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Finishing the Path, in addition to the benefits given to him from it, also got him over 250 in his Soul Skill, giving him another Blessing of the Cleansing Rain. But as he looked at the benefits from the notification, Randidly couldn’t help but wrinkle his brow.

Wisdom +3, Focus +7, Concentration permanently increases by 1%. Mana Regeneration increases by 16. +3 Free stats.

Didn’t the bonuses seem… slightly different than before…? His memory was very sharp from his high mental stats, and something about the notification struck him as… if not wrong, different.

But Randidly had no real way of checking, so ultimately just shrugged, accepting the boost. The next order of business was determining which path to go down. Ultimately, although there were still many temptations for Randidly, if he kept improving like this, Randidly wanted to finish the Initiate of Ash II Path. After all, when he finished, he should become an Anointed of Ash, which should have some sort of powerful positive effect…

So Randidly threw his remaining PP into it, and was disappointed that he didn’t receive any bonuses. He sighed; the previous path had made him spoiled by giving him a Vitality every 5.

Then squaring his shoulders, Randidly walked back into Deardun. The first day of the finals portion of the tournament was about to commence.

****

Claptrap poured himself some of the very expensive liquor he had purchased last night. “Would you like a drink?”

The head referee of the Regional Tournament scratched his beard, hesitating. Claptrap hid his smile, but he could see the thoughts flit across the man’s face. The referee was torn, because he believed very strongly in the sanctity of his position. This was a quality that Claptrap respected, which was why he arranged this meeting.

But if he wanted to continue to expand his influence, the best time to do it would be now, during the Regional Tournament, while the other merchants were rushing to catch up with him, and figure out how he managed to innovate to this point. Claptrap needed to keep expanding rapidly, cementing himself in the minds of his customers.

Instinctively, Claptrap knew that the Ghosthound would encourage him on this track. There was a decisiveness that he had learned from that man, and also an unrelenting doggedness in the face of adversity. He would grasp this chance, even if he had to beggar himself for it.

For Ciel…

Claptrap’s face flickered. Although this had started as a way for him to get close to Ciel, at this point…. Was that even what he wanted…? His earlier interaction, as they arranged for some of the Engraved armors to be traded, had struck home to Claptrap that she had never felt anything special for him. He had simply been a store clerk with whom she had interacted with in the past.

Now, well…

Much to Claptrap’s surprise, a few of the small time vendors had expressed their admiration the previous day, after everything had closed up, and everything was accounted for. The different policies that Claptrap had instituted for salespersons had worked, and the evidence of workers stealing had dropped precipitously.

Needless to say, these female vendors had been very impressed by his business acumen, and for the first time in a while, Claptrap had not slept alone.

Much to his surprise, he had woken up early, slipping out of bed and leaving the woman dozing naked, and actually spent a good hour exercising. Although he was experiencing sudden growth, it suddenly occurred to Claptrap that his physical specs needed to stay at a respectable place, or he would never truly have control over his new company.

Pleasantly surprising were the three skill levels he gained.

Still, now he was also profoundly sore, but…

Smiling, Claptrap nodded encouragingly at the referee, who finally relented and gestured for a drink. The man only took a small sip, before staring wistfully at the drink, and then setting it down on the table. At that time, he spoke.

“So. What do you wish to discuss?”

Claptrap’s smile was wide and guileless.

****

Randidly looked at the board critically. His would be the third match, which was tentatively scheduled for an hour from now. As Azriel promised, his opponent would be Bertarn, the muscle bound fool he had clashed with in the preliminaries.

For now, another speech was occurring, by Aethon Thai again, extolling the virtues and strengths of the younger generation, and encouraging them to do their best to succeed here at the tournament, and then further on in their lives, leading the Northern Regional to an era of prosperity.

Absolute drivel.

Randidly was originally planning to spend his free time meditating and using his newfound Living Blood Skill, but a tap on his shoulder distracted him. He turned to find a well dressed, unassuming man standing beside him, a small smile on the man’s face.

“Aiden Darke, pleasure to meet you sir.” The man said.

Randidly raised his eyebrows. Was this perhaps a groupie…? He supposed that he was a participant not affiliated with the big Styles, which apparently made the sales of his commemorative mugs that Claptrap was producing one of the highest, but still… this was moving a little too fast.

Unsure of what to do, Randidly turned away and studiously began listening to the speech. Anything was better than interacting with this random guy…

“You looked directly at my face. You're not deaf. You know I’m here. Be polite and answer me.”

Rather than annoyed, this strange groupie who called himself Aiden seemed amused. He began to poke Randidly’s shoulder. Randidly’s countenance became stormy, and he scooted slightly to the side.

He wasn’t unwilling, it just seemed profoundly silly for him to get up and move away from this little pest due to pokes. Surely his Endurance was high enough to weather this storm of annoying…?

But contrary to his earlier assumptions, the man’s pokes had an incredible amount of force, and the strike each time made Randidly shudder and grit his teeth. How was this random idiot doing this…?

Spinning quickly, Randidly lashed out with his arm to knock Aiden’s hand away, but to his surprise, Aiden reacted quickly, his hand twisting and grabbing Randidly’s arm, holding it still. Randidly flexed his muscles, but couldn’t manage to move. A thin smile was on Aiden’s face.

“Do I have your attention now, Mr. Ghosthound?”

Randidly felt a rapidly growing sense of danger emerge from his chest. Aether began to flow and revolve through his body, rising his senses to the maximum levels. Even then, he refrained from activating his skills, but he was unable to even get the grip to waiver. This wasn’t a small difference of strength.

Instantly, Randidly become serious, finally looking at the unassuming man in the eye. This wasn’t a level of strength that could be faked, or reached through levels such as Artisan or Adept. This was the level of someone who had vastly superior stats. Randidly had forgotten, but this tournament was restricted to those below the Level of 25. Beyond that level lay monsters far, far above the level he was currently fighting.

Although not all of them had even reached the Artisan level, as long as they had higher quality Class Skills and large amounts of stats, they could easily overcome young geniuses who could condense their images.

“Good, I finally have your attention.” Aiden Darke said with relish, releasing Randidly’s hand. “I’m just here to gather a little bit of information, no need to worry. As I said previously, my name is Aiden Darke… I belong to the Engraving Guild.”

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