“Hurry up,” Zagnal said gruffly. “You’ll have time to admire the view later.”
Randidly nodded slowly and turned away from the Great Rift to follow Zagnal. Aside from the raised stone outlook where they were currently standing, there was a small path that led toward a flat ground that featured a permanent building and a parade ground.
As they approached, the first thing that Randidly noticed was that people were waiting in the parade ground. There was a low stage that had about three dozen individuals standing in front of it with their hands behind their backs. And then there was a group of confused and rather dull-eyed individuals who were milling around in a mass in front of the stage.
Zagnal inclined his head toward the crowded mass of bodies and then went to join the group standing in front of the stage. Randidly blinked several times and walked over to stand along the edge of the unorganized crowd. it became clear to Randidly that his situation was not unique; there were two tiers of individuals here. People like Zagnal, who saluted sharply to the man with the salt-and-pepper beard standing on the stage before standing at attention, and people like Randidly, who were directed over into a large and amorphous mass.
Randidly chewed on his lip as he glanced around.
And Zagnal wasn’t wrong. Most of the people in the image group look like they are sleepwalking…
Behind them along the path, usually coming in pairs or in groups under five people, more and more escorted images were brought up. Randidly thought cynically that they had all the glassy-eyed awareness of chickens in a slaughterhouse. While they trickled in and congregated, Randidly turned his gaze upward and regarded the Great Rift. As he watched, it breathed slowly, its azure veins branching and spreading with an almost engineered regularity.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed.
So, this is the great enemy, huh… Even from here, I can feel how dangerous it is. And that’s only my instincts from when I had Nether Resistance. But as an image… I still remember how aching those headaches were after prolonged exposure to Nether. It’s unfortunate, but it seems like images are exactly the portion of Aether that is most vulnerable to Nether…
Eventually, the man with the salt-and-pepper beard clapped his hands. “I believe that’s everyone. Welcome all, to the Great Rift. I’ll be your commanding officer for the duration of your stay here, Lord Miln. I think I don’t need to explain to you how dangerous a foe we face… Look at that darkness. This place used to be a vibrant world. And now it is a broken place.
“The beings of Nether are demons that seek to destroy order and are incompatible with our existence. As they have sought to expand, that have taken and taken and taken. So many lives have been lost… but no more.”
“I swear to you, if you give everything you have to fight against the Nether… and follow my orders… that will change. We will take back what we’ve lost. We will avenge the fallen. And Aether WILL annihilate these abyssal beings!”
Lord Miln thrust his fist up into the air with a determined expression on his face. This was followed by several seconds of silence. Then there was a smattering of applause as the man’s defiant pose and framing with the vast blackness of the Great Rift behind him finally reached the crowd. Honestly, it was very well done. But the audience…
Randidly glanced around. Most were drooling zombies. Even with three days, most of these images hadn’t recovered enough to be swayed by the performance. After holding the pose for several seconds, the Lord Miln relaxed.
“Your liaisons will be taking you to the staging area and provide Aether Keys. Obey there instructions and your odds of survival will shoot upward. I await word of your success. Good luck.”
Then the man flickered out of existence. Sensing a familiar sensation, Randidly frowned.
He was an image the whole time? Well, I suppose if he truly is overseeing the entire area, it would be a bit much to come out and greet all the newcomers…
Zagnal quickly found Randidly hanging around the periphery of the image group. “Good, you didn’t get sucked into the middle of this rabble. Quick, follow me. The sooner we get to the staging area, the easier your mission will be.”
Randidly raised his eyebrows at the sudden display of emotion from Zagnal. Randidly supposed it was too much to hope that the dragon-headed man actually wished him well… “Does it make that much difference?”
“Yes,” Zagnal grunted, already striding away. After following the gruff and dragon-headed liaison all morning, Randidly anticipated his rapid departure and was able to keep pace with the man through the sudden movement. They wove easily through the press of surrounding bodies from the other groups. Randidly watched with interest as the other liaisons seemed to be similarly urging their images forward.
Seems like it isn’t altruism that motivates Zagnal then…
Snorting lightly, Zagnal continued to speak as they moved with enough velocity to leave the lion’s share of the images and other liaisons behind. “This is only one of two offensive staging areas along the entire front. So there is a lot of variance in the areas you will be invading. And where you invade determines who you will report to for the duration of your defensive missions…”
Zagnal spared Randidly a glance as they moved off down a sloping hill past the parade grounds. “And I’ll be honest; I’ll also earn some merits if you do well. And you seem more aware than most, so you might be the chance I’m waiting for. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I have no intention of dying,” Randidly said dryly. Zagnal shook his head and led Randidly further down the slope and toward a veritable city of floating stone pillars.
“This is the staging area,” Zagnal said shortly. He gestured with his hand, as though Randidly couldn’t figure out that the stone pillars were the strange construction here. Then his eyes quickly flicked in several directions before he pointed decisively toward the center of the tightly clustered pillars. “There. Follow me.”
While from afar, there were so many stone pillars that they appeared as a forest, they resolved themselves into an understandable pattern as Randidly drew nearer. There were probably hundreds of pillars, but each was part of a pentagram with a pillar at each point of the star. The pillars themselves were covered in a complicated Engraving that Randidly studiously memorized, although they didn’t mean anything to him currently.
This shit is useless to me now. But to the main body, and Lucretia…
Zagnal dragged Randidly through the maze of pillars to one of the central pentagrams. But as they wiggled their way through the small spaces between the pentagrams, for the first time since he had met Zagnal, Randidly saw him hesitate. “Huh, Iellaya’s is also open. Hmmm.”
With a familiar decisiveness, Zagnal spun on his heel and faced Randidly. His eyes glowed ominously. “Then you have a choice. This staging area is the one directly under the command of Lord Miln, but Iellaya… she is someone that I’ve wanted to establish a relationship with for quite some time. She arrived only five years ago, but her record speaks for itself. And she doesn’t have many close subordinates yet. Your quick feet earned this, so choose; to whom will you bind yourself?”
Randidly blinked. Other groups of liaison and image were hurrying down the rocky slope. Truly, those blank-faced images were slower than Randidly, but not by much. They would arrive soon… And it was clear from their determined movements that these other liaisons also had plans for which staging area to use.
But still, without any more information…
Randidly hesitated. The other liaisons hurried closer. Zagnal’s gaze grew flinty.
“…let’s take the gamble then,” Randidly said. “Take me to Iellaya’s staging area.”
Although Randidly wanted to get near to Lord Miln to investigate more of his body, he was very far from having any sort of plan or capability to rescue it. As such, it seemed better to go to a distant area where Randidly’s exploits wouldn’t grab the attention of the very being that he hoped to dupe.
Not that I know for sure that I’ll do well, especially without Nether Resistance.
Randidly thought bitterly.
But still. The more I can fly under his radar, the better. There is still so much that I don’t know about this battlefield.
“Anything else I need to know?” Randidly asked as Zagnal pushed him into a pentagram just as another liaison came dashing over to the same array of floating pillars.
“Don’t lose yourself,” Zagnal said shortly as he passed Randidly a small item that reminded Randidly of a snow globe. Glittering energy spiraled around the glass orb given to him, grabbing Randidly’s eye. “That’s the Aether Key. Keep ahold of that. That will help your im- that will help you stabilize the space. And when the energy is inside of it is depleted, the formation will activate to teleport you back. So doubly so, don’t lose it.”
Before Randidly could open his mouth and ask additional questions, the array flared to life, and Randidly felt the familiar lurch in his stomach that came with teleportation. But as he traversed the distance to his destination, he barred his teeth at the twisting space around him.
Zagnal was about to say image and stopped himself… so he’s complicit with whatever is going on…
Randidly’s claw flexed.
But it also means that if I can do earn him some benefits, he will be able to tell me the truth of the situation.