This trip into Hastam was much more expedient, although the mood in the city had soured. There was still a long line of arrogant men and women wearing expensive clothes, but the sound of their talk had changed. It became less light and sneering and more snapping.
With their Soulstones denoting them as members of the under Level 25 tournament, they passed easily through the gates and into the city proper. As they did so, Randidly turned to Skarth and Azriel.
“Where does the other tournament take place? The under 50?”
Skarch smiled widely at Randidly. “Currently, the Spear School has the honor of hosting the greater of the two tournaments. Still, of all the Schools the Spear have experienced the least amount of invasion on the part of the Wights. Our equipment gives us a natural advantage. As such, we have maintained our lines much more easily than the others.”
“I am glad we are here. We have sharpened our Skills immensely on the front lines.” Azriel interjected.
Orangey shook his head in disgust. “From what I hear, the front lines were a meat grinder. Were you three all truly out there, fighting against the Wights? I know they exaggerate, but they say you killed thousands…”
Azriel just smiled, and Randidly was amused to see Orangey shiver. Azriel had a way to get under his skin.
“I mean… you might have passed the preliminaries back then,” Orangey continued with a sharp look at Azriel. “But… we were equal. I can’t believe that so much has changed. How different… we are now.”
“As I said,” Azriel said. “We have sharpened our Skills immensely. You do not grow as we do away from the chance of death.”
‘Not just our deaths, too,’ Randidly thought sadly as he remembered the graves he had dug. He still remembered the smell of the river and the feeling of the wooden shaft of the shovel in his hands. Whenever he felt tired, or annoyed, or frustrated, Randidly knew that he would remember those feelings to push himself forward.
A spear always advances.
The group followed Azriel’s lead deeper into the richer portions of Hastam. Slowly, the storefronts were replaced by walled courtyards. The people that remained on the strength carried heavy spears and considered the group with hard eyes. But inevitably, they nodded grudgingly. Randidly inclined his head in return.
But abruptly, Azriel took them from the rich streets into a side thoroughfare that was almost an alley. Very soon, the alley led to a doorway with two torches. Randidly was slightly surprised that there were no guards or guides. It all felt rather… poorly arranged.
Perhaps the Central Domain was finally taking the threat of the Wights seriously, which was a good sign.
The group pushed through the unguarded wooden door and found themselves in a wide antechamber. A wave of heat and noise stopped Randidly dead. His eyes quickly located the veritable troupe of minstrels along the wall, playing at violins and harps. Almost 300 people were packed into what could only be a ballroom. There was a lavish spread of food laid out in the center of the room on a long table. Roast ducks and huge haunches of mutton steamed appetizingly.
Men and women in dresses held flutes of a dark orange liquid and laughed as they gathered around several men and women dressed up in battle gear that didn’t seem to have seen even a lick of use on the frontlines. Their leathers were pristine, their steel shoulder pads shining.
In a split second, Randidly could see that there were several large groups among the fancy dressed individuals. Likely, these were the supporters of those members of the tournament that grew up in Hastam. But to think that so many would come and have a party here before the tournament really even started… the preliminary results weren’t even yet in.
Azriel finally broke the silence, stating Randidly’s thoughts exactly. “This is the rumored Hall of Stances? Pah, perhaps I don’t wish to be here as badly as I thought. Why not commission a bronze statue in front of a C Corporation burger joint.”
“Well, this should just be the gathering antechamber,” Skarch said with a frown. But she too seemed disappointed. None of them had actually been to the Hall of Stances before, but Skarch had spent the most time between them in Hastam as she had come here early for the tournament.
Before they could speak further, a man in a long red cloak appeared before them, a frown firmly installed on his face. “This is a private event. Please leave, or you will be thrown out.”
“We-” Randidly began, but a figure arrived behind them. And in a blur of motion, the figure stepped forward and smashed the red-cloaked man with his fist.
The man was thrown backward and crashed into a table with a crystal bowl of the strange orange drink on it. The table buckled from the force and collapsed. In a tinking shower, the bowl and the glasses on the table shattered. Orange liquid seeped outward from the man’s body, looking like a farcical mimicry of blood.
Then the man leaped to his feet with a bristling scowl, breaking the image. The party around them fell silent, turning to look at the new arrivals and their actions.
“You…!” The man bellowed. He drew his spear and a few similarly dressed compatriots came to his side to face their group.
Randidly turned and regarded the new arrival. Silo coolly cracked the fingers of his hand and then gave his three teammates a dismissive glance.
“I’ve returned.” Silo said dramatically. Azriel just gave Randidly a puzzled look. Randidly shrugged. Silo had no way of knowing that the twisted Aether cloud he walked around in was incredibly easy to spot for Randidly. It was like a looming cloud of secondhand smoke.
“Fools! Do you think you can simply barge in here, this is-”
“Heh, guardsmen, let them come. Much as it pains me to say, the Spearman School has declined to the point that these four are part of the tournament.” A tall man with a stupidly square jaw walked out of the largest group of fawning people and smiled at Silo. “Welcome back, Silo. You seem somewhat pale. Was the stress of running away from Wights too much for you.”
“Althumber,” Silo growled, his hands clenching to fists.
Randidly didn’t like to admit it, but squarehead was right; Silo looked terrible to the naked eye. But when he sensed the Aether around him, the picture was even more disgusting. The guy was practically a pulsing mass of Aether, and not in a good way. It was clear that he stuffed more Aether into his body than he could handle, and had suffered some sort of strange deviation in his internal world.
The more Randidly studied him, the more Randidly was sure that something bad had happened. Something involving Silo’s Class. But even as Randidly was worried about what would happen, he was deeply curious about the effects. One part of him worried that this was an action akin to something the Creature would do, using someone for research, but Randidly wasn’t going to hold himself at fault for whatever was occurring with Silo. This was something he had brought on himself.
“We are all here,” A man said. This one, Randidly recognized. It was Mister Veir, the father of Althumber. “Then let us begin. Our first business on the agenda… a few moments of silence for one of our number, who fell during the Wight attacks. Let it be a lesson for all of you; fighting needs to be taken seriously. When you take up the spear, you accept the possibility you will die.”
Around him, all of the spear users closed their eyes and nodded their heads. But he kept his blazing eyes forward. Mr. Veir also didn’t lower his gaze in reverence for the fallen people. Instead, he peered around with obvious boredom.
Their gazes met.
Randidly bared his teeth at the man. ‘I will teach you a lesson about taking things seriously, Mr. Veir. I will rip your son to shreds so you feel the pain of those thousands of farmers you couldn’t be bothered to fight for.’
For his part, Veir seemed shocked that someone was glaring at him so openly. But before he could form a reaction, most people looked up. With a final probing glance at Randidly, Mr. Veir slid a mask back over his features and was suddenly a sorrowful man.
“...with that important task out of the way, it is time to follow me through to the inner chamber. Apologies to the friends and family that have come to support their young elites, but this portion will happen privately as we determine who will make it into the final tournament. Worry not, however, because it will take but a few minutes, and we will soon announce the highest seeds.”