Yggdrasil stayed outside with Ignition Essence as Randidly and Zagnal walked steadily toward the towering command tent. The large aisles forward leading to the central area of the camp were completely deserted. Conspicuously so, considering the lit Beacon of Duty. As they proceeded deeper into the camp, Randidly had to expend more and more effort suppressing a frown.
And it wasn’t even the lack of volunteers. No, Randidly was concerned about something else. As Yggdrasil had so bluntly pointed out in front of Zagnal earlier, there was something extremely strange in the air of this camp. Almost like a persistence stench that one couldn’t quite place. Randidly glanced sideways at Zagnal, who walked forward with gritted teeth.
So why can’t he seem to sense it?
Of course, the current Randidly was just an image. Perhaps, for that reason, it was easier to sense other influences in the air. But calling it a stench seemed quite fitting; the entire camp was steeped in that strange influence.
It was very easy for him to just forgo breathing so no foreign particles could enter his ‘body’. Even if the main body was present, it would be extremely simple for Randidly to hold his breath long enough to avoid the strange smell and whatever trap may lay in it. This thing was avoidable. But even so, Randidly’s instincts prickled as they proceeded through the tainted air. It wasn’t that it was dangerous to him per se…
The sensation was extraordinarily strange. But Randidly shook his head and did his best to ignore it as Zagnal knocked formally on the tent flap. For now, it was clear that Randidly didn’t need to worry about it affecting him.
No, what concerned Randidly more was whatever being caused that stench to lay so heavily over the camp. It was the only camp of the five they had passed that possessed such a stench. Randidly wondered how easy it would be to transfer away from Iellaya if things turned dangerous.
“Enter,” came the regal sounding reply. After exchanging a glance, the two men pulled aside the flap and went into the tent.
The interior was sparsely decorated; there was open space for a training area, a pole in the center that held up the wide tent, and a desk at the far side. Two people were gathered around the desk, one seated and the other standing with his arms crossed; both were carefully examining the two individuals who walked into the tent.
The standing one was a being that seemed to be made of granite, with bright yellow eyes that glowed and faded independently of each other like fireflies. The figure seated at the table was an intense woman with a long main of ebony feathers hanging from her head.
Narrowing his eyes, Randidly confirmed what he was seeing; rather than hair, this woman’s body was covered with feathers in all the places where most people possessed hair. Extremely long feathers curled gently down around her face from her head, and Randidly could also see feathers of a smaller variety sticking out from her forearms.
It didn’t escape Randidly’s notice that the stench of that strange influence was even more densely present inside of the Commander’s tent. Although Randidly wasn’t sure what it meant, it did seem like there was no avoiding the fact that Iellaya would be involved in this strange feeling that made Randidly’s skin crawl.
The woman leaned forward and clasped her fingers together as she considered Randidly and Zagnal. “I don’t believe I recognize either of you two from my division. Although I appreciate that you have come to assist after seeing the Beacon of Duty, the mission is only open to my subordinates. Thank you for your time, you are dismissed.”
Zagnal cleared his throat. Randidly watched with amusement as his liaison’s draconic features clearly displayed nerves. “With all do respect, Lady Iellaya… this man is one of your subordinates. He only recently passed his first defensive mission, and was assigned under your command today.”
Iellaya’s eyes flicked to Randidly, then back to Zagnal. “…indeed? I did receive notice that a new recruit would be coming to my camp. But let’s not dance around this issue; this being is a homeless image. With his body enduring the punishment, he will no longer receive energy from the System. Do you really think that his assistance will do anything to help me?”
“Lady Iellaya, please, there’s no need to-” Zagnal began as he nervously glanced at Randidly. But Randidly just raised his hand to stop him from speaking.
“Yes, I can help you,” Randidly said, smiling easily at Iellaya.
Enduring a punishment, huh? But it’s still impossible to tell if that is due to my status as a Heretic, or from the special addition that Octavius said would be in my Judgment. Information just lets me ask even more questions…
Her expression twitched in surprise. She looked at Randidly again, this time more closely. Her expression shifted. After allowing her gaze to flick back to Zagnal, she put Randidly in her crosshairs this time. “Ah, I didn’t realize you had regained your clarity. You were already aware of your situation, weren’t you?”
Although Randidly smiled, he didn’t answer that. Honestly, he hadn’t been truly aware, and he still wasn’t. But that strange feeling of that stench was even stronger within the tent, and it was clearly emanating from Iellaya now that he was standing nearer to her. Rather than letting her set the pace with her questions, Randidly instead said lightly, “Besides, it doesn’t seem like any others are coming to your assistance. Even if it’s a gamble to trust me… aren’t I better than nothing?”
Of course, the fact that they had seen no one stirring in the camp after the Beacon of Duty was lit did diminish Randidly’s confidence that it would be fine for him to accept this mission. It was possible that the people of Iellaya’s camp knew something about this that Randidly didn’t. If so, Randidly might be signing his deathwish.
Randidly’s eyes flashed.
I cannot afford to let my growth slow down. With the main body locked away under some punishment, I need to put myself in increasingly dangerous situations in order to grow. And with Nether Resistance, I have a pretty significant advantage over other images here in fighting against Nether.
Iellaya’s eyes were so black that they didn’t reflect any light. Inscrutable and large, they seemed to be entirely composed of pupil with the faintest hint of sclera around the edges. “…it’s true. This is actually the third night in a row I’ve lit the Beacon of Duty. The first night there were numerous volunteers, and nine were sent. Only two returned. The second night three of my strongest people went, and none remained in the morning. And now, on the third night, it appears that none of my brave subordinates will come. Because they understand I will not hold it against them if they do not. That is how deadly this mission is…”
Iellaya tilted her head to the side. The light inside the ten reflected off the main of glossy feathers that tumbled down her back. Even the ebony feathers seemed lighter than those eyes. “Does that scare you…?”
“Of course,” Randidly said with a small smile. But what he didn’t say was whispered by the Grim Chimera in his ear.
But if there was no terror, these enemies wouldn’t even cause me to struggle. And I crave struggle.
Iellaya blinked. Then she laughed. “Indeed? So at least you admit that you are afraid? Well then, fine. If no others come, you will be my lone representative into the Great Rift on this night. Abiodun, please take Mr…?”
When Iellaya looked at Randidly in askance he said. “Ghosthound.”
Nodding, Iellaya continued. “Please take Mr. Ghosthound to the staging area. I wish you the best of luck. I will not forget this favor.”
After Randidly had been led away by the rumbling being of granite, Zagnal still remained in Iellaya’s tent with his hands clenched at his sides.
Iellaya looked at him with obvious amusement. But for several minutes, she didn’t attempt to break the silence. Instead, she stood and walked over to the side of the desk. Pulling on a drawer, Iellaya removed a tea set and delicate set it on the table. A snap of her fingers set the kettle to steaming and she poured the scalding water over pink leaves.
Zagnal’s arms trembled from the exertion of staying still.
After another few minutes, Iellaya raised the glass of tea to her lips. From her vantage point, Zagnal could see that the water was still completely transparent. However, the pink leaves had completely dissolved.
After taking a sip, Iellaya’s attention turned finally to Zagnal. She returned to her seat behind the desk. The small feathers of her eyebrows twitched as she examined him. “So? It won’t solve my problem, but I appreciate you sending such a promising image of yours to die in my defense. You have my attention.”
“You never know,” Zagnal said slowly, as much for himself as for Lady Iellaya. “He could survive. He sustained almost no damage in the earlier defensive battle. Perhaps his aptitude is quite high, for an image.”
“Offensive battles and defensive battles are very different,” Iellaya waved her hand. “So much so that I didn’t even bother to lay out how they are different for the fool. And you didn’t speak out at all either. So let’s not pretend like the outcome is in doubt; that image will die and be consumed by the Nether. Still, that’s not a knock against it; many better individuals have met the same fate out here.”
Leaning back in her chair, Iellaya pulled a pile of papers on the corner of her desk in front of her. With a quick flick of the wrist, she made a quick note underneath a page featuring a picture of Randidly Ghosthound’s true body. “Still, two more images were extracted from this body, so all is not lost. And even if he fails spectacularly, it will buy us a tiny amount of time. So please, tell me what you want.”
Zagnal’s mouth was dry. He huffed out a smoky breath from his nose. “I… I wish to arrange passage to the Nexus for my world. I hear you already possess Tier 2 Citizenship in the Nexus. I’m willing to throw my support behind you… assuming my world becomes a portion of your Realm if you reach Tier 3 citizenship with your accomplishments on the front lines.”
Lady Iellaya chuckled. “If you know that much, you’ve certainly done your homework on me. And if that’s true… I suppose you know that throwing your support behind me carriers with it certain additional requirements.”
Nodding slowly, Zagnal took a step forward. His knees almost buckled underneath him as the took that step. “I… I am aware. I am willing.”
The air within the tent began to change. Suddenly, Zagnal could barely breathe as a heavy energy swirled between them. Under the influence of that abrupt weight, even the visual cues from the destabilized space were somewhat restricted. The very air seemed to tremble in the presence of that energy.
Slowly, Iellaya stood. With a certain ritualistic cadence, she took slow steps around her desk to stand before Zagnal. As she slowly turned, Zagnal could see how the ebony feathers stuck out of her body all along her spine, giving her a black trail of feathers leading down her slender back. When she settled only a meter away from Zagnal, those feathers began to flare outward like a cobra’s hood.
Iellaya was now wreathed in darkness.
“Then you also realize that this means your own potential will become mine,” Lady Iellaya said quietly. “You will still grow… but only in proportion to my own strength. This is the end of your Path.”
“Yes. But…” Zagnal panted. “I’ve served twelve of my twenty-five-year sentence on the frontlines. I have seen too many individuals far more powerful than I die to think that it is anything but luck that I’ve made it this far. And if I die, my world…”
“I know… hush, child.” Lady Iellaya reached out and brushed her fingers against Zagnal’s cheek. “It is for exactly those reasons that so many lost pilgrims have made the very same decision you now make. So… do not regret. Instead, relax. As soon as you kneel, your woes will become mine. And I will not forget the petty burdens of those who dedicate themselves to me.”
Trembling, Zagnal went to his knees. His hands were twitching. The weight was growing too much to handle. His entire body was oozing a mixture of sweat and ash from his pores. “Lady… no, Queen Iellaya. My life is yours. My will is yours. My image… is yours.”