“I…” Randidly started, then he changed tactics. “Why are you participating in this tournament?”
“I’m following Shal,” Dian corrected, her face twisting into a grimace. “Or I was, through you. But you, I believe, have complicated things. Although his chances of doing so are small, even with the prophecy about the Spear Phantom, our true fear was always Lucretia’s 3rd gift for Aemont. She would not let his death stop her from giving it.
“There are a few dozen theories in the form it will take. Some believe that she will give Aemont a second life, by using Shal’s body. Another is that she will create a fake version of Aemont, and present it to Shal. After all, her first two gifts were an image, and then an incredibly powerful rune that can allegedly devour the strength of others. With these worries in mind, some of the Masters of the Central Region… put a few geases on him. Other’s worried this would weaken his will, lessening his chances of becoming the one who could L*(*&() the Calamity, but a master engraver perfected Haelthing’s work, creating a rune on Shal’s heart that would hide him from Lucretia’s gaze.”
“And you coming here now…” Randidly said slowly, an inkling forming in his mind.
“Because several months ago, Shal began acting erratic, where he had been content to stew in his anger before. Because of you.” Dian confirmed. “Since he’s now moving, I was dispatched to watch him. Imagine my surprise when he produces a disciple of the Spear Phantom Style, and one from another Cohort, at that…”
Randidly stiffened. Not that he necessarily kept it a secret. But his skin color and lack of a third eye weren’t unheard of in this world. For them to know where he was from…
“Are you surprised?”
Saying nothing, Randidly turned and tried to focus on something else. His eyes traced the lines of the glowing runes that protected this room. So, this was another ploy. All to protect Shal from receiving a “gift”. Yet somehow his presence had galvanized Shal into moving, which exposed him to…
Probably whatever was currently happening to Shal, as he hadn’t been seen in days…
Randidly looked up at her. “About what?”
“That I know of your origin.”
Randidly waved a hand dismissively, ignoring the question. It seemed more like a show of force to intimidate him than a conversation topic that would be useful. “Do you know where Shal is now?”
“No, and I was hoping you had some more information.” Dian said lightly, but her body language shifted to something closer to a fighting stance. Randidly just frowned, saying nothing. After several long seconds, Dian relaxed.
“Hmph, you don’t scare easily, do you? I suppose you would have to, to inherit part of the moves of the Spear Phantom.”
“So why are you telling me this?” Randidly said, willing to ignore her silly posturing again.
“Like I said, for some information.” Dian said, her eyes scanning Randidly. “Anything you can tell us about what you did to animate Shal to this extent will be helpful. Anything you saw him do that seemed suspicious. Any of the people that he has associated with. We will take care of everything and perform the necessary investigations…”
Randidly pondered it for several seconds, throwing his mind back. Times that Shal had been suspicious… It’s not that there weren’t such moments he had suspicions about Shal, but usually they made more sense as time went on. Besides, Randidly had his own secrets too, and would be quite miffed if someone had gone around speaking of them, especially because it seemed that Dian was a representative of the establishment.
In terms of his own interactions with Shal… Randidly couldn’t’ really know what influence he could have had. He supposed she meant their initial contact, in the dungeon. But that had been coincidental; and Shal had really only saved Randidly so he could be used as a punching bag for the Shamans. After that, Randidly had been summoned by Shal on some hairbrained quest, one that he had almost completed, before Shal became increasingly erratic.
Well, Randidly supposed it made a certain amount of sense that Shal wanted to preserve the honor and integrity of the Style, which was why he was now fighting. Shal had even passed the diary of Aemont on to Randidly, so the Style could continue, even as he seemed to harbor quite a lot of anger towards his father.
Looking back on it though, since Randidly had been summoned, Shal’s actions had become slightly erratic. First coolly training him to participate in the Qualifier, then, after his victory, becoming more aggressive, killing their way into a prison for the benefit of the time, and then killing their way out. In order to cover that, he had sold himself after the tournament, and then he had become alternately furious and unreliable, disappearing for a few periods.
It was hard to think of this most recent disappearance as anything other than an extension of those previous times, but Dian seemed pretty sure that it was the result of influence by Lucretia, based on Dian’s presence.
Randidly sighed. But still. He didn’t want to share this problem with someone who he couldn’t really get a grip on their motivations. So he ultimately chose to say nothing.
“…I don’t think anything comes to mind.” Randidly said mildly. “Which brings us to my real question… after speaking like this, what do you intend to do in regards to our match today?”
Dian was silent for a long second. Then she said. “Are you sure you don’t have anything to tell me about Shal’s behavior?”
Randidly’s smile curled upward. His mana flowed outward naturally. There was nothing for him to say to her.
“…I see.” Dian said finally. “If you choose this path… I don’t believe there will even need to be a match today. Right here-”
Randidly controlled the roots he was connected to, flexing slightly. As he destroyed the path of energy flowing through the runes, they flickered and died, throwing them into darkness. Instantly, Randidly activated Spear Phantom’s Embrace and moved smoothly backwards and out into the tunnel.
Dian’s shout seemed more distraught than angry, and she didn’t appear to pursue him. After gaining some distance, Randidly stopped and looked at the dark doorway.
“Wait.” Dian said plaintively, and Randidly summoned his spear, pointing it towards the doorway, but staying still. In the doorway, nothing moved, which if anything, made Randidly more cautious.
But Dian was apparently being honest, because she calmly walked out through the dark doorway, unarmed. “If you insist, we can fight on the platform, but I will defeat you. My instructions were very clear. Investigate Shal’s behavior, watch for Lucretia, and prevent the Spear Phantom Style from maintaining its rank. I cannot let you win here and enter the top 8.”
Randidly frowned. “That seems rather petty. Dishonoring a Style just because they are cursed.”
“Aemont brought it upon himself and his ilk by consorting with Lucretia.” Dian snapped, her eyes burning. But there did seem to be some hesitation about her, as if she understood how insisting on this would run counter to Randidly, and make him unwilling to help her. But she likely didn’t understand how THIS and only this had been his goal the past two years and had all been leading to this one victory.
Make the top 8. Preserve the prestige of the Spear Phantom Style for another generation. This was what it had been all about. The long days, the exhaustion, the wounds, the vicious battles and fights… it was all for this.
Randidly tried to control his rising temper at the thought of Dian taking the moral high ground. Well, it didn’t matter. He would crush her, one way or another. If anything, his talk today didn’t change much but make their rivalry more simple. There wasn’t any complex master-rivalry between them, making Randidly hesitate. This was a person whose stated goal was to prevent Randidly’s stated goal. Someone he would grind to dust.
As he turned away, Dian spoke again. “Please. You don’t understand the danger that Shal is exposed to. For a long time, he has been the hope of our-”
“But you put a geas on him to alter his mind,” Randidly interjected. “You’ve controlled and monitored him without really talking to him about what he might represent. Is the prophecy about Shal being important to the Calamity even true? Or was it something one of the Central Styles made up in order to protect the son of one of their disciples?”
There was no answer from the darkness, so Randidly kept walking, feeling slightly sick to his stomach. Even if it was a combination of both motivations… That didn’t justify their methods.
It took him some time, but Randidly found his way out through the tunnels and into the sun. It was warm, especially after the cool underground. With extreme care, Randidly breathed in, and then breathed out.
For the first time in a long time, Randidly felt motivated. Not just the determined motivation that he attacked most goals with, but Randidly was filled with a vicious surety that he would crush Dian. A pointless individual moving to the beat of someone else’s drum couldn’t defeat him, especially not now. At this moment, his emotions and Aether filled him, making him burn.
Still, Randidly would need to address the things she said eventually. Shal’s disappearance might not just be something that happens periodically, and in fact be related to something more troubling in relation to this woman who always seemed to make Shal insane. Lucretia.
It might be a gift from Lucretia.
And with the strange phenomenon that Bertarn spoke of… There were too many things going on at once. It gave Randidly a headache. So for now, time to focus on the goal directly in front of him.