Over the next few hours, Randidly descended through the Hall of Stances slowly and methodically. He encountered images left by the predecessor to the Endless Heat Style in Hastam. The young girl just thrust her spear forward and the area in front of her seemed to boil and warp as the heat escalated beyond the world’s ability to endure.

There were also images related to plants, which Randidly was particularly interested in. But both left him rather disappointed. The first was a spear strike during a duel where the strike was clearly blocked, but it seemed to split and grow around the block without missing a beat. The second was a spear where every time the spear blade would flash, it seemed like a flower would bloom. A sweet and beguiling scent would fill the air.

Neither seemed to be in line with what Randidly needed, so he let it pass. Skill Levels in Visualization and Absolute Timing slowly accumulated, but Randidly ignored them. Instead, he continued to slowly sample the images of the Hall.

There were images for Wind, there were images for Thunder, there were images for a flurry of spear strikes that seemed as gentle and refreshing as a spring rain storm. There was a series of three images all left by the same old man. The first was sharpness. The second was resilience. The third was just a strange aura of destruction. All held the powerful tang of metal.

Images for a waterfall, images for sand, images of the Spear School, where images were simply the spear…

It seemed that images from all Schools were here, although Spearman School images were the most prevalent. Randidly was profoundly confused when he found the first Heart School images, and he was immediately overwhelmed with a strange feeling of devotion as he touched the yellow crystal.

For several seconds, Randidly was confused by what had happened. His heart was hammering in his ears. Then he shook his head. It was a good thing that Randidly came here to check out these images. If he had been confronted with a surging emotion like this in a real battle, there was no doubt that he would have suffered for it.

The Death School was even more confusing. There was just a strange… yearning. A lack of something. An emptiness.

Honestly, it made Randidly shiver. It was certainly piercing and invasive, and Randidly felt a strange coldness on his skin for a half hour after he viewed a Death School image. It certainly wouldn’t be the path that Randidly chose moving forward, but there were parts of it that Randidly would borrow.

Slowly and surely, as Randidly moved through the images, Randidly learned small things that occurred to him about his own images. Slowly, the Ashen Image, the Yggdrasil Image, and the Spear Phantom Image were all slowly refined.

He began to take fifteen-minute breaks between images. During that time, he would really dig down into the image that Randidly wanted to shift slightly. With great deliberateness, Randidly would paint himself a new mental image of that image, taking care that it was extremely vibrant. With Randidly’s every rising Control, it was not difficult to make sure his images were poignant.

Still, Randidly sensed something was missing from each. And Randidly was beginning to have an inkling what that thing was.

Clicking his teeth in a strange sort of mental exhaustion, Randidly touched a pale blue crystal. This time, for the first time, Randidly was transported to what seemed like a physical body. Rather than watching from behind, Randidly was standing opposite an extremely thin and pale woman. She was small too, perhaps only a meter and a half tall.

Her spear slid towards Randidly.

The air shivered and cracked as it froze. The pale blue blade of the spear seemed to fill the entirety of Randidly’s vision, and its strange coldness prevented him from moving at all. As it approached, the numbness spread from solely being physical. Even Randidly’s thoughts slowed.

This was a cold spear, Randidly thought numbly to himself.

The spear grew closer and closer. Time stretched longer and longer as the cold sank deeper and deeper into Randidly’s consciousness. It gripped him in a way none of the other images had. Being on the receiving end of the image filled him with a strange sort of wonder, but it also filled him with such instinctual terror that it was difficult to bring his mind around to observe the attack too closely.

The spear in front of Randidly’s face seemed to stand still. Ice formed and covered his skin, striking the blow that the glacially slow spear wouldn’t.

A touch on Randidly’s shocked Randidly out of the trance, and he spun around wildly. A young woman stumbled backward, hands raised.

“Sorry! Just wanted to make sure you didn’t get stuck in there. Because of the nature of the image, they say people can just stand there experiencing it for almost an hour. Are you, uh, okay?”

Randidly’s tension melted away upon seeing genuine concern in her gaze. He nodded calmly and gestured to the pale blue crystal. “That certainly is… wow. Are there more images like that, where you are on the receiving end?”

“Ones that don’t give you a migraine from the cold huh?” She seemed sympathetic but shook her head. “No, it seemed that the nature of the cold Image made it easy to unleash directly at someone without harming them seriously. Others preferred not to take the risk. Because of how it makes you feel, it’s a rather unpopular crystal…”

She stalled off. The silence stretched as Randidly looked at her. Finally, she frowned.

“Anyways, I’m heading back up. I just wanted to warn you, stay away from that crystal. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

The young woman walked away, watching Randidly out of the corner of her eye. Tapping his chin, Randidly watched her go. Only when he was around the corner did he relax all the way. Even though he relaxed, Randidly continued to wait for another ten minutes as he did his best to remember the coldness of the image.

It had something of the heaviness that Randidly wanted for As the Sun Stills, and also possessed a good about of bleak emptiness that Randidly wanted for his Spear Phantom Skills. And for all that it was painful to experience, Randidly reached out and touched it again.

The slight woman raised her spear and thrust it forward. The air quivered and froze.

Drifting forward, the spear seemed impossibly large. Frost covered Randidly’s torso and hands. His thoughts dimmed. There was just the long seconds and the spear.

The moment stretched. It was so cold that Randidly’s mind went blank.

When he came out of the image, Randidly was trembling. Although there hadn’t been any real temperature, the image was so pervasive that it had convinced Randidly’s body that he was freezing. Part of the issue was exposure; it was able to do so because Randidly had been locked in the image for an indeterminate amount of time. But there was also a kernel of deep power in that image.

Randidly released a breath. After experiencing so many images, he had made a rather obvious realization.

Images were generally simple. And when that simple image was pressed to a peerless level of surety, that was when the images became powerful. Wind is sharp. The momentum of an avalanche. Heat of the desert. The cold of ice. The growth of plants.

Everything focused on something very specific. Randidly had to admit that his own images… were a little more eclectic. Not that he believed this was ultimately a bad thing. Almost intuitively, Randidly sensed that this overwhelming strength of image was a result of the calcified Aether of Tellus. As it stiffened, it could become incredibly resilient and intimidating in a single form.

But that power came with a cost. Whether Randidly could gain that power without paying a similar cost remained to be seen. To get there, however, Randidly needed to focus his efforts in that way. Because although Randidly was gaining Skill Levels, his abilities in terms of spear use had seemed to plateau.

It had become pretty obvious in his duels with Azriel over the past week that although he was more than competent, Randidly wasn’t a match for the people here in terms of raw spear talent. He had numerous theories for that. The first was which was the Aether they used was particularly suited for it. Another theory was that they had superior Skill Levels to Randidly, which gave them an obvious edge.

But as Randidly’s Skill Levels rose, he realized that he may have missed something. The distance between their abilities with a spear were narrowing, but there always seemed to be something missing from his attacks. In terms of piercing ability, Azriel was a league of her own. But even in everything else, she else a strange edge. It was like she had an instinct for the spear.

Which, Randidly eventually realized, she truly did. Whereas Randidly was going to class and reading only a short five years ago, Azriel had held a spear for almost 20 years. That led to increased Skill Levels, sure, but there was a more important difference here that Randidly was starting to detect.

To the people of Tellus, the image of a spear is incomparably capable. They believed from their youngest moments that the spear was their only path to a better life.

Setting aside the Aether that influences the issue, if the concept of image was as nebulous believed it to me, that meant that belief was an advantage that Randidly didn’t know how to cope with. It meant that Randidly needed his own edge in terms of images, so he had to really focus on refining his view of the world.

One way that Randidly considered to strengthen his images was to add more imagery from his own childhood. But very quickly, it became obvious that this was not a short term solution. Perhaps eventually he could discover a powerful tie in from his time growing up, but in the immediate future, it would only make his images complicated and messy. It would move them away from the simplicity that Randidly felt from all these images in the Hall of Stances.

Now, he was aware that the images he had just been faced with were the cream of the crop. It was unlikely that any other fighters in the tournament would have this level of image. But Helen had a point; if Randidly’s goal was beyond this competition, he needed to demonstrate his superiority.

So Randidly picked his second thought for how to strengthen his images, and this one had the added benefit of working quickly. By stressing his mental state, he could likely get his subconscious to slowly strengthen its own images to cope with the pressure. Humans were incredibly adaptive. Especially when they had hundreds of System empowered stat points strengthening them.

With a wide smile, Randidly touched the pale blue crystal again.


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