Strangely, after Randidly returned to his inn, he found Bertarn already waiting for him. In the wake of his concession, Bertarn had slipped away, the man with the towering body covered in muscles moving surprisingly quietly, fading away. His Style was aghast and furious, and the crowd was raving.
After all, Randidly had worked himself into a rather popular position, simply by his identity of a participant not affiliated with the larger Styles. This, combined with Claptrap’s subtle encouragement of the support for the Ghosthound, had led the wider populace to cheer wildly for this upset.
But the reception from the Styles was unsurprisingly chilly.
Randidly had assumed that Bertarn was the type to sequester himself in a location for a while, swearing his vengeance, and coming back later. He had that sort of insatiable tenacity in the air around him. His quick departure, Randidly had originally thought, was so that he could throw himself into more training.
The Bertarn that waited for Randidly at his inn simply seemed profoundly tired. He looked up when Randidly arrived, and followed Randidly up to his room.
Slightly on edge, and curious, Randidly asked. “Why are you here?”
Bertarn’s eyes were hollow and gaunt. Although Randidly had put a good amount of pressure on him during the match, this level of exhaustion… he seemed to have aged several years in the last hour or so. Bertarn smiled slightly.
“Two reasons. One, I bring a message from the head of my Style, the High Mountain Style, to you. You can consider this a message from all of the Styles of Deardun. The second…. Well…” Bertarn sighed. “A personal warning. But let’s get to the message first.”
“Dear Randidly Ghosthound. Congratulations.” Bertarn began, speaking mechanically. “You might think us backwards minded and stubborn, but we are not enthused that we had underestimated your strength. You were not meant to win that match. But perhaps that was our own overconfidence in the individual we chose to face you. He will be appropriately punished.”
The way Bertarn delivered these words, specifically about his punishment, without even a flicker of changing expression, made Randidly narrow his eyes. But he remained silent, as Bertarn continued to recite the message that he had been told to deliver.
“But you should know that we have watched you very closely. Your associations, your companions… your associations with the renegade Engraving that you have involved yourself in,” Randidly smiled bitterly. That at least explained why the man from the Engraving Guild had had showed up. Supposing he hadn’t won, as these old codgers planned, they undoubtedly would have approached him with a deal to protect Randidly in exchange for his servitude. As it hadn’t worked out that way, they were now trying to use it as a threat to keep him in line. But what did they want…?
“To be frank, we are aware with your recent involvement with Azriel, with the stated goal of finding a way to beat Drak Wyrd. Cease this involvement. Drak Wyrd must win the tournament. But even more than that… Due to political reasons, you are not allowed to proceed past the top 8. This should be sufficient to retain the status of your father Style. Should you attempt past this level…. We will destroy you.”
Bertarn kept the same even delivery, even with the final threat. Silence reigned for several seconds, as Randidly mulled this over. He was not unfamiliar with being threatened, but this still sent a chill down his spine. Randidly suspected that he was truly moving up in the world; the people who threatened him this time were a level above the typical schmucks who dared speak out against him.
They were even probably at or above the level of Shal and Divveltian. Which meant he had to proceed carefully. Or acquire new backing, something that could give the larger Styles pause. Would they actually carry out their threat while he was still in the tournament? That was hard to say, and Randidly had hoped to be returned to his Cohort immediately on completion of the tournament, both to return to his village and to escape the vengeance of the Engraving Guild.
Randidly cursed himself for not figuring out the details of such a return earlier. It was very important that he be able to figure out how it was done and execute it, without the help of the Styles. Switching his attention, Randidly examined Bertarn, who seemed content to simply stand and wait.
“Why must I not proceed past the top 8?” Randidly asked aloud.
Bertarn hesitated for a second, and then said. “…I am not sure about the exact details. But I suspect that it is related to the fact that the Top 4… shall proceed to an Inter-School Tournament to determine who shall proceed to face the next Calamity. Perhaps your presence would throw off their plans more than they would be willing to allow. Plus, a Top 8 finish will still give you a token to enter the Spearman School Hall of Records, so…”
Randidly frowned. He truly wanted to ask about the Calamity, but he suspected that the words would again be blurred out by the strange protection of the System. But it did make a certain sense that the Styles would want to control the people who would leave from their Region to the broader tournament.
“When is the tournament?”
“About a year and a half. All of the Regions in all of the Schools will need to finish their own tournaments and travel there.” Bertarn said. “But as I said, try to put that out of mind. If you actually dare cross them, they won’t hesitate. In fact, they might even intervene directly after the match. Although they would risk public opinion turning against them, if it was done out of sight…”
Bertarn fell silent. Randidly chuckled. Truly, bullies would be bullies, no matter where it was.
“What of you? You’ve already given plenty warnings, what more do I have to be worried about?” Randidly asked sarcastically. After all, they were in a tournament. He was well aware of the dangers associated with the fighting, and retribution from other sources in the wake of the results.
Bertarn was silent for several seconds, but then said slowly. “It is… strange. Almost as if it was a dream. But immediately after I accepted it and lost… I thought I could hear a whisper. Telling me to reach out and take the strength I needed to win. To… steal it. To…. become a Devourer.”
Shivering, Bertarn shook his head and looked at Randidly. “Even now, I half believe that I imagined this voice. But at the moment, I felt it. A wild and vicious strength I could have if I traded away my honor, just beyond my fingertips…”
Sighing, Bertarn fell silent. Randidly scratched his head.
“If you didn’t take it, why are you telling me this?”
“So you will take care with your next opponent.” Bertarn said, snapping out of his reverie. “She is the disciple of the Devourer. It would make sense if she had the ability to bring others to her path. I am satisfied with my own abilities, but others in the tournament, especially when the finish line is so close… Even if you win, I suspect she will continue to try and intervene against you, holding that grudge for as long as she lives.”
Bertarn gave Randidly a serious look. “Perhaps it would be for the best if you kill her in your match.”
After Bertarn left, Randidly sat and meditated. Too many forces were moving in too many directions. It was hard to keep track of which ones were worth following. In addition, forces were now trying to act on even his free time, keeping him from advancing. He had a few thoughts about avoiding their detection, but…
It would be slightly time consuming. There was a break between this match in the next, two free days, where he could work. But work on avoiding detection was time he wasn’t working on actually increasing his ability to succeed in a fight. Gritting his teeth, Randidly cursed his own weakness.
In a way, he cursed himself for being drawn out to this Cohort, and his stubborn honor for demanding he throw himself into this impossible task. It ended up vastly increasing his strength across the board, but it had taken more than two years of his life. Although he had some suspicions that Vitality would keep him from aging outwardly, that wasn’t the point.
It wasn’t vanity that made Randidly slightly bitter, it was homesickness. For a place he had spent only a few scant months. But he had spent that time building something. He wasn’t likely to quickly forget that time. From their perspective, Randidly had spent as much time there as he had away, as several months had passed. Not that he thought they would forget about him, or had the strength to ignore the new him, if he wished to, but….
Sighing, Randidly leaned back. With the rest of tonight, and the two days tomorrow, there were several things he needed to do. The first was investigate how to return to his Cohort, and the second was work on his basic physical passive skills, Physical Fitness, Flexibility of the White Hunters, and Grace. These skills would give him more variety and smooth transitions in his fighting style.
In the fight with Bertarn, it became very clear that while Bertarn faired very well against a single spell, when Randidly started switching among them very quickly, Bertarn soon faltered. If he could leverage that strength… It was likely due to his high Control, and it made Randidly make a mental note to do the Path of Control next.
As for whether he should pursue the way to hide himself from detection and continue to have interactions with Azriel… Her training was extremely valuable, due to her great strength, and after only a single time of interaction, he had gained a dozen or so skill levels. That was even before she had a comprehensive idea about his skills. Randidly had no doubt that she had carefully watched his match against Bertarn and would use it to refine a training regimen to make him more versatile and surprising.
After all, the goal was for him to make Drak Wyrd serious, even if just for a moment, so Azriel’s eyes could analyze him.
Plus… she was really pretty. It was dumb for him to think of now, but…
Randidly sighed. He had always done dumb things around pretty women. Although in the past, before Tessa, the dumb things he had done mainly involved being super standoffish and weird, making them avoid him, but still…
So Randidly resolved himself immediately to working on his ability to escape detection. He got out several sheets of paper, a pen, and then the Encyclopedias given to him by the Willow Tree Spear Style. It was time to study, and attack that Shadow IV Engraving.