A voice boomed out above him, drawing his attention upwards. “The Tassles will now be updated to display the winners of the respective stages. To those who have made it… congratulations. You have earned your way to the Northern Regional Tournament for the Spearman School. Bring us honor.”
Once again, seemingly expanded to an even larger size, their Tassles unfurled: Randidly’s Emerald and Gold, Tartet’s Piss yellow and Black, and Dian’s Red-Violet and White. They were all eyecatching, each for their own reason, especially when compared against the sea of red, oranges, and goldens that fluttered on the other stages. The one other color of note was a sky blue, with black lettering, which seemed to be on the stage directly opposite theirs, on the other side of the observation tower.
The old man nodded to them all, then gestured imperiously for them to follow, and then began striding away, walking towards the viewing tower. The three glanced at each other, eyes narrowed. Especially between Dian and Randidly, who both felt their own immediate weakness after their previous confrontation, and also the other’s weakness. If there was any good opportunity to strike, it would be now...
“Violence from you… will be met by violence from me.” The man remarked, once again coughing after he spoke, not even turning around.
Tartet just snorted and walked forward. “Idiots. We have time enough in the tournament. Why are you so hasty to die without an audience? There is no honor in that.”
Moving stiffly, Randidly walked forward to follow, his skin prickling as he allowed Dian to be behind him. But he felt instinctively that displaying weakness here was not what he wanted. Instead, better to let her see how little this bothered him… Even though Randidly didn’t know how good of an actor he really was.
And when he felt a hand settle around his elbow, he barely suppressed his instinct to lash out.
“You…” Dian said, frowning at him, her sharp features narrowed even further as she struggled inwardly with something. Finally reaching a decision, she lowered her hand and finished, somewhat lamely. “...what is your name…?”
“Ghosthound…” Randidly said, somewhat at a loss. Dian raised her hand and ran it through her spiky red hair, which was sticking up in all directions, covered in dirt, blood, and insect ichor. Then she nodded seriously and walked away.
Somewhat confused, Randidly lengthened his stride and followed, until all three of them were walking in line.
There was a rather tedious ceremony, after they ascended to the topmost floor of the viewing tower, and each was given a medallion that would serve as their ticket of admission into the tournament. The winners from each stage stood seperate, 23 in total, due to a few stages having less than 3, but all stared at the Stage 7 victors, with their distinctive Tassles over their heads.
What Randidly found most interesting was that although he was given a cursory glance, which was a little more than Tartet’s brief glance, it was Dian that received most of the attention. But she held her head high and received the stares without batting an eyelash. Which was for the best, because one of the things that Randidly liked most about his time here in Shal’s world, was how little attention he received. But it appeared to be slowly changing.
Still, Randidly remained optimistic. After all, they would probably go to another city for the Regional Tournament. And based on what Divvit said, Randidly would be forced to face opponents a level higher, even higher than Dian and Tartet. With that sort of competition, hopefully he would no longer attract attention.
But then again… Randidly resolved himself to receiving it. Because it wasn’t participation in the Regional Tournament that was necessary. It was placing within the Top 8. Under the thunderous applause, Randidly walked out the the arena, struck by how… ridiculous this all seemed. But then again, this was another world. And here, strength and honor were what earned accolades.
Shal eventually found him, surrounded by crowds and brought him out. When they returned to the boat, Shal gave him a long look. “You have an hour. After that, the training will begin. Do you agree?”
And although Randidly’s head was really pounding now, he nodded. Although he was able to use his magic to make up the difference, the fight had clearly demonstrated his own insufficiencies, especially in regards to the spear. Maintaining powerful spells was important, but it wasn’t enough. His Spearmanship must at least rise to the level where he could hold his own.
So after around 30 minutes of silent meditation in his room, where the worst of the rebound from overtaxing his mental resources passed, Randidly opened his eyes and viewed his skill screen.
He had gained 3 Skill Lvls in Spearing Roots, 1 in Root Control and Pollen of the Rafflesia, 2 in Mana Strengthening and Wall of Thorns, 1 in Agony, Incinerating Bolt, and Circle of Flame, 3 in Plantomancy, 2 in Spear Mastery and Spear Phantom’s Footwork, 1 in Phantom Thrust and Eyes of the Spear Phantom, 1 in Phantom Half Step, 2 in Dodge and Block, 2 in Haste, 5 in Phantom Onslaught, 2 in Empower and Fighting Proficiency, 1 in Calculated Blow and Edge of Decay, 2 in Pierce the Skies, Shatter the Earth and Struggle, and 5 in Battle Intent.
Randidly also gained 3 Levels in the Spear Advances, Ash Trails, he had 2 levels in Engraving from the morning, 1 in Physical Fitness, Meditation, and Running, 5 in Poison Resistance, 2 in Mental Strength and Grace, 1 in Bacterial Regeneration, 3 in Superiority, and 4 in Mental Fortitude.
An excellent haul for a day and a half’s work, but this was the reward that came with experiencing several near misses with death. And for using his moves on actual people, rather than just training alone.
And since he currently had no path, Randidly considered his options.
Watcher: 0/??, ?????, Heretic VI 0/???, Oathbreaker 0/25, Initiate of Ash I 0/75, Path of Carnage I 0/???, Nexus Traveler Cohort 5 0/50, Path of Control 0/200, Grace I 0/75
There were two changes of note in his options. The first was foreboding, but Heretic had increased to VI. There was no corresponding notification, as Randidly scrolled through the still fuzzy notifications, affected by the potion, but it would bear watching. However, if there wasn’t a notification… there probably wouldn’t be another Judgement soon. For now, Randidly hoped it wouldn’t be until Heretic X and moved on.
The other new choice was the addition of the Grace I Path. Grace was a passive skill, but it had real, tangible effects on his balance and center of gravity. It was hard to tell what the path would get him, but it was an option.
He had gained 73 PP, but wasn’t sure which direction to head. Path of Control still seemed like the most worthwhile, but it came with a hefty price tag. And Randidly wanted to focus more heavily on his physical attributes. His spells were currently sufficient, while his physical prowess was not.
Nexus Traveler Cohort 5 seemed like a reward path, but was somewhat fishy. Initiate of Ash was something he should research more before going into…
Weirdly, Randidly found himself selecting the Watcher path. Although it was one that he had possessed for a long time, that was part of the appeal; it was likely a short path. And he would rather start it quickly and finish it now, while there was no obvious option, other than Path of Carnage I. But that might take a while, and it would be good to get it out of the way.
When he placed the first point into it, to his surprise, a fuzzy notification appeared in front of him. Apparently it was a good thing that he had waited to take more of the potion.
Warning! Selecting Watcher: 0/??? Will result in the loss of the ????? Path. These paths are mutually exclusive. Do you wish to continue?
Randidly hesitated for a small moment and then clicked no. If they were mutually exclusive...and with a lame name like Watcher…. Perhaps it would be more fun to gamble on the random one? It would likely have a similar PP requirement.
So Randidly backed out, chose the all ????’s path, and selected yes at the notification. Only to be faced with another notification.
Warning! There has been an error in the establishment of the ????? path. Certain prerequisites have been lost. Development of a related path is possible. Warning, if you continue with insufficient fuel, death or other side effects may result. Do you wish to continue?
After taking a deep breath, Randidly reached within himself, finding those slender threads of Aether. He could see how they spawned from that strange source held in his chest, growing thicker by the day. The source, too, seemed somewhat larger, pulsing with its sickly light. It burned and frothed, then frosted and cracked, flowing into every corner of him. His body was lousy with the stuff.
Grinning, Randidly clicked yes.
Against his will, Randidly’s body shuddered and twisted. The Aether in his chest began to burn hot. The feeling in his fingers and toes quickly disappeared, and blackness slowly consumed the edges of his vision. The walls of the small room began to swim, and Randidly suddenly felt a pang in his stomach.
Perhaps he had just made a terrible mistake.
In the next moment, the energy in his chest froze solid, and he couldn’t breath, and his fingers began to dance and twitch, filled with a fiery energy. He growled huskily, the only noise he could force out of his seized chest. The energy within him began to pulse, not unseizing inside of him, but moving with a rhythm. Slowly, that rhythm aligned with Randidly’s heartbeat.
Without counting them, Randidly felt the heartbeats slip past, until the thrum of blood and energy in his body drove his heartrate and blood pressure up to the point he could feel the pounding in his eyes, and he felt like his eyeballs would explode outward.
But his chest slowly defrosted, and the pressure faded away, but simultaneously grew louder, thundering in his ears.
Failure, matching pair not found. Expanding database parameters….
In his stomach, the Aether began to twist and swirl, forming slowly into a cyclone. It pulled and pulled, and although he had always heard it referred to as an Aether Spring within him, he had never really understood what that meant. But now, as the Aether surged upwards, exploding out to fill his entire body, he knew.
All this time, although he had drawn some of the Aether, most of it had flowed into him and found no avenue to spread. It didn’t radiate out of his skin, but could only travel through the connections he made. Some of that Aether was lucky enough to flow along to Thron and Arbor, and other amounts went to Sam, Alana, Annie, and Mrs. Hamilton, but that was still a fraction of the potential the Aether Spring possessed.
After all, it was enough to support an entire village.
So it had gathered, deep within him, settling into a strange reservoir, packing itself tighter and tighter, forming a denser and denser mass of energy, waiting it for it to be summoned. And now that Randidly beckoned even slightly, it all rose, exploding to his aid.
It began to burn, partially of heat, partially of cold, and Randidly wanted to scream, such was the grinding, vicious pain caused by the energy inside of him. But all of his muscles seized again and he was stuck. Without moving, with a certain fatality to his mindset, he waited in his traitorous body, as the energy pulsed louder and louder. The veins in his arm stood out like bulging worms, and he saw them twitch as the energy pulsed.
Failure. No matching pair can be found. Recalculating…
The energy moved again, cracking and scattering, syphoned off somewhere. Randidly took a breath, gasping. Although his physical condition had improved, he still needed to breath.
...Well, eventually for sure, but the time he could hold his breath might be pretty impressive now…
Warning, anomaly detected. System warning-
The most recent notification appeared and disappeared, just as fast as Randidly could read it. Then he began to doubt himself, because his vision was still vibrating at the edges…
Then Randidly froze, because he felt something very distinct, and very strange. He felt hands, inside of him. They were soft, and the fingers were long, reaching slowly inside of him and gathering up the strands of wild Aether, moving them and weaving them. Each finger acted with the utmost dexterity, holding various strands in place while the hands moved. Their was a grace to its actions that made Randidly shake his head in wonder.
Or at least he would have, had the Aether allowed him to move.
As this process was going on, the hairs on Randidly’s body stood straight up, but he couldn’t turn his attention away as the hands continued to work on the Aether within him. Although it wasn’t something Randidly currently understood… it made him wonder.
What were these hands doing? And obviously, more importantly… where had they come from?