Randidly examined the two tired and shredded individuals who were experiencing the process of using the Aether Fountain in front of him. Once again, his focus on the movement of Aether earned him a small resonance in his chest that he believed to be related to Aether Detection. However, both individuals finished their brief exposure to the Aether more quickly than Randidly could reactivate the Skill, and therefore the resonance quickly disappeared.
Three more missions, Randidly promised himself.
The Aether Fountain didn’t actually look like a fountain at all. Instead, it was a gleaming copper grate that was inlaid into the ground at the center of the camp behind the Commander’s tent. It was only a meter in diameter, but it was clearly a very complex work of Engraving. When activated, the brass would glow to the point of becoming almost golden as energy rushed through the material.
Without Aether Detection, Randidly wasn’t positive what occurred in the process, but even if those senses weren’t activated, he still had his eyes.
Two individuals used the Aether Fountain while Randidly watched. Abiodun briefly commented that they had rejected the opportunity yesterday, but they acquiesced this morning as their conditions worsened.
Truly, they looked ragged before they began. Like crayon drawings of real people that had been soaked in chilling river water for several hours before being recovered. They were grey and diminished beings that seemed to be flaking and disintegrating as Randidly watched. Then again, that might have been an effect of the strange visual phenomenon caused by the Great Rift rather than any real lingering damage to the image.
But after standing on the Aether Fountain, those images were soon swollen with color and power. There was a palpable strength that radiated off of them as they stepped off the copper grate and released booming laughter while slapping each other on the back in congratulations.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed. Of course, that strength radiating off of them is the very power that they just obtained leaking out through the flaws in a broken container. None of the damage that was done to them was repaired, and none of the fuzzy details were corrected. No, they were puffed up with empty power that will slowly leave them as time passes.
But from the System’s perspective, putting a little bit of energy in the hands of these broken but proven images is probably preferable to giving it to a planet that might not even survive a single Calamity…
“Yea, no,” Randidly said shortly as he turned to look at Abiodun. He flashed a predator’s smile at the granite man. “I don’t think such measures are necessary.”
“Yet it seems like they both enjoyed the feeling immensely. Perhaps they were even improved by the experience.” Abiodun rumbled, but you could tell from his open maw that the being was making a joke at the expense of these wounded and struggling images.
It was a cold and cruel joke, but Randidly felt the corners of his own mouth twitch upward in response. "An easy joke for someone with a body to make. The wear and tear you endure heals with time."
"An easy joke for someone with strength to make," Abiodun countered. "Or do you claim that you are like them? Will your eventual end be here, on this endless battlefield before the vast darkness?"
Randidly looked at Abiodun then for several minutes without speaking. The other man was content to allow it, standing still with his eyes independently fading in and out of his sockets like each one needed periodic holidays from the madness going on within Abiodun's mind in order to continue with its duties.
Finally, Randidly opened his mouth. "You know, I thought you were a gentle being when I first met you."
"And I thought you were wispy," Abiodun's mouth stretched even wider. "What a delight that we were both wrong, and we two monsters were able to meet here at the edge of the world. Nether will learn to rue this day."
Randidly didn't bother to refute the label of a monster. Honestly, he wasn't even sure if he didn't believe it to be true. Instead, Randidly turned away from the Aether Fountain and began to walk back toward his tent.
Behind him, Abiodun called after Randidly's departing form. "Remember that heeding the Beacon of Duty will not excuse you from your assigned missions. In two days you will participate in a defensive battle against the Nether. Make sure you rest well."
Randidly continued without turning around. But he gritted his teeth in response to Abiodun's words.
When he arrived back at his tent, Randidly didn't head inside to sit and meditate with Yggdrasil and the feeble form of Ignition Essence. Instead, Randidly walked beyond the tent toward the edge of Iellaya's camp and the barren badlands.
They had been stationed near the right side of her camp, so it didn't take long to walk beyond the tight rows of tents and toward the empty space between this camp and the next one. Because the threats were existential rather than physical, there weren't any real defensive structures that served as a buffer against the Great Rift. It was only on the basis of potency of Aether that their defense was mounted.
But because of that lack of physical barriers, there was a wide-open space filled with pebbles and coppery dirt that no one bothered with. And it was there that Randidly released a long breath and raised his head to the strange sky of this land.
Randidly began slowly to move. And he began with, of all things, the Spear Phantom Style. With his right arm, Randidly moved smoothly through all forms he could recall Shal teaching him in that strange Dungeon. For a half-hour, Randidly let go of all of the fighting and bloodshed that he had endured over the last five years. He was just a foolish kid who was slowly learning the spear from someone who was muddled by generations worth of manipulation in his body.
The spear began to blur as Randidly accelerated.
From there, Randidly shifted toward the Ashen Kata. These moves were much less refined and smooth, but they were built on a monstrously powerful base of Aether that elevated them far beyond their technical strength. Randidly could see now how he had relied on Aether for much of the move’s potency, a lot like those images today let themselves be inflated by the Aether Fountain. But still, there was value in revisiting the seeds for what he would soon become.
After all, Randidly still was unsure of exactly what the current him was. But he couldn't deny that the Grim Chimera was intimately related to his current existence.
The air around Randidly stirred as he used his right arm and moved through the old motions. Fragments of images that he had forgotten floated into the air around him. The face of his mother, half flesh and half bone, staring out as his phantom. The ominous ticking of a clockwork world as a doom slowly approached. The curling smile of Aemont, his broad back and wild determination spreading away from him like wings.
Although Randidly had no body with which to physically breath, he found himself panting after transitioning through the moves. Perhaps it was the weight of memories that dragged at him, but that wouldn’t slow Randidly for long. This was only a warm-up.
Randidly's eyes glowed emerald as he began to move through the motions of the Grim Chimera. His muscles bulged outward. The joints of his legs flexed and pulsed. Small motes of ash began to drift outward from his body. Although he couldn't sense it, Randidly was almost positive that there was a connection of Aether between himself and the main body. Otherwise, even with Yggdrasil's help, he wouldn't have recovered so quickly.
Now, moving through the vicious and desperate movements of the Grim Chimera, Randidly pulled as much as he could at that connection.
Congratulations! Your Skill Chimeric Avoidance has grown to Level 200!
Congratulations! Your Skill Cursed Appetite of a Wraith has grown to Level 251!
Congratulations! Your Skill Cursed Appetite of a Wraith has grown to Level 252!
Congratulations! Your Skill Monstrosity's Appalling Physicality has grown to Level 220!
Congratulations! Your Skill Reaper's Mantle of Catastrophe has grown to Level 99!
Randidly pulled and pulled and pulled. His body began to blur further as he accelerated through motions. He hardly had to think at all before his body instinctively moved. In the Grim Chimera's moves, Randidly found a familiarity that made it difficult for him to try and claim that he wasn't something deeply connected to the Grim Chimera. While performing these moves, Randidly felt completely at ease. To the point that it was illogical.
Because Randidly remembered the feeling of using the moves while he had possessed the main body. Or at least he thought he did. And the ease with which he could grow now was extremely high. His Skill Levels continued to shoot up at a pace that would be ridiculous if he were still on Earth.
It might be his imagination, but it seemed to Randidly that the flow of Aether into himself was slowly growing as he continued to so insistently pull on it.
Congratulations! Your Skill Molten Fang of the Pariah has grown to Level 189!
Congratulations! Your Skill Man is Proud, but the Chimera Takes has grown to Level 171!
Congratulations! Your Skill The Chimera Weeps as Man Mourns has grown to Level 155!
Main body, watch me grow, Randidly thought as his body became a veritable whirlwind of ash in that abandoned strip of land between camps. Although I might not have all of the tools at your disposal, I'll prove my worth by growing so strong that you won't even believe it. So strong that it will never be in doubt how much you need me-!
Congratulations! Your Skill Monstrosity's Appalling Physicality has grown to Level 221!
Congratulations! Your Skill Molten Fang of the Pariah has grown to Level 190!
"For an image... you are extremely strong. Incredibly so. Even the visual fluctuations caused by the Great Rift are diminished around you."
Randidly froze. Then he blurred into motion once more, spinning around and opening up some space between him and the speaker with a light hop.
Three figures had appeared in that same no man's land between the two camps. The woman in the center watched him with extremely amused azure eyes that matched the waterfall of hair that went from her scalp to the ground behind her. On her hands were a pair of thick metal gauntlets, so heavy and worn that they were likely older by far than she was. At her side were two men, one tall and broad-shouldered and the other slender and slight. Both wore short capes around their shoulders that were the same color as the woman's hair.
And most annoyingly, Randidly could immediately sense that the implication of the woman's words was true: all three possessed their actual bodies.