Shal stood with his hands behind his back. “My disciple is gone, as you requested. Are you prepared to tell me why?”
The room was cold and bare. Stone floors and a still hearth kept the temperature low. Which, considering the steadily cooling days, pushed the room toward uncomfortable. For the past several days, he had willingly made plans to send his only disciple away. All because of a favor. It wasn’t even an order. Just a favor.
Of course, the treasure that he offered his disciple was true: if Versault yet lived, he would be the most knowledgeable individual regarding Tellus’ history. Aside from the Oracle, but even now, Shal suspected the Heart School would let no one near their precious Oracle. Such was their pride, even as Tellus inched closer to disaster.
A different disaster than most people expected, but a disaster nonetheless. Were actions like this truly the kind of actions they believed their champion should have…?
Rumera’s smile was sad. “He is not of our world, Shal. Isn’t that reason enough?”
Shal looked at Rumera. He loved her. She had asked him this favor. And she was right. Randidly was not of Tellus. For a long time this had confused Shal, but very quickly he realized that it didn’t matter. For all that the boy was from another world, he had been the inheritor of the Spear Phantom Style that Aemont would have wanted. Capable and determined. Confident without falling prey to arrogance. He was ideal.
But this is not your battle, Shal thought sadly as he turned and looked East. May you find what you seek, boy. And may I still live when you return, triumphant.
“What next?” Shal asked. “How am I to help Tellus ascend?”
“Unfortunately, we wait,” Rumera said with a shake of her head. “To ascend, your Path must emerge victorious against another’s; the second Path has not yet emerged. As such… we can only wait, and allow it to grow in strength.”
Shal frowned. “It seems foolish to allow an enemy to grow strong. Why is this necessary?”
“An old story. One so old not even I know it.” Rumera walked to stand with Shal and also looked out to the East. “And, I think, the very story that your disciple seeks. I hope he finds it. I do not like-”
“Wait a moment,” Shal said, mock seriously. “Older than you? Are you trying to tell me that my woman is older than I am?”
“She obviously isn’t,” Rumera said with a smile tugging at her mouth, “because you have no woman. Just daydreams and arrogance.”
Randidly allowed a ghost of a smile to flit across his face as Platton hissed in obvious displeasure. “They truly expect us to push off onto the Hallat River on this glorified driftwood and survive until we reach the Eastern Sea? They will tear us to shreds. The Psychic Venom bombardment alone-”
“I’ll handle it. If they had given us anything of actual use I would have worried that Hastam would fall to Wight attacks after we left. With your troops, there are almost ten thousand of us- that’s not a small number. Longboats like this will serve us best.” Randidly said reasonably.
‘Longboats’ was perhaps a generous term for these. Truly, they looked rather musty and old, as though most of them had come from ancient interspatial rings. They were, however, long and thin ships with a small cabin for individuals to rest in. Which would do nothing to stop the Psychic Venom that would incapacitate most of the crew on hit, but still...
Platton’s expression grew sourer. “Mmm. You may be right. But this will also mean slow going. A seaworthy clipper would take almost a week in order to cross the Eastern Sea. About half that to navigate from here to the open waters. But if all we are doing is floating down with the current…”
“We should have teams rowing, yes?” Io interrupted.
Randidly turned to face Io. She was a squat, powerful woman with hands that could crush an apple to a pulp. Of all of those who had passed Randidly’s test, Io had seized the position of leadership for herself. Partly because of her gruff, no-nonsense demeanor, but also because she passed the Emerald Essence portion of the test, and all her fellow passers readily admitted Io’s insight into the far was far beyond theirs.
Randidly even felt slightly impressed by how quickly her body adapted to the Emerald Essence Aether that he released. Even now, he could feel small Aether reverberations from the woman’s body as she absorbed the ambient Aether he gave off. It was almost intimidating.
“I thought something similar. Perhaps more direct intervention on my part to reshape the boats…” Randidly murmured. The group was standing at the rickety docks that housed the boats they would use. With a sharp movement, he gestured behind to the group of milling spear users who were wondering what they were doing. “Io, can you see that they are split into enough groups to man the boats?”
“It will be done, Sir Spellspear,” Io said with a bow. Then the woman turned sharply and stomped back toward the group.
Platton gave Randidly a sidelong glance. “You truly intend to bring this group with us? They are untested, untrained, and perhaps worst of all, unknown elements. The instruction you provide will bring some kind of loyalty, but I fear it will not be enough. When we are out in the open water and the Wights attack…”
“I think you will be surprised,” Randidly said with a grin. “Loyalty? Perhaps not. But I think what I’m doing is closer to a bribe. Well, we shall see.”
After rolling his eyes, Platton walked up to one of the longboats they had been given. Rather dubiously, he kicked the vessel. It bobbed up and down in the water. “The numbers might be a problem. Could you have made your bribe a little less effective?”
Randidly remained silent at that. Truly, he hadn’t understood both the number of people that would attempt the tests he provided and also how many would pass. The tests were mostly a test of fortitude and will, but there was also a very particular requirement that Randidly had for passage.
That, of course, was the ability to easily absorb his specific forms of Aether.
And contrary to what Randidly had expected, when exposed to mostly his Aether, people very quickly adapted to his Aether. At the same time, there was a subtle shift in the way his Aether Detection Skill felt people. Randidly didn't doubt that there would be subtle shifts in the type of images these people had, even after a taste.
The process of the test was relatively strenuous for Randidly. Because he was looking mostly at how people processed Aether, he wanted to not simply steamroll everyone with a powerful image. Instead, he tailored the difficulty to each person based upon how their body could respond to his Aether.
Basically, he kept increasing the density of his Aether relative to what an individual could endure so it constantly remained quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t too difficult, but when stretched over twelve hours…
Honestly, Randidly expected that some of the individuals could have finished in under an hour. That was how surprisingly quick their bodies adapted. Had they simply pushed forward, they could simply have rushed through the area. But setting the time limit at twelve hours made a lot of the test takers believe that they should take their time.
And of course, no matter how light the weight was being carried, extra weight will drag even the strongest individual down eventually.
“I didn’t mean to gather so many,” Randidly finally said. “But… they deserved it. They passed the test I had set.”
Well, not all had. There had been a few individuals, including the woman who had always been hanging around Darrune, for which he had purposely made the test difficult. Impossibly difficult. Yet, right before dawn, when Randidly had checked on her…
The branding of the Tree of Life was already upon her. Randidly was looking for support, for confirmation that his Skills were powerful enough to carry him forward. With the looming threat of his Soulskill imploding… strengthening his base seemed natural. So despite his personal feelings, Randidly looked with unbiased eyes toward the woman’s attempts.
And she was marked. The Aether had changed her. Aside from Io, the woman Yonna was one of the most impressive adapters. So Randidly would accept a woman who so desperately walked down the path of Yggdrasil.
“Fine then,” Platton said. Then he turned and showed Randidly a rare smile. “I’m just glad that I won’t be in charge any longer; I hate being the head honcho. Leaving the decisions to you will be such a relief. Besides… if you were under me I would be forced to try and keep you from doing something stupid.”
In spite of himself, Randidly laughed. “Platton, you already said it; this entire mission is stupid. Now it’s just a matter of punishing the Wights for forcing us to this point.”