Intense. That was Drak Wyrd. Where others might have turned that fame and strength into arrogance, Drak pushed it down, filling his short brown hair, his mild eyes, his well-muscled stature with it. There was a density and permanence to him that others couldn’t rival. That was part of his strength, the very air crackling with his power.
Azriel admired that. But in the same way she admired a skilled fisherman who could feed a village: in an extremely detached way. She wouldn’t be attracted to a person simply because they were strong. Because there were so many monsters out there with more strength than men. What was the point in having that as the quality most valued in a mate?
“Are you not interested? Are you worried about the pressure from your family? I have never understood why you hesitated, let it draw itself out this long.” Drak said slowly, looking at her carefully. Liam stood behind him, ready at any point to give them service.
It was honestly so amusing that Azriel found her hand moving, gesturing for more wine.
Not really to drink, just to make the man move and fill her cup.
“…how can you pretend this is beneath your notice?” Drak asked, exasperated with her silence as they both watched Liam pour her more wine. “Are you really that much of a sociopath?”
Azriel chuckled. “It is bad form to tell someone whose values don’t line up with yours they are a sociopath. The Northern Region… It is not my responsibility.”
“But it is! You are the inheritor of a lineage that stretches back to the founding-”
“Styles were established by the Spearman to get rid of exactly this sort of power consolidation,” Azriel interrupted, swirling her wine around. “It is simple. You value this region, I don’t. I would much rather proceed to the frontlines. Out of respect for my family I have allowed this to happen. What more is there to say? Let it be said with spears.”
Drak seemed to be struggling with something. “Do you… truly care for nothing but yourself and your freedom…?”
Azriel shrugged, and stood. Liam brought her to the door. But before she left, she could hear Drak speaking to her back.
“But there is something you care about, don’t you…? This Ghosthound. To promise me your hand in exchange for a stay on his execution. But it was just a stay, Azriel. Unless you agree-”
She walked out of the building without looking back.
After she had gone, Drak crushed the table to powder.
He was still there, his shoulders heaving, when Liam returned. The man stood respectfully beside him, not commenting on the state of the table, which, if anything, just infuriated Drak more. But he channeled that rage elsewhere.
Then he took a deep breath, and the anger dissipated.
“Does she truly care so little for her family…?” Drak muttered.
Liam hesitated for a second, then said. “It seems rather that her family did not value her mother, and sent her as their representative to the frontlines. I’ve looked into it too, her performance was exemplary, but alas… before her 4 years were up… Afterwards, the family devolved into bickering. Azriel’s father wasn’t very… strong a man.”
“She had to take over herself…” Drak grunted. “Yes, I understand. But still. How can she bear the name Blanche and not feel pride for what her ancestors did, coming with mine and taming the North…?”
To that, Liam had nothing to say. He simply waited while his master thought. Finally, the silence was broken by Drak cursing to himself, then shaking his head, furious. “No, no, no… the dungeons are all too far away. Tch, being out here away from Village Spirits is truly despicable… that’s why we need to reunite the North…”
Drak’s gaze remained on the ground. “There has to be a way… I refuse to believe that she doesn’t care at all for this man she made a promise over… now I just need to have the time to crush him slowly…”
“…Is that wise?” Liam asked, even though he knew what his master would say.
But to his surprise, it seemed that Drak truly considered what Liam had to say. It wasn’t that Drak was a fool, he just sometimes became obstinate on two subjects: family and Azriel Blanche. This situation was the unfortunate double whammy, which gave Liam a headache, but also a small measure of joy.
Drak was always happiest when he had concrete goals he could aim for, as he had always been. That will was the reason he had become the dominant force he was in this tournament. That will.
“…Yes, it is necessary. For the first time in a while, I feel… slightly threatened. His presence… was not something I expected, or can identify…” Drak said, frowning. “This Ghosthound… a generalist mage, dabbling in the spear… but his skills with those roots are uncanny. In addition… his spear skills have been steadily increasing…”
“You’ve paid attention to him?” Liam asked, impressed in spite of himself.
Drak gave him a sour look. “Yes, although I should have just had you do it. When it comes to Azriel Blanche… I will not allow anything to keep me from my goal. The Ghosthound struggled through his qualifier, then endured through the preliminaries, then lost to Bertarn, then beat Bertarn, then beat Ciel in a direct contest of strength. All the while… as a member of the Spear Phantom Style.”
They both fell silent for a while. They were both familiar with the public story, but also with the less savory version that spread among the upper tiered Styles in the North.
“Do you think…?” Liam asked slowly, unsure of what he wanted his master to say. Desperately, Liam wanted to deny it, but… it was compelling evidence… no one improves that fast, no matter who their teachers are.
“Who can say…. But I do need power.” Drak’s eyes were determined.
“But the Aether Starvation-”
“Can be staved off somewhat. Until the tournament… I will go into meditation. Do not disturb me for any reason. Even if Azriel comes to reconsider my offer…”
Liam blinked, then he bowed. “For the glory of the Breaking Dawn, Sir.”
“Ha!” Drak said, as he slowly walked towards the door. “I haven’t heard that in a while… but yes. For the glory of the Breaking Dawn.”
“What are you going to do after the tournament?” The male spear attendant asked Helen, in one of the breaks of their own training. There was only 1 day remaining until the match between The Ghosthound and Drak, and Helen was ready to rip her hair out.
What was worse was that the Ghosthound seemed to spend every moment with Azriel, sparring repeatedly. In her heart, Helen prayed and prayed that Shal got off his fucking ass and woke the fuck up, just so she would have an excuse to go and interrupt their extended training session, but that didn’t seem likely. So she could only beat up on the male spear attendant.
He, annoyingly, seemed to enjoy the spars too, and to his credit was constantly refining his image of his Iron Bulwark, becoming increasingly durable and strong. Unfortunately for him, his stiff defense could do little against Helen’s twisting and flowing attacks, especially as her growth was fueled by the constant pulse of fresh Aether in her veins.
Helen shivered. God, it felt so good. It was a chance to become truly great, and the Ghosthound had given it to her. Inwardly, she was torn between waiting to follow him around and show off her strength, and murder him to prove she could be independent.
But the male spear attendant’s question stopped her dead. Because… in a way it was everything that she had been dreading. This past few months… had been ones of constant change. The impulse to go for the qualifier, seeing the Ghosthound there, winning. Becoming his spear attendant….
Training with him… breaking him out of prison…
She could fuck him to death, Helen decided. That would be the way she murdered him for making her feel like this, when she swore for so long she would never let exactly this happen.
But in her heart… she knew that he was leaving after the tournament. Either to train for the Inter-School Tournament, or to the frontlines, or…. anywhere basically. If it was him… if it was him…
“I…. don’t know. Do you?” Her own hesitation made her want to eat the entire shaft of her spear, but it was the male spear attendant. They had seen each other at their worst, and spent a lot of time together. If nothing else, he was someone she could easily kill if he were to threaten to reveal her secret.
“…Yes… I think I’m going to enlist. Hopefully not to the frontlines, but… some of the border areas, where there are occasional skirmishes. After spending time with the Ghosthound… it makes you realize you can’t get anywhere if you don’t grab something, you know? And after I have gloriously defeated the enemies in the area and received promotion after promotion… kukuku….”
Helen rolled her eyes, but her tongue got extremely heavy, so much so that even the male spear attendant seemed to notice, turning to regard her with shock that she hadn’t ripped him to pieces. Yet still she said nothing, but tears began to form in the corner of her eyes.
Because what she wanted to say to the male spear attendant, was “Don’t die.”
But she couldn’t, because that would open up all of her roiling emotions. And she would run and run and break down the door and run up to the Ghosthound and say, “Don’t leave,” because all of her emotions were tied up together, bound to this short span of time in her life where she had grown and changed more than she could have ever expected.
And it was ending.
‘Don’t….’ Helen thought, the tears washing away her composure, her hardened bitterness after years of suffering under her mother’s tongue and expectations. ‘Please….’
The night passed in silence above them, rushing forward heedlessly.