During this teleportation, this time the travel
different. Randidly had to grit his teeth and flex his imagined muscles in order to keep control of his body as cosmic forces battered him from every angle. The breadth of the distance they were being sent was immediately apparent in the violence of the passage. If not for the extra oomph that he had gathered from his victories in the Eidolon Crucible, even this amount of battering might have been enough to overwhelm him.
When they popped out into the Great Rift, the Nether was like a hammer blow on Randidly’s will. But rather than wincing in pain, Randidly’s mouth stretched into a smile. He could immediately feel the bubbles from his two stars protecting him, shunting away a portion of the Nether that was seeking to damage him.
The other thing that was immediately obvious was the presence of the numerous blue veins running through the space around their small band. Although the veins were pretty much omnipresent in the Great Rift, they usually drifted slowly past in a meandering way. But at their current arrival point lay a dense web of blue lines that formed strange, esoteric patterns in the air. Even worse, those patterns rapidly fluctuated as the blue veins drifted closer as if they were curious about the new arrivals.
With the veins, of course, came even denser and caustic Aether that lapped up against them in calming waves. But no matter how gentle the waves were, the Nether that they brought was anything but. As Randidly’s skin met the Nether, that terrible, irreconcilable violence of the two energies came to the fore with a vengeance.
This is how I will grow.
Randidly closed his eyes and savored the sensation of the Nether sizzling against his skin. Nether Sensation wandered outward almost idly, quickly scanning the surrounding area for any threats. To Randidly’s great disappointment, he found nothing.
By exposing myself to these stimuli-
Just as Randidly was really getting to enjoy the sensation, it was wiped away as a gentle radiance blossomed outward from Vualla. The energy flowed rapidly outward and wound between the individuals like silky bindings. Soon, all nine of the figures were cloaked in her tight image. Randidly blinked, tasting the wafting note of mint on the surrounding image.
Certainly, it was an impressive display. But why did the air suddenly taste like mint…? What sort of image was she using to accomplish this?
Perhaps even more shocking to Randidly was to see that there was a sharp divide along the edge of Vualla’s image. Normally, when an Aether image and Nether touched, there was a powerful rejection where both depleted the energy of the other. Which is what routinely happened with Randidly’s image body out here in the Great Rift. Yet on the edges of Vualla’s image, there was a sharp demarcation that only a small percentage of both energies crossed. Therefore, they were effectively screened in the area.
The veins approached ceased as though the new arrivals had been whisked away just as quickly as they had arrived. Unfortunately, the other result of being suspended in the image was that Randidly wasn’t able to sense the surrounding area. But at least he could be sure that they were safe for the moment.
Vualla noticed Randidly studying the edge of her image and frowned. “You didn’t know that thinking of a specific past moment where your image originated made the image much more impervious to Aether? How did you avoid detection in your past missions then?”
“I didn’t, I just killed any Nether Beast that showed up,” Randidly shrugged with forced nonchalance.
Or any Nether Wells that drifted past… But hiding really would have been a lot easier.
Still, I would have done the same even if I had known. It’s the only way to grow.
Clearing his throat, Randidly asked. “This image… tastes like mint. And it feels like… family.”
Which was true. While Randidly stood inside of Vualla’s image, he felt warm breezes brush across his skin. The scent of mint was the strongest, but as Randidly continued to breathe the image in, he also detected other floral notes. In the nebulous environment of an image, they were clearly located in a garden. He could feel actual sunlight on his skin.
As Randidly savored the image, he felt teleported to a moment in Vualla’s past. Like Earth before the System arrived, it was clear that some parts of Vualla’s upbringing were idyllic. She was not raised in a war-torn hell like Tellus.
Distantly, he could hear the tinkling sound of a child’s laughter.
For a second, Vualla’s eyes softened as her own memory swayed her. But then she glanced sideways at the grim-faced warriors that were with them. Instantly, her face returned to its determined stare. “Does it? Well, thank you I suppose. And if we are all done chit-chatting, let’s focus on the mission. Kel’ev? Take the lead.”
“Rodger,” said a man with a short nod, and Randidly was surprised to recognize that it was the same tall man that Vualla had been arguing with that night in between camps. Which probably meant that he was the exact reason that they were here.
Randidly wanted to be rather furious at the man, but the fact was that he had clearly volunteered to accompany her here. So even if he was a dick, he at least also punished himself for what had happened.
At least he’s loyal,
Randidly thought darkly as he watched Kel’ev step outside of Vualla’s image and conjure his own. Then the tall man quickly headed deeper into the surrounding darkness of the Great Rift, following the densest paths of the blue veins that ran through the surrounding area.
Once the image was up, it appeared that the new arrivals were hidden from the veins so they settled back down to peaceful drifting. Frowning slightly, Randidly looked at the strangely whimsical veins in the surrounding area and then peered in the direction that Kel’ev had proceeded. In the darkness, every direction looked almost exactly the same. Only the flowing veins distinguished each direction.
As time ticked slowly past, Randidly became more and more worried that he couldn’t rely on his Nether Sensation to figure out what was going on in the surrounding area. He needed to make contact in order to spread his senses out through the Nether. He did have a general impression from the brief touch he had felt earlier, but it was rather fuzzy. Yet from what he had seen, Kel’ev was heading in exactly the wrong direction.
Randidly turned to Vualla and opened his mouth to say just that. Yet when he looked at her, the words curled up and died on his lips like leaves in fall. She glared at the vast abyss floating below their feet like she was completely unwilling to be disturbed at the moment. So Randidly closed his mouth and settled in to wait in silence.
He didn’t decide not to speak because of how sharply she had spoken to him earlier; that was annoying, but it was ultimately a small act of lashing out that Randidly, of all people, understood. Vualla was occupied with larger dangers than Randidly at the moment. Their situation was quite dire.
No, the reason that Randidly decided not to speak was exactly because of the way Vualla was reacting to these larger dangers. From her tense stance and surly attitude, it was obvious that some part of her had already accepted that she would do her best on this mission and probably die anyway. That pessimism seeped into her like a poison, coloring the bright azure of her personality a murky, slate grey color. Fear was ruining her.
In the same way that Randidly had at some times let his fear of being alone ruin his relationships.
Randidly’s eyes burned as he examined the darkness around them.
It seems I don’t just need to keep you alive in here. I also need to remind you how bright and defiant a spirit is needed to survive underneath the System. You might believe you will be the woman to destroy the System, but it won’t happen if you’ve lost your way.
Randidly’s mouth twitched.
Too bad Ignition Essence isn’t on his feet and here. He was always better at this inspiration than me…
Only a few minutes after he left, Kel’ev was abruptly appeared, racing through the darkness with a dozen Nether Beasts in hot pursuit behind him. These monsters were much larger than any sort of Nether Beast that Randidly had ever encountered, and where they weren’t physically more oppressive, the darkness of their substance was much denser.
As they approached, Randidly’s wild smile skittered out across his face on spindly limbs like an eager spider.
Vualla unleashed a snort that set a low rumbling through the air. As Randidly blinked in surprise, the image she maintained around them dissipated slowly as she focused her attention elsewhere. Very quickly, Randidly’s Grim Intuition screamed that staying near Vualla right now was dangerous. Then she raised her heavy right gauntlet and threw a single punch.
It was a casual motion. There wasn’t anything profound about her action. But the punch carried with it Vualla’s will, and that desolate rage was one of the most horrifying things that Randidly had ever encountered.
A dull roaring filled Randidly’s ears as a wave of annihilation spread outward from the tip of Vualla’s steel knuckles. Kel’ev hastily dodged out of the way as that spiraling oblivion rolled forward. Even though he probably understood what was coming, the tall man was still blasted downward a fair distance into the darkness by the displacing force of the attack passing above him.
Randidly’s eyes were wide and solemn as he felt that destructive image shoot forward and annihilate all of the Nether Beasts that were charging forward toward their group. It didn’t even take a full second and they were once more alone. He had thought that Vualla had spoken figuratively when she talked about destroying the System. Like he was currently seeking, he thought Vualla was looking for a way to escape the influence of the System more generally.
But that understanding was shattered as Randidly saw Vualla’s dominant image. No, she really planned on destroying the System. After all, there had to be some vast Aether construct that handled all the minutia of the Nexus and the worlds that were held in its thrall. If Vualla could find the vital and precious machinery at the System’s core and unleash that image…
Randidly released a nervous breath that came out with tiny flakes of ash. That image was, at least, the beginnings of an answer to exactly how powerful those who fought on the frontlines were. She was weaker than that terrifying being suspended in a veritable continent of solidified Aether, but Vualla was still far beyond Randidly’s own strength by quite a bit.
Even with his own body, facing that destructive punch… Randidly shook his head helplessly. There would be nothing to do but dodge. Certainly, with Chimeric Avoidance he would have methods to continue fighting against her. But it would be foolish to expect this to be all of the tricks she had up her sleeves.
The surrounding veins were shattered into dozens of motes of blue light by the echoing aftershocks of the attack. But just as quickly, more veins flooded downward to spiral around in the wake of that horrifyingly powerful image.
Kel’ev shot back up to join the group. He was visibly trembling as he wiped the sheen of sweat from his brow. “S-sorry about-”
“Did you find a lead?” Vualla interrupted bluntly. Her sharp gaze scanned the surrounding area. “Because our presence is no longer a secret.”
All because of how ludicrous that attack was.
Randidly thought with amusement.
Not that I mind, of course.
“I…” Kel’ev hesitated. Then he slowly pointed about thirty degrees to the left of where he had gone. “Based on the defenses… that direction is the most likely.”
Randidly barely suppressed a dark chuckle at Kel’ev’s uncertainty. Instead, he stretched his hand out toward the dispersing edges of Vualla’s original image. The scent of mint in the air slowly faded as Nether ate gleefully into that happy memory, submerging them once more in darkness. Then his fingers broke through the remnants and out into the Great Rift. The skin of his claw began to sizzle lightly.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 15!
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Acclimation ® has grown to Level 128!
As Randidly’s Grim Intuition blasted outward, he regarded the tough exterior of his image claw almost fondly.
At least it really seems like all that extra work refining the image is worth it. Add that to the bubble from the two stars, I could survive out here for quite a long time.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 16!
Randidly’s awareness continued to swim outward amongst the slowly shifting Nether Beasts. He felt the threaded veins in the Great Rift and several dense patches of Nether that surrounded them. Belatedly, Randidly realized that the Nether was somehow grafted onto the dense patterns of the veins. Or rather, the Nether was a product of those patterns. The more Randidly could feel the shape of the veins, the more it became obvious that the Nether patches were growing on the veins like they were fruit off of a vine.
The reciprocal of Engraving?
Randidly thought in wonder. But ultimately, that was a question for the main body. Suppressing his sudden irritation at thinking of the traitorous main body, Randidly spread his attention even further afield to look for Nether Wells.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 17!
Vualla’s voice was extremely sharp. “How sure are you, Kel’ev? We cannot fail here, or else we will have thrown ourselves into the fire for
“It is the most likely direction,” Kel’ev said, his mouth firming into a line. The rest of the soldiers shifted awkwardly around as the two maintained heated eye contact for several seconds.
“Well, I suppose its a fucking sure thing then,” Vualla replied sarcastically. But still, her eyes flashed as she looked around at the group. “Since there are no other ideas-”
“Wait,” Randidly said.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 18!
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 19!