After informing Randidly of the looming threats against him, Shal explained a small amount about fulfilling his oath to the warden of the prison that he and Randidly had broken out of, and then joining the warden in the war effort against the Wights. Soon enough, however, it became clear that Shal was the superior warrior, and the warden became Shal’s lieutenant. Eventually, he was promoted so many times he began to serve with Ophelia.
It was clear to Randidly that Shal knew more about the situation than he explained. But when Randidly asked, Shal simply shook his head and said, “That is enough for now. And you, pupil? How have you fared?”
At which point Randidly grudgingly relayed what he had encountered since returning to Tellus. The travel to Hastam. Facing a Witch King. His teammates in the preliminaries in the tournament. All the spear users that died. The slow retreat from South Beach toward the Hallat River. The Hall of Stances and the match against Helen. And then finally being captured by the Engraving Guild and his time in their prison.
Which is why, of course, that they currently were standing in front of the Engraving Guild Headquarters. It was a building that was built to fill the role of imposing. Huge black slabs of marble with swirling gold inlay created an ominous exterior that towered over those that approached. In addition, it was built at the most deserted edge of the commercial area, so the surrounding buildings were only one or two stories.
Randidly believed that the Engraving Guild’s building stood almost at ten. It looked like a solemn monolith that gazed hungrily around at the surrounding area.
The inlay was laid out to form runes, but they didn’t create any sort of defensive formation like Randidly had anticipated. Instead, there formed a single dominating emotion that emanated from the building like a thick blanket over the surrounding area; it exuded a bone-deep fear.
Not of the strength that it could affect Randidly or Shal, but it was still rather obnoxious. And painfully ostentatious. It couldn’t be denied that the Engraving Guild took itself way too seriously.
“We are just knocking. In such a thing, how can there be harm?” Shal said with a shake of his head. Without any fanfare. He stretched out his hand and pulled his spear from his back. “But you are my student, after all. You represent the Spear Phantom Style. Considering their cavalier attitude… it is understandable that we take our due.”
Randidly watched with a frown as Shal approached the tall oaken gateway of the Engraving Guild Headquarters. As they had approached, there had been no outward response from the Engraving Guild. The tall building stood silent, waiting for them to make their intentions known.
Which was exactly what Shal intended to do.
Randidly was aware that Shal would not be gentle in his retribution. He had rarely seen Shal truly angry, but there had always been a fire behind his teacher’s eyes that seemed to have an inherent violence to it. Which was why the spear wasn’t a surprise. It was the attack used when he swung it that was.
As Shal thrust his spear forward, the entire world seemed to warp. Crouching about the black marble of the buildings was a hulking beast. Its eyes were sightless, but its grasping hands quickly found purchase upon the building. Its breath hissed out between a mouth that had been sewn shut. Dragging its claws across the stone of the buildings, it produced a jarring keening that likely could be heard throughout the entirety of Hastam.
So this is the Phantom you see…
Randidly thought in awe as he looked upward at the apparition. It was so large that it seemed possible for it to reach up and pluck the moon from the sky.
Shal’s thrust seemed suspended in amber, sliding evenly forward. The spear itself was rather unassuming; it was only Randidly’s instincts that could sense the danger behind it. When the thing chuckled, Randidly shivered despite its allegiance to Shal. After considering the structure, the thing casually thrust its paw with Shal’s spear.
When the image touched the actual attack, there was a low hum. The spear seemed to be singing with the power of the union. It struck the doors and blew them backward with a crash. Thin cracks ran outward through the stone of the exterior from the shattered entryway.
Even though Randidly had spent his last month focusing on images, he wasn’t able to replicate an image on this scale. Whether that equated to power was a more difficult thing to judge, but from the way that the door was blown off the hinges…
“Hm. It appears one knock didn’t suffice,” Shal remarked. He raised his spear once more.
Although it wasn’t physically possible to see due to the angle, Randidly had an overwhelming impression of the Phantom crouching above them and the building looking up to the sky and opening its mouth as wide as it could manage. The thin cloth bans that tied it shut stretched; with it straining, there was just enough room for a thin breath to escape its mouth.
Just from sucking in the air, the figure of the Phantom seemed to swell. Rather than diffusing its substance, it only became more solid and dense as its size grew to ridiculous proportions. Soon, it was so big that Randidly had to imagine that all of Hastam was capable of being smashed beneath its foot.
Then it let out a breath, and what came out was darkness and mist that flooded out to fill the air. It was a familiar darkness to Randidly, a darkness of isolation and need. Of being separated and not understanding why.
Something clicked in Randidly.
My imprisonment… Shal understood. More than I realized, it reminded him of things he would rather forget…
Randidly thought. His gaze was solemn as he followed the hunched and twisted Phantom as it slashed with its strange claw again.
All the while, Shal’s spear slid forward.
It took several seconds for Randidly to recognize what happened. There was dust and debris everywhere, filling the air. Honestly, the first thing that was clear to Randidly was that Shal’s face was warped into a scowl.
“Bah, they fled already,” Shal muttered. A breeze blew through, carrying away with it a large amount of the clouds. What was revealed was the scarred rubble that had once been the Engraving Guild Headquarters, as well as most of the buildings in the surrounding area. “Perhaps they are more intelligent than I suspected.”
“They are associated with the Wights,” Randidly said slowly, his eyes scanning through the broken stone and gold trim. But other than the impressive facade, it was a somewhat disappointing core. “But this was a business, correct. Is it usually so… empty?”
“No,” Shal said grimly. “I myself have come here on several occasions. Hundreds work here. And yet now there is nothing? Perhaps you are correct. Spies among us. But from who?”
Frowning, Randidly turned to Shal. “Shal, what do you know? What is this war? Why have the Masters remained quiet for so long?”
“It-” Shal began, but another voice cut him off.
“It is not his place to say. It is mine. But as I do not know you… I’m afraid you will need to be satisfied with what you can piece together.”
Randidly turned slowly to face the speaker. Standing calmly amongst the debris was a slight woman with her dark hair twisted up into an elaborate braid. The spear at her back was simple, yet Randidly’s eyes easily noticed the high level of refinement of the base metal. Although it wasn’t a complicated thing, that spear would not be weak. There was even a pulsing engraving that spiraled across it. As Randidly watched it, it shifted from one form to another.
His eyes narrowed. Now, now, wasn’t that an interesting ability to have in an engraving?
A split second later, a man appeared behind the woman. He was huge, with bulging arms that strained at the confines of his shirt. His sharp yellow eyes skimmed over the woman, the rubble, Randidly, before finally settling on Shal.
“A good spear,” The man said simply, his blazing eyes speaking volumes more. “A little rough for inside my city, isn’t it?”
Shal simply grunted while he met and held the man’s gaze.
The woman frowned. “Aylwind, let it pass. I’ll owe you a favor in the future. After all, Shal here was just avenging the injustice perpetrated against his… student. Isn’t that right?”
“Bah, of course. Besides, if Aegiant knew the boy was here… heh, it would infuriate him. Just for that, I’m willing to let him live… although he is…” Aylwind, who Randidly realized with a start was probably Aylwind Sky, focused his gaze on Randidly. “…strong. Hum. Boy, if you survive this, I will take you on as an honorary disciple.”
“Unnecessary,” Shal growled.
Aylwind shrugged, a sly smile on his face. “What comes is a cataclysm; I will survive without a doubt, but will you? Keep it in mind.”
Then Aylwind disappeared, leaving a sizzling pool of melted rock in his wake. Sighing, the woman shook her head and then gave Shal a pointed look. Shal’s expression tightened.
Then the woman turned to Randidly with a warm smile. “Well met, Mr. Ghosthound. I’m Ophelia Vade, Leader of the Heart School. I must say, I would love to hear your story again, in person. It was so hard to hear the first time I listened in.”