Everyone was silent as the head tumbled to the ground, and the decapitated body fell to the side, sagging in on itself. Claptrap began to tremble, his eyes wide, his front wet with blood. The monster above him seemed pleased, and gathered up scraps of the dispersing image, incorporating the Iron Bulwark into its body.
“You… will all pay for that…” A furious voice echoed, and Lucretia glanced to the side. Black Spear was down, his head smashed to a pulp, his spear rolling away from the body. Divveltian’s eyes bulged as he took in the fallen form of Roger.
Lucretia smiled, and gestured. Her third zombie threw himself at Divveltian, and after a second of staring at the life he just took, Claptrap shook himself and followed after, the monster braying for more blood.
Seeing the three of them engage in furious battle, Lucretia stepped past them, slightly bored. Instantly, she appeared in Shal’s room, standing above him. Reaching down, she stroked his face lightly, checking he was alright. Unfortunately, that annoying energy still hung around him, obscuring his mind from her skills. Still…
Lucretia glanced to the side and made a surprised sound. She picked up the dagger laying there, curious. This…. was a crude rune based on the one she had provided to Aemont all those years ago…?
The more she looked at it, the more she grinned. “Crude” was perhaps the wrong word. It was simply… less discerning in the Aether it could grab. It would fill you with polluted Aether very quickly. A dagger like this… would be very useful, if given to a foolish individual. With access to Aether from the Ghosthound, methods like this were less efficient, but that didn’t mean they still wouldn’t be fun…
On the other table was a dagger with rune she was shocked to see. This… would extract meaning…?
This caused Lucretia to frown as she picked up the other dagger. Also… dangerous…. Probably so much so that she wouldn’t ever give it to someone else. It was also clear that this was the Ghosthound’s work. It made her wonder how many skills that boy had. Was he planning on performing some sort of soul surgery on Shal, in order to wake him up…?
She abruptly felt a flash of hatred for the boy, then relief he clearly hadn’t tried. A foolish gambit like that… and it probably would have ruined her plan…
“Ah, speak of the devil…” Lucretia muttered, feeling along the thin, emaciated, almost dispersed connection the Ghosthound had used to donate Aether to her. She could feel him best this way, feel his desperation and pain at the way the battle was going. Her smile stretched wide and hungry. She had been sure to tilt the odds even further against him so he got to this point.
But now… now that she sensed his weakness… her will flooded along the connection, reaching into his Aether, then she pulled. She could sense his resistance at first, brief and strong, so strong that it stopped her dead, both with his unwavering resolve, and with her shock at how powerful he was. But then that faltered, and she could escape, dragging a river of Aether behind her.
She felt a connection growing between them, and her eyes widened. So… it could also be used like this…? But then things began to happen very, very fast.
She felt a consciousness notice her mental attack on the Ghosthound, tracing the huge fluctuations of Aether. Which was enough of a shock that it took her a second to feel its aura to understand what was happening.
“Found you…” The air vibrated with the consciousness’ satisfaction. Her eyes widened.
There was only one group of people that could make her feel this instinctive fear. Master.
While the other classifications weren’t really defined increases in strength, but rather in qualitative differences in their ability to use images, Master was different. You could not trick your way into the abilities of a Master.
But why was he here…?
The Inn rumbled and the wall was suddenly gone, and a normal old man was there. Just a normal old man who began to change before her eyes, growing more indomitable and vicious, his expression gleeful as his eyes flicked from Lucretia to the bed behind her.
Her heart sank. He wasn’t even here for her. He was here for-
“Die,” He said simply, and to her great disgust a Spear Phantom appeared, drifting towards them. She recognized the gaunt edges of Aemont’s jaw. If anything, this filled Lucretia with an enormous amount of fury. To have the gall to mimic the Spear Phantom to kill his own son?!!
“Fuck you.” She spat, the fresh, pure Aether cycling through her body faster than she would have believed it was possible. Her movements were fast, drawing her spear and striking a defensive pose. Normally, Lucretia would consider herself a mid tier Pontiff, able to hold her own against those at that level. She perhaps had less actual firepower than most at that level, but she was smarter and wiser, always picking her battles.
This was not a battle she picked, but she was fueling her defensive strike on the raw, pure Aether flowing through her, heedless of the consequences. Stars appeared overhead, innumerable and deeply mysterious, thousands of galaxies swirling above.
Both attacks met each other and shattered, Lucretia staggering backwards and spitting up blood to absorb the force of the shockwave so it wouldn’t hit Shal’s sleeping form. The man, Gerroark Char, leader of the Endless Heat Style, just frowned.
“Heh, this strong? No wonder you’ve been so annoying for so long. But if you are this desperate to protect him…. It’s true, isn’t it?”
Lucretia said nothing, furiously reaching for more Aether. But to her surprise, she found that her body simply couldn’t absorb anymore… without giving something back. Meaning, she thought, her eyes narrowing. She didn’t have time to find a way around this, not without giving the Ghosthound strength through her meaning, so she did something desperate, and instead reached further into him, grasping for anything.
Gerroark continued to speak. “But that still means you both need to die. For the purity of our line, you understand. And that disciple of his too… and probably that man outside… I believe he defeated one of my disciples you have possessed, but it’s the principle, you know? Ha, look at me, so chatty. But I never believed I would be so lucky to slay the Eternal Witch today…”
The man’s eyes narrowed to gleeful slits, “Now die for me.”
This time Gerroark didn’t play around with other images, and the world around them transformed into a desert, heat crashing against her. Shal rolled over in his trance, frowning.
Damnit! Lucretia howled inwardly.
But then she found it, inside of the Ghosthound. It was smooth like a ball, but it glowed with power, sitting deep in the Ghosthound’s soul realm. Lucretia’s eyes widened. SoulSkill. And not just something basic, like controlling a Village, but… something so potent that she couldn’t wrap her head around it.
As the heat grew more intense, Lucretia reverted to banging against the strange barrier around the skill, desperate. If she could somehow convert it…
Then, to her surprise, it opened. Before she could reach into it, however, something came out.
Xierk Taf was the greatest warrior the world had ever seen. In the bitter war against the Spriggits, he had always been at the forefront, seizing control of the Scepter of Dominance for his own use. Very soon he had become the Emperor of the Earth Golems, beating the Spriggit machinations back to their mountains. The war stalled, and he turned his attention abroad.
A dispute over the Progenitor, based on the Weave, started a cultural revolution, as more and more doubted the existence of a Progenitor at all. In his greed, Xierk used this, fueling a war with the Swamplings, confident that the Hunters would maintain their neutrality, as always. It was so, and he waged a bloody war to seize the Weave, and take the Hammer of the Dawn.
Xierk Taf was the greatest warrior this world had ever seen.
But the Swamplings surprised him. He was able to seize the hammer, but they burned the Weave, rather than allowing him to have access to it. Xierk wondered what answers were there, but he had other concerns.
His greatest friend and general died in that final fight, holding the hammer wielder at bay for just the moment Xierk needed. In the aftermath, he looked around and saw his people, grim, impossibly strong, tragically few, and Xierk felt regret. He looked at the two relics in his hands, wondering why the Progenitor had decided to create them.
He wondered if the life of his best friend was worth all this.
He wondered if he really believed in the Progenitor any longer.
Desperate, he asked for the Hunters for help… and they assented. And so, before all of the gathered races, Xierk demanded peace… and offered his life. He laid himself upon the funeral pyre, holding the two weapons, an example, he had hoped, for why chasing power was fruitless.
An appeasement, he hoped to the other races, to show there was no need for revenge against the remaining Earth Golems. For although Xierk Taf was the greatest warrior the world had ever known, he could not protect his people. It was his great shame.
Instead of dying in the fire, Xierk blinked, and found himself standing in a room, facing off against an elderly creature producing a crushing aura of heat. A woman was on her knees behind him, and there was another one of these strange, soft creatures on the bed behind him. They reminded him of Spriggits, but almost stretched upwards, with longer arms and torsos and legs.
“You are… Xierk?” The voice was questioning, but it also was soft, eternal, and filled Xierk with a strange familiarity.
Xierk, to his surprise, shed a tear, a mixture of sulfur and water. “And you… are the Progenitor.”
Xierk’s wasn’t a question.