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Randidly coughed awkwardly at her words. “That’s… that’s not why I’m shocked…. Why would you agree to that, for me…? I don’t understand.”

Azriel shrugged, turning back to the wilderness. “After winning the Regional Tournament, and necessarily beating me, he would use his influence to force me into it. There were a lot of political reasons for it too, a lot of boring schemes of the elderly… let’s not talk about it. But it was a meaningless promise, and perhaps he knew it. From his perspective though, obtaining my word is much more valuable than using my Style as leverage.”

“So again, why?” Randidly asked, bewildered. It was one thing for him to develop a crush on this attractive, talented woman who had ripped him full of holes. It was another for this woman, who had riddled him with holes, to bet her hand in marriage on him. Even if he had surprised her, that was the difference in losing immediately, and losing to her in 38 seconds, or whatever the time was.

Azriel took a step forward and hopped up onto the low wall. A wind blow, and she swayed slightly, but then she began to walk along the length of the wall.

“I guess… I’m what you call a genius. By some chance, I obtained the skill Crystal Memory. That, along with my talent for spear use, allows me to very quickly see through a move, once I’ve seen it once. My whole life… I’ve been a genius, always chasing the back of Drak, who is 5 years older than me. Every hurdle he would pass, I would rush towards, passing faster, earlier in my life. Chasing him endlessly…I wonder if it was stressful for him. To be heralded as a once in a millennial talent, with a chance to become a Spear Master, and then to have a girl 5 years your junior to be even more talented...”

Azriel spun on her toes, her silver hair fluttering. “But recently… I feel like I’ve caught up to him, but I can’t be sure. I suspect he has more, but he hides it. I have not seen his true strength. I’ve examined all the other contestants… and then are known quantities. They might force him to put up a good fight, but none can make him serious.”

She hopped down and walked over to Randidly. “You don’t believe you can do it. And maybe I don’t either. But I know for sure that no one else can do it, to make him serious, and you have surprised me once before. I said so before, if I see a move… All I need is for someone to make him serious, let me see that last ace he hides. Once I know it, I will continue chasing him, and pass him.”

Then Azriel frowned at Randidly. “Although I’m a genius, I’m not a god. The first time he uses that ace, it would be a surprise, and work on me. So I need-”

“Cannon fodder,” Randidly said, his lip curling.

Azriel nodded, as if this label was pleasing to her. Randidly rolled his eyes. “You know… you are extremely arrogant.”

“Is that a problem?”

The words hung in the air between them. Azriel yawned, and then walked away.

“I’ll be expecting you. I’m staying at the Burning Forge Inn.”

Randidly frown as he watched her departing hips. Waiting for him…? What exactly did she want from him….? To train him?

****
“He’s too weak.” Marco Polo said, breaking the heavy silence in the room.

Shal’s face was stony as he gazed at the ground. He couldn’t disagree with the other spear user.

Divveltian snorted. “And yet he has made it into the top 32 at the Northern Regional Tournament. If nothing else, he improves very quickly. That move that he used for brief spurts… that can be refined, and quickly. He just needs experience.”

Marco looked unwilling to accept that perspective, but could not do anything to refute it. Divveltian frowned at the two of them. “What is the point of complaining now? We are powerless. There is no action we can take. It is all up to him. So we give him as much instruction as possible.”

Shal continued to remain silent, a thin level of fear covered by a thick level of anger in his heart. True… the original goal for bringing Randidly to this world was a vague goal of keeping the honor of the Aemont’s Spear Phantom Style, almost on a whim. To reward the strange individual who snapped him out of his funk in the dungeon, with additional training, was another motivation. But the more he thought about it, the more it had become about getting Randidly into the top 4, and being able to leave the territory of the Spearman School.

For beyond that was a vast, unexplored world, with the label “there be monsters”. And Lucretia was one of them. The one that Shal swore to himself he would crush mercilessly.

But as he watched and waited, Shal’s impatience grew. Why must he sit idly while the world turned…? Although he had received a decree from the powerful Central Styles not to leave the Spearman School… if he wanted… could they stop him…?

There was another part of Shal, however, that hesitated. Because there was a strange stickiness to that thought process. The further he indulged it, the more his mind seemed filled with cobwebs. It was a satisfying and righteous anger, but… in a way, it reminded Shal of the wild discontent of his days before he had encountered Randidly. Those cobwebs had slowly been dispelled as he trained Randidly, both in the dungeon and in the prison. There was something cathartic, honest, and proud about it.

But that was slowly being replaced with resentment, as Shal felt powerless and furious. If he didn’t choose to remain here, his options were…

Standing, Shal said. “I will speak with him. We will decide how to proceed then.”

*****

Randidly was slightly disconcerted when he returned and found Shal waiting for him inside of his room. He was paging idly through the diary of the Spear Phantom, but snapped the book closed and laid it back on the bed when Randidly walked into the room.

They exchanged a glance, and Randidly followed Shal up the stairs to the rooftop training area, which was completely deserted. They wasted no time, and both drew their spears.

“Show it to me…” Shal breathed, his eyes burning, his expression baleful. Then, without any further warning, he attacked, moving a hair faster than Randidly had ever seen him move, putting immense pressure on Randidly.

Still, it was quick, but it wasn’t the direct, overwhelming speed that Azriel had displayed when they had fought. Focusing, Randidly responded, using the Spear Phantom’s Embrace, moving towards his mentor. Their steps were both quick, and Randidly very swiftly had several rather dangerous cuts from Shal’s spear. Although Shal wasn’t as fast as Azriel, he was much, much, much quicker to change directions, as if momentum didn’t apply to him.

But that was what Randidly needed, and under the pressure of Shal’s attacks, Randidly remembered where this started. With the different steps of the Spear Phantom’s Footwork. Soon, he too was moving seemingly without any care for momentum. As he did so, the baleful, hopeless aura that he had struggled so long to control exploded outwards naturally.

His movements became light and floating, his eyes unfocused, but detecting changes all around him. Behind Randidly, a huge image of a faceless spectre emerged, its arms spread wide.

Shal increased his speed, which caused Randidly to falter somewhat, but he began to add feints to his strikes, mixing his offense up. It wasn’t enough to interrupt Shal’s series of attacks, but it made him slow down his relentless assault, as Shal had to respect the skill.

Randidly’s chest was heaving at this point, his eyes narrowed. His image howled and charged forward. Truthfully, his Aether was swirling the fastest he had ever seen. He had only gained 2 Skill Levels, but he felt more intimately familiar with the skill than he had ever before. Part of the reason he was having so much trouble was likely his high control. Some of this was natural, and not something that needed to be forced. The image and aura would explode when he managed the eyes, steps, and feints.

But Randidly’s Stamina was almost empty. Truly, Shal was strong. Without even using images, his base stats were on another level.

So Randidly attacked. Shal’s spear seemed to blur, weaving through Randidly’s guard, catching him in the chest and throwing him to the ground.

At this point, both of them stopped, gazing at each other. Randidly with his heaving chest, Shal with the obvious conflict in his eyes. So many strange emotions that Randidly didn’t really recognize in Shal were fighting there. Randidly blinked.

Shal sighed. “You did it. I am… surprised. Although I knew it was possible…. Perhaps you were truly the one who was meant to inherit the title of Spear Phantom from my father…”

Shal trailed off, his eyes going distant as his thoughts turned elsewhere. Seeking to fill the silence, Randidly spoke up, explaining about how it happened, the disparate skills that he combined to get the Spear Phantom’s Embrace.

Chuckling, Shal just shook his head and said nothing. The silence continued. Randidly stood, most of the wounds from Shal already scabbing over. “There is something else, Shal…. I’d like to give you a gift, something… to thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

Randidly didn’t really know how to feel about his Aether Donation Skill. He had used it on Helen, but mostly due to their previous physical intimacy. It was a…. profoundly strange feeling. Even now, he could feel a new, slight Aether tether connecting them together. It was still thin and weak, nowhere near the rivers of Aether that flowed back and forth between him and the 4 that he had blessed, but…

Already, he could feel bits of meaning and life flowing into him from her, giving him small insights to flowing rivers. It was…. extremely strange. He didn’t think he could use it yet, but Randidly suspected in the future that the mostly sluggish waters of his Soul Skill would begin to quicken as that meaning inside of him became more prominent. After all, there was a strange connection between his Aether Crossroads and his Soul Skill, and his heart, as they all aligned so he could escape the trap of the Creature.

Well, as much as he really did escape its machinations…

Shaking his head to dispel these thoughts, Randidly walked forward to Shal, who was regarding him with curiosity, and used his Aether Donation skill.

“You simply need to accept it.”

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