Groaning, Randidly sat up, checking the most recent hole in his thigh. He had managed to avoid Azriel’s original charge for the artery in his leg, but her follow-ups to his torso had distracted him enough for her pure speed and technique to overwhelm him, even with magic support.
“That new technique… is interesting. And the upgrade to Agony- Anguish you said? These need polished.” Azriel announced, tapping her lip as she stood over him. Randidly dutifully used Living Blood to guide his broken body back together. He felt Bacterial Regeneration kick in, quickly increasing his health back to its maximum value.
Of course, Anguish’s upgrade had been as impressive as expected. But more than that… Azriel was right. Ash to Ash was incredibly powerful. Randidly still wasn’t sure that he totally understood what Ash to Ash did. It definitely activated some energy at his core, and he felt that was insanely powerful, he just had no idea how to control it. What he did know, was if he was struck by a blow while he had “Ash” mode activated, his body would disintegrate into ash and reform at another position, very, very quickly.
The area where he reformed was currently random, and Randidly had been unable to control it even after several attempts at experimentation. Still, the randomness also punished Azriel, who would likely have been able to read and predict him, had Randidly had control.
Further complicating the training was the fact that to have that mode active, cost almost 4000 mana a second. Randidly had enough reaction to use it just for a split second, but it still usually took around 1000-1500 mana each time.
Randidly was filled with passives that could boost his regeneration, but even with all of these, it simply took too long; it was better to focus on training up other skills, and keep that back as a trump card. Because like Azriel said, it only worked once.
It became more complicated because Azriel claimed that his eyes seemed to glow with an inner flame when it was active, so she was able to use feints and pull back when she saw it to make it almost useless against her. But still, she insisted they practice.
While Randidly was gaining mana, he activated Anguish, and used his will to learn to shape it, concentrating it in an area and direction.
Through all of these spells, Azriel seemed largely unphased. It further cemented Randidly’s fear of the System, and also the looming threats of the Engraving Guild and the large Styles of Deardun. She might be extremely talented, but she was still under Lvl 25. Those monsters above that level filled Randidly with a dull sense of crisis. Especially with Shal still gone…
“Again.” Azriel announced, in that imperious way she had, and Randidly rose. He still didn’t quite get why her plot to use him made sense, but he was perfectly willing to take the opportunity to learn more skills. The sky was high and wide, and he wasn’t even fighting the monsters with the strength to endanger the entire world. If these people couldn’t handle the Calamity… how strong would it be?
The spar started with Azriel moving so fast his eyes blurred, but now Randidly had improved both in his Perception and Reaction, due to the large boost from being refined by the Trial of Ash. His spear moved to meet her, relying heavily on Idiosyncratic Cut to make up for the distance in natural speed.
But it wasn’t enough, Azriel always seemed to accelerate further.
Randidly split his attention, summoning roots that ripped upwards in a randomized pattern, which made her pause, and in that moment he hammered her with the most focused Anguish he could manage. By this point, she had been exposed to it quite a bit, and didn’t flinch, but Randidly still used the chance to move forward, slashing out with his spear.
By the time the strike arrived, Azriel was already gone, blurring to stand behind him, hissing through her teeth as her spear pierced his side. Randidly’s eyes glowed with an inner fire, a bright orange light that replaced his pupil, while his iris became even more brightly emerald.
Ash to Ash.
The world returned to monochrome that Randidly had experienced when he had come out of the final vision at the trial. Everything seemed flat and empty, the noises dull and muted, the colors sucked away. As her blow landed on him, Randidly’s world shifted, as he swirled away, and suddenly found himself standing behind Azriel.
Color and sound slapped back into sudden prominence, giving Randidly something of a headache, and a great weakness came over him as he quickly ran out of mana. He no longer had his spear, as it was still dropping to the ground where he had disappeared, but Randidly didn’t let that stop him, as he unleashed a Roundhouse Kick towards her back.
That leg was promptly filled with holes, and he was knocked to the ground.
It was frustrating in a way to train like this, while he had suspicions that Shal was captured by Lucretia. Based on what he knew, Lucretia owed Shal’s father a 3rd gift, and was willing to give it to Shal. The Central Styles wanted to prevent that, but Dian apparently hadn’t been doing too good of a job.
Perhaps this captivity was Lucretia’s gift? But Randidly didn’t think so. Truly, her gifts were meant to destroy and tear. Based on the dull eyed Shal Randidly had seen, she was just biding her time, probably waiting to give him a gift to the moment it would destroy Shal. Ultimately, this worried Randidly more, because likely, what she was waiting for was something regarding him and this tournament…
Well it was all speculation at this point. But indulging the fact the visions were real made Randidly want to abandon this place and return home, searching for Ace and Sydney. However, he was held in place by a vague feeling of guilt and responsibility towards Shal, and also based on his promise with Azriel. He hadn’t originally asked for her help getting him through the knockout rounds, but she had given it, and now he had taken advantage of her to help increase his skill.
There was a debt there now, and Randidly never wanted to be someone who forgot his debts.
“Again,” Azriel said impatiently.
Claptrap almost choked to death on his first swig of ale, slightly shellshocked and trembling based on the fact that Ciel had accepted so easily. It was the most natural thing in the world, in her mind, to go somewhere more private and drink to continue their discussion. As if they had a relationship of some kind. As if they were friends.
Maybe in her mind they were…? Claptrap wondered, but then he squashed that thought. That didn’t make sense, her previous actions were definitely standoffish, when she had met for the business deal. So why…?
“Um… you are doing really well for yourself, you know? I see your symbol everywhere.” Ciel began tentatively. “Behind the Style… I think your… company, right? Is the most well known thing about this tournament. No longer just a clerk, huh?”
Claptrap nodded, the guilt rising in his chest, his throat souring. Well, due to the Ghosthound he was changing… he was riding his ideas way above his place in life.
Claptrap opened his mouth, but wasn’t sure what to say, so he closed it, and then opened it again to take another sip of ale. Ciel was staring at the table, deep in thought. Claptrap just grimaced. In what world did he think-
“It’s inspiring, you know. The way you changed your life, with your ideas. It… inspired me.” Ciel looked sharply up, her clear blue eyes determined. “I want to do that… reshape my life.
“It might be hard to notice… but my life…” Ciel gestured slightly. “Has not… always been under my control. I am a female, and it… is hard to escape what that means. That means it’s my responsibility to ensure the next generation of the Steel Feather Style has a leader. And that, inevitably, means I need a strong man…
“Some argue that the path received from the father is very often irrelevant but… Every heaven defying genius has an edge because of a skill they trained from birth from their mother, and an avenue forward left to them by their father. But….”
Now her eyes flashed and Ciel raised her glass and finished the entire thing in a second, then slammed it down on the table. “Everyone talks about 3 names for the tournament. Drak Wyrd, and his epic duel against Azriel, with rumors abound about their wedding. And of course, Randidly Ghosthound, the mage spear user who worked his way up through the preliminaries, through the qualifiers to get here, sweating and struggling the entire way!
“I… approached Azriel many times, because I thought she would understand the pressures as the woman expected to inherit the dreams of a Style… but she always seemed to look through me, barely recognizing me. I know I’m not like her, I’m not... naturally blessed in the same ways, nor do I have such a monstrous understanding of the spear, or instantaneous insight. But I work hard. I’ve always outperformed expectations…
“But here, my name is never mentioned. No one expects me to win the tournament. Sure, I’ll likely beat your Ghosthound friend, no offense, but it won’t be enough to rock the boat. To make people look at me in shock. That’s why I made the announcement before the crowd. Only now, only through drama about relationships,” Ciel struggled for a second before she could continue speaking, a tear running down her cheek. “Only through this, can I have their eyes on me, can I seize control of my path with a shock that will set them on their back foot.”