As they passed each other, the spears tapped against one another with surprising gentleness. It was only a spar, so neither Helen nor Azriel were really giving their all to win. It was more a way to explore each other’s capabilities.
Besides, sparring with lowered intensity was necessary. Generally, Helen didn’t have a problem controlling her bread and butter Skill she had earned on the front lines, but since hearing she would face Randidly… it had become increasingly difficult. It didn’t help that it had seemed that he was completely intent on ignoring her until the battle happened.
And Helen believed she knew Randidly well enough to guess what he was thinking by not seeing her. And that pissed her off even more.
Instantly, Azriel changed directions and rushed toward Helen. Spinning her spear, Helen gathered the thin eddies in the air and pressed them against Azriel to sway her advance. However, the small tugs did little to stop Azriel.
Helen’s eyes narrowed. In that, at least, Azriel was an extremely useful person to fight against in preparation to face Randidly in three days. Both of them seemed completely immune to small forces. There was no subtlety to their movements, so to make tiny adjustments did little to weaken the main thrust.
Helen stepped to the side, then stepped immediately back. Azriel had already taken a sharp step to aim towards where she was heading and sailed harmlessly past in that direction. To Helen’s surprise, however, when she stabbed with her spear Azriel expertly raised her own and tapped the blow away.
Gritting her teeth, Helen chased after Azriel. She was unwilling to let such a good chance by. Her Skills boosted her speed, and her spear flashed back and forth. The harrying blows were light due to the rules of the spar, but a few drops of her Sea of Blood Skill leaked out. Even if it was a small thing, Helen felt the grips she had on herself loosen just lightly.
“Pause,” Helen said with a sigh. She lowered her spear. This was exactly what she was trying to avoid. In battle, when the Sea of Blood Skill fueled her River based Skills… the effectiveness almost doubled. But it also made holding back difficult. Anger was the fuel for that Skill.
Although she was clearly on the losing end of the exchange, Azriel stopped immediately and looked decidedly cheery. Her impassive face made it seem like this was one of the most placid things in the world. Very little of the knife-edge of tension Helen stood on was reflected in Azriel’s eyes.
Azriel studied Helen in turn. “You are thinking too much about these things. If you wish to speak with him, do it. Do not simply worry yourself-”
“I’m not worried,” Helen snapped. Gouts of red blood poured out of her hidden image, filling the room. With a hiss, Helen forcibly dispelled it. Then she looked at Azriel with a hint of jealousy. If she could control her emotions that well… “I really am not. It is just… curious. He promised that we would… have dinner.”
Azriel blinked. “Neither of you have had dinner since we returned?”
Fucking Azriel, Helen grumbled inwardly. It was impossible to prove, but Helen would have sworn that the other woman played dumb on purpose in order to force her to admit to something. Well, today would not be that day.
“Have you heard the news? The survivors from the Northern Domain have made it down to the Niergem. Their following is swelling. All communications indicate that they crush the Wights every opportunity they get.” Helen said.
Now, emotions played across Azriel’s face. Hope, happiness, concern, amusement, and even worry.
That last one made Helen blink. “Do you… do you think your Master is among them?”
“I suspect so, but in his restricted form so it does not unnerve them.” Azriel pursed her lips. “That they have come so far is illuminating, however.”
When Helen looked at Azriel in askance, she continued to speak. “Although we have had victories, they were largely pyrrhic ones and successful delays. Randidly’s actions on the banks of the Hallat are a good example. Which means one of two things: that the Wights don’t care, or the people from the North are doing something special.”
“Like what?” Helen asked. Her heartbeat had slowed after the spar, and she felt her emotions returning to the small box she kept them in. She closed the box with a click.
Azriel grimaced. “It might seem strange, but… the true experts among them might be moving. If they were to do so, the war against the Wights would change.”
Aylwind Sky, head of the Spearman School, sat at his desk in the highest tower of Hastam. In front of him, in stark contrast to the warm brown of the desk, were two crisp white envelopes. Both were addressed to him and written in cold hands.
Aylwind picked up the letter from Versault first. With a thought, the image of spear suffused his finger and he ripped off the top to remove the letter within.
Ophelia has allowed her youthful exuberance to overwhelm her better judgment. We must abide by the Three Oaths that we have all taken. I urge you to contact Ophelia and remind her of her responsibilities.
With a sigh, an image of fire annihilated the letter in a second. Of course, more calls for peace. While an army of Wights sat on the doorstep of Hastam, he was to do nothing. This was the great result of the Three Oaths.
The three Oaths were rather simple. He had to swear to them when he was ordained as head of the Spearman School
- The Schools shall not seek to influence beyond their borders.
- In exchange for the seat of governance, the Heads forsake their Skills. They may only act by images.
- None may follow a Great Path.
The Oaths were fine for the past six or seven hundred years, Aylwind thought morosely. But with the Spearsource was lost… both Oath one and two seemed to block them from reclaiming the Spearsource.
Honestly, Aylwind deeply regretted accepting his position as head of the Spearman School. Having his hands tied like this was infuriating.
Sure, the initial novelty of utilizing solely images to act was somewhat diverting. When you relied completely on images outside of the Skill, you gained a lot of insight into how a Skill was constructed. In addition, you generally would still gain Skill Levels in Skills related to your image. It was basically what weight lifting was for athletes. The point wasn’t generally to accomplish those tasks, but it would sharpen you in beneficial ways.
One hundred years later, Aylwind did indeed feel powerful. But he couldn’t forget the feeling of crushing his rivals with the raw power of his Skills. That feeling was a nostalgic memory that occupied a lot of Aylwind’s time.
Still, he understood why that Oath was present, even if he wasn’t as clear on the others. Aylwind’s expression turned serious. There was something deeply flawed about the energy of the world. When he had ascended to his transcendent might, he had been young. But in addition, he had been wild and filled with a reckless rage. After a prolonged duel, Aylwind had defeated the prior head of the Spearman School and killed him and his entire clan.
Perhaps his reign of terror would have continued had not Ophelia and Versault arrived and subdued him. Immediately, he was locked in a dark room that was effectively a jail. Initially, Aylwind would have scoffed at the thought of jail. But it was engraved in such a way that expenditures that cost Mana or Stamina were multiplied by one thousand while regeneration was reduced to one-tenth.
To simply stand up required several minutes, and would leave one too exhausted to do anything but collapse back to the ground. While in that room, Aylwind had suffered deeply.
It was only after six months of discussions did Aylwind accept the terms of release. Because at that point, he had spent enough time without using Skills to feel that his previous actions were extremely strange. There used to be a wild rage in his heart that was suddenly gone.
Thinking back, Aylwind couldn’t understand where it had come from. And that filled him with fear.
Later, Versault and Ophelia had explained that it was the world itself that was poisoned. And the higher your Skill Levels, the more you exposed yourself to the insidious violence that the world craved. That the Spearsource craved.
Which was why that had kept it locked away for centuries.
Humming to himself, Aylwind picked up Ophelia’s letter.
Can we afford to wait any longer?
Aylwind grinned. Much more to the point, and much more aligned with what he wanted to hear.