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Randidly could still sense how this was somewhat similar to Engraving. But they were so far apart from each other… It was like comparing the act of writing a novel to a child learning to write letters. There were flows and twists, eddies and splits. The most important difference was that it felt whole and organic, in a strange way. The thing that these mysterious hands were creating inside of Randidly was something that was living, and could change and evolve. It was weaving potential into every line and curve.

It was, he assumed, a path. The path that failed to be created previously. Which perhaps meant this was some entity related to the system? And if someone was going to all this trouble to make it, it was undoubtedly a very special one. Or at least he hoped so.

Randidly’s instincts continued to scream at him, because the hands moving inside of him, shaping the Aether, was an extremely invasive and uncomfortable feeling. But he didn’t dare move. This being appeared able to interfere with notifications. Although the potion Randidly had obtained had been able to do that, it was just making them invisible to him. That didn’t change the effects of them.

This was on the level of adjusting the notifications. Randidly was suddenly struck by the strange feeling that whoever this was, understood in a very sophisticated way how the system worked. And if this person could learn…

Randidly resolved himself to try too, as those hands moved, more and more quickly. So he focused inward, ignoring the urge to vomit, and watched the motions. The continued to twist and tie Aether together, and then deftly compress it into smaller parts, moving onto other things. Like so, an infinitely complex arrangement made of thousands of runes of the type Randidly had made, was pressed into a tight shape.

Then the shape glowed.

But before the hands departed, they moved deeper within him. He felt those invisible fingertips on each of his skills, lingering especially long on the Runic rarity skillset. Then they moved forward, and gently landed on his Soul Skill, swirling at his core. For a long time, those fingers stayed there, carefully feeling the shape of it, tracing its contours, almost pulling and stretching it slightly, as if to see more.

Then after the hands seemed satisfied with his soul skill, the hands reached back to the strange shape it had made inside of Randidly and twisted and pulled deftly, seemingly tying a knot. Then the Aether seemed to click into place.

Randidly gasped; the hands were gone, and his body began to burn.

Congratulations! Your path *(&832h089Ll; has transformed into the Lonesome Spear Path 0/100!

Randidly collapsed backwards, breathing heavily. For several long minutes, he stared intently at the most recent notification. The Lonesome Spear, huh…?

Cautiously, he put his remaining PP into it, 1 at a time. At 25 PP, he received the first notification.

Congratulations! You have earned +50 Health!

He received another at 50 PP, giving him +50 mana, before he settled at 73. Likely 75 would be +50 Stamina, but Randidly wondered what the completion bonus would be. Because honestly, the rewards so far were… much less than he expected for something that required the interference of strange, mystical hands.

Randidly considered broaching the topic of those hands with Shal, but he was worried. After all, it was hard to tell how widespread the knowledge of Judgement would be. It is possible that the system would somehow encourage people like him to be hunted.

But then Randidly shook his head. Shal wouldn’t be like that. But still, it was a dangerous topic. Best to broach the topic carefully.

After checking the time, Randidly once more returned to meditating, trying to restore himself to a better condition in the remaining 10 minutes until he needed to meet Shal. Undoubtedly, considering his master’s methods, it was going to be a long night.

*****

Claptrap sat bolt upright, scared out of his mind. He obviously wasn’t at a high level of skill or physical prowess, he had still put quite a few points into perception, in order to more effectively examine the quality of armor. But now, in the dead of night, there was a figure standing in the dark over his bed, looming like the shadow of death.

But then the figure produced a lamp from somewhere, and produced a soft light, illuminating most of his features, revealing an easy smile. Claptrap’s heart initially eased, because he recognized this man as the smiling man who had been with the Crashing Wave Style, but then began to pound, because the fact that he had come here in the night…

“Hello,” The man said simply. “You may refer to me as Artisan Dwei. We have some business to discuss. Nod if you understand.”

Claptrap nodded woodenly, his fear withdrawing somewhat, and his merchant mind coming to the fore at the mention of business. But that moniker hung in the air between them. Artisan. Although it was the least of the titled recognition provided by the Spearman School, it was still a level that only 1 in 10,000 reached. In a city like Qtal, very few would go against an Artisan. Although there were Adepts present in the city, there were only 20 or so of them, and they mostly kept to themselves, concerned with affairs far above the average citizen.

To be visited in the dead of night by an Artisan was an implicit threat. But it was also an opportunity, because Claptrap still breathed. And though panic made him want to hide his face, he could also see Ciel’s gentle smile. And for her…. he would do anything. He would seize any opportunity he had to.

Artisan Dwei chuckled. “It’s good to see you have some spine. I’ll be short. As many of those engraved armors you have… the Crashing Wave Style will buy them. In bulk. 10 silver per piece of armor, above the usual price for that armor, provided the quality of the base armor is satisfactory. If the efficiency is about 60%, an additional 30 silver. 100 bonus silver pieces for any piece of armor that reaches 80%. If you can obtain better than that, we can talk prices further, but I doubt that is possible, based upon your… previous wares.”

Claptrap blinked slowly. A leather bracer of high quality could be obtained for 15 silvers, a few less if he bought in bulk. However, the sale price was usually around 20. So that meant that he could sell these for 30 silvers each…? That was a doubling of his initial investment. Of course some would go to the Ghosthound, but...

If the Ghosthound could reach 60%, that upcharge of 30 silver….

Claptrap could only see golden goins for several seconds. Then he shook his head.

“A problem?” Artisan Dwei asked, his tone casual. “...we believe our offer is very generous. And let’s be clear- Adept Ivkka was bluffing. The Engraving guilds do no such training things, precisely to prevent mid tier Styles from obtaining armor with minor engravings, and obtaining an advantage.

“So when the guild does find you,” Artisan Dwei continued, “You will want to have some friends, to help alleviate the pressure. Your Engraver will join the Guilds, or die. You might be extorted for some of your profits. But that won’t be such a loss, especially if you have a large amount of goodwill to fall back on with your loyal customers.”

As Dwei continued to talk, Claptrap’s face sank, and he abruptly realized how fucked a situation this might turn out to be. But his mind stayed sharp, considering the offer. As it was, it truly was fair. And he needed more money now, to start the engine…

“...Alright, I accept. I can only provide you with around 20 right now, I’ll have to speak with the engraver for more. Do you have…” Claptrap hesitated. “...armor preferences.”

Artisan Dwei considered. “...No, I think not. But it might be easier if we keep them separate. For example, Dragonfly on bracers, Fish on boots, Bear on breastplates.”

They hammered out the additional details, and Artisan Dwei took the bracers Claptrap had in exchange for almost 400 silver. After the Artisan had left, Claptrap looked down in wonder at the money.

“Maybe…” He whispered, to himself, and to the stars above. “There really is hope… I’ll see you again, Ciel.”

*****

After hours of working him to his limits, Shal considered his disciple. “You… are not as weak as I imagined.”

The foolish disciple grinned at him. It had been a long night of exercises and sparring, pushing the newest member of the Spear Phantom Style until he gave out. In strength, and speed, and endurance, he continued to display flexibility and poise, adjusting to new challenges with an alacrity that surprised Shal.

But it only made him sigh. “No, you shortsighted youngling. Your strength bodes ill for your chances in the tournament. There are things we need to discuss.”

Shal sat down, making himself comfortable. His disciple remained on the ground, his clothes sticking to his body from the sweat. But his eyes were alive and focused. That too, had surprised him. No matter how physically exhausted the boy should be, he always had one more spark to meet a new challenge.

Shal’s misgivings only grew. He gave the boy a frank look. “You… still have not obtained a class?”

The boy’s body stilled. Apparently he understood some of the issues related to this. But he nodded slowly, confirming Shal’s fears. Shal sat back, mulling it over for a long time. Which meant there was always the option of getting a class… Originally Shal had assumed the boy had chosen this avenue of satisfying the obligations of the Spear Phantom Style for glory in the tournament, but perhaps…

It was just because all the others required a class.

“When you told me previously… I honestly didn’t believe you. I thought… well, it matters naught. But your lack of a class… and your strength… poses a problem.”

His disciple frowned. “Why?”

“Ah, I am being… broad. Your stats, boy. Until today, I hadn’t realized… much of your strength comes from your high stats. I had been assuming you were relying on high skill levels to match those who had leveled to around 20, but….your stats equal them. They even surpass them, considering you have skill in magic as well.”

Shal sighed again. “We could have made plans to cover for lack of stats… but they are your strength. Your weakness… is your skill levels. What level is your Spear Mastery?”

After a foolish hesitation, his disciple answered. “81.”

“Mine sits at 202.” Shal said shortly. “In this tournament… it will be strange for one’s skill to not be at 100. And that is just the general. The specific skills… will be polished to an even higher level. You… simply do not have the time to make this up without the time dilution of a dungeon. The top 8…. No, perhaps even the preliminaries are impossible for you.”

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