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Shal hoped his disciple hadn’t seen how his hand had trembled when he grasped his father’s diary. It had been all he could do to make it into the hallway at a normal gait before he had collapsed, the strength leaving his body.

Slamming into the wall, Shal leaned there for several seconds, not daring to make a sound. Luckily it seemed his disciple hadn’t heard; he was too occupied with his own activities. So Shal limped and dragged himself to his own quarters where he collapsed in a heap. The diary was dropped on the ground like the trash that Shal thought it was, but in that moment, it wasn’t so sweet revenge, it was an infuriating reminder of his own weakness.

Shal breathed heavily for an hour, just laying there, but the weakness just grew worse, snaking its way up from his extremities towards his chest. There had never been a case of Aether poisoning killing someone, but there had been well documented instances where someone who was within a dungeon for a few years had gone into a coma to conserve energy while the connection to the Village Spirit was reestablished.

This was one of the main ways that the First Spear maintained control. When you came out, he controlled access to some dungeons with lesser time dilation than the prison, which you could go in and manage half of your symptoms before you came back to normal time. You could also complete those dungeons and be rewarded with dungeon boss Aether, which could be used as a patch to cover your Aether needs until the village connection restored itself.

Without these stop gaps, the body’s Aether would be quickly devoured. Especially considering Shal’s level. He had considered going into a dungeon while Randidly participated in the earlier rounds of the Regional Tournament, which were designed to root out the weak. But he hadn’t done it seriously. Now Shal wondered whether he could make do without it to keep him going.

But then he would be forced to leave Randidly alone, because Divvit would need to escort Shal to the dungeon. That alone would probably wound Shal’s pride more than he could handle right now, so it was a distant possibility.

As his vision began to swim, however, Shal didn’t really see any other way.

He resisted the urge to grit his teeth, as it was a waste of energy. It would be a gamble. Thus far, the people who had come to the boat to challenge them for their Tassles had mostly been targeting Shal. The actions of his father and himself, rightly, were suspected by anyone who knew the story.

Why had Aemont allowed “The Devourer” to continue to exist, when he had the care of his son? He even had taken advantage of the isolation formation to develop his own Skill Set. Was it possible that…

The war hero Aemont the Phantom had sold his son to a monster in order to gain power…? This is how most of the people seemed to think. It made Shal want to laugh, but at the moment, he controlled that urge.

Selling his son for power…? No, Aemont was a much more calculating and sinister man than that, Shal wanted to tell them. Aemont had sold his entire life for power, and didn’t even have the human decency to apologize to Shal after all the lies and evil that he grew up breathing like it was second nature. Even Shal’s name was nothing but a lie-

Shal grunted, shutting that thought process down very quickly. Now was not the time to worry about truth. Now was just part of the journey. In the darkness, Shal’s eyes opened very slowly. It would be a gamble. But this wasn’t about making it out of the casino with enough money to cover his costs.

This was about burning the place to the ground.

As Shal laid on the ground, he began to consider likely locations. The level would have to be low, and the distance short. If it were on the way to Deardun…

Shal smiled wanly. The first place that popped into his head was the most likely answer, although Shal detested the coincidence of it. It was an extremely low level dungeon, only built for people at the high teens level. And it was the place Aemont had taken him, that week before he went with Pronto to see Haelthing.

****

The male spear attendant had furiously challenged Teliph the first time, in the wake of the mocking due to the material dumping.

He woke up several minutes later, wondering what was happening. Under Divveltian’s amused guidance, he trained for 3 hours and promptly challenged Teliph again. The man had simply snorted.

This duel lasted slightly longer, and at least was saved in the male spear attendant’s memory banks. Mostly due to the fact it was more torture session than duel. Eventually, Helen grew tired of his whimpers, as he lay slowly bleeding out on the deck, and came over to lovingly feed him a health potion.

She, of course, did this by putting the open end of the bottle in his mouth and then smashing the rest into his mouth with her heel, but the male spear attendant wasn’t offended by the cuts in his mouth from the broken glass. Instead he was touched that she took the time to look after him.

The training session that followed that duel was longer, and lasted until the dawn, as the male spear attendant struggled to get the wild Aether in his chest to flow in the image he wanted. Tirelessly, he attempted again and again.

Divveltian, in a rare show of rest, was lounging on a futon looking mat. As Divveltian watched the male spear attendant, he could only sigh and shake his head. “Fool, you are better off spending your time working on your form, not your image. The image will follow.”

But the male spear attendant ignored him, attempting again and again to refine the image for his Bulwark of Iron that he had created. It was still a fuzzy thing, and he struggled incessantly with it.

Midway through his training, the male spear attendant stopped, frowning at the deck. Some very strange… almost ripples, were coming up from below, disturbing his image. They were very very weak, and that was why they were difficult to ignore. He didn’t sense them coming, and then pressed lightly up and around him, like ocean waves on toes. But they demanded attention in a strange fashion.

“What is that?” The male spear attendant asked, his expression twisted into annoyance. What was even more annoying was that Teliph and Helen continued to train stoically, frantically perfecting their own technique. Helen’s sensual movements continued without pause, her curvaceous body possessing more and more hidden power to the male spear attendant’s eyes.

Teliph continued to be a mystery. His strikes were direct and short; but the air seemed incredibly turbulent in the area around him.

Divveltian just snorted at the question, and rolled over. For a long time, they just stood there, the male spear attendant growing increasingly annoyed that no one was answering him. Finally, he received an answer, but it was from the new spear attendant, with the cloth tied around his eyes.

“He…. the Ghosthound is at the door of the Artisan level. Those ripples… those are his image, beginning to be visible to those not on the receiving end of the skill.”

The male spear attendant’s mouth formed into an O, but Divveltian was rolling over and snorting. “While technically true, don’t get ahead of yourself. Like I said to this spear idiot, it’s better to focus on skill level than the image. He, like you, is working on the image too early. Just he’s good at it. In terms of power…”

Divveltian’s face became thoughtful. “...perhaps he could pass the Artisan test, if he kept working on it. But It would be mostly in name, not in fact. He does not yet possess the skill in his movement and basic spear ability to equal any who are legitimate Artisans…. Probably.”

“Still worlds ahead of us.” Helen said, her voice strangely dark. The beautiful woman continued to frown as her body flowed and twisted.

Teliph nodded, and swiftly began training again. Doing his best to ignore the strange ripples, emanating from below, the male spear attendant began to train. But unfortunately… they continued to lightly press up against him, almost tickling him. The strange, light touch was too much to bare.

“God fucking damnit!” The male spear attendant yelled, throwing his spear to the ground. Helen giggled, which was gratifying, but both Divveltian and Teliph seemed content to ignore him. But what was even more humiliating was that at that moment, the ripples stopped.

The male spear attendant felt his heart grow cold. Had the Ghosthound heard…?

Sure enough, soon there was the sound of approaching footsteps on wood, and the Ghosthound climbed onto the deck, looking around. The male spear attendant was almost shivering, but kept his back straight. Although he might get punished for this, he wouldn’t back down. After all, in a way, it was very rude for the Ghosthound to create those ripples while people were trying to train. The male spear attendant would calmly explain the situation, and it would become clear that he wasn’t in the wrong.

After glancing around with a frown, the Ghosthound walked over towards the male spear attendant. “Hey, uh…. You.”

The male spear attendant prostrated himself on the ground. “Please forgive me, it was a small mistake, I won’t ever dare breath in front of you again!”

The Ghosthound just stared at him, seemingly dumbfounded. Then slowly, he looked at the others and said. “What’s up with him…?”

“He hasn’t developed a backbone, the little fucker.” Helen said sweetly, and then she winced, as if scared of something, and hurriedly threw herself back into training.

The male spear attendant peeked up, to check the Ghosthound’s reaction. After all, as with all things, the male spear attendant was profoundly gifted in subterfuge and misdirection, although he hadn’t yet fully developed his innate potential in those areas. But in terms of raw talent…

But the Ghosthound was just standing there, his eyes following the lines of Helen’s body as she trained. After a few seconds, he almost unwillingly dragged his eyes back to the male spear attendant.

“...Yes well, I just wanted to try a skill. You have a defensive skill you created, right?”

Slowly standing, the male spear attendant nodded. He picked up his spear and adopted a defensive stance, watching the Ghosthound nervously. The man removed a small bone spear from his ring and settled back, and then thrust.

Whereas before there had been only small ripples, now there was a constant ticking, a stream of low female laughter, almost hysterical at the edges, a strange, suffocating blackness, a sense of weakness and frustration, of overwhelming power, and the floating image of a smiling, almost apologetic woman as she floated closer with her arms spread wide.

It did not crush his Iron Bulwark, or rip through it, but rather just slid cleanly forward, moving through his defensive image like it wasn’t even there. It was heavy and inevitable, but when it struck the male spear attendant’s chest, it was simply a stiff jab, sending him several steps backwards.

All of the male spear attendant’s confidence deserted him, and he felt himself be seized by fear, and a growing relief.

A relief that he had started following this man before he had fully transformed into the monster that he would become.

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