“Uh…” Randidly blinked several times as his mind struggled to cope with so much strange information. Vualla had attacked him so quickly he could barely cope, and then she had stopped herself. And obviously, he had seen other people in pain before. The Grim Chimera itself was an image that was built on a lifetime of pain. Yet those sparkling tears in Vualla’s eyes seemed to force his breath to catch in his throat. “Is… everything alright?”
“No.” Vualla shook her head, still facing away from Randidly. “But don’t worry about it. It’s none of your business, anyway. I’m just… just taking a night walk to clear my head. Just walking.”
And with that, Vualla began to walk back toward her camp with a determined stride. Feeling helpless, Randidly turned and looked at Zuana and Salazar. Zuana was standing silently and Salazar was wringing his hands and flicking his tail from side to side. If anything, they both appeared even more confused than Randidly was.
Randidly turned back and looked at Vualla’s departing back. Even in the dim light of night here on the edge of the Great Rift, her vivid azure hair was a poignant as an auditory thread of a saxophone on a street corner. Randidly couldn’t look away from the sinuous motion of her gait.
And to his own surprise, he spoke again. “Do you… want company for your walk?”
That was a dumb thing to say, a small voice whispered to him. If you take a walk, you won’t gain any PP for the main body. Training would be a better way to spend your time.
Vualla stopped. She slowly turned around and stared at Randidly for several seconds. Her mouth twisted. “There’s no need. It will be a long walk.”
“I have long legs,” Randidly grinned and gestured with his claw down at his raptor lower body.
Some life returned to Vualla’s eyes as she studied Randidly. She inclined her head toward the space behind him. “What about those two.”
Randidly shook his head in mock sorrow. “If I’m being honest, they follow me around everywhere. They would be coming as well. But as far as I can tell, there are no problems with their legs either. They are like baby chicks.”
“T-tweet tweet,” Salzar said helpfully. Randidly suppressed the image to turn around and stick his bone spear down the snake man’s unnecessarily vocal throat. He wondered idly if snakes could regenerate severed limbs.
But Vualla laughed. Then she shook her head. “I’m obviously not concerned about their legs… Thank you, but it’s unnecessary. What I’m about to do… it can be considered desertion, even if only for a night. I hear Iellaya is a relatively lax Commander, but she won’t look kindly on you leaving.
“Honestly…” Vualla narrowed her eyes as she peered at the three of them. “I’m surprised you left camp at all. That’s why I was… uh… so interested in you two days ago. Rumors are that all of Iellaya’s troops are part of a cult. Everyone says that when no one else is around, they kneel before her and call her Queen.”
Vualla seemed to be studying Randidly for any sort of reaction. He shrugged. “I’m a recent transfer. But I will say that I don’t think it will be a problem for me to come with you. I was ordered to spend some familiarizing myself with these two subordinates. This walk can be considered a team-building exercise.”
“Pfft, would anyone actually believe that?” Vualla shook her head, but then she threw her hands up in the air. “Well, I can’t very well do anything if you also want to take a night walk in the same direction. And… thanks, Randidly..”
She couldn’t very well use her heavy iron gauntlets, so Vualla rubbed her shoulders against her cheeks to soak up the tears. Randidly felt strangely tingly as he settled into pace next to her. He opened his mouth to say something, but he was beaten to the punch by Salazar.
“If… if this is a team-building exercise…” Strangely, his voice sounded hopeful. “Perhaps… introductions… and fun facts about ourselves…”
“Fine,” Randidly said as he glared over his shoulder at the inane snakeman. “I suppose Zauna can go first.”
Abiodun’s relative trundled forward in silence for several seconds. After flashing a look of triumph toward the hand-wringing Salazar, Randidly turned back forward. And then a surprisingly soft and feminine voice spoke from behind him.
“Zauna Tjak. I play common musical instruments.”
...what sort of musical instruments are common for rock people…? Randidly wondered, but already Salazar was excitedly beginning his own introduction.
“Salazar Grisss. In my homeworld, I had many w-wives and admirers. I had so many children that there would always be at least o-one person s-singing s-songs about me at every time of day.”
Then Randidly belatedly realized that everyone was looking at him. Vualla's eyes were so very bright. After gulping down a mouthful of air, Randidly raised his bone spear and waved it vaguely. “Randidly Ghosthound. Specifically the image of the Grim Chimera. I… uh, my body is being punished for some reason, but the main body is very skilled at creating Engravings.”
“Oh,” Vualla seemed rather disappointed after Randidly spoke. “So you don’t look like this normally?”
Randidly blinked. “Well my face looks the same, and most of the torso, but my limbs are a bit more… average.”
“S-so s-sad. Very dangerous looking…” Salizar shook from side to side.
Vualla bobbed her head. “I guess the face is okay, but that huge claw of yours… ehhehe, it’s definitely a capable body that you have there…”
“...sharp claws…” Came the low whisper from Zauna. But by the time Randidly twisted around, he could see any proof that she had spoken.
Despite the strange compulsion Randidly felt earlier to come on this walk with Vualla, suddenly Randidly felt profoundly tired. The three people around him were all weirdos. And Vualla especially… did she have a fetish for large hands…? It made a certain sort of strange since while looking at her huge gauntlets.
The group had avoided the edge of Vualla’s camp and joined the low road that led back toward the towering rocky outcropping of the headquarters. Glancing to the side, Randidly saw that Vualla’s eyes were aimed upward toward the tendrils of Nether that still remained in the sky. Ah, does she want to go see the damage to the camp that was attacked? But why was she so adamant about it?
Then Vualla clanged her large fist into the metal palm of her other hand. “I suppose it’s my turn. I’m Vualla. The reason that I’m special is that I will destroy the System someday.”
That brought Randidly to an abrupt halt. He stopped walking completely. Vualla continued forward as Randidly stared at her back, her long hair swishing side to side as it lightly brushed the ground. His words came to him slowly. He felt even less capable of speech than Salazar. “You… want to destroy the System…?”
“Of course,” Vualla nodded seriously as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Randidly found himself nodding almost subconsciously along with her. “I… I also wish to destroy the System.”
Finally, Vualla paused and turned to look at Randidly. Her mouth slid easily into a smile as her azure eyes sparkled mischievously. “Then it will be a race, won’t it? Try not to make this too easy for me, Randidly Ghosthound.”
“S-she has a big advantage,” Salazar whispered conspiratorially to Randidly. “With her b-body. But Sir, I think-”
Snorting, Randidly raised his claw and physically snapped Salazar’s mouth shut. The snake-man’s eyes widened as the dangerous talons gently pressed the mechanism of his jaw. Randidly grinned dangerously at him. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it.”
The foursome continued to walk for quite some time. At first, the only noise that accompanied them was the soft patter of their feet on the tightly packed dirt of the path. Of course, Salizar eventually forgot the implied threat of Randidly’s claw and began to chatter again, explaining all of the many accomplishments he had in his own world.
Most mind-boggling of all was the fact that both Vualla and Zauna appeared rather amused by the snakeman’s wild stories. The only benefit of the constant chatter was that once he got on a roll, Salazar’s stutter completely disappeared. He even appeared to gain some confidence. His voice deepened and suddenly the narrative carried a persuasive sort of energy.
Randidly’s Grim Intuition could feel the edges of a powerful image lurking behind Salazar’s voice. Perhaps not just a coward then, but someone who was not meant to ever exist on a battlefield. If we can maintain the integrity of his image, he will be useful for weakening the surrounding Nether, at least.
With Salazar extolling his own virtues, the group passed by the vast base of the rocky outcropping that served as headquarters. They walked around the inside, keeping an eye on the destabilized and warped land at the edge of the Great Rift. But their path did take them nearer to the edge of the lands that Aether held sway. Even from here, Randidly could feel a strange thrum from the blackness that he associated with the blue veins.
It was like the Great Rift was breathing. Without a doubt, the victory Nether had won by attacking the far camp had given that breath strength.
It was around dawn when they arrived at the farthest camp. The landscape over here was much rockier and uneven then the space around Iellaya’s camp, perhaps due to the recent attack. But because of it, they were able to ascend a low hill that gave the group a good view from which to see the damage done to the camp.
It was hard for Randidly to understand what he was seeing, however. There seemed to be strange window-like panes that reflected light and space that dominated the center of his view. The middle of the camp had been folded in on itself, completely isolating the staging area from the rest of the surrounding camp. A group of people led by a man with closely cropped blue-grey hair were gathering around the distortions and slowly healing them.
The man was tall and vaguely familiar. It was clear that this individual was the one in charge of the camp. Every second he issued a string of orders, all the while utilizing an image potent enough that Randidly could sense the edges of it from here. After watching for a few minutes, Randidly glanced sideways at the pale face of Vualla.
She grinned weakly when she noticed his gaze. “Yea, he’s why I came. He is... my… father. I just… I just wanted to make sure he was okay.”
“Do you want to go down and talk to him?” Randidly asked. This was murky territory for him; As the Grim Chimera, he didn’t have any parents. And the main body’s relationship with his parents was rather strange as well. But he understood that these subjects were rather delicate for most. But also, Randidly found himself strangely disappointed that this was the reason she so wanted to come here.
It just seems so… mundane, Randidly thought as he continued to carefully scrutinize the azure light of Vualla’s eyes.
“No. We’ve never met.” Vualla’s voice was filled with bitterness. “I was born after he was sent to the frontlines. He probably wouldn’t even recognize me. He’s been serving here, fighting against the enemies of the System for 50 years…”
Her heavy iron gauntlets tightened into fists. “That’s why I will destroy this System. I’m tired of it using us until we break and wither. And then replacing us. My father used to visit home occasionally before I was born. He made it home to see the birth of all three of my brothers. But then those three grew up. As individuals with lower-tiered citizenship in the Nexus, they were drafted into the System’s army. And they died trying to expand its borders. I’ve seen their graves; they are shallow, pathetic things. They-”
Vualla choked up and released a hiss.
Randidly watched her in fascination. She had walked here, the place where her family had died? He wondered if she would cry again. “Why come here then if you weren’t going to talk to him?”
Turning away from her father ordering his soldiers, Vualla crouched down and pressed her chin to her knees. Her long and brilliant hairs scattered into the coppery dirt around her. “Because he’s still my father. Because I wanted to see if some part of me would soften when I saw him. He serves the System, after all. Reveres it, even. If he learned my plan, he would spare no effort to stop me.”
Randidly’s emerald eyes flashed. “And did you soften?”
“No,” Vualla whispered. “If anything… I just became more sure. I want to end this farce so badly that my chest is heavy with the dream of it. Have you… have you ever wanted something so wholly that the small mundane details of the world feel exhausting? Like you’ve become so completely tied up in one endeavor that you have only apathy remaining for the rest of it?”
Some part of Randidly stirred. Because deep in his core, the Grim Chimera had heavy strains that came from the destructive impulses of Alta and Ulaat, the Patron of Ash. Those were two individuals who drank deeply of the cup of obsession.
Although Vualla was clearly more considered and less self-destructive in her goals, he sensed the same unwavering resolve in her that had been in those two tragic individuals.
Some instinct urged him not to answer Vualla’s question about drive and obsession, but Randidly was grinning down at her. “Yes. I know deeply the sensation of craving.”
She smiled up at him, but her face was shadow and her hair seemed to be so luminous that it blinded him to the details of her face. The only thing that he could see was her white teeth. “I knew there was a reason that I was drawn to you.”