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Divveltian sat, meditating, when the door crashed open and Shal stumbled into the room. Divveltian frowned. Shal was…. shaken. More than that, he was terrified.

“Shal, what-”

“I must go.” Shal interrupted, gathering all of his things into his interspatial ring with a wave of his hand, and then turned to leave. As he passed out of the door, almost as an afterthought, he spoke over his shoulder to Divveltian. “Tell Randidly… that he has the tools to do this. Do not waver…. But also… never trust strength gifted to him by another.”

Then Shal left. After a few minutes of thinking, Divveltian stood and stared at Shal’s retreating back. He had known Shal since he was a boy. Always quiet, reserved, but dedicated to the spear and talented. Even faced with the prospect of proceeding to the domicile of the Devourer, he hadn't seemed to even feel an itch of fear.

But now... his eyes were gaunt and desperate, like he had seen a ghost.

"What..." Divveltian said, speaking to the quiet, now emptier room. "What are you so afraid of...? What are you running from...?"

****

Shal stumbled out onto the the road leading out of Deardun, feeling shaken. Shal had always known that there was something strange about the boy. His ability to supply his own Aether, without having to worry about Aether Starvation, was disturbing, because of some of the associations in Shal's past. But ultimately it had seemed like a small, isolated thing, so Shal was able to rid himself of some of his unease and accept it at face value.

But today, when Randidly had touched his hand, he felt the heady, hot/cold touch of power.... and his words...

You simply need to accept it.

They reminded him of another's words. The soft whispered words from the face that lay inside his chest. Although the face was still now,  it used to yell and gesture, its eyes wild and focused. But there was never any noise but the voice, whispering that phrase over and over again. You simply need to accept it.

What was worse was that the face looked exactly like his father.

And in Shal's mind, that voice could only have one source. Lucretia. Those tempting sweet words, and the wafts of power from that face hidden inside the depths of his chest scared him.. Was Randidly another one of her pawns...? Had she-

Then Shal blinked. Why was his fear... so strong? True, there were a lot of things that Shal didn't understand, but there was one thing that the world understood, better than anything else; power. His hands clenched into fists. As long as he grasped power, everything else would follow. All he needed to do was-

But wait, in the past, the moments where Shal was strongest were when he had caved and relied on his father's face in his chest, channeling some of his spirit to utilize the Spear Phantom's moves. That wasn't truly his own power, even if it had proven itself usable. But hadn't he decided that it was dangerous-

Now that Randidly, the worthless whelp, had informed him of the secret of the Spear Phantom's Embrace too, his strength would-

But if the methods that he used were to be believed, it wasn’t really an issue of usage, it was an issue of perception. Shal simply had to see how all of these disparate skills were part of one larger whole, and merge them together. If Randidly had managed to get such a powerful boost, if he himself could manage it-

You simply need to accept it-

In every strange coincidence of the past several months of real world time began to spin and settle into place. Lucretia’s hand floating over everything-

A vicious, surging anger. With power, even Lucretia was nothing. And with his father’s power surging in his chest-

Muttering to himself, Shal continued to walk, leaving Deardun behind, driven by pure instinct. Somehow, he knew that if he continued to walk, he would someday find a truth, a weapon, a strength, and all of this would be unnecessary. He simply needed…

Then, abruptly, his consciousness departed from him, and he collapsed, and a smiling woman walked out of the darkness, cooing softly. “Oh my child, how you’ve grown…”

Turning, she then regarded the lights of Deardun with a more frosty expression. “And you… Mr. Ghosthound…. I’m starting to get annoyed with how often you are in the right place at the right time to keep my baby from falling into despair. Perhaps it's time… for me to intervene directly. And you would like that too, wouldn’t you?”

As her lavender hair cascaded around her, Lucretia hefted a strangely shaped object, pointing it towards the town. It trembled slightly and then the object opened its eyes. Although the Yeti had been severely injured, and gutted of Aether, due to its nature here, projected onto the 5th Cohort, wounds such as this wouldn’t kill it.

Although it filled the Yeti with fear how closely the woman had pushed him to that line, without crossing it. It spoke of experience that would mark her, too, as a Heretic.

But now it was faced with the call of its destiny. It could sense its purpose, the reason it had become a Judgement, just beyond the city walls. Imperceptibly, its wounds began to heal, and it growled softly.

With an abrupt motion, Lucretia deftly shook the Yeti head, dispelling its slowly gathering strength. She laughed lightly at its struggle, and then picked up Shal, walking into the darkness. “Not yet, love. There are a few more seeds I want to check before we scrap it all and send in the locusts…”

****

Randidly sat very still. Not that he hadn’t expected it to be rough sledding to convince Shal of the value of the services he offered…. No even that was wrong. It wasn’t a service, it was a fucking lifeline. This Aether Connection would enable Shal-

But no, thinking about it that way was also just trouble. He needed to be more understanding of how the other man was feeling. Based on even Randidly’s shallow understanding of the procedure, it was a very intimate thing, that would connect the two of them permanently. Life and meaning would flow back and forth, changing, and hopefully strengthening, them both.

Still, it hurt that Shal’s refusal had been so sudden, and his departure so swift. Although he would likely come around, there had been strange, disturbing parallels in the hard look in Shal’s eyes that Randidly remembered from his past, and as he was slowly consumed by those memories as he sat alone, Randidly began to tremble.

He smiled sardonically to himself. During the time which the System had arrived, Randidly had made many strides in so many areas. He was less hesitant in social situations. He was more confident of his own existence. He felt more directly how he fit and connected in the world. And he had achieved a level of strength that was impossible.

He was currently in another world, for Christ’s sake, fighting against people who trained from a very young age in order to be the best at this. And although he had only taken a year and some months, he was closing in on them. Perhaps it was his attitude, or Soul Skill or situation… his Aether Crossroads… but he was closing in on these people.

Yet watching as Shal left him, all of that… fell away.

Randidly blinked, slightly surprised at finding Divveltian standing before him, a strange expression on his face. Very quickly, Randidly schooled himself, putting his hands behind his back to hide the tremors. “Yes?”

“Shal… has left. He seemed… confident that you could handle the rest of the tournament in his absence-” Divveltian began, but then he stopped abruptly, looking deeply at Randidly.

There was a furious hotness in Randidly’s chest. He wondered idly what sort of expression he must be making. But that curiosity was very quickly overwhelmed and devoured by the heat, which very quickly soured and turned cold.

Well, as Randidly thought, it would be difficult. But this leaving was only a small thing. He would be back. He wouldn’t just abandon him.

Randidly walked forward, past, Divveltian, who gave him a searching glance. “...where are you going?”

He didn’t even bother to answer, just left the roof and walked down the stairs. Everything around him was exceptionally clear, the details pristine and vivid, even in the half-light of this night in Deardun.

Something did surprise Randidly enough that he paused though; Helen was waiting out front of the inn as he left, looking at the ground with a bleak look. It would have been much easier if he could have slipped past her, but she heard the sound of the door opening, and looked sharply up. Her eyes glittered, reflecting the soft light of the half moon. She straightened, and Randidly mechanically noticed the way her leather clothes hugged her body. There was a small stirring of lust in his chest, but ultimately it was unable to find purchase in the cool bitterness that suffused him, and disappeared.

“Uh.. Ghost…. No Randidly, I wanted-” Helen began, looking surprisingly sheepish, but Randidly quickly interrupted her.”

“Just fuck off. I’m tired of you following me around.” Randidly said, eyes forward as he walked past her without another glance. Right now, he was in no mood in dealing with anyone, and the thought of how Helen’s eyes might soften if she thought he was hurt from Shal’s abrupt departure… The imagined pity made Randidly furious.

But what stopped him cold was he felt the tip of a spear rushing towards his exposed back.

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