Some part of Nahlun knew that he was making a mistake by putting himself into the line of fire here. But as he looked at the wretched state of Vualla and witnessed dead eyes of the soldier that managed to carry her out of the Nether hell…
Shivering, Nahlun had to look away from those eyes. Even though that individual was just an image and Nahlun possessed a body, there was a terrible intensity there that had nothing to do with power and had everything to do with determination. It was that core of steel that had allowed these two to escape where it looked like Vualla’s significant power had failed.
Yet even though they had made it to this rendezvous point, it was clear from the wrathful roars that the Nether Gatekeeper’s attention was definitely attracted in this direction. The first Squad had accomplished every task flawlessly. At this rate, there would be nothing left for the other Squads to assist with.
Perhaps even that amazing capability wouldn’t have been enough for Nahlun to expose himself to danger, due to the lack of relationship with this unknown soldier and Vualla herself if the first exhausted message of this soldier hadn’t been so breathtakingly clear.
Without any ability to say words, the soldier could only gesture. Yet that was more than enough to get his point across.
‘Please, use the Aether Key, and take our Squad Leader. She, at least, needs to survive…’
“You’ve accomplished our goal of destroying the Nether Wells, so please allow us to handle your role; we will lead the Nether Gatekeeper toward the ambush,” Nahlun said solemnly. As a veteran of fifty years on the frontlines who possessed three stars, he knew exactly how likely it was that he would die for this decision.
Yet as he said it, it was suddenly like a weight was removed from his shoulders. In his heart, Nahlun knew that this was the correct decision. They all were soldiers. And it was clear that the other squad had taken action so Nahlun’s squad wouldn’t be exposed to danger. Honor dictated that Nahlun return the favor.
Nahlun could see the hesitation and confusion in the silent soldier’s eyes. It was an image, somehow having reached the level of two stars, likely a veteran of an uncountable number of battles. The image undoubtedly knew that Nahlun’s squad would be exposing itself to unnecessary danger by giving him assistance. So when he arrived, there was a pause as the two duties warred within the image’s heart. His hesitation betrayed his kindness.
Yet even after Nahlun made the offer, the soldier hesitated. It was clear he did not want to truly expose them to this risk.
To emphasize his point, Nahlun offered the soldier the Aether Key. Torn by indecision, the soldier looked down at Vualla. That seemed to harden its heart somewhat. When he looked back up at Nahlun, the soldier took the Aether Key and disappeared back to safety.
“He didn’t even have the strength to speak,” One of Nahlun’s subordinates said softly. “What the hell did the first Squad need to go through…?”
“War,” Nahlun said shortly. “And they sacrificed seven lives to get this far. Look sharp, boys. Let’s not let their sacrifice be in vain. Let’s lead that pig of a Nether Gatekeeper to slaughter.”
“I fucking hate headaches,” Randidly spoke with such acidic vehemence that his own words woke him up from his fitful slumber. What was waiting for him was an almost reassuringly mundane ceiling of canvas. Then the thundering headache his sleeptalking had reference to made itself known and Randidly winced and pressed his eyes closed.
Even after several seconds, the pounding didn’t abate. In fact, Randidly had a terrible suspicion that the pain was growing worse every second. Randidly could only forcefully release the tension he was holding in his jaw and neck to relieve some of the worst symptoms.
Congratulations! Your Skill Pain Resistance has grown to Level 108!
Great, at least this is a sort of pain that I can grow from.
Randidly forcibly warped his mouth with a manic grin.
Above him, Yggdrasil chuckled dryly. “If you truly hated headaches you wouldn’t continually put yourself in situations that result in them. You’ll have to forgive us if we start to suspect that you are a masochist.
Randidly barred his teeth while keeping his eyes closed. In the brief few moments that he had his eyes open, the light raked his grey matter across a bed of coals and he was loathe to experience such a thing again. “I’m not even sure if that’s incorrect. But it’s all to grow. If you know a better way of growing-”
Randidly face suddenly twisted into a scowl as pain like few feelings he had ever experienced pierced through to the very core of his being. Existence, from Randidly’s perspective, stuttered to a stop. For several seconds he couldn’t even move; that pain was like a spear that pinned him to the ground while his thoughts helplessly circled him in dismay at his terrible circumstances.
Congratulations! Your Skill Pain Resistance has grown to Level 109!
Now that I think about it, why am I gaining Skill Levels? Is this not pain from Nether? Then what-
Something at his core flickered on and off, causing agonizing fluctuations to run through Randidly. Sensing the sudden shift, Yggdrasil’s branches rustled down to alight on his shoulders. Warm streams of energy flowed into Randidly, attempting to address the vicious pain that was eating at his consciousness and flash freezing his thought processes. But for whatever reason, those streams of warmth seemed less potent than Randidly remembered. They seemed helpless before this pain; they could alleviate the symptoms slightly, but it wasn’t affecting the broken source.
Finally, that cracked thing in Randidly core flickered for the final time and remained lit. A hissing breath escaped Randidly as he slowly relaxed, this time almost helplessly. All his Willpower drained out of whatever crack from which the pain originated.
“Fuck me,” Randidly said. Now that the central core of pain was gone, Randidly was recovering more quickly under Yggdrasil’s ministrations. But he was also shaking from the aftershocks of that strange pain that had left him completely incapacitated, albeit briefly. Something old and dark from the Grim Chimera seemed to wake as Randidly tried to cope with the knowledge that he had been so helpless for a few seconds.
Hatred blossomed like a crimson flower in Randidly’s chest. He hated this feeling of weakness. If there was away to avoid every being forced to feel this weak again… if he could kill everyone who threatened him-
Blurred images of Nether Beasts appeared in Randidly’s mind. In these memories, Randidly seemed to be shooting forward through the Nether, barely hanging on to his life. The memories themselves floated fuzzily around in his mind and Randidly regarded them with shock.
These memories… where did they come from? But that feeling of weakness… It’s the same…
The memories came to him in sharp fragments. There was darkness and the sensation of manipulating the Nether bubbles to rush out and attack something. The victim was a blur. Then there was a strange moment where a soldier was reaching out and touching Randidly’s shoulder, and then the limp and violent form of the Nether Gatekeeper-
“Vualla!” Randidly spat out with every ounce of energy he had been able to muster while sifting through the memories. He sat up quickly, smashing his forehead into the knobby elbow joint of Yggdrasil. With a groan, Randidly collapsed backward as those fragmented moments floated together to give him a picture of what happened.
The ‘Randidly-ness’ that he possessed had been so strained by utilizing his Willpower beyond his natural capacity that it had cracked. Even now, that exposed flaw was exactly why he was hit with such an unnatural pain out of the blue. The fact that he had been able to continue after that was slightly puzzling, but combing more carefully through his memories provided an answer. It had been the instincts of the Grim Chimera that had carried Vualla forward to try and escape the base of the Nether Gatekeeper while Randidly was out of commission.
Since he was here and in one piece, it appeared that the Grim Chimera had been rather successful. But Randidly had no memory of what happened when they returned to the Aether side.
“She’s fine, as far as I can tell,” Yggdrasil said warily. The energy that he was channeling into Randidly slowed to a trickle and then stopped. Yggdrasil creaked as he straightened upward. “Vualla, I mean. Unfortunately, I was more concerned with getting you back here as quickly as possible than I was with checking in with her status any more seriously than determining that she wasn’t in critical condition.”
“Was I that bad?” Randidly asked with a heavy sigh. Honestly, he could guess what the answer was based on the pain that had just seized him.
“Well yes, but I was more concerned about the energy you were throwing off,” Randidly could hear the smile in Yggdrasil’s voice. “I believe it is a way of instinctively healing the damage you’ve taken… but you have the distinct scent of Nether wafting off of you currently. Easy to explain just as you return, but as time went on, questions would have been asked.”
Randidly checked his inner area, and sure enough, his two Nether Wells were radiating significant Nether. Most of it was gobbled up by the two cores that continued to try and restore Randidly’s exterior to its prior state, but some was no doubt leaking out through the cracks. Whatever sort of thing had been established inside of himself, it had been done completely subconsciously. And Randidly had to admit that he wasn’t the most delicate engineer of these things even at the best of times.
Especially without the Skills of the main body.
Randidly both tightened his control over the Nether Wells and created more powerful currents of Nether in his core to control the energy. It wasn’t a long term solution, but it would at least reduce the amount of Nether that he was producing.
Such actions, of course, earned him a sharp spike of pain from his persistent headache.
“Plus,” Yggdrasil continued cheerily. “You were only a few seconds away from having enough Nether in your body to reach three stars. So I wanted to get you away from Commander Terith before that happened. Too many shocks in one day is dangerous for a man his age; you should have seen his face when you and Vualla appeared.”
Again, with trepidation, Randidly turned his attention inward and discovered that Yggdrasil had been telling the truth; a third star had already formed inside of himself. Perhaps even more shocking was that a fourth was also halfway done.
However, Randidly discovered something extremely annoying about the new produced core. Perhaps because of his subconscious actions, the third core had recorded a very flawed version of his image. He must have moved it to press it against his bubble during one of his dreams. As such, while two cores were trying to heal himself, the third was working against them and trying to keep everything in its murky state. Which had halved his recovery speed.
Gritting his teeth, Randidly touched the offending core and followed his instincts to completely cleanse it of the terrible image it had imprinted. Instantly, it stopped absorbing Nether to use to affect his bubble. Some internal tension Randidly hadn’t even noticed finally relaxed. Nether began to flow more easily through him. Which made a marked difference in the speed that Randidly felt his image was slowly restoring itself.
“How long until the next mission?” Randidly asked grimly. The healing speed increased, but the image body was only half of the battle; he still needed for his Willpower to recover. And also Randidly needed to find out how gently he needed to treat this cracked psyche that was at his core.
He assumed it would heal, but if he kept ending up in situations where he was forced to use every ounce of his power…
For several seconds, Yggdrasil was silent. The lack of response stretched for so long that even the bleary Randidly opened his eyes and blinked rapidly at the dim light of the tent’s interior. While Randidly tried to get his bearings, Yggdrasil quietly said, “Two days.”
Two days? But that would mean…
Randidly had an urge to sit up again but quickly suppressed it. “I don’t suppose Lady Iellaya was so moved by my generosity in volunteering that she gave us a day off?”
Yggdrasil’s leaves rustled as he shook his head. “I went into the Great Rift in your stead. After being there, I certainly can’t blame you for returning with grievous injuries every time. And we only encountered three Nether Beasts during our stay. Compared to the trials that you have faced…”
Even though it hurt, Randidly forced his body to sit up. Then he turned and regarded Yggdrasil.
Likely earlier, when it had felt like Yggdrasil’s healing streams were less powerful than before, it might not have just been context. The current Yggdrasil looked more like a weeping willow with greying leaves than the towering tree that held up the world. It was clear that the image hadn’t become any less detailed since Randidly had seen Yggdrasil last, but certainly, it was less vibrant.
Randidly’s eyes flashed as he ruminated on the coldly calculating Iellaya.
I’ll fucking kill that bitch.