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Still, Dian’s gaze was cool and focused. She scanned through Randidly, the ground around her, and then the skittering Root Spiders. Then her whip spear blurred, and she struck left and right, annihilating the nearest spiders and steadying herself in time for Randidly to arrive, his huge spear crashing downwards.

As Randidly expected, she used her strange elusiveness to simply deflect his strike, but staying close enough for her energy to continue to take small bites at Randidly’s will by eating away at the ambient Battle Intent that he filled the air with. Which of course, was the game she wanted to play.

Dian was perhaps an ideal candidate for a tournament like this. She was designed to destroy images and skills with her own strange energy, and had excellent defensive skills and mobility. She could prey on her opponents when they tire.

Randidly’s lips twisted into a grin. Warm, thick strands of energy were flowing up through the ground into his bare feet, revitalizing him. Not at the speed to make him have any positive regeneration, but it was more than enough to survive for now. Besides, it was time for him to change up the tempo.

To set this up, Randidly had spent the first part of the fight using mostly Sweep to attack. It was a skill he used to rely on quite heavily, but it was a rather direct, if powerful, strike that was predictable. So predictable that most spear users at the level of the Region Tournament would see it coming so far in advance it wasn’t worth the time to strike.

There were still some situations where Randidly used it now, mostly on basic, opening strikes, and on strikes where he wanted his opponent to block, where he was confident on winning a contest of strength. And also in times where Randidly wanted to convey a very certain style of fighting.

Now Randidly lashed out, using Empower and Haste, simply striking forward. As she had previously, Dian twisted out of the way and lashed out towards him, slicing Randidly’s shoulder. But of course, her eyes narrowed and Randidly’s blow veered just slightly with his Flexibility of the White Hunters, catching up to her, and took a large chunk out of Dian’s shoulder.

And this was the exact moment that the remaining Root Spiders arrived, leaping towards Dian’s ankles. They used their legs to launch themselves forward, aiming for the area above Dian’s boots. Randidly’s smile slowly became wider and wider. It might be crazy, but… He wanted to crush her where she was most confident.

Around him, Randidly could hear Claptrap and the male spear attendant raving, and the powerful man who had awarded him the powerful belt speaking calmly. The crowd roared, but it was far away. Again, his eyes were only for Dian, who scanned around, looking at the the different attacks and strikes, measuring and weighing them.

Randidly lashed out again, an unorthodox strike that was even a hair faster than his previous one, with less control. But the point right now was to keep pushing Dian backwards. If he did that enough…

Dian’s eyes hardened. Randidly’s face finished its transformation into a cheshire grin.

“Circle of Flame.”

The wave of fire exploded outward, just as the scarlet energy billowed outward from Dian. Most of the energy slid downward to engulf the Root Spiders, but there were several tendrils that shot forward, aiming for Randidly and his weapon. But those tendrils were met with only fire.

The two forces passed through each other, heedless. Whatever the strange energy that Dian produced was, it wasn’t something that could interfere with temperature. Those flames smashed into Dian, knocking her backwards and burning her severely, earning a small mew from the normally stoic Dian.

But as Randidly leveled his spear, recovering his stance after the lashing strike earlier, those tendrils ripped forward towards him, two taking him at the edge of of his shoulder, and one going through a little deeper in his flesh, under his collar bone. Instantly, his skin boiled and then evaporated. Roaring, Aether exploded in protest, rushing forward to the spot of the wounds.

Within his chest, at the spot of the Aether Crossroads, and the world, that strange otherness that existed in the core of him began to rumble, its fury evident. Very swiftly the Aether absolutely eviscerated Dian energy, but not before Randidly’s shoulder was gore, as though he had been stabbed three times with a short spike.

There was anger in his grin now. It only took a split second to defeat it, but it was still a pretty serious wound, that would slow him down in an extended match. But only in an extended match.

Randidly’s spear became level. “The Spear Advances, Ash Trails.”

His body blurred as Randidly ripped forward towards a reeling Dian. She didn’t see it coming at all. Randidly’s huge, obsidian spear, which once belonged to Haelthing the Devourer, took her in her side, with enough force to rip almost all of her intestines out of her body, blood spraying wildly around the arena.

Randidly’s eyes softened as he landed at the completion of the technique, but it was not enough to sway his heart. Dian represented an organization that had thoroughly layered controls over Shal, for reasons that Randidly didn’t understand, and came to him, with threats and half truths, demanding his cooperation. Perhaps if she had shown more respect…. but…

To his surprise, when he turned around, Dian was still standing, hunched over, blood pouring out of her side. And out of her body, a flickering, steadily growing amount of scarlet energy was forming.

****

“Amazing! The Ghosthound struck with fire, and now with spear, crossing the arena like a lightning bolt! Dian is incapacitated! She’s bleeding out! And with that-” But then Claptrap fell silent, because contrary to what he expected, Dian didn’t fall. She was clearly sporting a wound that would kill her, if the match didn’t stop.

Aethon leaned forward. “This… is dangerous. That woman…”

Dian swayed. The air around her shimmered, becoming strangely crimson. Then she slowly straightened, removing her hands from her side, allowing more blood to pump out onto the stage. The cheers of the audience slowly died, drowned out by the sound of that blood splashing onto the stone.

“Can’t you see it?” Dian said, gesturing wildly. “Her seeds are everywhere. Can’t you hear her? She whispers! Even to me! The nerve of that witch, she whispers even to me!”

Around Dian, the energy grew thicker and more wild. The ground underneath her bubbled and frothed, thick and viscous. The Ghosthound stood very still, pointing his spear towards her.

With a clang that carried across all of the arena, Dian dropped her own spear. The referee walked over towards her, speaking low under his breath to her, but she ignored him, her gaze locked onto the Ghosthound.

“Even me! I could reach out and take it… and with that strength, I could crush you. Don’t you understand? You need me. You needed me! And now, I…. after so long…”

She became a pyre of that crimson energy, burning before their eyes.

“I choose freedom!”

Her flesh melted into nothing, before a silent crowd.

****

Lucretia couldn’t help but laugh, leaning back against the tree. The head of the Yeti and Shal lay around her, in the shade of the tree. The small glen around them was picturesque. Anyone could wander over. It was an open area. One wouldn’t believe that one of the most wanted women in the Spearman School would rest here.

“What a foolish child. So twisted by the energy she cultivated, and the long years she spent keeping tabs on my dearest Shal… Did she think that the only gift I can give his power?”

Lucretia flexed her fingers, opening them, showing a small, glowing orb of energy. Within it, Dian’s face floated, its eyes closed. Humming to herself, Lucretia began to trace complicated runes into the sphere. As she did so, Dian’s face came into sharper and sharper relief, and the face began to twist into a frown.

“I can give all sorts of gifts, to all sorts of people. They need only ask for them. I could even hear the silent plea of a very sad girl who just wanted some wiggle room in the geases laid on her by her masters… so she could just accept her death on her own terms.”

Lucretia lifted the sphere, grinning at the soul held in the palm of her hand, now contained by the runes. “I wonder what the second gift I shall give to you will be. Perhaps even a new body, a new purpose in life? The irony of it drives me crazy, hahahahahahah!”

Standing, Lucretia gestured sharply and a dull eyed Shal stood with her, gathering the Yeti head. Then, as Lucretia continued to hum, Shal followed after her. Looming above them was the heavy mountains upon the base of which Deardun is built.

“I really want to see him now, Shal, you know? This strange boy who keeps driving people I thought out of my reach into my arms, and others away from me.” Lucretia called over her shoulder. “Randidly Ghosthound… I wonder, what gifts will he require of me?”

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