Randidly considered the vaguely familiar man before him. It had been almost a year since Randidly had seen Orangey, or Saynard Thorpe as he introduced himself, but Randidly could still vividly remember struggling under that strange weighted contraption to secure a spot in the Regional Tournament. If anything, Saynard seemed even more self-assured and confrontational than he had been in the past.
It was a good thing that he had spoken up when he had, however. Because when Randidly walked into the shabby inn, there had been a definite edge of violence to the room. Over the past few months in Tellus, Randidly had grown very familiar with the feel of violence. And this was not a good one. The violence of sparring was almost professional and dispassionate. War against the Wights felt methodical and desperate, but oddly impersonal.
But in that room, the violence was shaping to be frustrated and slightly crazed.
“Bah, everyone is just tense because the Styles won’t move,” Saynard said with a wave of his hand. The group of the five of them were now sitting at a table in the corner. The laborers had stayed at their table and considered the group coolly, but without malice. One of the reasons the hostility had departed was Saynard greeting them. “People rioted, but the Styles used fear mongering and pointed out if they would take to the countryside to fight the Wights, no one would be here to defend Hastam. Bah, as if we were so weak to rely on them. The Black Feather Style-”
Randidly’s eyelid twitched. Orangey really loved to say ‘Bah’, it seemed. But the man clammed up as another person walked up to the table.
The server brought over several drinks on a platter, as well as a thick mutton soup. The wafting smell included a hint of caraway, which reminded Randidly wistfully of the goulash of his youth. But after the young, male server dropped off the food and drink, he scuffed his shoots against the wooden floor and looked at the edge of the table.
Azriel frowned at the boy, and Randidly knew that her answer to this problem would be effective, but blunt. Sighing, Randidly said quickly. “Was there something else?”
The boy looked up at Randidly with bright blue eyes. The other reason the hostility had departed was that they had revealed that they weren’t just soldiers; they were the soldiers. For all that the local militia regularly stole food from the people, they understood that those layabouts weren’t the entire army. And due to their strange names, most people knew the individuals who spearheaded the defense under Captain Platton.
It seemed the name Ghosthound was familiar to them.
“Is it true what they say?” The boy blurted out. “The reason you are the most powerful Spellspear in the Spearman School is that you are really a Wight from the other world? And you fell in love with the spear and betrayed your people and chose justice over evil?”
Randidly just blinked. “Uh…”
Azriel’s mouth twitched. Conspiratorially, she leaned forward and nodded to the young server. “Yes, he is from another world.”
“But the real reason he betrayed his people was that a Propagator consumed his entire clan before his eyes,” Skarch said, her mouth slowly widening as she spoke. “On that day, under a blood red moon, he hid in the corpse of an animal, because all the Wight corpses were recycled by the Propagator. He swore to never rest until every Propagator was defeated…”
“Wow…” The server’s eyes were wide saucers.
Awkwardly, Randidly stayed very still. His toes pressed against the warm wood of the inn’s floor. How was he supposed to respond to this…? Honestly, Randidly’s dominant emotion was exasperated that Skarch and Azriel would speak so misleadingly. But he also didn’t miss that Azriel had very confidently stated he came from another world. Had he confirmed that? It was difficult to remember.
Besides, what did the kid see when looking at Randidly? Randidly’s expression slowly fell into something close to exhaustion. After a month of constant fighting, and then the agony of becoming the Chosen of Ash… he really wasn’t in the mood for this.
“Did you…” The server stumbled over his words, then seemed to work up a head of steam. “Is it true you wrote your name on the South Bank of the Hallat and the Wights have been so filled with dread they haven’t made any attempt to cross?!?”
“Boy,” Orangey growled, leaning on his elbow, but Randidly raised a hand to stop him.
Would this be too much? Well, there was only one way to find out.
“For the offer of hospitality, I’ll show you just for a second why they fear crossing the river. It is not for my name, boy.” Randidly spoke slowly, feeling something old and familiar rise in his heart: the touch of karma. It took him somewhat by surprise to find it rising, but he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised to sew karma.
And then, just for a second, Randidly summoned his crown. The thin grey of the circlet and metal spikes appeared. The air distorted.
Or at least, Randidly meant for it to last for just a second.
Synchronicity with ambient Ashen energy in your body detected!
Your Skill “Crown of Yggdrasil: Upheaval and Silence” has absorbed a significant portion of the remaining energy and transformed into the Crown of Yggdrasil: Cataclysm and Gloom (L). Skill Level will be maintained. Area of effect increased. Effectiveness of previous Skill increased.
Warning! The Rarity of the Skill Level is nearing a new plateau. Please see a Village Spirit for more information.
Randidly could feel the crown above his head twisting just slightly as the change rippled through it. Instantly, he felt that its offensive capabilities grew with this change, although he wasn’t sure of the details. In addition, it was worth noting that the notification seemed to indicate that although a significant portion of the remaining energy was absorbed, there was still more. Could another one of his Skills change?
Azriel’s short world brought him back to himself. Immediately, he dismissed the Skills. Azriel and Skarch just seemed annoyed, but Orangey was staring. The girl that Orangey had brought with him, and not introduced, was trembling. The laborers were looking with wide eyes over at the table. Everyone seemed on edge.
Then Randidly turned and look at the server. He was frozen, stock still. His pants were wet, and the smell of urine filled the air. Inwardly, Randidly winced. That was a little more than he had been intending.
Coming back to himself, the server flushed and said. “I-I-I...m-my apologies-”
“Kid,” Randidly said, trying to speak as softly as possible. And still, the server jumped. Hiding his embarrassment, Randidly reached out and touched the server’s shoulders. “You didn’t step back. Ultimately, that is all you really need in this world.”
Ducking his head and muttering apologies, the server ran away. Randidly honestly felt pretty bad about embarrassing him and hoped his final line was enough of a positive that the boy wouldn’t be twisted by the experienced. Thinking of that sensation of sewing karma with the boy, Randidly’s expression turned bitter.
“...ahem.” Orangey said into the awkward silence. He spared Randidly a quick glance and then continued. “...as I was saying, the people around here aren’t as weak as you think. Err, I mean that kid probably hasn’t held a spear a day in his life, but there are some hidden masters around here, believe me.”
Trying to put that strange experience out of his mind, Randidly turned to Orangey. “What were you saying about a Style? The Black Feather Style?”
“Ah! Perfect.” Immediately, Orangey grinned. “That’s actually where I met Noota, here. It’s not really a Style, it's just a coalition of the independents and counter-culture spear users in the area of Hastam. It used to be a pretty small time thing, but with all of the worry over the Wights, our numbers are exploding! Actually, I had a favor to ask.”
Skarch looked at Orangey’s serious face with some amusement. “Orangey, what entitles you to a favor? A drink? Despite what the bartender insisted, I have money. That should buy things.”
Orangey winced and threw Randidly a hurt look. “As I said, my name is Saynard. I tire of your jokes, miss. Besides, between Randidly and I… we don’t count favors. Sometimes there are just bonds between men that defy explanation. It's like a hunter gazing into the eyes of a Killer Hawk Bear...”
Randidly would have sworn that he had never heard Orangey’s name, but he had learned insisting ignorance hadn’t had any effect. Also, was he supposed to be the hunter or the strangely named Killer Hawk Bear in this metaphor…?
“As I was saying, a simple favor. You three are competing in the under 25 tournament, correct? I would ask you to wear a visible black feather on your person. Nothing ostentatious, but I believe our movement would benefit from visibility. Especially with such talented individuals wearing the sign… It will prove to the Styles of Hastam that something has to be done about the Wight problem!”
Randidly looked at Orangey with sad eyes. He could empathize with the grassroots movement, but it was hard to believe it would make a difference to the Styles. From everything Captain Platton had said, they didn’t care at all that land was slowly being devoured by Wights right under their noses.
Which was why Azriel’s response took Randidly by surprise.
“I think we should do it.”