The ground cracked and shuddered as Randidly thrust with his bone spear, spurring the surrounding space to wildly gesticulate as the Nether in Randidly’s attack destabilized the surrounding area. Space seemed to shiver in pain from the passage of the strike, even as Randidly frantically fed Nether into the whirling trio of cores that were intangibly present in the tip of his spear.
Keeping his breathing even, Randidly took a step backward and surveyed his work.
The hole was large. Large enough that several horses could fall into the broken hole in the ground and with enough leftover that another could tumble down to join them. But perhaps even more important to Randidly was the fact that the damage was rather concentrated. Perhaps because the force came partially from Nether, the aftershocks decreased exponentially as it spread out into this Aether dominated area. It was only at the exact tip of his spear where the grim work was accomplished.
The ground that Randidly had struck directly had been completely annihilated. Naught but a memory was left. It was only as that tang of Nether was diluted that the physical impact and corrosion had time to take effect. Overall, it was an incredibly impressive display. Yet Randidly could only grimace as he maintained his breathing and tried to cope with the results.
The power was more than enough that Randidly had much more confidence dealing with foes, both those of the Nether and Aether. However…
Hissing, Randidly continued to channel power to the three cores as their frantic spinning eased down to a manageable rotation in his arm. His image body shivered in distaste as a large volume of Nether was freed up as required Nether to maintain the attack dropped sharply off, and Randidly hadn’t yet mastered the easy shift in managing his Nether Wells to match the amount he needed to control his cores. Nether spread out in haphazard waves as Randidly struggled to control its motion.
That incidental damage would be quickly healed by his cores passively, but it was still painful to experience. But perhaps even more annoying was the fact that it took time and conscious effort to ease the cores down from their destructive form.
More than that, Randidly had been able to sense two things while he pushed his cores up to that speed that could annihilate substance on impact. The first thing was that it was possible to provide an insufficient amount of Nether during the process and the attack would fail. Spectacularly, Randidly’s instincts assured him. He wasn’t exactly sure what form that failure would take, but it seemed likely that it would not be costless.
It wasn’t something that he wanted to experience if it could be avoided.
The second thing was that there was a qualitative transformation waiting if Randidly revolved the three cores at a sufficient speed. The Nether began to move erratically during the height of the attack. Just beyond that erratic movement there seemed to be a new plateau present that Randidly could reach if he would just push a little bit more.
Yet Randidly didn’t force himself toward that qualitative change in these experiments. Half because he feared damaging himself with rampant Nether and being unconscious for another mission and also half because he didn’t quite feel comfortable enough opening his Nether Wells up to the required amount to fuel that transformation.
As Randidly slowly acquired more cores and bubbles, more and more he felt strangely unphased by the Nether present in himself. Yet with three cores, it was not yet a complete transformation. And because the cores he possessed were ultimately created from an Aether formation, his immunity was ultimately a seeming and not a being. When Nether was left to press against his image, damage would slowly start to occur as it couldn’t
prevent all damage.
Still, better than nothing.
Randidly peered at the slowly dimming Nether flames around his bone spear and shook his head in wonder.
And for whatever reason, my fourth star is already halfway done. I suppose it will be pretty soon that I find out whether I’ll be physically affected by possessing too many stars. Although it will be impossible to know if that’s because I’m simply an image or because I can sense and interact with Nether.
Yet that’s all premised on the fact I won’t be affected.
Randidly mused. The more he thought about it, the sourer his mood became.
Because if I am affected, I’ll need to start figuring out a way to get rid of the cores. Because with the Nether Wells inside of me, more cores will continue to form as long as I stay on the frontlines.
Coughing, Randidly shook his head ruefully.
Of course, the main body will need to find a way to deal with the Nether without the grand formation once we return to Earth. Ha… it seems like our work never ceases.
Randidly turned away from the hole he had made in the ground and looked up at the sky. His thoughts followed the maroon clouds, and Randidly willingly allowed them to drift away until his mood had evened out once more. After narrowing his eyes, he nodded sharply to himself. He should still have a few more hours before he needed to head back. He had some time to attempt his other new Skill one more time, although not a lot.
After all, his next mission would take him back to Headquarters to engage in a mission with an Aether Key as support. Randidly needed to allow for time for the trek back to headquarters to receive his orders.
Gonna be a damn boring mission after fighting in the Nether Gatekeeper’s base…
A sound in the sky brought Randidly’s gaze sharply up. Then he sighed.
Titantically large, pitch-black tentacles smashed against the repaired golden dome that surrounded the camps. From his current vantage, they appeared to be extremely manageable, but Randidly still recalled how intimidating those tentacles had seemed as Iellaya and Terith struggled against them.
The noise was pretty subdued from the distance that he had tred beyond the supply route behind the camps, but Randidly could see the reverberations travel from the point of impact across the whole of the golden dome, spreading right and left and over like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond.
The attacks against the barrier had arrived sporadically since Commander Terith had managed to smash through the Nether bombardment portal and hastily repair the dome. The intermittent strikes seemed to be more of a mental attack than a physical one because it reminded the individuals of the two camps of the disastrous artillery strike they had suffered.
Randidly turned his gaze back toward the rocky outcropping on top of which the Headquarters sat. He had been able to see ripples traveling from the other direction, as well. It seemed that it wasn’t just this flank that was enduring the attacks.
Even as the huge waves slid smoothly outward, Randidly turned away from the sky and the frontlines and focused on his own training. That tier of struggle was still beyond him. He needed to work his way up to that through training.
While utilizing Nether offensively and defensively had proceeded well, understanding his new Skill Nether Ritual had been nothing short of an experience akin to learning a language from a mute instructor. There was a strange instinct that he possessed that enabled Randidly to make some rather half-hearted attempts at the process, but it had gotten him nowhere. Just as soon as he attempted to form his ‘rituals’, they fizzled out and left him strangely drained.
Nothing was more frustrating than the fact that these early attempts had yielded him Skill Levels, even as they had sputtered out and accomplished nothing. It seemed to hint that these strange workings were indeed not like Engraving at all, where it was repetition and precision that earned him his Skill Levels. As the text of Nether Rituals had implied, these were a more ephemeral construction.
And they required faith to function.
Shaking his head, Randidly just closed his eyes and attempted it again.
First came the desire. That much was ‘clear’, in so much that the word desire was a clear guide to beginning. Which honestly, for Randidly, was a little bit of a non-starter. He had tried focusing on Stats and Skill Levels as a desire, but both of those ‘rituals’ had ended in failure. But other than that-
something I want.” Randidly’s eyes blazed intensely green for a brief second. “I want to see Vualla. Just to know that she’s alright.”
At the sudden thought, Vualla’s face popped into Randidly’s mind. Tumbling turquoise hair, raised eyebrows and curious eyes, the quirk at the corner of her mouth that Randidly had taken to interpreting as she was amused. With picture-perfect clarity, Randidly could recall every detail of her, every stray hair curling out of her braid and every freckle on her nose.
And in a way that he hadn’t before, Randidly felt desire.
There was a shift and immediately the sensation that Randidly felt as he activated the Skill became a reassuring hum. Suddenly, his ritual had shape where it hadn’t before. This was a desire that the Nether Ritual accepted. Vualla’s face became the core and mental grooves materialized around it that seemed to call for Nether.
In Randidly’s inner world, the ‘core’ and the ‘bubble’ slowly began to undulate. Lines of power stretched and rotated, a series of concentric circles spinning about that image of Vualla’s face like a hula hoop would slowly dance across someone’s hips.
Baring his teeth, Randidly began to feed Nether cautiously into the strange working that was balanced precariously in his mind. Again, he hesitated at the beginning and fed the Nether into those whispering lines of power slowly. But very quickly it became clear that the structure was beginning to warp and wither without sufficient Nether to sustain it.
“Fucking shit,” Randidly swore. After a split second of indecision, he opened his two Nether Wells and allowed Nether to pour out and sink into the shape of the ritual. Very quickly, it grew steady and dark energy began to grow branchingly upward like a vine on the invisible infrastructure of the ritual that Randidly had created. Those hula hoops began to twist, each rotating on a different slightly off-kilter axis.
With a few seconds, it had become an extremely thick three-dimensional weaving of Nether. Yet as it grew, Randidly’s attention was tugged away from the details because what he was seeing abruptly struck him as incredibly familiar. Not in this particular shape, but considering the way it was weaving itself together-
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Ritual (A) has grown to Level 5!
As his attention wavered, so did the whole structure. Shaking his head sharply, Randidly tried to bury his attention back into the process. The Nether Ritual stuttered and swayed, but slowly its momentum built back up. The dark energy spiraled inward, and Randidly felt a strange sense of deja vu.
All that energy followed the lines and began to congregate at the central point, becoming an anchor that held down the image of Vualla’s face that Randidly had conjured. As he looked at the bead of energy that everything was being woven toward, he could
Vualla. Her presence. That tingling happiness that he had started to experience around her. That sense that she was someone who had struggled beneath the same sort of sins that Randidly had endured. That her enemies shared similar names and faces. That she truly understood the reasons that Randidly felt the need to cut himself to the bone every day in order to grow stronger.
They craved power for the same reasons. And they hated the System with the same chilling intensity.
It was an instinctive recognition Randidly felt around Vualla, that signaled that they both understood each other. In an implicit way that had nothing to do with shared words or cultural expression, but was instead grounded by the fact the things in life they believed to be important were significantly similar. And because of that, their proximity became harmonious in a way that Randidly would never have dared believe.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Ritual (A) has grown to Level 6!
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Ritual (A) has grown to Level 7!
Randidly’s attention was transfixed on that bead as it grew more robust and powerful. If this truly could give him a vision of Vualla-
And it was then that Randidly realized why the Nether Ritual shape was familiar. Another image superimposed itself on what he was seeing. One he was
“Holy shit,” Randidly whispered as his distraction caused the ritual to collapse inward on itself. Nether blasted outward, searing Randidly and causing him to wince in discomfort. But of course, his three cores rapidly jumped to the task of healing the damage while Randidly hurriedly regulated the amount of Nether running through him.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Acclimation ® has grown to Level 138
Even though his chance to see Vualla collapsed into nothing, Randidly was too shocked by his realization to really put much disappointment into the result. The truth he had discovered was that important. He began to chew on his lip as he looked down at his hands.
“It seems like Nether Rituals are just like-” Randidly paused. Then he began to chuckle. “No… it’s not that way, is it? Nether Rituals probably came first.”
Randidly raised his head and looked at the sky. “So the question is… who adapted the principles of the Nether Ritual in order to fashion the Nexus’s Class System?”