Randidly walked slowly up onto the stage after they called his and Dian’s name, still pondering the discussion that happened earlier. Dian claimed to be an agent sent by the Styles from the Central Region to watch over Shal, who was foretold to be the next person to… do something with the Calamity. Specifically, she was going to watch out for Lucretia, and prevent the Spear Phantom Style from achieving a Top 8 finish and have it fall from grace.

As he ascended to the stage, Randidly scratched his head. He never really bothered to ask about the different strata and what they meant, aside from them being related to the colors they could use, and the strength of the founder. So Shal could no longer maintain his light blue skin if they fell from grace. But other than that, Randidly wasn’t even sure what the consequences would be.

Perhaps these actions would make more sense if he knew, because as it was… it was positively silly. Setting the issues of the arbitrary restriction on the Spear Phantom Style’s prestige, why would they place geases on Shal if they thought he would become someone who could contend with the Calamity…? Wasn’t that shooting themselves in the foot? Based on the story Dian had told, the people of this world greatly feared Lucretia, who was something of a Devil figure, but how widespread was that belief, and was she really that bad?

Well, she did spread about the rune of the Devourer, but that was another thing that Randidly didn't have much of a grasp on. There was so many different variables moving around that were difficult to pin down.

In the end though, it wasn’t something Randidly would concern himself with. He produced his spear with a flourish. The large, monstrous spear of obsidian glimmered dully in the noon sun. His fingers slid down the shaft, steadying himself. He raised his gaze and looked at Dian, who stood there, holding her whip spear, her scarlet hair falling down her face.

Seeing her here, Randidly abruptly realized he could see the lines around her eyes, the small imperfections on her skin that could only come with age, the dull cynicism in her eyes. Randidly’s eyes narrowed. Truthfully, the only limit on entering the tournament was a level cap. If she had been below Lvl 25, it didn’t matter how old she was, how long she had watching Shal…

But before Randidly arrived, and would defend the honor of the Style, they couldn’t possibly know that he would appear, he came from another Cohort. Which meant that they either needed a person under Lvl 25 for a reason Randidly didn’t understand, or… or they had one on the off chance that something similar to this would happen.

Which brought Randidly back to the relative importance of status. If there was an extra benefit associated with it, it perhaps made more sense that they would plan so comprehensively to knock down the Spear Phantom Style.

Either way, it meant that this would be a lot more difficult than Randidly would have expected. It would also explain why Dian had increased in skill so quickly, even more quickly than he had. It wasn’t that she had increased her skill so fast, but that she had that level of skill all along and was slowly revealing it.

His expression serious, Randidly lowered his spear and nodded when the referee came over to him. He had made a promise to Shal. He owed a debt that he had worked towards, slaved over for two years, and he would be damned if he let it all fall to pieces here, even faced with the twisted machinations of two strange factions he didn’t understand.

Dian’s expression was still mild. “Must you insist on this? I’m sure you have realized by now…”

“Welcome all! We have a special match for you now!” Claptrap yelled. “A personal friend of mine, Randidly Ghosthound, will now face Dian, a woman raised by Haelthing the Devourer, who was defeated by his master, Shal! This is truly a predestined battle! How do you see this one going?”

Randidly saw the male spear attendant opening his mouth to answer, but a low chuckle cut him off. “Heh… this one… even I cannot see through it.”

The man who had awarded Randidly the belt after the preliminaries leaned forward, his piercing gaze running over the two participants. “...both have been hiding their cards eh? Then this will be good. To see what we really have. I’m… looking forward to it.”

Claptrap seemed thrown off by this, and the crowd began to mutter, but Randidly just looked at Dian. Everything else was just… a distraction. A very huge, nerve inducing distraction. One that reminded Randidly so much of the very agonizing teenage years Randidly had spent absolutely stupefied by crowds. But his experiences since the System arrived had mollified that somewhat.

And what it hadn’t made him numb to, it had given him the stats to forcibly ignore it, focusing his attention on the task at hand. There could be no mistakes. Not now.

“Begin.” The referee announced.

Hissing, Randidly activated the Spear Phantom’s Embrace and blurred off to the side, because Dian was already moving, her body moving with a fluidity that he hadn’t seen before. Randidly could have lashed out with a spell, harrying her, but he suspected that was exactly what she was waiting for. While she had never shown this speed before, Randidly guessed that she wasn’t the type to go all out unless she had to.

Playing off that, Randidly would start a little below his max speed as well.

Or at least that was the plan, but…

Her fluidity was on par with Helen’s, but her speed and execution was a world above, at the line of an Artisan. In addition to the powerful movement, her strange, vicious devouring energy billowed outward, moving to engulf Randidly. His immediate response was to retreat, but he had seen how that ended for the people she faced. So, gritting his teeth, Randidly stepped forward and raised his spear.

Her whip spear disappeared, slashing left and right very quickly. Only with Haste and Empower, on top of the passive boost from Flexibility of the White Hunters, did Randidly squeak through unscathed, and he immediately used Idiosyncratic Cut. That seemed to catch her off guard, and she backed off, but now Randidly was just sitting in her pool of vicious energy.

Still, he would not retreat. With his eyes glowing emerald, he flexed his will, spewing energy of his own out into the air, neutralizing the damaging energy by flooding the air with his own Battle Intent. Vaguely, he could tell that he was on the losing end of the energy battle, but for now, it was a loss that he could handle, as long as it blunted the other energies corrosive effects.

Although Randidly was curious how his Vitality boost from Golden Roots of Yggdrasil would contend with the corrosive energy, but this was a match he couldn’t afford to lose. Not time to get scientific right now.

As Randidly closed in, Dian seemed to shift gears, her speed going up by a tick. Randidly countered by speeding up as well, using the active form of the Golden Roots of Yggdrasil to smash through her defenses. This seemed to catch Dian by surprise, because she seemed momentarily at a loss.

Yet there was a strange tickling on the back of Randidly’s neck that made him hop backwards, in spite of the fact that his offensive momentum was lost.

Just in time too, because a wave of energy exploded from Dian, scarlet where her usual energy was maroon, and much, much thicker and more caustic. It ripped through the ambient energy that Randidly had produced, and made his grasp of the Spear Phantom’s Embrace fuzzy, just by brushing against it.

Frowning, Randidly raised his spear and considered his opponent. Dian was definitely breathing hard after that expulsion, and she looked at him with narrowed eyes. It was something that took effort then, and not just another tool she had held back thus far. But still, it seemed that this was a much more concentrated version of the same energy, which was extremely dangerous at all times. The powerful force it created devoured images and skills. Flesh as well.

In the face of that, Randidly needed to overmatch the energy with his own, as well as overwhelming Dian with his physical capabilities and spear skills. Which, considering her abrupt reveal of her true strength, was something of a headache.

Still… no time like the present. Besides, truthfully, Randidly never intended to rely solely on his spear skills in this one. Her strength was too varied and smooth. If she was comfortable…

But of course, Randidly wouldn’t allow that. Reaching down, Randidly put his hands on the ground, channeling mana through him. Instantly, a dozen or so Root Spiders sprang into being, and then began to skitter forward towards Dian’s legs, their root fangs at the ready.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be effective on their own. But after watching how Dian used her energy, it seemed that it was pretty thick and acidic at the height of a human, and would eat its way through armor and weapons. But it had never eaten away at the ground, disturbing her own stance. Which meant that it was strangely selective, or that she controlled the amounts around her in different locations.

So after letting the threat of the Root Spiders register in Dian’s mind, Randidly rushed towards her, spear raised. Her eyes flashed upwards, and she decisively lashed out with her whip spear, destroying several of the Root Spiders.

Which was exactly what Randidly was waiting for. As Dian struck, Spearing Roots ripped upwards, aiming for her unprotected back. Although the tips of the spears began to sizzle and disintegrate, more and more came, and Dian twisted, gathering her weapon back to herself. Which she managed, but only just in time for her to block Randidly’s Sweep, which knocked her backwards a few inches.

But again, Dian upped the tempo, twisting and shimmying her way out of the way of most of the deadlier Spear Roots and scoring a long cut across Randidly’s forearm before she made it away from him, weaving through his strikes. It was infuriating, but…

He did inflict three cuts with his spear, where Flesh Eating Virus would begin to activate. And the Root Spiders had arrived.


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