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“You have chosen the tournament? Excellent. Let’s depart immediately.” Shal said with a wide smile.

“Eh?” Randidly said, blinking. “I thought we had two months…?”

“Hmph, can any trash who desires it walk in off the street for such a tournament? No, they must prove their worth. Come, come, it will be but a small thing for a student of mine.”

And so Randidly was whisked off back to the deck level, where that strange old man still sat peacefully, ignoring their passage. They crossed dozens, and then hundred of boats, passing brunches, gay parties, children training with spears, but most of all, they passed men and women sitting in meditation on their boats, seemingly heedless to their passage. But what struck Randidly most was that aside for some small daggers, the only weapon that he saw from the people were spears. Always spears.

“Shal… does everyone on your world use a spear?” Randidly asked cautiously. It wasn’t that he didn’t think that the spear offered advantages that no other weapon held. The combination of power, reach, and speed was truly impressive. But there would always be differences of opinion when it came to what weapons were best. But here, there didn’t seem to be a single other weapon.

“Obviously, the Spearman was born here.” Shal said, not bothering to explain further as they vaulted over the side of a boat onto another. As the proceeded, the type of boats that they were crossing quickly changed. Where it was previously a sort of houseboats, now they were on flatter, barge type boats, where small stalls were set up, where they sold food or knickknacks. But still they pressed deeper, and the boats under them grew larger and longer, until it didn’t even seem like they were on boats at all, but walking on land.

They only give away was the occasional falling in the pit of your stomach, as a wave large enough to rock these boats reached them.

Squeezing through a press of bodies, Randidly realized that Shal was not the typical member from this planet. They all seemed to possess a strange tint to their skin, (red, orange, yellow, and Randidly saw one young woman who was decidedly purple), and a third eye on their brow, but Randidly did not see another with the blue tint that Shal had.

They seemed to afford him some small measure of respect because of it too. When they saw him, they stepped to the side, quickly moving back to where they were just in time to make Randidly’s passage more difficult. No one seemed to care that his skin was… human colored, and that he only possessed two eyes, however. No one gave him a second glance.

After walking for almost an hour, they arrived  at the largest boat Randidly had seen. It towered over the surrounding boats, and from it hung hundreds of thousands of streamers, in different colors. The banners were covered in a strange scrawl too, strange hieroglyphics that Randidly couldn’t read, but as he looked, the words trembled and shifted, swiftly becoming english.

They were names, he realized. All of them names.

Setting aside the strange feeling he got as the system compensated so easily for the language, Randidly asked. “What is this place?”

“The Gauntlet.” Shal stated proudly. “The largest gambling den in Qtal, and in the surrounding area. No one Style rules Qtal, so the money-grubbers have more influence. Come, you need to familiarize yourself; tomorrow you shall fight.”

And Shal was off, pushing people to the side. Sighing, Randidly followed. They moved with and through the crowd, climbing up the rather steep ramps to enter into the Gauntlet. A man who looked like a doorman seemed to be collecting money from all who entered paled when he saw Shal, bowing and scraping, letting the two of them walk passed without paying. All though many saw this, no one commented, which led Randidly to believed there was a secret about Shal that he was missing.

But there wasn’t time to ask, and Shal pulled him forward. The inside was set up like… a jail, with a large, thick tower at the center, towards which Shal continued. Randidly followed, and when they arrived, Shal began climbing the stairs. They continued to climb until they reached the second floor from the top, which was a lavishly decorated, open area. There was food in the center of the room, and the outside seemed dedicated to seating.

And without walls, you could clearly see out from the central tower to the strange prison like area that formed the outside. Shal stopped, arms behind his back, and Randidly walked to the edge. In the “prison cells” opposite, that surrounded this tower, there were fights.

Brutal and bloody fights. And from his vantage, Randidly could see dozens happening at the same time. There were 10 levels. The lower levels had more cells, but they were smaller, and more brutal. On the 9th level, where they stood, there were much fewer, the cells much larger, more spacious. As Randidly looked, he realized that not all of the cells were fights. Others appeared to be tasks, where only one individual silently struggled. But there was a strange intensity to it all.

Randidly’s eyes narrowed. These would not be easy opponents.

“Unfortunately,” Shal commented, “You are too late to climb in the normal manner. The only remaining way to receive an invitation to the tournament in time is through the melee. Look down.”

Randidly did so, and saw that below him, on the wooden ground, there were 3 wooden platforms, wide things built like a square stage. He slowly walked around the inside of the tower, and more and more came into view. The entire circuit took quite some time, as the tower was massive, but there ended up being 20 such platforms.

“They allow a maximum of 3 people per platform. All who remain on the platform at the end of the 2 hour period will receive an invitation. If there are more than 3, they have 1 minute to bring that number down to 3, or they all will not receive invitations.”

His expression thoughtful, Shal stepped up next to Randidly and clapped him on the back. “Do not worry. All who participate in such a competition are latecomers and trash. Even with your meagre skills you should be fine.”

Such a latecomer, Randidly sighed.

“Besides,” Shal continued. “We shall have time today for some more pointed instruction. Your form is sloppy and without inspiration. It is like you forgot that the true weapon you have is the spear. You try to do the work yourself, but you are just a man with a spear. The spear knows its business…

“Ah! But first,” Shal said with a wide grin. “You must obtain your Tassle.”

*****

A Tassle, Randidly realized, were those strange banners hanging from the Gauntlet. It also seemed like they corresponded to the sails above the boats. There was a sort of pride in one’s Tassle, so when they showed up at the store, the building constructed of bamboo with thick bolts of cloth everywhere, they were greeted warmly.

And when the attendant saw the color of Shal’s skin, his eyes twitched, and then he brought at an older man with a thick beard, whose skins was a dusky green color.

“Welcome, welcome,” The man said with a smile. “How may this one serve you on this day?”

“My disciple shall enter the Gauntlet for the first time tomorrow. He needs his first Tassle.”

“Ah, such a talented youth.” The man said, but his gaze was greedily running over Shal’s skin. “I don’t suppose he has learned any of the core Skill Sets-”

“Unfortunately not,” Shal said, his expression turning stony. “He does not yet have a Skill Set.”

“Oh, I see. All in good time, I suppose. Then sir, please follow me, you can choose from any of the middle tier colors-”

Randidly blinked, speaking up. “...I actually have one.”

Shal and the bearded man looked at him, turning back from the area they were heading towards, which was filled with red banners.

Shal said nothing, but the man smiled kindly. “Ah, you have a basic skill set? Unfortunately, if it’s of common rarity, you won’t be able to do better than-”

“It’s runic,” Randidly said. Then he added. “But I only know the first movement, so I guess it isn’t complete.”

The two just looked at him. Shal’s face had become inscrutable. The man’s eyes were bulging.

“Then… then…” He said, finally managing to speak. “Let us proceed below for a test.”

The man led the way into a back room, down the stairs, passed several employees who were talking to each other in whispers and looking excitedly at Shal and Randidly. Slightly bemused, Randidly just followed.

At the lower floor, there was another room, one with two women, sitting in meditation. This room was much larger than the one Shal was staying at. It was about as large as a basketball court. The bearded man hurried over to one and whispered in her ear, and her eyes slowly opened, her gaze focusing on Randidly.

Shal stood next to Randidly, gazing meaningfully at him.

“...What?” Randidly finally asked.

“...I…. Don’t know what to say. I cannot decide. So I shall wait until I see your move.” Then Shal shook his head ruefully. “Perhaps it is fate that you became my student. We both attract far too much attention to ourselves.”

The woman stood, and spoke. “I will receive your spear move, to determine its strength. Do not hold back, your strength is not at the level that it can hurt me. Come whenever you are prepared.”

Shal stepped back away, standing next to the bearded man. Randidly found himself standing there, with the woman slowly leveling her spear at him, waiting calmly. After a brief hesitation, he removed his bone spear from his ring. It was slender and thin, but it was a spear, and Randidly felt like it fit very well in his hands.

He lowered his own spear at the woman, preparing.

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