“What is the level of your strength stat?”
Randidly looked up, frowning. One of the attendants was standing next to one of his competitors quite a distance away, but all the competitors were going about their preparations in silence, so the words carried.
The man in question, a rather bulky fellow with an orange tint to his skin, squinted at the attendant, who was a rather slender man, as if he couldn't’ figure out what to do. The attendant stood there calmly, looking at the bulkier man with placid eyes.
“...Is this a joke?” The man said, looking around at the other people for support. He was summarily ignored. Everyone kept their eyes closed, focusing their attentions on keeping themselves in the most ideal condition possible. “You haven’t asked anyone else, why are you-”
“We shall ask everyone else.” The attendant interrupted. “You are simply the first to be questioned. In a way, it is an honor. You are free to round the amount of your strength, but you must tell me. It is part of the preliminaries.”
The man seemed to puff out his chest, then he examined the attendant’s official robe, and hesitated. He looked around, trying to be covert, but everyone had opened their eyes and focused their attention by now. In the last hour, more and more people had poured in, until there was almost 1000 people crowded into this space. All those gazes landed on the orange skinned man.
To be first was to be judged by everyone else who followed.
The man coughed into his hand. “80. My strength is near 80. But my skills-”
“Irrelevant.” The attendant made a note and then gave the man a small piece of paper. “This is your group number. Proceed outside and other attendants will show you the way. Next.”
As the man was led away, people began to amble forward, confident and ready to get out of this dumb waiting game. In a way, Randidly understood. This was certainly not what he had expected when had come today for the tournament. It would have been much more fruitfully spent time if he had been able to bring the Engraving encyclopedias into the arena. At least then he would have been able to do some light reading as he waited.
As it was, Randidly had been simply playing with the green wisps in his chest, which had once more grown brighter. He had also tried to be as circumspect as he could as he had examined the energies inside of himself, that were barred to him. The cold death energy, ash, rot, and now rain…
It was slowly becoming clear that these were to become a cycle of seasons. The small packet of energy of the Lonesome Spear Path was there, and it appeared that the emerald crystals, which were packed with the strange wisps, also would play a role. Ideally, if Randidly could figure out before it happened what was going on, he could frustrate it that much more effectively. But he couldn’t figure out how they all fit together.
More and more of the participants walked forward and gave their totals. Most of the strength of the people ended up being around 90, with some as low as 60, and others as high as 140. It seemed that there was a lot of variance in the distribution. Although it was clear that most people were lying. The only difficult part was determining whether they were lying to raise their potential and appear imposing, or to lower theirs and appear unassuming.
Either way, Randidly ignored it, grappling with a much more disturbing question: when had he started imbuing his images with time…?
It was clearly after he started training with Shal. Time was how he interpreted the power of the Spear Phantom. But was that image suggested to him somehow by a path? By the skill itself…? Randidly didn’t doubt himself, but those hands had worked some magic of Aether in his chest. Had it subtly influenced his decisions even more deeply than he had thought…?
But in this respect, at least, Randidly already had some notions of how to interfere in the evolution of his Soul Skill, which he suspected this was all leading up to. He would test some things in the duels that were likely to come, but Randidly was also worried about some form of surveillance on him. It would be better to spring it suddenly…
But he only had 34 PP until this Path was finished, so it wasn’t like he would have much time to scheme. So he played with the energies, watching their emerald color sparkle and grow. What was interesting was that the longer he played with them, the more Randidly was able to differentiate between them. His original one, as he still thought of it, was filled constantly with the urge to zoom about, avoiding Randidly’s playful grabs.
The second one, which had split off from the first, was much… more hesitant, and perhaps a little bit shy. It would wait and look at what the first energy would do, and then race after it, as if hastily trying to imitate it. The second one appeared to be faster in terms of top speed, but its slow, sputtering starts greatly limited its ability to keep up with the graceful movements of the first light.
They also seemed to want something from him, although Randidly couldn’t figure out what. It was like a half heard whisper, always making Randidly cock his head and frown. He knew there was an answer, but he just couldn’t figure it out…. It was just beyond his listening…
Eventually, Randidly was forced to return to his body and focus on where he was right now, because the number of people had dwindled. Glancing around, Randidly didn’t see any familiar faces. He wondered if Dian and Tartet had been here, and he had just missed them. There were so many spear users that it was almost impossible to remember even a fraction of them.
Randidly slowly moved forward, and eventually neared the front of the line. In front of Randidly, a rather short woman stepped forward, and when she was asked her strength, she proudly said, “162!”
Although there wasn’t much noise in the room to begin with, aside from the small scratchings the attendant made on his ledger, everyone went even more quiet, the gazes of the people present moving to this woman. The attendant nodded as if this was normal, and handed her a piece of paper.
Looking about proudly, the woman left. Which allowed Randidly to stepforward.
“Strength?” The attendant asked in a bored tone.
Randidly grimaced. But honesty was probably the best policy in this case. There didn’t seem to be any harm in revealing it. Most of his Strength came from skills anyways. “100.”
It was an above average, but not shockingly so, amount. Probably just the sort of amount someone would give if they were trying to escape notice. But the Attendant didn’t care. Instead, he gave Randidly a piece of paper with the number 7 on it and shooed him away. When he left the room, he was led to the location of group 7.
Randidly was not pleased to find that the spear user who went first, with his bulky frame and orange skin, was standing there, along with a few dozen or so other spear users. They all eyed each other up, looking for weaknesses.
Breathing in slowly, Randidly narrowed his eyes. After all, these were likely the people he would have to fight to proceed to the next stage.
They were outside one of the half constructed edifices, surrounded by scaffolding. Upon closer inspection, it really did have the number 7 carved into the side of the stone. After briefly confirming that there really was no other distinguishing features of the buildings, Randidly glanced around in the surrounding areas. There were more of the same buildings, and Randidly was able to make out a 6 on the one nearest to them, where another similar group was standing around.
….well, mostly similar.
Randidly began to frown, and then turned and examined the people around him. Although in age, gender, skin color, and relative fierceness, the people were all very different. There was one aspect in which most of the people around the 7 building were very similar: height.
And the people around the 6… appeared to be slightly taller. Not so tall that it was intimidating, but likely tall enough that it would make a difference in reach. But it didn’t really make sense to Randidly. Well, it made sense why they were measured for their height, but not why they would be separated into groups by height. Although height gave some benefits in physical battle, it also included some disadvantages as well. Why would elimination be premised on your height brackets…?
The orange skinned man scanned back and forth with his eyes, a deep frown creasing his face. Finally, he spoke very slowly, talking to the group at large. “When you look at our group… and at the other groups….”
Randidly began to nod slightly, agreeing with what he was saying, even before he finished saying it. Until the man finished talking, and Randidly froze, hoping desperately that no one saw him nodding in agreement.
“...Isn’t it strange that there aren’t any beautiful women? I heard every one of the Steel Feather disciples was hot as hell- speaking of which, where are any of the disciples from the big Styles?”
The one woman in group 7, an imposing figure with a green tint to her hair, which was shaved on half of her head, simply snorted. But now some of the other members of the group were paying attention to the orange man and muttering agreement.
To Randidly’s relief, they weren’t muttering about hot women, but rather about the lack of the big Styles. Everyone turned their attention to the attendant standing by their building, who was a very, very short woman. She seemed to sense their gazes and looked up from her ledger, surprised.
“The big Styles. Where are they?” Orangy, who Randidly now almost lovingly referred to him as, grunted.
The small woman shrugged. The first part of the preliminaries isn’t necessary for those who have a requisite level of strength. It is only for those of you who came in through the qualifiers. Ah, it’s time. Come on in.”
The woman turned, but Orangy stamped his foot. “That’s-!”
“Unfair.” The woman said simply. “So is being born weak. Or to poor parents. Or with a deformity. Deal with it. And follow me in. You may of course remain outside… but that is considered a failure. And you will be removed from the testing grounds.”