Randidly could feel the edge of it. Once he saw it as a grand plant, the pattern immediately became clearer. He could follow around the stem to the vine, vine to the stem, stem to the trunk…
I wish Yggdrasil was here. He would understand the knack of this vein system so much easier…
Randidly’s awareness rushed along, following the vast network of blue veins. He had located a few independent Nether Wells drifting around them, but he could sense that something much more valuable was hidden somewhere, tucked stealthily between two dense discs of Nether. Randidly felt like he weirdly could
the location that he was searching for, like some part of him already knew that it was definitely here. Yet that weird certainty that the Nether Sensation provided didn’t match up easily to his actual perception of the surrounding area.
So he could only expand his area of scanning, looking for the similar swirling shape of the Nether that he pictured around the Nether Wells. In the few seconds since he had asked the group to wait, he hadn’t been able to locate anything concrete.
Vualla visibly restrained herself from the snapping response she had originally intended to give. Instead, her eyes studied Randidly very carefully for a few extra seconds. “…can you really sense things out here?”
“Yes,” Randidly grinned.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 20!
“Impossible,” Kel’ev spat. Randidly just barred his teeth at the man who had immediately given away their stealthy approach. But it did reassure Randidly that the casual divide that Vualla had created with her memory image wasn’t as easy as she had made it seem.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Acclimation ® has grown to Level 129!
Out of the corner of his eye, Randidly noticed that one blue vein was swirling down toward his finger. Part of him wanted to pull back immediately to escape its attention once more, but they were already revealed, correct? What was the harm in allowing the thing’s approach?
So instead, Randidly ignored the immediate surroundings and continued to follow his perception outward along the pulsing veins.
“So, what can you see?” Vualla asked in a neutral voice.
After a few distracted seconds, Randidly pointed sharply in three directions. One of them was the direction that Kel’ev had indicated that they should go. “Three groups of Nether Beasts. Large ones, heading from those directions. They will get here… in a few minutes.”
“Then we should move,” Kel’ev said harshly. His eyes gleamed with a fanatical light as he spared Randidly a furious glance. “If forces are coming from the direction I indicated, that will mean the Nether Wells over there will be unguarded for the time being. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”
“All you had was a feeling and the honorable designation of being the one who blew our cover,” Vualla narrowed her eyes at Kel’ev. The air was tight with the knowledge that Kel’ev had also earned their place here by reporting Vualla’s movements that night. “So perhaps we wait for confirmation? How many times need I gamble my life on your terms, Kel’ev?”
“Do we have time to wait for this fucking
?” Kel’ev glanced at the other seven soldiers for support. The silent watchers shifted uneasily, their eyes scanning across the Great Rift around them. Randidly understood that it was difficult for them to accept that he could truly sense things in the Nether; after all, no one else really could.
But Randidly never bothered appealing to these people. There was only one person in power on this expedition. To approach anyone else was just a waste. And as he watched Vualla, he continued to frantically search.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 21!
She seemed so lonely and solemn with her hair drawn back into a braid, leaving her face completely uncovered. Her eyes looked at Randidly. Slate grey met forest green.
Perhaps because Vualla had talked about the memory of an image’s origin, but Randidly thought about his previous interactions with Vualla. Her stubborn determination. Her willful certainty. Her casual hubris.
Then, slowly as their gazes remained almost magnetically connected to each other, azure light flowed back into that pair of eyes as Vualla looked at him. Almost helplessly, Vualla shook her head and laughed. Ignoring the surrounding shoulders, she spoke directly to Randidly with the first pinch of genuine emotion she had displayed toward him since he had come to volunteer without informing her. “I’m really glad you are here, Ghosthound… but you know we might die here, right?”
Randidly grinned. “Will it really be us who will die today?”
“Well I’ve already dug the graves,” Vuall retorted. But her eyes were as crystalline blue as the untouched depths of the sea in summer. “Someone will surely be buried here today.”
Seeing something was occurring, Kel’ev stepped forward. “Vualla-”
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 22!
And at that moment that Kel’ev stepped forward, the drifting blue vein that had quested after these strange interlopers alighted on the tip of Randidly’s finger. His entire mind stuttered and froze as information smashed into him.
It was like too much air being forced rapidly into a balloon. Randidly felt himself inflating rapidly beyond the point that he could handle it. His mind and image spasmed painfully under the forceful injection.
Which, of course, was the moment when Randidly felt the main body there, that soothing Willpower bolstering his own strength. Randidly immediately felt bitter, but the main body’s thoughts flowed into Randidly like an apology.
You have to trust that I have my own concerns… the array isolating me is not a simple thing. It learns every time I escape its clutches to contact you. Theoretically, enough of these contacts will mean I am completely bound. Then you guys out there will need to break me out directly without any assistance from me.
Randidly could sense the truth of the main body’s words in that brief contact. So he shelved his resentment and rage and focused instead on handling the surging tide of information. Very quickly, Randidly realized that the strength of willpower wasn’t coming from the main body; the main body could simply provide him a haven of ‘self’ so he wasn’t born away by the flood of information. From that safe haven, it was much easier for Randidly to leverage his own power to channel the forces that were flowing through him.
Randidly’s awareness of the surrounding area had grown so quickly that he knew
much about the Great Rift. On a scale that was useless to an image that was only as large as he was. What was even stranger was that Randidly could feel a grand pattern from the aggregate of those minuscule veins of blue. But then the main body grounded Randidly’s focus back to the area where he actually was.
With a heaving groan, Randidly tore his finger away from that thin blue vein. The flood of information stopped. Even though he was an image, Randidly wretched and vomited pale yellow bile out into the Great Rift. It floated downward, slowly beginning to sizzle as the imagined bile was consumed by Nether.
The discussion was briefly halted as the surrounding soldiers looked at him in stunned silence. Even Vualla’s face creased with concern.
Be careful of that Vualla. The Aether around her… it’s extremely strange. And old. And familiar. It might be better… to stay away from her until I am freed to inspect it directly. Right now I can only barely use your senses…
And what happens to my feelings for her until then?
Randidly thought bitterly. But just as quickly as that reassuring presence of the main body was there, it was gone.
Sighing, Randidly straightened. He supposed there was no point blaming the main body for struggling with his own issues. Besides, they currently had more important fish to fry. “I found where we want to go. It’s that way.”
Randidly pointed. To his annoyance. It was in the general direction that Kel’ev had pointed, only upward about 45 degrees. They would never have encountered the Nether Wells if they proceeded in the direction Kel’ev had indicated, but Randidly would have been much more satisfied if the direction they needed to go was exactly in the opposite direction.
“Then let’s head out,” Vualla said shortly. Randidly was surprised how much relief and warmth flowed into him as she immediately trusted him. Then Vualla sent a sharp glance toward Kel’ev when the tall man opened his mouth to say something else. “We don’t have much choice now, do we? They will begin blinking closer soon. So move out. Speed over stealth, at this point.”
Although it was clear that several of the soldiers were skeptical, they followed orders quickly. The group began to shoot in the direction that Randidly indicates, covered loosely by Vualla’s image but mostly focused on simply plowing forward through the Nether like a sailboat looking to outrun a storm.
Randidly brought up the rear, furiously struggling as much as possible to keep up with the rest of them. In this area, it was quite clear to him that having a body was an immense advantage for moving in the Great Rift. So violent were his struggles was that he earned two Skill Levels in Monstrosity’s Appalling Physicality as he pushed his body far beyond its usual limits to keep up with the group.
Very quickly, Nether Beasts began popping up. Which also taught Randidly what Vualla had meant by blinking. One moment there was nothing, and Randidly’s Nether Sensation felt that enemies were quite a ways off. Then in the next moment, five or six Nether Beasts were right there, roaring at them from the side and approaching with their claws raised.
During the first of these brief ambushes, Randidly had hardly noticed the Nether Beasts’ arrival before a few of the soldiers diverted from the center and exploded out with their own various dominant image. With a workman-like efficiency, small groups of Vualla’s subordinates butchered these Nether Beasts that Randidly inwardly acknowledged that he would struggle against.
Then they would return to the rapid procession, easily overtaking Randidly’s own speed to rejoin the group formation. In terms of capability, they didn’t approach Vualla’s ominous supremacy, but they were still more powerful than Randidly’s main body.
All the while, Randidly continued to push himself. Nether Sensation’s Skill Level continued to quietly tick upward to Level 27.
After all, these are the cream of all of the worlds underneath the Nexus. Even if this is just one of many camps on many frontlines, this level of power is nothing special.
Which means I need to start improving much more quickly than I have been thus far. Otherwise, I will never make a difference. I’ll never be able to save Earth from what is to come.
But although the power of their group was impressive, Randidly’s focus kept going to the Nether Beasts. It irked him that his perception wasn’t able to track their movements. If he could figure out the trick of what they were doing…
Which of course meant Randidly was trying to comprehend Nether. And so far, all he knew was the bubble and the core. These were two important tenants of how Nether behaved, but in context, they were relatively incapable of explaining such rapid movements. Furiously trying to brute force an answer was just giving Randidly a headache.
As they rushed forward along the twisting branches of the blue veins, Vualla spared Randidly a glance. “How much farther?”
Randidly considered that vast map that had been forced into his head when he had touched the blue vein. Even now, it was difficult to struggle with the size of that information and force a realistic scale onto it. “I think… just short of halfway.”
“Fuck,” one of the soldiers muttered.
Vualla nodded grimly. “Yea, that’s what I figured. Alright boys, look sharp. It’s about time the real party starts.”
Frowning, Randidly opened his mouth to ask what they were talking about, but then he
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Sensation (L) has grown to Level 28!
“An army’s coming,” Randidly said. Even he was somewhat floored by the veritable flood of Nether Beasts that suddenly seemed to surround them. They were one drop of substance and image in a sea of darkness.
Vualla just smiled. “Welcome to the front, Randidly Ghosthound. Don’t lag behind.”