Instead of panicking that he had made some terrible mistake by giving the System access to himself and this data, Randidly simply closed his eyes. He spent some time feeling the shape of the world he had created, humming lightly inside of his chest.
It was warm and, as he watched, slowly growing.
What was peculiar about it was that the shape was haphazard. Very quickly, Randidly realized that this was because the method of expansion was exactly what he had anticipated earlier; one of the denizens of the Soulskill needed to explore and discover new landmarks to bring them into the Soulskill's purview.
Which posed a lot of questions. Did the explorer have some effect on what they found? If they casually walked through without noticing anything, would that landscape in the mist change once more into something else entirely? Was there a cooldown on the mist, so if the people inside of his Soulskill abandoned an area, it would once more be lost to the mist?
Figure of the Alpha Cosmos, huh… Randidly thought, rather puzzled. It was hard to glean anything in particular from the name that he didn’t already know. Specifically, the inclusion of the “Alpha” likely referred to the fact that this was something entirely new, never before seen in the System.
It occurred to Randidly, then, that perhaps many worlds were Soulskills. It was the obvious endpoint of growth for those who wanted a particular set of complementary images. He could even already see Helen heading toward it. Soon, her Hellfin Reaper would inhabit a whole world, and its growth would drive her forward.
Of course, a prerequisite to such an end was a metric fuck ton of energy to build the Soulskill. The System was too stingy to provide Aether on the magnitude necessary to accomplish it, but all those who were connected to Randidly would likely reach that point sometime in the future. He planted world seeds left and right.
Grimacing, Randidly opened his eyes back up and looked at his System menus. Perhaps before spending his PP, it would be worth it to visit the Soulskill and see how everything was going. A check in after a day to make sure that everyone was… satisfied with their new home.
Shal considered Azriel, his confusion clear on his face. “You are Randidly’s friend, yes? Thank you for protecting Rumera. I will not forget this favor.”
Azriel seemed puzzled by this response, then studied Shal for several seconds. Inwardly, Shal tensed. Was she considering the favor? He did not like the calculating look in her eyes…
But after a pause, Azriel simply laughed. “...You truly mean that. How strange. They explained to you that you were to fight Silo here, did they not? It was your destiny, I’m sure. Then you should understand what it means that you were not able to fight him.”
Cracking his knuckles, Shal shrugged. “Perhaps. I figured it was best to let such things go. After all, none of these other concerns matter as much to me as Rumera’s life. She is mine. I will not let you have her.”
On cue, Rumera staggered to her feet and hissed in displeasure. “I much appreciate you both acting out your roles flawlessly, but I belong to no one. I would have handled Silo just fine. Now please, both of you leave me in peace to mourn my brother.”
The muscles in Shal’s jaw tightened. Azriel smiled sadly. Neither moved.
Rumera pursed her lips. “So it seems it wasn’t enough for either of you to just save my life, was it?”
“You are not safe yet, Rumera,” Shal said softly. This gaze was ice as he considered Azriel. He wanted so badly to move, but he dare not as long as Azriel was so close to Rumera. “For all that you are my student’s friend, I will kill you if you move.”
Shadows were still rolling up Azriel’s spear to gather around her body. Like oil on water, the shadows hung around her body, swishing to and fro as they looked for a passage into her body. The shroud around her seemed to thin as she chuckled, and Shal’s gaze tightened as she raised her spear to point it at Shal. “Then you understand my goals in coming here, Shal. I apologize for all the favors I owe to your student, but by the will of my master, you will die here.”
“And who… will kill me?” Shal asked quietly. His eyes blazed with fury as he looked at Azriel, purposefully keeping his gaze from straying toward Rumera. Even the tiniest thread of weakness in his gaze would mean the end of them. The end of Rumera.
For Shal, the end of everything.
“You resemble him, you know, based on what my Master has told me.” Azriel finally said as she lowered her spear to her side. The pulsing waves of darkness that crossed her armor and body were slowing and lightening. “The Spearman. In focus and obsession, you two are in a league all of your own. Is it truly so important that this woman may live? She isn’t even a living creature. She is an animated image that believes it to be truly sentient. But it is a puppet, nothing more. Why struggle so hard to protect it?”
Shal felt the question more than he heard it. Mostly because it was something that he had been struggling with for a couple of months as he slowly grew closer to Rumera. In the grand scheme of things, he had known her for seventy-one days. That was not long enough to truly know someone. In addition, Shal had quickly noticed that his intense attraction to her was in part due to the powerful spear images that were subtly imbued into every common action she took.
In a way, Shal had always known that she was a creature of images; he simply didn’t want to view her as such.
At the moment, however, he had no choice as Azriel guided his mind there. Rumera was a constructed thing, made of the images of a man who had callously let most of Tellus die in order to accomplish his goals.
Strangely, Shal felt no cognitive dissonance as he reluctantly released that statement into his mind. In fact, he felt relief. Because it was true. And that truth didn’t change the fact that Shal loved her anyway.
Chuckling, Shal moved. Azriel narrowed her eyes and peered through the veil of darkness around herself as she remained motionless during the process. Of course, he was too worried to see it earlier, but she was bound. Whatever magic she was using had the price of stillness.
Shal had no such qualms.
Although it drew a yelp from Rumera, Shal picked her up in his arms. She glared up at him, but Shal kept his gaze on Azriel. “It is strange, is it not? You are right. But because of what she is and how we interact, I love her. I would not love her if she is different. Therefore, it would be foolish for me to quibble with the truth.”
“Wait Shal, after this transformation finishes-” Azriel began, but Shal waved a hand.
“Bah. I’m tired of being told when and who I need to fight; I am very disappointed to find the same coming from you.” Shal said over his shoulder as he leaped across Hastam. “The war is over. The Wights are dead. Why not celebrate?”
Then Shal was gone, moving across the city in the night.
Rumera crossed her arms, cradled against Shal’s chest. “I can handle myself you know.”
Shal raised his eyebrows. “Can you?”
Scowling, Rumera play punched Shal’s jaw. “Of course. But not without cost. I am much less than what I was, once…”
After trailing off, they traveled in silence. Even when the two passed the edge of Hastam and rushed into the wildlands West of the city, Rumera said nothing. So Shal continued to carry her toward the destination he had in mind.
The countryside bore the mark of the Wights occupation and passage. Most buildings were torn down, and periodically large anthill like bases that the Wights could crawl in and out of without fear of spear-user attacks loomed above the trampled foliage. It had the strange effect of causing Shal to reminisce about his childhood, when he and his brother would pick up sticks and gallantly attack wasps’ nest in order to ‘eradicate the dumb Wights’.
The Wraith Adder hissed softly in Shal’s chest. If I could go back, there is so much I would say. So many things I could do. For that reason, I won’t let go of Rumera. No matter what it is. Because I do not want to hold these feelings in my chest after it is already too late.
“I remember it, you know,” Rumera said breaking into the low sound of the rushing wind around them as Shal ran. “Being the Spearsource. Being a… part of the Spearman. I remember the power and the overarching sense of purpose. But now… I’ve lost that.”
“It aches,” Shal murmured. “being alive. All the small flaws bring you anguish. And there is nothing you can do but continue advancing.”
“But I want it. This independence- Let me down!” All at once, Rumera’s whisper shot upward in volume into a shout, as though just now realizing that Shal was carrying her. Shal let her down because they were already at the destination he had in mind. Without even looking around, Rumera continued to speak.
“It’s horrible and the closest thing I had to a family was driven mad by a desire to complete the world. Worst of all, I feel that same desire! It eats at me every day. Sleeping is confusing and the feeling of eating is horrifying and going to the bathroom- well it all sucks. That’s basically every moment of being alive. And I’m full of panic and I hate it and then I met you and you are so-”
Rumera paused. Shal grinned at her back as she spun around.
“This is the spot,” Rumera said in awe. “This is where we met. The farm is destroyed, but…”
“Yea. This was a place where my life changed.” Shal rumbled.
Rumera was quiet for several seconds. Evening was falling, revealing the tapestry of stars above. She looked upward and sighed. “I cry a lot, you know. When you aren't around- not because you aren’t around, but because… because I’m glad I’m alive. Every day.”
Shal didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. For the moment, he relished the proximity of Rumera and simply allowed her to spin and spin and spin as she searched through the stars for something that only she knew she was looking for. Some answer, or some comfort on the day that the being she had considered her only family had been killed.
Dearly, Shal hoped the stars would grant her some small succor.