Randidly could feel a lot at that moment that he pressed his hand to Azriel’s knee. The strange, chaotic chimera of an image that she was blasting outward was crystal clear. He could feel the fractured images of violence and desperation. He could feel that unending hunger. He could even feel the uncompromising drive for glory that Randidly knew was all Azriel.
He felt how cold the skin of her leg was.
And also he could feel that the image was tapping into something deeper across Tellus. Although the world had experienced a catastrophic loss of life, this image was held in the hearts of most people. This was their belief. Their Path forward aligned with that image.
It made Randidly very sad, looking at the warped figure of Azriel, covered as she was in crystal growths. To have this be the defining image of the world… it was a sacrifice to violence, an exaltation in unhealthy madness. It couldn’t be allowed. What he was about to do would hurt Azriel, but it would be better in the long run. For all of Tellus.
“Alright Azriel, this is going to hurt. Inspiration. Erode Image.”
Erode Image functioned as a way to bring the weight of Randidly’s will against another’s image. Generally, Randidly would be shaken by the experience and the target’s image would be weakened semi-permanently. Which was what he expected when he combined it with Inspiration. Boosted by the Skill, his mental strength grew to monstrous proportions and simply crush the offending image.
Even as his Mana emptied itself out, the wave of mental force crashed against Azriel. Her body spasmed as the image that had stuck its insidious influence into every inch of her struggled to withstand the overwhelming force from Randidly. Very quickly, its defenses were knocked away and it began to shudder and fail beneath the force.
Then, to Randidly’s surprise, the image acted in its own interest; it removed its tentacles from Azriel and was knocked out of her body rather than shattering.
The weakened image appeared like a glowing glass orb, filled with storm-grey mist that obscured a pulsing light. It clinked loudly as it bounced against the ground and rolled over to touch the far wall.
Immediately, Azriel gasped as her eyes shot open. Although her entire eyes were originally glassy black, that color swiftly faded to a more normal hue and she collapsed toward the ground. Moving a step closer, Randidly caught her. As the strands fell across his arms, her hair quickly lightened from ebony to ivory.
Gently, Randidly set her on the ground. The strange energies of the System that had begun to move as she moved closer to Ascension ceased with a whine. What was left was four people in a room dominated by a heavy coat rack, and a glowing orb.
“Incredible,” The Spearman whispered. “You stopped her Ascension. You wounded the images. That… amazing.”
Randidly closed his eyes as he kneeled next to Azriel, struggling to gather himself. Her own images had been wounded worse that the Spearman and the First Propagator’s image that had been able to escape her had been by his attack. What he needed to do right now is feed her the threads of meaning that Randidly had gathered between them and restart their Aether connection so she could heal.
But he hadn’t escaped unscathed. Even now, his wits felt dull. His mental control was shaky and listless.
Here, let me help, Lucretia’s voice came in his ear and Randidly felt her influence on his Soulspace as his Domain activated once more. When she shared a portion of his mental feedback, he felt her involuntarily suck in a breath.
Yea, this one was rough, Randidly thought ironically as he focused his mind and gathered Azriel’s images. With great care, he pressed his remaining hand to her forehead and slowly fed her with them. For good measure, Randidly included an Aether Donation to help her heal while they restored their actual connection.
“So, now we can start again.” The Spearman announced with a laugh. “Wonderful. We-”
“We finish this here,” Shal rumbled. Randidly glanced upward; Shal still had a strong grip on the Spearman’s arm. “One way or another.”
“The foe is dead,” The Spearman said with a frown. “Even if you are prepared to ascend, you need a foe.”
Shal shoved the Spearman. “Go, then. Absorb your old image and face me. And then Tellus can finally escape this place.”
Slowly, the Spearman turned and looked at Shal. At first, his face was covered in confusion. Then it was replaced by rage. Until finally, it settled on disappointment. “...boy. No matter how you have grown, you are not my match. And I don’t intend to see my image-”
“Then all you need to do is fight your way past me. Easy, yes? Prove your point, old man.” Shal said. There was something ugly and determined in his eyes as he focused on the Spearman.
Randidly felt something in the air; Shal was using a Skill. But even so, this wasn’t part of the plan that they had decided on earlier. Letting the Spearman go-
But then it clicked as he looked at Shal’s pale-faced grimness. Ah. The Spearman threatened Rumera. Of course. So this became personal. Well, this would be a much easier way to resolve the issue of fighting against another image...
“I have no weapon,” The Spearman said as his expression slid back to shock.
Shal gave a pointed look toward the coat rack smashed into the center of the room. “Draw your spear. Or prove yourself a coward. It is your choice.”
The Spearman’s eyes bulged with disbelieving anger as he tried to sense if Shal was bluffing. But Shal simply stared back at him. It was clear to Randidly, at least, that Shal wasn’t bluffing. But Randidly’s attention quickly returned to Azriel. He couldn’t afford to mess this up now.
Slowly, a trickle of Aether began to flow between them.
“Fine then. If you demand a lesson, I will give it to you,” The Spearman spat. He raised his hand and the cracked orb trembled and lifted to float toward him. Slowly, it arrived in his palm and sank into his skin. As it did so, the Spearman shivered. But that was all the response he had. But Randidly did note that the Spearman’s eyes turned into glassy black orbs that were fixed upon Shal.
With deliberate slowness, the Spearman walked toward his spear. As he did so, there was a feeling in the air that set Randidly’s teeth on edge. Power rolled off the man as he settled back into the mantle that had seen him powerful enough to overpower two Calamities. A mantle that had been warped by the presence of the First Propagator, but the Spearman had spent seven hundred years stealing small sips from that power, hadn’t he?
To have the entire mantle now felt like coming home.
Very quickly, Randidly felt a flash of relief as Azriel stabilized underneath his and Lucretia’s tendings. She slept deeply, her mind recovering from the abscess that had just been cut out of her, but it gave Randidly the confidence to look away and stand to face the Spearman as he stalked around to his spear and placed both hands upon the shaft of the weapon.
The Spearman’s black eyes were locked onto Shal. “Know that you asked for this.”
As the Spearman pulled his spear from the ground, Shal simply stood his ground and continued to radiate Isolating Fear, one of the Skills he had obtained from his Soulskill Path. The target, of course, was the Spearman.
For all that Shal was an imperfect son that had not willingly accepted the teachings of Aemont and become the next Spear Phantom, he had learned from his father. Those were violent and brutal lessons taught briefly and mostly at a distance. But they were lessons that Shal took to heart.
When one faced a superior foe, one didn’t fight in the way the stronger foe wanted to fight. Instead, you struck at where they were weak.
Or in this case, their deep fear. A fear of death created by the sudden absence of a loved one. A fear that would drive you on a sadistic quest to live for that departed loved one.
With a very palpable controlled sort of violence, the Spearman hefted his spear and pointed it at Shal. There was no way to deduce anything but capability from the Spearman’s face; he had endured Isolating Fear from Shal without even the slightest response. It was as if he was immune to the draining effects of the fear that Shal was radiating.
Still, Shal continued to activate the Skill. No matter how placid things on the surface, no one is truly immune, yes? You taught me that, Pronto. And by your hand, after you became a devourer, I spent decades wandering alone. Before that loneliness and fear… how small a figure is this Auto Rach?
“I killed gods before you were born, Shal. You have only one more chance,” The Spearman said in a low voice. The air pulsed with a thick bloodlust. It was like the spreading tentacles of a squid, its clammy touch running down Shal’s arm and face in an exploratory brush. “Do not overestimate yourself.”
Being inferior isn’t shameful, it is simply the truth. Shal thought, his gaze falling to Randidly’s form, standing protectively over his friend. Shal’s gaze hardened. And you do not find treasures without seeking miracles.
“Shal, the plan-” Randidly said lightly, but Shal simply held up his hand.
With his gaze on Spearman, Shal grinned. Their gazes had stayed locked for almost three minutes now. His Isolating Fear was singing with power. Truly, if you were as brave as you claim to be, we would never have fallen to this point, would we, Auto Rach?
“There is no need for the plan. There is karma between us.” Shal said softly.
You asked my father to create a Style worthy of a monstrous villain. You asked my mother to birth a twisted psychopath. And now you have asked me to end this farce and let Tellus Ascend. The Karma sewn must now be reaped, Auto. One way or another, I will grant you that wish.