The words of the elders introducing the under 25 tournament and explaining the various rules were just a dull ringing in Helen’s ears. The whole while, her eyes were locked onto Randidly who stood next to her at the front of the contestants. It seemed that it mattered little to the master of ceremonies whether the two first opponents stood next to each other. Perhaps such a concern was beneath their notice.
And what Helen saw from Randidly did little to dispel her fury.
This fucker…! He looks like an invalid! Helen thought, her brows scrunching up as she fought to comprehend what was going on in Randidly’s mind. Why had he allowed himself to waste away like this…? This was a special day that they had planned for such a long time, so why-
Unbidden, the nagging voice of Helen’s mother warned what such a powerful frown would due to her skin, which of course only served to worsen her mood. Yet, her only distraction was to consider her opponent.
Randidly was not an inconspicuous character, but he was the type that was often overlooked in a mass of people. He was tall enough to stand above most, but not so tall that his body seemed to stick out in a crowd. He kept his black hair shorn short most of the time, although occasionally it grew into a longer tangle. In terms of musculature, Randidly certainly wouldn’t turn any heads on Tellus; he was wiry rather than built for strength. Or generally, that was how he looked.
Today, he had deep bags under his eyes that made his face seem extremely long and gaunt. His shoulders were slumped somewhat, resulting in his long arms hanging low on his sides, giving him a strangely animalistic appearance. Above all, Randidly Ghosthound looked tired. It seemed like a stiff wind could blow him over. The lure of a pillow would pull him across a road, right in front of a cart.
Were you out all last night whoring? If your respect for me is truly so little as this… Helen thought spitefully. Her eyes flashed. Leading up to now, Helen had felt some hesitation to utilize her full strength against Randidly. Some part of her worried that if she won, it would result in the sort of wound that one could die from. But now, seeing him like this…
What pissed her off, even more, was the possibility that this whole visage was a ruse, to cause just this reaction in her. And it was working.
Helen’s vision was slowly turning red. She would kill him for this. For all he had put her through.
“And now, without further ado… let us begin with the under 25 finals! Our first match is a duel of two hailing from the Northern Region! Our first contestant is Helen, who won herself a spot in the tournament due to exemplary accomplishments on the frontlines prior to the invasion! In fact, if not for her acts of heroism, it is very possible that the war would have happened even more suddenly…”
Helen calmly walked out onto the arena, leaving Randidly to stand behind and watch her. Although it wasn’t truly meaningful, it was quite kind of this man to embellish some of her accomplishments. Her footsteps were loud in her own ears, even as the meager waters who hailed from the Northern Region, or who served on the frontlines, cheered for her.
On second thought, who was she to say that she hadn’t accomplished exactly those things? Truly, she had been instrumental in several operations. She might very well have delayed the Wight’s plans.
“And the second challenger is a man who needs no introduction. Just the name of his master and grandmaster can be used synonymously with absolute strength! Heir to the Spear Phantom Style… we have… Randidly Ghosthound!”
At least he has the decency to look calm, Helen thought sourly. She carefully eyed Randidly for any sort of reaction to the introduction, but there was none; not even shock crossed his face. Which, Helen knew, would have been appropriate. Likely, Randidly wasn’t aware of how recognized Shal had become in the time he was gone.
As Randidly continued to walk forward, only to stop about 10 meters away from Helen in the arena, most of her emotions drained away. Because despite how drawn and exhausted he looked, the hairs on the back of Helen’s neck rose when Randidly entered the arena. Their gazes met.
This, Helen realized, would not be easy.
“Do you insist on this foolish bet?” Randidly said softly.
Helen grinned at him. “Are you 100% confident that you belong in the middle of those fights, and not this one?”
To her surprise, Randidly smiled wryly back. “Honestly, I don’t even know where those fights are occurring. But… If I don’t try, I’ll never leave this place.”
“Is it truly so important to leave…? So be it. So we fight.” Helen said. Randidly didn’t answer, he just closed his eyes and breathed out. Weirdly, Helen abruptly felt a chill go down her spine. Was he truly so strong as to effortlessly trigger her instincts like this…?
Then Helen frowned. This wasn’t her instincts. It simply was cold. There was a cold breeze. She thought she heard an audience member from the front seats sneeze.
Don’t psych yourself out, Helen chided herself as he produced her spear. Randidly did the same, as well as allowing that strange, grey-black armor to climb across his body and settle across him. It mostly covered his torso, shoulders, and arms, but Helen didn’t miss the thin layer that settled on his upper thighs.
Narrowing her eyes, Helen speculated on the weak points of Randidly, and where she should strike for the best effect. Ultimately though, she had to admit that he would be a tough nut to crack. That was the rough of Randidly Ghosthound. He wasn’t a defensive specialist, or a spear specialist, or even a speed specialist. He just did it all so well that he could endure what you were good at, and strike where you were weak.
“Let the match… begin!”
Even as the referee/announcer signaled the start of the fight, Randidly shivered. This fucking cold…! It was with an extremely uncomfortable expression that he regarded Helen before him, who instantly began spinning her spear. Although it didn’t seem like much, Randidly could sense that she was utilizing a Skill she had used previously to create strange currents of force in the air. If he wasn’t careful, it would easy to be bound by them.
In spite of the seriousness of the occasion, Randidly sneezed. As if on cue, Helen surged into motion, her body blurring strangely as she cut towards him. Even forcefully pumping energy into Chosen of Ash did little to dispel the deep cold that was afflicting him. In truth, it didn’t affect his movements or thoughts anymore. He had checked his physical condition, and it honestly seemed to have improved somewhat. But it was a constant source of discomfort, to feel as though warmth was impossible.
The feel of it was not something he had experienced until now, and it was taking away a little bit of his edge.
Helen’s spear was quick and already Randidly felt the small tugs of those currents of air. But Acri sprung out in an Idiosyncratic Cut, aiming to meet Helen directly. Of course, as soon as Randidly moved, she shifted.
With a quick spin, her slash turned into a feint and now she stepped beyond Randidly’s guard. In a blindingly quick movement, she lowered her spear and thrust toward his exposed side. Hissing between chattering teeth, Randidly leaned to the side. The strike skittered off of Sulfur harmlessly. Taking advantage of the moment, Randidly smashed down toward Helen with Acri.
To his surprise, or perhaps not, Helen didn’t retreat at all and simply planted her left foot. In a single movement, Helen shot past him and his strike. Randidly instantly slowed the slash and turned to regard Helen. Their eyes met.
In her eyes was a challenge: Was this really all he had?
Randidly chuckled. It’s not like Helen came out so hot in that exchange herself. Strikes of that caliber he could endure all day.
But she was right that this wasn’t enough strength to overcome the enemies that waited on the grander stage. Time to up the ante.
For good luck, and to get rid of some of the tingling numbness in his legs, Randidly stamped his foot. Once more, Helen came forward with admirable sharpness, spear raised.
Breath of the Spear Phantom might have been effective, but it seemed like that wasn’t the point, to Randidly. That was relying on a single Skill to suppress Helen. His goal was to prove to her, and to himself, that he had the qualifications to reach to the next tier of fighters. He needed to prove he had the strength to alter the fate of a nation. He was more than this.
The Crown of Cataclysm and Gloom condensed above his head, instantly sharpening Randidly’s vision. The Wild Phantom’s Embrace began to hum as Randidly moved forward to meet Helen.
As they approached, Randidly felt the pulling currents of a wild river with incredible strength. Wincing, he ripped forcibly through the restraints. This might be a problem eventually if she could stack them infinitely. But her eyes twitched slightly as Randidly did so, which was slightly gratifying.
Instantly, her body contorted as she swayed out of the way and struck at him once more from the side. But toward this attack, Randidly only grinned; as the binding forces that he had ripped through caught up to him, he followed their pull. Like a phantom, he slid backward away from Helen’s attack without moving a muscle. Randidly wished he could see what it looked like.
Her eyes narrowed in fury. With an even higher level of acceleration, Helen surged forward. Randidly bent his knees and pressed forward to meet the attack. The spear stab flicked past his face and clanged off one of Sulfur’s shoulder guards. But all the while, Randidly’s gaze didn’t waver. With a short breath, Randidly expelled as much of the cold in his heart that he could manage into the surrounding air.
Helen paled somewhat, but her spear slithered back into a defensive position faster than an adder. Even so, she was forced to take the force of the Inevitable Phantom Arrives directly.