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It was another few weeks, but Randidly finally received the notification he was waiting for, although it came in a form that was a little different than expected.

Warning, you have long walked upon the path of the Heretic, but now the cusp of the crossroads lay before you. Proceed directly to the nearest Village for assistance. Should you proceed, Judgement shall descend, in all its glory.

Also available to you is the option to proceed down the path Heretic XI. Doing so will transform you, but still allow you to exist within the realm of the system. Please see the nearest Village Spirit if you have any questions.

Randidly frowned. The last part was new, although it was basically information that he had already intuited about the Heretic Path. The only question was how this “transformation” worked. It almost seemed like it was not a class, but something else.

Either way, Randidly wasn’t willing to give in and find out at this point. Especially because preparations on other fronts were proceeding so well for the breakout. 2 men and a woman had returned with Shal, a small, slight man with a mustache, a woman whose skin was a brilliant golden color, and a scarred man. In addition to them, Teliph approached the group and asked to be a part of it, offering to be Randidly’s Spear Attendant in exchange, and Shal shrugged and left the decision up to Randidly.

Picturing the brutality with which they attacked those new arrivals, Randidly nodded, and gained himself another spear attendant. Later, when he was alone with Marco, Randidly asked why Shal seemed ambivalent about Teliph’s presence.

Marco chuckled. “That one is very close to the Artisan level, without the benefit of a Style behind him. Taking him with us, if he survives the escape, and giving him access to some sort of teachings would produce a powerful ally in the future.”

“If he’s close to the Artisan level... “ Randidly said slowly. “Does that mean that I am also close to being an Artisan?”

“Ah, likely not.” Marco said, shaking his head. “The tests for the different levels are very specific. You are… a combination of a lot of things. Your many small strengths make you resourceful and resilient. The Artisan test involves a single skill, with requirements of a certain level of offensive or defensive power, and also the ability for spectators, those not involved in the fight, to see the image associated with a move. Your offensive power is likely approaching that level, but when you can produce an image anyone can see… that’s a whole order of magnitude higher.”

Mulling this over, Randidly focused on training, specifically on image training. The Aether within him swirled, slowly gathering, but instead of allowing it to come together to form the skill, he kept it apart, slowly refining the images he had within him. Something was slightly off about it, some area he instinctively knew he could improve, but Randidly couldn’t find it.

Well, it wouldn’t matter until that day. But that day swiftly arrived, and the group of them, each wearing two bracers Engraved with the Shadow rune, began their trek back into the prison. Shal and the 3 others from the West led the way, and with their speed and offensive power, it was child’s play to cross the distance and break into the prison, incapacitating the nearby guards.

They quickly ascended the mountain and made it to the prison proper. The tallest tower was the home of the portal out, and was heavily guarded. The portal itself was on the top, on a flat, open area with a view of the surroundings, but each of the 10 levels that lead up to the top was teeming with guards. To the North was the guard’s quarters, to the Southeast the basic cells, where people were tortured by battle intent, and to the West was the villas for the powerful prisoners.

Surrounding the portal tower were several small watch towers, with three people, constantly keeping an eye on the other towers, and the main tower, for people trying to climb up.

Their plan was relatively simple. Shal, the woman, and the scarred man would head to the guard’s quarters and challenge the warden, who was rumored to be at the Adept level. This was relatively common, and happened occasionally, and wouldn’t cause much of a stir. Or at least, it wouldn’t raise the alarm. After all, sometimes a prisoner got too big for their britches, and wanted to test themselves. That was why the warden was here, to put down such uprisings.

And he was an easy target. Unlike killing the rest of the guards, killing the warden was accepted by the First Spear of Tomkat, although he wouldn’t be pleased, and you would be forced to finish out the rest of your sentence. But an influential position would be waiting for you under the First Spear when you got out.

While the guards focused on this challenge to the warden, the mustached man, with Randidly on his back, would activate the shadow bracer and attempt to climb quickly up the central tower. Marco and Teliph would distract the watch towers on the side. Once they ascended to the top of the tower, the mustached man would kill any guards nearby, and Randidly would call down the Judgement.

There was a very easy way for them to lose this gamble; if a single guard passed through the portal with knowledge of their attempt, and made it out, the First Spear of Tomkat would be warned. Because of the time dilation, he would only have a small warning before they arrived, but that small warning was infinitely dangerous. After all, they were dealing with an Adept, a vindictive one with his livelihood at stake he would not be willing to let it slide.

****

Shal walked calmly forward, followed by Tekni, the woman, and Sharshar, the scarred man. Guards parted, whispering excitedly. They hadn’t seen this before, but they had heard about it. A challenge to the warden. This would be a good day. Finally, some entertainment.

An old man, with greying hair, stepped out of the crowd, holding a huge, extremely thick spear. His smile was small and sharp, and he walked calmly to meet them. “Well, well, well. It’s been… about 30 years, I think, since someone has dared challenge me. Good, good! And you come with more than one of you? Excellent, otherwise this would be no fun.”

The warden attacked, as Shal had expected, rushing towards Tekni. The woman raised her spear and attacked back, very quickly their spears blurring as they clashed time and time again. To Tekni’s surprise, although she prided herself on her power, she was forced back with every strike. Shal narrowed his eyes. Truly, this man was an Adept, and not a freshly advanced one.

Shal hated himself for this strategy, but there was nothing he could do. Breathing in and out, he focused on his spear, feeling the suppleness of the wood, the elasticity and strength within it. Slowly the spear began to move independently of his hands, almost as if it was alive. The Style he and his older brother used to dream about, all those years ago. The Spear with Poisonous Fangs Style.

‘This… is for you, Pronto.’ Shal thought to himself, then rushed forward, striking viciously. The spear moved unpredictably, and the warden grunted as he turned and tried to deal with the strange strikes from Shal. This split of attention gave Tekni some space, and she began unleashing powerful blows upon the warden as well.

The scarred man stayed behind, eyeing the nearby guards, ready to intervene if necessary. But the battle continued, without any changes. Shal’s unpredictable attacks pushed the warden back, but Tekni’s stamina was waning, and as she needed to keep taking longer breaks, or slightly less intense rotations in her attacks, the warden would have more chances to strike, both at her and Shal.

Shal gritted his teeth, smiling viciously. The other problem was the level distance. It wouldn’t surprise Shal to know that the Warden was level 70. His stamina seemed endless, and his base stats were high enough to resist their combined attacks, without using anything more than a basic defensive skill. To be a young Adept is impressive, but to be an old Adept is less so.

But an old Adept would rarely lose to a young one, no matter how large their potential is. For the backing of stats and high stamina did more to change the space of the fight than the power of an image.

“Is this all?” The warden seemed almost disappointed, and Shal snapped, and began unleashing strike after strike, his spear twisting and bending, curving around blocks and defensive moves. He used everything he could, earning himself several small wounds upon the warden, pushing him farther and farther back. But although this was a Style Shal had thought more and more about as time went on, and he had slowly refined it, it was missing a very critical ingredient.

He had not yet created the skill set that would serve as the backbone for the Style.

“Well, I think we’ve played around for long enough. Children, it’s time for your spanking.” The very feel to the air changed. This was the power of an Adept. The warden stood still, smiling, but behind him, the air seemed to ripple, and a man wrapped in chains appeared, roaring, the man hefted a heavy iron spear and thrust forward, even though the spear too was wrapped in chains, pulled in a dozen different directions. But such was that image’s strength that it could resist the force of those chains, and thrust forward with the spear.

The warden smiled, arms behind his back. For as an Artisan is judged by being able to allow spectators to see their image, an Adept is an individual who can strike with their image, unleashing an actual attack, without even moving.

Sharshar rushed forward, crossing his arms in a defensive posture, the heavy image of a stone outcropping appearing behind him as he blocked the warden’s attack. But that image shattered to pieces, and Sharshar was run through, completely unable to resist the power of the warden. After spitting out a mouthful of blood, he collapsed, coughing.

“Ha, I appear to have broken one of my toys. Ah, well, there are two more, so-” Then the warden paused. Clouds were swirling above the central tower, where the portal was. As he looked on, he could feel the temperature slowly falling.

“A distraction?” He asked, turning to Shal.

Shal simply smiled. The warden snorted. “It won’t matter if I kill you. Your strength is insufficient.”

“Perhaps…” Shal said slowly, feeling a very real sadness in his heart. But then he closed his eyes, and shifted something inside of himself, letting go of the Spear with the Poisonous Fangs Style. Slowly at first, but then more quickly, a figure appeared behind Shal, walking slowly forward. The image was blurry, but his skin was blue, and he wore a long cloak, covering his features. His spear was perhaps a little shorter than average, but straight and clean, a very unadorned weapon.

But what caught the eyes was the smile, even through the shadows of the cloak’s hood. That smile was all cruelty and the promise of violence. As Shal slowly opened his eyes, his third eye, the one on his forehead, slowly trembled, and twitched open.

“I wonder then… if you can handle the strength of my Father.” The cloaked man behind Shal laughed, spinning his spear. A beam of bright blue light crashed down from the clouds, hitting the top of the tower where the portal was located. A wave of cold spread outward, frost creeping slowly down the top of the tower. The warden’s expression turned grim.

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