It wasn’t that Randidly hadn’t believed the guards, not to mention his own extremely acute senses, that had informed him that his image body would have difficulty within the liquid Aether. He certainly believed them; what they were stating was unarguable fact. Liquid Aether was not only volatile but denser than anything he had encountered in the past.
Even if the tight control of Nadia and Kailm meant that the volatility wasn’t an issue, the density wouldn’t be easy to overcome. So he was aware it would be difficult.
But in the same way that Randidly had managed to endure the extremely dense Nether when they went to lure out the Nether Gatekeeper, Randidly believed he would be able to endure liquid Aether. If the issue was the structural integrity of his body, he trusted the trial he had experienced through the last few weeks and what it meant for his image. He had been refined to the point of being incomparable to his feeble images during his time on Tellus and later Earth.
It hadn’t occurred to him, however, to think about the very legitimate fact that if there was liquid Aether, there was probably liquid Nether. And that dense Nether he so struggled with certainly wasn’t liquid.
Randidly smashed into the surface of the liquid Aether and realized that this assumption was very, very wrong. It bowed under him, the surface tension refusing to allow him passage. Perhaps if he hadn’t been flailing and ripped the surface open with a claw, it wouldn’t have let him in at all.
As it was, the liquid Aether begrudgingly allowed him to sink into it, closing up quickly after him and leaving him completely suspended in the Aether.
In a way, it was quite a bit easier than handling Nether. After all, the Aether didn’t make any attempts to weaken and devour him. This was Randidly’s natural element. Although Randidly didn’t currently possess the many diverse Aether Skills of the main body, he could still move well enough through the liquid Aether.
After the initial shock had worn off, a gasp escaped Randidly’s lips. The world hidden beneath the surface of the azure energy was stunning.
Spirals of gleaming energy danced across his vision, providing some variance from the deep pool of azure that surrounded him. Small motes of golden light seemed to dance at the corners of his vision, disappearing as soon as he twisted to face them. Yet Randidly’s face became increasingly red as he took in the sights; it was not an easy thing for his body to persist here. Every second dragged past as it felt like Randidly was slowly being constricted by a fifteen-meter long python that thoroughly enjoyed his torment.
Suddenly the beauty became less of a wondrous treasure and more of a final gift from the world to Randidly before his journey to the afterlife. His focus narrowed as the crushing force of the liquid Aether demanded more and more of his attention.
I… refuse… to die… like… this…
With burning emerald eyes, Randidly marshaled all of the Willpower and mental weight that he had gained from the Eidolon Crucible and from drinking Nadia’s smoky tea. His image body began to shimmer with concentrated strength. His chest expanded and Randidly raised his bone spear and claw in challenge against the surrounding liquid Aether.
Congratulations! Your Skill Monstrosity’s Appalling Physicality (A) has grown to Level 228!
The Grim Chimera’s mouth spread wide and open. Its teeth were sharp and dripping with saliva. Its rakish grin was a challenge against the surrounding waters and the herald of an approaching triumph. Again this environmental enemy, the Grim Chimera would not bow. It would only adapt.
Of course, there was no response from the surrounding azure waters. The marvelous bright palette of colors continued their manic dance without any care toward its audience. The thin reverberating waves from Randidly’s arrival to this place slowly dispersed and Randidly could see more clearly the spiraling lights leading him deeper toward the true form of the armory. The stone walls of either side of the pool sloped quickly inward, but Randidly saw an opening spilling white light up toward him.
At first, he tried swimming, but Randidly realized with chagrin that rather than his motions, what he needed to do was expend more will in order to proceed deeper into the armory. It was only by displacing the rather vanilla image of the liquid Aether that Randidly was able to make room for his image body to proceed deeper. Which was much harder than it seemed initially.
So he stopped his flailing, hearing a noise suspiciously like Nadia’s laughter and focused all of his attention on making himself heavier. His jaw trembled from clenching. His chest was on fire. But a few seconds later, he had results.
Slowly but surely, he began to sink downward.
Randidly’s expression was extremely sour as he drifted toward the brilliant light below.
I’ll be good for now, but if I need to move everywhere like this I’m gonna run out of steam before I have time to check out much…
Luckily, just as Randidly was beginning to wonder what his timelimit in this place would be, he felt a flash of heat from inside of himself that quickly sharpened into painful tiny pinpricks of fire seemed to ignite all across his body.
Congratulations! Your Skill Pain Resistance has grown to Level 110!
This must be Nadia’s work,
Randidly twisted his mouth and relaxed his will as he began to speed rapidly downward toward the light without having to constantly think himself into doing so.
Well, I’m just glad that passing their little test turned out to be worth it.
Of course, whether that was actually the case remained to be seen. There was still the issue of her daughter’s Fate, which Nadia had offered to Randidly. Her explanation had certainly raised more questions than it had answered.
But whether or not the assistance turned out to be worth it, certainly the information that Nadia had casually provided about Classes and Fates certainly would be. Now that Nadia’s blessing took over most of the task of bringing him down toward the main portion of the armory below, Randidly could reflect on some of the things that she had said.
Classes being a prayer for an ideal self… images not being truly real and what that means… Fates as a guidepost forward…
It’s pretty fucking ironic that the individuals who I’ve seen with the most powerful images are the ones who were the most dismissive of images… But I suppose they might be right. Images are powerful, but that doesn’t mean they are real.
But does that really matter?
Then Nadia’s words came back to Randidly. That he wouldn’t understand until he had lost someone precious to him. It stunk of arrogance to say that so boldly without knowing Randidly’s life, but his tongue made no moves to defend the experience of his heart.
Some part of Randidly wanted to claim that he had lost someone precious to him. People he had known had died underneath the thumb of the System, after all. Individuals from Donnyton had perished despite Randidly’s best efforts to keep them alive and defend the town during those early days.
Yet Randidly could point to even more recent examples. On the bank of the Hallat on Tellus, Randidly had buried no fewer than a hundred companions that he had traveled and eaten with as they slowly retreated back to the capital. People he had spoken with had bled and died while he watched, furiously battling against the Wights.
But another part of Randidly admitted these were relatively shallow losses. Even though the tragedy of those deaths had deeply scarred him, it was purely external wounds. None of the deaths that Randidly had endured had left him hollowed out and empty because someone who was vital to him departed from this life.
His relationships with Ace and Sydney had soured and changed into something that felt too strange for Randidly to really address, but that was different. In addition, the choices that Randidly’s father had made left Randidly somewhat shocked and helpless, but they had never been very close to begin with. His father had distanced himself from Randidly and his mother from an early age.
And right now, the person closest to me would be…
Randidly hesitated as he cast his mind around. The Grim Chimera grunted agreement to the confusion.
I suppose… Helen…? Probably more so than Azriel…
Certainly, he and Helen had spent the most time together and had been briefly intimate at one time. She was his knight, the individual that Randidly trusted the most. If she were to die, it would definitely hurt. He would grieve for a long time afterward.
Yet would that pain and loss be enough that Randidly attempted to recreate Helen using an image? That didn’t seem likely. And it seemed even less likely that Randidly would be able to approach anything close to recreating her with an image.
Because Randidly sensed that the sort of craving that allowed Nadia and Kailm to create such powerful images wasn’t a mundane emotion. It was something bordering on obsession. Randidly wasn’t sure if it was
such crazed individuals that could reach that tier of image, but it certainly didn’t hurt to desire something so strongly.
…would I seek to revive Vualla if she died…?
As soon as the thought drifted forward to the forefront of his mind, Randidly blinked and shook his head almost to wish it away. Certainly he felt strangely connected to Vualla. Doubly strange that he felt so strongly because they had interacted on only a few occasions. And certainly, they shared a lot of implicit understandings. Randidly, or perhaps the Grim Chimera, felt unprecedented… freedom, around Vualla. A feeling of being able to truly be seen as the moderately violent, mildly desperate struggler that he was.
But it was a shallow thing, Randidly assured himself. The breadth of their interactions was simply too short.
Randidly’s claw tightened to a fist.
She’s still alive. I can still protect her so I never find out the answer to that question. But I cannot deny that if I really want to do that… I’ll need strength. And isn’t that why I’m considering the offer of Nadia’s daughter’s Fate?
Congratulations! Your Skill Monstrosity’s Appalling Physicality (A) has grown to Level 229!
Even if it is dangerous… even if Nadia thinks I will likely be consumed and used as fuel for the revival of her daughter, if this Fate is as strong as she claimed, it might give me the boost that I need to survive Lord Miln’s plot. Plus, it might show me the sort of desire I need in order to grow even stronger…
Randidly kept his thoughts to himself as he finally drifted down to arrive at the opening to the illuminated opening below. Rather than this being the armory, it looked more like a shaft of liquid Aether that protected the real armory below, allowing only glimpses of the powerful light and faint rumblings contained within.
Yet the journey was not easy. As he proceeded deeper, the combined weight of the liquid Aether around him continued to climb. Randidly gritted his teeth and continued to forcefully endure it. Even if all he was required to do was maintain his body, it was beginning to become extremely difficult.
Although he hesitated to do it, Randidly began actively using the bubbles from his three cores to share an extremely limited portion of the weight. He hadn’t wanted to try on the off chance that the bubbles were Nether enough that they would cause an extremely violent reaction from the surrounding Aether. But it was swiftly becoming apparent that he had no choice.
Luckily, it seemed the fact that these were simply knock off cores and bubbles worked to Randidly’s advantage. It might only take away 10% of the weight he had to face, but it was enough to allow him to relax.
Much more comfortable with the assistance, Randidly floated down into the light and saw the roiling currents of the armory below.