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“Holy bitch, that was cool,” Helen muttered, and the male spear attendant was inclined to agree. The bodies of the challengers slipped silently below the waves, mostly in pieces. The Tassle sank into the sea, drifting out of sight. The opposing side’s boat had been split in half, and now was naught but kindling as they continued to drift forward.

Divvit hadn’t even stood. From his sitting position, 3 attacks with his spear, with the backing of a powerful Battle Intent to help the weapon strike from afar.

If this was the power level of the people on this boat, it was no wonder that the Ghosthound had grown as powerful as he had. If he now had time to train his spear skills up to a similar point… the male spear attendant couldn’t even believe it.

“Sir…” He started to say, but Divvit shook his head.

“Mine is not your path. I can offer you pointers in your training, but you have your own strength. But for now, simply watch, it will be greatly beneficial to you.”

“Watch what?” The male spear attendant said, then flushed at how disrespectful his tone had been. But Divvit didn’t appear to mind, and only cracked his neck.

“They were truly trash. They wouldn’t have stood in our path if there weren’t other forces moving behind the scenes. More will come. But still… “

“And I, sir? Shall I also watch?” Helen said, stepping forward with a smile.

Divvit chuckled. “...just try to control yourself, alright?”

Helen’s eyelid twitched, and the male spear attendant had to cover up his laugh with a cough.

*****

After the 30th time that Shal rushed Randidly and knocked him to the ground after that wave of energy passed, Shal finally spoke. “There, that is enough for a warm up. Do not forget to continue practicing those strange base-building dances. They are… adequate for a disciple of mine. Come.”

Shal walked out of the training room and down the hall. Grunting slightly due to his only partially healed wounds, Randidly hobbled after him. Shal walked past Shal’s room to a locked door at the end of the boat. A simple hand press from Shal caused the lock to click open, and Randidly followed him inside, seeing another rather large room, perhaps even larger than the training room.

At the far wall, there was a strange glyph 3 meters wide on the ground. To the left there was a small prayer mat and a scroll. To the right there was a chest.

“Before you lies the inheritance of the Spear Phantom Style. Should you not die, someday it will be yours. But there are tools here to advance your training, which you desperately need. But first…” Shal leveled his gaze at Randidly. “...we must speak about Aether. How you become this strong without a Class. Tell me.”

So, after a brief consideration, Randidly decided to explain his suspicions. Shal had saved his life, and continually helped him. Perhaps this gesture was just that, a gesture, meant to loosen Randidly’s tongue, but Randidly couldn’t understand why Shal would care. Or more truthfully, with the strength Shal possessed, even if he did care, it was beneath his notice to do something about it, when it involved someone he viewed as poorly as his disciple.

So Randidly explained how the winnings from defeating the Dungeon Boss had sustained him and catapulted him forward, increasing the speed of his skill leveling. Combined with Shal’s tutelage, Randidly became strong enough to defeat a Tribulation without the assistance of a village, and had forcefully suppressed that strange, runic tongue, absorbing some of its magic in his body.

This magic, Randidly suspected, included a small Aether Spring. Ever since, he could slowly feel it growing, pulsing within him, its tendrils spreading throughout his body. Truthfully, it seemed to have a very positive impact on the speed of his growth, so Randidly was thankful for it. But the strange energy filled Randidly with worry.

After Randidly finished speaking, Shal was silent for a long time. Then, ponderously, he said. “...Do not speak of this again. What you say is impossible. Aether springs from the World Core, and from Villages. Above all, from the Nexus. You cannot hold a source of Aether within you.”

Shal’s gaze held Randidly’s for a long time, and there was a strange warning there. Although Shal didn’t know where the threat would come from, it was clear he didn’t believe it prudent for Randidly to talk about this again. Randidly nodded, understanding. Then Shal turned back to the room.

“...but let us speak generally of Aether. It’s exact composition and formation is unknown, but one thing is clear; Aether begets Aether. In the beginning there was but a speck, but as people struggled and fought, and channeled  its power through themselves, it grew. That is why villages actively seek out strong individuals; as they grow in strength, and pull more Aether to themselves, they also generate increasing amounts of Aether.

“Most of this Aether is taken by the village, as its toll for the strength that it has given them. But some remains. All Aether is not created equal. Ambient Aether is thin and wild, and is not amenable to any but the strongest image. You can sustain yourself on it, but it is difficult to grow with it. Meanwhile, Village Aether is much purer, although it is thickened in a way, due to the obeisance you owe to the village you receive it from. It is easy to grow fat on this Aether, grow strong, but the thickness of it resists images. Creating your own skills requires extraordinary willpower. Rewards from killing Raid Bosses and Dungeon Bosses is also this type of Aether, although that thickness results from the Bosses themselves, so it is slightly more desireable.

“The purest form of Aether… the most easily manipulatable, so that you might grow along your own path… is that Aether you earn for yourself through struggle. The little that lodges itself in your body, slowly pooling in your organs as you struggle. That is the wanting. When you want Aether, it exists. At your level, it is but a fraction of a hair, but…” Shal walked to the sigil and carefully inspected it. After a few seconds, he gestured for Randidly to enter.

“This is a formation that was constructed by my father at great personal cost. Like a dungeon, it weakens the connection of those inside to their village, through a mild time acceleration formation. It will only give you about a 2x dilution, but it suffocates the Aether from villages. It also disperses ambient Aether, so the only Aether remaining to you is the Aether within yourself. My father used this to eliminate the impure Aether inside of him, and create the skill set that earned him the name Spear Phantom. He created all 6 moves in a single sitting, over 6 days.”

Shal flexed his hand and a huge, black spear appeared. It was almost 3 meters long and was formed of obsidian. “Although this is… ostentatious, its balance is true, and its power should not be trifled with. Train with this. What you need is repetition, to find the image you need for your moves. Search for it. As your body is starved from Aether, you will discover your own path.”

Randidly took the spear and staggered. The weight was ridiculous. Based on how trivially Shal had held it, his physical stats must be staggering. It was no wonder that he didn’t even need to rely on skills to crush him.

“I will deactivate the formation in an hour. There is one other tool here you may use, but first you must know this… peculiarity. Good Luck.”

Pressing down with his hand, Shal caused the runes of the glyph to slowly light up. A fog rose, and Shal seemed to fade away. Randidly turned around, curiously, but everything faded to darkness. All he could see was the glyph beneath him, lighting up the thick fog that rose to his calves, seeming to spread infinitely in every direction.

Shrugging, Randidly hefted the spear and got to work. To his mind, there was only one choice; Phantom Thrust. So in the strange half gloom, he began to thrust, again and again. After a few minutes of this, Randidly decided to summon a Root Spider, so he didn’t disturb the formation underneath him, and then created a Root Avatar with Root Control on top of it.

Satisfied, Randidly did this 3 more times. Then he began to fall into a familiar rhythm of breathing, striking, breathing, striking, adjusting his form. All the while he was pondering what Shal had said about Aether and images. If the source of the Aether influenced the image… wouldn’t that mean that his Aether, if it really came from a spring inside of him, would already be predisposed towards his images…?

Wondering whether the 4 individuals connected to him by the unique skill could also benefit from that, Randidly continued to use Phantom Thrust. Whereas Randidly had previously focused on speed and suddenness, Shal’s use helped him realize that that would come with time. The increased skill level would naturally add speed and weight. What he needed to do with his image was not to address execution, but flavor. And then he had to want it, powerfully desiring that image.

But first, while he was considering these things, he needed to work through the ambient Aether in his body. And Randidly felt slightly stupid doing so, because for a long time nothing happened. He just trained. It wasn’t boring, but it was frustrating, because Randidly wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. Was it perhaps impossible for him to receive the benefit of this…?

Still, he persevered, and after around 40 minutes, he felt it. A strange tightness in his chest, like his lungs couldn’t inhale as much oxygen as they had previously. But it wasn’t an oxygen problem. His body started to tremble slightly as he continued to train. His body urged him to hyperventilate, but Randidly squashed that instinct. After all, it would do nothing to address this problem.

Just when he started to feel woozy, and began to wonder whether he had taken this too lightly, the Aether in his chest began to pulse. Softly at first, then with increasing fierceness, fighting back the weakness. Waves of ice and fire pulsed outward, making all of Randidly’s limbs tingle. Every breath he took now was like plunging his chest into a frozen river, and then hopping out onto a bed of coals.

His body began to sweat, unused to the strange feelings.

Although it was extremely distracting, Randidly tried to ignore the sensations of the Aether moving within him, thrashing around through his body. He raised his spear once more.

The image… the image…

Forward. Always forward. Without relenting. His path was his own, and he needed to walk it.

Randidly thrust, and the Aether within him seemed to thrum. The sensations intensified, and there were pins and needles of ice sliding in and out of the muscles of his arms and shoulders. The thrumming grew stronger and stronger, and seemed to howl. Forward! Forward! Forward!

As his head began to pound, Randidly let the root avatars fall away and just concentrated on his spear, imbuing every inch of it with his will. He felt that strange hazy green energy around it, which he believed was his Battle Intent, but ignored that for now, focusing solely on the spear. That image of advancing… it was a little unrefined.

So Randidly closed his eyes and saw Shal’s Phantom Thrust, not the speed, nor the power, but how the spear in his hand always seemed to be thrusting. How the thrust was inevitable. How it would advance, no matter the cost.

The Aether continued to thrum, and the pain in Randidly’s forehead continued to grow.

Thrust…

Thrust…

Thrust!

Sweat dripped down, but Randidly didn’t even notice. His eyes were closed, and he slowly closed down all of his sensory information, ignoring it all, trying to avoid the chaotic Aether within him, focusing on the feeling of that huge spear in his hands.

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