Abruptly, Randidly realized that the entire crowd had fallen silent as this small girl spoke. Even the referee stood at the side deferentially. And there was something in the air... a palpable energy around Azriel. Randidly couldn't find himself to disbelieve that this individual was one of the favorites to win the tournament. Her Battle Intent-
His eyes narrowed. That's what this was. Artisan. An Artisan level.
Aether began to roar as it swiftly flowed through him, to his fingertips and toes, his entire body trembling. His previous match was against a rather weak disciple, and now....
"So too," Azriel said, her gaze sharpening. "You will be judged. If your results are insufficient... you can only blame your own weakness."
"Are both Spear users ready?" The referee said, stepping forward. Azriel said nothing. Randidly nodded.
There was a half moment, and then Randidly's instincts kicked in, screaming at him. Haste, Empower, Mana Strengthening, and the active version of the Golden Roots of Yggdrasil snapped on, burning as much Mana and Stamina as he needed to activate all the skills that would improve his body, so he could dodge to the side.
But Azriel was already there, her slender needle spear aiming for his throat. This amount of speed.... it made Randidly embarrassed to think about his own skill, the Spear Advances, Ash Trails. This brooked no resistance. It was rapid and precise, and even Randidly's powerful senses hadn't realized she had moved until she had arrived.
There wasn't an image used, but the air behind Azriel vibrated with power. It was like an unstoppable asteroid, like the one that descended and murdered all of Earth's dinosaurs, millions of years ago. Unavoidable, a force of nature, preordained.
But Randidly was experienced in those feelings, from his own images, and although the strength of his Battle Intent was severely lacking, his focus on those particular emotions were what he focused on. He wasn't about to be discouraged by just that.
In his chest, the bundle of Aether that was his skill Rejection burned with resentment and unwillingness. Not like this... he wouldn't just lose like this...
A deep vibration emerged from his Aether, surprising Randidly, but there was no time to think about it any further, because this needle spear had arrived, and there was no more time.
Azriel streaked past, then stopped, turning and regarding Randidly.
His chest was heaving, and his eyes were wide. Although power was coursing through his limbs, it wasn't enough. The needle had ripped a hole in the muscle of his upper shoulder, entering his body right above his collarbone on the left side.
But had he not reacted as quickly, the attack would have taken him in the neck, perhaps ending him permanently. It was difficult to admit, but all of his effort amounted to only 4 inches before this woman.
Much to Randidly's surprise, her eyes began to glow with an unholy red light.
With a smile on her face, Azriel began streaking back and forth in a zigzag pattern, making it impossible for Randidly, even with Eyes of the Spear Phantom, to track her. In a way it was a slow approach, as she weaved forward and away from him, but in another it was still frighteningly fast. But before his eyes could recognize the small girl went on the offensive, Azriel and her needle were there, slashing at him.
This time, Randidly used Phantom Half-Step several times in succession, creating some distance. It allowed him the precious moments he needed to find his feet and prepare to avoid her attacks.
Which Randidly was able to, barely, on her next two strikes. But Azriel continued to accelerate. And accelerate, and accelerate...
Randidly woke with a start. Then he swore.
"Thirty-seven seconds, the match lasted. Quite impressive, all things considered. Still the shortest match the 5 Princes participated in, but you certainly had the most ferocious opponent, if not the strongest."
Randidly looked up to find the bearded man who had served as the announcer for the tournament looking down at him. Seeing the comprehension in Randidly's gaze, the referee nodded. "I'm just here to confirm, do you still wish to continue? The next round is about to start.”
Standing up, Randidly grimaced. The amount of damage he had taken was not small. Several holes and gashes, although bandaged, were still in the process of knitting themselves together. Slowly, Randidly eased himself back down onto the bench. “Yes. But I’ll stay here until my name gets called.”
The referee gave him a pitying look. “You are now a known affront to the honor of the larger Styles, Ghosthound. Do you think you can rest? But truthfully, there is a bigger fish in their eyes. Of the 5 Princes, there was one that actually won against the upper cream of the Styles’ disciples.”
After leaving Randidly’s side, the referee went to the front of the crowd and began the third round immediately. The first two names included one that made Randidly’s eyes narrow: Dian.
So… did that mean that she had advanced to the point where she could rival that level of existence in battle…? Was she the “Prince” that actually won…? It was a scary thought. Although it was true that there was a formidable power in her strange energy that could consume matter. If it became more powerful…
Then Randidly couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection between her rapid improvement and her status as the disciple of Haelthing the Devourer. Had she, like him, spent a large amount of time inside an area with time dilation, and grown powerful before the tournament…? Had she been able to ignore the dangers of a waning connection to a village…?
Still, Randidly didn’t believe that their situations were the same. Too many strange coincidences occurred in his rise to his current position for him to believe that it was a common happening. 100 small things that pushed him in a certain direction, culminating in him creating a world inside of himself that functioned as a Soul Skill.
Hundreds of small nudges-
Randidly blinked, then gritted his teeth and sat upwards, forcing himself to his feet. With an apologetic look, the referee glanced over towards Randidly, and their eyes met. So this was why the referee seemed to be hopeless about his chances to recover. He knew that Randidly’s would be the second match.
He hadn’t even heard his opponent’s name, but simply recognized his own. But as he stood, he saw a looming figure, perhaps above 2 meters in height, carrying a dark spear that was similar in size with Randidly’s obsidian monstrosity. But then Randidly closed his eyes, focusing on the walking.
There wasn’t much time, but he did have about 60 seconds before he would be up on stage and the fight would begin. In that time…
Aether began to whirl through his body. There was even a faint disturbance in the air around him, which caused some of the other participants to look up sharply, and then become confused, as they saw nothing but a wounded preliminary qualifier. But there was still a strange feel in the air, as if something very important had occurred there.
Beneath Randidly, spreading out below him, was a huge network of golden roots, stretching out further and further, sinking deeper into the earth, dragging up the energy of the land to fuel his recovery as much as possible. The bonus was rather small, all things considered, but having Golden Roots of Yggdrasil active increased the efficacy his Vitality had when aiding recovery. And of all of his physical stats, his Vitality was the most impressive.
Although his HP had returned to levels that were acceptable for the fight, that wasn’t the concern here. Instead, Randidly’s body was littered with lingering structural damage from his fight earlier. Not only was the strange needle spear that his opponent had used fast and powerful, but it seemed to disseminate a strange energy that made it more difficult for his body to recover. Although his health appeared acceptable, his ability to move and react was severely hampered.
But that golden light rushed up into him, filling him with renewed vigor, his bare feet dragging on the ground as he walked. His stamina burned away quickly, but his mana began to gather, quickly returning to maximum. He hadn’t used much in the previous match, after all. More and more, faster and faster, warmer and warmer, hotter and hotter…
Aether hummed inside of him, seemingly satisfied, as Randidly slowly ascended to the stage. His opponent was waiting there, but apparently not for long, and apparently he felt nothing about Randidly’s somewhat tardy arrival.
His opponent’s long black hair was pulled back into a ponytail that fell down from his staggering stature to the ground, demonstrating a length that was somewhat impressive. But what was most noticeable were his opponent’s eyes. Dark and soft, but extremely attentive as they seemed to devour every detail of his movements. In a way, this was the most unfortunate opponent for Randidly right now. This man clearly truly viewed him as an opponent, and wasn’t the type to become overconfident.
Randidly wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
“Are both fighters ready?” The female referee asked. The crowd cheered loudly, and Randidly could discern chants of ‘Kill the Prince’ among the fanbase. But he also saw Claptrap’s henchmen selling concessions food, which gave him a small glimmer of a smile.
And at that moment, Randidly’s smile widened, because he knew that he was not alone, and he reached and touched the connections he had to Sam, Mrs. Hamilton, Annie, and Alana. His plant children Arbor and Thorn. Thin, cooler, lines of energy joined the golden whirlpool that was rushing towards him, slowly mending his body.
His opponent nodded seriously, eyes glittering. Coughing as his stamina hit zero, Randidly also nodded, basically devoid of his ability to move. But his body felt whole and healthy, and Second Wind was humming along steady.
“Then begin.” The woman announced.