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After the discussion with Aiden Darke, Randidly’s expression was frosty. Darke had insisted on Randidly revealing where he had obtained the Engraved equipment from. Not for a second did Darke seem to have any suspicion that Randidly himself had produced them, but they knew that the equipment flowed through Randidly.

And after the earlier display of strength, Randidly had no qualms with keeping silent about the true culprit at all.

Randidly briefly considered throwing Shal under the bus as the culprit, due to his recent unreliable streak, but decided against it. It was a pointless move, because Shal or Darke, or perhaps both, would swiftly return, angry at being led around pointlessly and bothered.

For now, Darke had departed, unsatisfied, but unwilling to do anything currently.

“As the nice speaker has said, you are the pride of our generation,” Darke said in a soft voice. “Of course, the Engraving Guild will take no action on a brave and bold participant in the Regional Tournament, such as yourself. But some of your associates might be brought in for questioning. Pay it no mind, it is… merely routine.”

The thought of Helen and Teliph within that unassuming man’s grasp… or even the other male spear attendant… dammit, what was his name..?

What was most disturbing about the whole interaction was that even as Randidly watched the man’s departing back, knowing his strength, his senses couldn’t pick up on it at all. If he hadn’t personally experienced his power, Randidly wouldn’t believe that the person was anything other than an average individual.

Truly… Randidly had been taking the world far too lightly.

But the man left, and Randidly turned his attention to the matches, absently cutting into his arm and focusing on his blood, struggling to control it to go back into his body.

The first match was between two seeded individuals, a man and a woman. For the first several minutes, they appeared to be evenly matched, executing flashy moves which clashed brilliantly, dazzling the audience. Randidly narrowed his eyes. This was…. such a farce.

And as Randidly expected, after a few more clashes the man was overpowered and surrendered, to the cheers and boos of the audience. They were captured by the fervor and power of the combat, but Randidly was rather unimpressed. It was clear from the very first move that the female participant was strong, much stronger than the male.

Ciel Tath, huh. Randidly would need to remember that name. She was at an indeterminate level where he was very unsure of his ability to beat her. Below Azriel for sure, but…

The second match was rather boring; again, between two seeded individuals. They were both powerful, but from a glance Randidly knew that this was just arranged to showcase these young talents, but the ones who arranged the bracket knew that they would lose to Ciel in the next round, regardless of who prevailed.

Still, it was more interesting to watch, at least from the perspective that they were at a similar level of strength. There was actual strife and drama in the contest. Randidly watched, memorizing the different moves and images, filing them away for later, when he had to train alone. Truly, they were strong. Perhaps just as strong as him, with their spear.

Which was why to win, Randidly was going to rely on his less traditional strengths.

When the third match was called, Randidly once again focused; one of the participants was Dian. Her red hair stuck out like a brand as she came onto the stage, showered with boos from the audience. Where Randidly had a strangely positive reaction among the populace, led by a strange fan club that had sprung up, Dian had instead been reviled.

Whether it was the colors of her Tassle, her icy demeanor, or the lingering rumors about her Style, as the student of the Devourer, she was public enemy number one in the tournament. People spewed hateful, venomous filled terms about her looks, her spear, her clothes…

But she met it all with a burning gaze, her body filled with energy. When the fight began, Randidly had wondered how she would fare against stronger foes; he needn’t have worried. Her strange energy that devoured images had grown strong, noticeably stronger than when she had fought him in the preliminaries, and she was a half step quicker.

Randidly smiled sardonically. Although it was annoying to admit, her growth was only a hair slower than his own. And perhaps not even that, it might even exceed him.

But again, while she could destroy those who relied on images, she didn’t have the raw stats to compete directly with this level of spear user. Perhaps she had learned that lesson from her fight with Randidly, because in this match, her energy was much more concentrated, doing its best to quickly eat through the other’s Battle Intent and begin to corrode and weaken the opponent’s body directly.

Whether the man was weak or the energy was stronger than Randidly could tell from here, as soon as the energy reached him he began to panic and retreat away from it, trying to open up some space.

Dian didn’t let this opening pass, and pursued him mercilessly, chasing him down and wearing him down with her energy. At some point, the man realized that she could easily overcome him from a distance with her strange energy, and turned around, lashing out towards Dian. But at that point it was too late. She had already ripped away his most powerful images, leaving him reeling.

The match finished soon after that. Randidly’s expression was serious. So it seemed that if he beat Bertarn, his next opponent would be Dian. Although that should reassure him somewhat, based on the fact he had fought against her previously and prevailed, Randidly could find no solace in the news.

Not only was she improving, but based on the determined expression on her face, Randidly knew that she wouldn’t hesitate to do everything she could to win. Her trump, that she had previously held back, would no doubt manifest itself in their match. Well, as long as he pushed her that far.

Randidly supposed that if he simply lost, he would have no need to face it. But then he shook his head, clearing away such thoughts. Her determination… was strange. It was as if-

And at that moment, Dian turned to the booing crowd, scanning it, and after a few seconds, her eyes locked onto Randidly. They gazed at each other for several seconds. Then Dian turned and walked off the stage.

Randidly scowled, standing and heading towards the underground. The meaning of that look was pretty clear. The source of her determination… it was him. But what had he done to earn her ire? Was it the Qualifier? The defeat in the triple elimination portion of the tournament…? Was it as simple as the fights between their respective masters?

Or perhaps the answer was in the fact that she had come to visit their quarters the prior night, asking to see Shal.

Either way, it was not something he should concern himself with currently; there was a match to fight.

After a small time for the referee to repair the stage, Randidly was led up, and brought face to face with the tall, well muscled man that was Bertarn. His gaze was still calm and respectful as their previous fight. It seemed that even after he had obtained a victory against Randidly previously, he didn’t let him swell his head. He focused on his goal and moved directly towards it.

Randidly supposed it was the intelligent decision, but a decisive, flashy victory here against an opponent who underestimated him would be so much easier. In terms of physical specifications, even Randidly’s monstrous Stamina and Regeneration might not measure up to the powerful man before him. It was clear from every line of his body that a lot of effort went into perfecting his physical form. Randidly had no doubt that several of his skills were something like his own Physical Fitness.

Thinking, Randidly’s mood soured further. It was also clear that such a man would be an effective counter to Dian. He was a handsome enough fellow, and after two harrowing and close battles against the unseeded individuals, it was likely projected he would clash against Ciel and lose gracefully.

Meanwhile, Ciel’s graceful Style was more at a disadvantage against Dian, and it would severely weaken the respect that the population had for the Styles if she were to struggle noticeably. It was all a stupid, elaborate play.

Randidly raised his spear. Time to throw a fucking wrench in the works.

*****

Bertarn’s eyes scanned his opponent. There was no fear in this slim, dark haired man in front of him, which made Bertarn wary. He was not a man who took others lightly, and was not a genius like some of the other blessed children of the Styles. No, Bertarn was a man who reached this position through dogged hard work and an unwillingness to give up.

His will was iron, and with that, he had forged a body of steel. The Ghosthound had faced him previously, and had been swiftly overwhelmed in a direct confrontation. Perhaps he had planned something in order to equalize the contest?

Although they had fought previously, Bertarn knew that was immediately after the Ghosthound had been eviscerated by Azriel. Now, without those wounds hampering him, he would likely be sharper.

But still. Bertarn breathed in, breathed out, and then looked directly at his opponent. No tricks would matter. He had confidence in his body, and would demonstrate it by crushing this spear mage.

The referee called the beginning of the match, and immediately the Ghosthound used the skills he had demonstrated previously, creating a Wall of Thorns. Sighing and scratching his neck, Bertarn walked forwards, his spear held loosely at his side. “Do you really think-”

But before he could finish, the thorns burst apart, revealing the Ghosthound, who charged forward with blazing eyes. Within a second, he had arrived before Bertarn, who couldn’t believe what he was seeing. But then his training kicked in, and he narrowed his eyes.

A clever ploy, and he fell for it, getting caught off guard. But now the real fight would begin.

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