It really was only a month, but Shal forced him to remain calm for a month. It was annoying at first, but as Randidly let go of the shame, this month really let him focus on mastering his increasingly high Control and Focus stats. Where those didn’t boost his damage in quite the same way as Intelligence, it let him cast the spells more quickly and accurately, which in a fight, was more important.
After stalling out in the spear, it was also nice to gain some relatively easy levels in some of his other skills, pushing them to the forefront. Of them all, Randidly chose Incendiary Bolt as his main focus, to allow him to have enough direct target damage to get him out of any sticky situations. This tournament would be mostly 1 v 1, after all, and would likely give him an edge against most opponents.
At the end of the month, Randidly was once more allowed to use spears, but the training had mellowed somewhat, with Marco Polo taking over most of the direction while Shal sequestered himself in a small tent. Randidly was curious, but could only shrug. One thing at a time.
So he allowed Marco to beat his bad habits and hesitation out of him. So much so that although his skills and stats weren’t changing much, what had changed was the way that Randidly looked at fights.
Fights were fast, brutal things. Especially against Donnyton, Randidly had taken advantage of the fact that he was faster and hit harder than everyone else. His consumption of Stamina was prodigious, but it almost allowed him to succeed, despite the fact that he was facing dozens of people.
Marco emphasized a similar strategy in his battles. He showed Randidly what to look for in an enemy’s stance to show weakness, and how to move into an opponent’s blind spot. They were not exactly the things you needed to grow strong, but Marco emphasized how what was more important than power was results. These would let Randidly fight against those who were more powerful than him, and they came from a man who had struggled his whole life with nothing but a spear.
This world was cruel, and Marco had grown strong without relying on the teachings of a Style. There weren’t any skillsets that he could rely on, but he had a wealth of experience that made it child’s play for him to dismantle Randidly time and time again, no matter what he tried.
Slowly, through blows and laughing advice, Randidly’s body absorbed some of that experience, seeing the world in a new way, in a way driven by the possibility of violence. It was illuminating in a way, even as a part of Randidly wondered whether he would truly be able to return to a world without violence anymore.
That thought kept him up late, as he Engraved under his Weeping Cloud. If the world returned to how it was before… what would that make of him…?
But these thoughts were quickly banished. After all, he could not afford to waste this chance. The system was here now, and Randidly had obligations to uphold. ‘What if’s held no meaning in front of facts.
More days blurred away, and finally Shal left the tent, and sought Randidly out immediately, removing him from a training session with Marco Polo and dragging him back to the tent. When Randidly walked in, he looked around, and was surprised to recognize the strange formation, the diary of the Spear Phantom, and the unopened chest: the three inheritances of the Spear Phantom Style.
Shal coughed lightly. “Our training will change again for a while. You will spend most of your time reading from the Spear Phantom’s Diary. Specifically… the pages on the Phantom’s Thrust, the true version of the Phantom Thrust you knew, and the page on the Phantom’s Embrace. The Phantom’s Embrace…”
Shal hesitated, his expression lost in the shadow of the tent. When he spoke, it was slow. “Of the 6 moves of the Spear Phantom, the Phantom’s Embrace is the only one which can be considered defensive. In addition, it requires mostly a control over your Battle Intent to an almost obsessive degree. My father managed it with simply his overflowing bloodlust, but…”
With glowing eyes, Shal said. “…I believe you will find your own path. For your own safety… do not read the other pages.”
Then he left, and Randidly sat down to read. With gritted teeth, he managed to read the introductory page once more, which described the Phantom Thrust. His Battle Intent had grown much since the last time he had attempted this, and it bore the brunt of the vicious image of death that sprung from the pages, keeping Randidly’s focus on the words.
After finishing, he took some time to breath slowly, digesting the words, thinking about how they could apply to his own move, the Inevitable Phantom Arrives. The Aether in his chest started to stir. As he slowly refined the image, the ticking, the half rotted face of his mother, the helpless fury, his breathing slowed, and then stopped.
But the Aether in his chest began to pound, faster and faster.
His eyes opened, glittering, and he carefully picked the book back up and, after a small hesitation, turned to the page dedicated to the Phantom’s Embrace.
All resist the Phantom, for they know, he steps in the wake of death, like a shadow
A strange crashing filled Randidly’s head. He had figured that there would be a sharp increase in the power of the images as the moves went on, from one to six, but even still… Howling filled his perception, and he could almost feel it, almost see it, the black leather of Death’s Robe, as it walked before him. The silence of an old battlefield, bereft of life.
Randidly groaned softly, his body betraying him as his Battle Intent was chewed to ribbons by the waves of powerful imagery that were surging from the small diary in his hands. His eyes went so blurry that he wasn’t able to read any further than the first line, but the image of the robed Death grew stronger and stronger.
And, to Randidly’s horror, Death paused, and slowly began to turn.
With a snap, Randidly closed the book and backed away, his chest heaving. Like a power plant shutting down, the howling in the air didn’t disperse immediately. It just gradually grew more dim, as more and more of the machinery of it disengaged. It took a long time for the tent to seem completely silent, long enough for Randidly’s breath to finally return to him.
Although he had been filled with fear in that moment, now Randidly was simply solemn; the book seemed to be covered with remnants of that ominous image. The leather was worn, but seemed to curl up like dead skin. The thin book contained unimaginable weight.
As Randidly was staring at the book, Shal returned.
“Why?” Randidly asked simply.
Shal’s response was to grin, so it seemed he understood. “….Yes, you saw it didn’t you? The edge of him. The presence of the Spear Phantom. You ask why, but…”
Turning away, Shal walked over to the far edge of the tent, and touched the closed and locked chest. “All the rest I can teach you. But those 5th and 6th stances… Although I struggled…”
Shal’s hand tightened on the lock. “…I am unable to master them. When I see the Spear Phantom’s image… when I see my father’s face…. I am filled with rage. With fury over his foolishness. I cannot bare to be- heh, well, it is not important.”
Turning back around, Shal gave Randidly a meaningful glance. “Although this is my Style… I have no pride for it. But the weight of responsibility has snuck on me. To have you immediately start with the 5th move… is to see if you can ever inherit that man’s mantle. For it is a thing that I do not want.”
Then Shal stalked passed Randidly out of the tent, leaving him speechless.
Time continued relentlessly forward, and Randidly’s training broadened and became more universally exhausting. Time with the diary, then sparring training with Shal, then challenges against those spear users that had stopped him previously, then resting and training his spells, in a continuous cycle that left him empty and thoughtless from exertion.
Once more Engraving fell to the side, but Randidly couldn’t be concerned about it. He no longer knew how long he would remain here. The still air and heat of the badlands began to seem like home. Shal seemed continuously unsatisfied with his performance, even as he slowly was able to beat those previously insurmountable spear users. If Shal’s criticism wasn’t enough, it still remained comically easy for Marco to predict and foil Randidly’s every attack and movement.
After being in the prison for almost a year, Randidly had finally reached a decision that he had been dreading for a long time. He had gained quite a bit of PP, and it was enough to push him up to finishing the Path of Carnage VI.
Congratulations! You have completed the Path of Carnage VI. The wild expanse has been endless around you, but although you have found no reward you continue forward. The wind whispers of death, while the ground sucks up any sweat or blood you shed. Before you lies a mountain to your right. Ahead of you the path continues, but is shrouded in a mist of blood. You sense your hands are not so bloodied that you can survive the path through the blood mist. Shall you ascend to the summit of the mountain? Shall you head further into the wilderness? You have encountered an Extending Path! Continue, or recieve your current reward?
Randidly frowned. It really did seem like he could see what the path reward was describing. But not only was there a blood red mist in front of him blocking his path…
There was also a golden gate, upon which stood a tinkling bell. In addition, there was a sign, with an arrow, that pointed up towards the mountain. While frowning, Randidly reached out his metaphysical hand, and touched the gates.
A shock smashed into him knocking his physical body, as well as his metaphysical one, several meters back. Annoyed, but very used to being injured by now, Randidly stood back up and glared at the gate that glowed serenely. He took several breaths to calm himself.
Not only Shal and Marco… but now Path rewards even thought they could bully him…? What in the actual fuck…