Ophelia looked sharply up when the Spearman’s whisper broke their anticipatory silence.
“...How is this possible…” The Spearman whispered, staring through the wall toward the battlefield beyond where all of their fates were being decided. For the first time in their long master-student relationship, Ophelia heard fear and confusion in the Spearman’s voice, which filled her with a barely controlled panic.
The Spearman never wasn’t in control. He was the Spearman. He was-
“What is it?” Aylwind asked. Ophelia immediately cursed him and blessed him, because that very same panic in her chest wanted to demand the answer to that question while simultaneously wanting to pretend she had never heard this display of emotion, both at the same time.
“I… don’t know…” The Spearman lowered his head. From its grimace of fear, Ophelia was relieved to see his face shifted to a furious look of contemplation. “This… should be impossible. Silo was killed by a third party… the duel for Ascension hadn’t even occurred yet. All of our work… and once more, one of our selections has failed before even reaching the finish line. Damnit. AGAIN!”
“How is that possible?” Ophelia heard herself asking.
Aylwind grunted and shrugged. “Well, we already have Shal. We can just train another to reach that Level. It will take time, but-”
“Fool.” The Spearman said sharply, fixing Aylwind with a pointed glare. “So much of the world was lost to make the strength of image and experience Shal has absorbed over the past two years. We have burned our resources to reach this point. Theoretically it is possible, yes, but the energy of this world…”
The Spearman’s gaze turned upward. His eyes flicked side to side as if reading the life energy of Tellus itself in the sky. Then his expression morphed into grim-faced hatred.
To prove she understood the Spearman, Ophelia turned to Aylwind and said quietly. “Tellus is stuck at a half stage, midway to completing the Second Calamity. As such, we have ceased receiving the relatively pure energy that the System fed us to grow to this point. We have proved ourselves beyond that. So now…”
“But we got here once did we not? Why can’t we do it again?” Aylwind stubbornly said. He folded his arms. “I do not like this defeatist attitude.”
In that moment, Ophelia’s fury knew no bounds. She snuck a look at the Spearman, to check if he shared her indignant disbelief. If he had, Ophelia would have killed Aylwind. But it looked like the Spearman was distracted by his own thoughts, as he considered how to move forward. So Ophelia could only grit her teeth and turn back to Aylwind.
“We destroyed many of the Spearman’s own images to do this,” Struggling to keep her voice even, Ophelia could at least meet Aylwind’s gaze with a searing glare. “It was not an efficient transaction. In addition, we were largely trying to alienate our own images so they could theoretically be used as fuel. But, as we were so close to success, we began to use our images once more. It was… a foolish decision. I regret not listening to Versault. As such… the destruction of those images will take much more time to prepare.”
“What I don’t get,” The Spearman suddenly said. “Is how this is possible. Azriel is Level 57. I can feel it in the air, even if she now grows in Level. Silo had reached 98. After he absorbed Rumera, he would have been the Level 99 we needed him to be. Even at 98, the Skill he obtained at Level 90 should have given him an edge that Azriel couldn’t compete with. How could she have defeated him?”
If the Spearman’s strange, lost whisper filled Ophelia with panic, the voice that spoke now doused her in frigid water.
“Perhaps your Spearsource avatar’s were designed with a weakness that she knew about?”
“You-!” The Spearman hissed as the flimsy wooden door swung slowly inward, revealing a tall figure whose face was shrouded by the heavy shadow from his cloak.
The amusement was clear in the cloaked figure’s voice. “It has been a long time, Auto Rach. How are you doing? Disappointed? Defeated? Broken?”
“The original Autarch itself, crawling on his belly to meet me, skulking in a disguise.” The Spearman hissed. “This was your doing then?”
“It all was my doing, although I’m surprised how deftly you parried my earlier attempts to destroy your foolish play.” The cloaked figure shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. It’s all over. You have lost.”
“If you think-” The Spearman began, but he stopped mid-sentence as the cloak around the interloper exploded, revealing a large, amethyst body that was low to the ground and way too large to have been actually contained by the cloak. But just as Ophelia’s eyes were struggling to take in the huge crystalline form that had appeared, there was a blur near the roof.
It was funny, Ophelia reflected, that not even the Spearman realized what was happening fast enough. The only one in the room that had the presence of mind to move was… Aylwind.
Aylwind bellowed and leaped upward with his spear raised. Instantly, a wave of heat boiled out from him to char and singe the walls and ceiling. Moving lightning fast, Aylwind met the blur.
Ophelia’s breath caught in her throat as the instant of time following that sharp crack was burned into her vision.
Aylwind, interposing himself between the amethyst scorpion and the Spearman, had a blank look on his face. His spear was broken; the scorpions impossibly sharp tail had penetrated through it and into Aylwind’s chest cavity.
Ophelia stood frozen, shocked that both had moved so quickly. And that it was immediately clear that the razor sharp needle at the tip of the scorpion’s tail discharged some deadly poison into Aylwind’s body. Within a second, his eyes dimmed and Aylwind slumped to the side.
“Hmph, what a sacrifice. Would he have still acted so bravely if he knew how many sacrifices you have demanded from the spear-users of Tellus, Auto? If he had known what you had done to defeat me the first time?”
The Spearman ignored the scorpion and shattered the wall behind him. “Ophelia, move. We must retreat and regroup. Until we understand the situation…”
The Spearman vanished. Moving as quickly as she could, Ophelia followed. As she dashed out of the house, she spared a glance for Aylwind. Blood dripped down the tail puncturing through his chest and pooling in the center of the floor.
And the last sound she heard was laughing, as the amethyst scorpion watched them both flee.
Randidly clenched his fists even as he tried to keep his voice even. “Please, you need to listen. Something will go wrong-”
“Something will go wrong if we allow you to go.” Versault interrupted with infuriating persistence. But now his dark eyes were fixed on Randidly, watching his every move. Even though Versault wouldn’t want to admit it, Randidly believed that the man could sense the problem as well. If not the shape of it, at least its presence. “Keeping you here is better.”
“If you do so, it will be too late,” Randidly said through gritted teeth. He turned and laid his case at the feet of the Oracle. Her eyes were watery and indecisive. “Please. I swear to you that I will only help Tellus ascend. I want Shal to survive this. But you know something? I was never the one aiming for Drak Wyrd-”
“Let is be, Mr. Ghosthound.” The Oracle said tiredly. Mist flowed in through the broken windows and pooled at her feet. She shrugged. “This path has been chosen; we will stay on it to the end.”
Randidly looked at the Oracle, then turned around and looked at Versault. Both wore grim, fatalistic expressions.
Closing his eyes, Randidly surveyed the crossroads ahead of him. Another choice. To force the issue, or to allow Azriel and her Master to…
To do what? Randidly didn’t even know. It was just a hunch.
But there was a thick river of Aether flowing through him that told him that he was right. Azriel planned on interfering there.
Why do you so desperately seek glory, Azriel? Is your debt to your master really that great…? Randidly asked vainly to the Aether. Of course, it did not answer. There was only the silent flow of energy and meaning between them.
But immediately, Randidly reflected that he had given up much to assist Shal. In some ways, he understood the sentiment, at least. And from what he understood, Azriel’s debt to her Master was much, much deeper than his to Shal.
In a Dungeon that neither of them could handle alone, Randidly and Shal had relied on each other to escape and thrive. They had ultimately become master and apprentice, but that relationship had been based on respect for each’s respective strengths. The memory of that trying time spent together stayed with them.
Azriel had been a young woman from a declining family that would have been sold as a bride to the highest bidder as the Blanche clan struggled to stabilize its collapse. Her Master had stopped that by giving Azriel that tools to seize her own destiny. A spear that could pierce anything became her lifeboat in her storm jostled seas of life. She was, of course, already prodigiously talented. But the family had never given her the opportunity to leverage that advantage.
Her master had given her everything she now had. Well, setting aside the Aether that Randidly himself gave her.
For a second he considered cutting the connection, but that wasn’t what he wanted. No, his choices were what to do here. Acquiesce or struggle…?
Honestly, it was an easy decision; he would fight.
Randidly’s mouth firmed into a line. He wouldn’t willingly pay the price for another’s foolishness. He stepped toward the Oracle with lantern-like emerald eyes, but even as he did so, Versault spoke behind him.
“Wha-..... what?! How could this be…?”
Randidly spun slowly around. From the mounting horror on Versault’s face, it was already too late. It had happened. Something had averted the Ascension.