Randidly stayed very still as the voices passed back and forth above him. His Grim Intuition quickly wafted outward, immediately reporting the strong presence of Iellaya’s image.
So strong that the other figure looming over him could only be her.
Yggdrasil’s trunk creaked as he twisted his branches. “…I believe so. Although there is significant exterior damage, those portions of the image can be very easily repaired. And it appears the core of the image is still sound.”
“Uh huh…” Iellaya’s rather unconvinced drawl set Randidly’s teeth on edge. “So this is primarily exterior damage? That is good to know. And what about the other two? Is their damage similarly concentrated on their exterior? They hardly have bodies any longer.”
This time, Yggdrasil hesitated. “…we shall see.”
“Heh, so even you have some things that you can be honest about.” Iellaya chuckled. “Just remember our deal; as long as you protect these two, nothing else will be required of your particular skills. As your superior officer, I suppose the least I can do is drag these blobs back from the staging area. We don’t what them gumming up the works do we? And based on the Nether massing above us…”
She trailed off. Randidly felt Yggdrasil’s warm branches reach down and wrap around his body. Immediately, warm streams of energy began running through Randidly’s body with such familiarity that Randidly had to suppress the urge to groan in pleasure. But Yggdrasil’s worried question brought him right back to focus.
“You think another attack will come. Here, this time?”
Randidly’s eyes were still closed, but he could sense the subtle motions of a nod from Iellaya. “With the forces of Nether waiting at the gates, I have to assume they will send another Nether Well to make trouble for us at our core. Their attack on Commander Thrall’s camp was similarly arranged. Which is why I am here personally at the staging area. Ah, feel free to tell the Ghosthound that the reason I was here was out of concern for his safety. He is my star recruit, after all.”
Chuckling, Yggdrasil shook his canopy and set his leaves rustling. “He will not believe such a thing, Lady Iellaya.”
“He is smarter than is healthy for a foot soldier. He also-” But then Iellaya’s whole bearing changed. The violence in her voice rapidly escalated. “What the hell…?”
Randidly was shocked when suddenly Iellaya’s hand was suddenly on his face. Her fingers were so strong and sure that Randidly felt more like there was a bear trip sitting docility in front of his nose than an individual’s hand. At any moment, Randidly sensed that hand could tense up and shred the bones of his skull. Yet she moved with surprising gentleness; Iellaya turned Randidly’s face from side to side as if searching for something.
Thankfully, Yggdrasil spoke. “Is something wrong?”
“He has already condensed his first star, and is now more than halfway on his way to forming a second star,” Iellaya hissed. “How is such a quick improvement possible? Based on all the Nether damage to his body… it is almost assured that he will reach the two-star level if he is given time to recover.”
“Must have been a very violent encounter in the Great Rift,” Yggdrasil said mildly. “We are the type of images that grow quickly when challenged.”
Iellaya released Randidly’s face. It seemed her attention turned to Yggdrasil. “The two of you are profoundly peculiar images, that’s for sure. The things you do shouldn’t be possible. The things you do… should only be possible if your body is a Ritualist with a steady supply of Aether.”
From the way Iellaya said the word Ritualist, she expected a strong reaction. Yet Randidly was quite clear that Yggdrasil was only puzzled. In addition, focusing on that word meant they didn’t need to address the last part of her sentence. “I’m not familiar with the term Ritualist.”
That gave Iellaya pause. “…really? Who is your sponsor?”
Randidly’s mouth was dry. Why were all these strange labels coming up? If they answered incorrectly-
Yggdrasil made no pretense of their knowledge, and Randidly respected him a lot for it. “I’m also not sure what a sponsor is.”
Iellaya was clearly gritting her teeth. “Have you spent no time at all in the Nexus? Who is the individual who has citizenship in the Nexus associated with you? On whose planet did you live? I can help you here, but only if you give me the information I need. We need to apply external pressure if Lord Miln is to give up your body. Otherwise… Well.”
Seeing Yggdarsil’s continued confusion, Iellaya shook her head. “Your loyalty would be even more useful.”
“Of course we are loyal,” Yggdrasil said shortly. “You are our commanding officer.”
“Pah, you know that is not the loyalty I am talking about. I cannot help but notice both of you have isolated yourself from my influence.” Lady Iellaya took a few steps away so her voice was less imminently present. “Not that I mind. Certainly, be surrounded by individuals bound to my will carries with it certain risks. But I have to wonder what such capable images intend, refusing to be bound or explain themselves to me.”
“We have no… sponsor.” Yggdrasil said slowly. “Our world was only recently brought into the System; we have not yet even faced the first Calamity. That is why we are so desperate to get back and so careful. We cannot afford to fail here. There is… so much we don’t know.”
Randidly’s heart rate increased as Yggdrasil professed so directly to not knowing anything, but he also trusted Yggdrasil’s instincts. The slow, natural progression of growth was Yggdrasil’s territory. If he believed that their best option was so directly to bare themselves, then it was definitely in their interest to do so.
Several long seconds of silence followed that admission.
“How is that possible. If that’s true, why are your images so-”
The concussive force blasted outward from the nearby staging area, smashing into Randidly and Yggdrasil. Quick as a spark, Iellaya was gone in a brutal screech of fury. Above, the machinations of Nether began to rumble as the long-awaited signal finally arrived. Yggdrasil quickly set Randidly on his feet, likely knowing that Randidly had been conscious, and shifted over to grab the limp form of Salazar.
Randidly opened his eyes, blinked and staggered, and then followed Yggdrasil to seize Zauna. Both of his subordinates appeared unconscious, and Randidly felt a pang of worry as he looked at their soft and melted looking forms. Although they resembled their usual look, they seemed like wax figures that had been left too close to the fire.
A black wind heavy with nether swirled around the edges of the staging area where they were currently located. Very quickly, the entire surrounding area was obscured by the opaque currents of air laying across the area like drapes. As Randidly heaved Zauna onto his shoulder, the ground around them began to crack and destabilize as Nether wormed its way into the ground.
Wincing, Randidly straightened. Although he was only carrying an image body that was severely deteriorated, his own weakness meant that this task was a difficult prospect. Apparently, his own repairs to his image hadn’t been as complete as he had initially assumed.
It wouldn’t be the first time…
Randidly glanced upward. This black tentacles from the Great Rift were slowly twining downwards. It was difficult to see through the distorted space and Nether tainted wind around him, but it was clear that the attack would arrive soon. If they didn’t move-
Suddenly all of the Nether in the surrounding air was eradicated. The previously unbalanced space slowly realigned itself. Even the usual visual effects of the Great Rift were barely visible underneath the heavyweight of Iellaya’s image that billowed outward.
Randidly turned slowly and regarded the hulking black form that spread its wide wings over the staging area. It was a ten-meter tall statue of polished obsidian with a wingspan that seemed broad enough to cover the whole of the camp. Every feather was a perfect crystalline piece of art, assembled together into an image that was so heavy and potent that it weighed physically on the surrounding area.
When Iellaya had struck out at the attack to the other camp, Randidly had been somewhat awed by her casual power. But now that the attack came toward her own camp… the power that Randidly saw at this moment left him breathless and tight-lipped. This was the sort of power of one who thrived in the Nexus. If Randidly wanted to fight his way toward the top, this was the sort of foe he would need to face.
Although the difference between their strengths wasn’t the vast chasm between himself and that individual that had used him to find the Creature, Randidly felt very small as he looked toward that obsidian eagle. And that feeling filled him with desire.
The Grim Chimera stood before an edifice to the power of the System and it
Once more Iellaya raised her head and unleashed a piercing screech. Immediately, the camp around them began to buzz with activity. Where soldiers had previously been waiting in their tents to escape the sudden blast with its epicenter in the staging area, they now swarmed outward. Their eyes were grim and determined as they marched toward the edge of camp to face the threat of the Nether invasion.
Those huge tentacles twined down, smashing into the shattered badlands between the camp and the Great Rift. Floating boulders tumbled slowly outward in a weightless wave. Although Randidly couldn’t see it from where he was standing, he felt the wave of Nether Beasts that surged outward in a ravenous horde.
Suddenly, Yggdrasil was at Randidly’s side. “We should return. You need to recover before you can fight.”
“I can still fight,” Randidly wheezed. Then he coughed several times, trying to clear his throat. But the skin of his esophagus was parched and dry.
Yggdrasil snorted. “And I don’t doubt you will get the chance. Look at the sky. It isn’t just our camp that is under attack. This is a full-on assault from Nether. There will be plenty of chances. For now, come back; even if you are alright, these two are not.”
Randidly looked down at Zauna. Although he didn’t like to pull back when Iellaya had so tantalizingly showed him what he could one day become, he nodded.
So Randidly and Yggdrasil turned away and headed back toward their tent to recuperate while Nether fell like gloomy raindrops toward the camp.