Of all the breaks they had taken so far, this one seemed to fly by most quickly. Part of it was the slowly settling cauldron of emotions roiling in Randidly’s chest. Part of it was the furious series of discussions that sprang up across the crowd as everyone shuffled around, eager to seek a drink after the tension of the most recent rung.
But mostly it was because of Clarissa.
Almost exactly halfway through the break, she walked out onto the stage and began to grin at Randidly like a fool. Such was the genuine anticipation in her expression that Randidly couldn’t help but get caught up in the spirit of it.
This will be great, Clarissa seemed to beam at him. And Randidly saw no reason why not to let himself be swept away by the positivity.
Helen stood with her arms folded, sourly studying Clarissa. “I don’t like this shit. Where are the others? This rung is supposed to be against Squads Nine through Three. Why is it just her? The challenge is about to start. Do they think we won’t just fucking attack-”
But as she was muttering to herself, ten burly men walked out onto the arena, arranging themselves around Clarissa. To Randidly’s amusement, they weren’t looking at him at all; they loosely held their weapons and glared at Helen, as if daring her to make a move toward Clarissa.
Randidly chuckled. “They’ve started getting smarter about the challenges. All Skills have an inherent image, so to fight against us, they need lots of powerful Skills that can shake an image.”
“Which is why they should all be up here!” Helen hissed.
Randidly continued without pausing for Helen’s aside. “...which would be true if the Skills were coming from a single person, but if they are relying on separate individuals’ Skills to work together and disrupt me, they will need a lot more than two hundred; if it's from a group, those Skills interfere with each other’s budding image just as much as mine. Instead, better to have one individual who can produce a lot of powerful Skills to test me. Plus…”
Trailing off, Randidly looked over toward the still grinning Clarissa. “...plus, due to the qualitative differences in Mana and Stamina, spellcasters have an edge on the natural image they are given. Probably because the spirit of Mana Skills are a bit different. If there were anyone who could actually shake our images alone, it would be Clarissa. I suspect this rung is all about testing the limits of that.”
Randidly pointed to the tense group of men without bothering to suppress his grin. “They are just here to warn off the crazy woman who has been staring daggers at their Squad Leader.”
“I’ll fucking show them fucking crazy…” Helen cracked her knuckles menacingly. Almost helpless, Randidly shook his head.
Well, at least this way Helen will be able to sharpen herself in the match…
But Randidly’s expression shifted to something more serious as he considered Clarissa. It was foolish to engage in this sort of direct confrontation. It was unnecessary and would only give away more information about his own limitations. Yet Randidly was past the point where he cared about the smart thing to do.
It had shifted from guiding Donnyton to being purely a rebuke for their own weakness. And it seemed that his prior violence hadn’t struck that point home yet.
When the start was announced by the referee, Helen surged into motion. With a few barked orders the opposing warriors arrayed themselves into a tight clump and marched to intercept her. Very soon, the cries of battle raged across the arena as Helen fought to her heart’s content.
Yet Clarissa just grinned at Randidly. “It’s been lonely without you.”
Randidly raised an eyebrow, and Clarissa laughed. Her greying curls bounced around her bright face.
“I suppose you wouldn’t understand… when you left, you went to places where there were foes at your level to fight.” Clarissa said. Then she licked her lips. “Lyra was here for a while… but well, she didn’t stay s a human for long. I couldn’t judge myself against her. As for everyone else… well if they got close they could defeat me… but really, they are pretty weak, aren’t they? That’s why you are fighting now.”
Eyes bright, Clarissa raised her hands and stretched them toward Randidly as she took a step to narrow their distance. “I want to split the sky open. I want the ground to crack and seethe. I don’t want to dodge and hide from sword attacks… I want to throw around little bits of the apocalypse. I may be a Weather Witch now, but I want more.”
Randidly just looked at the elderly woman who had been a librarian and closet nerd for her entire life. He still remembered the zeal with which she took to the System. Despite the danger, it had been a way to live out her fantasies.
Yet at that novel joy faded… Randidly could imagine how it felt. To look around and find that everyone became obsessed with min-maxing, and no one tried to just do something cool with their new powers.
For the loneliness that Clarissa undoubtedly felt then, Randidly had some sympathy. But his spine hardened as he looked at her. Because rather than trying to help the world, she had let herself devolve into playing games. She had allowed Donnyton to coast in this direction.
“I’ll show you more,” Randidly said softly.
Clarissa cackled with glee. “Perfect! Let’s start slow, shall we? Even though I know it's dumb… I’m worried that you won’t be able to withstand the big stuff, yanno? So… Lightning Bolt!”
Storm clouds surged above, forming a dark blanket across the entire sky. Randidly’s eyebrows rose, but he shouldn’t be surprised; it was almost evening. Now, it would be much easier to darken the sky with a Skill. But Clarissa was still the first person to accomplish it.
It took several seconds, but those clouds darkened from slate to pure obsidian. From that inky black blanket, a huge pillar of lightning snaked down in a split second, aiming directly for Randidly.
But before the Skill could get close, the storm clouds rippled and were replaced by the huge image of a tree. Its emerald leaves rustled and it was like the pillar of lightning was never there. Aside from the vast canopy of the World Tree, there was nothing in the sky.
“Wow…” Clarissa gasped as she stared up at it. “It’s one thing to just see it… but it's so much more intense to stand in front of it. Fine then. Storm’s Fury!”
Once more the clouds gathered, forming into a tight knot that hovered above Yggdrasil and was able to resist the passive eradication effect that Yggdrasil exerted in the surrounding area. For several seconds, there was only a dull rumbling as power gathered in that tightly packed expression of Clarissa’s Skills.
Then a cobalt bolt of thunder shaped like a roaring dragon raced downward, heading toward Randidly. The air sizzled with its compact energy. Without moving, Randidly looked up and studied it critically. The effect of the Crown of Upheaval and Gloom activated and time seemed to slow to a crawl.
If just weather could shake the World Tree… wouldn’t that be too pathetic?
As the cobalt lightning dragon approached, the Deific Mien of Yggdrasil began to activate. The golden light emanating from every inch of the World Tree grew incrementally brighter. To behold this tree was to witness an entity that approached godhood. Lines of golden script spiraled up and down every inch of the trunk and leaves, illuminating the future.
It was an impossible monolith, and its radiating grace slowly ate away at the most recent attack. Bits of energy were ripped away from the main body and then devoured by the tree’s visage. This continued until the attack was nothing but a paper-clip thin whisper that struck the ground a few meters in front of Randidly and left a small smudge.
“Gathering Storm!” Clarissa’s joy was clear in her tone. “Cutting wind! Absolute Zero! Storm’s Fury! Storm’s Fury! Storm’s Fury! Prowl of the Thunder Liger!”
Huge blades of wind formed and rushed forward to cut at Randidly.
The temperature dropped so rapidly that frost skittered wildly out to cover half of the arena.
Dozens of thick cobalt blasts of lightning smashed downward, to be turned away time and time again by the golden brilliance that was coming from the World Tree. Slowly the blasts were penetrating deeper and deeper, but some inner ire seemed to be awakened in the World Tree as Clarissa continued her unceasing assault. Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil shook the sky with its fury, warping the space where her storm was formed, very quickly weakening the thunder strikes.
But then a brilliant golden cat streaked outward from Clarissa. Growling, it raised its claws and swung rapidly at Randidly’s throat.
Randidly didn’t even blink. Infinite FIngers of Yggdrasil ripped upward out of the ground. The frost slowed them a little, but as the Liger attempted to dodge around them and strike at Randidly from the side, more sharp thorns were waiting for it. Its energy body was rapidly dispersed as the tenacious roots ripped up through its torso and tore apart its limbs.
With a cry, it was forced to disperse. But Randidly was now frowning. Because Clarissa’s constant strikes had regained their prior intensity. In fact, they were growing stronger every second.
Storm’s Fury crashed down toward him like raindrops in a spring shower. In the sky above, the dark storm clouds withstood the blast of concentrated Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil. Slowly, those black clouds began to spread a small amount.
Relying on quantity, Clarissa truly was able to withstand Randidly’s Yggdrasil image.
However, from what Randidly could tell, she was hemorrhaging Mana. And it seemed like one of the earlier Skills she used increased her expenditure to gather incremental strength that increased with each Skill she used.
She was working herself up to something. Randidly bared his teeth.
“Storm’s Fury! Storm’s Fury! Storm’s Fury! Perfect! Excellent! Stupendous!” Clarissa’s hair was whipped around her frail figure by the tumultuous storm she summoned. Then she drew a dagger and slid it across her finger, allowing several drops of blood to be carried away by the hungry air. “By my hand, Storm! I beseech you! Condense! Form the Eternum of Wind!”
Immediately, the wind rose in velocity until it seemed to be howling. Those black clouds began to slowly spiral inward until they formed a tightly wound cord of black air. Tighter and tighter it wound, ripping downward from high in the sky to crash into the arena ground in front of Clarissa with a wave of force.
Immediately, Randidly grimaced and staggered as he was smashed forcefully in the chest with a blast of stray wind. The howling had grown higher, until it formed a terrible keening noise. What followed the blast was first dust and debris that obscured the air for a split second, and Randidly raised his metal left arm in case an attack came.
But then the wind continued unabated and everything was blasted away. A towering black whirlwind stood at the center of the arena, picking up the carefully reinforced stone ground and spinning it around with gale-force winds. Clarissa spoke, but her words were snatched away by the wind’s keening. At the moment, there was only Randidly and the wind. Everything else was pulled away.
The terrible noise continued as Randidly looked up at this “Eternum of Wind”. All told, the condensed wind thing likely stood at around thirty meters high. It had seemed so small when compared to the World Tree, but Randidly had to admit that his image was becoming so large that it was warping the scale of his vision.
There were no eyes on the creature of wind, but Randidly knew it was watching him. Slowly, it lowered its towering form into a crouch and began to rush toward Randidly. This was Clarissa’s ultimate strike, then. A being of wind that gathered more and more debris the longer it existed, becoming a walking natural disaster.
Randidly spread his hands and grinned. Truly, he could understand what Clarissa had longed for. A way to use this and not destroy have the town and leave someone dead. That he could give to her. It would bring him a great deal of joy to put down this monster.
And in the process, test out exactly how “infinite” his Skill was.
Infinite Fingers of Yggdrasil.
One hundred thick roots surged out of the ground, shattering the remaining ground of the arena on Randidly’s side of the arena as the wind being turned into a drill aimed directly at his heart. Such was the force of the winds that even he was having difficulty standing against its indirect onslaught.
The first wave of roots that hit the whirlwind was ripped to shreds and simply became fodder that strengthened the wind. As Randidly anchored himself to the ground with roots around his legs and waist, the second wave of roots he sent was smashed aside by the debris of the first wave, adding even more mass to the fucking thing.
It should be impossible, but…
The wind thing was only fifteen meters away, and eating up distance fast. It grew as it devoured more, becoming a juggernaut. Dust and small flecks of plant matter filled the air, screening the activity in the arena from view. Yet Randidly could still sense the wind howling toward him. He needed to slow it down.
So the next wave of roots Randidly sent was composed of a series of two roots wound around each other for strength. And he sent one thousand of those, grasping up to seize this wayward wind that would stand against the World Tree.
Perhaps it took a split second to rip through, but rip through the defenses it did. Again, it only grew in size from the destroyed roots-
But it couldn’t gather all of the plant matter, the surface level of the whirlwind was already heavy with debris. Randidly’s eyes burned like an engineered chemical fire.
Randidly sent five thousand roots, these roots being three roots wrapped together and incestuously penetrating each other with thorns. When those ripped, Randidly was ready with ten thousand four root braided chains.
More and more, as the distance narrowed down to six meters and the Wind Eternum flung ripped roots in every direction. Some smashed into the surrounding area while others were twisted and useless, still sticking up out of the soil. Undoubtedly, the audience was being showered with them while being totally unable to see what was occurring in the arena.
A huge mass roared in fury, the weight of it grinding against itself to deepen its battle cry.
Once again Randidly sent ten thousand, this time a dozen small roots braided together in each thorny rope. Still the Wind Eternum advanced. Mana flowed out of Randidly like water through a net, filling the air with its ambient power. In spite of himself, Randidly released a breath of excitement. His heart was pounding.
Above him, the World Tree towered. Very lightly, the noise of the leaves rustling drowned out the scream of the wind.
Why do they think it's impossible to grasp the wind?
Only because they haven’t seen hands wide enough.
But Yggdrasil can hold seven worlds. To it… wind isn’t such a grand thing.
Ten thousand roots made of one hundred woven thorny vines sprung upward into the air, absolutely demolishing the remnants of the arena. Those roots were able to withstand the tearing wind for a split second.
Which was just enough time for those roots to form claws and rip downward. Although Randidly couldn’t hit the wind directly, it could seize all of the gathered mass. And when that was stolen… all the energy used to pick the debris up would be wasted.
The tightly packed creature of wind smashed into Randidly’s chest, bits of debris and shattered wood pricking his face. But Randidly just smiled. No heavy stone or long vines followed to smash against him. Indeed, even the cutting edge of the air had been dulled. The wind had been gutted, smashed to the ground with raw power.
Around him, the debris slowly collapsed to the ground. Without the wind animating it, the visual obstruction slowly drifted away. Rather than an arena, they were now standing in a twisted forest. Plant matter sprinkled the entire area, stretching upward in vicious curves.
Portions of the erect vines were ripped down, but the strange, silent forest gave testament to the tenacity of Randidly’s Skills. There was even a gradient. Extremely small tattered plants were sticking up on the far end of the arena, yet near Randidly they stood almost a meter tall. And the vines were thick and dangerously studded with thorns.
An honor guard fit for a king.
Clarissa sat on her ass, looking up at him. Her hair was windswept and tattered. Even without looking, Randidly could tell that her Mana pool was empty; when he ripped through the wind, it had given out. It was a power she didn't have the strength yet to wield.
Then she sighed. “...thank you. I concede.”