The 24 hour period ended with only a single Tassle remaining; the Ghosthound’s. Helen shed a single tear, then blushed furiously, even though basically no one was paying attention to her.
The strange part was that just when her tension was highest, the Tassle on the 19th Pole fell, drifting slowly down. Then, a few minutes later, the orange Tassle on the Ghosthound’s pole dropped too, leaving only a single survivor.
The emerald and gold colors were eye catching, and not in a good way. There was a lot of frantic whispers as it emerged as the only remaining Tassle. When it remained through the 24 hours, there was no celebration, only a certain sense of relief. They could finally move on, after all, there was still a second half of the preliminary that would take place tomorrow.
When he left, the Ghosthound was limping slowly, his shoulders visibly knotted and tense, and his arms held uncomfortably at his sides. There was a slight tremble to his movements. Helen’s first instinct was to run to him and offer some help but…
Then she saw his eyes. They absolutely burned, so much so that she was rooted to her spot in the stands as he approached. It was as though something deep within him was finally revealed by the Challenge of Tarnak. Something primal and unrelenting. The Ghosthound had always been a ridiculously dedicated individual, who spent most of his time training. But now…
He looked like the naked head of a spear, shiny and pure, a forged instrument of war with a single purpose.
God, it made her fucking horny as shit.
The old man from the Steel Feather Style straightened as the Ghosthound approached, all signs of intoxication and revelry falling away from his face, revealing a chiseled and lined face filled with strength. Almost immediately, the feeling in the air changed, charged by the powerful spear intent that this man emitted naturally. It was so much that the air grew cold. The Ghosthound immediately turned, facing the man, and the crowd between them parted.
As the surrounding people slowly fell silent, their gazes locked on the Ghosthound, the old man smiled. “Congratulations, boy. I am Aethon Thai. On behalf of the Regional Association of Northern Styles, I am here to grant you with the reward for passing the entire Challenge of Tarnak, and for being the final remaining competitor in the first part of the preliminaries.”
Here Aethon paused, then grinned wildly. “I am glad. There were some…. disciples from the top tier Styles that snuck in the preliminaries for this reward. The fact that you were able to stoically endure even through their designs on this reward… gives me hope for the Northern Region. We cannot simply rely on the highest level Styles for our strength. The importance of the development of the unaffiliated Spear Users is paramount. Do you have a Style, boy?”
The Ghosthound nodded slowly, looking slowly around at the surrounding individuals. “I am a member of the Spear Phantom Style.”
Someone in the crowd breathed in sharply, while others looked around in confusion.
Aethon’s eyes twitched, but otherwise his gaze remained the same. “A young Style… but also one I had thought already had died. Interesting. Take your reward and rest, boy. For tomorrow too, you will be expected to exceed expectations. Otherwise you will be forgotten like a passing breeze.”
Aethon offered a small box to the Ghosthound, who took it, and slowly turned away. An attendant approached and offered him his spatial ring. Claptrap was packing up, and the male spear attendant drifted downwards, heading for the Ghosthound.
Helen awoke with a start, and quickly followed. She felt eyes on her, lingering on her curves, even through her indescribably shitty leather outfit. Her face flushed, but her eyes were locked on the Ghosthound.
As she arrived at his side, her mental voice was swearing profusely, telling her to offer some sort of help, some sort of assistance as the Ghosthound limped slowly forward. He was clearly recovering, his monstrous recovery speed revealing itself, but still, he had been pushed to the edge of his capabilities for 24 hours. Anyone would be drained and exhausted. She should… she should fucking do something, and not just stand here like a fucking cunt-
They had walked some distance away, and the curious merchants and vice leaders of Styles turned away and began to discuss what had happened. Only now did the Ghosthound open his mouth, his voice low and even.
“Uh, fuck you look like shit.” Helen blurted out, then glared at him, for making her feel so simultaneously mortified and weirdly affectionate.
The Ghosthound just smiled. “Your arm.”
Helen opened her mouth, then thought better of it, and simply held up her arm for him. He placed his hand on top of it, extremely lightly, like the weight of a falling leaf blown off a tree by a breeze, extremely unobtrusive. But she could feel, through that small touch, a strange trembling of his body, demonstrating how close he was to his limits.
Flushing with even more embarrassment, Helen somehow was able to close her mouth and look at the ground. And so they walked the remaining distance back to their lodgings, with all of Helen’s focus wrapped up in that small tremble in the Ghosthound’s body.
Randidly gaped, looking at the small belt inside of the box.
Master’s Fine Leather Belt Lvl 49: Leather armor lovingly processed and worked into a belt. Made with the skin of a cursed Werewolf. Vit +5, Str +5, Agi +5, Willpower -5, Health +100. Runic Stitching II.
Engraving of Reflection III 90% ®: The wearer easily finds their center, and has increased powers of self reflection. Ability to shape images is slightly increased. Concentration of the wearer is increased by 20%. Wearer gains Aspect of Reflection IV.
Aspect of Reflection IV: Willpower +15, Resistance +15, Wisdom +9
Runic Stitching II: The Master who worked the leather of the belt has developed her own basic personal process of Leatherworking, and benefits begin to accrue within the armor. Focus +4, Perception +10.
Randidly breathed slowly, his eyes glittering. So this was the level of Engraving for the guilds. Not only the Engraving, but the base materials were incomparable with what he was currently working with. The belt itself was +24 to his stats, and an additional +100 to his health, before the Engraving was added.
And the Engraving itself… not only did it reference an increased ability to shape images, but also the bonus of improving concentration by 20%? How would that even work? And an additional +39 stats….?
Truly, it was a monstrous gift. Randidly could understand why even the disciples of the larger Styles were willing to go through the Challenge of Tarnak in order to obtain it. It was truly a qualitative step forward, simply by wearing this equipment. Randidly reminded himself that he needed to push his way forward to the point that he could Engrave an entire set of armor for himself, but that would need to wait.
Besides, they were not permitted to have any real equipment on during the preliminary, aside from their spear. So it wouldn’t necessarily increase his chances of passing the next level of the preliminary tomorrow, but it would definitely help him moving forward, as the tournament continues. It would be invaluable.
Slowly, Randidly wrapped the belt around his hips, tightening it and equipping it. Randidly blinked slowly, feeling it immediately, the sudden rush of clarity that suffused him. His mind seemed sharper, more robust and focused. It was…. incredible. As his breathing increased in speed, Randidly looked at his stats.
Health(/R per hour): 1322/1364 [+118] (491 [+27])
Mana(/R per hour): 649/1484 [+5] (133.75 [+9])
Stam(/R per min): 1233/1495 (210 [+9])
Vit: 142 [+9]
Str: 110 [+17]
Agi: 131 [+17]
Perception: 100 [+10]
Resistance: 89 [+15]
Willpower: 133 [+10]
Wisdom: 56 [+9]
Focus: 149 [+4]
Equipment: Average Leather Tunic Lvl 5: (+2 Vit), Gloves of Quickness (Vit +1. Agi +3), Necklace of the Shadow Cat Lvl 20 ®: (Vitality +1, Strength +2, Agility +7) Master’s Fine Leather Belt Lvl 49 (Vit +5, Str +5, Agi +5, WP +10, Resist +15, Wis +9, Focus +4, Per +10, Health +100)
Randidly couldn’t help but be pleased. It was a powerful addition, and it was something that was worth more than all of his other equipment combined. Perhaps even more valuable than the stats, too, was the increase in concentration, which felt like a palpable rush of increased mental power.
He went to remove it, then hesitated. Randidly’s mouth parted in a brutal grin. No… he would keep the belt on. After all, what came next would perhaps be the time he most needed access to that increased concentration. Perhaps he was building this up to be nothing, but…
Randidly felt that with a single PP, he was about to finally meet the creator of these bells and locks. And he would destroy every single one of their carefully laid plans.