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Islinda, mother to Helen, watched this interaction with incredible focus. When she was younger, she too was beautiful, but nowhere near so much as Helen was. When her daughter began to blossom into her body, at an age before she could understand it, Islinda had become very adept at studying the attention that men gave Helen.

It was less a useful skill now, when Helen would scare away any halfway decent man that gave her the time of day, but…

Her eyes didn’t miss the glance and understanding the two exchanged. There was some level of intimacy there. Maybe…?

Islinda nodded, approvingly. He was cute enough, even if his skin was weirdly pink. He would certainly make a good son in law. But what was less encouraging was that he simply stood towards the back with his arms crossed, satisfied with letting the fight continue, as it was. Helen launched herself forward, a weird grace to her actions, her spear seeming to bend around blocks to strike at Derk.

Derk responded with brutal efficiency, crushing her strikes and bullying her backwards, although he too eyed the new arrival carefully. The man who had helped Helen was tall, with long, shaggy black hair. His arms were muscled in such a way that there could be no mistaking he was a spear user who trained his body well, even if he wasn’t otherwise talented. His eyes were a piercing green, and his expression was mild.

This made Islinda even warier. It was the mild ones that usually had the most violent explosions. And there was something else about him, a strange familiarity… where had she seen this boy before…?

Over the next 30 seconds, Helen and Derk clashed two dozen times, their spears smashing into each other with brutal speed. After that 30 seconds, Islinda gaped in shock. Sure, she knew that her daughter was talented… ever since that pervy old man taught her a bit of the spear… but….

She was winning…?

Helen’s chest was heaving, her body trembling. It seemed like she had well and truly depleted her Stamina reserves, and her body was doing its best to recover enough to move. But although this should have been an opportunity for Derk, he had a grave expression on his face, and a huge gash in his shoulder.

Islinda had watched, and she knew why he hesitated. Towards the end of those clashes between the two of them, Helen’s strikes had clearly started stretching a hair longer. They were a split second faster and more brutal. Obviously skills improved through battle, but… the rate at which she was improving… seemed utterly impossible.

As someone who had only put forth a token effort in learning the spear, Islinda didn’t have a very thorough knowledge of how skill levels worked, and how to most effectively raise them. But she was forced to deal with such men and women on a daily basis, as she managed their leather working district, selling her wares. She had become a very shrewd judge of strength.

Over the course of this battle, if Islinda wasn’t mistaken…. Helen’s skills had likely improved by 20 skill levels. Over the course of a few minutes of strikes. And most of that growth occurred at the end, after that stranger had stabilized Helen.

Just what was going on…?

Derk snapped out of his own revery at that very moment, and came to the only reasonable conclusion; if he allowed Helen to live and grow stronger… his Style would be eradicated. There was perhaps a chance of reconciliation, but he knew in his heart that he would never be able to let go of this, and as long as he harbored that resentment, he was a threat that would be eliminated.

So he bellowed powerfully, and rushed forward, his spear raised high. But Helen just glided forward to meet him, her face serene. Her spear seemed to warp before Islinda’s eyes, bending around the attack to strike deeply into Derk’s chest. His powerful blow continued forward, but it simply hit the ground and created a small crater in the stands.

His body sagged forward, and his minions looked on, aghast.

“Boss-!”

Derk pushed himself away from Helen, dropping his spear. Blood gushed out the hole in his chest. Helen watched impassively, crossing her arms. Islinda sat stock still.

Helen just defeated Derk. Her Helen. Which meant her family… Would the nearby Styles act in vengeance…? If she sent some letters… many hated Derk, for he was a bully, and allowed his son to run wild… Could they possibly take over the nearby areas… If so…

“Mother, stop drooling,” Helen snapped, glaring at her.

Islinda sniffed, not letting any of her annoyance show on her face. Truly, her daughter had grown unruly. Although she had the power to back it up at this point, but still… “How about you stop murdering. Have you even taken the time to consider what the guards will think about a dead body in the stands? If you act without thought-”

Helen just waved her hand dismissively, her attention turned away from Islinda and to the emerald eyed man, who was examining the other male spear user, who Helen had claimed to be involved with. Which Islinda didn’t believe for a second; her daughter had inherited a small amount of class, enough to avoid a belligerent drunk such as he, even if his spear skills were acceptable.

Confirming that he was okay, the emerald eyed man looked at Helen, then turned to the rest of her family. Islinda sat still, waiting. It wasn’t just the familiarity, it was also… something else. There was an air about this man. He was strong. He seemed profoundly present in the moment, and his gaze was extremely intense. Even Islinda herself felt a small amount of apprehension as he looked at her. That intensity… that wasn’t normal. That wasn’t natural.

But then he turned away, facing back towards Helen, and opened his mouth. But before he could speak, another individual arrived on the scene.

“Ghosthound. I’ve been looking for you.”

Islinda’s eyes widened. A beautiful woman with long silver hair and crimson eyes stepped slowly forward, her athletic frame moving with the dangerous grace of a predator. That was…. Azriel Blanche. And the name Ghosthound…

Islinda bit her lip to control her face. So he was a competitor in the tournament…. And one with enough power to enter the final 32. Truly, her daughter had good taste.

The Ghosthound turned to Azriel, looking annoyed. He crossed his arms. “I looked for you too. You didn’t need to do that. But thank you.”

Azriel tilted her head to the side. “But I did anyway. I wanted something, so I am moving to take it. That is the prerogative of those with power. Accept, or I’ll kill you.”

“You certainly are charming.” The Ghosthound sat down, looking seriously at Azriel.

“It was a joke. I find that humor often lightens the mood. How about this one…. Well nevermind. I’ll spear you the details and get straight to the point.” Azriel looked intently at the Ghosthound, a small smile on her face.

There was a long moment of silence.

Islinda laughed politely, and the rest of the non-Helen members of her family followed suit awkwardly. The other male spear user vomited again. The Ghosthound put his head in his hands.

Azriel tilted her head to the side. “Did you not get it?”

“Let’s… set that aside for now. What do you want?”

Azriel flashed a bright smile. “Follow me, Ghosthound. This must be kept a secret.”

He nodded slowly, and the two left. After they had gone, Islinda sat still, knowing her daughter. She dithered and awkwardly stood. Helen obviously expected her mother to launch into a series of questions. Which, admittedly, she truly wanted to ask. But she wanted the answers, not the feeling of asking the questions, so she needed to lure Helen back.

Unfortunately, the male spear user wandered off, and after a moment’s hesitation, Helen followed him, glancing back at Islinda. She simply waved at her departing daughter.

After she left, Islinda beckoned Ikaas over, giving her very detailed instructions on what would happen next. Before she would move, she needed information. How was Helen related to these parties, how intimately. Because only then would Islinda know the best way to use them.

*****

“Drak Wyrd…. is strong.” Azriel announced, once they had left the bustling thoroughfares of Deardun and retreated to a distant watch tower. From it, they could see the surrounding countryside, covered in its strange, unfamiliar vegetation. Much to his annoyance, Randidly couldn’t stop thinking about how alone they were up here, in this watchtower. His eyes kept absently tracing the lines of the formfitting leather that covered her body.

Abruptly, Randidly realized the silence had stretched between them for a while, and he glanced at Azriel. But she was gazing out towards the wilderness, her silver hair falling and framing her face.

Randidly sighed to himself. This was a really bad time to develop a crush. From a woman who filled him with holes a day ago. Maybe that was the reason why. Or maybe it was because she didn’t seem to respect him any more or less based on his strength. Which he supposed was foolish to think. He doubted they would be having this conversation if he was weak. It was just an attitude thing.

“Then why did he agree to surrender to me? You didn’t need-”

“But I did. You weren’t ready. And you were the only spear user I saw this week that left me surprised. You still aren’t ready. But that can change. As for what I promised him… If he wins the tournament, I will marry him.” Azriel turned and looked at Randidly. “I expect he will knock me up rather quickly, which I would prefer to avoid for now. Oh, I’m not against children, it's just a bit soon.”

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