Just as quickly as Vualla raised her gauntleted hands up toward the blank sky in askance, her arms went limp and the limbs dropped back to her sides. She turned and gave Randidly another look, sizing him up with those luminous azure eyes. “But enough about me… what about you? You’ve managed to achieve a two-star status as an image… and yet I don’t believe you even had one star when we last met? Certainly, there must be a story to that fact.”
Shaking his head, Randidly said harshly, “Don’t change the subject. Is there any way for you to get out of this assignment? Even if you have a body-”
“Do you want to know a secret about those stars?” Vualla interrupted as she turned to her body to face him directly.
Randidly’s mouth firmed into a line. His mouth moved more quickly than he could censor the words that he was thinking. “Don’t treat what you just said like it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t want you to die.”
There was a split second where Randidly’s mind ground to a halt as he tried to figure out exactly what Vualla probably thought he meant when he said it, but then his annoyance and worry continued to push him forward. So much forward that he could safely skip any reflection of his own on what saying that meant to him.
Even if she thought that he… that he- well, no matter what she thought, it was fine. It was much more important to make sure that Vualla wouldn’t allow herself to go on this suicide mission than to quibble over intent at this point.
What was even more strange than his own feelings was that a queer resistance was building up in Randidly’s chest to counter his words and intentions. Some part of him seemed profoundly reluctant to try and save Vualla from this mission. In fact, some part of him was seized by a complete aversion to her. Some instinct of his seemed to paint her less of a person and more of a rotting corpse.
The feeling rapidly spread so that Randidly’s proximity to Vualla suddenly gave him a strange urge to vomit. Which of course, was completely improbable; he was just an image. So why-
In a split second of rage, Randidly realized that the revulsion was coming from the main body. For whatever reason, he could sense that the main body believed it was better for him to just leave well enough alone and let Vualla go on this mission. The main body believed it would be in his best interest to allow Vualla to die.
The suddenness of the sentiment had confused Randidly for the following split second as his rage struggled to parse the information apart, and then as realization dawned all of his frustrations and complexes regarding the main body crystalized into a hot ball of caustic hatred in his chest.
After all that I’ve done for you? You are going to fight me on this?
Randidly hissed mentally toward that ambient impression from the main body.
Do you think saving lives is a waste? No wonder you let Alta destroy your Soulskill. No wonder you so quickly murdered Ki-Kunot without any hesitation. No wonder you sent your precious Kharon to fight at the borders of the world without any supervision. Life means
Even as Randidly thought the words, he felt a glimmer of regret. But at the moment, there was too much violent rejection of the main body’s disgust toward Vualla.
Unfortunately, there was no response from the main body. There were no sudden sparks of hurt or anger to indicate that Randidly’s barbs had found purchase against the main body’s psyche. Again, it was hard to even tell whether the main body listened to what he was saying. Aside from that one moment in the Great Rift where there was direct contact between the two of them, it was an ambiguous bond that they shared.
Finally, Randidly seized control of his body and banished that foreign revulsion toward Vualla. She was someone who had walked a lonely Path. Randidly would not abandon her just because the main body desired it.
As Vualla fell silent and considered him, Randidly found his voice once more and continued to speak. “Is there no way for you to avoid going on this mission?”
“Well… it’s not like it’s impossible, but…” Vualla took two sharp steps forward, devouring the meter of distance between the two of them. Suddenly, she was only a few inches away from his face. Such was the sudden proximity of their bodies that Randidly barely suppressed an impulse to step backward, despite the fact he had just reaffirmed the desire in his heart to help her.
But being so close, so suddenly-
Vualla’s azure eyes were very serious as she looked at him. “Just as you worry for me, I am worrying for you. I am not flippantly bringing up your stars. So listen to what I have to say, and then we can talk about my matters.”
Some part of Randidly wanted to point out that he had asked first, and therefore his concern should be addressed first, but some note of solemnity in Vualla’s gaze was enough that he held his tongue. Either way, he trusted her word; if she said they would talk about it, they would talk about it.
“Fine,” Randidly said shortly. Plus, he was somewhat distracted as the disgust and rejection from the main body surged up once more. This time there was a note of warning in the main body’s emotions.
That set Randidly to chuckling inwardly as he squashed those emotions.
Oh, suddenly you feel like talking, do you? Well, fuck you.
As though the main body got the hint, the feelings faded away.
Seeing Randidly truly meant to allow her to speak first, Vualla smiled. “Thank you. Now, as I was saying, it seems you’ve acquired some method of handling a lot of Nether very quickly. Very enterprising of you. And, as this Nether is being transformed into stars, very useful in the short term to increase your survival in the Great Rift. But there is a secret that no one tells the new recruits: at a certain amount of stars, there are negative side effects.”
“What sort of side effects?” Randidly muttered hotly. But mostly his animosity was aimed at the rather useless stars themselves. He was still quite sour that there was so little of an effect after all the suffering he had endured.
Even if they are basically a bonus, it’s fucking annoying that everyone made a big deal out of the stars when they turned out so mundane…
“Well… for lack of a better turn, motion resistance.” Vualla shrugged. “Obviously, it’s not something that they talk about often; I only heard about it from my mother, who heard from my father during one of the times he visited for the birth of my brothers. Apparently, the Nether stars create a barrier around you that provides significant protection from Nether. But also…
“When enough of those barriers overlap, there is a resonance; the physical body is affected-” There Vualla paused as she looked at Randidly. “Well, I don’t think images often possess stars. So I’m unsure how it would affect you. But if it creates a physical resistance that even bodies struggle with, its likely even worse for images. Symptoms manifest around five stars and each successive star after that makes it worse.”
…actually, I don’t think images would be affected more strongly by the bubble portion of Nether.
Randidly’s brow furrowed as Vualla continued her explanation.
The problem is probably that, even if the array takes out most of the Nether aspects, there is still a significant amount of Nether in the bubbles. And Nether and substance don’t mix well… So when a sufficient amount of Nether is present, it reacts adversely to a physical body.
“Is there an upper limit on stars then?” Randidly asked aloud.
Randidly blinked. “So someone’s gotten all the way to ten, huh…”
But Vualla shook her head, causing her braid to bound back and forth across her shoulders. “No, I think the actual record is eight stars. After that, the individual couldn’t even move properly and retired from the frontlines.”
Frowning, Randidly asked. “Then why did you just say nine?”
“I honestly don’t know. An instinct, maybe?” Vualla flashed Randidly a smile. “Since it is physical resistance, I suspect that a sufficiently strong body should be able to resist the effect of the stars for longer than a weaker body could. Therefore, I think someone could get to ten if they pushed hard enough. Still, this is why most Commanders engage Nether Beasts sparingly. All of them are nearing that five-star state.”
Randidly gave Vualla an unamused look. She winked at him in response. “Would it help if I called it a woman’s intuition?”
Rolling his eyes, Randidly threw his hands up into the air. “Fine, so the bubbles make it difficult to move. But do they notice anything from the cores if there are that many gathered together?”
At the very least, Randidly hoped he would be able to find some useful information from Vualla in regards to the stars’ uses. But when she replied, Randidly was even more confused.
“Cores…? Oh, you mean like you sometimes feel break when fighting a Nether Beast? Although most people theorize that stars create something similar in us, it’s never been proven.” Vualla tilted her head to the side and carefully studied Randidly’s face. “After all, no one can sense Nether. So it’s just a theory.”
“…Yea…” Randidly finished lamely. Vualla’s eyes narrowed.
“Is there something you’d like to tell me?” She asked evenly.
Well, obviously yes, but…
Randidly hesitated. Was it so easy to just tell Vualla that he had learned a Skill related to Nether? That he carried a Nether Well in his chest right now, even as they stood so close to each other?
Obviously not so simple.
Randidly sighed. But out loud, Randidly said. “…yea. I do have… an extra sensitively to Nether. I don’t know if other people have them, but I can sense the cores of Nether inside myself.”
Rather than speaking out about the Nether Well, his ability to sense Nether was much more innocuous. And it would probably leak anyway when his two subordinates recovered. It was also an easy way to explain away a portion of Randidly’s accomplishments in the Great Rift thus far.
Vualla’s eyes stretched into happy crescents. “Really? You certainly possess many strange talents, Randidly Ghosthound. In another life… Well, nevermind. Who’s to say if we would even have met in another life?”
That made Randidly’s head tilt to the side. Both because it was an odd thing to say, and because the main body’s ire abruptly roared back with a striking intensity. Gritting his teeth, Randidly pointedly ignored it and asked Vualla. “Is there something you’d like to tell me? What would we be in another life?”
For the first time since they had met, Vualla hesitated. At the moment that Randidly had surprised her, she hadn’t hesitated to spin around and strike at Randidly. But now, she seemed frozen.
Silence slowly stretched. The air and land around them was dead, aside from the constant visual variance caused by proximity to the Great Rift. Randidly watched as the lines of her face stretched and flitted side to side. The joints of her overly large gauntlets moved with an oily silence as she nervously flexed her fingers.
“We could have been… together.” Vualla said so softly that even Randidly couldn’t catch the words. The only reason he understood was that his Grim Intuition had the uncanny to pick up speech from even the slightest movement of lips.
“…aren’t we together… now?” Randidly asked slowly.
“Until I go on this mission,” Vualla replied in a normal tone of voice. She took a step back away from Randidly. All of the tension in the air drained slowly away like it had been lanced with a needle. “To answer your earlier question… yes, I could get out of going. I could beg for mercy. I could go to my father and reveal myself. But I won’t.”
“Why not?” Randidly asked through gritted teeth.
“Would the woman who will destroy the System run away from a fight?”