“You are saying our image is weak.”
Mrs. Hamilton’s voice was low as she stared at Randidly. Her words did not form a question, but a statement.
Randidly looked at Mrs. Hamilton. Truly looked at her. Despite his concerns about her privacy, he looked with his eyes that could detect even the smallest changes in Aether. It took a little focus, but after a second her Status screen spread before Randidly’s eyes.
Class: The Silent Maestro of Many Palms
Health(/R per hour): 1280/1280 (403)
Mana(/R per hour): 1692/1692 (392)
Stam(/R per min): 1086/1086 (212)
SoulSkill: The Vast Web of Lengthening Shadows Lvl 2552
Class Skills: Thread Spray Lvl 148, Invisible Trap ® Lvl 99, Isolating Gaze (Ru) Lvl 44, Silent Steps Lvl 150, Split Second Pounce (Un) Lvl 70, Virulent Infection ® Lvl 23, Where Force Fails, the Invisible Hand Moves (A) Lvl 201, Evolving Exoskeleton ® Lvl 31
Combat Skills: Heavy Blow Lvl 16, Mana Bolt Lvl 45, Needle Mastery Lvl 76, Unexpected Movement (Un) Lvl 112, Sidestep Lvl 78, Poison Jet Lvl 78, Whirlwind of Anguish Lvl 34, Twin Fang (Un) Lvl 82, Animate Corpse Lvl 79, Curse of Weakness Lvl 93, Corpse Explosion Lvl 99
Crafting Skills: WoodWorking Lvl 65, Construction Lvl 35, Labor Lvl 51, Potion Making Lvl 98, Refine Lvl 102, Glass Blowing Lvl 92, Extract Lvl 73, Synthesis Lvl 34, Corpse Dissection Lvl 61
Auxiliary Skills: Hiding Lvl 88, Running Lvl 31, Soothing Speech Lvl 91, Effective Rest (Un) Lvl 59, Gentle Persuasion Lvl 160, Leadership Lvl 102, Misdirection Lvl 50, Manipulation Lvl 120
Randidly clicked his tongue. Both Mrs. Hamilton’s Soulskill and Class were somewhat different than he had imagined. Had he ever known them before? Likely he knew the Soulskill, at the very least... But that was understandable, considering how growth would see those things shift. And Mrs. Hamilton had spent plenty of time talking to Nathan.
Perhaps the first reaction Randidly had to viewing Mrs. Hamilton’s Stats were how… pitiful they seemed.
In terms of raw numbers, Mrs. Hamilton only had a fraction of the points that Randidly had been able to distribute across his various stats. His Control alone was almost half of her stats. Now, she wasn’t the most powerful individual in Donnyton, but she was strong. Her Level and Skills showed that.
But compared to him, it was a bit of a letdown.
It also gave Randidly a sense of what Mrs. Hamilton in battle would be like. Most of her usable Skill were focused on the manipulation of others, poison, and curses. An annoying enemy that would slowly weaken you and then strike when you least expected it. Someone who would lay down traps.
Mrs. Hamilton met his gaze with clear eyes, altogether oblivious to the fact that Randidly could peer through the veil of her body and pick apart the Aether. Abruptly, Randidly felt uncomfortable for the information he was able to glean with his senses. It violated the recipient's privacy.
Isn’t it worth it, to know that she had so many influencing Skills? Some part of Randidly asked. But that part of him was somewhat short-sighted. People with those Skills were necessary for society to function. And those Skills were ultimately just tools.
But that Corpse Explosion Skill… what did it truly look like to see Mrs. Hamilton fight?
The number of Skills she possessed also small, but she more than made up for it by having similarly high Skill Levels in those Skills she focused on.
For all that Randidly wasn’t going to judge her by the Skills she possessed, he couldn’t stop himself from tensing as he looked at her. While he was in the area, Randidly would watch how Mrs. Hamilton utilized those Skills very carefully. For it was all well and good to use such Skills when one was in the right.
If that wasn’t the case, however...
You’ve built something here very carefully. Randidly thought as he held Mrs. Hamilton’s gaze. And now you worry that I am thoughtlessly breaking down parts of the web that you’ve weaved. Well… it’s not like that isn’t true. But it's not about us at all. It is about all of Earth. Our own individual feelings don’t matter. I don’t think the current growth rate is enough. But you don’t agree, yes?
“Not weak. Brittle,” Randidly said simply.
Mrs. Hamilton didn’t reply. Her fingers mechanically reorganized her notes as she shifted the papers. Her eyes were dull and unfocused, as she gathered the threads to bind him to the purpose of strengthening Donnyton.
Randidly knew that she, and even Simon, had the same purpose as himself. They wanted to create a better future for the world. The problem was that each possessed a very different series of premises on which their predictions for the future were based. And in many ways, those premises conflicted.
Setting aside Simon’s governmental demands, Randidly knew that Mrs. Hamilton was based upon a premise that he couldn’t agree with: that the System ultimately left a path for safe passage through its Calamities. She believed that they could find a perfect answer and make it through with minimal losses.
After his experiences on Tellus and being twisted around like a toy by the Creature, Randidly wasn’t so sure that was the case.
We are pieces in a broader game, played by individuals who we don’t understand, Randidly thought. His brief conversation with Octavius Shrike flashed across his mind. They are using us for something. The System supplies Aether and takes images for itself. But why? Even I don’t understand that. The Creature… didn’t either. Just that the maker of the System was seeking something. It had use for our images.
And if our world was broken while the System extracted those images… would it care?
Randidly didn’t think so.
“So you believe proving the lie in that image would help?” Sam asked gruffly. “What about the spirit of the people here? Won’t that also receive damage.”
“Do you really want to force me to use a forging analogy, Sam?” Randidly asked. Then he shrugged. “Besides… I lost the prior challenge. Why are you all acting like my victory is a sure thing?”
It was an unfair question, Randidly knew. They didn’t understand why, but sitting across from him, Randidly knew they would be able to sense the changes in him. If it was just his rapidly rising stats and Skill Levels… perhaps Donnyton would have managed it. No, they definitely would have managed.
But Randidly had discovered how to weaponize images, and his high Willpower made that blade very, very sharp.
Enough to cut through the sheer number of Donnyton’s Squads? Well… Only by testing its edge would he find out.
“And you? Don’t you worry about your pride if you should fail?” Regina asked.
The question took Randidly by surprise. So much so that he laughed aloud. “Pride? Well… I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Feeling his body slowly burning away in the lava while Aegiant prowled above, his Soulskill turning against him as he struggled to remake it… Randidly was not proud of how deep in the shit he had allowed himself to fall. But there was no other choice. He had done what he had to and managed to eke out a win by relying on both the power of his new Soulskill and the leftover emotions imbued in Versault’s image.
And then when he had neutralized Azriel… it was more akin to sniping a wire to defuse a bomb than triumphing over something. Make no mistake; the images that Azriel possessed would have killed him if he had faced them directly. For that foe, Shal was forced to mobilize all of his existence and inherit the dormant image of Tellus.
Randidly did not begrudge his master that role.
“We were obviously aware that this would come up,” Mrs. Hamilton finally said. She glanced at Donny. “And… well, considering you believe it is a good idea, perhaps we should establish some rules for how the challenge will occur. After all… there has been a paradigm shift in scale since it last took place.”
Randidly nodded slowly. Certainly, Mrs. Hamilton was adaptable under pressure. “I assume you had some thoughts prepared?”
She flashed him a genuine smile. “Of course. As with the trial of the Hound’s Ladder, it would be a series of nine fights. Otherwise… the process itself would simply take too long. Therefore, you will be fighting… all the Squads from 100 to 81, then 80 to 61, then 60 to 41, and finally 40-21. After that, you will fight 20-10 and then 9-3. Then the first and second Squads of Donnyton. After that the combination of the forces of Donny, Dozer, Annie, Alana, and Sam. And then for the ninth trial… you face them all at once.”
“Fine, but from the look in your eyes…” Randidly said slowly.
Mrs. Hamilton chuckled. “Yes. Due to the numbers, we need for the trial to be finished within a day. After each battle, you will be given an hour to rest. But still, even with your prodigious recovery, that won’t be enough for you, will it?”
Randidly considered the question. Health and Stamina wouldn’t be a problem; both would refill within an hour from zero. But he would only regain a little less than half of his total Mana during that time. If he was ever forced to expend all of his Mana during one of the battles, he would be out of luck.
It wouldn’t happen during the weaker battles, but it was possible that it would occur toward the end. Still, this consideration wasn’t necessary. Randidly suspected that his regeneration was on an order of magnitude higher than they expected.
It did make some sense. How could they not be confused? Randidly was nine Levels lower than Mrs. Hamilton but had five times the Mana recovery. That sort of ridiculous difference wasn’t something that you could just plan for.
“...perhaps not in the later stages,” Randidly said easily. He needed to teach them a lesson. And part of that lesson was that Randidly wasn’t the only existence that could crush them. Based on the way this conversation was going, Randidly guessed they would bring out the rope he wanted to hang them with.
Well, it didn’t matter to Randidly if they underestimated him. He was here to sharpen them, not coddle them.
“Then I have a suggestion,” Mrs. Hamilton said. “You have… a portal within yourself that houses warriors, correct? We see no reason why you can’t bring a squad of them out to fight on your side. That should balance the scales somewhat.”