Randidly carefully considered the mysterious absence of Vualla from every angle. Originally, he had just vaguely thought that perhaps Vualla was also still recovering somewhat, but as that idea was exposed to the light of day it clearly disintegrated into nothing. There had to be another reason.
As Randidly’s tension mounted, Zauna and Salazar exchanged a knowing glance behind his back as though his behavior was extremely predictable. Which, of course, only served to infuriate Randidly further. Yet now that the possibility had been planted, the leafy shoots of doubt were springing up all through his subconscious.
Fuck, I wish I had a Nether Beast to tear apart…
Randidly continued in his rather grim brooding up to the point that he walked out into the badlands and witnessed that there was a rather noticeable difference from their previous visits to the area; a fence had been erected around the Commander Terith’s camp. The walls were four meters high and covered in spikes, but there was an open gate about halfway along the perimeter.
Standing at the open gate were two people talking quietly and although Randidly didn’t recognize either of the figures, he began to accelerate toward them. Despite their unfamiliarity, they represented a connection to Vualla. Even if all they would do is carry a message for Randidly, that would be enough.
The two uniformed, humanoid men noticed his approach but didn’t seem to make any sort of preparations for his arrival. They simply continued to talk quietly as Randidly strode briskly over toward them.
It was only when Randidly was a few meters away that the one individual straightened and held up a hand for Randidly to stop. “Sorry, Commander’s orders to no longer allow anyone from other camps inside. We are tired of associating with… well, let’s be honest. Riffraff.”
“Especialy all you fucking images,” The other man snickered.
There was a second where Randidly’s mind slowly mulled over this sort of response. Then the Grim Chimera’s fury burned like a forest fire through his chest, filling him with heat and ash. This time, Randidly was very willing to lose control and simply attack the two arrogant fucking guards. But to complete the emotional switch, the Grim Chimera held Randidly back. Its Grim Intuition howled foul play.
This was a trap, the Grim Intuition urged. They were trying to upset him on purpose.
That sudden clarity from the Grim Chimera’s instincts calmly Randidly immediately down. Although he had arrived while trying to see Vualla if these idiots were actually trying to harm him he would devote his full attention to their antics.
But why would they want to kill me?
Randidly wondered as he considered the two sneering guards.
Is it general hate against images…? Or is this targeted…?
God, Randidly dearly wished it was just prejudice against images. Because if it wasn’t, suddenly he would need to go through the very long list of people who wanted him dead in order to have any true hint as to what was going on here. And even then, the sad truth was that most of Randidly’s enemies didn’t bother to approach him directly; they simply manipulated the circumstances around him.
The guards settled back with smug expressions, perhaps accepting that Randidly wasn’t simply going to attack them. One raised his hand and waved it airly, as though shoo-ing a rodent. “Well, run along then. If you aren’t going to at least be a little entertaining, you better run on back to your- ah, you don’t have a body do you? What a sob-story. Imagine, an image without a body.”
Randidly just looked at the two guards, studying them, while engaging with an internal dialogue with the Grim Chimera.
Even if it’s a trap, they only possess a single star each. We might still be able to kill them.
Perhaps. Hard to judge between image and body.
We have the cores. With three of them, the power of Nether we can use to attack will take them by surprise.
And suddenly we have killed them with Nether. Which might come to light if the scene is investigated. Which could perhaps lead to an investigation that reveals our Nether Wells. No, better to be cautious. Withdraw for now.
The Grim Chimera image might be enough to kill them.
Survive first. All else is secondary. The Earth-
And what about Vualla while we are busy focusing on survival? What if this is a plot against her and I am just the soldier who made it back with her?
That silenced all of Randidly’s inner voices. Gritting his teeth, Randidly forced himself to turn away. Better to gather some more information before forcing the issue. Although they weren’t trustworthy, there were avenues in Lady Iellaya’s camp that he could sound out to find out the situation in the neighboring camp.
And at exactly that moment that Randidly was turning away, Salazar was stepping forward with a vicious expression on his face. “Bah, w-weaklings. We might all be images, b-but our C-Captain has condensed his third star already. He is a p-p-peerless warrior compared you r-rejects.”
As soon as the words left Salazar’s mouth, Randidly felt the mood in the air change. Where they had been opportunists before, now Randidly felt the abundant bloodlust rolling off the two guards. They stood again, but there was none of the lazy arrogance in their movements that had been there previously.
“We know that, you fucking puppet. We aren’t blind,” The meaner of the two hissed. “Which is why we won’t squash him, no matter how disrespectful he is. At least his body is worth something in this war. But you, you absolute sack of shit-”
Randidly spun around with a scowl on his face as the two guards advanced toward Salazar. Zauna stepped up to join Salazar in a show of solidarity. Salazar’s face was a strange mixture of satisfaction, shock, and absolute terror. The three emotions chased each other across his face as the guards came closer.
Randidly stepped forward between them. “Don’t you have a door to guard like good little doggies?”
It was, Randidly had to admit, profoundly satisfying to watch as the two guards’ faces contorted in fury.
Thanks for that one, Lyra.
At the moment, Randidly was very sure that the two forces were about to fight. Just as he was trying to make a mental inventory of how much force and what abilities he was going to use for this fight, that moment of tension proceeded to the next. And then everything was different.
All five individuals, and likely everyone in the two nearby camps, looked directly upward as a wave of sound smashed directly against them and pulled at their attention. Randidly felt dizzy for several seconds and the visual variance shot sharply upward as the force smashed against them. In the sky above them, an invisible dome that had been supported by some grand formation seemed to be crumbling. Large panels of brilliant golden glass fell slowly down toward the camps below.
Directly toward their current position, Randidly realized with a grim horror. And what was worse, three thick tentacles of Nether rushed downward toward Terith’s camp out of the shattered portion of the dome that they had created. From this distance, they seemed dangerous, but it was only as Randidly’s high Perception calculated the distance to those tentacles and their scale that Randidly began to pale.
Those tentacles of Nether were probably as thick as a city block and hundreds of times as long. If they struck down toward a camp and their group was outside-
“Shit,” the one guard muttered as he looked up toward the descending broken barrier and grasping Nether tenacles with a raw sort of horror. He almost looked completely numb after that one word, as though his emotions had overwhelmed him.
“Think it wants back whatever the Commander stole?” The other guard asked anxiously. Randidly glanced sharply at them both.
Then a loud snort echoed out, and a wave of energy blasted outward from the center of Terith’s camp. When that energy hit the panel that was about to crash into the camp, it disintegrated into thousands of motes of gold. Then those sparkling fireflies of energy reformed into the shape of a huge ax. A booming voice that Randidly recognized as Commander Terith followed.
“Quite sentimental for a monster made of Nether, don’t you think?”
Just as quickly as the Nether Tentacles smashed downward, that gleaming golden ax shot upward to meet it. The two blows met and the sky shuddered from the combined force. Grimacing, Randidly felt not a little pain just from the reverberations. And as the two forces began to battle, there was a piercing shriek and two black wings seemed to materialize in the skies above Lady Iellaya’s camp.
“Quite popular you are, Terith,” Rumbled outward as the wings became a shadowy blur that zipped upward and smashed one of the tentacles to the side and struck at the trunk of another. Commander Terith’s only reply was a dry chuckle.
For a few seconds, it seemed like the forces of Aether would pretty easily win here. But then a huge swarm of blue veins appeared above the chaotic battle by the hole that had been punched in the barrier. Very quickly, those veins swirled together to construct a powerful formation that pulsed with light every few seconds.
And those pulses were becoming increasingly frequent.
Randidly stood with his hands at his sides and solemnly looked upward. Again, this was it. Beyond that line fought the people who mattered. And here he was, on the ground, watching helplessly. It was infuriating. But Randidly couldn’t tear his eyes away from the titanic clashes that were occurring above him.
It seemed that both Iellaya and Terith understood what was happening, but even working together it was difficult for them to pierce through the thick bodies of the three Nether tentacles to get to the huge formation. The ax cut back and forth and Iellaya was the shadow of death in the skies, but it was a race against time.
Very quickly, one tentacle was completely severed, another had been so wounded that all of its Nether gushed out of holes in its body, and the final one seemed to be swaying dangerously. Iellaya used that opening to fly rapidly forward, but she pulled up sharply as three more tentacles ambushed her below the grand summoning portal
Her cry was so pure and piercing that it seemed to hum in Randidly’s lungs for several seconds after the noise had ceased. But still, Randidly breathed heavily and looked up at the sky with worry.
Because the portal was beginning to glow with pure light.
Perhaps after fighting the Nether Gatekeeper, Randidly automatically assumed that whatever was coming through the portal was something like that. Some enormous monster that would rampage through the front lines, fighting against the Commanders of the various camps. Ultimately, something that would be resolved, but would be insanely dangerous for the short term. Especially for those people in Terith’s camp, who appeared to be the target of whatever was coming.
But what happened was much, much harder to understand at first. Darkness seemed to gush out from the portal, but it seemed like a diverse, fractured thing. Frowning, Randidly stretched his perception as much as he could. He willed his Nether Sensation to spread out and touch that web of darkness.
But it was simply too far away. The only thing he could truly rely on at this distance were his eyes. And they told him-
Randidly paled and turned to Salazar and Zauna. “We are moving. As much as I hate it… we are just putting ourselves in danger by being here. We are returning to Iellaya’s camp.”
It was a difficult decision to make. Randidly wished dearly to see Vualla, more still to see that she was prepared for the attack that was about to land on the camps. But Randidly knew very clearly the difference in their strength. If this fell wrong for Vualla and was hit directly, she could be able to endure.
Image Randidly could not. It was that simple.
Zauna nodded, but Salazar just looked at Randidly dumbly. Randidly’s new hair-trigger temper flared to life. All Randidly’s thoughts of giving Salazar more respect after he had stood with Yggdrasil fled and Randidly simply seized Salazar by the scruff of the neck. “Because the sad truth is that images are inherently weaker against Nether by those with bodies. And based on what is coming down…”
Randidly looked up at the sky and toward the blackness that appeared to be gushing out of the portal and transforming into tiny, manageable bits. In the distance, the whistling sound of objects moving very, very fast reached Randidly’s ears.
He chewed on his lips as he considered the sky. “I don’t suppose you understand what an artillery strike is, do you?”