The Hound’s Ladder, Helen came to understand, was an exercise based upon something that Randidly had done previously. It was a reduced version, of course, but it was a training exercise designed to show hotheaded recruits that their individual strength mattered very little in the grand scheme of things.
Before a cohesive squad, an individual could only struggle and fail.
It was a series of ten fights, increasing in difficulty until the final fight, where you essentially fought all of the previous nine groups of opponents at the same time. Most people were so unsuccessful in the earlier rungs of the ladder that they gave up before the end.
After the details of the fight were explained to herself, Helen resolved to not give up, no matter what.
She seriously reconsidered that after having her nose broken during the first rung.
The first fight was against three people, all from the Thirty-eighth Squad of Donnyton. Quietly, Helen asked what the numbering meant and was informed that this meant that there were thirty-seven groups of ten people better than this Squad in the town. And that didn’t even include those individuals who were apparently strong enough to have their own Raid Squad.
The whole system seemed a bit confusing to Helen, but she surmised that these were simply run of the mill fighters and not the elite. Therefore, she took them rather lightly.
That was a mistake.
Their formation was simple. They had two warriors with sword and shield and one spellcaster behind them. Although Helen found the range of the sword extremely short, she couldn’t deny the efficacy of their rather large shields. When the fight began, she was immediately wary of the spellcaster. But an entire minute passed with him standing passively at the back, allowing the two sword and shield users to edge out and pressure Helen from an angle.
They were efficient and brutal with their sword strikes, but they had no image behind them. Helen was able to knock them away effortlessly. However, all of her counter attacks were simply endured and deflected by the broad side of the shield. It was infuriatingly easy for the shield to endure her attacks because her Skills were vastly reduced by Randidly’s Domain.
Helen could only rely on her images to strengthen her strikes. She felt some give, but… With the constant threat of the caster looming, Helen was unwilling to risk an all-out attack to try and break through.
Time crept past. Very soon, Helen grew impatient. Time to test their edges. She lashed out powerfully at one of the two melee fighters.
She had enough strength to stumble him with two powerful follow-up attacks, but the other hustled in to slam his shield into her side. Grinning, Helen spun around him and outside of the two’s encirclement, so they were in a line and unable-
As soon as Helen moved apart from the melee fighters, the waiting spell caster shot a bolt of cobalt electricity through the air. Instincts took over and Helen scrambled to the side. The spell cracked past her, leaving the smell of ozone in its wake. As she righted herself, she found the two melee fighters moving closer with a grim purpose.
Helen’s Domain exploded outward and she used pure speed to slip between them. With her spear raised, she rushed intently toward the spell caster. As long as they continued to interfere, this would be almost impossible-
For almost a second, Helen wasn’t sure what was happening. Her vision was simply white. Blinking, she abruptly realized that she had been briefly blinded. She spun around and leapt to the side to escape any danger, and smashed face first into a shield. As she fell on her ass, a flat piece of metal was pressed briefly against her cheek.
It was so, so cold before it dragged its chill metal across the skin and away.
Slowly, Helen forced her gaze to return to focus.
“That counts as a loss,” Dozer said. “You ready for the next rung?”
Helen reached up and wiped away the blood that was dribbling out of her nose. “Fuck yea.”
If the world that the pattern on the equipment made was the ‘image’ that the Skill should follow, the energy and shape that Randidly injected into it next was the ‘energy’. Without both, the Skill wouldn't exist and therefore couldn’t grow. It was only by combining both that something special would be born.
All things possess duality. The interesting part is in the details.
As Randidly slowly traced the shape he wanted into the pattern, the metal began to hiss and steam. Frowning, Randidly reached out and carefully felt the Mana Engravings that conveyed the energy through the equipment. Immediately, he hissed in annoyance; there was a small flaw that was allowing Mana to escape.
Ignoring the heated metal, Randidly crumpled the low-Level breastplate into a ball and threw it across the room toward the trash can. It would have gone into it, but it bounced off of a dozen similarly crumpled failures from his work earlier in the day that were already piled within the basket.
Glancing out the window, Randidly confirmed that it was still a reasonable portion of the day. Dinner time would be soon, and that meant that he would have only one more day that Randidly had to sit still and work on his engraving. After that came becoming the Ghosthound for the people of Donnyton.
His progress with Engraving was worse than he had anticipated. Then pattern portion was nearing a 50% success rate, but that was an inherently flawed figure. Because every one of his “successes” had small defects in the Mana uniformity that led to energy escaping and quickly made any previous success pointless.
Humming, Randidly stood and walked over to his hastily erected forge. It wasn’t complicated, but it would be enough to heat and shape the base metals he had obtained from Donnyton. Without much care, he produced a dozen or so pounds of iron ore and dumped it into the furnace.
These he heated quickly, relying on his Ignition of the Emerald Essence rather than more natural fire. He quickly realized that fineness of his senses toward the Engraving was vastly improved when it was imbued with his image already, so he now forged almost exclusively with the vivifying emerald fire.
It made the forge somewhat… spooky, but it was still possible to see by once you grew used to the coloration.
Randidly had another thought, but he hadn’t it tested it yet. Perhaps part of the reason that he was so poor at sensing the flaws in the uniformity was that he didn’t understand the pattern that he was using as implicitly as he should. These were the simplest templates given by the text, but the reality proved that he didn’t have the delicate touch necessary for such work yet.
This could only be earned with time. But Randidly suspected, just like forging with this fire helped a bit, relying on his own images for the pattern would also give him an edge.
Which meant that he had a shortcut… if one ignored the onerous prospect of creating a scalable pattern out of one of his images… Plus, there would then be no proof that such a thing was possible. That, at least, was guaranteed by these templates from the leather bound book.
As he quenched the newly shaped batch of breastplates, Randidly considered the option of making his own pattern. Of all his images, the easiest to scale was probably the Emerald Essence itself. Fire and chaos. Ash as an image was… a bit difficult to pin down. The Spear Phantom and the Tree of Yggdrasil struck him as slightly too complicated.
Of course, Ignition of the Emerald Essence wasn’t just fire. But it seemed to Randidly that isolating the image to just the fire portion of it would be the rather simplest cut that he could make. From there...
Randidly walked outside and cleared a small patch of grass and plants. Then, in the dirt, he began to lightly sketch out a simple pattern for the image. Two mirrored tongues of flame, leaning toward each other, repeating infinitely.
Several times he erased what he had done and began again, and there were moments where he was struck by a sudden change he needed to make to the image. So he slowly erased his entire thing and began again, breathing life into the pattern.
Again and again he erased and remade it. For every iteration, the next one came together slightly more quickly, slightly sharper, but always… just off.
The sun slowly slipped behind the horizon, but Randidly didn’t mind; what he was doing was creating a world. He shouldn’t worry about the time spent developing the world.
The more he worked, the deeper the sun sank, and the more that the sky shifted from light blue toward maroon and then finally to bruised plum. As he continued to study and remake the pattern he painstakingly drew in the dirt, Randidly reached out and felt those individuals who he had brought with him from Tellus.
Their images flowed through his fingers and onto the ground, carving out a world. From them, he felt their fervent belief in fire.
When the light of the sky dimmed to the point that it was difficult to capture the feeling of what he was doing, Randidly grew torches from woven grass and set them afire with Ignition of the Emerald Essence. Underneath the glow of the light that spawned the pattern, the whole thing seemed to sway and dance.
Some part of Randidly realized that what was happening didn’t make logical sense. He should be having more difficulty in drawing now that the flickering flames around his work area were casting shadows across the pattern. But the pattern seemed to flicker in response. It was slowly waking, becoming a world that could house a Skill.
At some point, the moon rose into the sky and Randidly leaned back on his heels. He considered the pattern, which continued to swim in his vision even as he focused upon it with all of his Willpower. This shouldn’t be working. It was a dumb idea that didn’t give proper respect to the uncountable years that the Willow Tree Spear Style put into its manual on creating growing Engravings.
As Randidly looked down at the pattern, he felt deep in his gut that this would work. He knew this pattern, and because of that fact, he could intuitively sense the flaws in it. It was a world that he understood.
Releasing a breath, Randidly turned around and went back into his hut. It was useful, the truth about the System that this success proved. But it was also a dangerous truth.
The more self-absorbed you are… the more the System responds to that isolationist image. I only wonder… is that because that is the type of image that the System is trying to cultivate, or…
...or is it because that is the sort of image on which the entire System is built?
Slowly at first, Randidly began to engrave.