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The days began to run together for Randidly, except for one time period; the afternoons, when he read the diary of the man who would become the Spear Phantom. It was slow going, because the words seemed to flicker and burn. Before his clash with Dian, Randidly would have been rather confused about it, but now it was clear to him that there was an extremely powerful Battle Intent suffusing the entire book. And it was an intent thick with death. The first page described the Phantom Thrust in detail, and Randidly was chilled by his reading.

You are an instrument, and the thrust is a natural extension of something much larger than you. You are not the message of death, but you are the final reminder. Know this, you bear the spear, but in Death’s eyes, the victim is already dead. You must thrust and remind them of their final, and ultimate, failure.

When Randidly was away from the book, although this first passage was extremely strange, it wasn’t so bad to think about. But with the book in hand… the air seemed to howl with the fury and resentment of deceased souls. The cold hand of death settled on his shoulders as he read.

By the end of reading that first passage, Randidly always had a pounding headache, and Shal would take away the book.

“You are too weak to continue further. But now you see the image it takes to be strong.”

There was always a stiffness in Shal’s voice, and Randidly had almost asked what his relationship with his father was, and what happened to him. But the words never made it past his lips. He wasn’t sure if it was the set of Shal’s shoulders, or Randidly’s own “keep to himself” personality, but he never asked. Instead, he just nodded and rubbed his head.

It was true though, the fact that the image was so strong, even now, was a testament to its overwhelming power. It wasn’t just that the image was clear, or focused, but the entire thing was filled with an unbelievable amount of detail. The texture, the sound, the visions… they all were burned in Randidly’s retinas, and hung in the air after the book was taken away, seeming to linger. That was the level of a powerhouse, even in this power focused world.

It was that level of image that he needed to reach. In a way, it was natural for Randidly to base his image off of that. But whereas Shal’s father had chosen Death, Randidly chose Time as the ultimate source of the image. Which seemed to make finding a concrete image much more difficult, but hopefully, Randidly would be able to manage it.

In addition, Randidly borrowed from the name the system had given his skill : the Inevitable Phantom Arrives. So when he focused on recovering after reading from the book, Randidly conjured images. He placed himself on a giant clock. Smaller clocks hovered around and below him, ticking.

Then those clocks stilled and fell silent, and the giant clock began to chime, shuddering into motion. The howling became audible then, as a ghastly presence began to swirl far behind him. Slowly but surely, the giant clock chimes became more ominous, and attention began to focus inward on the spear in his hand as it slid forward. And as it began to advance, that howling grew more vicious, and a hungry spectre raced forward, at first a tiny speck in the distance, but then growing far larger than a man, or a car, or even a building.

Until all that the victim could see was the open maw, and the noise was a harmony between the final chime of the clock and the howling of the spectre. It took some time, but Randidly could feel the Aether in his chest moving as he pictured it. Perhaps this would cause the strength of the move to rise another level.

So Randidly demonstrated the new image to Shal. What followed was the longest and most brutal beating that Randidly had ever received. Although he had always known that Shal was strong and fast, he hadn’t truly known HOW strong and fast. Most of the time Shal was just trying to move just a bit faster, with just a bit more strength than Randidly, forcing him to his limits and then beating him into the ground.

Of course it was always violent, because Shal wanted him to realize how dangerous it was to play when fighting. When you fought, you aimed to kill. Or you made a mistake and died. So Randidly had grown used to beatings.

But this…

There were several points when Randidly honestly believed he was about to die. He wavered on the edge, close to using spells, but although his health was brought below 100, and most of his bones were broken, Shal made no move to capitalize. This wasn’t the normal training, Randidly realized. It was a lesson that Shal was carving into his body with pain.

At the end, Shal stood over Randidly with his arms folded. “Your move is already too slow, idiot disciple. You are yet weak, don’t overcomplicate things. If you have spare time to think of extra things, we perhaps need more training such as this.”

Then he walked away. Needless to say, Randidly admitted that it was perhaps a little unrealistic to try and raise the strength of his image all at once like that. Better to focus on one thing and to improve it slowly. So Randidly removed most of the images, but kept the numerous ticking clocks, and also the looming phantom. But he lessened the size, until it was about the size of person.

He made the body look human, with half of the face bone, and on an instinct, the other half feminine. As he examined the face, his chest tightened. Sitting in his inward world, looking at the image he had for that skill… Randidly looked into a very familiar, half face.

“Sydney.” He whispered. The ghastly spectre smiled. Randidly raised his hand and banished the image, deconstructing it. True, Sydney was likely dead, but that didn’t mean he wanted her image to haunt him. Instead, when Randidly created the image for the second time, he still stuck with a feminine face, but chose his mother.

And as he looked at the finished product, he felt the change. Where it hadn’t been there before, the inevitable dread the image caused in the viewer’s chest  had grown. The air was filled with helplessness. Just like Randidly was helpless to prevent his mother from drinking and pilling herself into the arms of men his entire childhood.

The more he brooded on it, the stronger the swirl of helplessness around his spear became. So although it infuriated him to no end, to see her and to be partially reliant on her, Randidly left the image of the spectre with his mother’s face. It was about time she did something for him.

The rest of the time during that week was the morning training sessions, and the evening magic and Engraving sessions. In addition, during what spare time he had, Randidly would watch Divvit dispatch more challengers or give Randidly’s two spear attendants pointers.

It really seemed that many people had problems with them, but as Randidly watched more and more, he realized that he really wasn’t the target; the entire Spear Phantom Style was. It seemed that Shal’s father had done something to piss off quite a lot of people, because more and more challenges were coming. Luckily these were still just probes, and no one at even the Artisan level had arrived. But to Randidly, it seemed like only a matter of time.

His Engraving continued to improve, but it was only Dragonfly that could get above 60%. The other two remained stubbornly at 59%, even as Dragonfly increased to 68%. All in all, Randidly had created 8 bracers with above 68%, and this earned him a bit of extra cash that he had Helen use to go and buy him some clockwork instruments. There were clocks and wind up toys and music boxes and all sorts of interesting little carefully delicate mechanisms.

Randidly listened to them while sitting under his Weeping Cloud, memorizing their sound. Then he would take them apart and put them back together. He even got the skill Clockwork Mastery, and leveled it to 7. It wasn’t something he wanted to dedicate a lot of time to, but if he wanted to have a powerful image, Randidly thought it would be worth it to immerse himself as a true hobby, unlike Engraving, which had become such a lucrative pursuit.

Shal’s brutal training, the grinding of the Engraving, the stress of being exposed to the diary of the Spear Phantom… such was the strain that Randidly was under that, in spite of his high vitality, he started sleeping for an hour or two every day, just to reset his body.

As the week went on, Shal’s training times extended, spreading to encompass strategy in battle, ruthlessness, and the proper use of the different techniques that Randidly inherited. Over and over Shal emphasized cutthroat actions. There were no perfect answers, just quick ones, that arrived at the perfect time.

Perhaps later Randidly could focus more on learning how to take advantage of certain actions on his enemies part, but for now, it was better to slowly just build up instinct for moving. At the level that Randidly was moving, Shal disdained, it was far better to move first.

Randidly only had limited interaction with his spear attendants, but the more he watched them, the more he realized that they were decidedly peculiar people. Helen, although she was one of the attractive women that Randidly had talked to for an extended amount of time, was clearly suppressing herself somehow. The other one… who Randidly still didn't know the name of, was actually surprisingly skilled with a spear. He just spent a lot of time practicing at the side of the boat, looking at his own reflection in the water.

By the end of the week, Randidly had gained 2 Levels of Spear Mastery, 4 in The Inevitable Phantom Arrives, 6 in Spear Phantom’s Footwork, 4 in Iron Skin and Dodge, 2 in Fighting Proficiency and Block, 1 in Empower, Calculated Blow, and Roundhouse Kick, 5 in Battle Intent, 2 in Root Control and Summon Pestilence, 6 in Incinerating Bolt, 2 in Plantomancy, and 9 in Weeping Cloud.

He also gained 1 in Potion Making and Refine, 4 in Mana Engraving, 1 in Physical Fitness, Running, and Meditation, 2 in Pain Resistance, 3 in First Aid, 3 in Grace and Bacterial Regeneration, 1 in Mental Fortitude, 6 in Second Wind, 4 in Weather Affinity, and of course the 7 in Clockwork Mastery.

Once more, in the predawn light, Randidly found himself with a sizable amount of PP after the week. At Shal’s request, he had waited to train in the strange turtle movement until they arrived at their destination which he was very closed mouthed about.

For now, Randidly decided to just continue as normal, and move through the Path of Carnage paths.

He used 5 PP and finished off the first path.

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