Dehark, leader of the Asura Hyena Style, sneered down at the approaching duo, with his bloodthirsty troop milling about behind him. It was common knowledge that the short road to Tomkat, over which they stood, was infested with bandits worse than a mangy cat with fleas. As such, many groups gathered here, but the Asura Hyena Style was the most powerful group present, and had first dibs on any fat caravans that came past.
Still, it always brought Dehark some amount of amusement when more bottom feeders arrived, trying to make it in life as a bandit after they had failed as a spear-user. Unlike them, he had grown up in this life, and had a vicious streak that would frighten weaker hearted children to death. But these two carried themselves confidently, and the taller man had a blue tint to his skin, which indicated a relationship with someone powerful, so Dehark stayed silent for now.
The new arrivals settled down and made a fire. The blue skinned one made a curt gesture to the smaller of the two, and the other bobbed his head and walked over to some nearby people. Dehark couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but assumed they, like most waifs, were searching for a way to join a larger group. But the people they approached were not his, so he looked away, bored.
Inevitably, his eyes drifted over to the Willow Tree Spear Style Tassle, a warm yellow color, which was raised over the far side of the camp. The Willow Tree Spear Style was the only group in the area that could rival his Asura Hyena Style, and more interestingly, all of its members were women. Rumor had it that they used to be a well recognized Style in an area to the west, but they had lost a confrontation with another Style, resulting in their strength plummeting to the level where they could only support themselves by becoming bandits.
Dehark knew they were women, and knew that they were currently weak; his impulse to prey upon them howled within him, hungering for blood and soft flesh. But he didn’t become the leader of the largest bandit outfit in the area by being hasty. The Willow Tree Spear Style had truly been an affluent Style; they undoubtedly still had some strength, even if it was greatly depleted. Better to wait for them to reveal themselves, then strike.
He watched one of the members of the Willow Style talking with the newcomer, who had meandered over towards them. It was hard to tell what she was thinking, due to the veils all of the women wore, but she clearly spoke back. Dehark guffawed, slapping his knee. So they were even so desperate they would go begging women for help…? Embarrassing.
Then the newcomer gave the woman several silver coins. The woman waved her hand and produced the carcass of a wild boar. They exchanged these and parted.
Blinking at the sight, Dehark was confused. They simply were buying food…? It was extremely rare for bandits to buy food; after all, their stats allowed them to subsist on very little, even if the hunger was a constant distraction. Perhaps these two weren’t desperate so much as foolish.
Dehark filed this information away for later and his gaze returned to the golden Tassle, and the tent below it. For now, he waited.
Randidly could tell that even Shal’s interest was piqued by the way his nostrils flared as he cooked. Even some of the other bandits seemed to wander closer, eyes on the roasting pig. After rubbing some herbs on it, it certainly gave off a very attractive scent.
Randidly cut up potatoes and peppers and put them into an iron pot, which he placed under the pig. Slowly, as blood and grease fell down from the pig, it fell into the pot and began to boil the vegetables. He was unsure if this was sanitary, but he knew the flavor would likely be good for it, so he let it go.
Peaking at Shal’s face again, Randidly was surprised to find that his master’s face was quite brooding. He opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but Shal seemed to sense it, and glanced up at him. Shal’s eyes burned with a hot, wild emotion, before it was quickly smothered. Then Shal sighed.
“...You are soft. If you remain this soft, what will come after will be filled with difficulty.”
Randidly remained silent. Somehow, he knew that Shal didn’t mean the fighting. When Shal said that they had to commit crimes, he was aware of what sort of actions they would need to take. And it was true that one of the things they would need to do would be to hurt others. Likely without just cause. They would use these people as a means to enter into the prison.
Shal’s mouth quirked up. As if he had followed along Randidly’s thought process, he said, “No, you misunderstand. This part will not be so bloody, although there will likely be casualties. What follows will be difficult. The minimum sentence in the prison is 100 Years. The time dilution is about 400x, so that will take half a year; too long. We will need to break out of the prison. And to do that, we will slaughter our way through guards by the hundreds.”
Closing his eyes, Shal said, “I can manage most of the killing on my own, but the blood will be on your hands. And you will need to locate my spear. Only once I have it, do I have confidence to rail against that stronghold… We have not known each other long, but we can be considered to be involved. We have done favors for one another, our destinies are tied together. But if you find that you lack the resolve to kill… Leave tonight. I will not seek you.”
Randidly sat silently. He was here to repay what Shal had done for him, but it was true that didn’t mean he would do anything for him. Inwardly, Randidly had been wondering why more people wouldn’t use this plan, but he realized there were two reasons. One, it wasn’t necessary. Others could use dungeons. And two… It was essentially giving up your freedom for 100 years of your time, even if only 6 months passed in the real world. Leaving early was almost impossible.
But Shal seemed confident. Even so…
“Why do we do this?” Randidly asked quietly. The boar hissed and spat, grease popping off of it. The vegetables were really boiling now, and Randidly sprinkled some spices into the mixture.
“For me? A chance at meeting someone I’ve been looking for. For a very long time. For you…” Shal’s eyes opened. “The chance of power. If you make the top 4 of this tournament, you will be given access to the Hall of Stances. Thousands of the most powerful Styles have been collected there. And if you give me the opportunity I was looking for… I will give you the full inheritance of the Spear Phantom. You may be strong… and you are growing well, even without my guidance you would become formidable. But…
“But you would always just be a man who plays at using the spear. If that destiny is satisfactory… you do not need me. But this chance is just tonight. If you do not leave… I will consider you bound to me. We cannot turn back.”
Randidly looked into the fire for a long time. Then he produced a knife and sliced off long chunks of the pig’s flesh, added some of the vegetables, and wordlessly handed it to Shal. After sniffing it, Shal nibbled on the edge of some, then rapidly began devouring the rest of his plate.
After serving himself, Randidly sat down. He was tempted by what Shal offered. His insight and training had helped him improve immensely. Setting aside that Randidly wasn’t sure how to leave this planet, he considered the hard truth; was he alright with killing people to find power?
Then he remembered the words of the Path of Carnage, and shivered. Perhaps he should have taken them more seriously. But Randidly couldn’t deny how badly he wanted the power. It was what drove him to practically torture himself every day, pushing himself to the limit. That sense of loss and hopelessness. That frustration and confusion as he wanted to find his friends, but could find no methods to do so…
He craved power to overcome those emotions. To protect his small village. To resist the system that had invaded his world and killed many of the people he had known.
He had been callous in the past. He had allowed monster hordes to rage without assisting, and many people had died do to it. He didn’t assist with whatever problems Donnyton had with its sister village. Death had resulted from his inaction.
Which was different from what would happen now.
Randidly ate more slowly than Shal, who finished, then belched, and lay on the ground in a leisurely manner, relaxing. After he had eaten his fill, Randidly looked at the boar, which was barely even dented, and then looked at the hungry and predatory looks around them. Randidly stepped forward and began to gather the food into his spatial ring, when someone spoke.
“Hey now, you have so much… why not share with your big brother here? Believe me, this will go much easier if you stay on my good side.” A few men stepped forward, all holding large spears.
Randidly just stayed still, but a small fire was lit in his gut. The men smiled cruelly and approached.
“Hehe, that’s more like it, be good and we won’t- fucking shit, poison?!?” The man said, his eyes widening as he stumbled, and he quickly produced a potion and gulped it down. Randidly shrugged, but didn’t stop Pollen of the Rafflesia.
Their gazes were tinged with fear now, but that was quickly overwhelmed by anger.
“This isn’t your lucky day kid.” The first man, who had an ugly scar down his cheek, said. Then he gestured to another of the men. “My mate has a poison resistance over 30. Weaklings like you who can be countered so easily deserve to die.”
Something snapped in Randidly then. But he didn’t move. He simply smiled.
Spearing roots ripped up through the second man, boring holes in his stomach. He whimpered, his eyes wide, and the rest of the men froze. The first man seemed to be rather brave, and vindictive, because rather than run, he spun and leapt towards Randidly, his spear slashing forward.
He could almost hear Shal whispering in his ear; these weaklings did not deserve to die by the spear. So Randidly stepped forward and knocked the spear to the side with his hand, and delivered a Roundhouse Kick to the side of the man’s knee.
That man was far, far weaker than Shal, and even weaker than the average participant in the qualifier. After all, he was not valued enough to even be enrolled in a Style. So his knee cracked and popped, and he fell to the ground screaming.
Randidly had forgotten that this was not Earth. Here, strength was everything. People would kill for a scrap of food. With the anger hot in his belly, Randidly stepped forward with fire in his eyes. Life was not an incredibly precious thing. It was worth less than a slab of bacon.
That was what the system did. It transformed you. It transformed your world into a place where you either killed for strength or died to someone who wanted it more than you. Just like Randidly’s strength was rising, so was the strength of the System aiming against them. Shal spoke of Calamities. Raid Bosses were growing in strength. Eventually, the walls of the Zone Donnyton was in would come down.
If Randidly had insufficient strength at that point… he would never have another shot. He was already taking enough of a risk by refusing to capitulate to the system and receive a class, for now at least. As such…
...He needed to seize every opportunity presented to him. Or he would inevitably die.