As Shal charged forward, Versault raised his other hand. Once more, those woven reeds filled Shal’s every sense. It seemed like he could smell the dirt and running water. There was the soft rustle of wind amongst them.
Grinning, Shal stepped to the side. If nothing else, he knew that testing that image was not an easy thing. Better to start with more probing strikes. His spear lashed out towards Versault’s foot.
The man clicked his tongue and the bare palm turned into a gentle wave. Shal seemed to see a child splashing thick drops of water in play, and in the air, the drops caught the light of a hot sun until they were glimmering like gemstones.
With his instincts roaring fear, Shal allowed the force of the blow to spin him away. He stumbled to a stop some distance away, looking wide-eyed at Versault.
That level of image… it was obviously that of a Master, but it was more concrete than anything Shal had ever encountered. Compared to this, his own hidden strength was also insufficient.
But those few moves seemed to catch Versault’s attention. He turned and regarded Shal with bright eyes. “Ah… it is you. Interesting. I suppose it will not be a total waste of time if I witness your limits. Child, what is your Level?”
Before he could stop his mouth, Shal answered. “83.”
Then he slammed his hand across it, horrified. Why had he answered that question?
Versault made a click with his mouth. “Slow. But I suppose we have some time left, especially considering all the movement out of the Spearman School… Little Feely, I really think that is where-”
“My name,” Ophelia said imperiously, “Is Ophelia. Don’t you dare use that name, traitor.”
“So blinded by loyalty. Admirable. Will you raise your spear against me, after so long?” Versault asked in an amused voice. But he had to turn to the side as Verynica moved with her new spear and struck again.
Following Verynica’s lead, Shal attacked from the other side in a pincer maneuver that was relatively well done, considering they had never practiced.
But it only earned a dry chuckle from Versault. He spun, and the room was suddenly filled with a warm spring breeze across a dirt road. Travel and independence, sun and exploration. Possibilities filled every breath.
Shal gritted his teeth. A cold specter of the Spear Phantom condensed behind him, reaching out his greedy hands towards Versault’s body. Shal wasn’t too familiar with Verynica’s abilities, but he could tell that she also threw a haymaker at the old man.
Shuddering, Shal stumbled backward from the collision. His eyes narrowed as he considered the frowning man in front of him. He took both of their shots on directly without seeming any the worse for wear. Meanwhile, Shal himself was stunned for several seconds and Verynica had shattered another spear and collapsed.
Versault picked an infinitesimally small bit of dust from his nails and then spoke to Shal. “These… are not your natural images?”
Immediately, Shal froze.
“Fine, unleash the seal,” Ophelia hissed, and then she flexed her hand and produced a spear.
For the first time, Versault’s face turned serious. “Do you truly dare to act? If you activate your soul-”
“The Spearsource has been taken. Unless we find it, all has been lost,” Ophelia said softly. “Why would I dare not act?”
Now, Versault’s face creased with furious wrinkles. “And you truly believe that using your power against me is the best use? With this, you accomplish nothing! I have no knowledge what that selfish fool has done-”
“Now,” Ophelia said.
From Shal’s chest, the images he had so long suppressed burst to the surface. All those giggling moments with his beloved brother came to the surface, designing a Style all their own. Borrowing the grace and speed of Aemont’s Spear Phantom, but reducing it to a deadly form that they could most easily use.
The Wraith Adder Style.
His spear instantly began to twist and sway as it slithered closer to Versault. Snorting, he waved his arm and conjured the image of layered reeds once more.
But the ground split as Ophelia thrust forward with her spear. The ground beneath Shal trembled as it seemed like there truly was a stabbing explosion of rock out of the ground. The attack smashed into the reed wall with an explosion.
With glowing eyes and deadly intent, Shal advanced forward.
The Luck of the Wraith Adder saved Shal as he twisted to the side at the last minute. A plain palm strike slid past his cheek, but it set Shal’s scalp tingling. There was more power in that palm strike than in either of the strike’s Shal had thrown earlier.
But, he had been sandbagging.
Shal’s Fatal Bite sliced sideways in the direction that the attack came from but it was stopped dead by another palm. It was, however, somewhat satisfying that Versault grunted and took a step back. Above Shal, the Wraith Adder hissed calmly, its eyes the terrifying blue of ice on deep water.
Growling, Versault spun around and the soft noise of rustling leaves became immediately audible. It was fall, and the ground was littered with red, orange, and yellow leaves before a cold winter chill began to wither them into a twisted brown. Shal slithered past the attack and struck again and again, hammering the man while he was busy dealing with all three of them. Versault stumbled backward again, and he looked up at Shal with a grim smile.
“Indeed, this is more like it. Not images, but a creature composed of images that you have raised. Fascinating.”
“Don’t look away from me,” Ophelia said calmly, dropping a huge attack that looked like an avalanche. Instead of reeds, this attack was met with the placid waters of a lake. Unfortunately for Versault, the distraction of addressing Shal meant that this time the image wasn’t powerful enough to completely blunt the blow, and Shal heard a bone in the man’s hand snap.
Verynica struck from behind Versault but was met with a donkey kick. Vomiting blood, the woman rolled backward until she hit one of the large marble columns along the walls.
This immediately got Versault’s attention, and he spun around with worried eyes. In this moment where he was clearly distracted, how could Shal let this chance pass?
Lightning quick, Shal’s spear stabbed once, twice, three times into Versault’s back. The blade slid into the thick flesh of his back, even as the man hissed and turned. But Ophelia moved from the side, slashing her spear to knock Versault back towards Shal.
But the man was remarkably resilient. Using the smashing attack from Ophelia, Versault rolled sideways back toward the entrance. At first, Shal thought that he was making a break for it, but he simply grabbed one of the thin brass spears from the carved figures by the entrance. He lowered it at Ophelia. “I hope you have thought this through.”
Ophelia grinned cracking her neck. “I had forgotten how good this feels, to utilize Skills. Images have none of the weight of a true Skill. With this, we have a chance to seize the Spearsource once more. Whatever you were in the past, Versault, I will give you one last chance. Surrender the location of the Spearsource-”
“Already, you grow corrupted,” Versault said with a sorrowful shake of the head. “It seems the terrible darkness in the air still lingers. Allow me to fulfill the duty of putting you down. Only one strike shall I allow myself on this day.”
The ground rumbled as Ophelia charged toward Versault with rumbling footsteps. In terms of momentum, every step seemed to increase the force of mass behind her. Meanwhile, Versault simply stood waiting.
The rumbling intensified until the whole underground area was shaking. The vivid image of the ground splitting in a cataclysmic explosion filled Shal’s vision. Meanwhile, Versault just thrust forward with a spear. The smell of tanned leather and sweat filled Shal’s nose. He watched in muted astonishment as several pale-skinned individuals slowly carved the spear that Versault now held. They stood in a cluster in a tent.
The wind pulled insistently at the covering of the tent, and one of the figures looked up. Their eyes met.
Strangely, Shal was looking at himself or at least a man with his face.
A concussive explosion shattered the two images. Versault coughed lighted, and his brass spear was bent sideways. But he was panting with exertion, and Shal struck.
The point of Shal’s spear slid into Versault’s chest, the other man turned and smashed Shal to the side with a flash of a child splashing water once more. When Shal hit the ground, one of his ribs broke. Coughing, he struggled to sit up straight.
Versault was walking towards Ophelia. After their one blow, she had collapsed into a pile and was only now stirring.
At that very moment, Shal received a message from Randidly. He immediately informed his apprentice it would need to wait.
“Perhaps it would be better to kill you, but I dare not. But I urge you to remember why we swore those oaths all those years ago. Otherwise, we would have fallen into darkness.” Versault said softly.
“Fuck you,” Ophelia panted, looking pale and bloodless. It was somewhat strange to see Ophelia like this. For so long, Shal had thought she had all the answers. But now it seemed that although she was also one of the older heads of Schools, Versault stretched even farther back.
Sighing, Versault turned to Shal. He didn’t say anything, but he reached up and touched the spot where Shal had struck with Soul Venom. His eyes were full of pregnant meaning. Then he turned away and looked around the cave.
“…I suppose this is all the proof I need. This place is forgotten. No longer should I be bound here.”
Then he left.