The crowd jumped to its feet, roaring and cheering after the referee had made a count to 10, and then pronounced the Ghosthound the winner of the match.
The winner, for his part, stood still, staring solemnly down at his opponent, his eyes strange. Both arms were at his sides, unmoving. The right from the muscles being severed earlier in the match, and now barely recovered, and the left because his collarbone had been crushed by Drak Wyrd’s second to last strike.
Aethon Thai’s eyes narrowed. It was a deliberate gamble, betting that weakness would cause Drak to go for the kill, throwing a powerful, but slow blow. His first strike had been sharp and brutal, aiming to incapacitate, leaving the Ghosthound weak.
Seeing this, the Ghosthound might have been able to dodge in the strange, almost ideal series of movements he had possessed towards the end, but instead he let it hit. And after being frustrated time and time again, Drak let the strike get to his head. His next, foolish strike led to it being countered.
Plus, the Ghosthound couldn’t have countered the other strike. The earlier shoulder wound, and built up damage from the fight, combined with the ripped gash in his side from seconds earlier had him too physically incapable to counter most other blows. Any spear blows for that matter.
But the Ghosthound acted decisively, then moved. Although in most other things the Ghosthound was inferior, in terms of seizing opportunities… he was truly the superior fighter.
Then the arena rumbled, and Aethon’s eyes narrowed. With a single step, he crossed the distance to the Ghosthound, sweeping the boy up, before the projection descended. And descend it did, a burning, bristling sun.
“You… you are still alive…?” Aethon whispered, his eyes widening.
The arrival only looked to be in his early 40s, with short, close cropped hair and a charming smile. But the flash of teeth from that construct of images made Aethon’s blood run cold. “Obviously, Aethon. Who could kill me? Now, how about you hand over that boy who beat my worthless great grandson. Or else…”
“Without your true body here, we can stop you. You are not welcome here, not until-”
“We, Aethon…?” The projection of the Crimson Dawn, Aegiant Wyrd spread his arms wide, looking around. “Who is we? I don’t think there is anyone coming to help you.”
Aethon was silent, as he recognized that was true. The Sleeping Moon didn’t appear, and the Toppling Mountain Matriarch was out of Deardun, on business since three days ago. She took most of the elders with her...
Business, Aethon thought grimly.
“So.” Aegiant said, still sporting that smile. “Hand the boy over.”
Aethon looked down at Randidly Ghosthound, who was wincing from the jostling, but extremely solemn as he regarded the two fighters. Then Aethon turned to look at Aegiant.
A projection was an amalgamation of skills. The main body would lose access to those skills while they were gone, but the projection would contain a portion of them, based on how solid the image of the skills was. Creating a projection was the demarcation line between Adepts and Pontiffs. A skill so powerful it could exist independently of the body. With Aegiant’s history too, he might even be at the Master level, which wouldn’t matter, as long as his main body wasn’t here...
And based on how old Aegiant must have been… Aethon knew that this would be very close to his actual skill. But still, the body’s stats should be low.
Feeling abruptly very tired, Aethon sighed. He had long seen how politics were breaking down in Deardun, and had done nothing because he was confident that the Steel Feather Style would be one of the main powers, even with the return of the Breaking Dawn. Now he wasn’t so sure. Ciel would definitely grow strong after her loss, but Drak Wyrd and Azriel Blanche would likely grow faster.
If those two were bound together… Well, probably no chance of that now. But if Aegiant was in Deardun, with Drak to succeed him…
The Breaking Dawn Style could crush the Steel Feather Style. It would probably have happened too, if not for this boy.
Aethon held the Ghosthound’s gaze for several long seconds. Then he sighed, turning to face Aegiant.
And then Aethon fled as fast as his legs could carry himself and the boy.
Lucretia watched, half filled with fear, half filled with dread, half fascinated, as the strange being summoned from the Ghosthound’s Soul Skill fought Gerroark Char to a standstill. Part of it was his weapons, which were unbelievably powerful, but the other part was ingenuity, and a deceptively strong body.
More and more meaning was syphoned out of Lucretia, so much so that she was forced to start sacrificing parts of herself. Emotions swirled, and one at a time, she gave them away. Hatred for Gerroark. Impatience for this to end. Her deathly fear of how this would end…
The blows between the two fighters destroyed buildings, but their inn simply trembled, protected by the strange rock man.
In the bed, Shal stirred, and immediately Lucretia focused. She currently had three emotions remaining in her body, and one of them surged, becoming unstoppable, completely all consuming. Struggling to her feet, Lucretia hobbled over to his bedside.
As her other emotions ran dry, and Lucretia wanted to save her personality, to speak with Shal, she fed her curiosity about the Ghosthound into the rift. It was a wide and powerful emotion, as this boy continued to mystify her, and would do nothing for her. Right now, maintaining other things was more important.
Shal opened his eyes, blinked, and then sat up. Then he shook his head, and his eyes focused, taking in the room. Again the inn shook.
Their eyes met, and Lucretia smiled. She could hear Gerroark’s roar of fury outside, and a deep rumbling from the rock man, which might be a chuckle. In the small room, neither spoke for several long seconds.
Then Shal said. “...that’s why. Why it was so strange. Why they wanted me to lose the honor of the Spear Phantom Style, so my skin couldn’t be dyed this color.”
Smiling, Lucretia reached and drew back her sleeve, revealing her arm. Her skin was thin and translucent, and through it several thick blue veins could be seen, carrying her blood.
But Shal was still talking. “Even as Pronto was being consumed by that cursed spear, addicted to the rush of Devouring, feeding away his personality… I was sent away too. Aemont couldn’t bare to see either of us for the longest time. If he could… he would have stayed… but we both reminded him of his failures. Pronto, of Aemont’s lack of strength. And I…”
Shal fell silent for a few breaths, and then said. “But…. I can still feel he loved me.”
Her curiosity ran out, and Lucretia had a choice of which emotions to feed now. After a brief hesitation, and she followed her instinct and fed to it the emotion that had driven her so long; fear of death. The emotion that made her the Eternal Witch, running away from her doom.
Lucretia had seen her parents slaughtered by the Calamity, and hated it. Hated how fragile they were, how easily killed. How the world would end something so finally. So she fought and struggled and scratched and tore to find a way to live. To find methods to shatter the System, and avoid death.
Now, the Ghosthound was a lead, but…
Lucretia chose to feed that fear of death to the hungry syphon, maintaining the rock man, ignoring the fact it was the basis on which she had lived for so long. She just looked at Shal with bright eyes, waiting.
He opened his mouth and asked. “So… you are from the other world…? The world opposite us on the front lines….?”
Lucretia nodded, and spoke, drawing his attention back, somehow savoring this bittersweet truth. “...Aemont avoided you because you reminded him of something that defied his very reason for living, for working so hard. You were a symbol that trivialized it.”
Again, the inn shook, more powerfully this time, as the struggle outside appeared to be reaching its later stages. Still, Lucretia did nothing to prevent herself from being sucked away, consumed.
Shal closed his eyes, sighing. “Because… the third and final gift that Lucretia gave to Aemont… was a son.”
Lucretia’s eyes crinkled at the corners, as she nodded. No longer did the being consumed bother her, because that emotion of fear was gone. Now she began to feed the largest, the final, the most confusing emotion she had in her heart into the rift: a mother’s love for her son.
“So I’m a half…”
But Lucretia’s eyes hardened, because while fear had driven her to do some terrible things, a mother’s love took even fewer prisoners, and was much more active in seeing what she wanted.
Now that she was sure he was aware, she wanted to spend more time with him, slowly growing closer to knowing him. In addition, her induced coma had finally rid Shal of the mark left by Aemont, holding his strength and memories. Whether it was destroyed or consumed, Lucretia didn’t care, because now Shal was solely hers.
But that was for later. For now…
Holding onto the soul of Dian, and the head of the Yeti, Lucretia threw herself into the Soul Skill, before it could consume her. She needed resources, because she couldn’t avoid its pull now. But she could put herself in a position with power.
Because only then would she be able to break out.