Aiden Darke stumbled backward, about three dozen dead Witch King bodies around him in a grim circle. Near the portal, Shal was a whirlwind of spear strokes that was ripping apart the slowing river of Witch Kings that walked through the portal to assist with their defense. Their assistance wasn't much use, at this point.
Despite Darke’s shocked expression, Randidly still felt a trickle of fear in his heart. The first reason was that it could not be a good sign that so many of the Witch Kings were flowing through the portal. Randidly couldn’t believe that they had enough Witch Kings to divert a lot of them from the fight against the Spearman and his forces. His working had spread to this connected world. All of the Witch Kings they had were created in the last twenty-four hours.
Was the First Propagator more powerful than Randidly had guessed…?
That would complicate things.
The second reason that Randidly felt a sharp rush of fear is that his river of Aether flowing toward Azriel was beginning to dry up; she wasn’t absorbing anymore. Gritting his teeth, Randidly did his best to isolate all of the meaning he still received from her and make it into its own self-contained marble that he could provide to her after this was all over. But that still didn't explain why she no longer was drawing meaning from him.
With the images that Randidly gathered, she could hopefully recover from the wounds that this process inflicted upon her.
If she could still recover. If she wasn’t broken by this flood of images.
He and Shal needed to move. This was taking too long.
Shal looked up to his bloody work of mopping up the remaining Witch Kings and considered Randidly. “You waste time, why? Do you need assistance?”
Randidly flashed a vicious grin; he hadn’t explained the details of his plan to Shal. Or not, at least the heavy lifting that Randidly needed to do. But that was for the better. Some things worried Randidly; this was one of them. Even if they needed to hurry, it was useless if Randidly wasn't prepared. “No. Go on ahead. I’ll finish up here and then continue forward to meet you.”
Nodding, Shal struck sideways and smashed a Witch King sideways and then proceeded through the portal. Randidly thought it comforting that there wasn’t an immediate explosion of battle noises as soon as Shal went through the portal. Hopefully, the flood of Witch Kings onto Tellus wasn’t such a bad sign then.
Carefully, Randidly turned to Aiden Darke.
“So… kill me,” The man said bitterly. His eyes were red and his hands trembling. “I’ve certainly had to finish such tasks enough in my line of work. I do not fear it. I worked with death for years.”
Is there a point to posturing so…? Randidly wondered. He raised Acri but hesitated for several long seconds, considering letting the man off.
But then Randidly remembered the fleeing Style he had met with Shal. They had been cold and chased away, haunted by the pursuit of men just like this. In fact, if not for Randidly’s chance encounter with them, he would never have been able to become as competent as he was at Mana Engraving. And Randidly knew he still had more to learn.
Long ago he had promised to come help when he could.
If you are still out there… this is my long awaited help, Randidly thought as he slid his spear into Aiden Darke’s heart. There were tears on the man’s face, and it looked like he pissed himself as the attack was coming. Sighing, Randidly let the body fall to the ground and walked a few steps away.
Before he could proceed after Shal, he needed to-
Randidly froze and looked slowly up. Out of the portal, another figure came. Tall and burning with the endless heat of the sun.
Aegiant Wyrd smiled at Randidly. “Ah, I thought you might come. And you lived through the Witch King attacks, wonderful; I had hoped I would be able to do this personally.”
This was… not on the short list of things that Randidly wanted to deal with. But it made sense; he had been warned about Aegiant Wyrd's grudge. Why hadn't Randidly thought of his name when he heard the Northern expedition sided with the First Propagator?
For several seconds, his mental wheels simply spun while he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Why was… Aegiant here and uncontested? Even if Aegiant was strong, it should have been three versus two, correct? Had Randidly grossly underestimated the power of the First Propagator faction? Shal hadn’t fought, so most of the hostilities should have already ceased…
Either way, Randidly was faced with Aegiant’s grinning face.
Cracking his knuckles, Aegiant continued to walk forward. “So, do you wish for me to explain your transgressions, or have you been able to piece together the details?”
Randidly’s mouth pressed into a line. Instantly, he reached inside himself and gathered as much Aether as he could manage. If he wanted this to go smoothly, he would need to finish it quickly. A surprise attack was his best bet.
Besides, could Randidly stand up to Aegiant in a direct confrontation…?
“The quiet sort. I respect that about you.” Aegiant said, still speaking in a faux-conversation style that sent chills down Randidly’s spine, despite the heat. “My grandson was like that too, you know. Drak. You remember Drak? He was supposed to be a hero. The hero. For two hundred years, I put up with that damnable Spearman. I left everything I had, completely abandoning my previous Skills and images. I started from NOTHING.
“And I fucking did it. I created a series of images that didn’t have anything to do with a spear. It was all about the all-powerful sun in the sky. I even inspired the wave of changes in the Spearman School that saw it rise to prominence among the Schools.” Aegiant pointed his spear at Randidly. “And you… you walk in my son’s path and everything just turns to shit.”
There was an ugly expression on Aegiant’s face, so Randidly spoke quickly as he gathered Aether to himself and stockpiled Mana. On a sudden gut feeling, Randidly tried a brutally honest tact to buy time. “We both know it wasn’t my fault. Your son was weak; otherwise, he would never have been forced into that situation. He made a deal with a witch, and-”
The ground rumbled in fear at the wave of rage that Aegiant released. The stone near him hissed as the moisture in the air was rapidly baked away, leaving it dry and hot and greedy. The nearby lava from the fountains seemed to burn even redder. With similarly crimson eyes, Aegiant regarded Randidly. “He was of my blood. He was not perfect, but he was mine. I understand that you are just a tiny figure in a world so broad you cannot imagine it. You were a talented youth that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even I cannot deny that you possess an astounding talent. But you broke my kin. For that, I will break you.”
Looks like that didn’t work out quite as intended… Randidly reflected as he considered the figure before him. Randidly’s hands were tingling. He had briefly crossed blows with Versault, but the fact that Aegiant was the one who had come out of the portal…
And Versault hadn’t been serious. Aegiant was serious. And he was coming for his pound of flesh.
Aegiant and Randidly blurred into motion at the same moment. Aegiant’s spear was a fiery cascade of sunlight and vicious cosmic flares. The force of the light and heat melted the alabaster in the surrounding area after a second of exposure. The fountains twisted and toppled like sad wax figures. Spluttering, the lava dribbled down the sad of the destroyed fountains.
Randidly blinked. All was Ash. And since it was all ash, why did temperature matter?
It was a vicious wave of power that washed harmlessly through Randidly. Just as quickly, Randidly deactivated the Skill to conserve Mana and continued to rush toward Aegiant.
Aegiant showed his teeth. “Impossible. Truly, you are a delight. Fine then, let’s see how your spear work has improved.”
With the weight of a burning sun behind it, Aegiant thrust his spear forward toward Randidly’s chest. Cursing how quickly Aegiant responded, Randidly brought his spear up to meet it. As the Sun Stills. Let’s see if I can’t suck the wind out of your sails, just like I did to your grandson…
It was blinding, the sun that Aegiant conjured. Its heat scorched the skin until large scrolls of it curled up off of your arm like dried papyrus. Although it seemed incredibly small, the more you looked at it the more you were blind to everything else and aware of the minutiae of its existence. In terms of images, it was rock solid.
But all things turn to ash, Randidly thought coldly as his spear slid forward. As the sun advanced on in age, its weight grew too great for it. No longer could the combustion reactions continue with such vigor. And as that energy died, it dimmed further and further. Very soon, the weight of continuing on was too much to bear…
The spears met silently like two lovers slipping into one another’s embrace. Then the muscles in Randidly’s right arm were torn to shreds by the reverberations coming up through Acri. Even Acri whined in pain, a thin fracture appearing in its body. As the Sun Stills shuddered painfully, sending jagged mental knives through Randidly’s focus.
Onward, Aegiant’s blow continued, aiming to snuff Randidly out. And Randidly felt completely spent at that moment. There was a dull fuzziness to everything in the wake of the combat. The mental feedback left him in some sort of localized shock. Some part of Randidly knew that he needed to act to get out of the way of this, but that part of Randidly seemed so very far from the controls of his body.
So Randidly watched as the spear slid forward…
...and incinerated his left arm, the earlier contest having been just enough to deflect a death blow.
As Randidly stumbled backward, it took him several seconds to regain a coherent and efficient train of thought. And as soon as that happened, he began to sweat. Then the phantom of his left arm began to burn like hell.
Of all the fool things to do, challenging Aegiant to a direct contest?
And because of it, he had almost died. And left everyone who was relying on him without any support.