Roy clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in displeasure. Or rather he simulated the sound a tongue clicking would make. It burned through the last dregs of his Mana and ultimately left him quite disappointed.
After wall, tongues were the first thing to go when you became a skeleton. And probably the thing Roy missed the most. The human body, in general, was an extraordinary thing with great capabilities. To be stripped down to just the bone frame was rather difficult. But of all the losses, the tongue was the one that struck Roy the deepest.
But it is appropriate. I have seen truly the darkness of the world… but I have lost the tongue to speak prophecies of the doom that waits for us all.
Roy felt this loss especially keenly now because his Mana had been depleted from the continued attacks from Randidly, forcing Roy to remain as a little spider carrying a skull. He certainly didn’t pull any punches… the determined and aggressive sort of hero, huh. But not much I can say. He’s got the guns to back it up.
Nearby, the rowdy elemental smashed its maroon fist into the ground. Or rather, the Fate that rode the elemental grew restless as its confusion didn’t dissipate over time. There were no foes to fight, and that worried the Fate. It would continue to act out until it found a way to spend the wild energy that was rising up in its chest.
Roy sighed ruefully and bobbed his skull. To think I would become a babysitter… Well, if I have to do it-
Roy paused. Sitting on the hill above him, peering over the lip of a basket was one of the Frogpeople. For whatever reason, Roy hadn’t even noticed the Frogperson until now. Yet now all Roy could look at was the young frogling.
As Roy watched, the basket began to smolder and smoke. Like a frightened bug, the Frogperson scuttled to the side and fled up away from Roy. His speed was fast, for the Frogpeople, so perhaps this one wasn’t as young as he had initially expected. But that didn’t matter. In the end, a child was still a child in every culture. There were certain lines society taught them not to cross.
“Hey, kid.” The Frogperson froze. Roy smiled.
Very slowly, the frog turned around to face Roy, despite his earlier terror. That made Roy chuckle, but he tried his best to keep his skull in an amiable expression. Such a feat would be much easier if he had enough Mana to cast an illusion, but sometimes heroes were forced to reveal their true face. There was value in sincerity, after all.
But let’s hope this child does not have eyes enough to see. For I know better than all others that my gaze only reflects darkness… Roy narrated ominously to himself. He couldn’t help but feel a sliver of excitement forming in his bony skull.
What sort of face would this frog make if he knew what I truly was?
“I have a few questions for you,” Roy said easily. Then Roy was the one that froze as a stifling aura drifted down over him.
A long shadow was cast from the apex of a hill. There, an absurdly fat Toad Lord sat, looking down at them both with eyes that glowed yellow. Again, Roy couldn’t help but wonder how long the Toad Lord had been there. Was his Perception really so restricted by this form?
The Toad Lord was smiling, the rest of its body extremely still. When it spoke, the voice seemed to come from everywhere around them.“Actually… I have questions for both of you.”
A neat trick, speaking like that, Roy admitted. But even though it was just a figment of his imagination, Roy could feel the beat of his heart quicken as he surveyed this obscenely fat TOad Lord.
For the first time since Roy died, he felt a sharp spike of anxiety in his chest. But that was swiftly followed by excitement.
Do you worst, Toad Lord. Because the Heroes’ Toils never cease.
With his Control, Randidly was able to maintain almost a dozen root avatars and move them quickly through the motion of sparring with each other. He wanted to use more, but all attempts to do so quickly petered out. Honestly, Randidly felt that his Intelligence was what was holding him back from making an entire army; he had the tools to control more, but he didn’t have the mental capacity to do it.
But this was already enough. With a large group, Randidly was able to engage in an extremely efficient bout of training to familiarize himself once more with the totality of the power within his two very different Skillsets.
The Spear Phantom was a Style that focused on mobility and counter-attacks. It excelled at using the opponent’s strength against them and striking quickly. Randidly’s individual variation on that prospect involved emphasizing the wild and aggressive tendencies within the Style further, losing some of its elusiveness in exchange for power.
This Style was born of Aemont’s burning desire to overcome an insurmountable gulf in stats. Motivated by a longing for the love of his life, Aemont had willed himself into developing an answer. It culminated in the Skill that would suppress the breath of everything in the surrounding area and bring victory by slowly starving opponents out.
In essence, it was a fighting style that concerned itself with controlling distance and timing.
Which, it could be argued, all fighting methods attempted to do. But the energy the user expended was directed toward controlling rather than attacking. It was a reactionary style that corralled an opponent.
The Ashen Spear was very different. It was totally focused on power. Not Strength, not exactly, but rather the power of the Skills. An overwhelming and vicious strain of power that stemmed from the dominance of ash. It embodied destruction and corrosion, loss and inevitability.
Which, perhaps, wasn’t exactly a logical way to group Skills, Randidly reflected. But the power was clearly there in every Skill, especially since the Patron of Ash supercharged his image with its own burdensome chunk of regret and violence. Although Randidly had managed to get past the dangerous side effects of that image, it didn’t mean he totally understood the image he had inherited.
Likely because of this, it was something of an exploration every time Randidly used his Ashen Skills. He was still discovering the way they interacted with each other, and with the world around him. To Randidly, his Ashen Kata might have been the first Skillset he had, but other forces had conspired to slowly warp it from what he had originally mattered.
Although… that doesn’t mean I cannot use it, or that I haven’t benefited from all of the hitchhikers along the way... Randidly thought with bared teeth.
His root avatars flourished their spears and clashed against each other in tireless blows. Human bodies might buckle and dull, but these would not. Several duos stuck and parted and dodged and danced around the tip of the other’s spears in a grand waltz that slowly began to take on a series of rules that Randidly could barely understand.
The whole while, Randidly sat with his eyes half-closed. His Mana was flowing cleanly through him to animate all of the avatars. At the same time, his mind was spinning at its highest speed it could manage to cope with the flood of information from each avatar. After examining the brief snapshot of information, Randidly sent a response and moved onto the next bundle.
Honestly, it was easier to train like this with more avatars active at once. If he had more time to think when presented with the information, Randidly might be overwhelmed from hesitating too long on a single bit of information and allowing more to pile up. But now, each burst of information came with a sharp bite of necessity. Without able to consider the situation, Randidly could only react.
Slowly, time passed. Damaged avatars were flooded with Mana and repaired. The sun peeked over the edge of the horizon and floated up into the lightening sky. Clouds flowed like water, driven East by an invisible wind high above. All the while, a headache slowly bloomed behind Randidly’s eyes.
Finally, he sighed and let go of the root avatars. They collapsed into piles of biomass that would eventually reduce themselves to ash, but for now, they lingered around like fallen corpses.
For the first time in several weeks, Randidly recalled the image of the fallen Tellus warriors on the banks of the Hallat. Their bodies lay on the ground without any real sense of propriety; they twisted as they fell and the owners of the body had no more strength to correct the posture. They were draped and exposed to the elements.
For a while, he could only stare. Then Randidly pressed his eyes closed and released a breath through his teeth. That can’t happen here. I refuse to bury the people of Earth against a foe that we could have prepared for.
Despite the growing headache, Randidly reached out again with his Mana and possessed the roots on the ground once more. They shuddered and then slowly stood. They stretched out their plant hands and spears emerged from the ground in pristine condition. It was as though those spears had always lived in the Earth and had only been waiting for these brave warriors to take them.
Once more they began their tireless dance in complete and utter silence.
The trick was combining the actual fighting styles. Honestly, it was easy for Randidly to imagine the two images being merged into one. There were plenty of common points that could be used as stepping stones to make the Phantom a phantom who spread Ash and fear in equal measure toward foes.
But that callous power of Ash was extremely different from the cautious and methodical approach that the Spear Phantom utilized. How would these two divergent forces merge into a cohesive whole?
It was not something that could be understood easily. And since he had little time, Randidly was attempting to brute force the issue. With enough repetitions… perhaps a path forward would emerge from the chaos.
Randidly kept his eyes closed. Time and time again, the two styles dueled each other. There were times that he attempted to slip a blow from a different style amongst them, but almost always that ended in failure. Those that didn’t end in failure were more likely a fluke than any real sort of answer.
But this was one way of slowly reaching the goal. As the duels mounted up, more and more information would accumulate in Randidly’s mind. Interactions, memories, coping mechanisms… counters, stratagems, fatal mistakes… all those things were tirelessly generated by the root avatars running off of his instincts.
There came a point, likely close to 10 AM, where Randidly realized that his mind was slowly catching up with the duels. Even though he had pushed through earlier and was now really feeling exhausted from the constant mental calculations, as his familiarity with the moves grew he could more easily respond by instinct.
So Randidly upped the number of duels by two. Instantly, the strain began to press against the edge of what he could handle. But Randidly gritted his teeth and forced himself to continue onward.
Fighting between the different avatars grew more intense. Yet also, they became increasingly… imbalanced. Randidly’s usage became haphazard. His mind was fuzzy from the constant strain of his attention being split so many ways, so sometimes avatars didn’t react in time at all.
There were other avatars that became more “central” in Randidly’s mind. Those few became the real fights while the others were just noise.
Randidly’s consciousness began to drift even as the number of real duels dwindled down to two. His root avatars clashed and responded and ignored their wounds to continue fighting.
Finally, only one duel was left. Two avatars faced each other, each armed with the accumulated experience from the day’s training. Ashen Kata and Spear Phantom clashed time and time again, the stances and movements in stark contrasts with one another.
All the while, Randidly’s emerald eyes blazed. With narrowed eyes, he stared at the ground right in front of him.
Almost there… just a little more…