Living arrangements were easy and the Matriarch’s second request of providing a spear master for the one twin, Sleval, was similarly simple. Since Randidly had planned to send both children to the University, it worked out wonderfully.
Annon, the slightly younger and scrawnier brother, posed a thornier problem.
“I will leave this place,” Randidly warned. “He will be taken from all he has known. And the threats I will face… He is young. Let him grow up here. And your abilities as a Mana Engraver-”
The Matriarch cast her eyes meaningfully at the large leather-bound and handwritten book that lay on the table between them. “The Skills at Engraving belonged to my husband; I was never all that talented. And as we were fleeing, my guidance served the Willow Tree Spear Style just fine. However, Annon has displayed talent and interest in Engraving since he was small. I wish for him to have the opportunities to learn the Skills of his grandfather. And for that… I can only rely on you.”
“There is no guarantee that I can learn this,” Randidly admitted helplessly. The book on the table between them was the secret art of the Willow Tree Spear Style, creating a runic engraving that could Level like a regular Skill, without affecting your Class’ Skill limit. The basic version of it was to draw a complicated geometric pattern lightly and then fill in a small portion of the geometric pattern with more definitive engravings. That way, it could function as a Skill, and as it grew, spread to larger and larger geometric shape in the previously traced whole.
The Skill, in effect, self-replicated itself, doubling down on the abilities of the Skill. Although Randidly wasn’t sure of the scaling, it was clearly a powerful art.
There were quite a few caveats, however. All the interrelations needed to be perfect for the engraving to be stable, or it would explode and destroy the item. Depending on what Skill the maker was attempting to imbue into the item, the geometric pattern used needed to match the Skill’s, or the item would explode. And the creator needed to have mastery and understanding of the Skill at all levels, or… the item would explode.
Basically, the process was akin to playing with dynamite, where you lit the fuse by using the Skill. It might grow, it might explode. There was no way of truly telling without experience making such runes.
That experience would only happen if Randidly took the risk of a weapon blowing up while using it.
In addition, Randidly considered himself talented, but the level of fine detail required in the geometric patterns was mind-boggling. Simply sketching them out on the equipment, before creating the kernel of the actual Skill, would likely take three days of work.
“Even so, there is no one else.” The Matriarch turned and looked at Annon and Sleval, who were gawking at the new, full-length Tassle of the Willow Tree Spear Style that hung on the wall. It had been a long time since they had felt confident enough to announce who they were to the world. “Annon was always a strange child. Going with you will likely be a good experience for him.”
Randidly winced. Somehow, he doubted traveling with Randidly would be a good thing. “What about his brother? I cannot guarantee that I will return soon. Or at all. If something happens to me-”
“That is the way of life.” The Matriarch interrupted. “Nothing is guaranteed. And the bond between those brothers is not so weak that distance would destroy it.”
Randidly gritted his teeth but said nothing. Taking Annon and teaching him Engraving was annoying but possible. Especially once he returned to Earth and had access to the resources of Erickson Steel. But it was just one more responsibility on a long list that Randidly wished he didn’t have to handle.
Yet the Matriarch had given him a precious treasure, one that had shaped him in the past. To repay that debt, he would do it.
“Alright,” Randidly finally agreed as he leaned forward and took the book sitting on the table. “But I would ask one thing of you as well.”
The Matriarch tilted her head to the side. “Oh? What would that be?”
“Pronto University won’t teach just spear fighting, I would also like Engraving to be part of the curriculum. You might not be a master of this, but…” Randidly tapped the book. “You have enough knowledge to teach the basics, yes?”
There was a breeze on her face.
Azriel struggled to open her eyes and found her eyelids too heavy to move. Frowning, Azriel focused all of her considerable Willpower on the task. Still, her eyelids were like beds of drying concrete. But she refused to give up. She would have this.
Slowly, light flooded into Azriel’s mind and showed her the world.
It was warm, where she was. Sunlight was flowing through open windows onto the covers that lay across Azriel. Azriel made to sit up, but her body groaned painfully. Annoyed, she wiggled back and forth, trying to loosen the covers that were as restrictive as metal bindings across her chest.
It was an impossible task. She must have been purposefully tied down-
“Stop that. You’ll tear open your wounds.” Helen scolded, leaning into Azriel’s view to glower at her.
Snorting, Azriel ceased wiggling, blinking as she tried to get her eyes to focus on Helen’s face. Unfortunately, it was a slow process. It was strange. Why was she having so much difficulty focusing her gaze? “What-”
But Azriel stopped short. She had been about to ask what happened. But she remembered.
Holding those images, the violence and blood on her hands. Broken bones and bloated corpses. The whispers of death, the demands, the creeping madness. Ascending, transforming Tellus into a place where that image was dominant. Where the weak were taken advantage of and killed by the strong.
Azriel took a deep breath and faced the fact that if that image had Ascended, something precious in Tellus would have been lost forever. And she had known that and aided that very eventuality.
Would she have chosen that image on her own? No, of course not. But she owed her Master a great debt. So much so that she had been willing to sacrifice her own images to give it the chance that it had wanted.
This is gonna hurt. Randidly said, looking up at her with wide eyes. He looked so worried, and his hand was warm when he touched her-
Azriel pressed her eyes closed. “My Master…?”
Helen said nothing. After a few seconds, Azriel opened her eyes and looked at Helen. The other woman was crying but still remained silent. Inwardly, Azriel sighed. She supposed that was answer enough.
Will I cry over you, Master…? Azriel wondered. Her eyes were dry. But it was possible that this state of being was due to the dire situation of her body. When she recovered, there might be a different reaction. She examined herself carefully and realized how damaged she truly was, physically and mentally.
The crying will have to wait. The debt is paid. For now… that is enough. I hope- no, simply… rest in peace, Master. You deserved better than the role given to you. Even if the devastation you tried to cause won’t show that.
“Azriel-” Helen began, but she was interrupted as the door to the small room opened.
Randidly stood in the doorway, frowning down at Azriel. But as Azriel quirked her eyebrow in askance at him, he burst into a wide grin.
So young, Azriel thought distantly, watching the way his smile erased all the lines from his face. So much power. What will you ask from those that owe you debts, Mr. Ghosthound…? Have you even thought about it…?
“Good, you are awake,” Randidly said, moving to sit beside the bed. “How are you feeling?”
Azriel dismissed her dark thoughts and looked pointedly at the weighted comforter that was pinning her to the bed. “Like this restraint is unnecessary. Now that I am conscious, I am prepared to move around once more. How long have I been asleep?”
“Almost a week,” Helen said, shooting a questioning glance at Randidly.
Azriel made note of the glance.
It seemed that they didn’t mean to keep her long in the dark about their sinister cabal. After a brief hesitation, Randidly spoke. “Azriel, I don’t wish to rush your recovery at all, but… I’m going to head back to my planet soon. For quite a while. And I wanted to offer you the chance to come. Helen has already agreed-”
“Will you refuse to take off the covers if I do not agree?” Azriel asked.
Randidly chuckled. “No, I will not. But I don’t think you are well enough to move yet. There will be some… energy problems that I will need to sort out, so you should rest up as much as possible. I’m not sure how your body will react to the transition.”
Azriel nodded. “If you manage to solve the problem of… energy, then I would like to accompany you. I wonder about the world you come from, Mr. Ghosthound. It must be a strange place.”
Snorting, Randidly shook his head helplessly. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Azriel smiled, but she studied Randidly’s face. Although she had been knocked out, some part of her had stayed tuned to the Ascension while she was knocked out. She could feel how it had occurred, feel the shape of images. Likely, it was because she had come so close to Ascending herself. Some part of her was on that wavelength.
And she could feel, very clearly, how close Shal’s bright dreams had come close to failing. Because the ultimate truth was that dreams were seeds that were born in darkness and would not grow until they sensed warm.
And your hand held such warmth, Randidly. Azriel thought. I wonder how much of his debt to you Shal understands. I wonder if Tellus would know how hard it would be for it to take this step if you hadn’t been there, touching the images of those you interacted with…