Of course, whatever had happened with the Nether Ritual meant that Randidly was stuck out of the watching for a while. In addition, his left claw was extremely sore as it had remained in the drawn-out time of this dense Nether flow while his Perception slowed down to follow that sort stint of Vualla’s that Randidly had watched. It had earned him several Skill Levels, but that might just be a relative time thing.
But honestly, the pain was a bitch. Even with his cores and bubbles, it was aggravatingly constant.
It felt like not very long had passed, but time moved strangely as Randidly used the Nether Ritual. More strangely than usual.
Sitting cross-legged in his shack, Randidly dearly wanted to use Nether Ritual again to try and confirm that he had reached Vualla. Considering the things that Cail said, he was clearly trying to push her toward something. Maybe not now, but it was building toward something. To give in to the more dangerous side of her emotions. It was frustrating to be used as a tool by this weird looking man, but most of Randidly’s fear was focused on the possibility that Cail would succeed.
Yet, for the first time since Randidly had conceived of the Grim Chimera, it counseled patience.
If one Nether Ritual wouldn’t convince her… more would also not convince her. Did you see her spirit? Respect that.
Randidly closed his eyes and waited for the pain of using Nether to fade. He needed to trust in the emotions that he had transferred through the mutating Nether Ritual. With every fiber of his being, he had sought to confirm the very same emotions that made Vualla say those lines. The hatred for those in power, the wonder toward their seemingly fragile connection, the hope for the future… Those emotions had been dispatched. For someone who those things weren’t enough, more wouldn’t change things.
But even as Randidly told himself that, he knew that the fear in his heart urged him to send more. To overwhelm Vualla with the message until she had no choice but to believe. Releasing a breath, Randidly stood.
To keep himself distracted, Randidly continued with his daily practice as the deep wound he had received from letting his attention wander from how much Nether was moving through his body. The schedule became law to Randidly. Adapt to the energy of the Fate blade. Follow through the motions of the Grim Chimera’s moves. Carefully examine and tug away the loose strings of the Aether Key with his Aether Skills so this strange prison in which Randidly found himself would tumble down faster.
Meditate and calm his emotions while he waited for his claw to recover from the exposure to Nether.
Small steps forward. Small steps he took alone, ignoring the maelstrom of emotions that chased each other endlessly in his chest.
If feeling something could change the world, wouldn’t Nadia and Kailm have been able to revive their daughter…? No, the only thing I can trust is my own strength. Vualla and I are in this situation because we are weak. If we can take that step forward…
After his practice finished, he went out and forced himself to spend some time with Salazar and Zauna.
For their part, it was obvious that they were both savoring the simple life of farming that this image provided them. The relish with which they approached the tasks was staggering to Randidly. To them, nothing seemed more satisfying than continuing their idyllic existence here, in an oasis in the Great Rift. But in some way, he understood.
Although it wasn’t fair to say they had given up, they had accepted that their fates had been bound to Randidly. Their survival was tied to him. When it was so obvious that he was furiously training himself, it was their job to relax and wait. They found harmony in their existence. Aside from the continually grumpy Zagnal, the dinner of harvested fruits and vegetables that Randidly had with those images become something of a mental sanctuary for him.
Which, Randidly supposed, they understood. Which was why they so enthusiastically embraced it.
It wasn’t that his hatred for the System that took advantage of him faded, but his empathy for the other people struggling in the System grew. Vualla might be the one who so perfectly shared his ideology, but they did not have a monopoly on suffering from the whims of the Nexus. Seeing these people seize onto the small moments of peace was oddly moving.
With a calmer heart, Randidly returned to his tent and began to weave a Nether Ritual. The wound of his claw had finally recovered.
Congratulations! Your Skill Nether Ritual (A) has grown to Level 25!
At the number, Randidly’s eyes flashed. It seemed he had been so wrapped up in the vision of Vualla two days ago that he had missed some Skill Levels. But it did make sense that whatever happened yesterday would lead his Skill Level to shoot upward.
Slowly, the image before him resolved. He focused in on Vualla’s figure. Once more, he detached his Perception and allowed it to slow down to match what he was watching. Steadily, the figures came into sharper focus.
Vualla was now standing outside the tent of Lord Miln with Lady Iellaya. Both were looking toward the closed entrance to the tent, but Randidly’s focus narrowed on Vualla. Her face looked… strangely drawn. Although she still looked determined, it was a much more passive stance than Randidly was used to seeing on her face.
What had happened while I was away?
Before Randidly could worry further, Cail Tweocs walked out of the tent with a huge grin on his face. Seeing both of the women looking at him in askance, Cail pounded his chest self-importantly and piped up. “Ahem. After much consultation, I have agreed with Lord Miln that it is best for all involved that the image Randidly Ghosthound remains on the front lines.”
Randidly studied Vualla’s reaction carefully, but she didn’t even bat an eyelash.
In fact, it was Lady Iellaya who spoke. “You spoke with Lord Miln for three hours just to reach that result?”
Cail Tweocs gaze was extremely sharp toward Lady Iellaya. “I certainly am not in the habit of letting subordinates speak so disrespectfully to me. Or justifying myself to my
Lady Iellaya flushed and looked at the ground. As Randidly studied her, his mind slowly grasped an inkling about what was going on in front of him. Probably just like Randidly, Lady Iellaya was seeking support from a powerful outside force to help her against Lord Miln. Perhaps she had believed that Cail might be exactly that force… but she had no choice but to rethink her stance after witnessing how long Cail and Lord Miln spoke to each other.
The length of time implied that an accord had been reached there, and it was bad for anyone who was aiming to deal with Lord Miln.
“Of course, my apologies,” Lady Iellaya said mechanically. “Then shall we…?”
“Ah, no.” Cail Tweocs hopped forward to land directly in front of Lady Iellaya. “While we are here, Lord Miln expressed an interest in speaking to you. Please head inside.”
“What…?” Lady Iellaya blinked. Then an invisible mask seemed to settle over her face and she nodded like this was the most obvious thing in the world. Without sparing either of them a glance, Lady Iellaya stalked forward.
Randidly’s focus turned toward Vualla and Cail. But unfortunately, they settled next to each other without much comment. Both seemed content to wait with their thoughts. Randidly sighed and twisted the Nether Ritual to look toward the tent.
As he grew more proficient with the Skill, he realized that it was possible to move the perspective a bit, although Randidly wasn’t sure whether it was his own capabilities increasing or he was finally taking advantage of the options that were already present in the Nether Ritual. Either way, his focus drifted slowly toward the tent. The connection was directed toward Vualla, but as long as he didn’t stray too far away…
At the edge of the tent, Randidly hesitated. It was possible that there were defenses in the tent that would keep his Nether Ritual away. And in fact, Randidly could feel powerful lines of Aether coursing through one side of the tent, likely doing precisely that. But that was the far side, likely where all of the bodies were kept by Lord Miln.
Feeling himself stretch away from Vualla, Randidly slid through the service of the tent.
“What’s your game?” Lady Iellaya hissed.
Lord Miln was in his typical place behind his desk, looking at Lady Iellaya with an amused expression. “Aren’t we in the same boat? I seek to advance the status of my Citizenship ticket. In the Nexus, power and influence are everything. I simply cannot fail here. Why do you act like our interests are at odds?”
“Your leadership is bleeding us dry,” Lady Iellaya countered. Honestly, Randidly wished he would have come into the tent a little bit earlier to see what it was that Lord Miln had said earlier to upset Lady Iellaya so much. “Besides, do you not already have the qualification to apply for Tier 3 Citizenship? If you wish to retire-”
“What if Tier 3 isn’t the limit?” Lord Miln whispered.
Lady Iellaya froze.
Softly laughing, Lord Miln cracked his fingers. “I heard a rumor that Tier 4 is possible. Rare, but possible. It simply requires sufficient qualifications. You might see it as bleeding our forces… but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m setting the stage for my triumphant victory.”
“You are insane.” Lady Iellaya whispered. She shook her head. “Do you think that Tier 4 could remain hidden if it was true?”
think people like us are privy to all the secrets of the Nexus?” Suddenly, a shadow came across Lord Miln’s face. Then he slowly shook his head. “I know you’ve been investigating me… I advise you to stop, for your own sake. But I am a generous man. The rumor said that the reward for Tier 4 Citizenship is an entire Cohort… wouldn’t that amount of land be sufficient for my own purposes… and for your own followers to settle?”
Lady Iellaya stared at Lord Miln. The silence stretched until Lord Miln leaned purposefully forward.
“You have no idea how big this is going to be, Lady Iellaya. Set down your crown and serve me, and you will receive everything you ever desired.”
“…except a throne.” Lady Iellaya raised her head. The feathers on her arms flexed. “And that is the one thing I cannot compromise on. I have my integrity.”
“…fine, we will set aside the issue of fealty for now.” Lord Miln’s smile was wide and white. “However… perhaps an easier compromise is in order? Please, send the image ‘Yggdrasil’ to die in the Great Rift.”