The Grim Chimera rubbed the side of his head, feeling decidedly strange. His vision swam as the space around him shifted and stretched before snapping back into place. The ground beneath him seemed to be trembling and stretching like taffy, only to snap back into place. This continued for about a minute before the Grim Chimera realized that it wasn’t just him; the environment was actually moving.
Breathing heavily, the Grim Chimera fell to his knees and touched the ground. His claws left deep gouges in the dirt as he tried to figure out what was going on around him.
After watching for a few minutes, it seemed that the ground was and wasn’t moving at the same time. Or at least, it wasn’t moving, but it looked like it was moving constantly. It was as though there were two layers to reality, that something was struggling to press them together into one layer, but some other force was presenting it. So there were constantly two visions that the Grim Chimera could see. The first was the actual reality, the other was an overlayer that swayed and slid away, distracting the eye with its movements.
But one thing the Grim Chimera did notice while it was digging its claws into the ground was that there were moments that the two layers appeared perfectly in line with one another. And during those short moments, the ground was abruptly a great deal more difficult to cut into with his claws than it was normally.
“What you are seeing is the destabilization effect,” A low voice said. “It’s the price this place pays for hosting the battle against those bastards.”
The Grim Chimera looked up. Abruptly, his awareness spread out from just the ground in front of him to the surrounding area. But the suddenness of that expansion and the flood of information that resulted once more sent a wave of dizziness through the Grim Chimera. Because everything he could see had its own spazzing second layer that continued to feed his gaze false information.
Worse still, each object had its own second layer that moved independently of all the other objects second layers. So the world was a kaleidoscope of shifting objects and lights that made it impossible to tell what was real and fake.
Narrowing his eyes, the Grim Chimera was able to focus on the speaker. A slender man with a salt-and-pepper beard stood behind a desk. His face rippled and shifted, jerking to the left and then drifting downward. Then it was back as if nothing had changed. The ground around him was covered with a spiraling sort of Engraving array, and behind the man-
The Grim Chimera had to press his eyes closed. It was too much, too fast.
“Take your time, you’ll have a few days to get used to it before I ask you to do battle,” The Grim Chimera could hear the smile in the bearded man’s voice and was immediately suspicious of it. “I know you must be confused, but just know that an old friend of mine donated his images to the war effort; that’s you, you’re those images. But I hope we can become comrades in the future; after all, we will be relying on each other for the next year.”
An old friend… donated images.? We were… are… images.
“Ah!” The Grim Chimera gasped, falling to his knees. His black eyes trembled and he pressed his eyelids shut. The older man stopped talking, regarding the fallen image with an easy smile.
“...like I said, don’t push yourself. It’s truly a hard thing to grow used the environment here. But still, I like to meet with you and check-in with the new arrivals. Before I allow my subordinate to escort you away… do you have any questions…?”
“I…. no….” When the Grim Chimera’s eyes opened, the irises were now a luminous emerald. Randidly Ghosthound’s eyes flashed with cold fury, but he kept careful control over his facial features. Luckily, the Grim Chimera’s rather humongous claw was already wrapped around his face and obscuring most of his features.
Pretty easy to hide my features with this body, Randidly thought with dark amusement. That fucking Judgment, what sort of messed up situation did it throw me into…? I’ll kill it the next time I catch it without the System giving its dumbass Skills juice...
The man nodded softly. Then he turned to regard another figure standing next to Randidly. “And you two? I can sense that you are both… handling this better and worse than your friend here. Do either of you have any questions?”
Randidly’s eyes flicked to the side. His eyes widened. Standing next to him was a tall and majestic tree covered in golden script. And cradled in the trees outstretched branches was a flickering tongue of emerald flame.
“No… I believe… we simply need… rest….” Yggdrasil said slowly.
“Fine, Zagnal, take them to their tent.” The salt and pepper bearded man said sharply. A strange man with the head of a red dragon gave a sharp salute and gestured for the three to follow. Before they left, there was a single moment where Randidly’s eyes met Zagnal’s
As Randidly turned back for one last look, his eyes scanned the ground and the area behind the bearded man. Compared to the Grim Chimera’s nascent consciousness, Randidly had a much easier time parsing apart what he saw. Although he didn’t want to reveal the return of his clarity yet, he still wanted to determine something. Sure enough, on the wall behind the man were a series of heavily Engraved pods. Within one, Randidly spotted his own short dark hair and familiar face with closed eyes.
It looked like his body was sleeping. He had been sealed away.
Tsk, looks like the Heretics get extra special treatment… maybe, because we’ve already proven that we can avoid the System rules, they extract the images and keep us unconscious? Probably without the connection from Reign of Eidolon Crucible, my images would have been on their own out here… which would not have been good. As it is…
Randidly looked with not a little amusement at his clawed left hand and the bone spear that was sticking out of his right arm. At least fighting with this body would still be enjoyable. Then he tried to reach his Soulskill and felt nothing. In fact, Randidly couldn’t touch any of his Skills. Chewing his lip, Randidly kept his head down as they left the tent.
Rather than possessing an image with Reign of the Eidolon Crucible, it might be better to say that something woke up my consciousness in the Grim Chimera. Which would make me a reflection of myself, rather than myself… It does make a certain amount of sense… images are ultimately just portions of my personality given shape. And the Grim Chimera always was the closest to reaching the Master tier…
Randidly glanced upward and wondered whether he was actually him, or just figment conjured in the Grim Chimera. It would also explain why Randidly felt oddly detached and unconcerned about the fact that he could reach either Neveah or the denizens of his Soulskill. In fact, Randidly felt oddly relieved to be alone. That was the way it had always been in the beginning, after all.
Randidly sighed. Hard to tell whether normal me would have that thought or not… maybe it’s best not to think about it too closely. Instead of dwelling on the issue further, he opened up his senses and observed the surrounding area.
The sky above was a light orange and covered with scattered maroon clouds. Strange streaks of undulating gold flowed across the sky periodically, but it didn’t match any meteorological phenomenon that Randidly could recognize. It was also too large and even for a close shooting star. Honestly, it just looked like some giant golden beast that drifted across their sky quickly and then departed.
Shaking his head, Randidly’s focus turned to the ground. The ground was dirt, and aside from the constant visual instability, looked relatively normal. They were currently following the dragon-headed man down an aisle between rows of brown tents. Some tent flaps were open, and Randidly had a tingling intuition that powerful images were within several. A few times, he caught eyes flashing in wariness as the group trooped past.
But although he sensed their presence, Randidly couldn’t get a fix on who or what they learned. Or what their intentions were.
Which was when Randidly stumbled on a new realization.
After all that effort to upgrade my Perception… being removed from my physical body means that I don’t even get to use it here? Fucking shit. Better kill that bastard who has me locked away as quickly as possible to free myself-
Randidly blinked. He reached and found nothing when he grasped at Nether’s Caress. Or Nether Resistance. AFTER ALL THE FUCKING AGONY I WENT THROUGH TO LEVEL UP THOSE SKILLS-
Randidly forced the air out through his teeth, incensed at this strange state of affairs. Hearing the noise, the dragon-headed man turned and glanced back at Randidly.
Controlling his emotions, Randidly asked innocuously. “Your name… is Zagnal right? What are… those black stars hanging around you?”
For a split second, there was a hitch in Zagnal’s stride. He spared Randidly another glance over his shoulder, and during their eye contact, Randidly could once more see the three black stars that were floating above Zagnal. Then Zagnal turned to face forward and continued to walk. Randidly stared at Zagnal’s back with his eyes alight with curiosity. Why did the stars disappear when they weren’t looking at each other.
But to Randidly’s relief, Zagnal spoke as they continued to walk amongst the tents. “Ah… you must be a strong image, to see clearly so quickly. Did you notice when our eyes met earlier?”
“Yes,” Randidly replied shortly.
Zagnal continued to walk forward. “Huh, very strong then. Usually, it takes about a day for someone to notice. Those are… the scars I bear. But also the Pride I’ve accumulated. Every time you fight the Nether, you come away… changed. Scarred. It leaves its mark on you that will never truly heal. But there is a grand formation on this place that helps channel that lingering Nether to benefit you. Each star you see when meeting my gaze is a Pride that that strengthens me. ”
“Strengthens you?” Randidly wondered aloud.
Zagnal nodded. “Like a small amount of poison introduced into someone’s body to slowly cause immunity to form. But that doesn’t mean it is not dangerous. Once that developed immunity is breached… an outside force of Nether can cause the Prides to rupture, wounding you at a critical moment. But that is still far away for images of your level.”
That sharpened Randidly’s gaze with ferocity, but Zagnal turned on his heel and gestured to an open tent. “You’ll be staying here. You have three days to acclimate yourself to this realm. After that time, you’ll be taken to the front lines. Good luck.”