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Helen looked at the ceramic mug with a mixed expression. It certainly had a weight and craftsmanship to it that spoke of wealth. Claptrap seemed very excited about them, so he had given her one of the new Ghosthound mugs. His emerald and gold banner was emblazoned on the front of the cup, with his name and Style on the backside.

Helen turned it over. On the bottom of the cup was a giant C, which stood for Claptrap’s new “company”. It was ostentatious, but… Helen could somewhat understand why people would be drawn to them. Holding it felt like a constant statement. She was a person who supported the Ghosthound.

Helen blushed reflexively and resisted the urge to smash the heavy ceramic mug on the ground. This motherfucker, making her blush even when he was off on stage, beating up another women…

Which honestly turned Helen on more than she would like to admit, but she consoled herself that-

“Helen?”

A familiar voice sent a spike of tension up her spine, and she spun slowly to find a familiar face standing in front of her.

“Ikaas.”

Ikaas, a younger female cousin on her mother’s side, was looking at her with wide eyes. The girl wasn’t quite as attractive as Helen’s mother, or Helen, but still had the same innocent eyes and feminine body that drew the lecherous eyes of men. For that reason, when they were little, Ikaas would hang around Helen alot, hiding behind her back.

But as Helen grew, and became more and more wild and impatient, Ikaas’s reserved personality couldn’t survive near her any longer, and they had slowly drifted apart. But Helen still was relatively positively disposed towards her younger, innocent cousin. But her presence was still a shadow on Helen’s heart.

Because Ikaas would never have come here alone.

“Oh Helen! We’ve been so worried about you! When you ran away from home, the whole leatherworking district was searching! Are you okay? We need-”

“Yes, yes,” Helen said, waving her hand, as if to brush away the worry in Ikaas’ face. “I’m fine I… ah, became a spear attendant to a powerful individual. It has only been a few weeks, after all, you guys didn’t need to get so worked up.”

Ikaas looked at her reprovingly. “You know how your mother is. Especially… when Kanan was pushing so hard toward marrying you.”

Helen wanted to vomit. She knew the blessed son of the Style near their Leather District had his eyes on her for a long time. She just hadn’t believed his family would stoop to allowing him to actually propose, which was simultaneously an insult and a comfort. But if Ikaas picked up on it too, then word must have spread far, without the Style stamping the rumors out.

“Your mother has fought hard for you, you know, you should thank her.” Ikaas added. “Giving you time to decide, protecting your decision to consider…”

Helen snorted. “Well then thank her for me. It’s good to have a few weeks of time before I get shacked up with some dickwad. But I need to go, Ikaas. Tell her-”

Helen,” Ikaas, said, her innocent eyes widening comically. “You can’t… if your mother knows I saw you and didn’t bring you back… I… I…”

‘Develop some backbone, you stupid cow,’ Helen thought to herself, but aloud she simply snorted. Then, as the many memories of protecting this girl when they were younger floated to the surface, she could only sigh.

And to her surprise, Helen decided to go see her mother.

*****

Randidly breathed in the darkness of the underground room. He only had a small amount of time, between when the 2nd round ended and the 3rd round began to recover his strength. He hadn’t expended much effort in the last match, but he also hadn’t been able to get much practice with the Spear Phantom’s Embrace, due to Dian’s weird skill.

But that didn’t mean that it was a waste of time. Randidly had gained 2 levels in Physical Fitness and Battle Intent, 3 in Meditation and the Golden Roots of Yggdrasil, 1 in Wall of Thorns, 1 in Haste, 2 in Heavy Blow, and 1 in Second Wind and Bacterial Regeneration. It wasn’t all that much in terms of the large hauls he had gotten the past few days, but he had been knocked out for a couple of those breaks, without giving him the chance to improve himself at all.

Not that this really improved himself, he could simply spend the PP, which earned him 2 Vitality from his Path, but nothing else. But that extra bit was better than nothing.

And very quickly the round was over. There was a brief period where they tallied the different wins and losses, and then the bearded referee stood before the remaining contestants and cleared his throat. Randidly spared a glance for those around him. It seemed like…

“This… may be the final round of the qualifier. Based on our current numbers, we will have a few less than 40 fighters remaining after this next match should things… ah… go as we predict them. If we are above 32 individuals, we shall have the 4th round, just for the individuals who have 2 losses. Based on how many spaces we need, those of you who… have performed the best, will be given a bye.”

The bearded referee eyed the crowd. “After that, there will be a day of rest, before the tournament will begin. Do your best out there. And even if your performance isn’t what you hoped for… all of you here should still be proud of yourself. You are the next generation of spear users. You are the hope in the face of the rising Calamity. Do not be too hard on yourself. Train, and gain experience, and soon you will undoubtedly surpass your peers who had more luck early on in their careers.”

For some reason, it seemed that the bearded man was looking directly at Randidly as he said this last line. Then, with great care, he raised his scroll and read two names, the first two who would fight first, on the first stage.

“Drak Wyrd. Randidly Ghosthound.”

Randidly perked up, not just because of his name, but because he recognized the other name. His eyes narrowed into slits. This...

This opponent was the one that even the seeded fighters whispered about in fear. The man who most believed would win the tournament without effort.

Drak Wyrd.

They stood as one, and their eyes met. Randidly was slightly taller than the opposite man, but was slightly more slender, while the other was covered in thick slabs of muscles. Drak’s head was shaven, and his expression was mild.

Drak nodded, and began to walk towards the stairs. Frowning, Randidly moved opposite him. But to his surprise, a person appeared, not in front of him, but in front of Drak.

Azriel, her blood red eyes and silver hair glaring daggers at Drak. The two stopped, and Randidly slowed, confused. Drak and Azriel quietly exchanged a few words, and then parted. Afterwards, Azriel turned and looked at Randidly, smiling at him in the way the creepy kid smiles at the pets of strangers.

Randidly shivered, and hurried up onto the stage.

The referee standing there looked at them both. “Are the fighters ready?”

When they came face to face, on the stage, it was clear to Randidly that this opponent was strong. His eyes were a dark mahogany, a slippery, chocolate darkness. He wasn’t particularly handsome, or refined, or arrogant looking, like Randidly would have associated with the number one favorite to win the tournament.

He just seemed grounded, and self-assured, which was somehow a thousand times more intimidating.

But then Drak opened his mouth, and spoke. “I concede.”

****

The Yeti’s bushy brows were furrowed. He had sent his entire force out in front of him, leaving the prison, hoping to clear a path. But when he left the portal, with the last of his forces, he found… his connection to the others had been wiped out.

They had been defeated.

There were no bodies. There was only a woman, with long, light purple hair, clad in a thin white robe. She smiled at him, almost eager, her smile inviting. The Yeti’s heart grew cold.

“You… do you dare interfere in the execution of Judgement?”

“Yes.” Her answer was simple, but her voice was breathy and damp, like a breeze coming out of a cavern.

The Yeti raised his hammers, the gold engravings flashing. “Then accept that same fate.”

As he charged towards her, time seemed to slow. She laughed coquettishly, then curtsied. “My name is Lucretia. It is very nice to meet you. Now be a doll, and give me your Aether, won’t you?”

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