The Spearman watched the whole process suspiciously. From his previous experience, the Spearman knew that outside influences should be blocked by the System. Yet it allowed the gift of the spear?
And immediately after receiving the spear, Shal’s who disposition changed. He was glowing with a barely controlled joy. He spun the spear as if to test it, and the thing hummed beautifully. The Spearman tightened his grip on his own spear. His spear was not a delicate instrument like Shal’s. It was a thing made to kill.
It would bring him great pleasure to crush this unasked for spear that was added so late to the duel.
“You are weak-” The Spearman began, but he broke off as Shal rushed toward him with his new spear. The Spearman could tell that Shal’s left arm was no more than just stubbornly able to grip at this point; it would add no power to his strikes. So moving this to a direct confrontation was best.
Besides, the System suppression was bringing their Stats and Skills into alignment. Soon, they would be almost the exact same person, aside from images. And the Spearman had lived on Tellus for seven hundred years. He knew the deep darkness that covered this place. He felt it now, breathing down his neck, demanding sacrifice.
Did this foolish boy think he wanted such a world? Tellus was a hell. But even a hell was better than oblivion, especially when toiling away in this hell had meaning. That was reality.
So the Spearman raised his spear to block the attack. And watched wide-eyed as Shal’s spear simply twisted around the block and bit into his shoulder.
More of this? Then this will be even easier than I suspected, the Spearman thought savagely. His left hand shot out to simply grab the damned spear before it could cause more trouble.
A simple twist of Shal’s wrist straightened the spear in a flash and put it far beyond the close target the spearhead had once been. The Spearman froze, his hand off his spear and half extended, torn between what to do. Cursing, he brought his hand back to this spear and lowered his weapon to thrust toward Shal.
But Shal moved too fast and stomped the jagged and splinter filled wound in the Spearman’s thigh.
“Shal!” The Spearman bellowed, exploding with a wave of the energy that the images of Tellus had granted him. He shook and the darkness dislodged itself, content to lash out and strike those nearby.
Violence and bloodlust dispersed in a wave. One great advantage the Spearman had was he fought with images like this in the past when he had betrayed the First Propagator. It was not the cleanest victory to rely on this experience, but it would show how dominant the Spearman was. Like jackals, those dark images cackled with glee and rushed forward.
The images smashed into Shal… and dispersed into tiny motes of light that spun around Shal like a halo. The Spearman’s confusion only lasted until Shal moved again, this time attacking with a simple thrust.
Moving quickly, the Spearman’s weapon came up to intercept the blow. But his eyes remained fixed on the spear. At some point, it would again try and wriggling around his block, and-
Rather than avoiding the block, Shal simply smashed forward with his attack. Even if the Spearman was slightly distracted, he was floored by the amount of force that the slender spear in Shal’s hands contained.
To his chagrin, he was forced to take a step backward, which put some weight on his injured leg. The only way to avoid falling down was to stagger back a few more steps, wincing as blood squeezed itself out of the field of gore that was the Spearman’s upper thigh.
“Shal-” The Spearman once more began, but Shal just thrust again with his spear. A simple thrust.
A feint, the Spearman instantly diagnosed, looking down his nose as Shal as his spear rose cautiously. You are five hundred years too early to fool me with a basic trick like-
But the angle of attack didn’t change. So the Spearman had to overextend himself to block the blow that continued to roll toward his chest.
If anything, this blow was even more powerful than the previous one. But the Spearman would not allow Shal’s growing momentum to continue; he ignored the vicious spike of pain from his thigh and held his ground against the blow.
Of course, the pain helped the Spearman. Because nothing fueled violence like pain. The darkness around him was hot and wet, the weight of the dead or nearly so, clawing and grabbing at the Spearman’s back. He ignored those hands; to acknowledge them was to allow them to drag him down with them. All he could do is cut forward.
“Die,” The Spearman hissed, smashing outward with his spear. The blow was a short and sharp horizontal cut, aimed at Shal’s left midsection. It was time to test how weak that left spear arm truly was.
That obnoxious grin on Shal’s face didn’t fade. Those small motes of light around him seemed to be getting brighter. But before the cruelty of reality-
Shal wiggled the spear, causing a curving wave to flow through the middle part of the shaft. Then Shal snapped his wrist again, the spear exploding outward in what was almost a thrust as it straightened. With impossible precision, the tip of Shal’s spear blurred sideways and impacted the Spearman’s cut.
The Spearman’s attack was stopped dead. The lights around Shal spun faster and faster.
“Do you know what you never understood?”
The Spearman blinked, straightening to meet Shal’s gaze. Then he hissed in horror as Shal’s spear spun around like a lasso and grabbed the head of the Spearman’s heavy iron spear. A sharp yank pulled the Spearman stumbling forward, even as both of Shal’s hands came off his spear.
It was clear that the movement pained Shal immensely, but he made a fist with his left hand and slammed it into the wound that he had inflicted on the Spearman’s side. Then Shal’s right arm came across in a brutal straight that smashed the gored wreckage of the Spearman’s nose. Howling, the Spearman stumbled backward.
The Spearman steadied himself and raised his spear as Shal’s spear hopped off the ground and back into his hand. “Do you think this is a game? This is not an image that will allow Tellus to succeed. The spear is not a game for children!”
“That’s exactly right. That’s what you don’t get,” Shal said lightly as he spun his spear. “It is a harsh world we live in. The reality is one dominated by violence and strife. But can you feel it? These runes around us sing with the voice… of Tellus itself.”
They whispered to him, that press of bodies weighing on the Spearman’s shoulders. Of what they would do when he finally fell amongst them. Their words were so twisted and distorted by their hatred that they no longer spoke a language understandable by the living. They tugged at his ankles now, urging him to fall. To join them.
I cannot fail here. Ethe… I’ll destroy it all. I’ll crush it all...
Grinding his teeth, the Spearman managed to bellow, “AND TELLUS IS VIOLENCE! You lived it, Shal. Don’t deny your own world-”
Shal struck again, slashing diagonally at the Spearman. Shal’s glow had shifted from small motes of light to his entire body, and the Spearman felt something then that he had not felt for years. Something he had not felt since Ethe died.
He felt a small thrill of fear. A seed, planted in his heart, slowly taking root. Those hands on his wrists and ankles grew more powerful. The Spearman could see the faces of those he killed, spinning around him with excited expressions, waiting for him to join them.
Roaring, the Spearman smashed those faces. They were little parasites, but they also gave the Spearman his deep control over the darkness. It roiled out in a thick cloud, chocking the air. But Shal cut right through, spear raised.
Although the Spearman could block the first strike of Shal’s, the man’s elastic seeming spear allowed him to rebound it and strike lightning fast at the Spearman’s good leg. Growling, the Spearman shifted his stance and deflected the blow. But Shal struck again, just as quick.
Again and again, Shal’s infuriating spear seemed to evade and nip at the Spearman. Its bites might have been small, but each bite was another poisonous drop of fear in the Spearman’s heart. Every time the Spearman marshaled the sea of violence in his heart to explode outward and Shal didn’t even respond was another hint of hesitation. Shal was quickly moving beyond being simply good with a spear; he was-
“IMPOSSIBLE!” The Spearman howled. The ground rumbled as he smashed his spear down at the spot Shal was a second ago. But Shal was gone, twisting away and scoring another gash across the Spearman’s forehead. Blood dripped down into his eyes. The bodes were draped across the Spearman. The cost of violence, seven hundred years worth. And they were all laughing, their teeth clacking against themselves in depressing applause.
“Auto. We are fighting over an image.” Shal said shortly as he paused in his onslaught. The Spearman was incensed as he saw pity in the other man’s gaze. “The first image, the truest image everyone on Tellus created was not of the violent reality. It was of the Hero they yearned to be.”
The spinning runes were keening now. The Spearman trembled as he held fast onto his spear, hoping to figure out what was going wrong. But although he could see the building light in Shal’s hands, he couldn’t understand it. “I refuse to believe that I am beaten by children’s fantasies!”
“Of course, those children grow up. Their sparkling dreams are dirtied. But they never stop holding onto them.” Shal was just a voice in a sea of light. The Spearman stared at it, his darkness ebbing. “Because do you know what your violent image is? The tantrum of a world’s disappointed children.”
In spite of himself, the Spearman took a step back. His image faltered and then failed. The dark hands tightened like vice grips around his limbs.
You will die here, the mountain of dead stacked on his shoulders told the Spearman.
The Wraith Viper coiled around Shal’s body, its head sharp and triangular. It hissed. But to the Spearman’s surprise… the viper didn’t even look at him. It regarded the sea of bodies that he carried, deadly intent in its eyes.
“You dreamed of this too, didn’t you, Auto?” Shal said softly.
He comes not for me… The Spearman realized, feeling the sea of darkness he carried in his chest tremble in fear. The screaming sea of dead, their cold fingers scrambling for purchase, and their empty eye sockets looking for an escape. This was never… me. I wasn’t fighting. You’ve been fighting against this darkness, the whole time, haven’t you…?
And the Spearman couldn’t deny… he hated it too. Hated how twisted the world had become. He couldn’t deny that he dreamed of this darkness being destroyed someday.
I told you time and time again, Ethe, Auto thought while looking up at the eyes of the Wraith Phantom. I would be no good for you. That I would only bring you trouble. That I carried something that was as deadly as a poison. Now at least…
At the end of his path, the Spearman did not flinch; he only closed his eyes. His fingers loosened and his spear fell to the ground. Here I come, Ethe.
In a surge of power, an image finally Ascended on Tellus as a blade chopped cleanly through the Spearman’s neck. A world’s worth of dead, clinging tightly to their grudges, howled with indignation as a burning viper made of light bit deeply and flooded them with poison.