When Shal rushed through the portal, he found only the dead.
Witch Kings were ripped apart and strewn everywhere in mounds of exposed bone and mashed flesh; Shal didn’t even pause when he saw them. But he did pause briefly as he stood over Ophelia’s body. He had served under her almost a year, after all.
There were tears in her eyes, even as her head was twisted around so it faced the opposite direction than the rest of her body. Shal also went over and witnessed Versault’s body, charred to his bones and smashed into a crater. Yet, something in the air…
Shal sensed that this man’s spirit would not rest peacefully.
There was also a large pool of blood where someone had been stricken with a fatal blow. But that pool became a trail that led deeper into the strange winding city. While standing and considering the blood, Shal abruptly sensed someone was watching him. He looked up and met the gaze of Aethon Thai.
The two held the stare for several seconds. Aethon’s eyes were firm but respectful. Then Aethon turned away, stepping into the shadow of a pillar. It was likely that Aethon was wounded and unwilling to fight any longer. If so, so much the better.
The place in the room of the dead where Shal spent most of his time was at the body of the First Propagator. Strangely, Shal felt a kinship with his thing. A being unsure of why it was made, following the instincts of its existence without ever knowing if what it was doing was right, someone that was born to be reviled…
Finally, Shal left them all and charged into the core of Icklid.
Luckily, the trail of blood and destruction was quite easy to follow. Based on what Shal saw, the Spearman and the Oracle should be the two sources of tracks. Which meant Aegiant was either dead and Shal missed that detail or remained back in the hall with Aethon.
And if that malicious fuck targeted Randidly…? Shal wondered. But he shook his head. His student was smart. No doubt he would use his plants to lose the man and then proceed with the plan.
As Shal proceeded down the bland and stale hallways, there were waves of images riding on the air, ones of violence and madness, that had so much potency that Shal had to hastily raise his mental guards against them. Even enduring them was a strain. These strange images seemed to spread outward in waves, seeking to infect all that they touched.
Shal frowned. They didn’t have much time then. The Ascension of that image was nearing.
When he rounded the next corner, he found the body of the Oracle. He proceeded forward carefully and found that hidden around the Oracle were several bodies of Propagators. The Oracle was still living, but judging by her blank expression, she had been knocked out by the mental powers of the Propagators.
Shal straightened. Just the Spearman remaining, then.
Down the hall, through the shattered doors, and then through the carpeted throne room to a small wooden door that led into the deeper chambers…
And there, Shal found the Spearman, gazing up in wonder at Azriel, who was floating off of the ground. Strange energies crackled around the room. Black lightning raced up and down the walls. Azriel herself had been warped even further by the energy. Obsidian crystals grew on her skin in ugly clusters. Her eyes were closed as if sleeping.
“Ah, thank god,” The Spearman said, turning to face Shal. “If I were to challenge her to duel for Ascension, my image would be victorious either way. But you can challenge her on your own. If you win-”
“No,” Shal said shortly. He leveled his spear at the Spearman. No longer would he allow this madman to warp his world. “It will not be so.”
The Spearman blinked. “I don’t believe you understand. She’s moving closer to Ascension as we speak. Every second she draws nearer. We have no more time-”
Shal blurred into motion and a flash of relief crossed the Spearman’s face. But Shal only moved to interpose himself between the Spearman and Azriel. One request that Randidly had made of him was to save Azriel, if possible. Randidly had admitted that Azriel likely chose this path willingly, but he wouldn’t abandon a friend for honoring a debt.
Shal thought it was a foolish sentiment, but one that he shared wholeheartedly. Sometimes responsibilities took one to dark places.
“Her Ascension will ruin everything.” The Spearman hissed. With his hands clenched into fists, he took a step toward Shal. “I will force you to fight her if I have to, boy.”
Shal’s grin was slow and vicious. “How?”
The Spearman considered Shal carefully. The violent images began to pound out from Azriel with increasing frequency. After a few moments, the Spearman sighed. “You know what I will do. That woman of yours was once part of my images, Shal. I can feel her now. I can reach out and crush her.”
Shal let his expression droop. His heart was pounding.
My spear is the spear of responsibility. Because I have capability, I must act. Even if it is foolish, I cannot afford to sit idle. For this world, even if I must put myself in danger… for this world, even if I must sacrifice all that is dear to me…
A spear must always advance.
“Do what you must,” Shal said lightly. There was howling in his ears which might have either been the pounding of his blood or the screaming energies emerging from Azriel. “Your images have already warped this world far too much. No more.”
“It won’t be MY images, that’s the point!” The Spearman glared at Shal. Then he snapped his fingers. “There! It’s done. She had been broken. Without me, she will slowly wither and die. Rush back to her, and maybe you will have a few moments of peace. Then prepare your affairs, because I will find and kill you for what you have done.”
Shal felt very cold. “Do you feel good about yourself? That you have become a being that will rip away a person’s dearest companion because you lost your own love?”
The Spearman simply glared at Shal. The energies in the room continued to escalate. The ground around Azriel began to glow as a runic circle appeared out of the air and flowed down to condense on the ground around her.
Shal blinked rapidly. Even if this wasn’t their plan, he needed to act soon. They couldn’t afford to allow this image to Ascend. It would bring Tellus to ruin.
For several long seconds, the two maintained tense eye contact. The storm of energies grew more and more powerful behind them. The moments stretched to form a minute, and then further into two. The energies were reaching a crescendo, and Shal was gritting his teeth. The Spearman could not act or he would doom the world of his love. And Shal didn’t want to act, not while the Spearman was here watching.
But if Azriel was just going to Ascend-
Even as Shal twisted to handle the escalating Azriel situation, the Spearman reached out and gripped his arm with a strange sort of manic glee. “Oh no. It is too late now. You wish to spite me? Fine. Then I will spite you all. This world will be consumed with my inner violence. Then, perhaps, you will feel regret. There is no one who can now stop this image. It has grown-”
“That’s where I come in, I suppose.”
Both Shal and the Spearman twisted around. A slow roasted Randidly, leaning on a strange giant man of stone, hobbled into the room. His eyebrows were singed and he had a haphazard robe wrapped around himself. Strangest of all, Randidly’s left arm was burnt away, the oozing scar of flesh burned away as clear as day.
Shal’s expression tightened. So Aegiant had gone back for Randidly.
After walking through the doorway, Randidly patted the stone man and the figure just disappeared. Then Randidly approached Azriel, who floated in the center of the room.
The runes on the ground began to glow with power. There was a dull rumbling as some great working began to occur.
“It’s too late-” The Spearman hissed and launched himself to try and grab Randidly, but Shal’s retaliatory hand on his arm was a vice grip that held him back. Even though Shal had to strain and lean to restrain the man, he managed it.
When Randidly walked across the runes, energy exploded in a wave and crashed against him, testing him for an image to contest the Ascension. Very quickly it became clear that it found none worthy due to Randidly’s Level, and began to try and expel him with waves of violent mental demons.
Much to Shal’s chagrin, Randidly ignored them all.
Showing off mental strength isn’t becoming, Shal thought grumpily.
Almost gently, Randidly reached up and put his hand on Azriel’s knee, which was about chest height on Randidly as she floated in the circle of energy. At the touch, the crystals on Azriel’s face cracked; her eyes slowly opened, revealing perfectly obsidian orbs hidden beneath.
“Alright Azriel, this is going to hurt,” Randidly whispered. Strange obsidian crystals began to grow on his hand that was touching Azriel. But he ignored them and closed his eyes. “Inspiration. Erode Image.”