Although he had mostly recovered, the first thing that Randidly did in this small nostalgic cabin was rest. He spared his two subordinates and one watchdog a glance: Salazar was explaining excitedly to Zauna about his skill with herbs while Zagnal was sitting with his arms crossed beneath a tall maple tree.
The area was about the size of a football field, so there was space enough for the three to wander around in the short term. They would swiftly grow bored, but it was a diversion for now. So Randidly entered into the cabin and settled himself on the familiar straw met pressed up against the West wall.
Randidly had gotten a few moments of rest immediately after leaving the armory, but what he did now was completely let down his guard. With the current Aether density around him, Randidly didn’t think it was possible for the Nether to approach without causing significant reverberations. Plus his three companions might not have his same Nether Sensation as he did but they would still recognize a significant force heading in this direction.
Despite their presence in the Great, Randidly felt safe. Although it was clear Lord Miln wanted to kill him, all he did was send him out here. Which meant no one would be able to watch how Randidly made the impossible possible.
The tightly clenched pieces of Randidly and the Grim Chimera gradually loosened as Randidly concentrated on breathing and let everything else fall away. Some part of Randidly was aware that time was slipping quickly past, but he ignored it. If anything, it was better this way. Plus, his attention swiftly became drawn into his internal area.
Aether became form and motivation, while Nether connected the disparate fragments Grim Chimera in a way that Randidly couldn’t quite explain. It gave him a core and a surface, while Aether filled in everything in between. His whole being seemed to be slowly approaching a sort of harmony… but the note at the core of this transformation was slightly off-key.
Randidly’s relaxed thoughts seemed to intuitively follow that strange feeling of dissonance to the source. The strange half-dream around him whirled and suddenly Randidly was standing in front of the answer. He looked deeply at his three cores.
So it’s because these three things are fake, huh… but if the cores were real…
The dream logic twisted and Randidly mentally shrugged. Who could say what would happen if the cores were real? It certainly wasn’t like he had seen a true Nether core in action.
Well, that technically isn’t true.
Ripples ran through Randidly’s dream as he shifted to the base of the Nether Gatekeeper. There was an open doorway he didn’t need to step through and he was there. Even in the dream, the Nether sizzled annoyingly at his skin. Because it was a dream, Randidly felt the pain not as the true agony that it had been but just a constant tingling along his skin.
Looking around, an endless parade of Nether beasts seemed to be pressing in from every side. With a haphazard flourish, Randidly’s bone spear ripped through large swathes of Nether Beasts. In the dream, the frustration Randidly held as he was forced to flee without fighting was finally given an outlet.
The Nether Beasts died without any noise or struggle, but the distinctive sensation of them remained; Randidly narrowed his eyes and allowed the sensation of the Nether core to echo through his body. His bone spear impacted Nether core after Nether core, sending subtle reverberations through his arm. His extremely meticulously created skin tingled with the vibrations.
Eventually, Randidly ceased struggling, abruptly realizing that this was a pseudo-dream, and any information he gathered here might be corrupted by his perception. The Grim Chimera was so annoyed at the pointlessness of being here that he raised the bone spear above his head with the intention of shattering the whole area, but he paused at the last second.
His gaze had caught on Vualla’s unconscious face. Even though this was a dream, or perhaps because it was a dream of that place, she was clutched in his left claw. Her lips were red and several of her azure hairs had escaped from her braid and were curling away from her chin. To his sensitive claws, she was as cold as the grave; the body he held couldn’t even be considered a corpse.
Slowly, Randidly lowered his bone spear. For several minutes, he studied Vualla carefully.
What is it about you? Why do I keep seeing your face in strange places?
Then Randidly woke himself up.
Shaking his limbs, Randidly stood and stretched. Then he crouched down and meditated for about ten minutes, allowing the resonance in his chest to slowly build. In only a few minutes the notification that he was waiting for appeared before him.
Congratulations! Your Skill Aether Detection has grown to Level 169!
Was Aether Detection always this high of a Level? Seems like the main body truly hasn’t just been sleeping in the meantime… well, all I really need now is to figure out a way to free him from Lord Miln’s fucked up suspension pod…
Shaking his head, Randidly turned to the wooden chest and examined it with his newly recovered Aether Detection. As he suspected, not only the ivory lock but also the whole of the wooden trunk was covered in meticulous Aether Engravings.
Some of his original knowledge of Engravings returned with Aether Detection, but not all of it. So it was extremely slow going to try and interpret what the Aether on the wood was doing. Even after spending several hours examining it, he couldn’t be entirely sure what most of the more intricate Engravings did. But Randidly did have a pretty good idea that the Engravings main purpose was to make the box impossible to open without the key.
Which is basically what I already knew.
Snorting, Randidly crouched down next to the box and reached out with his claw. A shiver ran through him as he activated Nether’s Caress. With his Nether Sensitivity, Randidly carefully examined the process of the Skill. That familiar pain came, but now Randidly had a better understanding of why it had hurt so much to use previously.
Because the Skill Nether’s Caress seemed to open a portal directly to… somewhere that was filled with extremely dense Nether. It wasn’t as dense as Randidly had experienced in the Nether Gatekeeper’s base, but it certainly would have done incredible damage to both his physical body and his image when he used it on Earth.
As Randidly experimented, he realized that he was able to independently close that small portal in his hand while keeping the Skill going. Of course, the Skill then quickly failed without Nether, but Randidly opened up his Nether Well’s and supplied ample Nether to the Skill. Very quickly, thin tendrils of black energy danced across his long talons. With a much, much diminished feeling of dull pain in his hand.
Grinning, Randidly reached out and began to squeeze the ivory lock.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether’s Caress (M) has grown to Level 88!
Unfortunately, the lock didn’t swiftly disintegrate as Randidly had been hoping. In fact, it felt like he was doing very little. The closest sensation Randidly could compare it to was the feeling of spraying water on a stone in order to wear it down. He would get results eventually, but it would take quite a lot of water…
Grumbling about the typical struggles of his life, Randidly brought his three pseudo-cores spinning into his taloned claw. As they accelerated, Randidly was forced to allow more and more Nether to go pouring out of his Nether Wells and flow into his arm.
Which, unfortunately, had the blade Fate in his chest flaring with agonizing heat.
“Jesus, relax, I’m not going to dose you again,” Randidly said through gritted teeth. He tried his best to convey his lack of aggression to the Fate, although it was becoming difficult as the pain made him strongly consider teaching the Fate a lesson by blasting it with Nether.
However, the Grim Chimera had more than a little sympathy for the blade. It was clear that it wasn’t entirely conscious, and it was completely at Randidly’s mercy. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a person, or perhaps
of it, Randidly couldn’t bring himself to use the Nether against the blade unless it was absolutely necessary.
The Grim Chimera easily remembered the pain of being weak and afraid. In spite of the pain, the Grim Chimera’s image swirled protectively around the blade to keep Nether away from it.
After a few seconds, it seemed that some of Randidly’s emotions reached the blade. Like a pouting child, the heat from the blade faded to a slow-but-still-painful simmer. The Grim Chimera’s patience was almost completely spent, but Randidly gritted his teeth and turned his attention back toward controlling the Nether in his left hand. Despite the constant distraction of the blade’s heat, very quickly the three spinning cores had stabilized.
Instantly, the dark flames of Nether’s Caress grew to double their size. With a renewed determination, Randidly once more pressed his Nether against the ivory lock.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether’s Caress (M) has grown to Level 89!
“Well it’s definitely better,” Randidly sighed. “But it’s still going to take a while… which sort of reminds me… shouldn’t we have heard something from the Nether by now?”
Slowly stabilizing the Nether cores inside of him, Randidly walked out of the shack and looked around. Whereas Zauna and Salazar seemed to be busying themselves with harvesting plants from the farm, Zagnal was still lying underneath the maple tree, looking upward toward the deep blackness around them.
Randidly approached his fellow images first. “No sign of the Nether?”
“…no…” Zauna said shortly.
Salazar brightened and offered Randidly a tomato. “N-no, but I d-d-did find t-these! They a-appear to b-b-be a fleshy, edible sp-sphere.”
Despite Salazar’s usual nonsense and the difficulty Randidly had with opening the trunk, he was still in a good mood. So he was opening his mouth to actually engage Salazar’s nonsense when a voice cut across him.
“Are you daft?”
Randidly twisted and looked at the sitting form of Zagnal. The dragon-man was glaring over at him with undisguised contempt. So much so that Randidly didn’t even bother to answer. He just regarded Zagnal cooly with his emerald eyes.
As Randidly expected, Zagnal quickly spat out a blob of saliva and stood. “Why would the Nether attack now? The Aether Key is at its strongest right when it arrives. They will wait and bide their time until we are weak.”
“Haven’t I been working within the hut for quite some time?” Randidly growled. In fact, he didn’t really know how long it had been; his strange dozing state had seen him lose track of time and he still didn’t have the Absolute Timing Skill. But Randidly felt sure that it had been a significant amount.
“A week has passed, but that’s nothing to this Aether Key,” Zagnal said dismissively. Randidly froze at the revelation of how long he had been meditating, and to his surprise, Zagnal seemed to take great joy in it. “Ha! Weren’t you informed this wasn’t your usual Aether Key? The Nether might not attack early, but they will eventually attack because they are insane creatures of instinct. And the reason Lord Miln is sure that we will die is these greater Aether Keys… the time varies based on attacks from Nether, but they last for around one year.”
Randidly blinked slowly. “We will be here… for a year…?”
Zagnal’s mouth twisted. “Plenty of time for Nether forces to gather and smother us.”