There was a pause, and the voice ignored Xierk as it continued. “You… feel regret? You… crave assistance for your people? I will do what I can, but it must be a trade. For my assistance… you must buy time for the man behind you in the bed. Stop the opponent in front of you.”
Xierk felt confusion, but there was just something… reassuring about the voice. There was also the strange, warm emerald glow that Xierk could feel filling him, the same glowing emerald that came up out of the earth, which they always called the Breath of the Progenitor.
Narrowing his eyes, Xierk tightened his grip, then he smiled. So he came over with his scepter and the hammer…? Well then…
It was not that Xierk’s anger and bitterness towards the Progenitor had disappeared, and yet… he could not bring himself to ask the questions that had been burning in his heart since his friend died. Because as soon as he heard the Progenitor’s voice….
Xierk found a truth inside himself. That the path he was on… was one he had chosen for himself. It was a heavy weight.
Although Xierk didn’t know where he was, or why, the directive was simple: fight the opponent before him. He would show this enemy of the Progenitor why he was called the strongest warrior his world had ever seen.
Perhaps in this world, he would be the strongest too. Xierk’s smile grew wide. With the Progenitor protecting his people… there was no reason to hold back.
Lucretia was struggling inwardly, to understand. A few things were immediately clear.
The strange, rocky figure had definitely come out of the Ghosthound’s Soul Skill. Was it the spirit of the Soul Skill…? Somehow, it had appeared, answering her call. And…
The Rockman spun the scepter in his hand, which glowed emerald. The image of the desert around them shattered, and the Rockman stepped forward. Gerroark’s face instantly turned serious. He even drew his spear.
“Well met, warrior,” Gerroark said, his eyes with a trace of uncertainty in them. The Rockman rumbled his agreement, and then moved, blurring forward, raising his hammer. Gerroark moved to engage, and very swiftly they were trading blows at a speed that Lucretia couldn’t follow.
True, the Rockman was fighting toe to toe with Gerroark, just like she needed, but Lucretia could barely move. It was costing her an abhorrent amount to keep the creature here. She could feel, for every second that it remained in this realm, outside of the Soul Skill, part of her soul was being syphoned off, into the Soul Skill.
But she wouldn’t stop it, she realized, her heart sinking. She felt the bindings of fate around her, for safety, but knew she wouldn’t struggle against them. She had done this often enough to others… it was just shocking that it had happened to her.
Three gifts. The first the daggers, the second the Aether… the third this strange Rockman. And by the third gift, she would destroy herself.
For the first time in a long time, Lucretia felt tired. Her age caught up with her, making her slightly listless and uncertain. Was this… truly how she was going to die…..?
“No….” She whispered heatedly, even as the Rockman knocked Gerroark out onto the street, and hopped down to follow him. “I refuse-”
A movement behind her caught her attention, and Lucretia twisted around, shocked. Shal’s eyes were open. He had sat up. He was looking at her, seemingly lost in thought.
Earlier that morning, Randidly finally stood as their match was announced. The figure opposite him stood as well. They did not bother to look at each other, but both walked slowly up to their own individual stairs, and up onto the stage.
The crowd erupted into a wall of noise, pounding the stage. “Ghosthound, Ghosthound!”
Although he was not predicted to win, there was no denying that Randidly was the more popular of the two spear users. Drak was seen as surly and elitist. Everyone craved the sight of Randidly striking this figure down, making him bleed and struggle. That was what people were here for.
In his heart, Randidly felt a small bit of disgust. This was bloodsport to them. But he couldn’t deny his own hand in this. Whereas before it had simply been a point of pride, a display of strength by the larger Styles, now it was more than that. It was something of people going to the zoo.
It hit him all at once. How the alcohol helped the people forget their own bitterness, and just enjoy the show, relegating themselves eternally to the sidelines. How the people who drank the ale and watched would never think themselves the type to appear on stage. They would always be the drinkers, the watchers, and how they would unconsciously fill their children with the same doubt in themselves.
This had been going on for generations already, of course, in a lesser way. After seeing the large Styles dominate. But now there was alcohol available. It would ease those frustrations, relax the drinker. Make them satiated with just this. All because Randidly thought it would be funny to help Claptrap make a quick buck.
Shaking his head slowly, Randidly felt a strange weight settle on his shoulders. That would be the case, unless…
Unless someone who came from nothing, like them, broke those expectations. Grinning to himself, Randidly drew his practice spear, stretching lightly, while the other spear sat inside of himself, waiting for the moment he needed it.
It was one more responsibility he could add to the pile, Randidly thought grimly. Break expectations for the people who didn’t come from the top tiered Styles. Force Drak Wyrd to reveal his hidden cards for Azriel. Let Shal come awake to an outcome that leaves him… proud.
“Are both fighters ready?” The referee asked, looking back and forth between the two of them. Both nodded.
Randidly hadn’t had much occasion to actually watch Drak Wyrd, but his full attention was on him now. Power seemed compressed in the man’s body, a palpable aura of competency. There seemed to be no weaknesses in his stance, and his eyes were steady and determined. There wasn’t even any overconfidence, although there did seem to be some cruelty in his expression as he gazed at Randidly.
Was it possible to use that…?
“Begin!” The referee announced.
“Incinerating Bolt! The Spear Advances, Ash Trails!” Randidly said.
There had been some time when he had debated taking a more passive role, but Randidly knew that this was not necessarily a race against time, but against exertion. Drak Wyrd, with his dark, determined eyes, could only fight for so long without his Aether Starvation kicking in, weakening him immensely.
Trusting in Randidly’s own ability to keep himself alive, Randidly decided the best option was a powerful offense that would force Drak to expend his energy while defending. He would probably be able to quickly dispatch most things, defending himself and wounding Randidly, but Randidly knew of no other way to push this match than to gamble his Health, Stamina, and Mana were high enough to make Drak Wyrd expend his Aether.
And Randidly was going to use all of them.
As the bolt ripped forward, Randidly’s body soon followed, aiming for the moment Drak dodged or blocked the bolt to strike, finding a moment of weakness.
Drak opted to deflect it, doing it effortlessly, flicking his spear and knocking the bolt away. At the same time, he accelerated forward, meeting Randidly in the middle of the arena with a crash.
Immediately, Randidly activated Stalemate Breaker, and pressed forward with everything he had, using Empower and Mana Strengthening as well. They were dead even, which shocked Randidly as much as it did Drak, his normally blank expression stretching as he raised his eyebrows.
But Randidly had used ¼ of his Stamina in those brief seconds, just to bring him to a standstill…? Christ.
“Circle of Flame!” Randidly shouted.
As he expected, Drak leaped backwards, moving quickly out of the blast radius, but of course it was a feint. Still, what Randidly hadn't expected was that Drak’s spear would slash out behind him, without even looking, cutting through the Spearing Roots he was aiming to use to catch him in the back, without slowing him down at all.
Still, with Drak’s spear behind him, Randidly activated the Spear Advances, Ash Trails again, Focusing on the concept of ignition, feeling his body thrown forward with its power.
Drak didn’t even blink, blocking Randidly’s spear with a stance that made Randidly feel like he had just thrown himself into a concrete wall. Then Drak’s spear wriggled, and Randidly’s was knocked to the side, leaving him completely undefended.
Growling, Randidly spun away, aiming to slash at him from the side, but he abruptly sensed that a kick was about to hit him, as if Drak had predicted this very move, and prepared to deal with it.
Randidly’s eyes glowed Emerald. The ground around them transformed into mist, and there was a soft ticking in the background. “The Phantom’s Embrace.”
Unlike Azriel, who had grown wary of this skill, Drak made no move to change his kick. Randidly felt every aspect of the kick in a second, his eyes glazing over as his other senses took control. Randidly spun, borrowing the force of the attack to disappear, spinning faster around Drak’s side, his spear moving in an arc.
An arc just short of Drak, but it did rip upwards, cutting a shallow gash into the corner of Drak’s mouth.
Breathing heavily, Randidly stepped backwards. Thick roots of golden energy came upwards, flooding his body with strength, increasing his recovery. Living Blood activated too, doing its best to control the blood loss from the huge gash in Randidly’s left bicep, where a counter attack that Randidly hadn’t even been able to follow with his eyes had struck him.
Both fighters looked at each other. A trail of blood dripped down Drak’s face to his chin, then dropped onto the ground.
Although he earned a pounding headache for it, Randidly used Living Blood to its limit, keeping all his blood flowing back into the wound, as his body slowly knit together. Grinning, Randidly pointed down to the drop of crimson.
“Your blood hit the ground first.”
After he had spoken, Randidly realized for the first time how silent it had become in the arena. His words carried far, and Drak’s face only darkened further. Sighing inwardly to himself, Randidly wished he had the presence of mind to wait a few more seconds. An increased recovery time would have made this wound so much more manageable. But noooo, he had to trash talk.
“We will see whose body hits the ground first,” Drak said, his voice raw, as he raised his spear once more.