Eventually, Randidly was required to spend a larger and larger portion of his attention on maintaining the Aether around him. The vast expanse of darkness around Randidly continued to loom menacingly above him. The azure veins gleamed to light intermittently according to some series of rules that Randidly couldn’t seem to understand.
Perhaps worst of all, Randidly was becoming extremely bored.
The net of distant Nether monsters continued to slowly circle his location. Even with the strangely stretched time of the Great Rift, Randidly had a horrible sinking feeling that the waiting for the knife would never end. It was a cruel form of torture to leave him stranded here without any comfort or at least the distraction of a good battle.
Which, of course, was infuriating enough of a truth that it reinvigorated Randidly’s efforts to perfect the repairs to the Grim Chimera. The more unlikely his escape seemed, the more that Randidly was determined to prove this Great Rift wrong. But it was difficult to manage both the repairs and his Aether covering perfectly at the same time-
Wincing, Randidly did his best to redistribute the Aether covering as he allowed a small portion to be exposed to the inhospitable surrounding Nether. Because it was rapidly becoming clear that his efforts to stabilize the Aether was just slowing the inevitable; soon, the entirety of his Aether covering would disappear.
Randidly would find himself alone in the Great Rift without any protection. As oddly exciting as that prospect was, the reasonable portion of Randidly’s mind was well aware of how painful such an experience would be.
Rather than allowing it to happen all at once, Randidly opted quickly concentrate the remaining Aether around his head and face and let his limbs handle the lion’s share of the corrosion for the time being. At least in this way, Randidly was prepared for the locations of the sweat-inducing levels of pain.
Aether and Nether truly hate each other…
Randidly thought while gritting his teeth. His arms and legs bubbled and twitched as the Nether continued to grind away at his substance. The pain was a slowing growing into a hot white lance into his brain.
At least Nether Resistance is continuing to rise. Otherwise, I might just lose my sense of progression at all…
Once more, Randidly resentfully checked that place inside of himself that had suddenly been filled with a ball of Aether earlier. Coughing lightly, Randidly gave that portion of himself a meaningful look. There was no change. Which left Randidly wondering whether the main body couldn’t observe him, or whether the tight ball of Aether was a one time gift only. Perhaps the effort the main body had to expend was much higher than Randidly would have anticipated.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Resistance has grown to Level 111!
Randidly breathed in his nose and out his mouth. The pain continued to grind at his focus, making the necessary repairs he did to his image that much more difficult to do efficiently. Everything was becoming so exhausting. Time slid past in a constant state of strain as Randidly continued to hone himself while constantly working on his arms and legs to keep the new damage from becoming something systemic.
All the while, Randidly felt the Aether around his chest slowly shrinking. Soon, Randidly’s midsection was exposed. Nether burned and sizzled at his skin. Even though the Grim Chimera was a being that was imagined as this cockroach that thrived in hostile environments, the constant damage from Nether was slowly corroding him.
It wasn’t despair that emerged in Randidly’s heart, but a certain sort of exhaustion that stemmed from his very bones. It was like a heavy wet cloak that was draped across his shoulders. Randidly didn’t fear that he would die here. The gritty, violent determination in his chest would brook no word of failure, even now. In fact, his eyes continued to blaze emerald as he prepared to meet the slowly circling batbeasts.
No, rather than that, Randidly felt in his chest a deep melancholy as he floated alone in the Great Rift because this was the Path down which he was leading Kharon. He wanted to teach them how to fight on the edges of existence in order to protect humanity. Which was exactly what Randidly was doing now, and the pain and toil of it made him feel a great deal of guilt toward the tribulations they would need to endure.
There were no bright rewards waiting for Randidly for what he was doing here in the Great Rift.
But someone has to do it.
Randidly breathed in and then breathed out, savoring the feeling even if it had no physical meaning. Rather than recharging his mind, he was falling into the familiar habit to ground his mentality.
Don’t lose yourself.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Resistance has grown to Level 113!
Randidly’s eyelid twitched. Had he been so focused on repairs that he missed the Level 112? That certainly didn’t help at all with his peace of mind. It meant that even though Randidly felt that most of his focus was present, the extended period of time he had been working at this was beginning to blunt the edge of his WIllpower.
The edges of Randidly’s mouth turned downward. And he shouldn’t forget that previously, he had completely lost consciousness in his battle against the batbeasts. For all that he had been able to rest, resting here wasn’t what he needed right now.
The Aether around him continued to slowly be worn away by the press of Nether. By now, all but his head felt on fire as Aether and Nether clashed. Chimeric Avoidance and Monstrosity’s Appalling Physicality were doing their best to resist the damage, but it was a tolerance thing. Pain was not a foe that Randidly could fight. And as time continued to move fluidly around him, Randidly lost that last barrier of protection; he was now completely exposed.
In a way, it was better to have no Aether than only a little. Because now his entire focus could handle the problem of coping with the pain from Nether and image repairs. Or at least, that was the idea. Randidly should now have a fair portion of his attention to dedicate to other problems. And yet-
The pain in his arms and legs had grown to the point that Randidly could barely tell that the limbs were there anymore. Rather than any physical shape, what defined them in his mind was the pain.
His chest and head began to sizzle. Randidly’s eyes narrowed in fury and self-hatred. He should be better than this.
The skin began to burn and curl upward in long, warped loops. The emerald light from Randidly’s eyes grew brighter and brighter. It felt like-
“Huh, I stand corrected.” The very reassuring voice of Abiodun rumbled. “You have lived. This is a surprise.”
Abiodun stood before Queen Iellaya, looking at the ground as his mistress stared up at the roof of her tent while lost in thought.
“An image surviving alone in the Great Rift should be impossible,” Iellaya said lightly. Because she said it, it was so. Abiodun continued to look at the ground without responding. She did not need him to assist her here. She would turn the problem over in her mind until she was satisfied with the answer.
That was the terrible implacable determination that made Iellaya such a formidable commander.
“An image without a body will be damage directly by Nether. That very image-body is the source of its strength while it is cut off from the main body. It no longer possesses the sentience that imagined ‘it’ originally. Without the imaginer, the image cannot very well return to its original form once damaged. Because the part of it that knows itself would be warped along with the form…” Iellaya tapped the edge of her desk with a heavy silver pen. Abiodun could hear the soft sound of Iellaya’s feathers flexing outward.
“…there is also the matter of the resonance between the images of this Randidly Ghosthound. They are clearly more intimately connected than most images… and each more distinct and evolved.” Iellaya showed her teeth. “If I can bring this man to my side, it will be a great boon to the cause. Regardless of how his image accomplished it, the fact that the image possessed that capability means the man behind the image is even more of a find. Did the image use the Aether Fountain to recover after returning?”
Abiodun straightened and shook his head. “The tree image informed me that such a thing would be unnecessary. It is performing the healing directly. As for the image running out of Aether… it showed no signs.”
Iellaya sneered. “If they became cognizant of their situation, they are likely aware enough to avoid the Aether Fountains. They can clearly see that such energy would not come without costs. But at least that’s one thing I won’t need to worry about. Although now that the image survived after I filed it as destroyed, I’m stuck in something of a pickle… but perhaps that can be used to my advantage.”
Inclining his head, Abiodun agreed with Iellaya’s assessment. That was the reason that Abiodun had thrown his lot in with Iellaya just as she was beginning to discover her ability to subsume other’s images for her own gain: she did not regret mistakes, but found ways to transform them into advantages. To Iellaya, it was all a matter of perspective. And due to the fact that Abiodun was the first to bow, his growth surpassed all the later converts.
One part of that was outlook, but the other part was an extremely sharp mind that would repeatedly reduce a problem to thin slices in order to determine what the best path forward was.
“Still, if the image recovers it will be a strong soldier.” Iellaya mused. “The physical form is quite compelling as well. I quite look forward to how being within my Domain will influence it. Hopefully, its loyalty toward me will grow rapidly enough to make a difference. Otherwise, that fool Lord Miln will have his way and half the frontlines will collapse just so he can win his fucked-up private war.”
Abiodun didn’t respond to that. Some thoughts it was better to pretend not to have heard. He was not here to offer advice. He was just here to obey.
And yet, some instinct made Abiodun raise his head and look at Iellaya in the eye. When she mentioned the Ghosthound being influenced by her Domain, something inside of Abiodun did not believe it.
Iellaya noticed his gaze almost immediately and paused in her thoughts. So rare was such an action for Abiodun that even Iellaya was swayed by its sudden arrival. “Is something the matter?”
“No, Queen,” Abiodun said. After hesitating for a second, he finally rumbled. “I just… I like this Randidly Ghosthound. It might not be relevant, but I wish to offer you this information. His spirit is not one that will be easy to sway. This I sense.”
Iellaya’s eyes were pitch black as she weighed his words carefully. “…you very rarely express any sort of emotion. And to it to be enough for you to say you like him…”
“The only other person I would have said such a thing about…” Abiodun sighed in his heart. But his loyalty to Queen Iellaya was everything. She should know his honest reaction. “…was you.”
Abiodun could not look up and examine Iellaya’s expression. Her face was covered in that same devouring darkness that was always present in the corner of Iellaya’s eyes. But now it spread and it became her entire countenance. The vast will to dominate and control that usually slept in her chest was shaken into wakefulness.
As with every other strange bit of information, Abiodun could feel Iellaya attacking this with a scalpel, cutting and cutting and searching to find the perfect way for this information to become useful to her.
To find the way that Abiodun’s affection for Randidly Ghosthound became a weapon.