Randidly stuck the shovel into the ground and pulled out another fist-sized rock. With a grunt, he expertly flipped it off to the side and then continued to dig.
With an expression of glum resignation, Azriel watched him dig. “Is this really how you want to spend your last day here?”
“Yes,” Randidly said simply, continuing to dig. It was quick work, considering his Strength Stat. It was a high-quality shovel too, so a direct strike could split most troublesome stones in half. Wiping his sweat off of his forehead, Randidly surveyed his work. He had been working all morning and was probably halfway done.
Judging the current hole to be the right depth, Randidly got out and started on another.
“Wouldn’t it be much more efficient to simply use your plant Skills to clear holes? The shovel is an unnecessary contrivance.”
Randidly paused in his digging to consider this. Finally, he just shrugged. “It feels more honest this way.”
Disgusted, Azriel shook her head. “You are doing this for the emotional reasons then. It is illogical otherwise. I would suggest even if you accomplish your emotional goals, this was still an illogical way to spend time. At this juncture, a spar would be much more fruitful.”
Randidly stuck his tongue out at Azriel and didn’t answer.
She crossed her arms. “Skarch has been a bad influence on you. Her pointless habits have rubbed off. Soon you will be polishing your spear every night.”
Shifting more dirt, Randidly idly wondered if Azriel really didn’t notice the innuendo she put there. But after he finished his current hole, Randidly did hop out and walk over towards Azriel. “Perhaps. But you cannot deny my images have grown stronger for it. I can finally take Skarch’s images on directly.”
Azriel gave him a withering look. “Becoming a dirt-covered grave grubber is to further your images? Now, this must be one of your esoteric jokes from your homeland. No true reasoning spirit would dare suggest there was a connection there.”
Randidly’s smile didn’t fade, but it shifted to something much more melancholy. He turned and looked at his handiwork for the morning. Fifty-six graves had been dug so far. There were 81 bodies that needed to be disposed of today. The Wights had been content to pile up on the South bank of the Hallat River, so it had been the first few days of peace in a long time.
Or at least what had felt like a long time. Randidly reminded himself he had only been fighting in the Central Domain for about a month.
“Someone has to dig the graves,” he said softly.
Azriel snorted. “No, they don’t. The bodies will be burnt to ash to prevent the Propagator from taking the substances of the corpse and repurposing them into Wights. Still more relevant is the point that it should not be you or I digging these graves; there are much weaker spear users among us, let them perform such a tedious and wasteful task.”
“There is meaning in the productive hands doing this. Even if it is unnecessary, to have a grave is a… meaningful symbol,” Randidly insisted. He was very aware of the three hundred living soldiers under Captain Platton in the base only a mile away. He was also aware of more than a few that were watching his toil in the valley by the Hallat River, silently observing.
“Will this fill those witnesses there with inspiration? Will they overcome the lack of Aether with Willpower and grit?” Azriel asked. The true power of her argument was that she was not scathing; her tone was simply bland curiosity. “It seems unlikely. Do you wish to court one of the low-Level spear users, and this is an elaborate mating ritual? Surely someone would suck your cock for less than seventy-five or so graves.”
“Eighty-one,” Randidly corrected, and then he chuckled in spite of himself. Azriel saying cock was novel enough to shift him towards a more positive mood. “But yes, I get it. It might be pointless. And I know if this was a month ago, I wouldn’t have thought to do this. But…”
Putting his hands on his hips, Randidly just stood next to Azriel for a few minutes and looked up at the sky. Although she was joking about them overcoming the lack of Aether with will, Randidly could feel something in the sky. It was half a soft breeze and another half a heartbeat. It was an unsteady breath of the world, constructed of sacrifice and the poignant image of the spear.
Those few that had sacrificed their lives at Southpoint Beach had accomplished something. To be honest, the reason that Randidly was doing this was to try and figure out how it had occurred. It was a creation of Aether in a way that Randidly had never seen before. And when Randidly had taken the time to explain what had occurred to Neveah, she seemed confused and disinterested.
But it stuck in Randidly’s mind. His small smattering of experience with karma from Lucretia, a handful that didn’t even amount to a true Skill, had pressed him into grave digging. So dig he did.
However, that wasn’t the own reason. It was also because Randidly had watched these spear users die over the last two weeks as the Wights became truly vicious in their attempts to kill Randidly, Azriel, and Skarch.
Not that these eighty-one individuals had died protecting them. Far from it. They had simply gotten caught in the crossfire. That weighed heavily on Randidly’s heart. The Crown of Upheaval and Silence throbbed with a hot and vicious grudge like a painful open wound.
“You started a sentence and then trailed off in the middle of it,” Azriel said matter of factly. “You do this a lot.”
Chuckling, Randidly shrugged again and went back to digging holes.
“…if you wanted a foolish spear waif to fall for you,” Azriel said slowly. “I would recommend using the same methods you did with me.”
For several seconds, Randidly continued to dig. Then he paused and straightened to look at Azriel. She was looking at him without blinking, her crimson eyes large and serious.
“…and what sort of methods would those be?” Randidly said slowly.
“Make a promise with her and fail to follow through, but not by your own doing. It will be difficult for you to arrange a similar betrayal in good faith, but you are an extraordinarily competent individual, Randidly. I am sure you will manage it,” Azriel said seriously.
Frowning, Randidly said, “That seems like a terrible way to- err, have someone fall for me. Besides, I
on my promise to you. I beat Drak in the tournament.”
“We have spoken of this,” Azriel said dismissively. “I never truly had any ill will towards Drak, for all that he would have locked me away and forced me to bear his children should he have won our duel. Such a result was simply the natural growth of my own weakness. What I desired were the tools to stand on a stage and triumph, demonstrating my master’s peerless Skill.”
With a sorrowful shake of the head, Azriel conveyed how dismally she believed the tournament end to have gone. “Not only did you steal my glory, but you failed to materialize for the final of the tournament. Both chances were stolen from me. With such a method… it is easy for the most balanced girl to become slightly obsessed.”
Randidly finished a hole and moved on to another one, feeling oddly nervous. “Is that why you want to spar so often? To… get back at me somehow? You certainly get enough hits that I have wondered why you are so vicious with your strikes in a spar.”
“To try anything less than to kill you would be disrespectful. Oftentimes I am disappointed in your lack of execution during such training sessions. But I acknowledge it extends the duration, which has its own benefits.” Azriel allowed. But then she sighed. “No, now we have become inexorably linked. Training is genuinely done to improve. But I wished very dearly during the team selection that I not be placed with you. It was one type of disappointment to be placed in close proximity to you once more. Towards you, unlike most… no, more than anyone, I feel envy. It is an ugly feeling.”
Randidly couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so he continued to dig. Through his plant senses, he noticed more of the detachment under Captain Platton moving to watch him and Azriel on the hill, talking quietly as Randidly dug. He wondered what they were thinking.
It might be his imagination, but he believed that the great heartbeat in the sky was growing louder.
“Perhaps it is difficult to understand,” Azriel said suddenly. “I must acknowledge that it was a new feeling for me. So perhaps you-”
“No, I get it.” Randidly interrupted.
Azriel blinked. Then frowned. “You? Who could you possibly be envious of? You have the gift of life flowing from your hands. Plants and Ash are shaped by you. You are the grand-disciple of Aemont, the Spear Phantom. Your life… is blessed. Shaped almost, to be a perfect thing.”
Randidly’s immediate reaction was to think of his time on Earth before the System when his envy towards Ace was painful to bear. But another example was much closer to hand. “Azriel, I was jealous of you. Before the fight, and even after. Even now. No one adapts as you do. No one responds more quickly. If we hadn’t met, how do you think the fight against Drak would have gone.”
Abruptly, Azriel quirked her head to the side, considering him. Her eyes grew distant as if she were reviewing all the relevant information in her mind. Then, she nodded. “Ah, an interesting angle. I forget how unpredictable you were back then, in a bad way. As in, sometimes passable, other times foolish.”
Randidly grunted and stuck his shovel into the ground. No need to dwell on this topic… “That’s it, eighty-one graves. Let’s go see Platton.”
“…Randidly,” Azriel began slowly. But then she shook her head. “Well, it matters not. Continue onward.”