Ciel bit her lip, doing her best to maintain her posture after she forced herself to use The Shrike Cries over a Barren Land twice in a row. The burden on her body was extraordinary. More so than she had anticipated. Originally, she had assumed she would still have some strength remaining, enough to counter Randidly when he would use his strange, Phantom’s Embrace skill to avoid her strikes.
But now… she would be lucky if she could stand afterwards.
It was due to the short time in between uses. There was an exponential increase in toll on her body. Which was predictable, but in the heat of the moment… still, nothing she could do now-
The air around her changed, abruptly. So quickly it sent a shiver down her spine. The grown became grey and cracked, their air sulfuric and dry. Ciel abruptly found herself on a barren wasteland, but not the one she was always told to imagine while using the skill. That was a barren flatlands type of desert, with a waving mirage in the distance.
This… this was a dead world of fire, choked with ash. And in front of her…
Randidly stood in front of a volcano, his spear pointing at her, his eyes this strange mix of emerald and orange.
“The Spear Advances, Ash Trails.”
Suddenly he exploded forward, filled with momentum, the volcano erupting, spewing death and heat and more ash, filling the sky. It was swirling and all encompassing, swimming around towards her, and Ciel felt very, very afraid.
But at the same time, she felt excitement. Because although there was a small voice in the back of her head that whispered she could overcome this if she would only just reach out and take the power offered to her, Ciel had no intention of doing so.
“I want to win…” Ciel whispered, her voice drowned out by the vicious explosion of ash and lava, “But I want to win on my own. Not… as a puppet to some other power.”
It was at that moment that Randidly’s momentum, collected at the point of his obsidian spear, met the wave of force from her skill, and her skill shattered like an egg, some of the recoil coming back towards her, sending Ciel stumbling backwards. Then she was hit by the noise of the world cracking.
Aethon Thai jumped to his feet, his hands balled into fists.
The referee, a man that Aethon trusted completely, gave him a knowing look. He was well aware that Aethon Thai wanted to immediately leap out there and protect Ciel, but that would be an automatic forfeiture, no matter how much influence Aethon had on the Northern Regional Tournament.
In the referee’s mind, the hope that Ciel would turn this around and win was why Aethon Thai didn’t act, but the referee was mistake. Sure, Aethon was filled with fear, but it was a dreadful, excited fear.
Because in the moments that the Ghosthound boy used his skill, such was the force of his will in that moment that the world changed. And not just for the recipient, but for the whole of the audience. The world flickered, just for a split second as the skill was unleashed, but everyone watching saw that desolate, ashy world of broken ground and volcanos.
The boy had reached the Artisan level. Even if it was only for a short moment, he had crossed the threshold of potency of image. The rest would come with time.
And it was with a skill that was definitely not from the Spear Phantom’s inheritance.
This meant… well it could possibly mean many, many things. But what it definitely meant was that there would be changes to the Northern Regions politics as this boy, from a storied but relatively weak Style, fought toe to toe with the greats of his generation. And possibly earned himself a place in the Inter-School Tournament.
This potential would shake up the political structure. It was hard to maintain a sense of superiority in the face of this example. Even if most believed he was a once in a lifetime talent, others would see the example he set and plot, clawing their way up the social ladder. And it was currently crowded enough up here as it was, especially as they extended a hand towards the Breaking Dawn Style…
Which was not what they needed. Aethon felt a headache coming on. But again, the excitement about the boy’s talent, especially as he continually improved over the course of the tournament, couldn’t be discounted either. All in all-
“Heh,” His drinking partner, who was apparently the Ghosthound’s spear attendant, said as he elbowed Aethon Thai in the ribs. “At this rate, it looks like you will have a new son in law.”
Aethon froze. The strange business man announcer they sat with at the table, began to grind his teeth as he stared out at match.
Still laughing, his drinking partner slapped Claptrap, the businessman. “Ah, don’t make that face. The Ghosthound already has Helen. She will only ever be a second wife anyway, so Claptrap I’m sure you will get a turn-”
Aethon made a brushing motion with his hand. Very quickly, it was only him and Claptrap remaining on the platform, the previous bug having been flung and smashed into the ground behind them with a small act of will. To Aethon’s surprise, that bug had some skill, because he was able to activate a skill with a strong image, preserving its life. But that was no matter.
It was not that he really would hold this against his drinking partner in the long run. But a precedent must be set. Ciel should not be discussed in such terms.
Ciel would never marry this Ghosthound.
“Ahem,” Aethon said lightly. “Let us… continue watching the match.”
Claptrap nodded mutely.
His chest heaving, Randidly stumbled forward towards Ciel, who just watched him with wide eyes. As their gazes locked, they both became abruptly aware of how weak the other was, in the aftermath of those strikes.
Randidly had used the force from his skill to break Ciel’s but it had stopped him almost dead, leaving his body once more twitchy and weak. Ciel was still struggling to cope with the huge force she had created early, and then she was buffeted by the backlash from Randidly’s actions.
Both of them breathed for several seconds. Several small bits of obsidian fell to the ground, making a tinkling noise. The crack had become even larger, spreading almost the entirety of the shaft, and from the original crack more and more bits were falling away to the ground.
Of the two of them, Ciel recovered first, raising her spear.
“The Silent Hunter Descends.”
Her spear whipped upwards, then smashed down towards Randidly. Again, he was deeply impressed by the sudden speed with which she moved. And from the look of that strike, it was a level of power above her previous skills; this skill was designed to crush and kill.
Unfortunately for her… Randidly had some rather unfair skills in his repertoire. Although he had never used it like this in the past… he had some faith that it would work. Her attack was fast, but it wasn’t so fast that Randidly couldn’t raise his spear to block it. So Randidly stood still, his spear raised in a defensive posture, watching the powerful attack spiral towards him.
Then Randidly narrowed his eyes.
Ciel twisted, her spear whistling right past Randidly, but not striking him. Her eyes widened, and their gazes once more locked.
Ciel had expected Randidly had been holding something back, and would have just enough strength squirreled away to use the Spear Phantom’s Embrace again. To her… it was absolutely ridiculous that Randidly would stand and allow her to strike him like that, especially after she had been overpowering the entirety of the match.
The fact that he just stood there meant he was either an idiot, or had another card left.
The fact that he hadn’t reacted at all… meant he had to be an idiot. Which caused Ciel’s mental gears to fall out of sync for a split second, and sputter to come back together. Randidly grinned. All the while, warm, rejuvenating energy was flooding up through his bare feet into his body. The longer that Ciel took to attack, the better.
Still, she wasn’t the drilled prodigal daughter of the Steel Feather Style for nothing. Instantly, her spear whipped around sideways, aiming to smash his weakened stance. Again, Randidly simply stood, but this time Ciel just narrowed her eyes and committed, putting everything into this blow. This would make or break her shot here.
The spears touched.
“Absolute Control: Freeze.”
Randidly couldn’t resist the force on his own. But if he borrowed the systems help…
Their spears smashed together. His obsidian chipped even further. The wave of force traveled into him, through his froze body, and then, finding no purchase, rebounded back outwards, his body used almost like a trampoline, tensing up and throwing it back. That wave of force went back through his spear, where more obsidian chips fell off, and into Ciel’s body.
She swayed, then dropped her spear and brought both her hands up to her mouth, trying to block the blood filled vomit that spewed out onto the stage.
Then the skill wore off of Randidly, and very part of his body screamed at him. Although he wanted to, he couldn’t find the strength to raise his spear, so he dropped that too, mimicking her. Then, with all the strength he could manage, he took a step towards Ciel, who regarded him silently.
For a long time, they just breathed and looked at each other. Then Ciel took a step towards each him, and suddenly they were only a half meter away, both weaponless.
“How did you…?” Ciel asked wonderingly, her eyes boring into him.
Randidly didn’t even have the strength to shrug. He just looked at her, gathering his mana for one last spell, although it was hard to imagine moving his mana, burdened with wariness as he was...
“It was…. fun…”
Then Ciel collapsed forward, her head hitting his chest. For a second he froze, but then his traitorous hands, which had previously been so tired, instinctively caught her.
The entire arena was silent.
Then, a cough.
“The winner… is Randidly Ghosthound!” The referee announced.