Azriel sniffed and frowned. Why did she smell smoke…?
After a bit of searching, she located a bonfire on a nearby roof, surrounded by several smaller fires. The fires were being controlled by two harried-looking acolytes, and in the middle of them…
Snorting, Azriel leapt over and landed on the roof. “Randidly? What are you doing?”
With a sniff, Randidly pulled the dripping mucus up into his nose and glowered at Azriel. Simultaneously, he seemed to be shivering and sweating. It was not a great look, even with his distinctive aura. His arms were wrapped around himself as if trying to control his body. “I am camping. It is a cultural activity with a deep history amongst my people.”
“It is a form of self-torture? You look dead.” Azriel countered.
Randidly scrunched his face up even further, which was very amusing. “Well, it’s a short-term problem. I’ll have it handled soon.”
Randidly ruined the fierce and determined image he was going for by sniffing and rubbing his nose after speaking. Chuckling, Azriel opted to say nothing, although she wanted to point out how much Randidly currently resembled a sick child. His lips were slightly blue and his breathing was shallow. His body clearly was not in its best condition.
It made Azriel profoundly curious what sort of training he had engaged in. For all of Randidly’s flaws, unwillingness to work hard wasn’t one that she had ever witnessed. Honestly, Randidly was hard-working to a fault. It was something that she deeply admired about him. No matter how trivial, he always seemed to be sharpening some part of himself for the future.
Traveling with Randidly had done much to improve Azriel’s own work ethic. Perhaps due to her innate talent, she had never pursued strength as doggedly as Randidly did. She preferred to allow sufficient time for thoughtful meditation and reflection in her training. Meanwhile, Randidly brazenly charged forward.
For all that Azriel would give up anything to prove her Master a true spear user, she had never had a good handle on whether she was accomplishing that by gathering glory. Randidly's impressive display in the Regional Tournament had given her a much needed yard stick. She still had so much more to do in order for her Master to be recognized.
“Would you like some support?” Azriel said lightly while trying not to smile.
“Bah, leave it.” Randidly said. Then he waved his hand at the nearby fires. Immediately, a cuttingly chilly wind blew. The smaller fires were smothered, with the large bonfire flickered and shrank.
“That’s a cute trick,” Azriel said mildly, watching Randidly’s reaction.
His eyes narrowed to slits and he bared his teeth. “For fuck's sake. I can't get rid of this damn cold!”
After a few seconds of studying Randidly, Azriel’s eyes widened. It took some strange logical leaps, but considering how boneheaded Randidly had been during their short image duels… “Did you spend a prolonged amount of time immersing yourself in the chill image in order to temper yourself? That dangerous image that the acolytes warn newcomers away from?”
“I really wish I could say no…” Randidly grumbled.
Azriel laughed. “Randidly, you aren’t a fucking block of iron. You don’t just pound yourself into a shape. You-”
Instantly, a hush fell over the city as the sky seemed to darken. Azriel’s words caught in her mouth. A bright comet flew up from the highest tower in Hastam and began to shoot towards the South. It only too a few seconds to occur, but in that time there was a monstrous sort of heat that grew as the comet hung in the sky above them.
Even Azriel felt a deep wariness in her heart as she looked up and witnessed that heat in the sky. It was soul crushing. It eroded self-confidence and endurance. It was a physical force in the world. Heat that devoured all resistance.
It seemed that Aylwind Sky was moving once more.
Just as soon as it arrived, the comet was gone. Azriel looked back at Randidly. Then she crinkled her nose. “You look satisfied.”
“It was the first bit of warmth I’ve felt in a while,” Randidly said while rolling his neck in slow circles. And for sure, some of the pale skinned and hollow-eyed look that he had had was lost. But even from standing near him, Azriel could feel a vague hint of cold wafting off of his body.
She tried not to think too deeply about what Randidly had done to himself. Not only was there an extremely dangerous change of permanently warping his images, but he also risked being lost in another’s image. There were a few times that her own master had provided Azriel with recordings of its piercing strikes. But it had warned Azriel not to rely on them too heavily, or use them for too long. There were too many risks associated with submerging yourself in another image.
And yet here Randidly was. The fact that the image of frost and chill clung to him, even now, demonstrated that he had truly gone deep. But he seemed to be recovering at a noticeable pace. What sort of resilience did he have?
Still, it wouldn’t be done in time for his match today. “Will you use this as an excuse if you lose?”
Randidly gave her a wry smile. “I won’t lose.”
Azriel mimed being shocked. “I was so filled with dread earlier that I didn’t want to ask, but have you truly mastered the ability to create cool breezes? Such a talent will be so useful to store meat in the summer. Undoubtedly you will be highly in demand.”
“Ha,” Randidly laughed. Then he shook his head. “Believe me, it will be fine. I may look like this, but the worst of it should be gone. Come on, let’s go to the tournament.”
Although he looked somewhat stiff to Azriel’s eyes, Randidly’s speed was quick as they left the Hall of Stance and went towards the grand Colosseum of Hastam. There would only be two fights today, and Randidly’s would be first. He and Helen would be kicking off the entire tournament.
While they walked, Azriel watched Randidly out of the corner of her eye. He forced them to stop briefly and Randidly bought a large bowl of steaming hot noodles that he downed as they walked towards the arena. Truly, he was improving at a visible rate. His skin looked pink and healthy. His eyes seemed to burn green, even in the daytime.
Suddenly, Randidly noticed Azriel’s gaze and he glanced over at her with his lips pursed. “What is it?”
“She’s strong, you know,” Azriel said. “I’ve sparred with Helen a lot over the past week. She truly means to defeat you. You cannot expect an easy match.”
“I wouldn’t want an easy match,” Randidly replied. He let out a long breath, and none of his breath was cold enough to mist up. “We have an understanding. Helen knows she has to come with everything she has, or I will crush her.”
“You underestimate her,” While speaking, Azriel shook her head.
Randidly grinned at her. “Maybe you are underestimating me.”
“I’ve made that mistake before. I won’t again.” Azriel said firmly. “But Helen is different than you. In your eyes, you see the great troubles of the world. Do not think I miss that your Skill has you wearing a crown. It is an inauspicious shape for Tellus, and yet you pay it no mind. It makes your intentions incredibly clear. But on the other hand… Helen’s eyes are locked on you. Your strengths and your flaws. I do not mean to say that she is the more dangerous out of the two of you, but…”
Azriel paused. “...her gaze has been on you for so long. The person who currently has the greatest chance of defeating Randidly Ghosthound is Helen.”
To her surprise, this just seemed to amuse Randidly. “Isn’t that your game? A move will only beat you once? And to hit a second time, I would need to evolve my plans and abilities mid-fight. If I can manage that, why is this preparation something you take so seriously?”
What could Azriel say to that? Randidly was correct, in a very narrow way. His abilities were strange and varied. It wasn’t an over exaggeration to say that the danger of fighting Randidly was to be forced to deal with all of the different avenues of attacks that he could throw at you. And because he had so many Skills, he could take advantage of even the slightest weakness.
But Azriel also knew that the reason why Randidly was occasionally able to overcome her expectations and strike at her was that she was always surprised when her projections turned out to be insufficient to cover Randidly. There was a definite point of surprise.
Meanwhile, Azriel knew that Helen had been forcefully pressing that out of herself in the past three months.
No, it likely started far before that. Perhaps for almost a year.
Helen fought on the front lines, where the slightest weakness meant death. Time and time again, she found herself in impossible situations where there was no hope. Only by hitting that bottom point did Helen encounter her own iron rod spine that served her through tragedy and disaster, time after time.
Surprise would not stop her. Impossible situations would not throw her. She had unshakable confidence and an admirable amount of flexibility. Her ferocity with the spear provided enough pressure that weaker spear users would falter before her. Helen was a soldier who had never once skipped her training.
Azriel might be a genius and Randidly might be a monster, but Helen was the soldier. She was a professional at facing down trouble.
And it is true that the soldier could not match up to the genius in most walks of life, the one place the soldier had an advantage was fulfilling her role: killing monsters.
But if Randidly didn’t believe, Azriel could say nothing more to warn him. He would need to find out for himself that what was truly scary about Helen... were the things she had learned from watching Randidly.