Randidly followed Zagnal through the dirt paths between the grey tents and listened to the staccato beat of footsteps running parallel to their own. Although Randidly controlled himself, some part of him wanted to hurry forward and catch up to the flow of bodies that were passing through the tents around them. Their presence tugged at his attention from the corner of his eyes, pulling his curiosity over toward their silent and flickering forms.
Are all the individuals here like I am? Images extracted from people…? That thought caused Randidly to frown. Perhaps it’s not just a measure targeting Heretics then, but a new development for the Frontlines? Which would at least mean that I’m not being targeted, but it would also mean getting my body back while I’m here would be a bit difficult…
Zagnal spoke in a low tone, pulling Randidly’s attention back toward him while they continued through the tents. “There are two types of battles that happen at the edge of the Great Rift. The first type is a defensive battle. Defensive battles are the rough kind because the attacker holds the initiative. In a defensive battle, you will rush to an area that is being destabilized by the fiendish Nether and will try to defeat the attacker and forcefully stabilize the area. Even if you defeat the Nether, if you are so exhausted that you are unable to stabilize the land, we will still consider it a loss.
“Meanwhile, an offensive battle is much easier. You simply must go into an area taken over by Nether and forcefully stabilize the energy. An Aether Key will be provided for the task of stabilization. Just as we beings of Aether have a difficult time with defense, some monster of Nether will be set to the unenviable task of stoping your activation of the Aether Key. But you will have an edge of arriving first and already accomplishing a portion of your objective before the opposition is able to stop you.”
“Is defense really so much more difficult than offense? Why are most of the battles fought defensive ones, then?” Randidly asked.
Zagnal spat to the side. “Unfortunately… this front is in such a precarious situation because our main base’s coordinates are discovered. Unless we could similarly locate the area that the Nether abominations use to attack us… defense takes precedence. And finding their base… impossible. After all… the area of space that both sides are attempting to monopolize are simply too vast.”
Frowning, Randidly continued to follow Zagnal as he proceeded forward with his explanation.
“For our area… we are unfortunately giving up ground to the Nether even with a focus on defense; their forces have overpowered us quite a bit in the last few years,” Zagnal said gloomily. “As the momentum is in their favor… we can’t afford to launch many low yield offensive missions. We need to stabilize in the face of their brutal assaults first. Therefore, only every three successful defensive missions can we launch an offensive one. Of course, your first mission will be offensive so that you can get a taste of fighting the Nether. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Finally, they broke out of the tents and arrived at a low slope. Above them towered an ominous stone outcropping. IT seemed more like a huge pile of stone shards than any natural geological formation. But that might be the constant visual variation, stretching the ridges and crevasses. Without offering any explanation, Zagnal began to stride up the twisting path toward the peak of the outcropping.
At the beginning, as they began to climb upward, Randidly expected it would be relatively easy to get to the top. Yet as they approached, the outcropping grew increasingly large. It loomed higher and higher above, and although Randidly felt like they should be nearing it, the distance to the summit hadn’t appeared to have shortened at all.
And then they reached the edge of the long shadow cast by the stone. Randidly sucked in a small breath. With his hand, Randidly wiped several beads of sweat from his brow and continued to follow Zagnal.
Noticing Randidly’s brief stutter, Zagnal sneered. “From the bluffs, it is possible to see the entirety of our combat sphere. Come, it is something you should understand. Before you get any ideas about the great victories you can accomplish there.”
The two of them walked for almost five hours to ascend the slopes. And although Randidly thought of it as walking, both were relying on various images in order to ‘cheat’ through traveling. Randidly, in fact, relied on the obscenely broken power of Chimeric Avoidance to simply shorten the distance directly by avoiding it. Beyond that, they both devoured distance with long strides that could put away miles in five minutes.
Yet before this rocky outcropping...
Those Skills, along with the constant usage of Monstrosity’s Appalling Physicality, allowed Randidly to barely keep pace with Zagnal. Whose brutal march seemed to devour the distance with a workmanlike detachment. They moved quickly from the foothills to the tight cutbacks of the mountain proper, and then to the winding paths along the high cliffs.
It was, Randidly realized, extremely dangerous for the visual lines to engage in such spastic switches while they were traveling along the edge of a cliff. But he simply shook his head and continued to push forward.
Of course, Randidly wasn’t tired when they neared the summit of the bluffs; as an image, he didn’t really possess Stamina. But he did feel a bit… blurry around the edges. Rather than worrying about his physical Health, it was how sharp his Willpower remained that suddenly concerned Randidly. And now that he was outside the tent, he could feel how that area was designed to help concentrate Willpower in preparation for what was to come.
Maybe they should build their tents closer to the fucking front lines, Randidly thought grumpily as they followed the meandering path along the edge of a cliff to the top of the bluffs. That way we don’t have to set out an entire half-day early-
The ground beneath them shook violently. Small stone skittered off the cliffs and pattered down the steep mountain gorge to their left.
Zagnal chuckled darkly. “It looks like it has begun. Come, we are almost there. And have a care, the reverberations will only become more violent.”
True to Zagnal’s word, those ominous rumblings continued as they climbed up over the rocks to their destination. From time to time, Randidly glanced up and was gratified to see that there was clear air above them. Finally, after a half-day of trekking, they had reached the top. Taking in a deep breath, Randidly clambered up over the last shale scramble and stood with a completely unobstructed view of the surrounding land.
Randidly wasn't sure what he was expecting to see when they mounted the summit. He supposed that the expectations had been pushed upward by the phrase "Great Rift" but some part of him was so busy coping with the constant visual variations of the stones around him and his own out-of-body situation that he hadn't really thought about what war on this scale would look like. Even the ominous rumbles that seemed to shake his bones failed to convey the sense of scale of what he was about to see.
But it only took one glance for Randidly to be frozen by the vast expanse of space that he could see from the top of the rocky outcropping.
Perhaps it was because Randidly had never visited or traveled through any true mountains that it struck him so violently. He had heard that the recently revealed Mount Olympus in Zone Eleven was large, but he had never seen it. But when Randidly stood atop this summit, it felt like he could see almost infinitely in both directions. The rocks in front of him finally fell away, revealing a steep slope down toward the ground. Although Randidly thought their assent was steep, this drop was even steeper.
Randidly didn’t possess any Stats to augment his vision right now, but every small change in the land seemed completely clear and distinct before his eyes.
Beyond the slope was a rocky expanse of cracked and heavying ground that seemed to pulse slowly up and down like it was breathing. The jagged fault lines expanded and contracted. Barren badlands sprawled outward from the base of the outcropping and in the surrounding area, tumbling helplessly outward.
But whereas the nearby land was relatively gentle in its movements, in the surrounding five miles away from the outcropping, the ground did away with pleasantries. Huge stones undulated like a jump rope. They bucked and heavy like a bull in mating season.
Across that heavying expanse were hundred of black dots. From the height and with the intervening distance, it wasn't possible to distinguish their features, but Randidly was confident that those were the very same images that had flowed silently out of their tents and marched to the borderlands. They seemed like beetles, dragging their bellies across the ground as they walked toward the edge of something. Something that could only be the Great Rift.
But before Randidly's gaze slid outward, it slid to the left and right. Those thousand small bugs became millions as Randidly broadened his view to include the vast line that separated the land from the Great Rift. Randidly seemed to be standing at the center of a long coast. To his left and ring were wings of heaving ground covered in black dotes. There were so many that Randidly couldn’t count them all. The land went on for so long that Randidly couldn’t see the end of the area.
Abruptly, Randidly felt very small.
The further forward one went, the more violent the movements of the ground became. Gravity seemed to fail as you neared the Great Rift, allowing huge boulders to spin lazily in the air. And the Great Rift itself...
It was black. That much was obvious. And empty, too. It was thought some great god had brought a knife and cut away the edge of the world. Randidly wondered what he would have seen if he stood on those heaving grounds below and looked down through the dark fissures. Would they stretch to the center of the planet?
But every second, as Randidly watched in alarm, thin tendrils of ghastly blue energy slithered through the darkness. It only took a few seconds to realize that infinitely large blackness and its blue energy beat in time with the pulsing of the ground. It was exactly that strange energy that seemed to so upset the land.
But Randidly’s eye was caught by those strange blue lines. His gaze narrowed and he examined them carefully. They seemed to branch and shift without warning, but some instinct Randidly possessed said that wasn’t so. There was an inherent pattern in that vast darkness.
Which was when another realization struck Randidly: those blue lines were veins. This great darkness was somehow a living thing.