“Is he being serious?” Glendel asked, tilting his head to the side to peer toward the stark figure of Randidly Ghosthound.
Alana nodded grimly as her eyes were locked onto Randidly’s face. “That’s not the posture of a man who is joking. The air around him is full of violence.”
Glendel shook his head. Then he looked from side to side. They were sitting in a rather small box at the base of the stands, effectively the front row of the audience. Although the box was large, they were the only two who had arrived so early. Although it was likely to be soon, Glendel couldn’t be sure that Mrs. Hamilton and Sam would likely show up soon.
“...I supposed that means we are the ones who need to protect the audience…?” Glendel said while sighing. The audience members behind them were muttering to each other, also unsure what Randidly’s proclamation meant. Alana just smirked.
At the moment when Glendel was gloomily considering the fact that he might lose another one of his monster specters just while spectating, which was especially troubling after having one destroyed and two heavily damaged in the fight against the Nemesai, Mrs. Hamilton and the Cortez siblings arrived.
Mrs. Hamilton gestured elegantly to the siblings as Glendel and Alana turned to face the new arrivals. “I’m sure you both know Isabella and Pan? If my suspicions are correct, they will be the first real difficulty that Randidly will face. As such… I thought they could benefit from being present in our booth for the earlier rounds.”
Alana laughed sourly, but both the siblings nodded with serious expressions. They weren’t the top tier of Donnyton’s Squads yet, sitting at Squad 25, but that was mostly a matter of experience. When it came to growth, these two were at the top of the pile.
Mrs. Hamilton’s smile was gentle. “We can’t run things forever, Alana. You know that.”
Alana just grunted and turned back to the arena. Mrs. Hamilton chuckled a bit and Glendel couldn’t resist grinning as well. Alana wasn’t a huge fan of the siblings, largely because their claim to fame was currently that the two of them could hold out against Alana longer than any other duo in Donnyton.
Even Glendel himself, teaming up with Clarissa, couldn’t beat their record.
From what Glendel understood, the incident had occurred mostly due to a perfect storm of coincidences. Alana had returned from training in a Danger Zone and decided to lead her weekly training session anyway. The sister, Isabella, had gained a powerful new defensive Skill that took Alana by surprise. And for just this moment, both of the siblings had been hiding their true abilities.
While the sister excelled at battlefield awareness and enduring the opponent’s attacks, the brother possessed a rare Skill that reduced the opponent’s Stamina when his strikes landed. Once Alana realized what was going on, her Stamina pool was already reduced to something close to zero.
Of course, Alana’s tension instantly shot up and the battle slowly went against the siblings. But that twelve-minute match remained the standing record for a fight against Alana. To the point that other people had stopped trying to challenge it. And what was endlessly frustrating to Alana was that the harder she trained and the lower she pushed the other times, the more that one time stood out.
Yet somehow, Glendel believed that the Ghosthound’s actions today would make a mockery of that sort of record. After all, the first half of the duels would be against 200 people. Would each match last twelve minutes…? Somehow, Glendel couldn’t believe that same Ghosthound he had remembered turning back the hordes of monsters would need that much time to finish things up here.
Feeling a tingle of anticipation in his heart, Glendel focused on Mrs. Hamilton’s words to Alana.
“You were right about it being impossible to keep a lid on this. It seems like everyone who is anyone knows about the challenge. Hank’s here with a few people from Zone Eleven, and I was just speaking with the ambassador from Zone Seven. His tone is much more respectful, these days. It seemed they liked Sam’s gifts.”
Alana opened her mouth to say something, but then seemed to glance at the Cortez siblings. Instead, she just grimaced. “I don’t like it. Them being here. Both because they will see what Randidly can do… and they will see what we can do.”
“Is he that strong?” Isabella asked while finding a seat next to Glendel. Her brother moved to fill the other free seat next to her. As the older and the more extroverted of the siblings, she was the one that led their Squad. Pan sat next to her, content to rest his chin against his knuckles and study the Ghosthound.
Both Alana and Mrs. Hamilton had strange little smiles on their faces in response to that question. The silence stretched to almost ten seconds as Isabella looked back and forth between the older women. Even Glendel was unsure how to respond to that innocuous question.
He’s at least stronger than any one of us, probably any ten of us, Glendel thought as he gazed out toward the arena. That strange grey ash Randidly had arrived with seemed to be dissipating, but now it was swirling calmly around his feet, likely due to a Skill. That’s why we are here; that’s why we had to agree to this. We all want to know how strong we are in comparison to him.
“...he wasn’t the first to get a Class, but he was as strong as a person with a Class even before getting one. And after… well, he’s had to travel to address various threats.” Alana finally said, her eyes still never leaving Randidly’s face.
“What’s his Level?” Isabella asked.
Mrs. Hamilton shrugged. “We never explicitly asked him about it, but he hasn’t gotten a Fate yet. When you have a Fate… well, you can just sense others with a Fate. So I suspect it's the high forties.”
While Isabella frowned and folded her arms, her brother finally spoke.
“How many Skills does he have?”
There was another pause there, but this was one where Alana spared Pan a look of admiration. Because this was the key to Randidly Ghosthound’s success, and why none could duplicate what he had accomplished.
“More than you can imagine,” Glendel said simply. Then everyone focused on the stage because the Ghosthound finally began to move.
Instantly, the two hundred Squad members formed up into a series of three squares. They had plenty of time beforehand to plan, so they had established an internal hierarchy. Immediately, the outer two squares spread to the sides to hem Randidly and Helen in while the middle group marched forward to engage.
Fireballs and Ice Spears began to fly intermittently toward Randidly, giving the close range troops cover to approach.
Randidly calmy stood while Helen, a motivated woman who Glendel had never actually spoken to, asked a very sharp question. From this distance, Glendel’s eyes could see the supple softness of her lips as she spoke and read the words.
“I suppose a knight should lead the way for her Lord?”
But Randidly shook his head sharply. As the spells thrown toward him approached, he didn’t even raise his spear to defend himself.
“What the hell…?” Isabella mumbled. There were tight lines around Alana’s eyes as she watched the beginning stages of this battle that was being entirely ignored by the one side. Glendel’s spirits turned restless, which put him on edge.
Often, those spirits’ senses were sharper than his own.
As the projectiles whizzed closer, he still didn't move. But the ash swirling around at his feet… they transformed into sharp blades and cut upwards, knocking the Skills out of the sky. When the ash blades and the Skills clashes, the Skills were summarily extinguished. After each collision, the blades just drifted downward, settling around Randidly’s feet, seemingly unaffected.
Not a single attack was able to pierce through that defense. The air around Randidly was filled with the clash and fizzle of fire, ice, lightning, and poison. The ground around the Ghosthound began to crack and warp as the effects were discharged there, leaving the central figure himself completely untouched.
And these weren’t just one or two Skills. Almost a half dozen arrived every second, shooting out from the three groups to keep Randidly under control.
Noticing they were ineffective, the leader of the Squads instantly sent out the hold order. The flood of Skills stopped, giving Glendel an unimpeded view.
The Ghosthound’s lips moved. And the line said to Helen, at that moment, made Glendel’s blood run cold.
“Some lessons need to be taught personally.”
After he spoke, the whole arena seemed to change. There was abruptly a darkness that swept across the sky. Confused, Glendel looked upward. It was a cloudless day. The sun was hanging above them, releasing constant warmth.
Yet… why was it suddenly so cold and dismal…?
“First team!” The leader of the Squads barked. The front twenty or so members of the middle squad started into a dead run, rushing toward the Ghosthound’s position. There were monsters that resembled this manner of operation, occasionally. Ones that could perform a powerful wide area ritual. Often, the best response to that was to directly engage and overpower the opponent while the ritual was occurring.
Considering the wide effect of whatever the Ghosthound was doing, Glendel could logically understand why the leader had chosen this tactic. Based upon his experience, the Ghosthound would likely use the most effective means to strike down this mass of people. That is, he would rely on powerful area Skills to reduce their fighting strength and then pick them apart.
Therefore, following this logic, striking before that happened was the best response. The spirits inside of Glendel rustled uneasily
But what Glendel’s instincts were screaming at him right now was to do the exact opposite. Wait. Watch. This isn’t something we’ve seen before.
“Why do I feel like they are going to get massacred...” Isabella said, slack-jawed.
Alana hummed her agreement. “Are you starting to get it? If the Ghosthound couldn't’ handle this much, Donnyton wouldn’t even exist. Now watch closely. He’s about to move.”
But it wasn’t Randidly that moved, not at first. Even as those Donnyton Squads were sprinting at him, decreasing the distance between them to only a few meters, Randidly remained still. Instead, the sky above him seemed to tremble.
Then, slowly, like a wooden door swinging open in a horror movie, a dark portal creaked open and something strolled down to tower above them all.
It was a skeleton with bones the dark grey of cast iron, floating downward into position above Randidly. Every second, its bones seemed to be disintegrating, causing a small smog of grey particles to waft outward into the air around its body. Somehow it also seemed to be breathing, sending rippling billows of that smog outward from its torso to surround its limbs.
The skeleton was human, except for two details.
The first detail was its hands, which ended in long knife-like blades. With that grey smog obscuring most of its body, all that could be clearly seen of it were the intermittent flashes of those blades.
The second detail was, perhaps, not something that made the skeleton inhuman. But it made its visage chilling to look at: it didn’t possess the bottom part of its jaw. Its front teeth stabbed crudely downwards, crooked and broken, hanging in the air.
With great care, it surveyed the charging squad members, who were so intent on Randidly that they likely didn’t even look up to see this terrible specter. Then it moved, and with it, Randidly moved too, charging directly toward his opponents.