To Shal’s surprise, he recognized the figure he found when he investigated the nearby scream. “Azriel?”
His disciple’s rival was sitting in a smoking crater. Wincing and holding her ribs, she forced her body to sit up and bow stiffly to him. Surrounding her, three twisted and broken bodies of Witch Kings lay splayed. Shal’s eyebrows rose.
“Sir,” The girl managed stiffly.
Shal grunted. “Brave. But foolish. Hey, you.” Shal beckoned the old man over. He stood like a deer caught by a hunter for several seconds as he tried to suss out the point of the request. Only a glare hurried the foolish man.
Uncertainly, he approached. Shal pointed to Azriel. “Protect her. Make sure she is healed. I spoke pessimistically earlier; only the outer districts have fallen to the Wights. Take her inward. You will find help.”
Before the group could complain about Shal’s lie earlier, he was gone. When next he stopped, it was in the middle of a group of Wights. They died silently as the Wraith Adder slithered in their midst, biting liberally. Even Witch Kings died quickly if they weren’t prepared for the ferocity of his strikes. And the Witch Kings were few and far between.
With brutal efficiency, Shal made his way through the city. By rapidly dealing with all of the Wight forces in the area, Shal got a pretty good picture of the event. It seemed like Wights had tunneled through to the outskirts of the city and set up base camps. While they made preparations for the attack, mixed explosives and brought Propagators into the city.
At the same time, the Propagators blanked entire blocks with their mental attacks while the fires distracted city officials. Under that cover, the hit squads of Witch Kings began to make their rounds and defeat groups that were a little too effective at stopping the spread of panic. They needn’t even kill all that many; oftentimes, it was more effective to let the hysterical people who had been attacked escape with only wounds.
That way the story would spread.
The more Shal moved and fought, the more he realized that the loss of life was only half of what he had expected. It appeared that the Propagators immediately fled from the city after their stunt knocking the weaker willed squatters and merchants that lived at the edge of Hastam.
Then, rather than an attack, this was a distraction. Shal’s hands tightened around his spear so powerfully that the spear creaked. But what was the point of all this? To distract from another physical event? Or to interfere with the coalescing image of Tellus?
Still, Shal had a mission. He continued to kill his way through the groups of marauding Wights in the South of the city. Their numbers were only about a thousand. They had nowhere near the manpower that Shal would have expected for a full incursion.
There was a silver lining to the attack, however. While cutting through the Witch Kings, Shal reached Level 98. One step closer to fulfilling his destiny.
And that thought set him off on another tangent. Was this all arranged for him to get experience…?
But very quickly, Shal dismissed that thought. Getting him to Level 98 was never the hard part. The hard part came next. The distance from 98 to 99 was almost five times that of 97 to 98. And would likely take several months to finish.
Hell, he had been stuck at 97 for four months. Even if the speed of gathering experience vastly increased, Shal would be at 98 for a year. Tellus’ champion would not be ready for quite some time.
Shal’s expression turned bitter. Especially if Propagators continued to be so cautious in their movements…! Although he had frequently detected their signature energy, he hadn’t had the chance to pursue them overmuch. They simply stayed too far away from Hastam in order for him to catch them out.
Inwardly, Shal believed that he would be able to handle the battle he might encounter even if he ventured past the area around Hastam that the Spear-users controlled. But for all that Ophelia had assured him that the Wight leadership was the old Spearman, Shal couldn’t completely trust that the Spearman wouldn’t move when Shal interfered with his Propagators. Because of the number of people that the Spearman allowed to casually die…
Gritting his teeth, Shal continued to race across the city. Rather than following his instructions, he proceeded to the Eastern districts before finding Ophelia. There, he detected the familiar scent of a Propagator, but it was already fleeing underground as Shal cut his way through the Witch Kings that were patrolling through the neighborhoods.
Every eviscerated body that Shal saw seemed to increase the heavy pain behind his eyes. He had only found about a hundred dead, but even that was too much. Why? Why was all of this necessary? Why did so many need to die so he could ascend? Truly, he needed to reach Level 99 before he could accomplish it, and that required experience, but still…
Could Shal really trust a Spearman that allowed so much death…? It was as though the loss of life didn’t matter to him at all...
Shal’s spear pierced through a Wight’s throat. The thing scrabbled at the weapon helplessly as Shal whipped the spear around and smashed another wave of Wights backward. Air hissed out through Shal’s nose. This whole ascension thing was beginning to stink. Shal crushed bodies and bits of gore squirted onto his leathers.
At this point, what could Shal do but trust Ophelia and her ilk? The only other option was to best them. To seize all of the power. And although Shal had grown in strength, such a feat was likely still beyond him.
Shal pursed his lips. Soon.
Even more quickly than the South district, the Eastern districts affected by the surprise Wight attack were cleared out. Shal was rather disgusting with how simple it was to mop up the weaker Wights at this point; he may as well be traipsing throughout Hastam with a broom. With most of the fires under control, Shal returned to the center of Hastam.
There he found Aylwind and Ophelia, both with serious expressions on their faces.
“This was done purposefully. Those Northern bastards let the city be attacked.” Aylwind hissed. “We must strike now, prove to them crossing us was a mistake.”
Ophelia nodded placidly and then looked at Shal. “Good. Everything has been cleared.”
“Of course,” Shal said. But then he stepped forward toward Aylwind. “Is now really the correct time to attack? These are fellow spear users. And with the city still burning-”
“Others will handle it, Shal,” Ophelia said soothingly. “Remember, our goal is to prepare for your transcendence. No matter what actions we take, the life energy of Tellus will slowly stiffen and die if you are not prepared for your destiny.”
“Yet is the energy not shifting as we speak?” Shal argued. “New images and Styles are appearing at a rate that is incomparable to the past few decades. There is a breath of fresh air among the Styles. We have time. When that strength grows to fruition-”
“Shal,” Aylwind interrupted with a glare. “Have you wondered why so many have been sacrificed these past months? I have no doubt you have. Your heart is soft. Do you truly think it is a coincidence that suddenly, the possibility of creating new images exists? That the death and the new growth are happening independently of each other.”
Shal opened his mouth. But there was no reasonable answer that he could give to Aylwind’s pointed stare.
“All things have costs,” Aylwind said coldly. Then he turned away and began to strap on his armor.
“. Our Images were… stuck. Built upon the belief of millions. In order to shake those images… some of the bases had to be eroded. It was inevitable.” Ophelia said quietly. But her eyes were bright when she pulled Shal’s gaze to her own. “We have paid the cost. Now it is time to reap the reward. But to accomplish that, we cannot allow these Northern fools to stand with a spear pointed at our back.”
“What are you doing?!?” Helen hissed. Silo just began to giggle.
Helen had been performing a sweep through the Western Districts to rid the area of Wights. To her surprise, it was far easier than she had expected. Although the fires and destruction would seem to indicate that the city was being invaded, upon investigation, Helen discovered that the destruction was largely aesthetic.
It was like someone had designed the attack to look bigger than it was. There were still Wights wandering around, but Helen hadn’t even seen a Witch King. And at this point, the Hellfin Reaper would shred anything less.
But as Helen was shifting rubble to free a trapped family, she felt a sharp killing intent at her back. Growling, the Tides of Blood Domain condensed around her in a split second. With its buff, she managed to finish cutting through the block of stone and spin out of the way of the attack.
To her fury, it was not a Wight claw that had struck at her exposed back. It was a spear.
Or something like a spear. Silo was… different. Not himself. It looked like he had cut off his own hands and stuck sharpened stakes of bone into his arms. His eyes were sunken and his teeth were yellowed to the point of looking rotten. The strange protrusions of bone continued up his arms like thick sleeves; he had spiky shoulder guards that also looked to be made entirely of bone.
But despite that, there was no doubt that these bones were sharpened to deadly points.
Silo continued to giggle. The family, the parents and two small girls, slowly emerged from the collapsed wreckage of their house. When they did, Silo raised his arm and slashed.
Roaring, Helen interposed herself between the groups. “Silo!”
“Our match is today…” Silo mumbled. His voice was high pitched and quiet. “I figured… why wait? We can just fight now. We can revel in this… ambiance. We can show our true selves. You know why I like you Helen?”
Helen gestured for the family to flee, which they did gladly. “Fuck you. What the hell happened to you? You look like… like you are slowly transforming into a Wight.”
For a second, a genuine look of shock crossed Silo’s face. Just as quickly his expression crumpled into raw fear. Perhaps the enormity of what was happening to his body finally struck home. But just as quickly, those genuine emotions were replaced by madness in his eyes.
His giggles persisted. “You are the only one that gets it. I saw your match. I felt it. The hatred, the violence… you just get it! Spears are made to kill. To pretend otherwise… that’s why I was gonna ask to be… close. But when I saw you saving those people with the spear… I was so confused. I thought you understood. Maybe you only understand while fighting. So let me remind you-”
“I’ll gladly kick your ass, you sick dog. Don’t bitch if I devour you in the process.” Helen's spear blurred as she activated Feeding Frenzy. In her mind, the best chance to finish this quickly and then continue to assist others was to overwhelm his defenses now. For all that the strange protrusions from the stumps of his arms looked like spears, it was not an easy thing for someone who had used a spear with two hands his whole life to learn how to utilize weapons that extending straight from the arm.
But Helen had underestimated Silo.
For all that he was slowed by her Domain, his arms swept upward to knock away her attack. Then he favored her with a cocky grin.
Helen’s eyes flashed.
Fuck. This. Guy.