Shal’s ‘mental’ body had been beaten time and time again by the shade of Aemont, who was absolutely brutal. Each lesson was long and slow, carving into Shal’s body the insufficiencies of his execution of the Style. Every flaw was exposed before the creator of the Spear Phantom Style, and Shal was again and again left mortally wounded, only to magically heal due to the strange circumstances of this place.
It was definitely a dreamscape, Shal knew, but it wasn’t like any sort of dream that Shal had had in the past. It was amorphous and shrouded by mist, and Shal was barely able to distinguish what was happening in the backdrop. It was basically just a flat ground in which to duel Aemont.
Inch by brutal inch, Shal knew he was gaining ground on the shade, too.
Their spears clashed, and both utilized impossibly sharp footwork while twisting and turning, moving gracefully around each other. In terms of strength, Shal was surprised to find that he was slightly higher, but this had honestly been holding him back somewhat; Aemont always knew which clashes he needed to win, and threw everything behind those strikes, making Shal’s earlier victories mean little.
That was the genius of Aemont, or at least one of the strokes of genius. His strength was in the control of his own strength. He knew the moments to throw it all into a strike, and he knew the other strikes to keep it back, holding his opponents at bay.
It was… intimidating, to say the least, but Shal quickly absorbed every brutal lesson with his body. He refused to give in easily to his father, or the shade of his father. This was a fight for his pride. He refused to give in.
Again and again, their spears smashed together, or glanced off of each other, striking and moving quickly. Shal’s eyes unfocused, and he became less aware of the details of each encounter, but more concerned with the broader dance. Give to take. Move to return. Shift to strike.
Because the longer Shal witnessed Aemont move… Shal realized that this was just a pale shadow of Aemont of old, not in skill, but in stats. This projection probably was barely over 100 in everything, and yet could completely outclass him. Or the much more frightening possibility… that this shade wasn’t relying on stats at all, but was simply using his absurdly high skill levels to oppress Shal.
It was a powerful lesson. So this… was the tyranny of the one they called the Spear Phantom. Every strike was a set up. Every move was looking 20 moves ahead to the conclusion of the fight. The goal was not to wound, but to guide the opponent down the path of their own demise. The Spear Phantom, as Aemont discussed in his journal, did not bring death, but was only the message, sent by death to the victim. This was inevitable, just accept it.
Aemont’s spear slid silently towards Shal’s neck, Shal’s own momentum carrying him towards it. Instead of twisting away, or attempting to block, Shal just raised his spear. All injuries in this strange world had healed almost instantly, so Shal decided to ignore it, and go for a simultaneous strike.
Aemont twisted slightly, unwilling to stop his own thrust, but also unwilling to trade his life for Shal’s, but at the moment, Shal’s eyes flashed. His spear twisted and curved, taking on a life of its own, utilizing the skills from his and his brother’s self-created style. His spear sunk into the heart of the shade of Aemont.
Desperation, fear, a crazed need for strength, a way out, a way to prove himself.
Because the one that I love is so far above my station, that I…
A woman with long purple hair, smiling at me, her teeth a strange, bone white. “I can send you deep into the bowels of hell. While you are there… there will be plenty of chances to create an image worthy of that love you hold so dear…. What will it cost…? Well Aemont, how about you just consider it a… gift?”
The place she sent me I recognized. It was the world that had fallen to their Calamity, and which we had to constantly defend against incursions from on the Frontlines. The portal did not lead to their military strongholds, but to their countryside, far away from the battlefields. Horrible raid bosses held sway, creating their small fiefdoms away from the leadership of the Calamity.
There… I almost died hundreds of times.
Fear, loneliness, despair.
But… I killed thousands. Tens of thousands
Surrounded by death...I found the power I had been promised.
Gasping, Shal fell back, blood spurting out of the wound on his neck. Aemont stood coldly, his eyes narrowed, examining Shal carefully.
‘That was…’ Shal realized suddenly. ‘Aemont’s interaction with Lucretia.’
That cold, eternal fear, the warring pride and frustration, that pure, hungry love… the emotions stuck with Shal, preventing him from putting any strength into his limbs. He just sat on the ground, staring up at his father. Aemont was a cold man, but for the first time Shal recognized that Aemont was a man of stark opposites. An incredible amount of stress was compressed and folded inside his body, and he neutralized it with a powerful love that flowed freely, without reservations.
But that left him with little left to interact with the rest of the world. It was just a cold ambivalence.
Then a spark of fury arrived, setting Shal on fire. “Do you think…”
Shal took his time, drawing out the words, as he slowly stood. “Do you think this makes up for it all? All the time- every hour where we needed you and you just… weren’t there…?”
With a speed born of anger, Shal struck. This time, he moved with the sinuous grace of him and Pronto’s Twin Fang Style, but combining that with the principles of the Spear Phantom Style. What he lost in inevitability, Shal gained back in an unrelenting, adaptable offensive Style that seemed to give even Aemont trouble.
Once again Shal’s and Aemont’s spear entered a dance, but this time Shal was ready. This was a dance he had prepared for all his life. And at the cost of taking a spear to the thigh, his spear once again shot towards Aemont’s heart.
A deep sadness, a deep fear, a deep wariness like a dead pool of salt water, eroding his will every day.
“I can take both the boys,” My old friend Haelthing said, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t want that thing… anywhere near my son.” My eyes hardened, and I turned to go.
Shal fell to his knees. He remembered very vividly being sent away to stay with family friends, while Pronto stayed with Haelthing, learning the spear in a much more direct manner. Sure, Pronto was the first born son, so it made sense, but…
“That…. Thing…?” Shal whispered. He was just a boy when it all happened. Why… why….? The deep fears of his childhood came surging back. Everyday where he wondered whether there was something wrong with him, something different, something cursed that had him so far away from everyone… was it fucking true? Did you really take out your anger on a child….?
Aemont looked at him silently. Then he raised his spear, his face widening in a smile.
Randidly was smashed into the ground for the third time, the wind completely knocked out of him. Azriel nodded, as if pleased.
“Really, it’s shocking. I would think that training like this would stop being effective, after a time. But you recover quickly, and learn even quicker. You are probably the most talented person I’ve ever seen… aside from Drak and myself, of course.”
“Of course,” Randidly grumbled, staggering to his feet.
Azriel gave him a searching look. “...but I still sense no tenacity from you in these fights. Which is understandable, because of my level of control…”
Randidly’s heart dropped out of his chest. This psycho murderer, who actively moved her spear towards his heart to follow when he dodged, was talking about her control!?!?
She continued to speak. “...but also… you are holding a few things back. I can sense it.”
Scratching his head, Randidly shrugged. Sure, there were some other skills he could use, specifically Inspiration, but he couldn’t use it now, obviously, since he had burned it to survive against Black Spear. But it was a card that he could use in the fight.
But Azriel seemed to accept this, nodding to herself. “This is probably for the best… a man without any secrets will not long keep the attention of a woman. Let’s go again.”
Her whole body blurred, and Randidly scrambled to throw up his guard.