would feel like to be tested by such an image.
“You may begin. You have until dawn. Good luck.”
Then the voice was gone, and the ten thousand applicants slowly shook themselves awake.