“WHAT IN THE LIVING FUCK!?!” Ophelia bellowed. The stone building shook around the three of them with the force of the expletive. Shal kept his face studiously neutral as he allowed the noise to wash over him. Aylwind’s only response was a dull grunt. Both men watched as Ophelia waved a hand and shattered a wooden chair into splinters.
“For all it was a useful tool, it was still of the Wights,” Aylwind said when Ophelia finished hyperventilating. “So-”
“Do you know how fucking dumb you sound?” Ophelia hissed. “It was a tool of the Autarch! The Wights were a nameless collective of energy led by a spiritual being that the Spearman destroyed hundreds of years ago. The Autarch we know now is the Spearman. It was his tool, honed to a purpose. And that purpose-”
“Is accomplished, is it not? They were a means to an end. To loosen the image of Tellus.” Aylwind scowled and scratched the back of his neck. “That has been done. Do not belabor the point; your anger is not becoming.”
“Fools. I’m surrounded by fucking fools.” Ophelia threw her hands at the ceiling. The ceiling and the floor above it were annihilated by the casual gesture. Bits of debris clatters to the floor, but most of it was simply gone. The casual display of power did a lot to cool Shal’s mood. Above them, the sun seemed to peer down through the open roof into the room.
As the powdered wood floated downward, Shal’s eyebrow twitched. With a supreme effort of will, he suppressed the urge to reach up and knock away the sawdust with which he had been dusted.
“No matter your age, you behave like a child,” Aylwind muttered, but it was actually quite amusing to Shal that Aylwind kept his voice lowered. It was clear which of these two Masters held the power in the relationship. Which made Shal wonder whether he would be able to best Aylwind in combat.
It would be a close thing he suspected, but Shal believed he was almost there.
“Still,” Ophelia said, patting the dust off of her leathers as though she hadn’t destroyed the entire building above their meeting room. “All is not lost. Due to the fighting, there is no doubt that our chosen champion has benefitted from the Wight attack. Shal, have you reached Level 99 yet? Are you close?”
Finally, Shal could very easily resist the urge to smile. Some part of him sensed that something very bad was about to arrive in this room. “What do you mean? I am far from Level 99. I barely reached Level 98 during the attack. The scant few Witch Kings I could find were far from enough to level me.”
Ophelia’s wild frustrations were amusing. The new deadly stillness as she affixed Shal with an incredibly intense look was far beyond that. “Repeat that.”
Shal considered for several seconds before responding. “You have heard what I said. There is nothing more to clarify. I am far from Level 99.”
“Witch Kings?” Ophelia’s voice was small. Her eyes appeared vacant like she was studying something far away. “There were Propagators in the attack. I believe they attacked the South quadrant. When you patrolled.”
“There were only Witch Kings,” Shal said with a shrug. Aylwind seemed similarly confused, looking from Shal to Ophelia and back again. It did not reassure Shal that he and Aylwind were on the same page.
“There were Propagators. You should have met Propagators. Did you skimp on your patrols? Of all times to fucking slack off-”
“I did not slack off,” Shal said, his eyes blazing. There were no Propagators. They ran after they set their petty fires. Only Witch Kings.”
“There were Propagators. Five,” Ophelia was staring at the ground now. Shal wondered if she was considering blowing up the floor beneath them. “ I am very sure. I… they were there. They had to be.”
“There is no need to hide it,” Shal said as a small seed of certainty bloomed in his heart. “You arranged the attack. All of this, all of this death. To push me to reach Level 99? Perhaps. I don’t even know anymore. But it failed. There were no Propagators in the South Quadrant.”
“They were there,” Ophelia countered.
“And what? I missed them? No doubt you checked in on my progress and noticed that the Wights were cleared out after I passed through. After your meddling with my dates, I have a hard time believing that you would have trusted me enough to even allow me to wander away for the half hour. I’m surprised that you didn’t insist that you be the chosen one yourself,”
“If I could, I WOULD have. My image was the Spearman’s; it was not enough to accomplish his goals.” With deep breaths, Ophelia fought a losing battle with her rising temper. “Perhaps you let them escape. Because I am sure, they were there. The order was given. And for all the Wights had done to hurt us, they have never disobeyed an order.”
There was a ringing beat of silence as Shal took that sentence in, and then the Wraith Adder at his core slowly raised its amber gaze to glare at Ophelia. “Your arrogance is impossible to understand. But I did not let them escape. God help me, I agree with Master Sky. This was not a reliable tool-”
“THEY WERE THERE.” Ophelia bellowed. The floor rumbled ominously.
The Wraith Adder slowly uncoiled in his chest. “If they were, then why did I not find them? Do you expect me to believe that they wandered off? And it wasn’t like someone could just waltz up to them and defeat them. Who else in the city has that power?”
“If they were there,” Aylwind cut in, “Shal would have found them. For all his inexperience and weakness, he is not inattentive.”
“FUCK.” Ophelia bellowed. She slammed her fist against the wall. Shal was so taken by surprised when the building next door cracked and began to collapse that he couldn’t stop the chuckle from escaping his lips.
Ophelia’s glare silenced him. For all the Wraith Adder wouldn’t accept being bullied, there was no reason to antagonize her if he didn’t need to. After another whistling breath, Ophelia folded her palms. “So you are not Level 99. You have not reached the point where you might take a Great Path. But we have high-Level Dungeons. We can push you up to that Level.
“Besides,” Ophelia continued, “The opposing image is not yet ready. Perhaps… some patience is a good thing.”
Once again, Silo experienced the sensation of dying. It was not the sort of thing that grew more bearable with repetition; if anything, it grew worse.
I hate this… Silo swore to himself, even as some stubborn fraction of his consciousness refused to give in to the sea of black pain he swam through.
The strange runes on the ground followed by the bright, vicious light that filled the world had ripped something precious from Silo. The obsidian spider in his stomach collapsed, dragging Silo down with it. All the vital energy that the spider had infused him with dissipated. All that was left were the dregs of life from his injured physical body.
The obsidian spider had stitched Silo together so that he might serve it more efficiently. For all that it wasn’t concerned with his comfort, it had ensured that he had a working body. Rather than one of the Wight skeletons with a small bit of flesh manipulating the limbs, his was a normal body.
One that, after several gasping minutes, he managed to move.
But for all that he had enough strength to manage for now, something inside of him was fading. He was living on borrowed time. His stitched together body would not last long.
Stumbling, Silo wandered half-blind through the city. Although his senses were mostly fuzzy, he had a strange unerring intuition that the answer to his problems lay within the city. He simply had to make it there before his body failed.
By the end, Silo had to use his strange arms as crutches to continue to push himself forward. He hobbled around like some sort of naked beetle, the flesh of his back exposed to the air. People saw him and let him pass without comment, their glassy eyes wide with shock; it had been a long day for everyone.
When Silo barged into a building and reached the stairs, he paused. This was truly hell.
What followed was a half hour that Silo would never forget. Three times he vomited black blood, making the stairs slick and dangerous. Twice he slipped, smashing his head against the hardwood. The fourth time he vomited, there was nothing left within him. He just wretched until he could control his shaking enough to straighten.
Once someone entered the house and began to walk up the stairs. But one look at the trail of blood, bile, and scratched wood sent that individual running away screaming. It did, however, give Silo a fresh wave of adrenaline. With it, he clawed his way upward.
The top of the stairs was an accomplishment. The long hallway afterward was a punishment.
Perhaps the easiest part of the whole journey was the thin wooden door at the end of the hall. While his left arm struggled to keep him upright, he slashed with his right arm. The door shattered.
From her position in the bed, Skarch looked upward. “So it is you.”
Silo didn’t bother with pleasantries; he simply murdered her and stole her image to fuel himself.