The tent was quiet in the way of churches and hospitals. Randidly sat with his eyes closed and breathed rhythmically to the sound of his subordinate’s labored breathing beside him. But of course, as Randidly listened to their breathing, he smiled despite the fact that their current struggles were still significant. Because the worst of it had passed, for those two. Because his idea had worked.
Rather than using Aether to try and forcefully destroy the remnants Nether that remained in their bodies, Randidly’s suggestion to Yggdrasil had been to create a thin flow of Nether with Randidly’s Nether Well and wash the area around the wounds with that flow. Rather than continuing to fight and destroy itself while working against Aether, Randidly figured that Nether would respond to the presence of the flow and follow the relatively low-pressure pathway provided to join up with its own kind.
In theory, it would be quite easy. It had, however, been a very tense operation in practice. Careful to not allow too much Nether to flow at once, Randidly had slowly and methodically used a Nether flow to pull out the large, lingering chunks of Nether that were in his subordinates wounded image bodies. It was a difficult thing to see them so frail, but Randidly had gritted his teeth and continued with his talk.
For every second that the Nether remained there, the corruption to the image grew increasingly severe. Randidly couldn’t afford to wait until some of his own issues were healed to begin the operation. Which meant there was the slightest tremor in his will as it was going on.
What was worse was Randidly was extremely aware of Yggdrasil’s mild gaze on him as he triggered the Nether Well in his chest to produce the stream of Nether. It felt like Randidly was suddenly hyper-aware of the fact that the main body had been resistant to the Nether Well. It was difficult to tell whether Yggdrasil would be similarly against Randidly possessing it.
Such was his distraction that there was a point that the flow of Nether was a little too robust, resulting in some light damage to Zauna’s stony skin. But considering how much damage she had already received, Randidly immediately paled. He put his own hesitations to the side and threw himself unreservedly into the task.
After both Zauna and Salazar had escaped the danger of accruing addition Nether damage, Yggdrasil had given Randidly a long look. “That is… an interesting development.”
“Yea,” Randidly had said shortly. But something in his tone must have alerted Yggdrasil to how conflicted Randidly still was about the Nether. The treant stretched out his branch and placed it on Randidly’s shoulder. Randidly couldn’t bear to look up to meet Yggdrasil’s eyes, so he studied the golden lines of text engraved across the branch.
“You are one of the images of Randidly Ghosthound. No matter how you evolve, that will not change. We are him as much as he is us. And we are in this together.”
Randidly was oddly comforted by Yggdrasil’s words, despite the fact that he still preferred to consider himself an actual incarnation of Randidly that had simply been split off of the main body. But it was difficult to claim it after he had interacted directly with the main body and defied his will.
…but what does that make me…?
Shaking his head, Randidly let it go and returned to his breathing. All that mattered now was the Nether was removed from his subordinates and Yggdrasil had been able to use his image to heal much of the damage done to the two of them. It was time for Randidly’s focus to shift to his own progress once more.
Randidly rested. When the constant headache had subsided, he rolled his shoulders to warm up his body and then turned his focus inward. Unfortunately, the stars of Nether that he now possessed were not easy to handle
Time continued to flow as Randidly sat entirely still inside the tent. After several hours of experiments, Randidly was profoundly fed up with his new core of Nether. The only active effect he had accomplished was figuring out how to move the core around. Once he knew the trick, it was even rather simple. But after moving his core around Randidly still found nothing interesting about what he could accomplish.
Sure, he discovered that he couldn’t push the core beyond the edge of the bubble. And the bubble of Nether would warp slightly when the core was moved up next to the limit. But Randidly wracked his brain and couldn’t think of any way where such an effect would be actually useful.
When Randidly touched the core, he was always struck by the certainty that there was a hidden purpose of the cores to the creatures of Nether. Yet his optimism had no choice but to slowly wane as that hope was never substantiated.
Maybe it’s just that these cores are imperfect imitations of what the Nether Beasts possess… or maybe I need to be in the Great Rift to understand its capabilities.
Randidly stood up slowly in the tent, the muscles from his legs flexing as he stood. Grinning down at his body, Randidly allowed himself to feel a small hint of pride at the current state of his image. For all that his image had been repeatedly eroded down to its basic form every time he encountered the powerful forces of Nether, it had also been chances for Randidly to build himself up from the basics.
Of course, that meant the amount of effort and time he put into his image increased drastically as he remade himself multiple times. The headache of an overextended will was now a constant companion to Randidly. Not that he really needed to ‘sleep’ in the traditional sense, but that constant pounding made any sort of rest that wasn’t fueled by Yggdrasil’s relaxing energies almost impossible.
Still, Randidly felt not an ounce of regret as he considered his newest form.
Randidly’s talon gleamed darkly with an entirely new sort of sharpness that would shred through flesh even though he was just an image. His bone spear seemed to have aged a thousand years. The bloodstains seemed so desiccated and sacrilegious on the yellowing bone that the one whose blood so stained the bone, to remain stained there to this day, couldn’t have been an ordinary individual. His legs flexed powerfully, the long and thin tendons bulging out of his skin like steel cables.
And his eyes, the dark green of forest and peat mud.
With this amount of improvement… there is no way that the main body won’t be satisfied…
But just as Randidly had that thought, his face tightened into a scowl. It
matter so much to him that he come back and prove to the main body that he had been able to survive on his own. The approval of the main body was a ridiculous thing to seek. As Yggdrasil said, he was just as much a part of the main body as the main body was of him. Their relationship shouldn’t be so one-sided.
And yet the fucker remains completely distant when I want to talk with him…
Randidly thought resentfully. Shaking his head, he stood and stretched his body. Yggdrasil looked up shortly at him as he moved, but then returned to the slow sculpting of the housing structure for Ignition Essence. Still recovering, Zauna and Salazar breathed in unison in the other side of the cramped tent.
…even if its a bit tighter in here now, it’s not such a bad feeling,
Randidly reflected. Moving carefully, he stepped around their still forms and left the tent. The gloomy alleyways between the canvas dwellings were uniform and empty, allowing Randidly to quickly slip through them and appear at the edge of the badlands.
When he was walking over, Randidly supposed he was heading over to attempt another training session like he had experienced a few days ago. Where his consciousness became so light that it floated on top of his actions like a bubble in bathwater.
Such a metaphor accurately illustrated how hard it was to maintain, but there were commiserate benefits in terms of grown if he could achieve that balance once more. For a short amount of time, Skill Levels had come so freely that it was shocking. There was something… intrinsic about that mentality that Randidly sought to capture for a second time.
If he could master it, his growth would be positively monstrous.
Yet when Randidly actually arrived at that borderland between two camps, he realized that although training was important, that wasn’t why he had walked to this desolate place. No, it immediately became abundantly clear that the reason that Randidly had walked over to this place in the middle of the night was that this location was where he had twice experienced the pleasure of encountering Vualla.
And the third time was still the charm; she was standing with her pale face tilted upward toward the sky when he arrived.
Her azure hair was usually flowing freely behind her, but now it was tightly bound up into a thick braid. Rather than a waterfall, her hair was suddenly a river of remarkable currents and depths. The sort that could sweep a careless adult away underneath its surface without even a ripple passing across it.
Unlike their previous encounters, they noticed each other almost immediately. After seeing him, Vualla began walking slowly out toward the middle of the no-man’s-land. Randidly accelerated to meet her. Their footsteps were the only sounds in the wide night.
When they arrived, they stood almost exactly one meter apart from one another, simply looking at the other individual. It was clear to Randidly from the places that her gaze lingered that Vualla noticed the changes he had made to his image yesterday and today, refining his physicality after it had been so thoroughly brutalized. A small surge of pride made him raise his chin.
Yet at the same time, Randidly noticed how somber and resigned Vualla’s expression was. The way her hair was pulled tightly back into a braid emphasized the harsh lines of her high cheekbones and made her look five years older. It also revealed messy scar along the left side of her jaw, almost directly below her ear. Likely her wild hair had hidden the old wound previously. Now, Randidly stared at it in wonder, curious about the story behind it.
They were silent.
Randidly’s emerald gaze that had become a dark olive and Vualla’s azure eyes played a delicate game of fencing, all testing thrusts of attention and coy reposites.
Eventually, it became too much for Randidly to take. There was a truth hanging heavy over Vualla’s head that Randidly found himself too curious about to ignore. But he couldn’t get his mouth to ask about it directly. So instead, he asked, “So we aren’t going to start our meeting with a fight today?”
Vualla’s mouth twitched a tiny bit. “You think what we did previously was a fight?”
Randidly grinned and raised a flexing claw. “Well, it would have been a nice warm-up, wouldn’t it?”
But almost as soon as it had appeared, that spark of amusement died in Vualla’s eyes. “…Perhaps. But I don’t… I’m sorry, I suspect that I won’t be the best company tonight.”
“Is something wrong?” Randidly lowered his claw.
Vualla sighed and look upward to the strangely luminous maroon brushstroke clouds above them. They appeared rusty and grey in the dim light of night here. “Yes and no. My… that man you saw me talking to the other night reported me. As he said he would, but I thought that… well, it doesn’t matter now. I’ve been assigned to a special squad that will spearhead an assault against a Nether Gatekeeper in two days. They will light the Beacon of Duty, but I don’t expect many will heed its call. With so few of us going…”
Vualla shook her head.
Randidly’s body was tingling. “What is a Nether Gatekeeper?”
Shrugging, Vualla spoke with a complete lack of interest. “A being of the Nether that possesses actual intelligence. My squad is tasked with drawing its attention so other teams may assault its stronghold and destroy as many Nether Wells as possible. The assignment… it is… likely a death sentence for me.”
Vualla raised her arms up toward the sky. “I just wish… there was a moon here. This place seems so much darker than the world I remember.”