Later in the day, Alta stood at one of the high windows of her dining room and looked down on Randidly. He seemed to be meditating on the green lawn in front of the manor, taking great care to breathe in and out.
Frowning, Alta leaned her head against the window pane. So, he was a close acquaintance of Creta’s from back in her arena days, eh…? It did certainly explain how Randidly had been able to cross into the interior of the estate without any of her guards noticing. Although none of the security force was at the level of Creta, Alta hoped they were good enough to stop a vagabond.
Which, on the exterior, Randidly was. His shirt was ripped and dirty and he didn’t have any shoes. What was even more befuddling was that when Alta politely offered to lend him a pair of shoes from one of her assistants, he declined.
And Creta laughed.
Overall, Alta had been too overwhelmed by this strange, expressive Creta to say much about Randidly staying here for a while. Privately, Creta assured Alta that Randidly was as trustworthy as a person could be, without being one of the two of them.
Which rubbed Alta the wrong way. Because for the first time in Alta’s life, someone came along that Creta actually seemed to like. And Creta was hers. She had always been hers.
Not that Alta was so insane to think that Creta belonged to her. The contract that her father had gotten into to hire Creta had long since run its course. No, what Alta feared, at her core, was that this was a sign of something to come. That after so long, after being dedicated to the cause for decades, Lucretia was shifting. She was starting to heal. To move on.
In her chest, Alta felt helplessly hot and then so cold like she was more drying paper mache than person. The concept of moving on was something she had buried a long time ago. She would burn the Council of Fates to the ground. Perhaps for good measure, she would destroy a country as well, to lash out at this fickle world that surrounded them. For as long as she could remember, Alta believed that Creta had felt the same way.
Shivering, Alta pulled away from the window. But just as she did so, something caught her eye.
Below on the grass, Randidly waved his hand. Like it was always on the verge of death, a large patch of grass in the direction he indicated turned to ash and floated away on the gentle afternoon breeze.
Alta’s jaw dropped. Creta had demonstrated to a greater or lesser degree most of the Great Skills of the world, but she wasn’t able to use ash as Alta could. That had meant that Alta had largely been muddling along on her own.
Creta had been forced to run off to meet with an informant, leaving Alta and Randidly largely alone at the estate. Alta had thought this strange because Creta never left her unprotected. But perhaps…
...perhaps he had been brought here on purpose to teach her…?
That tasted sour in Alta’s mouth, but she had lived a long life. It was not difficult to obliterate that small annoyance and walk down toward the front door. She took great care in putting on her finely made leather boots and sparring armor. Only when she was properly prepared and looked her best did Alta walk out toward Randidly.
When she arrived, he was still standing and waving his hand. The ash in the air seemed to swirl about him, revolving around him like an asteroid belt around a moon. Alta meant to approach, but when she was only a few meters away, a cutting cold ripped into her. Instantly, movement became impossible.
It was such a familiar coldness. It was the dread loneliness that Alta lived every day with recently. It was the cold of a white-knuckled grip on fading memories. It was-
The feeling passed and Randidly turned to face her. He was frowning. “Ah, sorry about that. I was… thinking.”
Letting the coldness fade away, Alta flashed her most charming smile. “Oh? Were you busy? I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wondered if Master Randidly would bother to spar against me. I noticed you utilize ash… As I too train in that Great Skill… Well, I think it would be illuminating.”
Of all emotions, Alta didn't’ expect Randidly to be amused. “Great Skill… Hah, I suppose it makes some sense. Yes, let’s spar. I’ve wanted to test out some things.”
Alta produced her machine gauntlets and slipped them onto her hands. Although she didn’t often fight physically, Alta guessed that since both of them used ash, it would be necessary. The machine gauntlets effectively turned her fingers into daggers and increased her grip strength. With this sort of equipment, anything short of an Earth Golem would be finished if she got her hands on them.
That was another thing that was puzzling Alta about Randidly. She couldn’t quite figure out what race he was. He was Spriggit’s built on an elongated scale. He had the proportions of a Spriggit, sure, but the size of a White Hunter. He was too slim to be an Earth Golem, and he obviously wasn’t a Weaver.
Of all the races, he was clearly closest to a monster. But unlike most Monsters, there were no visible monstrous parts to Randidly. He seemed only to have the normal Spriggit limbs, just in a different shape. But strangely, Alta couldn't’ say that it was peculiar to look at. No, if anything, he seemed to have a certain charm to the contours of his body. Like he was the Platonic ideal of a body.
Alta was attracted to him because of it, but… In the same way she was attracted to looking at waterfalls. The power and fury were awe-inspiring. There was no sexual component to her admiration. It was… extremely strange.
As Randidly stepped forward, Alta frowned. “You aren’t going to use a weapon?”
“Aren’t ‘Great Skills’ weapons?” Randidly replied with a smile. Alta snorted.
Fine then, he could have it the hard way.
Alta charged forward with her gauntlets raised. Still, Randidly didn’t even move. His hands were at his sides. Gritting her teeth, Alta ignored him and raised a blast of ash that accompanied her charge.
The projective of ash formed in her gauntleted hand and shot forward. But it exploded in a cloud as it neared Randidly, blocking her sight of him.
Inwardly, Alta cursed herself. Of course, he used ash as well. If Creta was here, she would kick Alta with providing her opponent with a weapon to use against her.
But of all things, Alta was confident in a contest of ash. She felt the roaring fire in her veins, and ash began to radiate out from herself. Her hands becamefirebrandss, bringers of ash. Heedless of the danger, she rushed forward into the exploded ash. Although she didn’t know where he was, Alta was confident she could locate Randidly quickly and strike.
When her body pierced through the cloud, what Alta hadn’t expected was heat. A heat so dreadful she gasped in shock and immediately regretted it. The hot air seemed to invade through her nose and mouth to sear her lungs. Coughing, Alta stumbled backward away from the ash cloud.
Gritting her teeth, Alta summoned her own terrible heat. In her chest, the amplifier began to vibrate, just a small amount. Of course, she could overpower him with raw fire and ash if she was to call in her equipment. But that would miss the point. It was clear that Randidly’s use of ash was extremely powerful. There was plenty for Alta to learn.
But, to pay him back for the pain he caused her, she allowed herself to draw just slightly from the amplifier.
Ash howled outward from her, smashing into the ash cloud that obscured Randidly. Under the assault of so many particles, the obscuring wall of ash was smashed apart.
In the open, Randidly stood there, looking at Alta. From his appearance, he hadn’t even moved.
Alta pointed. A javelin of fire and ash formed in an instant and shot toward Randidly. He waved his hand and it… it was simply unmade. The ash fell to pieces and the hatred and ferocity fell away.
Feeling a sense of helplessness, Alta allowed herself access to a bit more of the amplifier. Ash exploded outward. Within thirty meters of where they were fighting, the grass was withering away under the onslaught of brimstone and fire.
“How about this?!!” Alta hissed. Raising her hands above her head, her gauntlets began to glow as she channeled energy through them. For her strike, she first imaged a giant hammer, then wiped that away. No, what she needed was even bigger. Alta pulled at the swirling ash around them and formed it all into a sword long enough to slash the sky in half. It stretched upward, reaching higher than the manor by a fair margin.
With burning eyes, she turned to regard Randidly.
He simply smiled. “It’s not a matter of quantity… the problem was quality.”
Randidly only waved his hand but Alta felt all the ash under her will be unmade.