“Relax, we aren’t the type that harasses lone images wandering the camps,” The azure haired woman said with a surprisingly gentle wave of her gauntleted hand. The subtle grace in the movement was enough to impress Randidly; despite her slender arms, she had perfect control of her heavy gauntlets. “We are all here to fight against Nether, right? It doesn’t matter who you pissed off in the past.”
Well, I suppose it’s good enough that I learned that there are people who harass images for the fun of it, Randidly thought rather bitterly as he eyed the trio. He specifically looked at the woman with suspicious eyes, wondering why she decided to approach him during his exercise. And so purposefully, too.
Although Randidly was truly caught up in the process of training, it was extremely disturbing that he hadn’t noticed the group until they were very close to him. It was difficult for Randidly to accept that they hadn’t purposefully approached using stealth. And yet…
The woman continued to smile at him. She waved softly with her heavy iron gauntlet, as though she wasn’t sure if he saw her. At her sides, the two men’s ill will toward Randidly became almost comically obvious as he had no response to the woman’s words.
Slowly, the tension in Randidly’s shoulders relaxed. In most cases, like called to like. That hostile and fear-driven suspicion that Randidly blazed with in response to their approach should have brought out similar emotions in the woman and her companions if they possessed them. Just like the no-nonsense cruelty of Abiodun had brought out similar emotions in Randidly that he normally kept under tight control.
But now, the woman just studied him with a friendly smile. Randidly stared stoically back at her, trying to understand what her goal was for approaching him. And although the woman’s companions were growing increasingly irate, it wasn’t ill will toward Randidly. They simply wanted to protect the woman.
As the seconds ticked past and Randidly continued to glare at the woman, her smile started to falter.
“Plus,” She added finally as she twisted awkwardly in place. “I… ah, admire your spear form. It seems very… dangerous and powerful. And you already are near to condensing your first star? You must be a veteran of man battles. And… with your powerful body...”
Randidly looked down at the long protrusion of bone that stretched out from his right arm. It was covered in dried blood and much of the point on the end came from the jagged remnants left from a time immemorial where the bone was snapped off. He looked at his scaly and oversized left arm that ended in five extremely sharp talons. Then he looked back up at the azure haired woman.
Well, certainly it’s easy to kill people with these limbs.
She suddenly seemed to be blushing. “M-my name is Vualla, by the way. Vualla Meteo. We were just patrolling here. And I guess… when you patrol, you finish a whole round, right? Right guys…? ...so I think it’s probably time that we get back to it…”
“My name’s Randidly Ghosthound. It is… nice to meet you,” Randidly said slowly as he frowned at Vualla. Abruptly, it seemed like the woman wanted nothing to do with him. She fled quickly back across the expanse of dirt toward the camp immediately to Iellaya’s right and her two companions followed her while glowering at Randidly.
After they departed, Randidly shook his head. For a few seconds, he had seen a strange hunger in Vualla’s eyes that made him believe that he would need to fight. It was a relief that it hadn’t come to that, but the strange and sudden conclusion to an equally unexpected meeting left him a little uneasy.
Were they perhaps sneaking toward me? Did noticing their approach throw off their plans to attack? But I really didn’t notice them at all until she spoke… If they had intended something malicious, then I…
Randidly likely would have continued to pick apart the strange actions of the woman, but a notification popped up in front of him that stopped his heart for a split second.
Congratulations! You have finished the Nether Adaption I Path! By pushing your body beyond the limits of the physical, you have begun to slowly incorporate aspects of the Nether into your existence. It is an unstable Path you walk, but it is not one that will not lead you forward. Do not slow in your advance, for this strange combination will have unpredictable effects that could possibly benefit you.
Endurance and Resistance +50. Your Skill Nether Resistance has evolved into Nether Acclimation ®! The effect of each Skill Level in the Skill has slightly increased.
In addition, your ability to learn Skills relating to Nether has slightly increased!
A tingling wave of numbness ran across Randidly as he felt something shift in his body. Abruptly, he had the vaguest sense that he could feel the slow flow of Nether through his body, drawn out from the substance of his image and into a complicated pentagram array to form the star. Of course, he could see the results before, but now it seemed to him that the entire process was becoming clear. He could feel himself slowly aligning underneath the influence of the grand array that covered the camps.
The Nether was so different from Aether. Where Aether was shape and space, Nether was aura and core. It seemed to Randidly that he slowly stretched and warped as that slowly coalescing star made him straddle the line between existences.
Of course, it was difficult to tell if this was just his imagination or not.
Did I complete that Path unconsciously? Randidly wondered. Or is it the main body, doing what he can? It would certainly be rather boring to just sit, isolated, and look at the Status screen for a long time… he is probably ecstatic when PPs come in so he can at least enjoy the sensation of spending them.
Randidly’s left claw clenched into a tight ball of bone and talon. Plus, with this, I’ll have an even easier time surviving out in the Nether. Every little bit counts.
Very quickly, Randidly quieted his excitement and returned to the calm tranquility of training. He was determined to continue to push himself and earn more PP that the main body could use. Unfortunately, reaching that same relaxed mental state where he was perfectly in tune with his images was not an easy task. If it was, training would not be an activity that was done slowly over time.
Although he trained for the rest of the evening, his PP accumulation speed slowed back down to normal rates; the special magic of the moment had been lost. Even though he spent six hours training, he only earned 9 additional PP in his Grim Chimera Skills.
Rather disappointed, Randidly returned to the tent and laid down to rest after sweating off his the remainder of his headache. Although there hadn’t been any serious changes in Ignition Essence’s status, Yggdrasil was hopeful that it was slowly stabilizing due to his constant attentions.
Randidly hoped it was so. But to his eyes, Ignition Essence seemed to be getting dimmer each time Randidly returned. Pushing those concerns out of his mind, Randidly focused on recovering fully from his battle the prior day.
After all, he only had a single day more until he had to do it once more.
Iellaya kept her expression mild, even though she was shocked to the core as she looked at the whole and robust image of Randidly Ghosthound. Truly, this image of the three was a being made for war. His claw and spear radiated an aura of ominous energy that was palpable enough Iellaya almost reflexively released a bit of her own image in response.
As Abiodun had dutifully informed her earlier in the day, the image appeared to be completely recovered from his ordeal after responding to the Beacon of Duty. Which should be impossible even for a fresh recruit with a body. In fact, it appeared that the density and clarity of his image body had actually increased from his original form. Suddenly he possessed a long tail from his waist and a rather slender one from the base of his neck.
Such growth should be impossible, Iellaya reflected as she calmly stood and offered the image a warm smile. Which means that perhaps the images of Randidly Ghosthound are the keys to saving us all.
“I’m so glad that you were able to recover so quickly,” Iellaya said as she offered the image her left hand. “Today, I called you in a bit earlier than the usual sortie to talk about the details of defensive battles. You seem to have intuited most of the details, but preparation makes all the difference in war.”
Iellaya breathed in slowly. My face needs to be completely composed when I say this. It is simply a normal statement. Otherwise, all of this is useless. Then she smiled and said. “As you know, as an image, you need to rely on the tether to your body in order to possess enough Aether to stabilize the space in the Great Rift. But there are a few details you can look for in order to have an easier time establishing an island of Aether in the darkness.”
Randidly slowly nodded. Iellaya blinked mildly. She would not respond visibly. She would control her facial muscles. Relying on the tether to the body is correct, but the body has been completely isolated from the System. Are you aware and humoring me? Or does your body have enough ambient Aether to spare that you were able to survive as an image in the Great Rift?
Either way, a Heretic. I wonder who you pissed off enough that they ensured you were isolated then. Usually, only the Heretics who target System roles directly are imprisoned. And you don’t have that feel to you.
“Although Nether isn’t Aether, that doesn’t mean there aren’t defining features that you can locate. We call them Nether Wells. Immediately after you arrive, the best option is to sense the nearest Nether well and head a good distance away from it before establishing your base of operations. The goal is to “defend” the surrounding space with your Aether Zone. Its presence will weaken the Nether wells in the area, and keep the Great Rift from expanding.”
There were three types of Heretics, generally: the Pirate, the Vampire, and the Ritualist. Although the names were rather garish in Iellaya’s opinion, they did serve as a useful descriptor of the process by which Aether was gathered for each variety.
Pirates killed and plundered Aether from the corpses of their enemies. They were also the oldest type of Heretic because when you thought about it, the System was a Pirate that raised livestock that it could cannibalize later. It was the greatest evil that they were all struggling against. Greater even than the threat of Nether.
Vampires, like Iellaya herself, siphoned a portion of other’s Aether, to a greater or lesser degree based upon the relationship and personal preference. There was a lot of variance in the process used. Some took a portion of lifespan. Others learned to leech Skill Levels. Iellaya found it most efficient to consume the image directly, then allowing the original image to exist like a parasite within her own.
But I suppose I am a special case.
And Ritualists… well, Ritualists were the ones who truly mattered to Iellaya. Because Ritualists were smart enough to make the impossible possible. So smart that they could extract Aether from the natural forces of the world in ways that the System hadn’t been able to figure out how to prevent.
Which is exactly what we fucking need if we want to win this war.