Shal stepped out of the teleporter and looked around. The buildings around him were solid and grey, and he stood in a small courtyard that was open to the sky. Yet when he looked up, his vision couldn't pierce past the thick mist that lay over the area. It was soft like cotton, and different banks of it moved in every direction, merging and separating in an endless dance.
It was the continent of the Death School, the land of muffled suffering.
“I never imagined that I would spend my retirement traveling,” Razland, the First Spear of Tomkat said, practically spitting out his words. Verynica, the third member of their team of musketeers, simply spared the other man a glance and shook her head.
Shal’s mouth twisted. “You being here… it is not necessary.”
“You owe me,” Razland replied bluntly. Then he grinned, but his eyes were tired. “Although it is a roundabout way… allowing me to accompany you and share in some of the military accomplishments will have to be enough. It is the only way for Tomkat to obtain the proper share of the remaining energy. In the Northern Domain… to have such a thing is becoming increasingly rare.”
After nodding, Shal moved forward. Razland put on a brave face, but Shal knew that everytime that man looked at him, he saw all the soldiers that Shal and Randidly had killed escaping from the jail. Each of the lives that they took was one of his friends and family. And yet… Razland’s spirit was truly generous. When Shal returned to fulfill his promise of returning to Tomkat, he had taken a long and hard look at Shal.
Instead of asking him to stay, he had an extremely strange request; that the two would go on a pilgrimage in order for Razland to polish his own Style. Perhaps it was Shal’s obvious unwillingness to stay or the vivacious point of life in Shal’s eyes that wasn’t there previously, but Shal believed the reason for Razland's change of heart was something much more practical.
At the time Shal returned to Tomkat to pay his debt, his strength had shot upwards to just below the Pontiff level. Combined with his already exploding Level…
Perhaps tying his boat to Shal would end up being a positive decision. After all, within the month he had truly become a Pontiff. So Razland had a surprising amount of insight to join Shal on the mad adventures he had stumbled through sense. All would be well. Or perhaps…
Shal spared Verynica a glance. She was the other Lieutenant of Ophelia Vade and was born and bred inside the deepest enclave of the Heart School. Ostensibly, Ophelia sent Verynica to provide assistance on a very dangerous mission, but Shal suspected that the woman’s unquestioned loyalty was more relevant. That, and Shal’s instincts were telling him there was a trap waiting for him on this continent.
That part of him that inherited his father’s Style shifted inside of him to the forefront. As they walked forward, two men in drab robes moved out of a nearby building to greet the trio. When they were only a few meters away, the two stopped and bowed at a 90-degree angle.
“Greetings. May your spears always find death, friends. Are you the group that comes seeking the Witch Kings?”
“Yes. Report,” Verynica said sharply.
The men began to explain sightings, and patterns, and strange movements among the wights that could possibly be used to interpret the Witch King’s movements. It was thoughtful stuff, sure, but Shal tired of hearing it only after a few minutes.
He waved his hand dismissively. “So there is nothing concrete? That is fine. Such methods are cumbersome.”
The two paused, their uncertainty clear in their eyes. Verynica gave Shal a look and he continued to speak. “It is simple. We find their biggest army and attack it. Eventually, they will move to stop us yes? And who would they send to stop spearmen such as us but a Witch King. It is simplicity itself.”
Razland sighed and shook his head. “Ah, my back is aching already.”
After clearing another island, Randidly’s group gathered together without the need for words. As they four exchanged glances they nodded imperceptibly at Randidly, and he produced a small dome of biological matter for them to rest in and discuss for a while. This was a rocky island on the outskirts of the chain, so there was only moss. But it did make all the furniture Randidly inflated inside relatively comfortable.
As the group settled, Silo spoke gravely. “We were lucky again to escape with so few wounds. Everyone, great job. But don’t lower your guard from just this. These have been small scouting forces; soon our operations will be noticed.”
Randidly sighed inwardly; none of them were wounded. If anything, they had done more damage to the islands beneath them than any of them had taken. Truly, the wights were as unsettled by the constant rain as Azriel was. It plastered their diaphanous cloaks to their bodies, revealing their unhealthily thin torsos. It was simply a matter of finding where they were holed up and then ripping them to shreds.
And with Randidly’s Aether Detection, it was child’s play. But he allowed others to use their own methods most of the time and only intervened if they would miss a cluster of them.
“Hmmm, it is unfortunate that this rain is so pressing… but I believe I will go out and scout around for a bit.” Silo said while scratching his jaw. “Just to check if we missed something. Please remain here to avoid suspicion. If there are any problems-”
“Yes, yes,” Skarch said shortly, waving her hand. “By all means, if you need some private time just say it. We will not judge you for your… needs.”
Randidly bit back a laugh as Silo went pink, but he didn’t say anything when he left. As his gaze pierced through the wall of the dome to follow his figure, Randidly’s smile slowly slipped away. Based on what he had seen earlier, Randidly knew what Silo truly was going to do. It likely wasn’t Randidly’s place to say anything about it, but... it didn't’ quite sit right with him either.
That chunk of Aether-esque substance Silo possessed… it was filled with a sickening darkness. It was definitely related to System Aether, but… something very strange had worked it over. It was greedy and possessive, and devoured the old Aether in Silo’s body, bit by bit. It was actually somewhat fascinating to watch, as Silo fought against it. Randidly considered intervening, but it didn’t seem like the invasion would hurt him per se, just… destroy his old images.
Shaking his head, Randidly turned his attention to the small opaque Soulstone that he held in his hand. Now that there were some glimmers of light within the Stone it was somewhat easier to see the runes that line the thing. But of course, it looked like the makers had placed a strange shifting illusion over the orb. The light refracted in unpredictable ways as Randidly watched.
With his high Intelligence, he could slowly work around it, but it was frustrating work. And what was more frustrating was that Randidly didn’t truly care about how it was made. What the Soulstone gathered wasn’t Aether, per se, but it was an echo of Aether. It consisted of something that might be considered an ego in psychological terms. It was the weak core of a life as the body failed.
Randidly shuddered to think what being captured like that was like, but his investigations seemed to indicate that there was no consciousness to the gathered energy. And it was a sort of energy. He had no doubt that the money grubbing owners of the tournament would take these stones and use them to power their teleports in the future.
Azriel seemed to be meditating on some image of hers and Skarch was polishing her spear. Randidly sensed the explosion of twisted Aether beginning and pulled his awareness inward. If that idiot got killed glutting himself on Aether, it wouldn’t be his problem. Right before he pulled away, Randidly wondered if the guy knew he was effectively getting himself addicted to that either. Because based on how it was behaving… that Aether was not the sort to play nice with other varieties.
Besides, Randidly had his own issues. In his Soul Space, there was a low and constant thrumming.
At first, Randidly was concerned that something was wrong with his Soul Skill. But the noise was coming from his Skills. His next thought was that his reconstructed Skill was starting to break apart again. But no, As the Sun Stills was perfectly fine. No, the noise was coming from several Skills at once. All together, they seemed to be singing.
One of the Skills involved was Scarlet Burst, which was quickly becoming a favorite of Randidly’s. The speed boost was small, but it was unidirectional and could be used consecutively, for a higher Stamina cost. If you used it within two seconds of a prior use, the Cost doubled. But still, it granted a lot of utility with just the first burst it provided.
During the past few hours clearing islands, Randidly had gained 8 Levels in the Skill and had already gained enough experience to reach Level 29. The only reason he hadn’t was that Acri grew sulky when he wasn’t fed experience for a long stretch.
The other Skill that was vibrating in time with Scarlet Burst was a surprise: Ashes to Ashes. True, Randidly had used it briefly today several times. Although Aether Detection was good at detecting Aether, it didn’t provide any further information. He couldn’t discern numbers, simply the mass of Aether from a distance.
There was a possibility that they were walking into either a duel with one very powerful individual, or 100 common ones, and Randidly wouldn’t know the difference. That was where Ashes to Ashes came in. The more he used the Skill, the more he sensed that thin edge that the Skill took up.
It was a path along the razor-sharp edge between the world of Aether where Randidly lived, and the world that Randidly could use with Touch from Beyond. But while Randidly was in that state, all living beings were outlined in sharp relief. Their Aether turned into a visible distinguisher that allowed Randidly to view them more directly. Although it was costly, Randidly’s recovery made it a useful tool in his arsenal.