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Shal floated in the darkness, surrounded by fuzzy silhouettes. They waved and blurred, falling in and out of focus, their bodies huge and balloonish one moment, and then twig like and strangely monstrous the next.

But he knew they were speaking for sure, by the way he could see their mouths moving. They were speaking to him, trying to communicate something. What they were saying, however, was not anything that Shal wanted to hear. Sighing, he closed his eyes, trying to just return to the sleep. It was better to just let all of this flow past, without dwelling on any of it. If he were to struggle against it now… it would slowly wash him away. His Willpower just wasn’t high enough for this…

Thinking this was a mistake, Shal knew immediately, because suddenly in his vision a face appeared, of his student, glowing softly emerald. Although his figure was twisted and distorted, he was still clearly recognizable. Firm, stubborn, foolish, earnest, and so, so young…

From his chest, a voice whispered. “You must get up. My strength is yours, you only need to take it-”

Shal rolled over, banishing the familiar voice and the image of his disciple. He was tired, so fucking tired. Tired of being pulled in different directions by his emotions for reasons that he couldn’t articulate, to do things that made no sense. Shal had had some success burning through that haze with his fury towards Lucretia, but-

The air around him seemed to hum, and the strange silhouettes became more frantic, swinging their arms and twisting their bodies, reaching their hands out to touch him. Frowning, Shal kept his eyes pressed more tightly shut, but his awareness of them seemed partially inward, because their shapes remained present, pressing insistently against him.

But now he was tired of the fury too, because it got him nowhere. Now that the finally found peace… he would not willingly give it up. Peace was something he had searched for most of his life. Peace was everything. The ability to lay down and rest. Not bewildered, not confused, an honest rest. This was the ultimate goal.

‘Isn’t,’ another part of Shal thought, ‘the ultimate goal following the spear? Finishing off the Style we made with Pronto? Earning honor for the family, apart from that asshole?’

As he had this thought, one of the silhouettes resolved itself, twisting and curving until it became his brother, looking much different than he remembered, but very clearly being him. His eyes were sunken and his cheeks hollow, and his eyes were filled with a defeated look. But his gaze was firm and solemn, and the spectre that impersonated his brother opened its mouth and spoke.

“Shal… this is all already yours. You just need to reach out and take it.”

*****

“Welcome back folks! Finally back in the action!” Claptrap announced with relish, “Are you all ready to watch some fights?”

The crowd cheered wildly. Claptrap’s eyes glowed with greed as he noticed almost everyone had mugs decorated in the colors of their favorite contestant. Filled with ale from Claptrap’s numerous affiliated breweries. Among the crowd moved his concessions people, now almost two weeks of training under their belts, moving with much more professionalism and efficiency.

There were still the imitators too, of course. But Claptrap’s giant C that symbolized him was the dominant force among the crowd. He had been at the cutting edge for too long, and was starting to outpace those that tried to imitate him with his superior revenues.

“I’m your host, Claptrap, joined by my friend Roger-”

But he was interrupted as someone teleported onto the small side stage where Claptrap and the male spear attendant were sitting. “Huhuhuhu, this certainly looks fun. Allow me to join.”

Aethon Thai gestured, producing a large, ornate mahogany chair appeared, which allowed him to join the two others at the desk. Aethon and the male spear attendant clinked their mugs together enthusiastically.

With burning eyes, Claptrap continued, “Joined by the vice-leader of the Steel Feathers Style, Aethon Thai! Fans, you can be sure that with his sharp judgement, we will faithfully catch every second of action and report it to you!”

Aethon nodded sagely, sipping his beer. He gestured, and a concessions person hastily leaped over the wall and onto the dirt around the arena to run over and take his order. After they had figured out the logistics of getting what he wanted, everyone was much more satisfied. Then Claptrap stood.

“And now, without further ado, we have the first match of the day! Drak Wyrd of the Radiant Dawn Style versus Derrick Flan of the Cutting Wind Style!”

The two warriors slowly ascended from the underground arena, climbing the stairs up onto the arena. Drak was calm, his hair short and dark, his face studiously blank, his dark eyes bright and focused. Derrick was a flamboyant looking man with long, golden hair. Producing his long spear with a flourish, he almost immediately pointed the spear at Drak.

“For the peace of the Northern Region, I will stop you here!” Derrick yelled, only earning him a cool glance from Drak.

“What a declaration from Derrick!” Claptrap said excitedly, very willing to fan the flames of drama between the two contestants. “It seems that this match is more than just a matter of honor! The very peace of the Northern Region is at stake! Aethon, what do you think about Derrick’s chances of winning.”

“None.”

The word was like a heavy weight that hit Claptrap mid thought, making him falter. The crowd felt it too, and began to whisper amongst themselves. Sure, everyone believed that Drak was the favorite to win it all, destroying all competition in his way. But previously, it had been somewhat heroic, that he could face everything and overcome it all. But from the way that Aethon spoke, there seemed to be a baleful finality to it.

Drak was a simple looking man, but now, from Aethon’s reaction, they were able to see some of the monstrous strength inside of him. It seemed to gush out and fill the silence. The burning strength of the Radiant Dawn Style expanding to fill the arena like a bowl. Claptrap was frozen, his eyes locked on the man.

Was there… was there really no point in him being here to announce.

“Huhuhuhu,” The male spear attendant laughed, already partially drunk. “When there are predictions like that, it is the best time for an upset. Nothing in this world is sure.”

“Kukuku, too true, too true,” Aethon said nodding.

The ice cracked and broke, and the crowd began to cheer once more, slightly reserved at first, but then with more energy, as a referee talked individually to both contestants, checking their status. They both nodded their affirmations and assumed their own individual version of ready stances.

Drak’s was relaxed, holding his thick, unadorned iron spear loosely. Derrick held is silver spear high above his head, light reflecting in dazzling patterns off the intricate metal work that composed it.

“Begin!”

They both moved, Derrick dazzling, Drak dazzlingly fast, blurring towards his opponent. Derrick instantly paled, lowering his spear to a more reasonable stance, his spear flashing forward. But there was an innate light to Drak’s attacks, a glowing brightness, that made them extremely hard to discern.

While Derrick’s defense flashed due to his spear, Drak had an innate light.

“Drak Wyrd has reached the Artisan level.” Aethon said with conviction, finally filling the silence as everyone stared open mouthed at the fight. “Not only are his individual strikes likely based on powerful images… but his Spear Mastery has also had this image of the Radiant Dawn imbued into it. This cannot be considered a freshly grown Artisan any longer; he is experienced. For that reason… there is no chance he loses, if he wills it.”

Drak struck, smashing forwards, using pure force to send Derrick sprawling. The disparity in strength was clear, and with a calm gait, Drak walked over towards the desperate opponent.

“You filth-” Derrick began, but he went silent as Drak unleashed another barrage of attacks, pushing him slowly backwards. Injuries began to pile up as the attacks continued, slowly growing in speed and complexity.

“That control… that technique…” Claptrap said audibly, for the benefit of the audience. Aethon stayed silent, grim faced as he watched the fight.

It was only after a small delay that the male spear attendant spoke, nodding slowly. “That… that’s the ability of a champion. Look at that skill with a spear. Not even I can do that.”

The audience seemed to become animated again at that comment, laughing and chatting while watching the remainder of the match. It continued as expected. In every way, Drak slowly overmatched and crushed Derrick, facing him in a variety of ways, giving Derrick every chance to choose the battlefield to highlight his strengths. But still Drak annihilated him.

By the end, Derrick slumped over, dropping his spear. The crowd’s attention had turned away to the male spear attendant, who was extolling his own strengths, and Aethon Thai was laughing along with him, Claptrap couldn’t take his eyes away from Drak Wyrd, standing silently over the broken spearman. This was the man that the Ghosthound would need to face in the semi finals…!

With a serious face, Drak looked up, meeting Claptrap’s gaze. Then he smiled wolfishly, showing his teeth.

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