Randidly mulled over Iellaya’s words as she continued to talk about the various types of Nether beasts that could be encountered in the Great Rift.
An Aether tether to the main body is accurate, but… what is she fishing for?
Immediately when Iellaya casually mentioned Aether, Randidly’s Grim Intuition warned him that this question was a trap of some sort. Which was at least a nice confirmation that Randidly still had access to a portion of the main body’s capabilities. It wasn’t present in quantity, but he could now sense the qualitative change even to his image that resulted from the evolution of the stat.
However, its continued effect on him now might just be because of the word ‘Grim’. After all, Randidly couldn’t feel any particular benefit currently stemming from his very high Control. He didn’t have a body that had stats, after all. But perhaps the qualitative change had been preserved.
So Randidly could immediately tell that the soft-spoken Iellaya was trying to extract some information from him, likely something that Randidly didn’t want her to know. But simultaneously, Randidly didn’t want to deny that there was an Aether connection to the main body. Otherwise, there might be even more pressure on Yggdrasil to heal other images as they turned to that as the reason he could recover.
Yet even as he nodded, Randidly knew that he had likely given away more information than he wanted. Still, it didn’t feel like he had any other choice. Iellaya was standing easily before him, releasing not a hint of pressure. Which did little to alleviate Randidly’s fears.
I’ll need to talk about this with Yggdrasil later. All of this thinking feels like such a waste of time. I would much rather be fighting and growing.
And now Lady Iellaya was trying to bury her innocuous question beneath a flood of practically useless information about the Nether. Honestly, Randidly was rather relieved when she finished ten minutes later, allowing him to head out to the staging area. To Randidly’s surprise, Abiodun was together with Zagnal waiting for him to arrive. As he approached, the two ceased their discussion and turned to look at him.
Once more, Randidly’s Grim Intuition tingled. Seems like discovering Grim Intuition again means it's now comfortable flaring up whenever it wants. Truly aggravating.
It could also just be a sign of how much danger is lurking here.
“When did you two become friends?” Randidly asked with a vicious smirk. The two seemed rather casual, like there was a sudden intimacy between them. But it was clear from their stances that Abiodun was in the position of authority.
Abiodun only chuckled and, after a quick glance for confirmation, Zagnal stepped forward and spoke. “Good news. I have applied for a transfer to serve under Lady Iellaya and Abiodun here. That way I’ll be able to continue to assist you while you are acclimating to battles in the Great Rift.”
Lucky me. Inwardly, Randidly’s lip continued to curl upward until he showed teeth. But he kept his actual expression rather neutral. Recalling how freely Iellaya spoke about his body being locked away, Randidly took a gamble and said. “What about our deal then? Were you able to talk to Lord Miln about retrieving my body?”
Again, Zagnal’s eyes flicked sideways to Abiodun before he spoke.
How cheaply you have sold yourself, Zagnal. Randidly’s emerald eyes were as cold as slate-grey cloud about to dump snow out over the world. I will remember this.
Abiodun reached out and put a heavy hand on Zagnal’s shoulder. Some unspoken message passed between them before Abiodun turned to Randidly and spoke. “A hungry little piranha, aren’t you Randidly? But I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that we are about to go to battle? There will be time to settle personal matters later, but I can assure you that we have already brought the subject of your body to Lady Iellaya’s attention. And she is not a woman who takes no for an answer.”
But it seems she likes groveling, Randidly smirked at Zagnal but didn’t press the issue further. Already he could feel Zagnal’s hackles rising as he was so obviously dismissive, but some part of Randidly’s mind was hot and slick. Offending a man with a dragon head who did not keep his word felt good.
“How many will you kill today?” Abiodun asked casually to change the conversation.
Randidly tried not to smile, but it was a natural response to the discussion of brutality; he couldn’t even help it. “Can we truly say for sure whether beings of Nether die? Perhaps these beasts we fight are dead things. Our actions finally bring them life.”
Rumbling in amusement, Abiodun shook his head. “A convenient truth for us, if it is truly so.”
Very quickly, Randidly was brought away by the duo to another pillar-filled staging area. That same wild violence that pushed him to aggravate Zagnal wanted him to wander away and follow his Grim Intuition to choose his portal, but his better judgment kept him in line. In addition, Iellaya had mentioned that he would be sent to some of the least dense Nether fields around the edge of the Great Rift as consideration for him volunteering two nights ago.
As a final chip on the side of behaving, Abiodun stayed close to his side. His solid presence exuded a subtle weight of image that Randidly didn’t think he was prepared to face quite yet.
Randidly felt confident that his ability to handle Nether shot upward after his Skill evolved to Nether Acclimation, but he was too aware how close he had come to his limit on that night to risk it again. His growth would be slower in a safer area, but if Randidly wanted to figure out the secrets of this place he would need to be well enough that he wasn’t constantly struggling against a headache.
After he was teleported into the Great Rift, Randidly could immediately feel that his current location was nowhere near as dangerous as he had been sent two nights ago. Whereas his skin had almost immediately begun to bubble and spit previously, now it was just extremely painful. Slowly, a low sizzling could be heard.
In addition, Randidly could close his eyes and only distantly detect something similar to the dense mass of Nether that he had encountered previously, the Nether Well. Perhaps the most disappointing of the changes that were present, Randidly couldn’t sense any Nether beasts at all in the surrounding area.
Not that his sphere of detection was very wide. But there simply wasn’t much around him. So Randidly settled down and prepared to wait for his foe to arrive.
And then, over the course of the next six hours, Randidly was taught an extremely aggravating lesson: Not all defensive missions involved engaging with an enemy. Sometimes, all you needed to do was head out into the vast darkness and repeatedly destabilize the blue veins that flowed through the surrounding air.
Without the threat of Nether beasts, the mission dragged on even longer than either of Randidly’s previous two sorties. Time seemed endless in the darkness. After a certain point, Randidly stopped destroying the blue veins that sometimes swam curiously around him. At least staring at their strange movements provided some small amusement.
In addition to the wide expanse of monotony, the slow and bitter resistance against Nether’s corruption was especially exhausting. Perhaps even more so than it would have been normally because the exertion was so relatively light. It couldn’t be described as easy, but it also wasn’t difficult. It was just… constant exertion.
Randidly couldn’t get his tension up at all to face this thin Nether. In small spurts, he would focus his mind enough to cause waves of ash to radiate out from his body, but the effort didn’t seem worth it.
Inwardly, he vowed never to allow himself to fall prey to his cautious attitude again; this test of endurance was completely intolerable. Even worse, he could suddenly hear very clearly Iellaya saying that there was about a 20% chance that the location they were sent to in the Great Rift would be so remote that no Nether beasts would bother to defend it.
So Randidly did his best to refine his image while fighting off the fearsome opponents of boredom and darkness. Perhaps even worse, every time Randidly would resign himself to his situation and take a breath, something would begin to resonate in his chest. The sudden sensation was such a surprise that he was knocked out of his trance and completely destroyed the resonance.
With only five Levels of his new Skill Nether Acclimation to show for it, Randidly was replaced by another and sent back to the camp.
There, at least, Randidly was met with excitement.
The very sky seemed to have cracked far to the East. Those thick golden shapes that had so often passed in the sky previously were completely gone. The light orange of the sky seemed pale and thin, and the maroon clouds had darkened to dried blood. Thin tendrils of blackness lined with thick veins of blue wormed their way deeper into the sky from the Great Rift. Randidly took several heavy steps away from the staging area and joined a slowly increasing crowd who were staring upward toward the sky with worried expressions.
Those threads of blackness continued to writhe in the sky above, speaking to their continued offensive against the Aether of this place. The visual variance on the ground was even more aggravating than usual. When looking at the grim faces around him, it was immediately clear to Randidly that this wasn’t a usual occurrence.
It took a few seconds for Randidly to spot her, but he very quickly scanned the crowd and saw Lady Iellaya standing in the shadow of a tent at the far side of the staging area. She stood with her hands folded and her obsidian feathers pressed tightly down against her scalp and neck. The familiar form of Abiodun loomed next to her, an even deeper blackness in the shadow marked only by the unpredictable light of his eyes.
Iellaya’s lips moved and Randidly surprised himself with his ability to read them. “Lord Miln is a fool.”
Even more surprising to Randidly was the fact that even as Abiodun’s mouth barely moved, he could clearly intuit the words he was saying. “Should I voice a criticism? If it does not come from you-”
Iellaya’s expression turned bitter. The feathers on her head twitched. “It matters not. Even if we cannot afford a loss on this front, those who already possess citizenship always choose to take the long view of these things. The flood of new recruits are being tempered, he will say. A loss of a single camp means nothing.”
Leaning forward, Abiodun said. “Was the entire camp lost?”
“Thankfully not, or I would have proceeded over there myself and damn the consequences. It would actually be a relief to strike at their Leviathans.” Iellaya showed her teeth. The feathers along her neck spread outward. “But a Nether Well used a corrupted image to travel back to the staging area. It expended itself to radically destabilized the space on this side of the line. It will take weeks to repair, and I suspect that Lord Miln won’t bother to spend the Aether required to do it. He has found other uses for it, apparently.”
Abiodun made a sharp gesture that Randidly wasn’t able to spot through the crowd. Immediately, Iellaya shook her head. “I don’t know the Commander over there; he’s new as well. Better to continue to strengthen our position here then try to expand.”
Before Randidly’s eyes, Abiodun nodded and then faded into the shadows next to the tent, leaving Iellaya alone. The feathered woman continued to stare upward for several more seconds, considering the invasion of blackness that was slowly eating into the brightly covered sky over the forces of Aether.
Briefly, Randidly wondered what would happen if Aether actually lost this war. Based on the forces he had encountered so far, Randidly could only manage to be a soldier here. Even with his main body, he held no secret hopes that he would be able to affect the outcome of this confusing war in a short amount of time.
Perhaps the most frustrating part about being here is that so many of the battles had been fought alone. Fighting on this front was about influence over space, rather than about any real combat between individuals. It was more important to establish territory and weaken the opposition's grip on their own area. Therefore, Randidly hadn’t seen the strength of anyone-
Of course, right as Randidly was thinking that he saw Iellaya gesture sharply with her hand. Distantly above, so distantly that Randidly almost believed that he had imagined it, the sharp cry of an eagle rippled across the strange maroon clouds.
To Randidly’s disbelief, one of the tendrils of blackness up in the sky was cleanly chopped off. It began to lean and fall toward the ground, slowly dissipating as it crashed downward. It was difficult to get a sense of scale from here, but by comparing it to the looming rocky outcropping of the headquarters, that huge chunk of blackness was the size of a skyscraper.
When Randidly looked back down toward Iellaya, she was smiling at him. Then she calmly turned and walked back toward the Commander’s tent.