Randidly glanced at Azriel. The two stood outside the entrance to the tall stone colosseum. As they were both finalists, even though Randidly had been eliminated, they had a priority entrance that was free of the long lines of chatting people. But Azriel was not coming with Randidly through the door. “Really? What for?”
“Training,” Azriel said with a shrug. “You are a better teacher by far than I would have expected. My Master thinks that I need special training as well to keep up. Besides, I can sense that my spear… is not yet enough for my Master. I am… not yet a being that will bring it the glory that it deserves. So in that way, I agree; I must train.”
“This won’t take long,” Randidly said with a frown. It really wasn’t his business, but this sudden announcement by Azriel took him quite by surprise. He had believed that Helen and Azriel were quite close. “What aren’t you saying? It isn’t like you to be vague.”
Azriel’s smile was for a split second warm and genuine, and then it settled into something quite pained. “Perhaps. Randidly… this is it. This is everything I have trained for. This is my last chance. With the surrounding war, everyone’s eyes will be on this tournament. It is the distraction they need. I cannot be found wanting. They must see me and revel in the glory. Besides… your spear, and by extension Helen’s, are so strangely… carefree. It is like you do not feel the weight of those that are behind you. Being near you has rubbed some of that off upon my style. Yet, I cannot have such a spear. Mine will be the spear that shines with glory. That weight of expectations… is my strength…”
Azriel paused. “Well, all that to say that I want to refine my spear to feel that weight more. You have already rubbed off that carefree attitude on me too much. My Style has shifted.”
Randidly’s brows furrowed. “I changed the way you fight? Is this just the stress talking? If it’s a matter of glory-”
“Yes, you have affected me. How could you not?. No, this is not the stress. It is simply easy to forget you are part of something larger when staying near you.” Azriel poked Randidly in the side. “You have an infectious ego.”
“What point is there if you aren’t fighting for yourself?” Randidly said, somewhat annoyed.
“To bring glory to the people who raised me. To be their champion. AND the point is that my spear’s failure won’t kill me like yours will, you fool. Although I will be ashamed for one hundred years if I fail my master, it will not be the end of me. How well can you endure when you bet everything on your spear and you lose? Would not your ego collapsed?”
Randidly recalled the long month of darkness inside the prison. It wasn’t… a collapse, per se. But it was certainly a restructuring of himself. “I would manage well enough. I think you’ll find I bounce back quickly. Much more quickly than one hundred years.”
Azriel threw up her hands. “Talking to you is pointless. See to it I meet Helen in the finals, Randidly. There, we can have this argument with spears.”
Randidly nodded, even while he knew that after this match, he would break the news to Helen that he needed to go to the Death School. Both to try and save anyone remaining in the wake of the Wight invasion, but also to locate Acri and Sulfur. In addition, Shal had informed him that Versault, the Head of the Death School, was perhaps the most knowledgeable history expert in all of Tellus. Perhaps Randidly could find him and finally gather some answers about the Spearman.
If Versault yet lived.
Walking slowly, Randidly scanned the faces of the other patrons of the under 25 Tournament. The masses were tightly packed and loud in the stands below. Truly, it seemed like all of Hastam had turned up. They were shouting and laughing and waving pennants representing the tassels of the different competitors. Based on the colors bobbing left and right, it seemed like Helen was definitely the favorite.
For all that Skarch was the lone representative of the Spear School in the tournament, it was hard to compete with Helen’s looks in the court of public opinion. That was true no matter which world it was.
Randidly’s expression grew sad. It was very likely that the attacks of the Wights had meant that most of the Spear School could not make it to watch the finals. Their champion was perhaps a footnote in their demise. It was a sobering thought. Which only made Randidly more furious that this tournament continued while the Wights rampaged across the countryside.
The last few days of this week, Randidly had begun ranging farther from Hastam. In addition, he had bought a very expensive interspatial ring. After killing Wights, he gathered their bodies. Even though he only worked for around 6 hours a night for four days, he had thinned out Wights in the surrounding area quite effectively. Attacks on the Northern Camp had decreased precipitously.
So much so that a Witch King had ambushed Randidly last night. The memory made him grin. Truly, he relished the sight of Reach of the Jade Slag crushing the Witch King’s body into kindling.
But.. the problem with the spectators below was the very clear edge of hysteria that they possessed. The weight of the Wights presence was clearly felt. There was a frantic quality to it. The Aether continued to swirl above the crowd, seeking an answer.
All of that was far from him, however. Randidly enjoyed the rest from training. When he found his seat, he sat and closed his eyes. Images and Skills danced across the blank vision out of habit, but as he didn’t reach for any of them, they all faded. Soon, he found the emerald warmth of Ignition of the Emerald Essence and just sat in it.
With a gradual relaxation, Randidly felt all the worries and mental strain melting away. Randidly ignored the starting announcements, such was his enjoyment of the sensation.
Finally, the match began. Only then did Randidly’s eyes snap open.
Skarch stood tall, her powerful spear humming with energy. In spite of himself, Randidly grinned. Truly, his modification of that spear had been well done. Ugly, perhaps, but effective.
Opposite her, Helen stood slender and defiant. Already, Randidly could sense the growing rage and frustration in Helen’s expression. Good, it would be better if she started out hot.
The Tides of Blood Domain spread its red haze and draped it over the entire arena. Skarch snorted. Hers was a spear of pride, prepared to rely on the inherent power of the spear in any situation. In her mind, the spear was the pinnacle. And she had put in the hours of hard work to back it up. With only a simple thrust, without even moving from the starting position 10 meters away, Skarch destroyed the Tides of Blood Domain.
Randidly’s eyebrows rose. Even he couldn’t do that so simply.
“Don’t bother,” Skarch announced. “Your Domain will not cage me. Come, let’s-”
Without a change of expression, Helen summoned the Tides of Blood Domain once more. Skarch’s mouth twisted and her spear slashed sideways. The Domain fell apart. But this time, before even Skarch could open her mouth, the Domain returned like a bolt from a clear sky.
Also, most everyone else wouldn’t have noticed the small changes. But they hadn’t spent as much time with the Domain as Randidly had. There was a small increase in the current complexity that wasn’t there before, Randidly noticed. Although it was called “Tides” of Blood, it was largely just a shift in the air that gave Helen increased Strength and Agility. But now…
Skarch cut. Helen summoned. Skarch thrust, Helen summoned. Skarch’s face turned furious and she simply stepped forward. The ground quaked. The Domain fell to pieces. Helen took a seat in a meditative posture and summoned the Domain once more.
“You truly wish to waste your Stamina on this?” Skarch said with a disgusted voice. “I had assumed you were the headstrong type, but you insist on this foolishness? Fine. I will bleed you dry.”
Skarch was correct that it couldn’t be going very well for Helen’s Stamina. But there were a few tricks that Randidly had been sure to beat into Helen’s body these last few days. One of them was an old Skill that had been subsumed into his Yggdrasil Skills, Second Wind. And Randidly had been sure to keep Helen well below half Stamina during their training sessions. Undoubtedly, her mastery of the Skill had soared.
It was somewhat surprising, Randidly reflected, that Skarch would forget his own tireless fighting style. Well, she would learn the hard way that trying to outlast Helen was a fool’s decision.
Helen sat in a meditative stance with her eyes closed. Continually, she reformed her Domain after Skarch scattered it to the four winds. Every time, Randidly’s eyes traced the small but growing currents that ran through the Domain. Sometimes they were stronger than others between iterations, but Randidly could understand that; what Helen was trying to do was strengthen the Domain by creating a constant flow. But with no real knowledge of ocean currents, she could basically just use her images of rivers to create mini slipstreams through the Domain.
It was trial and error and the progress was halting at best.
After about two minutes of the standoff and having scattered the Domain fifty times, Skarch finally seemed to realize that this wasn’t having the effect that she expected. The whole while, Helen stayed seated, which undoubtedly added to the humiliation. Honestly, Randidly was surprised that Helen’s rage allowed her to be still. But he supposed it was stubbornness that urged her forward, now.
“That’s my girl,” Randidly laughed aloud. A few nearby spectators paused in their cheers and boos to give him a weird look.
“Fine!” Skarch bellowed. She stepped forward once again and destroyed the Domain. But this time, the Tides of Blood spun and trembled before collapsing underneath the weight of Skarch’s simple moves. “If you refuse to come to me, then don’t blame me for taking the initiative!”
Helen smiled, her eyes were still closed. The Tides of Blood Domain descended and swirled around them. With a fluid grace only possible within her own Domain, Helen did a strange pirouette to stand.
Snorting, Skarch rushed forward. The speed of her passage parted the Tides of Blood, but still the currents swirled. The parted Domain trembled, then slowly inched back together behind Skarch.
Just before Skarch arrived, Helen’s eyes opened. Although the area directly around Skarch and behind her was not covered by the Domain, the place where Helen was standing remained thick with the color of blood. Helen raised her spear defiantly.