Through the sea of vicious heat that numbed Helen to the state of her body, Randidly’s voice cut to her very core. It helped a lot that her danger sense started screaming at her in the same moment, and she stilled as a wave of wintery air hit her in the face.
With a forlorn hiss, something landed across her shoulders and spun around her neck. She felt the sharp edge of a blade.
Randidly’s spear… was soft…? And living…?
Randidly had a few cuts across his chest and face. He looked at Helen with a solemn gaze. “...Let’s assume nothing happened there. Acri is a part of my power, but it does not serve as proof that I need to move on from this tournament.”
Helen’s hands clenched into fists, but she stayed very still. The strange living spear around her neck tightened. She had known that Randidly’s spear was special, and could curl up on his arm at will, but she hadn’t known it was an independent entity. If anything, it would only become more dangerous if it was away from Randidly, especially in instances like this.
So did her plan of separating Randidly from his spear amount to nothing…?
Her legs were trembling. Although she had increased her Spell Resistance and Pain Resistance through exposure to the Wight’s Psychic Venom, that was ultimately a different variety of spell. Despite her extensive preparations just for enduring through Randidly’s spells, she was already on the brink of her pain tolerance. If not for her Sea of Blood fueling her Skills, Helen didn’t doubt that she would have already given in.
“Fine,” Helen hissed. She couldn’t deny that there was almost no chance that she could beat Randidly, but she didn’t want to give up. Not now. Not yet. He was so close to her, she couldn’t bear to let this chance go now. His face was so wan and solemn. This wasn’t what she wanted. If this amount of blood wasn’t enough, she would pump more into herself until she drowned him. Maybe finally then he would understand it.
Nodding slowly, Randidly gestured at his spear. With a whisper, it slithered off Helen and onto the ground. But to her surprise, it went toward the side of the arena.
“Where is it going?” Helen asked, not liking where her instinct for Randidly was taking her.
Shrugging, Randidly said. “You did get rid of my spear. It’s only fair that we continue as if it was a normal spear, and it is lost to me.”
Helen’s temple throbbed. This dumb fucker. “Is that so.”
The crowd had been cheering for most of the fight, although that noise faded into the background for the most part. But now that they were standing and speaking, the cheers slowly died. There seemed to be some confusion among the audience. Even the judge looked hesitant, watching them.
“Fine then,” Helen hissed, and she opened the Sea of Blood as wide as it could go. Warmth and righteous violence filled her veins. Like a sparrow alighting, she moved. Her only goal was to force some sort of reaction out of Randidly.
Even as Helen exploded into motion, Randidly felt cold.
That, he supposed, was the point of his training. To experience the cold and use it as a way to refine himself. To that end, he had engaged in repeated exposure to the cold. After which he had been afflicted from this constant deep coldness, leading to Randidly feeling lethargic and numb. But most of those effects were at the beginning. Since then, he had slowly found some ways to flood the air with that cold image, affecting Helen.
It was a small thing, but it proved that Randidly wasn’t just emptying his body of the cold. After all, his core was still just as frozen over. What he was doing was utilizing some portion of the image on his own. Now, Randidly didn’t have any doubts about his own capabilities. He might very well be the most powerful human at the moment, but that was due to a great deal of luck and hard work. He hadn’t reached this point by possessing the sort of genius that could experience and image and copy it.
Why then was he still producing such a deep, bone-chilling cold?
Helen’s bindings smashed into Randidly with a force that surprised him. It seemed that over the course of the fight, these sort of air currents grew stronger and stronger. But as he had previously, he exhaled and projected cold. As the flows around him turned sluggish, Randidly was able to wiggle out and step out of the way of Helen’s hacking attack.
Her eyes were sharp as she twisted to follow him. But perhaps due to the damage the partial hits with Incendiary Eruption had inflicted on her legs, there was a brief pause before she dashed toward him.
However, if she was somewhat encumbered, the image of a blood-red river erupted above her to accelerate her speed. The wild savagery and sharpness that surrounded her like a halo expanded even further in a spiraling whirlpool.
Her spear cut sideways toward Randidly’s shoulder and he stepped forward into the blow to meet it. Quick as a spark, she ducked to the side and cut down toward his thigh. Randidly raised his leg to knock the blow to the side and Helen was suddenly dancing backward. After a brief pause, she exploded into motion again, reaching even higher speeds.
Randidly grimaced as he raised his forearm to knock away a stab. Even with the Crown activated at full capacity, Randidly continued to get covered by thin and violent scratches. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t keep up with her moves, but that he hadn’t quite conceptualized the extra reach the addition of blood to her images gave her.
“If this is all you have, I’ll be claiming your head,” Helen hissed, her eyes almost manically bright.
With a sigh, Randidly took two steps backward. He hadn’t relied on his movement Skills much, but that was mostly because he recognized early on that positioning wouldn’t be the key against Helen. She was much too flexible and resourceful in her Skills. Her image let her move basically freely from most positions, as far as Randidly could tell. What he needed was to restrict her movement.
With a few points of Mana, the ground exploded in a wave of vines and roots. Instantly, Helen launched herself into a spear whirlwind, cutting left and right. Roots multiplied and split, but Helen was just as quick slashing them as they formed. Like an unstoppable force, she cut her way toward Randidly, ripping apart the tide of plant life.
Randidly grinned. This was a mistake.
Utilizing his high Control, he brought more and more plants from different directions to attack at Helen’s back. In that first two seconds, Randidly was surprised at her ability to cope. She was a literal walking lawn mower, making short work of all of the stabbing and binding plant life that surrounded her. What perhaps surprised Randidly most of all was how she was able to manage this with a spear. It just wasn’t the sort of weapon that was best used in slashing attack, and yet she was making it look like a machete in the tall grass.
But she couldn’t overcome stats. By the fifth second of being assaulted by the plants, her momentum had stalled out. The roots lashed and slashed until Helen strumbled, her wounded legs finally giving out. As she went down, the roots rushed to smother her, and Randidly felt vaguely disappointed in his heart.
For a while, something was building within him with the cold imagery, but with this…
More than that though, Randidly had been very circumspect in the ways he had been fighting. In the corner of his mind, he had known that this was a method that would likely win: the power of his Grasp of the World Seed was just too powerful. It could overwhelm anything a single person with a spear could do. But… perhaps what he had been looking for, both in the cool image and in the fight against Helen, he had been looking for an answer to the question of inner balance.
He had not found it.
Sighing, Randidly turned away from the sea of plant life crushing Helen to the ground and turned to the Referee to concede.
There was a dull roar and Randidly turned back around. The air around Helen was filled with visible red currents of blood. Her eyes were almost completely red, and the surging of her Skill caused her hair to flutter behind her body. Her chest was heaving as she glared at Randidly. Rather than Skill, she was using just a flood of energy to blast away the nearby plants.
Randidly lifted his head, his eyes flashing. The Crown of Cataclysm and Gloom pulsed once more with power.
“Then come,” Randidly said, pouring more Mana into the surrounding plants. The swelled to twice their original size and were now as thick around as a human thigh, waving back and forth threateningly. Growling, Helen rushed forward, exploding outward with a wave of energy.
Randidly grinned. He could feel her pulling deeply from the Aether connection she had to him. She must be developing a Skill at this very moment or was fueling a new Skill. Either way, he welcomed the challenge. In his heart, all he felt was the cold. Any sort of thrill would be desirable. As of yet, Randidly hadn’t been able to prove to himself he should be beyond this. Hopefully, this would be the chance he needed.
In a way, he felt like he had all the pieces, he just needed to bring them together. But that was easier said than done. Stats, Skill Level, and image all needed to combine to form something greater than the sum of their parts. For that, he needed a challenger.
Helen howled in fury as she encountered the increased resistance from the plants. “IS THIS ALL YOU CAN MANAGE?!? HIDING BEHIND YOUR PLANTS?!?! WHY WON’T YOU FACE ME?”
Randidly said nothing, but his heart trembled slightly. There was something about her voice… somehow, Randidly sensed that the conversation topic had shifted beyond the match and the concession. And as such, his grim pleasure slowly faded away, leaving him with just the dull ache of his scratches and bruises. And, of course, the cold.
“Just be honest,” Helen said between deep gasps of air. But her spear was barely visible. It was a blurred force that ripped back and forth, clearing wide swaths of plants. It was impressive, even as Randidly felt a sinking feeling in his chest.
The audience seemed to sense the same thing too, and their cheers slowly drained away, as if someone had pulled a plug underneath the arena. With the silence and the coldness, Randidly’s enthusiasm for striking with the plants abated. Soon, there was a clear path between them.
Helen’s footsteps were loud as she walked toward Randidly.
“Confirmation means something,” Helen said as she lowered her spear at Randidly. “A promise means something.”
Helplessly, Randidly looked at Helen. Then he sighed. Something clicked in his head. For Helen, this wasn’t about the tournament, really. It was about fighting against the eventuality that Randidly would need to leave again. That his strength meant that he would be needed for greater things.
That they would never have another night to share a moment of passion. That their dinner date could never mean anything.
To that question, Randidly was rather helpless. They were from different Cohorts. Randidly wasn’t even sure what exactly that meant, but he knew that it was something that created an inherent distance between them. Was it something they could overcome? With Randidly’s Skills, there was little doubt they could find a way. But was that a path Randidly wanted to pursue?
He didn’t know.
Or maybe he did, but he remembered how they had fit together in that violent moment where he had needed to find peace. Maybe that memory of heat had meant that he had been unwilling to admit to himself that she was not a priority in his life, even as he given lip service to the fact that she would be more than a friend.
But passion had cooled. And what remained was…
Randidly froze, his eyes widening. What remained was… ash. Just… ash that had existed for a long time. And grew increasingly cold.
His eyes glowed emerald and a chill breeze crossed the arena.