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Tartet slowed his walk, and glanced over his shoulder, clearly shocked. And Randidly noticed the second that Agony’s range extended to the man, because his face immediately tightened.

“You… you are a mage?!?!” Tartet whispered, crossing his spears defensively in front of him.

Randidly didn’t bother to answer, instead just walked forward, his spear spinning slowly. With the addition of spells… Randidly had no doubt that he would be able to handle this challenger, and likely all of the bottom feeders surrounding the stage. He wondered why he had been too timid to do this in the beginning. This sort of power was exactly what the people of this world wanted. He should have recognized it from the beginning, based upon the strange tradition of Tassles.

It was time for this place to bear witness to The Ghosthound.

But before Randidly could attack, a strange chime rang out, filling every corner of the arena. Then a voice echoed outward, a low, calm male voice, who seemed almost bored with his words.

“We have reached the 1 hour threshold for the Qualifier for the Regional Tournament. At current… 23% of the contestants have been eliminated, either by withdrawing… or otherwise.” There was a long moment of silence, as the cold voice continued, still bored. “There are currently 21 individuals standing across the 10 stages. As a show of their accomplishments… their Tassles will be displayed over the stages on which they stand, until they are defeated.”

On cue, long poles slid out from the central tower, carrying with them a number of Tassles between 1 and 3. The one above Randidly’s stage had 3. His own, a rich emerald with gold lettering. A disgusting looking yellow Tassle with black letters, that belonged to Tartet.

But the final Tassle was just as strange and eye catching as Randidly’s: it was red violet, and the name of the contestant and Style were written in a sickly white. After a few seconds to consider the strange concept of Tassles, Randidly lowered his gaze, his eyes narrowed. It was time to fight. Tartet was still gazing upwards, his eyes shocked and slightly vacant.

Randidly glanced around, and it seemed like everyone was just shocked by this announcement. Was it his emerald causing trouble again…? Well, it didn’t matter. He had resolved himself to taking all of the attention, so this little extra was nothing.

He would blow away all resistance with force.

“I’ll say this once. If you don’t ready yourself, I’ll kill you.” Randidly remarked coldly, and Tartet looked down, his eyes focusing.

“Why are you… and her together…?!?!” Tartet mumbled, but he raised his spears, some of his fighting spirit coming back to him. Sensing that some of Tartet’s reaction was actually to the other Tassle, Dian’s, Randidly turned and looked at the girl.

And it was a good thing he did. The head of a spear flashed in front of him, approaching as fast as a biting snake. Randidly jerked his head to the side, and was able to narrowly escape with a small scratch. Growling, he hopped backwards, but as he made to land, his feet wouldn’t obey him, and he tumbled onto his back, a strange numbness suffusing his body.

Perhaps the snake metaphor was too apt….. Poison..?!!?

“So it was you.” Randidly could barely raise his head to look, but the voice was female, and the soft footfalls from the location where Dian had been standing revealed her. “To think it would end like this… die miserably, and let this cycle of revenge end forever.”

Dian raised her hand and flicked her fingers. As she did so, Randidly finally saw her weapon; it seemed to be more whip than spear, a long, ropey coil that ended in a viciously sharp, and poisoned, spearhead. And at that moment, with his body barely responding to his commands, the spearhead whistled towards Randidly’s heart.

****

When the Tassles were revealed, the area in the viewing tower around Shal fell silent. Egger’s expression turned nasty as he saw that only 4 of the stages contained the Tassle of the Iron Spear Style. Which, even Shal had to admit, was something of an accomplishment, even if only the non-core disciples of the Style were sent out.

But as Egger looked out, and finally saw the Tassle with the Spear Phantom Style written on it, and the Tassle next to it…

“Vampyrus…. Took a disciple?!” Egger said, gasping.

Shal nodded slowly. It had been news to him too. But none would fake their association with that Style. Even before Shal had acted, the Spearman School had turned against them.

“It appears…” Shal said slowly. “That the line of Vampyrus the Devourer has not yet ended.”

It was perhaps fate, Shal reflected, that he had bet Vampyrus’ spear earlier with Egger. A fate that was very heavy, and was now on the shoulders of his inexperienced disciple. It would be a trial, but…

No great spear was ever forged without fire.

Strangely, Shal found himself smiling. Even though obtaining information on Lucrecia was riding on his strange disciple that he had found lost and classless in one of the fiercest dungeons near Qtal. Even though the Devourer would not lightly take a disciple, and it seemed very possible that that small girl was hiding even more secrets on her body.

Besides, even if Randidly lost, Shal wouldn’t lose hope. He would kill Egger and force the information he wanted out of him, and damn the consequences.

So Shal smiled, watching the battle below, because for the first time in a long time, Shal had found what direction he should be heading in.

****

The whip spear rapidly advanced towards Randidly’s body, which even with his prodigious regeneration and poison resistances, he wasn’t able to muster more than the most flailing and ungraceful movement. It must truly be a powerful poison that was contained on the edge of that blade.

But his eyes simply narrowed, and Randidly did something that he wouldn’t have thought he would ever do in an actual battle: he summoned a root avatar. He pressed as hard as he could with his mana, and the roots erupted out of the ground, twining and spinning upward, forming a trunk, a torso, arms and the spear before the opponent’s weapon arrived. And it simply stood there as the spear head sunk harmlessly into its chest, before ripping its roots out of the ground and advancing with mechanical steps towards Dian.

She frowned. “No matter how you struggle, it will be short. That poison would reduce anyone without the Poison Resistance skill to a corpse in minutes. Even with that skill, someone who didn’t have it at least at Lvl 20 would be weakened for days.”

Then she stretched her whip spear out, and Randidly noticed that the rope was covered in thin blades. She threw it forward, and the weapon ripped the root avatar in half and continued forward, aiming for his chest.

But the avatar did not really have any weaknesses. As opposed to being weakened by being cut in half, it was now able to move in two different directions. The roots that had previously made up the legs exploded upwards, grabbing the spear whip and pulling it downwards, bringing it crashing to the ground. The torso pulled itself along, heading towards Dian.

Tartet, who had been watching up to this point, stepped forward. “I do not like interfering in another’s duel, but you are weak, Ghosthound. For that, I sentence you to death-”

Abruptly Tartet, his eyes widening, stopped speaking. The reason for this was the fist sized hole in his chest, obliterating his left lung, that was caused by Randidly’s Incinerating Bolt. It was truly a move that moved too fast for you to respond to it. Tartet stumbled backwards, spitting up some blood, but Dian’s advance forced Randidly to turn his attention away before he could send more than a Spearing Roots to finish him off.

Even now, the insidious, nauseating pain of the poison spread through his body, becoming more pervasive with each beat of his heart. But Randidly’s body was marshalling its own defenses. Not only was his regeneration already quite high, but he also had several passive skills boosting his resistance and regeneration. He was quite weak, and that didn’t look like it would change soon, but he could at least move.

To make himself even more mobile, he created a thick root and pulled it out of the ground and wrapped it around his waist. More roots sprung upwards, twining around his arms and neck, keeping his body in position.

What he saw made him frown; although the avatar’s torso had crawled valiantly towards Dian, by the time they had crossed paths the location of the spear’s cut had begun to fester and foam, and nearly all of the body had withered to nothing. That poison acted so quickly on just the roots… What did that mean it was doing inside of him right now…?

...better not to think of it…

And anyway, Randidly had more pressing issues. Dian slowed as she approached, avoiding the waves of Spearing Roots that he sent up towards her legs. She was soon covered in dozens of tiny scratches, but she was able to use her quick reflexes and speed to move past most of them, advancing rapidly towards Randidly.

Gritting his teeth, Randidly shakily raised his hand and unleashed an Incendiary Bolt. His body was getting very close now… if he could hold out a little longer…

But as Randidly expected, because she had seen him use it on Tartet, Dian was able to spring to the side, buying Randidly a few short seconds, but hardly giving him a serious solution to stop Dian’s advance.

Seeing no other choice, Randidly closed his eyes and focused inward. Then he let all the weakness and frustration and fear that was creeping up in his heart rush together and form a ball, a hot and violent core within him. This woman wanted to truly kill him, for some reason he didn’t understand. She had ways of reducing him to an invalid. But still….!

But still….!

He would not stop walking forward.

As he opened his eyes, Randidly wasn’t surprised to find that Dian had rushed forward, crossing almost all of the distance towards him. But in that time, the strange Aether in his chest began to pound. He wanted it. He wanted this victory, and in that moment, it was almost an all consuming obsession.

“Wall of Thorns.”

Plants sprang upwards, weaving together, forming a barrier between the two of them, and Dian cursed. “Pussy. Still running and hiding?!?”

She lashed out with her whip, and was surprised to find that the barrier didn’t fall immediately. Growling, she attacked again, and all of the wall was shredded, visibly withering and dying even before the scraps landed on the ground-

Dian blinked. Randidly was gone.

Or rather, he was above, reaching the apex of the jump of Pierce the Skies, Shatter the Earth. And at that moment, his grin manic, he pointed his spear downwards and began to fall, his slightly numb fingers curling around the shaft of his spear.

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