Inwardly, Zauna sighed as she considered the two sinuous beasts that shot out of the vast blackness below her and struck in a whip of Nether and violence, just as Mr. Ghosthound had indicated that they would. Interesting, that. She moved her body in front of the quicker of the two and forcibly endured its charge.
Her body shuddered from the blast of Nether, but Zauna Tjak could sense that her torso could endure this level of impact. One of the many benefits of her people was that even their images were heavily reinforced with a hard outer exterior; it just came with the territory. No matter what, her body would endure.
Of course, she would need to, because the second Nether Beast looped around its companion and slashed at her leg with its antenna. Zauna channeled her image of eternity into her leg and the strike glanced off without leaving any lasting mark. But now the two were circling her, aiming for her blind spots.
Just break me, please.
Although her oath to Abiodun kept her from actually aiming for her own death, Zauna felt it justified to sneak a glance toward her commanding officer while the two beasts swarmed around her. That was a reasonable course of action in this situation, to check in on how his fight was progressing. He was facing against three of the Nether Beasts at once, after all. Protecting companions was an integral part of the army.
And one aspect of the oath Abiodun had extracted from her was that she needed to obey all of Randidly Ghosthound’s commands for the duration of his stay at the frontlines. So if he requested help now and she was forced to expose some slight weakness in order to rush to his aid-
Deliberately, she looked to the side. And then Zauna’s eyes barely registered the blur of motion before a flailing Nether Beast smashed into one of the two enemies that were circling behind her back. A split second later, Randidly Ghosthound himself crashed into the other Nether Beast in an explosion of gore and Nether residue. Some splashed onto Zauna
Is he… laughing…?
Zauna tilted her head to the side.
How can he enjoy this hell…? Wouldn’t it just be easier to roll over and die…?
laughing, too; it wasn’t her imagination. She watched as he twisted away from the flailing sludge he left of the first Nether Beast he smashed into and thrust his spear directly into the skull of the second one. Then he used his left claw to forcibly seize and rip the vicious antenna off of its head in a gesture so overpowering that Zauna was forced to admit that today was not the day she would finally be free.
Tossing the antenna to the side, Randidly struck again with his claw and ripped several deep gashes in the Nether Beast’s head. The beast that he had thrown earlier recovered slightly and lashed out toward him. But the Ghosthound simply
in a way that Zauna couldn’t understand and the colors of his body were abruptly so vivid and sharp that it hurt to look at him directly. And when he moved, he seemed to completely avoid the mundane difficulties of traveling through space and instead just displaced himself several meters away.
He was unstoppable.
His raptor-like leg stomped downward, shattering the Nether Beast’s skull like it was rotten fruit. Then grey motes of ash blasted out from him in a wave and gradually disintegrated the remnants within a few seconds.
Zauna floated in the vast darkness, completely still. Some part of her felt disappointment that this was not the day where she would finally die and be free from her oath, but the larger part of her was flooded with a grand sense of awe.
She watched the slow rise and fall of the Ghosthound’s chest as he breathed, here in the Great Rift. Which of course was impossible, because she was aware that he was an image, as she was. She could see small distortions at his edges were the Nether was eating away at him, but it seemed like some part of him was meant to be here, fighting in this lonely darkness. He seemed completely at ease.
More than at ease. He was thriving.
Perhaps he finally condensed his first star…? That does help you resist the Nether…
Zauna thought dubiously as she examined his body. But she had received quite a bit of information from Abiodun as preparation for this repayment of her great debt. And from what she had learned from Abiodun’s explanation, the effect of earning a Nether Star shouldn’t be so sudden or drastic. Otherwise, the mortality rate of images on the frontlines wouldn’t be so gruesome.
Zauna twitched several seconds later as she realized that the Ghosthound was talking to her. She nodded quickly, forcefully bound to answer honestly on a very surface level to any question that he asked. In actual fact, however, Zauna believed she could have worked herself up to a no if she had concentrated on her depression for long enough prior to him asking. But what would saying no really accomplish?
Then he would remove her from danger, thinking her status was related to damage from Nether. And she would lose her one outlet to end this life. Which was exactly the opposite of what she was aiming for.
It would be better if he believed that she was completely fine, so she would receive more dangerous assignments.
After nodding, Randidly floated back down toward the area of Aether conjured by Salazar. He had not slowed in the slightest in their absence, nor had he noticed any disturbances. But then again, Randidly Ghosthound had been able to eliminate five Nether Beasts in a little less than ten seconds. All without taking any damage.
But to Zauna’s shock, after the Ghosthound returned to the safety bubble of Aether, he seemed somewhat diminished. A lot of the luster went out of his body and it was easier to see the damage that the Nether had inflicted on him. His spear of a right arm was still sizzling, and the claw of his left hand was missing one of its talons.
Not without damage then, but he took all the damage selfishly onto himself.
Zauna felt an impulse to ask the Ghosthound how he was faring, but she was also under compulsion not to volunteer any information and speak only when spoken to. As such, she could only convey her concern in the stance of her body, but the Ghosthound was too preoccupied with his own struggles to notice that she loomed over him in a protective manner.
And because only ten seconds had passed, Salazar was still in the midst of his rather amusing story. “And to that my mother replied, ‘I will never surrender, because the son that will be born from me will be cunning enough to devour the whole world! And his name will be Salazar!’ and the mongoose and its rat minions fled in fear from my name, as on top of that volcano-”
Despite the fact that the fighting hadn’t grabbed Salazar’s attention at all, he immediately shut up when the Ghosthound slowly raised his claw and clicked two talons together. It seemed that the effect of the threat wasn’t diminished at all by the mission talon.
With the small tail on his neck flicking side to side, Randidly lowered his claw. “No need to continue, let’s save the rest of the story for times where we are in a more peaceful situation. It’s hard to concentrate on your… virtues out here in the Great Rift.”
Salazar nodded and gulped visibly. The effect of his image on the surrounding area rapidly began to shrink, but such had been the strength of Salazar’s belief in his own stories that it had grown into quite a large area in the time he had been talking. They would probably have a few minutes longer of rest before all of it was eaten away by the Nether.
The Ghosthound reached up and scratched his neck. “I’d like to congratulate, everyone, but we aren’t out of the woods yet. Something big is heading our way. It might be what they call a Nether Well… has either of you encountered one before?”
Zauna shook her head mutely, but a surge of excitement started rising in her chest.
Salazar blinked several times. “Well, this is my first battle without an Aether Key.”
Cracking the bones of his neck, the Ghosthound shrugged. “Then I suppose we will go in blind. That’s fine. I’ve been waiting for a challenge.”
And although Zauna would like nothing more than for herself to finally be killed and therefore freed of her oath, the Ghosthound’s words were quite alarming. Because you didn’t fight Nether Wells. You ran away from them, lest they seize your body and corrupt you with their strange energies. That was the reason that Nether Wells were so dangerous; the people who encountered Nether Wells weren’t technically killed.
Just like the stars, Nether itself generally had a core and a bubble. People were seized by the Nether Wells were worn like a suit, becoming the ‘bubble’ around their core. The individuals probably knew something was wrong, of course, but they were largely overwhelmed by the evil of the Nether Wells. They would wait, almost unconscious, pumping out Nether constantly until someone else returned to send them back to the staging area.
Which was exactly how the tragedy of the recent attack on the one camp had occurred. Someone who was just constantly pumping out Nether was sent directly back to a staging area, rapidly destroying and destabilizing the surrounding area.
Look at me,
Zauna thought desperately. She took several hesitant steps closer to the Ghosthound. But his eyes were pressed closed and he seemed to be using whatever trick he had utilized earlier to sense the approach of the Nether Beasts.
I can’t volunteer information, but if you ask the right questions…
But of course, what questions would he need to ask? Something akin to ‘should we fight the Nether Well’? Which was an impossible question for a superior officer to ask subordinates and be taken seriously.
Zauna sought oblivion, but she had enjoyed these peaceful few days serving out her sentence under the Ghosthound much more than she had expected. It was the worst sort of torture to think that these lives would be ended because of her. Because she had the information to save them, but she was not able to share it with the group in time.
As Zauna watched, the Ghosthound stretched out his spear and pressed it passed the edge of the dispersing image and into the Great Rift. Immediately, his eyes snapped open to reveal the warm green of the deep forest in summer. It was a gaze filled with light and life. It was the look of a determined man who trusted his own ability to survive.
And so soon you will die.
Zauna thought bleakly. It was cold comfort to know that she would also be joining him.
“About ten minutes,” The Ghosthound grunted. “That’s how long we have until it arrives. Make your preparations, this fight won’t be easy.”