Randidly sat up straighter. He could sense… something. There was a shift in Helen’s Domain. At first, he was very worried when the currents were destroyed by Skarch’s attack; that was not good for Helen’s chances. But then the Domain endured Skarch’s thrust and simply… oozed back together.
With the color darkening, it was clear to Randidly that it was going through some sort of evolution. Aether was rushing toward Helen, gathering in a thick whirlpool. But what was coming…?
And was it really powerful enough to give even him pause?
Randidly ignored the roar of the crowd and focused on Skarch and Helen’s interaction.
“Perfection… That is what the spear is.” Skarch announced. She was constantly blinking to keep blood from clouding her vision, but her conviction was palpable. “My family worked for generations to create this spear. I am but the most recent bearer of their great legacy. To someone like you… I will not let that legacy be tarnished.”
Then Randidly’s eyes widened. Because he felt the distinctive flow of Aether through Skarch’s body. The air around her seemed to distort. A few others in the audience around Randidly muttered in surprise, so they were seeing it too. Rather than it being due to Randidly’s ability to sense Aether, somehow Skarch was using Aether to mask something.
Rather than relying on sight then, Randidly focused on Aether Detection; his expression turned grim. Skarch’s wounds, both on her head and on her arm were healing. Aether flowed through her just as easily as it did for Helen.
Where the hell is this Aether coming from?
“All I really have is myself and my way of life…” Helen said with surprising gentleness. She looked down at the ground. The Tides of Blood Domain darkened further. “Perhaps… you are right. I am not the Apex Predator I would have chosen to be. But… that does not mean I can’t beat you.”
“So then-” Skarch began, but then she paled and spun.
Something huge loomed behind her. The Domain was so dark and hazy that it was difficult to see anything but a silhouette. Something that was all teeth and a body the size of a whale. It had a long tail and at least a dozen smooth fins covering its body. Tentacles wriggled back and forth like drunk tongues tasting the air. As though it had been waiting for Skarch to notice it, the huge monstrosity launched itself at her that very instant.
Screaming in defiance, Skarch’s spear began to glow with an even more overwhelming light. Randidly’s mouth quirked upward. Skarch was certainly burning through the soul energy he had given her quickly. Once more, Skarch Strength and Agility shot upward to a ridiculous degree. Even Randidly wouldn’t dare take that blow directly. Not without relying on a Skill and an overwhelming image.
Skarch brought the beast to a standstill, slicing through it and the Domain in a ridiculously powerful strike. The waves of forces radiated outward. People nearest to the stage screamed in fear as the ground quaked and cracked. So far, this was by far the most powerful exchange of the tournament.
Which was why it was easy to miss the small movement in the epicenter of the explosion.
“I may just be a scavenger,” Helen whispered. “But I can still beat you.”
Her spear took Skarch in the small of the back. With widening eyes, Skarch spun around and smashed her spear against Helen’s guard. It caused Helen’s eyes to narrow, but the real point of interest was that Skarch’s wound once more began to heal at a prodigious rate.
Randidly’s frown deepened. Was Skarch a Heretic? Both her and Silo were Heretics and he didn’t notice? But this didn't feel like the System’s Aether. There was… something very special about this Aether…
Helen didn’t let up. “Feeding Frenzy.”
Skarch’s eyes flashed and she raised her spear, but the light from it flickered and sputtered. Finally, her store of soul energy was running dry. For all that she was unstoppable while using it, it came at a commensurately great cost.
“YOU--!!!” Skarch roared. Helen slashed back and forth, easily avoiding the clumsy strikes of the unempowered spear. The Tides of Blood Domain remained dark and thick. It undoubtedly shifted to more of a debuff Domain than a boost for Helen. With such an oppressive force around them, Helen’s increased mobility began to shine. Her spear streaked back and forth, leaving large gashes across Skarch.
Very quickly, Skarch recovered from her shock and began to put up her usual firm defense, but by that point, Helen had struck multiple deep blows. Her Feeding Frenzy Skill only grew more powerful the longer she could land attacks. Her speed had already increased to an order of magnitude above Skarch’s ability to cope.
Even though that strange Aether continued to heal Skarch, it was too little too late. Skarch was receiving wounds faster than she could heal them. And Randidly could sense that Skarch was also running short of Aether.
Helen had outlasted her.
“This wasn’t how it was supposed to go-” A pale-faced Skarch mumbled.
Helen grinned. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited to hear those words.”
To the roars of the crowd, Helen cut Skarch down.
Once more, Darrune somehow tracked Randidly down while he was packing up to go.
“What is it now?” Randidly said lightly. With Helen victorious in the match, even Darrune’s dubious value as a coach had fallen to nothing. Honestly, Randidly had a little bit of an impulse to give Helen some time alone with Darrune now. It would certainly be the reward that she deserved.
But besides that…
The question of Skarch’s Aether still nagged at him. But it was just one of a thousand things he felt like he needed to address. Comparatively more pressing were his goals in the Death School.
When he returned, perhaps he could investigate Skarch then.
“Ah, Sir Ghosthound… I had heard you intend to head out to fight the Wights?” Gone was the confidence that Darrune had possessed during their previous conversation. In its place, he was just… worried.
That softened Randidly’s expression somewhat. “Yes. What of it?”
“You will need soldiers, yes? You cannot do everything by yourself. I understand you have already contacted Captain Platton. In addition-”
“How did you know that?” Randidly asked sharply. He had sent a message to Platton. And yet Darrune was somehow aware of his plans? Immediately his focus sharpened to a point. His powerful Willpower converged on Darrune.
The man whimpered uncomfortably. “I… I simply have acquaintances among his staff. He is… obviously making preparations to accompany you… I… I’m sorry if I have offended…”
Randidly let the pressure drop. That… made sense, he supposed. Platton had steadfastly defended the South approach to Hastam for almost a month. He had acquitted himself admirably. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t need to make preparations before a departure, or tell his superiors…
There was a very feasible excuse for why Darrune would be able to find out. But would Darrune, who had been involved in the Northern Camp, really have the connections to gather that information…? Perhaps.
But that didn’t mean that Darrune was someone who he should trust. “So?”
Darrune nodded hurriedly. “Before I departed from the Northern Camp, I had predicted that you might be fighting against the Wights… I told some subordinates to gather a group together. To be an army for you. I’m not sure how many they-”
“You predicted I would be fighting against the Wights?” Randidly’s gaze turned sharp again. Darrune seemed to bring up more questions with every sentence. For all that Randidly could use the extra manpower to help the Death School, it wasn’t strictly necessary.
It seemed Darrune sensed Randidly’s opinion turning against him. “You… are you not a Pontiff? Pontiff’s are required to go to the front lines occasionally, to thin Wight forces. I thought perhaps if you had some more protection-”
Randidly glared at Darrune to silence him. What Randidly received in exchange was a whimper. The man seemed helpless. Not an ounce of guile in his body. Was what he said true? Randidly never noticed it.
But to be fair, he had always avoided interfering with actual battles where the Spear-users were winning…
And in addition, more bodies would make Randidly’s other plan much easier…
“Fine,” Randidly said lightly. “Let’s go visit the Northern Camp quickly. Show me this army.”