The walk toward Commander Terith’s camp was illuminating. Probably one-fourth of her own camp was lightly damaged, but Terith had clearly borne the brunt of the fallout from the bombardment. Entire swaths of the previously pristine rows of tents had been razed to the ground. Wounded sat in huddles around fires, talking to each other in quiet voices.
Perhaps most interesting was the strange array Iellaya paused briefly by right outside of Terith’s tent. It had been completely annihilated in the bombardment; if anything, it seemed like quite a bit of the firepower was concentrated here. It was clear that an Aether formation had been built in that area, but Lady Iellaya couldn’t fathom what it was. That area was not her forte.
Then she raised her chin and walked into the tent to meet Commander Terith. He was, annoyingly, sitting in his desk as though he had been waiting for her. She took a seat opposite him and did her best to keep her posture stiff.
To pass the time, Lady Iellaya folded her hands across her lap as she sat perfectly facing Commander Terith. Because she understood that she held the power here, Iellaya felt no desire to end the silence; better to give the stickler Terith space for him to make his own decisions as to how he should deal with Iellaya.
He doesn’t seem like the type to forget aid freely given, but he also is the type to take offense at the smallest thing. The less I speak, the less chance I give him to change his mind.
But also the silence gave Iellaya the perfect opportunity to examine Terith himself. Although he did well to cover it up with his sizable armor he was wearing, Iellaya could tell how strained and wounded he was. His spine was bent forward, ever so slightly, underneath the weight of the stress that he had been handling the past few days. Which, for this Commander, was extremely telling.
Their victory over the Nether had come by Terith’s hands, but it seemed that it hadn’t come without cost.
“…thank you,” Commander Terith finally said to break the silence. “Both for your assistance when they opened the Nether Gate for the bombardment, and also for allowing one of your subordinates to accompany the expedition. He performed his duty admirably, earning terrible wounds in order to bring his commanding officer back safely. Such dedication to duty… well, perhaps I misjudged him as just an image. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Lady Iellaya smiled.
An image? Who- ah, somehow the Ghosthound was involved in this as well… He certainly has a nose for trouble.
Her eyes twitched as the implications of that rolled over her.
Which means that he proceeded into the Nether Gatekeeper’s base and made it back alive. While lugging whatever officer of Terith’s was with him. And he recovered in time to aid in the base’s defense. Abiodun is perhaps right. It is not enough to just say that he’s strong for an image.
Randidly Ghosthound is becoming legitimately strong.
Aloud, Iellaya said. “We are allies; it is my duty to come to your aid. I’m sure any Commander would do the same.”
Terith snorted and leaned back in his chair. He brought his hands up across his knees in a strange mirroring of Iellaya’s own position. “Let’s not insult each other’s intelligence; despite the fact that I had two neighbors, only one Commander came to my aid. The silence to my other side will not be forgotten or forgiven.”
Reaching out, Commander Terith grabbed a pile of papers and straightened them. Then he carefully set them back down before he continued to speak. “Also, there is no need to act so coy. I disdain the political games that you are playing because our full attention should be on our battle against Nether, but I will not let that stop me from repaying this favor.”
For the first time in several weeks, Iellaya released a genuine smile. “You mean-”
Commander Terith stood sharply up from his desk and walked over to Iellaya. On his way, he picked up the pile of papers that he had previously adjusted and handed them over to her. For several seconds, Iellaya paused to scan the thick papers. The page in front of her was covered in a record of all the communications that Lord Miln had sent and received for the past several weeks. As she skimmed through, it seemed that the entire year had been accounted for.
Lady Iellaya was also shocked to note that several unusual names had been highlighted extremely precisely, likely by Commander Terith himself.
Did you really just get up this morning and do some light research…?
Iellaya raised her gaze from the papers. “These are…”
“I’m sure you are aware that Lord Miln embezzled an extremely large amount of Aether this year.” Commander Terith said shortly. “I figured that I could repay my favor by tracing this vanished Aether; it would serve as the leverage you need. However… I encountered something extremely strange. The actors at play here… they are so far beyond me that I dared not dig further than this. And I warn you to cease digging too deeply as well.”
This gave Iellaya pause. She skimmed through the names that Commander Terith had noted in Miln’s communication. Then she looked up at Terith with a frown. “…I don’t recognize any of these names.”
Commander Terith chuckled. “How much do you know about those who seek the pinnacle of the Nexus, Lady Iellaya? You were born in the Sixth Cohort, were you not?”
After she nodded slowly, Commander Terith continued to speak. “And, let us be frank, you use the benefits of citizenship that you hope to seize to bind potential to your cause. But you should know that is only one use for citizenship coins that the System carefully spreads. The most fashionable use currently, but a relatively shallow one.
“There are three Tiers of Citizenship: 1, 2, and 3. These are generally earned by contributing greatly to the Nexus or accomplishing a feat so impressive that even the System takes notice. But ultimately, ‘citizenship’ is a one-use token. For example, you possess Tier 2 citizenship but have not yet turned it in for the benefits, correct? You aim for Tier 3?”
“Yes,” Iellaya said slowly. “I had heard that some consider the difficulty in rising to Tier 3 too difficult, so they simply accepted the smaller amount of Domain and Aether reward and claimedTier 2 benefits before they died… but from the way you are speaking, is there another use for citizenship?”
“Of course.” Commander Terith sat back down at his seat and remained silent for several seconds. Then he sighed. “Have you heard of Alymiyan?”
“The special district within the Nexus…?” Lady Iellaya frowned at Terith. What reason could Terith have for bringing up that overpriced vacation destination? Lady Iellaya had been to Alymiyan by using her status as a possessor of a Tier 2 citizenship coin to visit the Nexus since failing her Fourth Calamity. It had been a beautiful dreamscape of clouds that had seemed to have been whipped from rainbows and was populated by stunning waterfalls that gleamed aquamarine and turquoise.
“So you know that it’s not just for the beauty that people flock there,” Commander Terith said grimly.
Lady Iellaya scratched her chin. “Well… yes. The System doesn’t function there. Or at least, you can’t see any of your Stats, Skills, Paths, or Levels. You are… some people claim, freed. But really, it’s just self-delusion. And what does this have to do with the issue of Lord Miln…?”
Waving a hand, Commander Terith released another sigh. “I am getting to that. This was before even my time as a citizen in the Nexus, but it is without a doubt that there is a second use for citizenship tokens; they allow you to access the Final Path. The open the door to the thoroughfare that leads to the pinnacle of the Nexus.”
Lady Iellaya blinked as her mind whirred to file this bit of information away. Very rarely had she ever heard anyone speak willingly about the history of the Nexus. “A Path, like…”
“In this case, a literal path,” Commander Terith said. “A difficult one with three doors, one for each Tier of citizenship. However, if you succeed… you gain the power to shape a portion of the System. You can create Alymiyan, the Nostalgic Dream, by altering the very System to your will.”
“That’s…” Lady Iellaya struggled to find the correct words to describe how she was feeling. For a second, she felt a small flame of greed twitch in her heart. With the power to shape the System, everything she had ever wanted-
Commander Terith’s chuckle broke through her brief daydream. “You see? Even you are tempted. However, only one person has ever succeeded at reaching the pinnacle, starting from the Tier 3 door. That individual created Alymiyan, showing us all that it was possible. Yet no one has since been able to duplicate that feat. And all those who use the Tier 1 and Tier 2 doors have died. It has come to the point that no one attempts it any longer. To the current generation, it is not even known as an option.”
“What is the price of failure for Tier 3?” Lady Iellaya asked easily.
“Nothing, lucky. All of those who use the Tier 3 doors have come back alive. Just a loss of opportunity. I don’t even think anyone has come back injured.” Then Commander Terith leaned forward and smiled so widely that Lady Iellaya believed she could see every one of his teeth. “Yet it must be galling, no? They say that all who return from the attempt have experienced such trials that their images and stats are greatly strengthened. And they refuse to speak of it, so none my ascend higher than they did.
“Yet, for all their newfound power, they have already used their opportunity at citizenship to seek the summit and failed. They remain landless and without followers forever. It is a lonely and maddening existence to be sure. Especially as they watch less capable individuals become citizens of the Nexus and enjoy superior benefits to their own.
“Just like those who choose a domain when they obtain citizenship, those who fail to ascend to the pinnacle are carefully monitored by the System; their Aether is measured and given sparingly. Some handle the tedious strain of their strange existence by acting as Administrators for new Cohorts or by pretending to be mere Patrons. And then there are others… that are constantly plotting ways to make it back to the Final Path.”
“You think the missing Aether is related to that?” Lady Iellaya said slowly.
Commander Terith’s smile disappeared. “I dare not attempt to confirm this. However, there is some support for this theory. The war against Nether is one of the few areas where the Nexus is rather liberal with its supply of Aether. So much so that it is provided to the Supreme Commander with only the oversight of the Commanders. And Lord Miln has long held the interests of most of his subordinates close to himself.
“Yet despite his experience on the battlefield and personal power, Lord Miln is a small fry in the war against Nether. He is one of the twelve Supreme Commanders on the twelve battlefronts, but let’s be honest; these are just the bare defensive preparations the Nexus makes so it is not directly threatened. The true military strength of the Nexus is in the Xyrt Brigade, who perform the deep raids into Nether Territory. Those are all the individuals that caught the eye of the Nexus during their Fourth Calamity. We posturing fools are simply a citizen militia that tends the fires at home.”
Lady Iellaya tried to keep her expression neutral, but she felt her smile becoming increasingly fragile. She absolutely hated being reminded of how powerless she had felt during her home world’s Fourth Calamity. Three-fourths of her race’s population, erased by the power contained in a single cruel laugh while she was forced to watch her people die. “Again, you wander away from your point, Commander Terith. It is unbecoming for one so exacting in their etiquette.”
“Heh, so even the ice queen has sore spots, eh?” Commander Terith didn’t laugh, but his mouth twitched toward an expression that might be his version of a smirk. “What I’m saying is that Lord Miln would be a fool if he attempted to use all that Aether himself. He would possess great might for a short period of time, sure. But ultimately, he could not handle the reigns.
“Yet these names…” Commander Terith gestured toward the paper. “What little research I did reveals that they predate the Third Cohort. These are old monsters that Lord Miln was contacting. These ominous individuals are who might grow annoyed if you dig too deeply. These are the ones that now possess half of our budgeted Aether, and I don’t think they will have any qualms about using it for their own gain. So take care of yourself, Lady Iellaya.”