The two figures finally slowed down to speeds that didn’t alarm Randidly, facing each other across the room. Both were bleeding, although Shal seemed to have fared better than the Spearman in the prior two exchanges. And yet…
A cloud of darkness was gathering behind the Spearman. Images from all across Tellus were flowing into this small room, and the same portion of the System that accomplished that slowly began restricting Randidly’s options.
Randidly abruptly realized that he had overlooked something. They had planned to face the Spearman and overcome his image directly. If that wouldn’t work, they would use the fallback plan they had prepared to overwhelm the image of the Spearman, and shift the battle to something that they could handle. Then, together, they would fight for the soul of Tellus.
But Randidly hadn’t thought deeply enough about how the System would actually be designed to have this process play out. In addition, he didn’t have enough time when he came in earlier to examine the runes that had appeared around Azriel. He had felt their rejection, but it was a similar rejection to the suppression jail he had spent a month in; he already had ways of counteracting those runes.
Randidly should have realized that the reason that the Spearman and his factions had such complex and specified runes was exactly that he had been close to ascending before. Those were the runes of Ascension or at least a fraction of them.
Now, as Randidly watched Shal and the Spearman battle, he realized that the web woven by the System was much more sinister than that. Not only was he, as an individual nearby who was not part of the duel suppressed, but the working was much broader than that.
The stronger it became, the larger its reach. Randidly suspected that all over the world, people were slowing and looking up at the sky. And during that stillness, there were other runes that facilitated the gathering of images. Slowly, in horror, Randidly watched as more and more darkness was brought by those sparkling runes to circle around the Spearman.
His shadow was tall and wide, a hulking monster that feasted on flesh. And Shal...
A smaller amount of bright fireflies were surrounding Shal, but it wasn’t nearly enough. And Randidly recognized that a larger portion of the image support that Shal was receiving was from Randidly and those who were baptized by Randidly’s images. Without that…
What was interesting was that the two fighters were governed by the suppression as well. Just not so tight a grip. They were slowly being ground down by the weight of the images they bore until all the weapons they could fight with were those images. These two individual capabilities mattered, but as time passed that difference wouldn’t amount for as much.
And in terms of images, the Spearman was clearly dominant.
“A broken spear,” the Spearman said with a sneer. “How appropriate. This is what lays at the end of your path, Shal. When the only reason you wield a spear is due to responsibility, you are weak. Your spear is weak. Step aside. Let me pass. This all can be averted now before it’s too late.”
“There is not solely the responsibility. There are other reasons… my spear will bear this weight. I will not retreat.” Shal said as he straightened before the Spearman. His left arm was injured, but still, it gripped stubbornly to the upper half of the spear he retained.
“To hold a spear is to embrace violence. Look at our world,” The Spearman hissed. At his words, the runes in the nearby area flared to life. A wave of mental pressure boomed outward. A sea of ghastly faces warped with rage and hatred seemed to glare down at the occupants of the room. They whispered their grievances, their sharp eyes demanding satisfaction.
Randidly could see Shal struggling underneath the mental attack and scrambled to think of a way to assist Shal. The Spearman continued to speak. “We have fought for generations against the Wights, but do you know what would have happened had I not created the Wights? We would have fought ourselves. To hold the spear is to acknowledge we will never evolve beyond our baser instincts. If there are no enemies, we turn on each other. That is Tellus. That is reality.”
“Yet I hold a spear to stop you; the world you would have us inhabit will bleed us dry. I will change that truth. We need not be sacrificed to your reality.” Shal announced.
Again, the Spearman laughed. “Your spear is broken. What more proof do you need?”
The moment had weight. The images were sizing each other up, and Shal’s was objectively inferior. Could Randidly donate an image to assist him? Or Aether? Shal would likely accept neither of these; this was his burden to bear. And despite the growing desperation in Shal’s gaze, Randidly knew Shal would never compromise. That was his image.
Or more than an image… it was a dream. A dream that he had with his brother, decades ago. A dream of growing up to change the world.
That was his spear. The Spear he wanted for Tellus.
And then, as suddenly as if someone has whispered into his ear, Randidly had an idea.
Even as Shal continued to focus as much as possible on hitting the Spearman with Isolating Fear, he had a deepening suspicion that this angle had been a waste of time.
This feeling was compounded by his throbbing headache and the strange flood of examples that suddenly popped into Shal’s mind, proving the Spearman right. Consider the inter-School tournaments. And color hunters. And the sadistic infighting that occurred between the powerful Styles all across the world.
All those things could be found in the mantle of violence that colored the air with maroon and rust, the color of old metal and festering wounds.
The people of Tellus fought. Not for responsibility, but for power and privilege. And when those were present, for pride. And when that wasn’t present, because that was what they wanted. Tellus was populated by individuals who thrived on violent contests. He couldn’t deny that.
But before he lost himself, Pronto had a dream. A dream of a bright-eyed ten-year-old. A dream of a spear that was a snake, and a hero who would save the world. A hero who would be so strong that he would bring peace to Tellus. Behind Shal were tiny motes of light. They were small and weak because they were just the whims of children.
They were the wistful hopes of mothers whose daughters and sons went off to war. They were the dreams of the veterans, who had seen far too many bright-eyed youths eternally silenced. They wanted someone to save them. To bring justice to the world. To be so powerful that they would be saved from their own flaws.
Shal could not claim to be this hero. He had risen through violence and strife, just like the rest of them. But at his core, he knew that the people of Tellus were better than this violence.
“Surrender,” The Spearman said, and the runes around the two of them seemed to rumble with the weight of the Spearman’s words. It seemed, at that moment, that the Spearman spoke with the will of Tellus. “Your image is not enough, boy.”
Shal’s hands tightened on his remaining spear, the movement aggravating his broken collarbone. It was so hard to keep his grip on the spear in the face of the entire world. But he had to. This was… his dream. This was Pronto’s dream. This was the only way that their tragedy wouldn’t happen again, repeated endlessly until Auto Rach ceased playing with dolls to satisfy his twisted desires.
But against the wall of darkness and death rising behind the Spearman-
Blinking, Shal turned. Slowly, his gaze focused on Randidly, who stood at the far end of the room. Strange. It hadn’t even occurred to Shal that Randidly was still there, watching. It wasn’t like him to forget that they had a witness to this battle. In fact, everyone was witnessing this battle.
They were waiting to see who controlled the Soul of Tellus. By the numbers, the world was filled with people who saw the same world that the Spearman spoke of. And yet-
Of all things, Randidly held up his strange plant spear, offering it to Shal. “Here. Take this.”
Silence filled the room. The Spearman was just as shocked as Shal was, and likely just as confused when he was reminded that Randidly was present. But Shal grinned. The world is against me, and all I am given is a spear. How typical. How… heroic.
Which sent Shal into a fit of chuckles, further aggravating his injuries. Even through the pain, however, he continued to laugh. Because Randidly had brought back a very old memory to Shal’s mind.
“Let’s play Hero,” Pronto said, rubbing his hands together excitedly.
Pronto was fourteen now and had deep bags under his eyes. His skin was turning pale and translucent.
This was one of Shal’s last good memories of Pronto before he had been consumed by his own desire for power. Soon, the process happening to Pronto would necessitate that he be isolated.
But Shal didn’t know that yet. So he frowned at his younger brother. “Hero? Again? We aren’t kids anymore, Pronto. While Father is on the frontline, we need to be training. If the Wights attack in numbers-”
“Booo,” Pronto waved his hands, a desperation in his eyes. “I just really want to play hero, okay? Please, Shal?”
Shal frowned but slowly nodded.
Which he regretted when Pronto hurriedly said. “And this time, I’m the hero.”
This confused Shal. “But… aren’t we both always the hero?”
“Not this time. I’ll be the hero. I really want… I need to feel like a hero today.” Pronto finished lamely.
This brought all of Shal’s teenage attention to his little brother. Even Shal noticed how miserable his brother was. But Shal only thought he missed Aemont. Pronto always took the separation harder than Shal. Not that Shal didn’t miss him too, but… Pronto was special to Father in a way that Shal was not. To see that man causing Pronto this mental anguish only caused his resentment for his father to grow.
So Shal sighed and said. “Fine. So I am… the villain?”
“No!” Again, Pronto looked desperate. “No, no villains. Just… my assistant alright? You’ll give me my spear, and stuff.”
Shal’s mortified look must have been amusing because soon Pronto was giggling. “Don’t give me that face. Here, uh, let’s practice. ‘Shal, my spear!’ Now throw me that stick-”
Shal did throw the stick, but point first, and Pronto hopped out of the way. Very quickly, the game devolved into a javelin fight between them, and the day was long and warm.
Finally, Shal’s chuckles subsided. Still, he grinned widely and looked over at Randidly. Lightly, his apprentice switched his grip and tossed the precious spear that he traveled to the Death School to find over toward Shal.
At the moment of the throw, Randidly’s face shifted; he saw Pronto, bright-eyed and grinning.
Shal caught the spear and turned to face the Spearman. Rather than simply accepting his grip, the spear came alive in his hand, slithering across him, sniffing and chirping as though it was sizing him up. After about ten seconds of this, it returned to his hand and straightened.
And lengthened a few centimeters more than it generally was for Randidly. Twisting its head like a snake, the spear considered him, seeking approval. Out of the corner of his eyes, Shal saw that out of the deep darkness behind the Spearman… several small fireflies emerged, floating slowly over toward his side.
Shal blinked back tears. A spear that’s a snake, huh… watch me, Pronto. It’s time to play Hero, one last time.