Vualla spat out a mouthful of blood and cracked her neck. It was the only show of weakness she allowed herself, having rushed back from the frontlines to stand at this position. Because for the last two days, during any downtime she received, Vualla resumed her zombielike vigil with mechanical dedication.
Cail Tweocs regarded Vualla carefully. For the first time since they had met, the small, hairless man seemed unsure of what to say as he studied the younger woman. “You… as I have said, what you do in your own time is none of my business-”
“Relax,” Vualla said harshly. “I’ll be back for your damn training.”
Perhaps because of the situation, Cail ignored Vualla’s disrespectful words that would normally set him off. Instead, he released a high pitched cough into his hand and nodded sagely. “Ahem, then I must go. There is quite a kerfuffle as Terith was able to locate and capture the Nether Prince that previously escaped his grasp. Truly, an auspicious thing… but the fact that the Nether Prince was briefly freed is troublesome. Even if it could not escape, it seems very likely it contacted a Nether King-”
“Cail.” Vualla breathed out and some of her destructive tendencies leaked out from her mouth. Her hands flexed. The ground around her began to sizzle and seeth. “Now is when you leave me the fuck alone.”
Blinking in shock, Cail seemed to consider Vualla for several seconds before he nodded and hurried away. Vualla glanced toward his retreating back with her nose wrinkled up in disgust. Do you really think I don’t know that you are doing this on purpose…? Swearing at me when I’m calm, prodding me with inanities when I’m upset… Every chance you get, trying to get under my skin, driving me toward rage. Perhaps I understand why you think my rage will lead to more power, but the fact that you want to try that shit today…
Vualla turned back to the front. Her eyes ached and her face felt long and stretched. The body of her father lay before her, solemn and very dead. His hands were clasped in front of his chest, hiding the gaping wound that had stopped his heart.
In the end, it hadn’t mattered how much she had struggled against the unending tides of Nether Beasts that flooded out of the Great Rift. Cail Tweocs’ demands and Vualla’s continued service to Commander Terith meant that there were times where Vualla couldn’t remain on the East end of the battle lines to protect her father’s camp. She did what she could when she could, but it hadn’t been enough.
I’m not enough, Vualla thought bleakly. It was an old thought, one she strongly associated with her father. It hung above her head now, fat and wet and heavy like an attic lost to rot and mold.
Yesterday, while Vualla was training, the invasion against her Father’s camp had included two Nether Gatekeepers. He was forced to step up to face them, and although he had been able to slay them both, he had paid for this valor with his life. Despite his long service in the army, no other Commander had reacted in time to help against the Nether Gatekeepers.
Vualla’s fist clenched. If I had been there…!
But then her thoughts stuttered to a stop. Would she have been able to make a difference against Nether Gatekeepers? She had certainly grown, but her power was short of being able to stand toe to toe against that level of foes. Even though the constant fighting against Nether Beasts had pushed her to just short of condensing her fourth Nether star, that only protected her.
It was only by refining her image further that she would reach a place where she could dominate a battlefield. Which was why she endured Cail’s training for so long despite all of the very obvious consequences she suffered.
What was even more infuriating to Vualla was that no one else had really come to visit her father’s body after it had been interred here on display for a week, as was tradition. His subordinates could be excused because most of them were either dead or still struggling to hold back the Nether Beasts, but it was galling to find that most of the other Commanders seemed completely unfamiliar with her father.
He’s been serving out here for fifty years…! Vualla gritted her teeth. And yet none of you can be bothered to remember him…? Was all of his struggle for nothing…?
Yet this only happened because I was too weak to make a difference. This danger came too soon. Vualla’s eyes dimmed as she stared at her father’s body without even seeing it. Does that mean that there is no choice but for me to give everything up and become a tool of destruction…? I had thought…
And what made Vualla deeply afraid was that even thinking about becoming an empty tool of destruction filled Vualla with a sense of inevitably. Yes, her body told her, this was always our fate. This was always the Path that you were going to walk. Although the deviated from it for a short time… it is time to return to the true Path.
Embrace your Fate and destroy everything that stands in your way.
It was that same sleep-walking sense of living that Vualla had experienced for almost her entire life. Like nothing came as a surprise as long as she continued forward. Like she wasn’t even a living being, but a machine proceeding forward on a track that had been designed by someone else for her. Deja vu was her constant companion.
And then she met Randidly Ghosthound. Suddenly, Vualla felt an intoxicating sense of freedom. Somehow, Vualla knew that Randidly Ghosthound was not something that should have happened to her life. His presence gave her the resolve to leave that camp and go see her father. He had shown her a Path toward reassuring herself.
If she hadn’t gone… the guilt and concern over her father would have burrowed into her heart and turned rancid when she simply waited, guided by that horrible track before her. Eventually, that malignant growth would taint the entirety of her being, pushing her deeper and deeper into darkness.
But Randidly had simply pushed all that away by being there. He showed her another Path.
Even more attractive was the fact he clearly possessed the same hatred for the System that she did. He simply expressed it in a different way. Vualla’s destruction image was a much broader tool that she sharpened to strike against the System. Meanwhile, Randidly seemed almost uncaring of the tools he sharpened, but rather his main focus was improving himself. He possessed a strange arrogance that indicated he was sure that if he grew strong, he would eventually be able to overcome the System.
It was… refreshing.
But Vualla couldn’t help but feel slightly betrayed by that bright ideal that Randidly had shown her. If she hadn’t followed him, if she had instead remained on her pre-written life and focused on making her power increase-
I wouldn’t have even been there to help him if I focused on improving my power. Vualla’s eyelids fluttered. At least… at least this way I was there. I don’t regret going. But I wish…
A tear gathered in each of Vualla’s eyes. She wanted to blink, but some part of her wanted to hold that salty liquid in the corners of her eyes. As though, as long as she didn’t actually shed the tears, they wouldn’t matter. She was so very, very afraid of being weak. She felt so very, very weak. Somehow, to release the tears was concrete proof that she was weak. Yet even now, Vualla could feel the warmth of Randidly’s hand on her back.
There is another Path, Vualla, Randidly seemed to whisper.
She began to cry. First sniffing, then sniffling, then sobbing, as more and more tears poured out of her and fell over her father’s grave.
…I wish I would have said something to him. I wish I wouldn’t have just enlisted as a nameless soldier to fight and defend his camp. I wish I could have talked to him about all the things I did in school, all the friends I had. I wish… I wish I told him how much I missed him-
Vualla was dimly aware that some other soldiers were crossing on the supply track behind her and slowing down as they heard the sound of her cries. The grand and endless cemetery of the Aether forces was directly below the headquarters, spreading almost as long as the frontlines despite the fact that the bodies were mostly thrown into mass pits.
However, time had seen that these pits soon became insufficient. The only bright side was, as a Commander that had achieved great merits before he died, her father was prominently featured. As was his due.
Yet to be seen here, so visibly emotional-
I told Randidly once you couldn’t consider yourself alive if you always lived in fear… and that includes fear of being weak. Vualla wrapped her arms around herself. Being weak isn’t something to fear. None of us are perfect. So… so I shouldn’t feel this bad. I was just… just being human. So why…
Vualla fell to her knees and continued to cry.
There was so much that she still wanted to say to him. So many things that she wanted to share about her life, that her father had been too distant to ever hear from Vualla as she was growing up. And despite the fact that her mother had expressly forbidden it, she had snuck out of the Nexus and enrolled as a foot soldier.
Now, she was almost strong enough that her father would have been proud. So why did he die now?
Randidly looked down at the Nether Ritual that displayed Mrs. Hamilton. Frowning, he watched as she cast her vote without even batting an eyelash. Then, only a few seconds later as the votes were tallied, by unanimous decision, Theodora Greyman was crowned as the first Chairwoman of the World Summit.
Although the position only had a tenure of one year with an explicit rule against consecutive terms, it felt like a strange move to Randidly for Mrs. Hamilton to not try to seek the seat for herself. He hadn’t watched Mrs. Hamilton very often in the intervening month since the first World Summit, or three months for Randidly, but from Mrs. Hamilton’s satisfied expression it wasn’t that they had capitulated to the implied threat of Zone 1’s Mjolnir.
No, Mrs. Hamilton was playing a longer game than that. For now, all Randidly could do was trust that Mrs. Hamilton knew what she was doing.
Once they had selected a Chairwoman, the meeting moved much more quickly. They discussed the recent successes at the Ogre Gorge following Donnyton’s outfitting of an Ogre Raid Group. Everyone was also relieved that the bloodless murders had abruptly stopped, although everyone was still on edge because no one took credit for putting an end to the murderer. Then the discussion turned toward the Rakshasi.
It’s rapid growth, combined with the fact that it was often moving, meant that Mjolnir was not an effective weapon to deal with it. And aside from the absent Alana, no one wanted to suggest that any single person was capable of taking it on. Hank Howard’s name was brought up before the World Summit, but Theodora Greyman indicated that he had been granted the authority of special investigator, which mean that he chose his own projects. She would recommend it to him, but he would make the final decision.
Which is a smooth way of admitting that he refuses to listen to you, Randidly thought with a grin.
Although the World Summit continued, Randidly closed the Nether Ritual. The world moved in wide, slow cycles. He could tell from a look that there were a lot of undercurrents of tension on Earth, but dwelling on them now was a waste of his time. They would manifest on their own soon, and it was an open question how long it would be until Randidly could do something about them. So instead, Randidly returned to the rather tiresome task of using Nether to deplete the Aether Key to hasten his return.
Today, whimsy struck Randidly and he played around with using Nether’s Caress to try and actively damage the area around the Aether Key. He was careful that none of his attacks ever struck the Key itself and triggered its defenses, but he made sure the Nether was as dense as possible within the area.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether’s Caress (M) has grown to Level 111!
It is strange though. Randidly thought with a frown as he continued to corrode the surrounding Aether. Is the Mythic ranking due to its power? The rarity of the effect? Or is it just something dumb like the fact that the Skill intuitively opens a small hole to-
Randidly blinked. Then he activated Nether’s Caress again, this time allowing the portal that had caused him so much pain in his physical body to open rather than simply supplying the Nether himself from his cores. Thick Nether came through, forming to his will and sizzling against the ambient Aether.
Randidly examined the portal closely, then began to laugh.