Randidly walked back through the darkening streets, rubbing his neck. Azriel had insisted they train for two days straight, so there was only one more day remaining before his match with Ciel. During this time he wanted to do a lot more with Engraving, so he was forced to refuse to stay any longer and just leave, Azriel aiming a frosty glance at his back.
Paradoxically, Azriel had not a single ounce of chill. Randidly had always thought his will and Endurance was strong, but now… He realized that he had just never truly been broken down to his most base state. The only explanation that Randidly could think of was that Azriel had a stronger will and work ethic than Shal and Marco Polo, who had given him some breaks largely because THEY were tired or bored.
Azriel had no such reactions. She was always ready to go again. It was a strange combination of aggravating and encouraging. But it did mean that it had been a long two days.
What was perhaps most annoying is that no matter how the the tournament matches turned out, there was a very close deadline for Randidly finishing his preparations for what comes after. At this point, he wasn’t sure exactly what he would plan to do, but there was much he could do in preparation for that, giving himself more options when the time for the decision arrived.
Most pressing was his research on Engraving. Raising his strength for the tournament had been previously the highest importance, but at this point, there would only be marginal gains in his strength. That didn’t mean that he wouldn’t use every second he could, but it was worth mentioning that there were other things to do. If Randidly’s speculations were correct, the Shadow IV rune would give him the edge he needed to escape the aftermath of the tournament, buying him some time so he could evade the Engraving Guild and the larger Styles. There were some implicit and overt threats hanging around, and Randidly didn't’ want to give them time to consider which to carry through with.
So Randidly returned to the inn, and headed up towards his room, planning on spending the next several hours pouring over the second volume of the Encyclopedia set. But on his way up, a figure was coming down; Claptrap.
“Heya Claptrap. How’s business?” Randidly asked lightly, trying to keep the wariness out of his voice. He had given Claptrap several ideas the past few weeks, which enabled Claptrap to expand his business to a huge degree. But there was an unintended side effect; Claptrap generally nattered on for an hour anytime their paths crossed, filled with questions about the origins of the ideas, and how to expand.
“Fine.” Claptrap’s eyes flashed strangely, and he seemed extremely preoccupied, to the point that he simply grunted his answer, nodded to Randidly, and continued down, out of the inn.
Breathing out a sigh of relief, Randidly ascended to his room and pulled out the encyclopedia. After a few minutes spent making himself comfortable and giving himself pen and paper, he began to read, making notes where he didn’t understand a concept, or wanted to summarize a longer page.
For hours his eyes followed the lines, as he pushed his concentration to the limits, looking for clues in the words. In a way, he was successful, for Randidly found himself making connections about the art of Engraving in his mind. But in another, he was becoming increasingly confused. Most of the problem stemmed from the fact that the encyclopedia seemed to have been penned by several different authors.
Based on his earlier assumptions, these authors were all from different worlds in the 5th Cohort. Because while their methods were similar, the conclusions they came to was very different. But once Randidly recognized that issues, he was able to slowly parse apart what they were saying. The only problem then, was figuring out which of the systems described by the author would most closely resemble his own Aether channels…
While this was going on, Randidly was intermittently summoning Root Spiders, grinding his skills up, and activating Golden Roots of Yggdrasil and Meditation. These skills didn’t improve by much, because Randidly wasn’t devoting very much of his attention to perfecting them, but they would slowly increase in proficiency.
Small gains, one level at a time.
After about 6 hours, he set aside the encyclopedia, finally finished with the 2nd volume. Then Randidly organized his notes, as much as he could, and stood, stretching. A small pain had formed behind his eyes after the extended period of studying, even with his high stats and bonuses towards concentration, which demonstrated how pointlessly intricate and demanding Engraving was.
Randidly supposed that the only reason he had been able to learn it so easily was his initial high mana pool. After all, based on what he had learned by this point, his initial methods was pointlessly wasteful when it came to mana expenditure. Mana was still spent by Randidly while Engraving, except in more subtle ways, shaping the rune from the inside out, rather than grinding away as he had previously.
Cracking his neck, Randidly considered heading to the roof for some additional physical training, but dismissed that. It was too time consuming, and would be much less efficient than spending time with Azriel. Better to focus now on things he could do alone.
But there weren’t many skills that he could grind like this…
Randidly grimaced. Which meant that perhaps it was time to take a break, and just think about a few issues. Although it was not the most pressing, Randidly had been ignoring the implications of his Aether Donation skill, and it was perhaps time to address that.
At its most basic, Aether Donation could be used to give a set amount of Aether to another party, a simple donation. Perhaps the used could use this to overcome Aether Sickness or create their own skill, but the donated Aether would be of a finite amount, and run out after a while.
The other option, the one he had employed on instinct with Helen, and attempted with Shal, was to have a permanent, ongoing “Donation”. Which, for a skill like Aether Donation, seemed a bit counterintuitive. It made Randidly all the more sure that it was designed to be that way, because very soon after he created the connection, and let it exist, he could feel “meaning” flowing back through the connection, informing his inner world and Soul Skill of the power and presence of rivers.
What was even more disturbing was that although he had originally checked after making it and found it easy, now closing the connection seemed almost impossible. Just like allowing a real stream to flow through his land, it would be easy to block off a trickle of water. But now that it had grown into a river, flowing both ways, there would undoubtedly be consequences, for both of them.
The name was clearly a clever bit of misdirection; the Creature had created a way for Randidly to create Aether connections almost exactly like people would do with villages, with the only difference being he couldn’t provide a class. But what Randidly could provide is a large amount of clean, very unpolluted Aether, at least for now. Perhaps that would change as his own inner world developed, or as he made more connections, but…
Permanence was something that made Randidly hesitate, however. A permanent connection filled him with a vague fear that almost made him smile sardonically; he was a man in his early 20s, after all.
Then Randidly paused. He supposed he was no longer really in his early 20s. It was probably getting close to his 25 birthday, with the time since the System arrived, and his 2 years in the prison. He just hadn’t celebrated any of them, so he wasn’t sure if they really counted. Besides, the only changes in his body were changes that Randidly would associate with youth.
Randidly walked over to the mirror to look at himself. Since increasing his stats, mostly Vitality, he suspected, his skin had become remarkably clear and soft. His hair was still black, but now had a strange luxurious richness that caught the light and made it shine, rather than just devouring it. It honestly reminded him of a shampoo commercial.
His nose was straight, his jaw sharp, his lips stretched into a self mocking smile, revealing white teeth. His eyes burned emerald, even as he looked at himself in the darkness, slightly luminous. This was probably an effect of the Aether flowing through him, but his eyes were amazingly clear, the color noticeable even from a far distance.
Perhaps it was the result of his training, perhaps it was the subtle result of his Soul Skill, increasing his size in marginal amounts, but Randidly had gained quite a bit of weight in muscle since the System arrived. These muscles were packed on the same frame, but it gave him a compact heaviness that he didn’t possess before. Even to his own eyes, his body looked coiled like a spring, prepared and capable.
Randidly shook his head and looked away, and then began to stretch. This was another important point that Azriel emphasized. In direct conflicts, Randidly was average at best, which left him slightly miffed, but he couldn’t dispute her. So she wanted him to focus on increasing his flexibility, but literal and figurative. Which required…
Stretching. Twice daily. Until his tightly packed muscles loosened up…
Looking at his wiggling toes as he reached for them, Randidly sighed. All of this was decidedly tiresome. He would much rather fight or study than just… bend himself weirdly. But he couldn’t deny the utility, so did his best to ignore these thoughts and focus on the task at hand.
But suddenly, he stilled, a forced casualness snapping into place almost instantly. Very slowly, naturally, as if he had finished his stretch, he straightened, keeping his movements even.
Someone was standing behind him.