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Shal stood cautiously. After staying in the dungeon for a week, he was slowly absorbing the thicker Aether in the air, allowing him to move around like a real person, rather than an invalid. He nodded decisively; a spear user was truly only half a man if he was not in control of his capabilities.

Then Shal frowned, as he thought of his disciple, wandering around, attempting to succeed in the Regional Tournament on his own. Gritting his teeth, Shal forced down his frustrations with his disciple, and his guilt over his father’s legacy, and his bitterness that he had to rely on another.

These emotions were not helpful. And if he was honest with himself, he had to admit that he wouldn’t be able to assist his disciple anyways, as anything more than a last minute coach. His actual influence, especially in the preliminaries, would be extremely small. Perhaps when the actual tournament started, his advice would be more useful, but when Randidly was just battling against riff raff…

Divveltian sat to the side, humming and moving his finger, like he always did. Ever since he had been exposed to the Aether produced by Shal’s disciple, Divveltian’s abilities had skyrocketed. Shal had a sneaking suspicion that he had been able to improve his self-created move, and was even now refining it further.

In his heart, Shal was bitter that he had been so focused on stopping the wild energy emerging from his disciple that he hadn’t thought to absorb very much of it for himself. If he had, his and Pronto’s self-created style…

Pronto, standing over the woman’s body, still just a boy, a guilty smile on his face. “It was necessary. You’ll help me convince father, won’t you?”

“P, you can’t keep doing this-!”

“Relax, this will be the last time. I can control it.”

A twig snapping brought Shal back to himself. Marco Polo ambled out of the bushes, carrying some of those poison spitting frogs, hanging from a rope. Although they had a very weird aftertaste, their meat was rather tasty, and Shal couldn’t complain about it.

Marco Polo’s arrival, of course, was why Shal had made the decision to leave so suddenly. Because Shal had told Marco Polo when they split up that he would appreciate it very much if he went to the border of the Spearman School’s lands and inquired after a certain individual.

Shal sought information about the woman who had cursed his family, Lucrecia. And Marco Polo returned, bearing news about her movements and location. Apparently she had set herself up as a vice-leader of a Style in the Heart School lands.

Instantly, Shal had known that he needed his strength to be at its peak, higher than it had ever been in the past, if he were to stand a chance against her. Even in the past, it seemed that she was an individual that Aemont didn’t want to challenge, for in the lead up to Aemont and Pronto heading to see Haelthing, Shal begged. He begged them to go after that woman instead, because Shal was so sure that she was the source.

His father had given Shal a long look, and then left, stony lipped. Shal needed to be stronger than his father. He could not truly fill the Spear Phantom’s shoes, as demonstrated by his lack of comprehension of the moves, but there were some prices that he was willing to pay that would make up those deficiencies.

For now, however, he simply needed to wait, as his body adjusted itself. The time dilation was much smaller in this dungeon than the prison, so his Aether connection should recover a small bit. Then, clearing this dungeon would give him a pool of Aether that could sustain him for a while as he healed the rest of the way.

One fact tugged at him, however, making him very wary.

Marco Polo sat around the first, laughing and smiling, and began to cook the frogs.

Although he had likely been inside the prison for the longest, Marco Polo showed no signs of Aether Sickness, either now or while they were outside the dungeon. He seemed completely at ease.

Whether it was a coincidence, or something more sinister… Shal wasn’t sure. But it didn’t matter. As long as this man could lead him to Lucrecia… he would hold hands with the devil if he had to. His goal was more important to him than his integrity.

*****

In the predawn light, Randidly slowly opened his eyes. He had checked on the two wisps, and they seemed fine, enjoying each other’s company. They still slowly became dimmer without him, but with two of them, the process took a lot longer. So at least he didn’t need to worry about that.

Today was the day of the start of the Preliminaries. Already, Randidly was nervous, but he tried to breathe those nerves away, slowly inhaling and exhaling. As he did so, Randidly opened his status screen. Due to his earlier suspicions, he had ceased the black potion since they had arrived at Deardun, but it did not appear that any changes had happened in his body.

Randidly now basically could ignore the notifications anyway, but the small golden locks in his body remained. He still remained barred from his soul skill. Perhaps they were related, and perhaps they weren’t. But Randidly decided that he would no longer take the potion, unless it was necessary. He believed that his two years with the notificationless system in the prison had done enough to change his mindset. Now, he was focused on improving his actions, and skill levels would simply follow. It was that simple.

Over the past few days, Randidly had gained 2 Skill Levels in the Inevitable Phantom Arrives, 1 in Eyes of the Spear Phantom and Phantom Half-Step, 4 in Battle Intent, 3 in Struggle, 6 in the Golden Roots of Yggdrasil, 2 in Body Control: Freeze, 3 in Physical Fitness, 10 in Extract, and 2 in Mental Fortitude.

After a brief moment of hesitation, Randidly gritted his teeth and put the PP in the Weeping that Falls like Rain Path. His chest heated up, and he viciously smashed against it with his Battle Intent. Unfortunately, the restriction on his Soul Skill prevented him from influencing the process, so it spun wildly, a strange force building up in his chest.

Groaning, Randidly got up and stumbled to the other side of the room, where he knelt over a basin filled with water. Slowly, carefully, as his body began to tremble, he dipped his face in the water, sinking into the cool liquid.

The pain was vicious, just as vicious as what happened the first time this occurred. It felt like he would slowly be torn apart by it. His whole body would rupture, he would collapse…

But Randidly knew, deep in his heart, that he wouldn’t die from this pain. After all, someone was directly influencing his growth, and he had grown quite a bit to reach this point. That person would not likely spite Randidly into dying, just for extracting that strange emerald wisp from a crystal inside of himself.

Or at least, Randidly hoped that individual wouldn’t. Because if they did, there really didn’t appear to be anything he could do. Although he had some ideas of how to spite the process for that individual when they tried to put it into action, he wasn’t sure how to force the other to move, other than finishing this path.

Sure enough, after a time, the pain started to fade. Randidly slowly removed his face from the liquid, which had warmed quite a bit as he held his face there. He grimly smiled; if he had still been on Earth, if things hadn’t changed… he probably would have crushed the world record in holding your breath about 10 times over.

There were more things that Randidly wanted to do before the tournament, but they could probably wait. He waited to attempt to create armor with the Shadow IV rune, but Randidly didn’t think he had the technical skill, the mana, or the proper armor for it yet anyway. He also wanted to immerse himself more deeply in the Spear Phantom’s diary, moving towards the 5th skill, but the mental strain, even with the Weeping Cloud, was such that he hadn’t attempted it too seriously over the past few days, allowing his body and mind time to reach its optimum state.

There was a knock at the door.

“Are you prepared?” For once, Helen’s voice was low and serious. Randidly stood, stretched, and gathered his items. They had already been informed that the only thing you could bring to the Preliminary was a spear. All other items had to be left behind. One by one, Randidly removed his rings. He had wanted to create more of these, too, and focus on improving their efficacy. But for now, this would have to do.

“Yes.”

Randidly went with his spear attendants, proceeding to the area of the preliminaries, which had been surrounded by guards for months, according to Claptrap. The area was covered by a huge dome, and only after he had said goodbye to his spear attendants and been searched for any other items, was he let inside of it.

His large, black obsidian spear was given some knowing looks, but the people running the preliminaries appeared to be professionals, for they said nothing.

Inside, there was… a series of what Randidly could only describe as half constructed buildings. There were huge edifices of stone, but they were surrounded by scaffolding. There were also other areas where laborers appeared to be still working, throwing up walls at a visible speed. It all seemed… honestly rather haphazard, for the tournament that was the highest level tournament for the younger generations in the Northern Region.

But Randidly was swiftly whisked away, and brought to another area where he was weighed and measured. Most interestingly he was measured, not by pure height, but height to his shoulders, and then also to the tips of his fingers when he stretched his arms directly upwards. Then he was brought to a room and told to wait.

He looked around. Over 100 men and women waited with him, all meditating or stretching, as more continued to trickle in. There was an aura to the room too, swirling, of power and tension. So this…

This was his competition.

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