“So we do nothing,” Shal said with a frown. Knowing that the greater leadership of the Death School had fallen… it made his hand twitch. The loss of life… Spears were the ultimate tools to protect. He had such a spear, one he prided himself on using, and now Ophelia demanded that they stay here and simply allow it to happen?
“We cannot leave,” Ophelia said. She would not meet Shal’s gaze. “Although it is difficult to understand, our activities here are so much more important to the fate of Tellus than a minor struggle to save a handful of lives in the fallout. Likely, all those who were there are already dead. Their parts have been used to create another Wight army.”
“Why are we so bound? Is the Northern group truly so antagonistic to Hastam?” Shal’s gaze was sharp. “It makes no sense. What does Hastam matter? We are losing the war. Entire Schools are falling. The Spearsource is gone-”
Shal paused. If anything, the focus of his gaze became even more cutting. “...that is what this is about, isn’t it? The Spearsource. It was always said to have been taken from Hastam… but it is here?”
Ophelia’s lips were pressed into a thin line. “...we cannot be sure. But it is the only possibility that makes sense. For all Versault’s… abilities, he would not be able to spirit it away without leaving traces. Yet nothing has been found. We believe that he simply hid it somewhere in Hastam before blaming the Wights. It is entirely possible that... Versault has gone completely rogue and is on his way now to Hastam to claim it. Without his support, the Death School had no chance. Or perhaps the entire silence from the Death School is a ruse to lure us from Hastam.”
Shal rubbed his hands together, trying to gather the truth from the tidbits that were fed to him by Ophelia. Too many pieces. Too many secrets and alliances behind the scenes. He truly couldn’t gather enough in any semblance of a picture. Every time he discovered another piece it simply seemed to be a piece from a larger game altogether.
“Do you truly believe that? Tell me, Ophelia. I am owed an explanation.”
Ophelia’s face seemed to sag. “Two secrets, then. The first you have already guessed; the war against the Wights is a sham. Even now, it is designed to sharpen our people. To create the ultimate spear user. Many are sacrificed on that altar, but-”
She stopped that line of thought, seeing the dangerous expression on Shal’s face. Instead, she coughed lightly and continued. “The other secret is that the Spearsource is ultimately a vestige of the Spearman himself. Not just a legacy; it is him. It is all of his images and Skills, condensed into a physical form. There was… a tragic accident, right before the Spearman was to ascend, granting Tellus eternal peace and prosperity. To maintain all he had created, the Spearman sacrificed himself to preserve that power. That is why spear Skills are so easy to learn on Tellus. The Spearman left his heritage for us all.”
Shal frowned. “So everyone… attempts to become this pinnacle warrior? If the Spearsource was stolen, should not the person who stole it have used it to become a great fighter?”
“Yes. If they could… they definitely would have. But few others have the means.” Ophelia said shortly. Her expression was bitter.
Slowly, Shal parsed her silence apart. Then, whoever stole the Spearsource was not someone who was trying to become this pinnacle warrior. They were instead… an antagonistic force? Or someone who was trying to prevent a different faction from getting a pinnacle warrior? Of all his frantic thoughts, that was the one that felt the truest. Because it was the ugly truth at the heart of most people’s tragedies.
It was all politics. To have the pinnacle warrior on your side… a faction, as such, would become the ruling order. Or at least Shal expected it to be so, based upon how grave Ophelia’s expression was.
Ophelia’s hands tightened on the wooden table. She still stared straight downward, refusing to look up at Shal. A very chilling thought slipped into his mind, insidious and serpentine.
“You believe,” Shal said slowly. “This was done… to prevent another pinnacle warrior from ascending. That it was hidden to allow someone, in particular, to arrive when they are ready to ascend. This is a delaying tactic.”
Ophelia nodded. “There are certain… criteria for ascension. They are difficult criteria. You must have reached Level 99… with a Great Path open to you.”
Another piece. The thought in the back of Shal’s mind grew to dominate his whole consciousness. He breathed in and breathed out without any change in expression. It was a truth that upon him, but the most surprising factor was his lack of surprise.
“I am the chosen warrior,” Shal said simply. “This was done… to block me from becoming the pinnacle individual. That is why we must stay here, because you suspect the Spearsource remains in Hastam, hidden. That is why we cannot let others of any power into the city, because they might take it for themselves. We dare not trust others.”
Ophelia didn’t answer. But that was enough.
“How long have you been grooming me for this?” Shal asked. The more he reflected on his life, the more strange and convoluted it became. The experience of his parents, his brother, the rumors of the devourer, the strange darkness and confusion that descended upon him for fifty years, his chance meeting with Randidly, training Randidly, Randidly introducing him to the truth of his half-blood existence, the debt to go to the prison and the sudden war that gave him the excuse to avoid it, the rapid promotions, being placed as one of Ophelia’s lieutenants…
Shal’s voice was much rougher the second time he asked the question. “How long have you been grooming me for this?”
Randidly unleashed the Inevitable Phantom Arrives to pin Helen down. She growled in displeasure and that huge spectral form of the Hellfin Reaper’s maw appeared above him to crash down.
Randidly simply narrowed his eyes. He did not fear a direct contest of strength.
The ground cracked. Small stones shot away with enough force to leave long cuts along his shin. Even during their match, Helen was improving very quickly in these direct confrontations. Her ability to attack directly was fueled by her rage, giving it sharper and sharper teeth. But it still wasn’t enough to slow Randidly down; he had too much of a Stat and Skill Level advantage.
As Helen was knocked backward, Darrune harrumphed. “You call that an attack? Milord Ghosthound has barely broken a sweat. Before you even think about reaching me, how about you try and give him some decent exercise? I believe I saw him hiding a yawn behind his hand between your pedestrian attacks.”
Darrune’s new habit of calling Randidly Milord Ghosthound notwithstanding, the training was proceeding with frightful efficiency. Every time that Helen would settle into a pattern of attacks, Darrune would prod her with some useless advice that would push her toward being even more aggressive.
Honestly, Randidly was a bit worried that she was going too aggressively at this point. Perhaps a harsh lesson was in order.
Hissing, which was Helen’s main form of communication in her rage state, was all the warning Randidly had. For all that her main improvements had been in direct conflict, Helen was also improving in speed and dexterity. But her original Agility Skills were much, much higher than her attack Skills, which meant the relatively smaller improvement brought her to a much more intimidating tier.
With a strange grace, Helen zig-zagged around Randidly. She passed almost close enough to touch. Her eyes were narrowed and focused on Darrune sitting behind him.
Gritting his teeth, Randidly twisted his body to generate torque and then just slammed himself toward Helen. Her eyes flicked sideways. She sidestepped an attack by a root avatar and then sidestepped again to avoid the corrected trajectory of Randidly’s bodyslam.
As Helen slipped passed him, Randidly’s body exploded into motion. His spear thrust forward. Helen dodged, but she hissed again; Randidly’s target was not her. The proud and shining image of Sharpness boomed outward from his spear.
The Tides of Blood Domain came crashing down. Eyes flashing dangerously, Helen paused for a split second. With a roar-like hiss, the Domain exploded out from Helen once more to cover the arena. Randidly grinned. She was getting much better at that, which was the entire point. Solidifying her ability to create the Domain was one of the more crucial points for her fight with Skarch.
But that moment when it was down allowed Randidly to catch up.
“Spear Advances, Ash Trails.”
Because she was midair creating the Domain, Helen could not dodge. She could only block. For once, Randidly did not hold back. Images of heat explosions, propulsion, trailing ash, an inexhaustible engine, and sharpness made this Skill a powerful piercing attack.
Such was the speed that Helen’s block didn’t make it up in time. The spear took her in the shoulder and then the concussive force hit her like a block of concrete. Her body was knocked backward.
Unfortunately, that caused Randidly to grimace. Helen was flying toward Darrune. She had accepted the wound to get at Darrune? Foolish. Perhaps this lesson needed to be sharper than he had anticipated.
The molten core portion of Influence of the Molten Core crashed downward toward her body. Again, Helen’s grace and adaptability were impressive. She spun mid-air and somehow depleted her momentum. Although her right arm was largely out of commission from her wound to her shoulder, she instantly transferred her spear to her left hand and prepared to dash around the core.
She likely would have, had not one of Randidly’s root avatars split her Domain, rendering her half as agile. She was still quick, but it wasn’t enough.
Helen’s face twisted in shock when Randidly just tapped his spear against Helen’s. Her powerful defense was made for a strong blow, so this soft touch made her overbalance forward. Randidly’s eyes flashed. With his spear still touching Helen’s, he activated Stalemate Breaker and directly crushed her. Unprepared for the abrupt force, Helen was bounced off the ground. She spat out some blood just in time for another root avatar to arrive and Roundhouse Kick her farther away from Darrune.
Her body bounced and rolled away, leaving a crimson trail.
Randidly turned and waited, his spear pointed at Helen. He likely depleted half of her Health from that combination. With sickening slowness, Helen pushed herself off the ground and stood. Her steps were stuttering, but she stayed standing.