As the leader of the expedition, Vualla handled the lion’s share of the fighting against the enemies directly in front of them. And oftentimes she spread that to enemies that were visible to her as they rushed forward. Although her squad gallantly handled the task of keeping the foes pestering them from the sides off of her back, it only took an additional five minute of fighting before Vualla was starting to feel gassed.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one who was nearing her limit.
She glanced behind and looked at her squad. Of the people behind her, it was clear that three of them were beginning to accumulate too much Nether damage to continue to fight. They needed time to recover. Considering the fact that they probably had two more minutes of activity before they reached the destination indicated by Randidly…
And if he is mistaken…
A thin voice whispered. But Vualla shook her head and banished that thought. If she let doubts creep into her head now, all of the work that they had done would be wasted-
A sudden appearance of almost thirty Nether Beasts dragged Vualla’s attention forward. Her eyes quickly scanned the group; what she saw made her face twist into a scowl. It seemed like whoever was in charge was finally getting serious about eliminating the Aether dagger that was cutting into this base’s heart.
Likely due to the grand array on the frontlines that created defensive stars in their chest, most people on the front had taken to grading the high-Level Nether Beasts based on the number of stars you would need to possess in order to resist the ambient Nether energy that each beast released.
Of the thirty Nether Beasts that appeared, Vualla could sense that twenty were four-star Nether Beasts. Even worse, their leader possessed the caustic strength of a five star Nether Beast. It opened its mouth to roar and scent a shockwave that made the surrounding area quake. As someone who possessed three stars currently, Vualla couldn’t rely solely on the physical to rival even the weakest Nether Beast of this group.
But Vualla had something much more deadly than her physical body. She had the blade she had so carefully polished her whole life with the stated purpose of destroying everything in her path.
She had grown up in a military household, so even before the System had earned Vualla’s ire, she had been preparing herself for a life dedicated to killing. She had carefully visualized the most complete destruction she could imagine and learned to unleash it to annihilate both Nether and Aether alike.
Young Vualla still hadn’t been satisfied with her small capability; even as her peers were left in the dust she continued to push herself to create a more comprehensive and piercing image. Annihilation became the god to which she prayed. And her own exercise of power was her sincerest form of worship.
As she raised her gauntleted fist, Vualla said a silent prayer to that familiar god. But as she did so, she felt the surrounding air reverberate with the strength of it. Those pure moments of connection to her life’s work were the only thing in this vast darkness that could give her confidence that she would survive. Because here, as it was with all places, destruction demanded its steep price and accepted no deferment.
Well, confidence now comes from my power and also…
But Vualla didn’t let her finish that thought. Not now, not with enemies ripping toward her with their claws spread wide to butcher and gut her allies. To be vulnerable now, even only to herself, would have been a mistake. Instead, she simply threw a punch that held every ounce of her baleful will to end this farcical world.
In response, the world rocked backward a half step as she unleashed her unfiltered power. The Nether Beasts attacking them from the front were gone. Still, they weren’t out of the woods yet. Vualla’s felt a bone-deep weariness settle across her shoulders. She only had a few more punches fo that caliber left in her.
Perhaps even more dangerous, more and more Nether Beasts were appearing from the sides and launching sudden attacks on their group. Mostly these were two-star Nether Beasts, but numbers were beginning to wear on an already depleted squad. The steady accumulation of injuries was catching up with them.
Vualla did her best not to think about the fact they were supposed to cause a distraction after this.
Plus, with three individuals nearing the end of their strength…
Although she hated herself for it, Vualla turned around and glanced at Randidly Ghosthound again. It was clear from his face that this speed was already too much for his image body to handle. To ask him also fight was a bit…
Randidly looked up sharply as if he sensed her gaze. Which, Vualla realized, he probably did. Somehow Randidly Ghosthound was able to detect the presence of the Nether Beasts even in the Great Rift. Some part of that piercing green gaze could see in a way that Vualla didn’t truly understand. He was an enigma. Every fact that she learned about him just made her more confused about what he was truly capable of.
Which was probably why her life had felt so… different since she had encountered him. Like he was the push that took her off the rehearsed script of her life and into something completely fresh and new.
His smile was wan as she continued to consider him. “You want me to help out against the Nether Beasts, right?”
“If you can do so without dying yourself,” Vualla said frankly. “Your ability to sense the surrounding area is useful enough that losing you now would be a waste, considering that there is more we need to accomplish here.”
“If he isn’t just making it up,” Kel’ev muttered. But Vualla ignored him. Randidly Ghosthound might be a lot of things, but a liar was not one of them.
It also wasn’t irrelevant that Randidly Ghosthound was also not a snitch.
Vualla turned her gaze back to the area in front of them, but her attention remained focused on the actions of Randidly behind her. Occasionally she was forced to throw out destructive punches to clear their way, but it seemed like the blue veins had parted and allowed them to accelerate rapidly forward for the time being. Almost reluctantly, Vualla increased the group’s speed.
With her attention behind, Vualla was able to ascertain that Randidly hadn’t just been following meekly along with the group; as soon as she had given him permission, he did his best to slip into the rotation of soldiers fending off attacks from the sides. When it came around to his turn, Vualla was aghast to see that he had to fight off only a single opponent, but that opponent was a three-star Nether Beast that looked like an oversized pitbull.
Even for soldiers with a body-
But Randidly Ghosthound also didn’t hesitate. He raised his bone spear and a strange spectral fire that filled Vualla with a deep sense of foreboding flickered into existence to cover his weapon. At the same time, his skin began to hiss and steam as Nether began to eat directly away at his image.
Vualla chewed on the inside of her cheek in confusion.
Did his stars stop working? Why is he so suddenly open to the Nether damage where he hadn’t been previously?
Then he was a blur of momentum and that relatively fragile image body smashed forcefully into that three-star Nether Beast without a hint of warning. Immediately the Nether Beast roared and swiped out with its dangerous claw, but Randidly’s form seemed more shadow than substance as he slipped underneath the attack and dug deeply into the beast’s flank with his own claw on the way past.
Clearly earning all of the beast’s ire, Randidly followed up with a sharp kick to the side of the beast’s knee joint on its back leg. While Vualla twisted to watch, she saw that the black flames around his spear disappeared and suddenly his leg was wreathed in those same dangerous-looking flames. At the same time, the damage Nether was doing to his legs fell to basically nothing and his arms began to hiss and spit.
Vualla could feel her heartbeat slow in her chest as she studied Randidly.
Can he truly control the stars as he wills? Turn them into weapons wherever he needs them?
This time when the beast screamed, its voice was filled with less rage and more fear. But as the Nether Beast scrambled to open up some space between them, Randidly struck almost eight times in quick succession with his spear. Huge gashes were torn in the Nether of the beast’s body. Then the talons on his left hand began to glow cherry red like a brand freshly taken from a fire and he raked it across the panicking Nether Beast’s eyes.
At that point, the beast seemed to realize that this relatively insubstantial foe was more dangerous than it had expected. Rather than continuing to engage at a distance and try to dogfight, the beast simply leapt forward to try and overwhelm Randidly with the weight of its Nether.
Randidly didn’t even flinch in the face of the beast’s charge. With a smile so insane that it infectiously spread to Vualla’s mouth, Randidly stood his ground and raised his arms to meet the Nether Beast directly. Their bodies smashed into each other and Vualla gasped as the Nether Beast seemed to pop and deflate while the image stood as straight and dangerous as a bared blade.
Lightning fast, Randidly struck out with his bone spear and pierced through the Nether to strike the beast’s core. There was a light tinkling, and then the surrounding Nether turned sluggish. Very soon, Randidly’s blurred form returned from the drifting Nether to rejoin the rest of the group.
To be frank, he was much slower compared to the other soldiers present. But he had made it back within a reasonable amount of time. Which bought the rest of the soldiers a few more precious seconds to recover. Right now, that was exactly what they needed.
Perhaps even more importantly, no one took him lightly after Randidly managed to defeat a three-star Nether Beast while only being an image. Vualla’s subordinates looked at him with newfound respect as he took his place in the rotation.
Twice more Randidly left the safety of Vualla’s image to fight against attacking images. But no matter the number of foes he was required to face, he triumphed over them and returned to the convoy with a heaving chest.
Still, Vualla couldn’t help but notice that Randidly’s long limbs were warped and fuzzy from his contests. It was not without cost that he continued to go out there and fight against Nether Beasts without a body to rely on. His status as an image was starting to catch up with him.
If, because of this, he dies…
Vualla’s shoulders trembled. It would be her fault, primarily, of course. But that didn’t mean that she minded laying his wounds at the feet of the System. Because Vualla knew that all the vital energy and life she had felt was so suddenly injected into her after meeting Randidly would die along with them. And what would be left was only the grim purpose of her life’s work.
First, I’ll personally take a limb from both Commander Terith and Lord Miln. And I’ll stop there only if I’m feeling fucking generous.
After Randidly returned from his third defense rotation, he gestured forward and spoke in a low and guttural voice. “Here. Soon.”
That brought Vualla’s attention swiftly back around to the are in front of them. Although she had no way of ascertaining that Randidly was correct, directly in front of the group there was a large space that was densely packed with those blue veins and supported on each side by planes of Nether so dense that they seemed to glow with pale flames. As Vualla peered closer to examine those flames that were so shockingly similar to the ones Randidly had created, Nether Beasts began to surge out from behind, above, and below them to crash toward them.
“Don’t worry boys, this one is mine,” Vualla hissed. After cracking her knuckles, she spread her arms wide. She sucked in a breath and suddenly Vualla was standing next to her mother in front of a gravestone that had her brother’s name written across it in large letters. Vualla tightly clutched at the thin silk of her mother’s maroon dress.
Several times the name on the gravestone changed. The fabric and color of her mother’s dress changed. But what didn’t change was that her brother was dead and her father never returned home.
You took everything from me.
Vualla thought as she looked up at the vast Great Rift. Her gaze seemed to pierce through that non-space to see the looming specter of the System under which she was raised grinning down at her fighting its wars. Her rage was directed at anyone and everything that supported this behemoth of an institution that had devoured her brothers and was currently eating her father alive.
Then Vualla smiled defiantly.
But all that did was teach me how to
Then Vualla took and all of the Nether Beasts in the surrounding area died with all of the noise of a little girl’s tears.