As the dawn slowly crept outward, they remained in their respective positions. Randidly wondered idly whether they would ever move. It felt like Vualla’s words had transformed him into a statue. And honestly, Randidly didn’t mind.
Eventually, Vualla stood and shook herself a bit like a cat. She started with her feet, then her legs, her hips, her torso, and her head. All the while, her hair spun around her like a gleaming waterfall Then she waved her heavy gauntlets at Randidly. “Alright, let’s head back. I just… I got what I came for.”
Randidly nodded slowly. His two followers remained silent and behind him as the foursome continued back toward their respective camps.
Perhaps it was due to the fact that no one spoke on the return journey, but time seemed to drag out into a long spool of endless thread as their trundled procession proceeded forward. There was no sun, but the ambient light to this strange slice of land at the edge of the universe slowly grew more abundant. The harsh reflected light off of the orange dirt beneath their feet grew increasingly unbearable and added an unearthly quality to their journey.
Yet still, Randidly remained silent while in the thick of those strange sensations. It wasn’t that he was uncomfortable during the procession. No, that wasn’t true, He was uncomfortable. But it wasn’t the silence of their journey that had seized the deepest recesses of his brain and refused to release him. It was the memory of Vualla’s bitter words embedded in that strange, sudden night walk.
You can be afraid most of the time, but if you claim to be alive you cannot be afraid all of the time.
I knew there was a reason that I was drawn to you.
Randidly blinked. What was he afraid of? Unlike most people that he encountered, he didn’t particularly fear being alone. Isolation was the lot of the Grim Chimera. And although he greatly struggled to avoid death, Randidly had already made his peace that his end would come eventually. That was one of the core tenants of the Grim Chimera’s image; life was just a matter of how long you could drag out the chase.
Yet Randidly had still felt that silent resonance in his chest when Vualla had said the first line about fear. The worry and anxiety he held inside himself trembled with something akin to shame as she spoke. It revealed itself by its fear of being revealed and Randidly was disgusted with himself for feeling it. So he picked and picked, trying to find the source.
Unfortunately, nothing emerged from his efforts. And this was also an area that the main body struggled with. So what did he fear? His thoughts chased their tails endlessly.
Although time dragged, Randidly soon found himself facing Vualla as she prepared to enter her own camp. The sudden picture was so abrupt and such a sharp change from their journey that for several seconds Randidly could do nothing but blink.
“Thank you,” Vualla said finally after examining him for a long minute. Her azure eyes seemed determined to measure and memorize every facet of his physical body. “It was an unnecessary thing you did. But… But I think because of it, we might be able to change our futures. We… we are both people who will end tragically, won’t we?”
Randidly tilted his head to the side. There was something oddly familiar to the way that Vualla was speaking. No, it wasn’t her tone, it was a sensation. Randidly felt something from her words as she spoke, but he couldn’t place the sensation. “What…?”
Blinking, Vualla abruptly shook her head and laughed. “I honestly have no idea where that came from. But anyway, yes, thank you. I hope… I hope to see you again.”
Then she spun on her heel and walked away, her long hair wreathed around like an aquamarine halo. Randidly’s eyes remained fixed upon her until her form was swallowed up by the uniform sea of tents of her camp. Several times he almost spoke, but he had no idea what to say. He didn’t have anything to say, but he wanted-
With a sigh, Randidly turned away. Then he reached both of his limbs up toward the sky until the joints of his shoulders and elbow popped and snapped. Now that Vualla was gone, some of the more mundane concerns were returning to him. It wasn’t tiring, exactly, to move in this image body. But because his image had become increasingly detailed, there were some… unfortunate side effects.
For example, Randidly was shocked to find that his feet were rather sore. Or rather, he imagined that they were sore, which made them so. Twisting around, he looked at Zauna and Salazar. The snake man straightened immediately and pounded his chest with a self-important air.
“Ahem. In m-my world, females often enjoy receiving the h-headless corpses of common v-v-vermin-”
When Randidly raised his claw menacingly, Salazar’s mouth clicked shut with a strangely satisfying noise. Shaking his head at the foolishness of the more talkative of his two subordinates, Randidly once more underlined the mental note to determine what sort of influence he had over them. If it was possible to use some sort of punishment to improve their attitudes-
Randidly paused. Then he twisted around and looked at Zauna. Her face was completely stoic. In the face of her unexpressive visage, there was nothing Randidly could do but sigh and continue his walk across the no-man’s land between the two camps.
When they arrived back at the tent, Yggdrasil nodded to the group while he continued to concentrate energy toward Ignition Essence. Randidly walked to the far end of the tent and took his usual seat against the wall. Zauna and Salazar filed in after him and took their own seats in the suddenly rather cramped tent. It was three meters long and two long, but Zauna’s stocky body took up quite a bit of space and Salazar seemed to like to drape himself over a large area.
Randidly pressed his eyes closed and attempted to focus once more on improving the image of the Grim Chimera. Any improvements he could add now would help him in the future. These peaceful days were an important opportunity for preparation. Iellaya wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of giving him two subordinates just test Yggdrasil’s recuperative powers. Undoubtedly, he would also be sent to increasingly difficult areas to fight.
Which is just fine. Randidly’s claw curled inward as his excitement bubbled out and tightened the muscles of his arm, drawing deep furrows on the dirt floor of the tent. If I can’t figure you what sort of fear that I am holding within me, I’ll just drag it out by throwing myself into danger. Even near-death experiences are better than just sitting bored in Nether and feeling like I am getting slowly boiled…
So Randidly tried to focus on making himself more refined and potent. It didn’t work very well. But the reason that Randidly grew increasingly distracted was not one that he had guarded himself against. Rather, a new realization came upon him.
Randidly became very aware of the subtle influence of Iellaya’s image over the whole of her camp. Its touch could be felt everywhere; the place was steeped in it.
Of course, when Randidly had originally arrived at the camp with Zagnal he had also been hyper-aware of that pervasive image. It was the image equivalent of a scent; it seemed to waft out of every aspect of the camp until it became completely ubiquitous. Every inch of even the tent they were sitting in was soaked in Iellaya’s personal stench. So much so that it was difficult for Randidly to initially parse apart exactly what he was sensing. It was all too much at once.
But the night walk across the entire front of the battlefield gave Randidly a bit of perspective. Now that he returned, he could distinctively feel the thin veil of image that swirled around them. As indicated by the sharp cry Randidly had distantly sensed as Iellaya struck one of the inky tentacles in the sky, Randidly felt the very powerful pride of an eagle.
A vast eagle that could spread its wings and cover the sky.
And pride wasn’t a grand enough word for what that eagle personified. In it’s long and straight feathers were dominance and glory at the expense of all others. It was the arrogance of the apex predator of the sky. It was the regality of the King of the wide blue expanse that hung above the ground.
Or the Queen.
Randidly pursed his lips. It seems that Vualla wasn’t kidding when she said there were weird rituals and worship going on in this camp… drown in this image, its no wonder that people are slowly brought around to her side. And it has the added benefit of assuring that they will be completely loyal to her. That dominance that’s included in the image is no joke.
After identifying the problem, Randidly was able to turn his attention inward and sniff out the presence of that image in himself. As he examined his image body, he could see that a thin film of his own image in his breath kept Iellaya’s influence away. But when he really examined himself, he found a few scraps of her eagle cry that had likely been instinctively brought in for support when he had come back from the Great Rift bloodied and wounded.
It took some time, but Randidly ripped out these minor threads and healed his Grim Chimera image to its whole state. This was exactly the sort of karma that Randidly could not afford to sew right now. His path was not of the subordinate, but of a ruler in his own right. He might no longer have a Crown, but now Randidly Ghosthound Reigned.
Afterward, Randidly’s attention shifted to the fragile image bodies of his two subordinates. Iellaya’s image was surprisingly scant around them. Of course, Randidly could see that neither was as instinctively on guard against it as he himself was. Likely that was due to the suspicion and paranoia inherent to the Grim Chimera. It was constantly assessing the surrounding environment for possible threats and taking countermeasures.
Which isn’t the fear I’m looking for, Randidly frowned. It’s just one of the rare areas that I’m prudent.
But as he examined their images, they were relatively untouched. Which came as quite the surprise, considering that Randidly had expected them to be spies against him that were deeply in Iellaya’s pockets. As he had noticed when Salazar was talking, at the snakeman’s core burned an extremely bright and powerful image. So much so that Randidly couldn’t help but feel a grudging respect for the talkative fellow. Even Randidly didn’t have that much raw force to his existence.
Zauna… well, Zauna was a lot like the stone that she resembled; although Iellaya’s image had grown thickly on her exterior like some sort of psychic moss, it didn’t touch any of her inner portions. Even so, Randidly hesitated for a few moments before spreading out a mantle of ash to cover them both and force Iellaya’s image away. It wasn’t easy or clean, or completely thorough, but it still severely reduced their exposure to it. Both of them twitched a few times while it was happening, but Randidly was careful to keep hostility out of the action. By the end of it, it didn’t seem like either noticed.
Better safe than sorry.
While Randidly slowly refined his understanding of this place and Iellaya’s image, time once more slipped between his fingers. The mental was an area of constant toil. Soon, he finally received word that it was time; the moment had arrived for their first group sortie.