Commander Terith glared at the commander of the Nether Well Strike team, who had been bored and tapping one of his many tentacles against the table to pass the time. It almost sounded
In the silence of the tent, it was an unnecessary and obnoxious distraction. Instantly, the multi-limbed individual withered underneath Terith’s pointed glare.
Terith turned to face forward and stand perfectly upright behind his desk. They would wait for four hours or until all 27 of the spots in his expedition was filled. During that time, these individuals should have training enough to wait. Terith was mildly tempted to call in some favors that were owed to him, but he at least wanted to allow the opportunity for his subordinates to volunteer.
After all, he would be carefully noting down who joined the mission. After all, quite a few of those engaging in this mission would not be returning.
Still, despite his stoic expectation of very little from his subordinates Commander Terith was disappointed to see that it looked like they were heading directly for the four-hour time limit rather than having a sufficient volume of volunteers. When Commander Terith came back, he would certainly require a thorough explanation for why his subordinates were too lazy to volunteer when the Beacon of Duty was lit.
Almost unwillingly, Terith looked at the commander of the reconnaissance and distraction squad, the girl-child Vualla. Even he couldn’t help but feel a grudging admiration for how her head was held high despite the fact that only three people had agreed to join her squad.
Certainly a good soldier… if only her pride didn’t keep unruly and dangerous.
That is the sad truth about my position; I have the choice between innumerable inappropriate options. And the great Commanders are the ones that can arrange the circumstances to make do with the talent that they were given.
As Commander Terith continued to study Vualla, he sighed. Truly, capability was present in Vualla in a way that rarely happened. It took a special sort of determination to catch Terith’s eye, but still she managed it. Despite the fact that Terith was suspicious of her strange and hasty admittance into the army.
It made Terith wonder if he shouldn’t allow her to participate in this mission. It made him wonder whether this Vualla would be missed by someone who would take a pound of flesh from Terith. Still, talented soldiers died every day. Such was the reality of war. If she fell in battle, certainly Terith couldn’t be blamed.
And Terith had previously mentioned in passing to Lord Miln his desire to rid himself of some variant influences, which had led to this opportunity. Surely, if Vualla was truly that important, Lord Miln would be aware of her true identity.
Bah, worthless. Let all the petty schemes of the spiders fall away. Better to focus on strengthening my own position for now.
Terith glanced at the other two group tables; both were completely filled with volunteers. The elimination group had plenty of talent and Terith himself would accompany the third group to prepare and ambush the Nether Gatekeeper. Most of the pieces were in place. All that was left was to fill Vualla’s group.
Which was proving to be extremely difficult; everyone was aware of how disastrous the casualties would be for that group. They would not only be required to sneak into the base, but also cause a distraction that would draw the Nether Gatekeeper’s attention sufficiently to lure it into an ambush. Honestly, most of the responsibility for the success of the mission would lay at the feet of Vualla. Which was quite annoying from Commander Terith’s perspective, but there wasn’t much he could do.
Perhaps that was exactly why Terith decided to overlook Vualla’s strange arrival to the army and expose her to danger anyway; he knew of few individuals aside from her that could pull this operation off.
Despite Vualla’s young age, she was acknowledged as one of the top ten strongest individuals in Terith’s camp after less than a year. Her two subordinates that had joined her weren’t anyone to sniff at either. Yet even with that much concentrated power in the squad, only one nonaffiliated individual volunteered.
Still, that man is a brave fool. Good riddance.
If the trash wasn’t going to make itself available to be removed, having such an obvious refuse bin became a critical weakness. Should he have offered more benefits for volunteering? Commander Terith turned back to face forward. Even if no one came-
But just as his thoughts began calculating whether Vualla’s group could handle the task with so few of them, there was a commotion at the front of the tent. Eventually, one of Terith’s aides led someone into the tent. Commander Terith blinked in surprise when he realized that the individual who had entered was an image. A cognizant image from his direct and focused gaze, but still a bodiless cluster of ideas.
Even worse, an image from another camp.
Still, it wasn’t like there were any limits on who could apply for the Beacon of Duty. And without any regulations against it, Commander Terith pondered whether he should acquiesce to such a volunteer. Even more intriguing was the fact that this image had somehow managed to achieve two-star status. Commander Terith’s curiosity was somewhat piqued to discover that an image could have lived long enough in order to develop stars. He cast his mind around but couldn’t recall any other examples of it happening.
Theoretically possible, but highly improbable. Considering an image’s innate resistance to Nether, a tolerance would need to be built up gradually. In addition, the image would need to be naturally resilient.
In terms of tangible benefits to the expedition, it at least meant that the image was likely a veteran of many battles. But still…
“Please, don’t joke with us,” Vualla said with remarkable coldness. Terith eyed the woman’s white-knuckled fingers as she gripped the table. “Escort the image out of the tent. Such a liability can do nothing but jeopardize the safety of our mission.”
Perhaps most damning in Terith’s eyes, Vualla had spoken just as he was preparing to make a similar pronouncement. She had spoken with timing that overstepped her authority. Which, of course, earned his ire.
Commander Terith kept his odiously upright posture and spared Vualla a contemptuous glance. “The Aether expended to teleport an image deep into the Great Rift is a fraction of what a physical body requires. As such, won’t such a companion ease the process of infiltrating the base?”
Vualla blinked at Commander Terith. Fury, confusion, and some other emotion warred across her face. Clearly, she hadn’t expected Terith to intercede on the image’s behalf. He could see her replaying her previous words to herself in her head and the dawning realization that she should have waited to speak until he had settled on an opinion.
Too impetuous girl. You wear your emotions on your face… truly a piss-poor soldier. Practically a mercenary.
Then Terith turned and studied the image itself. He was slender, with a mostly humanoid torso surrounded by warped and dangerous-looking limbs. From the way he walked, it seemed the image had a certain confidence in its own strength
So, I wonder what your connection is to this image, girl…? Either way, a tool is a tool. If your fellow soldiers become more than that to you, you are in the wrong business.
“I formally object to an image’s inclusion in the expedition,” Vualla hissed. “This image isn’t even from our camp. Our teamwork will likely be negatively impacted by the unknown and untrustworthy presence of this image.”
“So you claim to have never met this image in the past?” Commander Terith asked simply.
Vualla froze with her mouth half-open. All the while, the image stood calmly and waited. Commander Terith clicked his tongue inwardly as he examined the image’s face for a second time. This time his examination was even more exacting. Already, Terith could detect flaws in the image’s mask of ambivalence.
Even if he is better at holding his tongue, he is just another young welp who is altogether too easy to read. Even if Vualla spoke out of turn first… it does not please me to have you both attempt to use me to get around the will of the other.
I suppose it would be pitiable if I wasn’t magnanimous enough to forgive both of you, considering you will soon die for me.
Commander Terith smiled lightly.
Which is why I will allow you both to sacrifice your lives gallantly for the successful completion of this mission. To use me as a bit character in your drama… well then, what is more romantic than a grave?
“Your name?” Terith asked aloud.
“Randidly Ghosthound.” The image responded. There wasn’t a hint of nervousness in his words. So much so that Terith almost reluctantly looked at the image for a third time. This time, he ignored the physical form and simply allowed his own image to gently sound of the core of this image.
Terith’s smile faded away. What he heard in Randidly Ghosthound’s voice and felt from his core was bubbling excitement. The image held no fear. In fact, at that moment of speaking, Terith realized why this strange image had come here. It wasn’t out of concern for this girl, although the image might convince itself that that was the case. No, this image was one of the oldest types of soldiers. The ones that lived and died in pools of blood under dark skies.
It came because violence brought it joy. Which reminded Commander Terith of some of the old monsters that lived in the Nexus.
If you had a body… no… with the obvious strength of your image, probably all you would need is time. And someday you would be a Commander yourself, soaked and blood and roaring at the sky in ominous fury. And it is exactly due to people like you that I cannot afford to fail. There are already too many half-mad berserkers in the Nexus whipping us uselessly toward war. Please proceed easily to your grave.
“Well then, Randidly Ghosthound. Thank you for your service.” Commander Terith inclined his head toward one of the tables. “You will be serving underneath Vualla. Do your best to follow her orders to the best of your ability.”
Then, before Vualla could figure out what she was about to say with her half-open mouth, Terith beckoned one of his aides. “Please, carry these messages to some of the individuals within my camp. If they won’t come willingly, I’ll drag them here.”
Nine is a good number. Very round.
I’ll get nine volunteers even if I need to blackmail them.
Commander Terith resumed his straight-ahead staring. After being reminded of the Nexus by Randidly, he was no longer in any mood to wait around for volunteers.
After all, after this I will likely retire. There is no need to worry about my future here.
It only took five minutes from the moment when Commander Terith dispatched his messages for four more volunteers to turn up. They were grim eyed and surly, but it was at least clear that they were capable individuals.
Randidly was impressed by Commander Terith’s ability to mobilize forces on short notice. The new arrivals barely spared Randidly a glance, but they carried with them a palpable sort of image that radiated off of them.
Randidly’s eyes glittered.
Finally, I’ll be able to see individuals with actual power.
Once everyone was present, Commander Terith began to outline the plan.
Randidly tried his best to stifle a yawn during the drawn-out explanation. Although they couched it in fancy terms and overly wrought descriptions, the plan was comically simple. Vualla’s team, team 1, will sneak into the base of the Nether Gatekeeper and locate where the Nether Wells were being kept. Then they will signal the second team and cause a distraction in another portion of the base, giving the second team time to accomplish the real goal of the expedition: exterminating Nether Wells.
Then, incensed by the distraction, the Nether Gatekeeper will be kept busy by Vualla’s team. Should the Nether Gatekeeper pursue them to a ridiculous degree, the third team will strike and attempt to wound the Nether Gatekeeper. Randidly did perk up when Commander Terith mentioned he would be acting personally in team three, but it seemed unlikely that his involvement would come to pas.
After all, Randidly was able to intuit that the amount of time and distance that Vualla’s team was required to survive before help would arrive. They were, in effect, on their own in the interim, deep behind enemy lines.
No specifics about the makeup of this base came up, either. They would be wandering in blind, for all intents and purposes.
Randidly glanced over toward Vualla. Her hair was still up in a braid and her chin was raised. She listened calmly to Commander Terith’s explanation of their roles without every glancing Randidly’s way.
Still, Randidly’s Grim Intuition told him that she was just as focused on him as he was on her.
With great reluctance, Randidly looked away and tried his best to listen to this drivel.
If nothing else, my Nether Sensation will give us an edge… neither of us will die on this sortie.
Randidly’s claw tightened into a fist.
No matter who I need to kill to make it so.