As a sour-mood Randidly followed Zagnal down the Eastern side of the rock outcropping, he was shocked out of his funk by the sight of Ignition Essence and Yggdrasil waiting at the base of the slope. Even though Randidly could clearly see Yggdrasil was still cradling Ignition Essence in his arms, he hurried over. “Was there any change in his condition?”
Yggdrasil shook his canopy sadly. “No, there has been no change since this morning. Time will take much longer than that to begin its holy work, I’m afraid. But it is good to see that you’ve managed to survive your ordeal. Was it… painful?”
Randidly paused. Then he turned and looked at Zagnal after he parsed apart what Yggdrasil had said to him. “How long was the mission?”
“About three hours.” Zagnal showed his teeth. “Heh, it felt much longer to you, did it not? Good, that’s very good.”
Randidly’s depressed mood returned with a vengeance. I even was warned that time here moves strangely. But even so… really? That was only three hours? I feel like I did a week’s worth of damage control on the Grim Chimera image… holy fuck.
Growling at Zagnal, Randidly said, “Why is that a good thing it felt so fucking long?”
“Because the heavier an individual’s image, the longer time seems to stretch. The damage done by the Great Rift… it is an insidious influence that is difficult to overcome. And the Nether are beasts of instinct that know nothing of time. The weaker an image is, the more easily it is swept along to that timeless quality. That’s how we can tell which images are nearing-”
“So you are saying I have a strong image?” Randidly said with a vicious smile.
Zagnal froze, caught between what Randidly assumed were orders to keep references to images to a minimum and his own pleasure that the image he was acting as a liaison for had returned, none the worst for wear.
Eventually, Zagnal coughed and nodded. “Yes, that is the case. Now, follow me. My own defense mission is tomorrow morning, so we will need to make good time to Iellaya’s base of operations this evening so I can return.”
With Yyrwood Body of Yggdrasil, Yggdrasil had no trouble keeping up with Zagnal’s brutal pace. They quickly traveled to the backline of the lower camps and began to speed across the badlands. As the rocky outcropping seemed to barely grow any more distance behind them, the four blazed across the outer ring of the huge base that sat here on the edge of the Great Rift. At first, there were some other groups traveling along the same path, but as they headed further and further away from headquarters, they quickly became the only group on the path.
Rather than any real fortifications for these bases, there only seemed to be the lines of tents stretching endlessly on their right across the broken and barren ground. There were also small spaces between the bases too, giving Randidly of a sense of scale for this battlefront. So far, they had walked past the edges of the headquarters and one other camp, about to enter into the area of a third.
Now, at least, Randidly saw some individuals moving outside of their tents. Noises from cooking fires and conversations caught Randidly’s attention. In addition, it rapidly became clear that there were three types of tents, and the greys were in a minority.
Most of the tents that Randidly saw now were a maroon red, and often had wounded individuals standing and talking around by them. When their group passed, these individuals would look sharply up before returning to their conversation, not even bothering to acknowledge their passage.
“Who are they?” Yggdrasil asked as they continued past these groups.
Once more, Zagnal hesitated. “...veterans. They’ve been fighting here for a while. Don’t let their attitude bother you. By the time you prove yourself, you will have the chance to stand amongst them.”
Which probably means that these are individuals that were allowed to keep their bodies. Randidly reflected. But I wonder if Zagnal saying ‘by the time you prove yourself,’ means there is a possibility that I will be allowed to return to my body. Should I reveal now that I know I am an image…?
Ultimately, Randidly clicked his tongue and decided against it. There was still too much he didn’t know. And there was always the worry that it was explicitly outlawed that the images learn what they were. Better to wait and learn more information for now.
In addition to the grey and maroon tents, there were also gold tents. Randidly only saw a few of those in the four camps that they passed, and it was clear that these were reserved for special individuals. In each section of maroon tents, there would only be a dozen or so that were golden. Zagnal clearly saw the interest in Randidly’s gaze as well, but he didn’t volunteer any information.
Meanwhile, Randidly was rather occupied sensing the gradual changes happening within the fabric of his image. As Zagnal had informed him the first day he arrived, he could feel some sort of current through the air that tugged insistently on the tainted Nether that remained suspended in his image.
Slowly, that Nether was siphoned out and formed a star shape pattern in the air around Randidly. Like the staging area, this new star had five points. But rather than a star with equal sides, this star was scrawled with a wild, curving script. The substance of Nether began to flow toward the points and central area.
However, there wasn’t enough Nether present in Randidly to create the strange star diagram. In fact, only one of the points seemed to be filled in the looping script. The remaining points were dull and empty, while the center seemed to have not even been started.
Randidly tsk’d in his mind and shook his head. I beat that damn jellyfish too badly. It will take a lot of enemies of that caliber before I can condense a star and in order to investigate what effects it has.
In the beginning, Randidly had been rather worried about what sort of influence the owner of the grand array could wield if that being could use the remnant Nether to make these stars. But seeing the slow accumulation, and more important the way that it accumulated, Randidly was somewhat relieved.
His main bodies expertise was still absent, but Randidly was still able to recognize certain patterns. From what he could tell, this strange looping star would do exactly as advertised; it would only give him a minor resistance against Nether. The full star would create a bubble of Nether-substitute that would reduce the effectiveness of Nether attacks.
Until, as Zagnal pointed out, the Nether reached the point of overwhelming him and turning those stars against him. But Randidly had faith in his own Willpower and the additional strength he had received from the Eidolon Crucible.
Which, once combined with his current Nether Resistance...
It was only after they had traveled for about four hours that Zagnal spoke again. By this time, they had reached the sixth camp to the East of the headquarters. They stood in front of a thin thoroughfare that led through a row lined with maroon tents. “This is the edge of Iellaya’s headquarters. She is the Easternmost commander on this battleline.”
Randidly glanced around. One thing he immediately noticed was that although most of the tents were maroon, there were no golden tents that he could see. In addition, there were a few dozen or so grey tents tucked away behind the sea of maroon. Randidly chewed his lip thoughtfully. If the tents meant what he believed they did, that would mean this camp also hosted disproportionately more isolated images than any camp they had passed did, other than the main one directly underneath Lord Miln.
It was difficult to know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing for Randidly.
But more than that… there was a scent in the air...
“It is a strange energy that lays over this camp,” Yggdrasil said lightly. Zagnal blinked and looked at Yggdrasil with a frown. Although Randidly had been thinking the very same thing, it wouldn’t do to have Zagnal’s attention focus on Yggdrasil and his impressively acute senses.
Before Zagnal could direct his attention wholly toward Yggdrasil’s ambiguous statement, Randidly took a step forward to grab the liaison’s attention. “So why are you so desperate to form a relationship with this Iellaya?”
That seemed enough to attract Zagnal’s attention back to Randidly. Zagnal sighed. “You would not understand. It is a thing… closely related to the status of my homeland. For someone… ah… for someone like you, without a place to return to… someone who is waiting for the old friend of Lord Miln… it might be difficult to understand.”
Despite the fact Randidly was trying to keep his knowledge secret, his emerald eyes flashed in annoyance. His emotions bubbled ominously. Barring his teeth at Zagnal, Randidly growled. “Try me.”
Almost immediately, Randidly inwardly cursed his hot-headed reaction. Where had that sudden aggression come from? It’s true that this fuckface needs to stop treating me like a broken doll, but-
Zagnal seemed similarly surprised by the sudden violent sneer that covered Randidly’s face. Luckily, before he could articulate any sort of reaction, there was a dull roar from deeper within the camp. All three of the figures twisted to look up toward the glittering fireball that filled the sky, while Yggdrasil clutched the weak form of Ignition Essence to his chest.
“What the hell is that?” Randidly asked in alarm. “Is the camp under attack?”
“Yes… but it's not what you think…” Zagnal said slowly. His eyes glittered from the reflected light as the huge fireball faded to a glittering bonfire that burned near the center of the camp. Almost instinctively, his hands tightened into fists. The sudden longing in his voice was abundantly clear. “Obviously, there would be much more drastic response if the camp itself was under attack. No… that light is a Beacon of Duty. Basically, a commander will light one if they are looking for volunteers for a special mission.”
Randidly considered the light solemnly. “Calling for volunteers, huh… I suppose volunteering in a situation like that means that whatever is going on, the mission is extremely dangerous… and that the commander would be extremely grateful toward any volunteers.”
Their previous argument hung between them like a bitter death in the family. Zagnal's eyes continued to glitter with unwillingness as he looked up toward that burning beacon. Huh, whatever he wants from Iellaya clear is something significant. If it has to do with his homeworld... something to do with the Nexus? A steady supply of Aether?
But after a few seconds, Zagnal sighed in dejection. “Yes, that is correct… but for you as you are now, going on such a volunteer mission is a deathwish. Still… you are also correct, this is exactly what I need for my people. Perhaps… no, I have my own duties. No matter what, I cannot afford to risk failure.”
Zagnal twisted around. Emotions warred on his face for several seconds as Randidly and Zagnal stared at each other. The rather sudden appearance of emotion on Zagnal's face filled Randidly with wonder. Even more so because the emotion Randidly saw was desperation.
And then, even more surprisingly, Zagnal bowed to Randidly at the waist. “Please. If you can do this for me… I’ll do everything in my power to help you reclaim your body. Because right now… I must come clean; you are currently naught but an image that was forcibly ripped from your body. You possess a fragment of your true power. And if this separated version of you is powerful enough, then your true form-”
“That’s enough,” Randidly said lightly as he tapped Zagnal on the shoulder. Although Randidly still wasn’t sure how much he could trust the man, the fact that he had come clean about Randidly’s status was enough to earn a measure of consideration now. “After all, if we don’t act quickly… won’t someone else volunteer first?”
Zagnal’s face split into a wry grin, but then his brow furrowed. “I was not exaggerating, however. If volunteers are required, it is not something that should be possible for an image-”
“I have never been a man,” Randidly called lightly over his shoulder, profoundly enjoying the experience of leaving Zagnal in the dust to walk away. “To be greatly concerned by what others say I can and can’t do.”
And more importantly than winning your trust, I have Nether Resistance back to give me an advantage. Hopefully, that will give me enough of an edge to seize this chance.