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“What are you doing?”

Randidly twisted around and looked over his shoulder at Skarch at her words. He and Azriel were sitting at a small stump underneath one of Randidly’s moss bulges during a rest between their raids on the Wights. Inwardly, Randidly winced; he and Azriel had been staring deeply into each other's eyes when Skarch had arrived. Likely, the image of them was a bit…

“Training,” Azriel said, her face completely straight. Then she frowned as she considered the obvious unease in Randidly’s expression. “We are behind enemy lines as part of a contest that is one of my only chances to earn honor for my master. What else would we be doing?”

Skarch raised her hand up and covered her mouth. “Hohoho… could this be the contrary method of courtship in the Spearman School that I have heard rumors of…?”

“Hmph,” Snorting, Azriel stood and turned around. She walked to the far end of the rather small mound and sat down in a huff. It was slightly surprising to Randidly because he had never seen Azriel look so annoyed before. On the other hand, it made a certain amount of sense. The group had been together for three days of constant rain on these island chains.

It was a simple thing for people to get on each other’s nerves.

“What sort of training were you doing?” Skarch asked again, in a quiet voice. Randidly wondered why she bothered. Azriel’s Perception was likely high enough for lowering the volume to do nothing.

“...Image training. Both Azriel and I have reached the Adept level, so we were simply clashing with our images.” Randidly explained. Despite the fact he knew it didn’t matter, he also found himself whispering. “During the sort of fights we’ve had in the rain, images haven’t mattered much. The side that strikes first usually wins. So we were working on images.”

These past three days had gotten busier and busier. The rain above continued unabated and the group dutifully continued to hunt Wights. As they moved from smaller to larger islands along the chain, they had encountered a larger group. Part of the reason that the current mood in the moss bulge was so grim was that they hadn’t been able to totally defeat the last group of wights they had encountered.

They had scattered them, sure. But a few had escaped. Perhaps the group would have been able to remain relatively anonymous if the only time they were sighted was by the Zeitguard members, but now they had encountered and ambushed a group of foot soldiers. It wouldn’t take a genius on the Wights’ side in order to figure out that they might be connected with a string of disappearances of soldiers who were active in the area.

All in all, none of them were sure how the Wight high command would react to their actions. So far, they had been incredibly successful. If a Witch King, or another elite, was dispatched to meet them…

Still, Silo seemed sure that Witch Kings weren’t so numerous that they would come out to minor islands in the Spearman School on a whim. But Randidly wasn’t worried about a whim.

He was worried a notable characteristic about himself would cause a certain Witch King to remember him.

“Oh? An image game!” Skarch said, beaming at Randidly. “I’ve never heard of such a thing before… but it should be easy, should it not? Can I play?”

Randidly spared Azriel a glance. She appeared to be meditating by the far wall. Turning back to Skarch, he nodded. So both settled opposite each other and Randidly explained the finer points of the rules he had created to Skarch.

Movement during the contest counted as a loss. If an image shattered, it counted as a loss. The image needed to be precise enough to manifest in the meter of space between them. Other than that, you were free to switch out images as you chose. But of course, all the other person had to do was touch you with an image and force you to move and it was a loss.

Randidly was inspired over the past few days as he watched his Visualization Skill tick up a few points. That, along with Child of Rain and Touch from Beyond, had been the Skills that had gained the most in the past few days. Child of Rain for the omnipresent rain, and Touch from Beyond because Randidly was fascinated by the similarity he had felt when he had used Ashes to Ashes. Although somewhat worried by the nightmare-inducing pain he experienced, Randidly wished to try and figure out what had happened there, and what the Patron of Ash had saved him from.

Since thinking up the Visualization duels, Randidly had clashed several times with Azriel, which greatly benefitted his Skill growth. All in all, they were about even on wins and losses, but the methods of their respective wins frustrated Randidly.

Randidly was clearly more powerful. If he could catch Azriel’s image in a direct confrontation, he could crush her and push her backward. But her images were constantly shifting, and he had never once succeeded in shattering her image. On the other hand, while her images were clearly weaker, they were quick and precise. If Randidly lowered his guard for a moment, Azriel would strike and shatter his spread-out image.

With solemn eyes, Randidly considered Skarch. She displayed overwhelming power, if not very much imagination, in the times he had seen her fight. Her spear was incredibly well made, and with just its base power it crushed most wights that attempted to contest her blows. Even though she was already so overwhelming, she had never had to activate the engravings on the spear. That was what gave Randidly some pause.

She wouldn’t be a common opponent.

So to start, Randidly moved straight to As the Sun Stills. It was easy to conjure the image of that Skill, and it contained great concentrated power. Plus, although Randidly had blithely claimed to be an Adept, he wasn’t totally so. He could only physically affect the world with images from certain Skills. It was another weakness he hoped the Visualization duels would address.

The strange pressure of the sun shot upwards. Heat roiled out from his image, shaking the air with the force of its expansion. But soon that heat became heavier, and heavier, and heavier. A sun with a huge diameter slowly dimmed, condensing inwards. The heat filled the surrounding air, growing more and more terrible.

Outside of the image, Randidly noticed that Skarch’s initially sly face turned solemn. She narrowed her eyes.

Just as the sun settled into nothing, into that one infinitely heavy dust particle, the image of a spear appeared in the area between them. It was condensed and small, but intimately familiar. Without fanfare, an image of her own spear appeared. The detail was immaculately perfect, and there was very little dispersed energy as it formed.

With rumbling force, Randidly gathered everything he had and smashed towards the spear. For the spear’s part, a smoky body appeared, grasping the spear. There was very little substance and effort dedicated to the spear user’s body, and it seemed to be there only as an illustration of what was happening. It made sense, considering her School affiliation.

The shadowy person took a basic defensive posture. The spear glowed brightly.

As Randidly’s image smashed into Skarch’s image, he felt the other image stutter as it was knocked backward by his force. But then, something extremely strange happened.

As Randidly tried to recover from the rebound of hitting Skarch’s image so he could attack again, his image swirled and rapidly dissipated. He let out a breath, frowning. Why had that…?

“Truly you are strong. It is no wonder that you fight so easily against the Wights,” Skarch said, shaking her head. “But… you have not truly consolidated yourself as an Adept. Your images cannot withstand their own strength; do you see? You broke your own image with that attack.”

Randidly kept his mouth closed as he considered this. Well, he had to admit that his skill in this area was somewhat lacking. That was the point of focusing like this. Finally, he nodded to Skarch. “That… is likely true. Perhaps it is too much to say I am an Adept. But your image…”

“Hahaha! No, Mr. Ghosthound, you are truly an Adept. Such a designation connotes capability, not stamina,” Skarch said with a grin. Then her grin widened even further, as she looked over towards the spot where her spear lay. “As for my image… is this perhaps the first time you have met someone from the Spear School? Our images focus on the spear. From a young age, those in the Spearman School study art, smithing, and sculpting so the spear can be imagined and understood perfectly. It greatly enhances our strength in battle.”

Skarch cracked her fingers. “Your image would defeat mine in a direct contest. But my images can be used a thousand times and in a thousand ways without tiring. Which is more valuable? It is an old discussion. But all I know is that the only times I have truly failed was when I have made a mistake and given up; with this efficient image, that has never happened.”

“Interesting,” Randidly said. It seemed like he had gone down an opposite path, but there was definitely value to pursuing some of the resiliency that Skarch demonstrated. “Would you like to try again?”

Skarch chuckled. “You make food, yes? How about we make a bet: every time you lose, you will make food for the group. Every time I lose… well, I will take off the outer layer of my spear so you may examine its inner workings. You are very interested in this, yes? It is rare to get to examine a Spear School work such as this easily.”

Randidly grinned in acceptance. He had been wondering whether there were further runes hidden in the depth of the spear but hadn’t wanted to force the issue. But since she brought it up…

Randidly lost 13 times in a row.

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