Randidly’s eyes snapped open as the Skill kicked in. Almost like a fresh flurry of snow, tiny motes of ash exploded outward from his body in a three-meter space around him. The thick currents of blood howled in and carried the ash some distance away, but very quickly the flows turned turbid. Those tiny motes of ash each carried with them an insatiable hunger and very quickly devoured the energy and substance of the currents of blood.
Helen’s eyes narrowed as she approached, but she didn’t slow. Like the flashing fin of a shark, her spear lashed out toward Randidly. With blazing emerald eyes, Randidly simply chuckled. More ashes were conjured into existence as he laughed. All the while the temperature around him plummeted, along with his Mana.
It wasn’t that Helen’s spear slowed, but discomfort became apparent on her face as she entered into the zone of the extinguishing storm. Gritting her teeth, she seemed to shove herself forward, unwilling to give up. Flows of blood from all over the arena twisted and redirected themselves to blast at the whirlpool of frigid ash in an attempt to drive it away.
Under the concentrated fire of the blood flows, Randidly felt his Skill faltering. But even so, he didn’t move. He simply watched Helen approach. Her spear slashed sideways, scoring a deep gash across Sulfur. It only took her a moment to set her feet and strike three more times, this time scoring two hits where she drew blood.
This seemed to invigorate her, and with this renewed energy she flourished her spear. But Randidly flexed his left hand with a grim pleasure. The few seconds that Helen had wasted attacking his body was enough for his arms to recover. It might have been a dangerous gamble to allow Helen a strike, but even with her new image, Helen wasn’t one to throw haymakers. She would tear her prey to pieces. She might even toy with her quarry.
And now Randidly once more had access to both hands.
While channeling Frigid Ash, Extinguishing Storm, Randidly allowed the force of Helen’s attacks to blow him gently backward. He raised his fingers and cracked them in deliberate challenge.
Helen’s mouth twitched. The flows of blood spiraled downwards around Randidly, but the waves of turned the current sluggish. Rather than binding Randidly, they seemed to get in each other’s way. Instantly, her expression turned sullen.
“How long can you keep this up?” Helen asked.
Randidly grinned. Then he rushed toward Helen. Already, his Mana had run dry and the ash around him was thinning. Like All is Ash, the cost was entirely too prohibitive for Randidly’s liking. But even after the Skill itself was no longer useful, Randidly realized that he could mimic the effect with the image. In took concentration, but it still could restrict her movements. Ash continued to billow out from him, deeply afflicted with the spirit of cold.
Even if the effect was much reduced, it would give him the space that he needed to act.
Showing her teeth, Helen thrust her spear out four times to Randidly. With light steps, he wove he was forward without being touched.
To counter, Helen twisted around and slammed the butt of her spear toward Randidly. But he chuckled and raised his hand in a casual Talon Strike. But as his hand was about to land on the spear shaft, the weapon blurred. The spear tip spun sideways toward Randidly’s temple.
Randidly simply turned his head, but his eyes were emerald lanterns.
As the Sun Stills.
All of the image of force and mass that Randidly could muster concentrated in his forehead. Then he bent it, folding that weight over on itself. Again, and then Again. On the fourth folding, the sensation of weight that Randidly had founded the Skill on bowed under the stress of being mentally bent like that. Imagining the vision as the Aether portal for the Judgement opened, Randidly pressed harder with his will.
The sense of weight snapped into a huge abyss of nothingness, concentrated at his forehead. When that encountered the spear, the weapon shattered.
Helen’s eyes widened as Randidly took the blow directly, and then hissed in deep indignation as his body was only left with a small cut while her spear was left a useless pole of wood. But she was nothing if not adaptable. If Randidly could fight without a spear, so could she.
But when she rushed forward, Randidly blurred sideways and smashed her side with a Talon Strike. In terms of unarmed combat, he was superior. Actually, he was likely superior with a spear as well. But her spear image made up that distance, and then a small bit more. Without that image aiding her…
It was a shark with all of its teeth removed. Even in water, it was simply a big body.
Coughing, Helen crashed to the ground. With red-rimmed eyes, she looked up at Randidly. The swirling ash continued to radiate out from him, containing that poisonous cold. Their previous close proximity had covered her with a thin dusting of ash, and Randidly could see it affecting her. The places where the ash touched her skin were soon angry sores as his Volatile Ash Skill took effect, even though this was only an image.
Helen sprawled on the ground, looking up at Randidly. He regarded her calmly. Her eyes were filled with unwillingness. But Randidly knew he had won this. He had two concrete breakthroughs. The first was his new Kata of the Ashen Spear, but the second was perhaps even more important. He realized that it was entirely possible to simulate Skills entirely, depending on your Willpower, with images. That was… powerful.
“Do you think I’ll let it end like this between us…?” Helen spat out. Displaying a dogged determination that left Randidly impressed, she heaved herself up to her feet. Her legs were trembling and already a deep bruise in the shape of Randidly’s hand was on her side. But she stood.
“Thing’s aren’t ending between us,” Randidly said softly. “Our bond… isn’t just a one-way street. I feel your images too. But in terms of what that night meant…”
Helen’s shoulders slumped. Her chin fell to her chest. Around the arena, the blood flows slowly thinned. Randidly could no longer see her face. “Do you mean that?”
“Yes. You hold one of my blessings.” The Crown over Randidly’s head grew increasingly clear. “A vassal. In time, I will call on you to repay what I have given you. But we are no longer…”
He didn’t finish the thought. He didn’t have to. Helen nodded, still keeping her long hair across her face. After releasing a sigh, Randidly turned to the referee.
“I concede. Helen is the winner of this match.”
“Congratulations,” Ophelia said to Shal as they sat in the high box above the arena. They had kept it largely secret, but they had returned to Hastam earlier that day, just in time to witness the first match of the under 25 Tournament. “Although he conceded at the end, he clearly was the superior fighter. His capabilities are far beyond that normal run of geniuses. But I suspect that because of the time of chaos, this will be a cohort of unbelievably powerful individuals…”
Shal nodded, looking down at his disciples back as he walked out of the arena. Then his eyes went to the girl who remained standing on the stage while the audience gave half-hearted cheers, obviously confused by the outcome. “Did you notice? Toward the end?”
“Yes. Your disciple has become qualified to be a Pontiff.” Ophelia said, sparing Shal a glance. “Without calling on the System, he relied on the power of the world to create a Skill. I was wondering whether you noticed.”
Shal gave Ophelia a hard look.
But she responded only with laughter. “I’m not playing games. It was a subtle thing. I don’t believe the girl he was facing realized; otherwise, she would have had a much easier time in the end.”
Shal only grunted. He didn’t agree with Ophelia’s judgment at all, and he only had the knowledge to dismiss her because his Perception Skill happened to be very sensitive to temperature. It wasn’t that Randidly wasn’t good at creating a Skill through an image, it was that his original Skill was unrefined and weak. He had just learned it.
But of course, Ophelia had no dealings with Randidly. She wouldn’t understand what sort of monster he was.
Shal turned away from the window of their booth and Ophelia arched an eyebrow at him. “What, are you not going to speak with your disciple? Comfort him on his loss?”
“No,” Shal said shortly. “My guidance can wait a few days. Give him time to digest this experience. Instead, let’s meet with Aylwind. I think it’s time you told me what was going on in Tellus.”
Ophelia’s smile was wicked.
“My condolences,” Azriel said, curtseying in front of Randidly.
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “You are aware of Helen and I’s bet. Why are you here comforting me? She will likely need it.”
Azriel chuckled. “The only person you understand less than Helen is yourself, Randidly. Come. Rest your head on my shoulder.”
Randidly frowned at her. Azriel offered a wide smile. “I am much shorter than you, yes. You don’t think you need this, yes. But please, humor me.”
For several seconds, Randidly just looked at Azriel. But this wasn’t one of her jokes were her mirth would bubble up in her expression. After standing for a good ten seconds, Randidly had to admit that she was serious. So he grunted and leaned forward, setting his forehead against her shoulder.
His first thought was how bony Azriel was. He could feel the bone of her shoulder, and also the clean arc of her collarbone. Azriel reached up and softly touched the back of his head.
Strangely, Randidly felt the Crown of Cataclysm and Gloom hanging over him at that moment. It felt like a weight, pulling his forehead into Azriel’s shoulder. It pulsed. Randidly felt cold. His fingers were numb from using his new Skill.
“There is no excuse for waiting so long to clear up the misunderstanding about your feelings, but there is no shame in having a hard time delivering the truth,” Azriel said softly. They stood in the dim participant hallway outside of the arena. The underground passage was completely deserted except for them.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Azriel continued. “To think you have found a peer, a partner, only to be forced to let them know you are moving on. That you can’t stay with them."
Still, Randidly remained silent.
Azriel sighed. “It isn’t much, but I hope you take these few moments to rest. This isn’t the end, you know. I don’t know where the source of energy you have given access to me comes from; but I know what it means. You walk the narrow path toward supremacy. Too few are those that can recognize that, let alone follow you.”
Randidly’s hands clenched into fists. She was right, although he wouldn’t say anything. He couldn’t move. He simply let himself slump over against her. The deep cold was sitting in his chest still. It had receded a lot after he had been able to understood how it fit into his image of ash, but it still remained. It likely would never leave.
“It’s lonely, isn’t it?” Azriel said quietly.
Again, Randidly didn’t reply. The two simply stood in the hallway, waiting for the weight of the moment to pass.