While whistling lightly, an old man stepped forward. The world around him blurred and shifted. He stepped, and again, the land beneath him shifted; where he was once on a forest path, he was now standing atop a mountain. The shift this time was more violent as well, the ground underneath him cracking as he finished the stepping motion, unable to bear the force of his step.
The whistling itself was tuneless, but wildlife nearby, and even monsters, felt a deep chill in their bones as they heard it, instinctively cowering in fear, putting their bodies closer to the ground. But luckily it was gone the next moment, and those who heard it straightened up in confusion, wondering if that strange, visceral reaction was just their imagination acting up.
But the old man continued to step, his hair and beard with not a strand of hair out of place or buffeted by wind. He was immaculate, a small smile on his face, a broken tune on his lips.
Then the old man paused, this landing creating a clearing in what had once been a dense thicket of trees. The broken trunks weren’t just sent flying, but annihilated by his steps, such was the force with which he arrived at his location.
Through layers and layers of wrinkles, the old man’s eyes sharpened.
“Deardun…” The old man said with obvious disgust, his eyes making the distance between him and his target irrelevant. He always disliked coming up to the Northern Region. Not like some of his compatriots, who believed that the Styles up here were inferior. This was obviously not the case across the board, no matter how other elders might moan and groan about it.
The North had been unclaimed land for generations before some of the Central Region Styles moved to a less ordered place. The ones who had left were perhaps not the most well established, but they were able to come into the North and seize the law of the land. It was debatable whether any of the pampered Central Styles who acted so haughty could do something like that, now.
No, the reason he disliked this Region was a certain man lived here, one who the old man still held a twinge of fear for, although the old man was all but sure the other had died years ago.
But still, if this could be avoided, the old man would have done so. It brought him no pleasure to be up here. Aemont, the cause of all of this trouble, also hailed from the North.
After a few more steps, which brought him very close to Deardun proper, probably only a few miles away, the old man sighed, and lost something. His hair grew more ragged, his posture less straight, the domineering air around him disappeared.
Then he sighed again, and his stance changed from capable to feeble. Instead of the powerhouse that he was, the man appeared to just be an old man, a target for malicious attacks.
With his steps now severely reduced in effectiveness. Gerroark Char, current leader of the illustrious Endless Heat Style from the Central Region, walked slowly towards Deardun, each step barely covering a few feet.
That the original group he had sent to investigate lost moved his schedule up. The death of his nephew was annoying, and surprising, but the frustrating boy that had renewed the prestige of the Spear Phantom Style wasn’t the point, just a bit of spite on Gerroark’s part. The disciple wasn’t Gerroark’s goal… the master was.
Now that it had come to this… it was time for him to get personally involved. And find out the secret of Aemont once and for all.
I avoid the boy as much as possible. Both of them, really. Both of my sons… both of them have been through so much. But to my eyes… one of them is simply an enigma, while the other is a monster.
While I am on the front lines I can lose myself in the death, a pale reflection of the other world that Lucretia sent me to, but it is familiar, and if not comforting, all consuming. In those moments… my thoughts aren’t torn to bits by needless worry.
But letters come about them both. Haelthing, the fool, talks up Pronto’s potential, the speed at which he learns…. But of course he learns quickly. But of course he is exemplary. The mind inside that body… I wonder what rules it. What cravings, what urges.
Time and time again I’ve thought to warn Haelthing… but he would not listen. He believes in his own strength. He cannot know the weapon Pronto possesses.
As for the other son… the one Pronto named Shal… all I hear in the letters is how soft he is, how kind. It leaves me… confused.
Are either of these boys… still my sons…?
With a gasp, Shal ripped his spear out of Aemont’s chest, the spectral figure falling to the ground.
“How DARE you,” Shal growled, his chest heaving as he stood over Aemont. “How DARE you. We….. we loved you! Were we still your sons? YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SAY THAT. Were you even ever our father…? You left us out to dry, you-”
But then the figure of Aemont morphed and shifted, turning into a strange blob of energy. The ground began to tremble, and small wisps floated up to join that blob, which began to swirl menacingly. After several minutes of this, where Shal just stared mutely, it came back down to the ground, condensing once more into the figure of Aemont.
But this Aemont was more solid, more real. And the air around him had a different feel to it entirely. It stunk of death and fear. Aemont’s eyes were different too, deeper, more intense as he stared at Shal, who was still trembling with his earlier emotions.
“If you have the strength… then take the answers from me, Shal.” Aemont said slowly, raising his spear. “This Style of yours… let me crush it.”
“You fucking…” Shal spat out, grinding his teeth. But he couldn’t find the words to finish the sentence. This is all Aemont always cared about when he visited, Shal’s strength. His dedication, his power. And power was in a way desirable, Shal had no qualms with that, but he had always worried that the way Aemont treated him… was somewhat different than Aemont treated Pronto.
Which Shal now knew was true. Aemont viewed Pronto as some sort of monster… and Shal as weak. Which was why he was sent away. Which was why-
“GAAAAAAAAAAH!” Shal bellowed, unleashing his building frustration, letting the those dissolve into violence, fueling his body in a wild attack.
Immediately after Shal struck, he realized that the changes in Aemont weren’t just superficial. His body seemed denser, but it also didn’t have any presence, as Shal lashed out towards it, it faded away…
…and appeared behind him.
Gritting his teeth, Shal whirled around, but Aemont was already gone, scoring a shallow slice across the back of Shal’s arm. Again and again Aemont moved and appeared, striking quickly, aiming for blind spots and tendons, aiming to disable Shal with his strikes.
And he was frightfully good at it. Impossibly good. His speed was… absolutely impossible. Like, that fool Randidly had a knack for running away that made Shal initially believe that he would be a good fit for the Phantom Spear Style, but Aemont’s movements now… made Shal disgusted that he, himself, was considered the current head of the Spear Phantom Styles.
Aemont did not run. Aemont dominated that small area around him.
But rather than feeling intimidated, or overwhelmed, a building, wild hunger appeared in Shal. As he lashed out towards Aemont, his spear bending gracefully, attacking at weird angles to try and reach him, Shal’s eyes examined every movement very closely.
Although he might not be the most talented, or have the greatest understanding of the Spear Phantom Style, what he did have was years of hard, mind numbing work, memorizing every little motion. All he had was a month or two of seeing those moves used how they were designed to be. But now, with the real thing in front of him…
Shal slowly deconstructed all the bad habits he had learned over the years, his body slowly being sliced and diced to pieces in the process, bearing the brunt of Aemont’s assault. There were times that Shal was defeated and knocked to the ground, but his body healed in this strange area, absorbing the natural energy of the air, and he would stand again.
As he learned these new uses, the proper uses, for these old skills, so many things clicked in Shal’s mind. Step by step, he learned the Spear Phantom Style from the ground up, and then he twisted it for his own purposes, learning to add the serpentine grace and vicious attacks to the repertoire.
Time blurred. Shal moved. Aemont responded, ever just beyond the range of Shal’s strikes, ever just a step ahead.
But that distance was slowly narrowing. Shal’s eyes burned, furious and hot.