Perhaps the most obnoxious thing about Nether Rituals was the fact that there was a cooldown on their use. Especially because his ritual had imploded on him, Randidly sensed as he tried to start it again that it was a
bad idea to attempt another ritual now.
Earlier, the cooldowns had been so short that by the time that he had regained his mental strength, it was over. But perhaps because this time he proceeded much farther along in the working, as he started his instincts warned him away from continuing.
He pushed forward anyway, again aiming to see Vualla, but he ultimately stopped as even his Grim Intuition began to sound its own warning bells. So Randidly could only grit his teeth and let the working wither and die before he forced any additional Nether into it. In this case, it seemed that patience was his only route.
But perhaps if I try and visit again…
Hissing, Randidly shook his head and tried to calm his heart. During his training, his desire to see Vualla had faded somewhat. He had been placated by repeating, to himself, the message that she was stronger than he was. She likely had a good reason for being busy; they were currently at war.
Besides, Randidly himself had very important ways to spend his time which did not involve pining after Vualla. Namely, slowly unpacking the fact that he wasn’t alone in his ability to touch Nether.
Perhaps he shouldn’t be so shocked to find that someone other than him understood Nether and was able to use it. But likely because everyone Randidly had encountered on the battlefield hadn’t mentioned it, some part of him had just begun to believe that he was special. That his gifts were unique.
Which, of course, was not only dangerously foolish, but extremely unlikely. The Nexus and its System had been in existence for a long time. It’s reach had grown to a staggering size, so much so that individual worlds held barely any meaning to it any longer. All that mattered was how many worlds could produce soldiers capable of fighting the Nether. That, and the continual expansion of influence.
Randidly had been blessed by many things, but he understood that most of them boiled down to one message; he had gotten lucky. He might have a knack for using the spear and an innately stubborn will, but those things had only grown valuable after honing them for several years; he was not a genius that would have gotten to this point without the Creature’s meddling and Shal’s guidance.
Was it so strange that the existence who had created the System had the ability to understand Nether? Perhaps that individual had
to understand Nether, because as far as Randidly could see the System was designed to fuel the war against the Nether. And it made sense that you would steal some of the most valuable techniques a foe possessed and put it to use for yourself.
Yet I feel like there is something I’m missing.
Randidly frowned down at one of the cracked pieces of ground he had created with his Nether-infused attacks.
It’s not just that the shape is similar; Classes
a Nether Ritual done with Aether. So what does that mean for Fates? For reaching Levels?
But without having successfully completed a Nether Ritual, it was difficult to know what a success would look like. And also there was the minutia of the Level portion of the Class that didn’t seem to fit in with what Randidly had seen of Nether Rituals so far.
Sighing, Randidly could only turn around and carry his perturbed thoughts back with him to their assigned tent; it was time to prepare to head back toward Headquarters.
Waiting there was a piece of bad news: Zagnal. But he seemed to have ingratiated himself with Zauna and Salazar, and Randidly didn’t have the fight in him to try and prevent him from following after him.
This one was a spy that was directly working for Lady Iellaya, of that Randidly had no doubt. But as they began their journey, he couldn’t focus on that issue.
All he could do was force himself to look at anything but Commander Terith’s camp and walk straight toward the rocky outcropping.
It wasn’t that Lady Iellaya couldn’t do anything to improve the recovery of her camp toward fighting shape, it was just a matter of opportunity cost. With the frequent attacks continuing against the barrier around the camps, she was somewhat loathe to spend her own strength during such a dangerous time by helping the recovery effort.
Or perhaps more accurately, Lady Iellaya was well aware that her work with Commander Terith to close the grand Nether portal would percolate through the upper echelons of the camps. Turning the opinion of the other Commanders toward respect and awe was exactly what Iellaya wanted. So rather than helping her camp recover, she wanted to keep her strength in case another opportunity to prove herself came knocking.
Despite Commander Terith’s warning, Lady Iellaya wasn’t deterred from continuing to involve herself with ousting Lord Miln. If anything, the knowledge of such big fish swimming around the situation only made her more eager to dip her toes in the water.
After all, if she could demonstrate her own capability, it might be possible for her to make her own connection with such powerful characters. All she needed to do was prove that she would be a superior ally than Lord Miln. And when it came down to it, that was basically what she had been attempting to do her entire stay at the front lines, albeit with a different intended audience.
Lady Iellaya had also been able to learn that Commander Terith had managed to steal or capture some precious formation of Nether, which was why he had been constructing a cage of Aether to contain it in the central portion of his camp. Unfortunately, it had been utterly destroyed by the attack; it appeared that it had been the Nether’s ultimate goal with the bombardment.
I suppose it truly must have been valuable for the Nether to be so desperate to throw all of that ambient Nether into the air,
Lady Iellaya thought with a sigh.
But if their goal is accomplished… these flailing Nether tentacles might just be a way to hide their own weakness after we destroyed their Nether Wells. In which case, focusing on the foundations of my faction is the best way to proceed…
So Lady Iellaya closed her eyes and let her focus drift outward to all those lost souls that had bound themselves to her. She was the whale and they were the krill, joined together in an enormous symbiotic relationship that was truly terrible to behold. The monstrous knot of karma that Lady Iellaya managed was a grotesque, pulsing thing. But she did not look away from it. Instead, she reached out and touched it.
Lady Iellaya swore.
Never again will I let my people die due to weakness.
Generally, energy and potential flowed upward from those who offered Iellaya fealty to her. With that, she would grow in power and capability. Slowly, her increased power would circulate through the bonds she possessed and have the effect of gradually strengthening her followers. But it was also possible for Lady Iellaya to bless her followers much more directly by flooding the connections with her own power.
Of course, this was not without cost.
But Iellaya knew that if she was going to demonstrate her power, she needed to be ready for what was to come. If the Nether was really as hurting and desperate as it seemed, there would be a large operation coming up soon. Either an offensive by Lord Miln to seize back recently lost territory or a defensive effort against a tide of Nether Beasts in such numbers that the front lines hadn’t in a generation.
No matter what it was, Iellaya needed to distinguish herself at that time. And once that confrontation started, she wouldn’t have attention to spare for her forces. If she didn’t do it now, it wouldn’t happen.
Perhaps it was best to think of Iellaya as a reservoir behind a dam. As more individual ponds and streams were willing to feed into her, they would connect to the river system that flowed out of her. Although their water volume might decrease in the short term, the amount that she casually dealt with was so large that even the tiniest bit of favor from her would be the equivalent of what most of these individuals could hope to get after a year of hard work.
And, like today, when she completely opened the floodgates, they would experience ecstasy that a normal mind couldn’t even fathom. Her mental fingers against that knot of karma tightened. Then she twisted, and that carefully held reservoir of power blasted outward.
Lady Iellaya trembled as she released the pent up energy through the connections. It wasn’t something she did often, so the sensation always left her uncomfortable. It stunk to her of weakness, but it was a necessary evil.
As she did so, a collective gasp went through the camp as everyone experienced the intoxicating rush of power that Iellaya had released. She could feel their happiness, their joy, feel the grainy sensation of despair being slowly swallowed the murky prospect of hope in their hearts.
Then, after a few seconds of releasing that power, Lady Iellaya’s hand on that knot of karma tightened once more. She became whole again, although quite empty of her usual vigor. Hopefully, it would prove worth the gamble.
With her power still percolating down through those who were connected to her, they would experience increased recovery and capability for some time. The energy would slowly dissipate on its own, but most would likely find a use for it in the next week as they were continually sent on missions, despite the fact they suffered an attack.
Now all that she wanted was some time to recover.
On cue, Abiodun rapped on the partially rigid flap that covered her tent. Groaning, Lady Iellaya straightened and did her best to smooth her bristling feathers. Abiodun was obviously aware of what she had just done, so the fact that he had knocked anyway meant that whatever it was, it was very important.
And since he knocked, someone else is with him.
“Enter,” Lady Iellaya said a few seconds later after she was satisfied with her attempts to hide how exhausting that loss of energy was to her. She slipped the hand mirror she had used between her back and the chair on which she sat.
Three people walked into the room. The first was Abiodun, looking imposing and dangerous, fortified as he was by Iellaya’s energy. Although he wasn’t physically larger, his image had such weight now that the visual deviation in the surrounding area was partially suppressed. As the first and most important source of her strength, Abiodun received the larger share of her expended potency than most.
Next to him was a tired-looking young woman wearing large iron gauntlets and possessing tightly braided turquoise hair. This woman Iellaya gave a second glance, after feeling the ambient potency of her image. This was just the type of individual that Lady Iellaya would dearly love to have swear fealty to her, but based on the power present in her image, there was little chance of it happening.
Lady Iellaya thought sadly. Then she turned to the third person in the room. And she immediately froze.
It was a rather short and slight man who was completely hairless. His pale grey skin made him share more than a passing resemblance with a day-old corpse, and the lack of hair didn’t help his ghastly complexion at all. But around his body there wasn’t a hint of visual variation due to the Great Rift. His image was so solid that the surrounding air stilled by his presence.
Abiodun clasped his hands behind his back and stood at attention. Lady Iellaya blinked. The two strangers seemed to both be waiting for the other to speak.
The turquoise haired woman sent a questioning glance at the hairless man, who just smiled. Shaking her head in something close to disgust, the woman turned to Lady Iellaya. “Greetings Commander, my name is Vualla Meteo… we are here looking for one of your subordinates. Randidly Ghosthound is his name. We had hoped,” Another pointed glance at the smiling, grey-skinned creature with an aggressively powerful image next to her, “to speak with him. As quickly as possible. This man believes it is impossible for an image to possess stars.”
“Keh, you leave out the most important part,” When the hairless individual spoke, his voice was quite off-putting in shrill pitch and cadence. “Only by finding another such variant element can you prove that it is reasonable for such a quality recruit such as you to have slipped through the cracks. Otherwise… hehehe… I suppose it will be up to me to persuade you to reveal how you managed to infiltrate the Imperial Aether Army.”
“Yes, that dumb theory,” The turquoise haired woman replied with a stone face. She kept her gaze on Lady Iellaya.
Lady Iellaya, for her part, suppressed a shiver and licked her lips. On the one hand, some part of her was annoyed they both seemed rather dismissive of her rank. Yet on the other hand… the man’s presence made Iellaya nervous enough not to press the issue. “…Unfortunately, Randidly Ghosthound is currently out participating in a mission… but I’m sorry, I don’t recognize either of you. And without knowing more, I cannot-”
“Ah! Where are my manners,” The hairless man whistled. He opened his mouth in something like a smile and revealed rows of rotten teeth. “I am Cail Tweocs. I am a special investigator of the Xyrt Brigade, part of the Internal Affairs division. A pleasure, I’m sure.”