Randidly gritted his teeth and forced his gaze to follow along with the words on the page of the diary.
All resist the Phantom, for they know, he steps in the wake of death, like a shadow
And as Randidly read the words, it was there. Or rather, he. After hearing the story about Shal and his history, especially of his father, Randidly could see the man. His small smile, his broad shoulders, his short dark hair. Unlike Shal, his skin was not dyed blue, but was a dull red color.
From his shoulders hung a long leather cloak that was shredded at the edges. But his eyes…
But his eyes burned, and as Randidly read that first line, he appeared and and began to float towards Randidly.
They flinch away from his touch, as fear erodes control of their very body. Perhaps if they were able to remain equipped with their faculties, their struggles would have meaning. But before the Phantom…
Randidly’s body began to tremble. The approach of Phantom carried with it an aura of death that was palpable, almost as if Randidly had inhaled the scent of a rotting body. The air became increasingly warm and fetid, and Randidly clenched his fists. He refused to give in, even as the image drifted closer.
…before the Phantom, all other things break and scatter. The path he walks is long and wide. It is multifarious and insidious, a small step to the side. But once those people step upon it, for whatever reason, they have doomed themselves. At that point, although they may struggle…
Roaring, Randidly created a spear of Battle Intent and threw it at the Phantom. Although it may have just been his imagination, he thought the Spear Phantom smiled at him, and then disappeared.
The next thing he felt was a thin, cold hand on his shoulder, tapping lightly, as if to take his attention. Refusing to back down, Randidly backed around and faced the Phantom, finding it standing there, its arms spread wide. Its leather cloak was open, flapping lightly by an ethereal wind, revealing not the human torso Randidly had been expecting, or even a skeleton’s body, but a face, a sleeping one.
At first Randidly thought that the face was Shal’s,, but the longer he looked, the more the subtle differences between them began to come to the surface. This was… was softer and warmer than Shal’s. Although the nose was the same, the cheekbones were less prominent and wider.
Randidly was frozen, suddenly very confused what he was looking at. A face, rather than a torso underneath the cloak. Somehow, it was incredibly disturbing. This… was still the image conjured by the Battle Intent, right…?
The eyelids of the sleeping face trembled, then blinked open, its long, beautiful eyelashes fluttering. As the eyes opened, Randidly continued to stare, wondering whether the androgynous face was male or female.
Now Randidly blinked, because the face spoke, its lips moving thickly, clumsy and rusty from disuse.
The eyes opened further, and they were pure black, and wet like spilled ink. The Phantom continued to stand, holding that cloak open, his smile slowly fading away to a frown. His eyes furrowed into an angry bunch.
…although they struggle, it is too late. For the very path they walk is their end. As soon as the spectre of death tempted them into its realm, they lives begin flickering like candles, their blood seeming to drip out of their mouths and pool on the path behind them. The path….
“I’m so hungry…” The weary chest face said, and then it began to open its mouth and suck, its inky eyes locking onto Randidly. The Aether inside of him trembled, as if some outside force acted on it, causing Randidly to take a step backward instinctually.
Immediately the Phantom itself let its arms drop, its smile returned, Its fingers grew and grow, growing and surrounding Randidly, forming a cage that began to press inwardly, crush and bursting his organs, leaving him-
Gasping, Randidly dropped the diary again. For several seconds, the very real “Phantom” pain remained, his body feeling as though it had been annihilated. But then it slowly passed, likely blown out of him by his heavy breathing. Shal sat there, regardingly him coolly.
“That is quite enough for today, I think.” He said simply, reaching down and taking the diary. Then he left Randidly there, laying on the ground.
After his breathing had calmed, Randidly closed his eyes and tried to focus on remembered what happened. That face that looked similar to Shal’s on the chest of the Phantom, its inky black eyes, the strange change in the Phantom the longer that Randidly looked at that face. That face was even able to cause some effect on the Aether within him, that Randidly struggled with at the best of times.
And that hunger in its blank eyes…
Randidly did now have a more concrete ideal about the Phantom’s embrace as a move, although he wasn’t sure how it worked. It was a skill that produced an overwhelming psychological effect, and pressed your opponent backwards. It turned the momentum of their fleeing against them, becoming increasingly powerful the more that they attempted to dodge.
But, if someone did not flee, or did not attack, it was useless.
However, the face didn’t seem to fit into Randidly’s impression of the move. It felt like that was a larger part of the image within the book, and less to do with the actual skill. Or perhaps even it was a spectre of whatever the 6th move of the Spear Phantom was…?
Either way, this was far beyond the current Randidly. For now, he could only concentrate on the goals that would yield positive results. So he stood and began to practice the Inevitable Phantom Arrives. His strikes were slow and even, but even though he hadn’t gleaned any true insights from his studying of the 5th move of the Spear Phantom, his Battle Intent was increasingly strengthened by the exposure.
The ticking grew louder. His own temporal phantom became more definite, and Randidly began to add more and more details. Almost unbidden, small memories of his mother floated to the surface. As Randidly remembered how worn her clothes always were when she wasn’t going out, the robe the phantom wore became threadbare and grey.
He remembered how she smelled, like honey and flowers just starting to rot, and how she smiled, almost as if she was apologizing with her eyes, while her mouth was stretched wide. And as these details began to accumulate in the image, Randidly’s feelings about the image balloon outward in his heart.
With Aether thundering in his ears, a vicious icy flow, Randidly’s rage and frustration, that he had buried for years began to surface, filling his image with potency.
Randidly remembered how he had sat in his room in the dark for long hours, afraid and confused by the long nights of laughter his mother had with strange men, even on weekdays. The way he would hide in his room while the men were there, even as he grew hungrier and hungrier. But he refused to allow himself to be dragged out and paraded out in front of them.
He remembered the men and their callous hands and their patronizing smiles and their eyes all for his mother. It igniting something hot and vicious inside of Randidly. Helpless, stuck, torn by emotions, dragged in 1000 directions…
As Randidly focused more and more on that small boy, his arms wrapped around his knees, sitting in the dark, the ticking grew louder and louder, almost to a deafening degree. With each tick the hours would slide past, the child’s hunger would grow more desperate and gnawing. But the laughter, tinkling and light, and low and dirty, grew louder and louder, a droning noise that began to rival the ticking.
Abruptly, Randidly became aware of the fact that he had been standing still, and he thrust out with his spear, not bothering to use Haste or Empower, just thrusting forward with the spear. And as he completed the motion, now much quicker than it had been when he trained before he went into the prison, there was no feedback, no cracking of the air, no vacuum created.
There was just silence, and a strange sensation in Randidly’s hand: that his spear was as heavy as the world. Randidly sighed, letting the silence grow. This was part of his image too, the powerful silence that surrounded that boy in the darkness. The ticking was scary, in a way, because it demonstrated the passing of time, and the inevitability of resisting time. But by the same token, the silence was even more horrifying.
Because in that silence, time could twist and morph, becoming an abomination that no longer obeyed objective rules, but stretched to fill subjective spaces. In that silence, that darkness, even a minute felt like an eternity.
The Aether was howling within him now, and he held that image in his mind for several minutes, feeling as thin tendrils of Aether split off and flowed down into his skills, strengthening them slowly.
After a while, the sensation ceased, and Randidly checked his status screen.
He had gained one Skill level in Spear Mastery, 2 in Empower, 1 in Body Control: Freeze, 3 in Engraving, 2 in Rejection, but then 7 in Battle Intent and 11 in the Inevitable Phantom Arrives.
Randidly distributed the PP he earned, netting 3 Resistance and Willpower, but as he made to stand afterward, his chest began to ache. Grimacing, Randidly sat back down and put his hand on the spot where his Soul Skill was whirling wildly inside of his chest. This wasn’t nearly as bad as the previous incident, but still. It felt like the kind of heartburn that could kill you, eating you from the inside out.
Luckily, it passed relatively quickly, but still it made Randidly annoyed. This wasn’t something that Randidly wanted to deal with right now. He would be participating in the tournament soon, and if it happened in the middle of a match…
This level was nothing. But Aether activity seemed to exacerbate the issue. In a tough match, there was a very real chance of the Soul Skill escalating beyond the point that Randidly could control. Based on this pain…
If the Soul Skill spun so fast it ripped itself apart…
Randidly wasn’t really sure about the physical consequences of the Aether backlash, but if it was just ripped out of his body…
Shuddering, Randidly meditated until the pain had passed.