Shal stood calmly with his hands behind his back. He was currently abreast with a stern woman with her grey hair shorn short. They both stood behind an aged and slim woman who sat at an ornate wooden table in a dimly lit room.
There were three other figures at the table.
Versault Ignis, a morose-looking man with dark black hair and pink skin, steepled his fingers. “We have been unable to determine what occurred. But… as you all have said, it is undeniable that someone in my School betrayed us. Inquiries will continue.”
The leader of the Spearman School, Aylwind Sky, was an imposing individual whose arms with crisscrossed with scars. He closed his eyes before he spoke. “Versault, is your Death School really unable to discover a single thing? Is this a cover-up, or is the sadistic discipline of the Death School simply a tale invented by the Spear School to scare their children?”
Versault could only stare at the table.
Sighing, Sheenissi Faa waved her hand. She was the leader of the aforementioned Spear School, and there was a small crease between her brows as her School was the made the butt of a barb. “Enough. Normally I would agree with you Aylwind, but the question you keep ignoring is why. The only people who benefit from the betrayal were the Wights; none amongst us can continue to grow in Level like this-”
‘Which isn’t exactly true,’ Shal thought to himself.
Faa threw up her hands. “...it is difficult to admit, but perhaps the oracle was wrong.”
All three other figures looked to Ophelia Vade, the head of the Heart School, behind which Shall stood.
She smiled. “...if we begin believing that the Oracle is not prescient, has not all of our actions these past 100 years been for naught?”
A heavy silence filled the room. On Aylwind’s face, especially, the tightly controlled fury could be seen. But just as soon as it was there, it was gone, and his face was a blank mask. Shal glanced at his fellow Lieutenant behind Ophelia. The corner of her mouth twitched.
“Let’s shift the discussion,” Faa said. “The under 25 competition will be held soon. The shift of venue to the Spearman School was supposed to lower the danger… yet after reading the rules-”
“And do not forget the recent attack on Niergem,” Ophelia said quietly.
Inwardly, Shal winced. His disciple, Randidly Ghosthound, was back. What did it mean? That part of his life seemed to be covered with a thick fog that stemmed from the influence of Lucretia. His mother.
If Randidly was back, did that also mean…?
Faa nodded. “Indeed, my thoughts were on the same matter. Although it ended up being a victory in that one of the rings was obtained from the Wights, we cannot count on such things happening again. We were taken by surprise… again. If we remain on the back foot-”
“Is it not fine?” Versault interrupted. “The Spearman taught us that only through struggle may we find growth. These are our most talented youngsters… and our most valuable resource now that many in the elder generation have been injured. If we are to benefit most from their presence we must make use of them.”
“And making use of them will help them grow, I agree,” Aylwind said with a nod. “Look, I know the area best. Although the Southern Domain is lost, the rest of the areas are largely safe.”
It was an interesting statement to make, Shal reflected, from the man who famously had never left his high tower in the Central Domain.
“According to your suggestion, the Southern Domain will be the theatre of the competition,” Faa hissed. Her perpetually worried face contorted further. “I agree these youths are an invaluable and largely intact resource, but I hardly see how that means we should-”
“It,” Ophelia said shortly, “Is an auspicious time for battle.”
Everyone paused and looked at her. Although it was inconsistent, it couldn’t be denied that the Heart School held great influence for the past 100 years due to the arrival of the Oracle. And as her representative, Ophelia could not be ignored.
Aylwind slowly released a breath. “Is that a specific or general prediction?”
With a half shrug, Ophelia said, “Who can say? It is only by the whims of the fates that we get small glimpses beyond our current time. But after winning the surprise victory in Niergem, I believe it is time to act. My Lieutenant Shal will move to assist the Death School in dealing with the two Witch Kings active there… will goals of eliminating them.”
“Is that…” If it were anyone else, Shal would have interpreted the pause as the speaker searching for a polite way of saying it. As the speaker was Versault, Shal knew it was simply because the bleak man was savoring the hollow sound of his voice. “...likely?”
Shal clenched his fists. These past 8 months had been the toughest of his life. After seeming to reawaken for the first time since the tragedy in his childhood, Shal wandered the world, seeking a challenge. At the end of it, he was a Lieutenant to the most powerful School in the world. He had reached Level 77, and his highest Skill Level was nearing 230. His growth these past months was unbelievable. Even Shal found it difficult to understand.
But he knew the truth. It was because he was a being that straddled two worlds, and drew energy from both. Although everyone else here had stuttered to a stop, Shal’s Wight blood let him hit the ground running. If anyone were to do it, it would be him.
Aylwind scowled over Ophelia’s shoulder at Shal. “I must say I share similar doubts. This is not a man with an established track record.”
“And yet he has my trust,” Ophelia countered. “What more matters?”
An hour later, Shal stood in Ophelia study, waiting for her to speak.
“...what did you think? Are we misled, or are we missing something?” Ophelia said simply.
Shal kept his hands behind his back. “Of the two, being misled seems more likely. This… it is known that infighting is common amongst those of the Death School. I believe you are right to say that our problem is that we don’t understand the game these traitors are playing.”
Ophelia nodded absently. “But Versault would know this as well. And yet he has been able to find nothing. Although I do not like him, he has survived as the Head of the Death School for 40 years. There is no doubt about his capabilities, both as a spear user and as a politician.”
“Then there is one option. The traitor is Versault.” Shal said simply. He knew his role. It had taken much to get here, but sometimes he wondered if it wasn’t all another ploy. For all that he now followed Ophelia, she was just as deft a leader as Versault, if not more so.
Right now, Ophelia wanted him to be the blunt weapon to her needle. So he would be.
Because she was one of the few people who knew the full version of the prophecy about Shal’s life.
She chuckled. “You certainly are enthusiastic. Perhaps it is better not to speak of such things. But when you head into the Death School, keep your eyes open. Have you ever traveled there before?”
Shal shook his head. “No… but I do not believe it likely it is overmuch hard. I am capable.”
“Your confidence is extremely becoming,” Ophelia noted. “But see that no one knows of your true Skills.”
Frowning, Shal asked. “Then how will I kill a Witch King? I believe-”
“The Schools work together, but all are drawing their knives as stealthily as possible. Your story is too well known for me to hide you; it is better for me to treat you as a pawn. But for that to be believable, you must not appear to be a Master. As long as that is concealed, you will be as safe as a man at war can be.”
“...I must ask, is all of this necessary?” Shal asked with a tired voice. “Why don’t the leaders of the Schools move? Due to your age, I have to imagine your Skill Levels-”
“Yes well, there is a bigger problem that Skill Levels. You are young, so you do not yet understand the existential dread of the aging and powerful. But it is enough to say we are scared, Shal. For the elderly have long been fighting against an enemy that cannot be defeated, and you do not recover from meeting such a foe. Your spine will never again stand so straight as before.”
Ophelia dismissed him, and Shal went back to his quarters to prepare for the journey. He considered briefly the option of sending Randidly a message but decided against it. The boy was young and foolish. Let him enjoy the small games of the world for a while.
His reckoning would come in time.