Randidly leaned against the wall in the corner, happy to have even been brought to this meeting. Part of it, Randidly assumed, was that he had just been with the Oracle and Versault when they arrived and tagged along. Both seemed too intent on the developing situation at hand to address his continued presence.
And when they arrived, Ophelia and the Spearman himself seemed too caught up in their own thoughts to do the same. Basically, Randidly had quietly walked into the room and assumed his spot in the corner. No one said anything.
So Randidly stayed.
While the other four were glowering at the floor to express their emotion, Randidly studied the Spearman. He was old, that was for sure. It wasn’t so much present in the lines of his face, but by the way he held his body. Every movement was slow and methodical. His muscles were heavy and solid. He was the type of individual that seemed to broadcast physical violence due to his intense gaze, no matter how controlled his movements were.
He also radiated danger. Randidly forced his muscles that tensed as he simply looked at the Spearman to relax; he kept his gaze on the Spearman mild. The Spearman’s eyes were dark and serious and his eyebrows were extremely bushy. Of course, what struck Randidly the most about him was that he was one of the few people he had seen on Tellus that wasn’t carrying a spear.
The irony curled the corner of Randidly’s mouth up.
“The Northern Camp is moving. Following the First Propagator to Icklid.” Ophelia finally said to break the heavy silence. “Why? Why would they betray their fellow spear-users and follow a monster?”
The silence continued. The Spearman peered out the window and simply continued to rub his thumb across a shattered piece of wood he had picked up. It had already been worn smooth by the almost mechanical gesture. Randidly suspected that it would shine and reflect light it had been so worn down.
“Spearman!” Ophelia hissed as she seemed very clearly to be on the verge of panic.
Randidly noted that the Oracle rolled her eyes and Versault sneered at Ophelia while she spoke. It seemed he wasn’t the only one they treated with disdain.
Randidly jumped out of his skin when the first words that the Spearman said were directed to him. Smoothly, the Spearman turned around and studied him with his heavy gaze. “Would you be so kind as to do me a favor?”
Randidly nodded slowly.
The Spearman’s smile was a spare and chilly. “Please head over to meet your master, Shal, and invite him to join us. Tell him that his time with my… spawn can wait until later. Right now, we need his strength.”
Randidly considered refusing but ultimately nodded. Because very suddenly, something emerged inside of himself that he needed to check on immediately. The feeling in his chest was cloying and hot, very different than the Ashen Image that he had dealt with previously. And if he was going to turn inwards to examine himself, Randidly didn’t want to be anywhere near these people.
Especially the Spearman. His experience with creating the Wights and extracting the energy unnerved Randidly.
It was also somewhat impressive to Randidly that the Spearman had, with a single request, dismissed Randidly for private discussions, requested Shal’s presence, and shifted the focus of the room away from himself for the moment. The Oracle, Versault, and Ophelia all glared at Randidly, willing him to leave quickly. Truly, this man was an old hand at manipulation.
So Randidly nodded and left, blurring across the rooftops of Hastam. Slowly, the city was rebuilding itself. But that would mean little if the Aether in the world soon ran out.
Once he was outside of city limits, Randidly paused and created for himself a small dome of roots. Lightning fast, he scratched out some runes on the plant matter that would block out any sort of Perception Skills that sought to follow him. Then he sat down cross-legged and focused his attention inward.
Something was wrong with the river of Aether that came from Azriel.
Randidly had noticed as he arrived in Hastam that suddenly her Aether demands jumped markedly upward, but had thought nothing of it. But now, the Aether that she was taking from him had halved from her previous baseline. And some of the meaning that was flowing back from her…
It was muddy and dangerous. Already, some of it had slipped through into his Soulskill, which caused Randidly to grimace. What he did not need right now was more trouble there. Liberally using System Interference, Randidly set up a ‘net’ of sorts that would sift through the meaning that flowed toward him. It wouldn’t be able to catch everything, but it certainly would clean it up quite a bit.
In addition, he sent threads of fire and ash flowing up through the meaning that was flowing toward Azriel. She might not sense or use it, but it would serve as a natural defense against these warped images of violence. It was akin to them, but the self-destructive nature of those images would hopefully neutralize some of the worst of it, and reduce the pressure on Azriel.
It certainly set Randidly’s teeth on edge; these were the sort of images that he had sensed within Silo. And now Azriel was trying her best to manage them…
Randidly lowered the dome of plants and then rushed toward Shal’s position. Perhaps he had been too careless about his treatment of the broader Tellus issue. It wasn’t just the whole of Tellus at stake right now. Whatever was happening in Icklid, it was affecting Azriel. The fate of the world was probably more important…
But these changes to Azriel were what pissed Randidly off.
There would be no talk of allowing the First Propagator’s plan to allow Tellus to ascend if it came at the cost of Azriel’s life.
Within ten minutes, he found Shal. As soon as Randidly arrived on the farm, Shal stood, as if expecting him. “They sent you? Not that it mattered. I assume the Spearman included some threat about Rumera…?”
After thinking about it, Randidly nodded.
Shal sighed. “Fine then. Let us finish this farce, once and for all.”
“Wait,” Randidly said. He had thought long and hard about this, and he, too, was worried about the Spearman’s relationship with Rumera. Once he had the idea for a solution, all that was left was to offer it; he searched for the right words. “There is… something that I want to give Rumera just in case.”
Shal’s eyes were dark and vicious as he scanned Randidly for any sort of threatening intent. “This gift… is from you…?”
Randidly nodded, hoping that Shal didn’t ask too many questions. After all, Randidly wasn’t sure what would happen if he made an Aether connection to Rumera. She might really be as the Spearman believed her to be; just something that spawned from his images. Less than a real person.
When Randidly made the connection, he would know. And he didn’t think he would be able to hide that truth from his face afterward. So it was with a knot of tension in his chest that Randidly walked into the ramshackle farm in which the two were staying.
For all that outside was practically a warzone, the inside looked warm and cozy. There were two overstuffed chairs next to a roaring fire. Randidly noted with amusement that there were two of everything in the room. Two scrolls, two tables, chairs, two steaming mugs...
Rumera looked up with haunted eyes when Randidly walked into the room. Shal didn’t even bother to explain; he simply walked through a threshold in the back and disappeared into the backside of the house.
So in stuttered sentences, Randidly explained what he was doing. Rumera blinked.
“If it works, I’ll be…”
“Free. Or not reliant on the Spearman, if you still are,” Randidly clarified. Then he shook his head helplessly. “Without looking at you, I can’t really tell. I can sense you possess your specific Aether, but-”
“Fine. Do it.” Rumera said. “Just… please. Don’t tell me what happens. I’ll close my eyes. I… I feel free. I want to hold onto that, even if it’s just a lie.”
And she did so, leaving Randidly to uncomfortably walk up to her and place his hand upon her shoulder. For whatever reason, he closed his eyes too; it just seemed appropriate. With a gentle touch, his Aether Perception Skill flowed through her body, searching for the mooring point that he could attach a connection to.
Before now, he had never considered what exactly-
Then Randidly grinned as he found it and made a connection. I should be more careful about these from now on, but for you Shal… I’ll trust your taste.
Afterward, the Randidly and Shal immediately began running back toward Hastam. Shal didn’t even bother to ask how the process had gone, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
And when he finally did speak, it was on another topic altogether. Looking over at Randidly, Shal said. “You have grown strong. But are you ready for this fight?”
Randidly’s expression was grim. “Perhaps. But I don’t suppose I have any choice now. Losing will mean that all of this death and sacrifice will have meant nothing.”
Shal grunted. “I do not like it. Even now, we know not why we fight. We dance to the tune of another. The duel to decide the fate of Tellus… we are not the true players. We are but pawns.”
There was nothing for Randidly to do but agree. Shal clearly had the capability to ascend with his image, and Randidly would like nothing better than to help that happen. Especially if whatever the First Propagator was doing would endanger Azriel. But without an opponent with a dominant image-
Randidly paused. Based on the Spearman and what he had learned from Ulaat, the Patron of Ash, the source of the image didn’t really matter. It just needed to be accompanied by a Level 99 individual accepting a Great Path. But did both sides need a Great Path?
Ulaat had faced down two images and burned them both away. It wasn’t about the duel, it was about supremacy.
But it made sense that neither the Spearman or the First Propagator would know that. They didn’t have the example that Randidly did. And the System was looking for a powerful image, not pieces that could closely follow its formula. So if Randidly just-
Randidly stopped dead. Shal slowed and turned to look at him. Randidly studied Shal before he spoke. Because if this was to work, what they needed was not a clever plan. They needed Shal to be the most powerful individual on Tellus. “Shal, I have an idea. But for it to work, we need to do a bit of preparation before we head back.”