After the meeting, Donny and Mrs. Hamilton returned to Mrs. Hamilton’s study. Both weren’t exactly upset, but the presentation and arguments that they were prepared to make seemed… almost inappropriate to bring up when Randidly didn’t even mention Level or the training methods used to prepare the Squads.
“The outcome was as I expected, honestly,” Mrs. Hamilton admitted as she released a long breath. “At the best of times, Randidly is difficult to predict. In a way, if things didn’t end with us scrambling to grasp the paradigm by which his mind works I would have been disappointed. But to think his focus is on the image of the town…”
“Leaves very little room for us to argue, especially when it was something that we hadn’t considered…” Donny said grimly. Yet how could he argue with his senses? Even now, he could picture that crushing weight that Randidly had produced by just sitting before the assembled leaders of Donnyton. Those images, the innumerable motes of light…
Without a breath, the air around Randidly had shuddered from the force of only the Ghosthound’s thoughts. Only his thoughts! What could an ability like that do over the course of a battle…?
The memory of it had Donny shivering despite the warm fire on the far side of the room. Even though he was intimately familiar with the concrete strength of Donnyton’s Squads after all this time, that weight and persistent chill diminished his hopes of a successful challenge against man.
Randidly Ghosthound. The man who had the strength to plants seeds for Villages while everyone else was struggling to survive. And over the last six months, while everyone else was building… what exactly had he been doing?
“He makes a good point, though,” Donny admitted. “If we weren’t afraid that we would lose… there isn’t a reason to argue so forcefully against the challenge.”
“Mmm…. while that’s partially true… There will be consequences. I think the figure of Randidly Ghosthound is more ubiquitous than you think…” Mrs. Hamilton said slowly. Then she shook her head helplessly. “The Order Ducis is just a symbol, yet all recognize it. That’s due to the long shadow cast by Randidly Ghosthound.
“Because the Order Ducis is at the head, the other Orders had the grounds to develop legitimacy. People were able to put their trust in a higher power… whether it be a transcendent individual or an institution. Even though Donnyton has the name of the strongest in the world, there is a hint of… magic associated with the name Ghosthound. I worry that defeating him here would diffuse that magic.”
“And without that magic, you worry about the course of humanity,” Donny said with a nod. It was a conversation they had a lot, recently. Of how to straddle the line between stability and coasting forward.
“Precisely. Randidly Ghosthound is a man who can create miracles. Even though monsters have invaded our world… humanity has once more found its footing. In a way, we are returning to how society was before… Aside from one important point: we have had a very harsh lesson that sometimes the unthinkable happens. That sometimes the world is more than we can handle, and something that defies expectations occurs.
“I believe that Randidly, for better or worse, is the living symbol of that lesson. For he demonstrates that just as an apocalypse can come, so can a font of hope. A man who transcended the limits of what we believe it is to be human… He provides a path forward that the Orders seek to emulate.”
Mrs. Hamilton shook her head. “Yet… because he has such an important role, there is nothing we can do but accept the demand.”
Donny sighed. “Will he even utilize the option to have a Squad of his own for the challenge? Why offer such an option?”
“...again, I cannot predict how this will play out,” Mrs. Hamilton said with a frown. “But… I suppose that’s exactly why he holds such an important place in our hearts. These images that he believes are so important… even now, aren’t we looking to him to know how we should feel?”
“No, you’d just be dead weight,” Randidly said with a wave of his hand. “Just because I’m allowed to bring a Squad to the challenge doesn’t mean I will exercise that right.”
Helen’s hands tightened into fists. “You cannot know for sure that’s the case; I’ve grown stronger on the world. I grow stronger every day. AND what I do know for sure is that even you cannot overcome the number of Squads alone. I have seen them. I’ve trained with them. Even if they are unrefined, that doesn’t mean they are weak.”
“I guess I just have to be overwhelmingly strong, then,” Randidly said mildly. He looked at Helen and frowned. “I have two weeks while the Squads gather. That is plenty of time for preparations to be made.”
The two were sitting outside of Randidly’s hut. Helen’s fury hissed and spat in her chest. She wanted to berate Randidly, but she couldn’t find fault in what he was saying. More than anyone, Helen understood that she was currently severely limited in what she could accomplish. Due to the limits of his Domain, her strength was still a fraction of what it was.
If she had her full strength, perhaps she would be able to hold out against the combined might of this Village named Donnyton. With the limitations? It was a joke.
Yet if there was plenty of time for preparations to be made...
There were so many things about the situation that drove her crazy. Perhaps the worst was that the limitations imposed by passing through Randidly’s Domain were so… all-encompassing. It hit her stats, it reduced the efficacy of her Skills and Skill Levels, and it also blunted her images. Helen wasn’t able to keep a single one of her advantages on Earth.
Whoever had designed the Domain seemed to be entirely focused on screwing over those who pass through Randidly’s Domain. Helen almost had just as much pity for Randidly who had been given a sloppily made Domain as she did for the poor sops that followed him within his Soulskill and were limited for it.
Which wasn’t accurate. Helen was much more pissed about being reduced to an unimpressive spear wielder.
Well, unimpressive aside from her personality. Helen was somewhat proud that the vicious aggression she held in her chest had even given Dozer a headache.
In the face of his rejection, Randidly had nothing to say. Except that it wasn’t fair.
I came here to be your knight… Helen thought bitterly, remembering the fight between them in the under-25 Tournament. In her mind, she could still see the moment when Randidly had touched the edge of being a Pontiff and left her in the dust. To fight your battles. To defend your honor. A return to being a spear attendant. And yet…
...even now, is there truly so few things I can do for you…?
Like a pool floatie with a puncture hole, Helen leaned back and sagged into the ground as she allowed her breath to seep out of her in a bitter whistle. Again, she was useless. She felt as she had before her scheming mother. A body without any redeeming qualities than bearing a name and the possibility of children. The clear blue sky above did little to soften the reality of this situation.
It wasn’t her fault-
But that didn’t really matter, did it?
Randidly looked over at Helen and chewed on his lip. “Well… it’s not like there isn’t a way to accelerate the process of the Domain… but that onus will be on you. Only you can strain the limits of the Domain. I’ve tried various methods, but developing an image for the Domain cannot be forced.”
For several long seconds, Helen just lay against the warm Earth and breathed. Underneath her, the soft carpet of grass was so cushion-y that some part of her wanted to take a nap. Around Randidly, most plants were like that, compliant and inviting. His aura vivified nature into becoming habitable for civilization.
Sometimes, Helen wished that same aura would bring some order and contentment to her life.
This was not one of those times.
Her eyes narrowed to slits as she leaned upward. “You mean…?”
“Training. Much harsher training than this. Closer to the edge of your ability to handle.” Randidly said slowly. He was studying her as if trying to understand if she would survive the path that he was offering her. She hoped that she had proved herself in their battle, despite the fact that she lost.
The image of the Hellfin Reaper came upon her. Muted as it was, it still colored the surrounding area with crimson undertones.
Randidly chuckled. “Yea, I get it. I would be chomping at the bit if I were you. Fine. On Earth, the Dungeons are much less controlled than they were on Tellus; I believe that even Donnyton has two that you can requisition to use. Or if you prefer, I-”
“No need,” Helen said coolly. Already she leaped to her feet and prepared to rush toward the Dungeon, but Randidly’s voice stopped her.
She turned to face him, tilting her head up. A Crown floated above his head. The grass around Randidly Ghosthound’s feet fluttered in a nonexistent wind. “I was shaped by my experiences in a Dungeon far above my Level. I cannot deny… it is fitting, for the same to happen to you. But I was lucky. I suspect you will get the benefit of none of that luck. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
Helen nodded. His emerald eyes bored into her. She could tell that he understood that she had no intention of heeding his words. Still, his gaze lingered on her, searching for an answer to a question that only he understood.
There was a test in his gaze, but Helen didn’t understand the criterion.
It wasn’t that Helen wouldn’t like to stay relatively safe while she grew stronger. But they both knew that sufficient growth within controlled conditions wasn’t possible. Only exposure to the unpredictable world would encourage growth sufficient to ensure a smooth future.
At the cost of a dangerous now.
When Helen heard that Randidly had challenged the Squads to a competition to be held in two weeks, she hadn’t needed to ask why. The Squads were growing stronger, sure. Their drilling and teamwork exercises would definitely provide tangible benefits. It was that bedrock of training that had allowed Donnyton such an edge in the struggle to be the strongest in the world.
But that edge was only sharp enough to be a threat against other human organizations. The System didn’t even notice those small threats. Even the accomplishments of Earth had stalled out with this growth plan. Other than the two already cleared Danger Zones, none had even come close to being able to defeat the enemies within.
No, rather being unable to, the high-Level Classers simply hadn’t attempted it. Helen found it baffling. They concerned themselves with other things. Although they likely wouldn’t notice for a while, Helen had no doubt their growth would stagnate because of the choice to focus on economic rather than martial pursuits.
And the threats that were looming weren’t just their fellow humans. Soon, Donnyton would need to defend its title of strongest against something on the level of the Wight threat.
Suddenly, the Crown above Randidly’s head faded. “It’s just a spar, this challenge. Don’t risk yourself needlessly. Good luck.”
Although he knew she wouldn’t listen to him, Randidly still said nothing more than that. Slowly, Helen turned away and proceeded down the Path. Once she arrived in the outskirts of Donnyton, she quickly made a beeline for the Village center.
It struck her then how difficult it was for the one who wore the Crown. Randidly had his own battles to fight, so his time could not be dedicated to assisting Helen. She didn’t begrudge him that. He had marked her and ultimately, what she did with the energy he provided to her was her own business.
He could only watch and give advice that he knew wouldn’t be followed. Yet he had to give it because he knew it was the safe Path.
Yet wasn’t the whole point of this challenge to push Donnyton off of the safe path? And so he did not stop her. It was an unspoken understanding that this was the only method to climb upward in strength.
Shaking her head to dispel useless thoughts, Helen continued to the portal to the Dungeon. Toward the Level 50 Dungeon that Dozer had dismissed as more trouble than it was worth.