The Ashen Phantom was howling silently as Randidly rushed forward toward the melee fighters in front of them. Its hunger and glee was clear; there was prey right before it, and the Ashen Phantom was hungry.
Even while sprinting, they stayed in pretty good formation, which was honestly rather impressive. Randidly’s mental respect for the training of Donnyton went up several notches. He had always understood that it was a really grueling process, but he had never seen any tangible results of that. To be here, watching these lowest-ranked Squads working in tandem to fight him, gave Randidly a sense of what Donnyton was capable of.
Not enough, Randidly thought sadly. Although they did their best, Donnyton couldn’t prepare their Classers for what was to come.
But Randidly would readily admit that his idea of ‘normal’ training was a bit skewed.
Again, the Ashen Phantom raised its head and howled, causing more and more anguish and grudge to rise up out of its body and flood the air. The cloud of ash in the surrounding area darkened to a foreboding slate. The vicious regret that plagued the Phantom became condensed ash, filling the air around Randidly’s body.
Randidly’s eyes went to the lead individual, a tall man in plate mail and wielding a mace. All he needed to do was break through the first individual, and this first round would be his.
Not knowing that he was the focal point of this whole fight, the man raised his mace and brought it down with lethal force toward Randidly. The spikes on the mace seemed to glimmer in the dim light that was filtering through the oppressive image of the Ashen Phantom. Image and vicious intent gathered in Randidly’s chest as the blow curved downward toward his shoulder.
Too slow. Spear Advances, Ash Trails; the Inevitable Phantom Arrives.
Although his Skills hadn’t yet merged as cleanly as had his images and moves, Randidly still was able to cobble together both Skills into a powerful single Skill. As his momentum jumped sharply upward, Randidly tore a hole through the side of the man charging at him, lowering his spear at the last second to leave his right arm hanging onto his torso by a small amount of shredded muscle rather than amputating the arm altogether.
Behind the first man were a dozen more, left unable to react due to the speed of Randidly’s acceleration. Their gazes stared blankly forward, intent on their duty. In their eyes, Randidly saw fear and excitement.
This isn’t a game. The System isn’t here to make our lives better. Randidly’s expression twisted. It’s here to work us until we break. If we forget that, the entire Earth… what’s left of the Earth...
Then Randidly activated All is Ash and allowed the swirling ash around him to form into blades that cut left and right, ripping deep holes in the armor of these Squads. Sharpness and the weight of the image created a blade with almost double the power that could be expected from the All is Ash Skill.
When Squad members began to fall down, blood spurting out from their wounds, Randidly’s momentum had already carried him further. His eyes were creased and filled with an old memory.
The bodies stacked in piles... the soft splashing of the river…. The sound of Randidly’s shovel repeatedly digging shallow graves next to the Hallat...
The ash spun after him, dissipating and reforming into a new set of blades that ripped their way through those that stood behind initial wave of felled individuals.
Such was Randidly’s momentum that no sooner had he blinked than the last line of melee fighters were toppling over, bisected by his ash blades. If no one was going to challenge his dominant image of ash, he would simply rip these people apart. His Skills were already superior enough. With an uncontested image, this challenge wasn’t fair at all.
In front of him, the long-range fighters realized something was wrong as Randidly punched through the front lines and appeared before them. There was still about ten meters of distance, but Randidly was eating up that space very quickly. Acri hummed with pleasure.
The two groups on the sides wheeled around, forming up to face Randidly while struggling to decide what to do next. It seemed that whoever was in charge couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They had Randidly surrounding, but with the speed at which he was moving, it was difficult to know how to respond effectively.
Randidly was perfectly happy to take advantage of that opportunity.
Not that he planned on being predictable about it.
Now that Randidly had pushed past the front lines, his trailing ash gathered back to Randidly, covering him in a vague haze. Then he narrowed his eyes. The next part was the most difficult of the tricks he had developed against Helen.
With every bit of strength that Randidly could muster, he planted his right leg and pushed himself to the left. All of the forward momentum Randidly possessed transitioned through the tendons and muscles of his knee, forcing his motion in an abrupt new direction.
Such was the suddenness of the movement that Randidly’s ash cloud continued forward, unable to keep up with his abrupt change of momentum. The roiling smog continued further, rapidly slowing as the connection between them stretched and tightened. Which was the entire point.
All is Ash.
Randidly’s Mana expenditure shot up as his body, and the entire world around him became ash. Yet suddenly, the elastic connection that had been stretched to its limits between Randidly and ash was suddenly pulling on a much lighter version of Randidly. A Randidly that was just a few motes of ash in the endless sea.
A Randidly that was much lighter than the thick cloud he had built up.
With a soft sound, Randidly disappeared. The extremely tense Squads of Donnyton blankly looked at the swirl of ash he had left in his position.
“Careful!” A voice from the left group shouted out. Although Randidly disappeared, he had been rushing right toward them. Some brave soul who had been able to follow Randidly’s movements warned the rest of them of his impending arrival.
The motes of ash that were the remnants of Randidly smirked.
Randidly appeared in the right group, blades of ash popping into existence and slicing through all of the mage Classers that were nearby. Randidly took special care to rip through the two healers that he identified after briefly sampling the Aether of the group.
They fell screaming, even as their faces were covered in confusion.
By stretching that connection between himself and his ash to the limit and then transforming himself into motes of ash, Randidly was able to launch himself along the vector between himself and his ash cloud. And even quite a bit past it, if Randidly spent the Mana to remain as ash for that long. He could dissipate the ash that started the tension and untether himself. There was an extremely high burden on his knees to withstand the initial cut, but it made him almost unbelievably mobile.
After all, if Randidly didn’t want to be flung to the side, he could just have continued rushing forward. Once the elasticity reached its apex, the ashen aura would have just been yanked back to his body.
Because this challenge wasn’t just to show off. It was a chance to try out his Skills on real opponents.
Well, barely real opponents. Randidly thought almost sadly. Even as he stayed relatively inactive, the Ashen Phantom above him continued to slash widely with its dagger hands, creating blades of ash that cut down everyone from the right group who was struggling to turn around and put up a guard.
In terms of Stats, Skill Levels, and image, Randidly dominated everyone here. Such was the difference that they couldn’t even defend.
Still, it was a valuable experience, so-
“We concede,” A man said, stepping out of the remnants of the middle group.
Slowly, the Ashen Phantom regretfully lowered his hands. Blood dripped off of its fingers, leaving small drips on the arena ground below it. Although Randidly rationally knew that was impossible, he couldn’t help but blink at the sight. Then he felt a surge of pleasure.
As I thought, it grows fastest like this.
Randidly scanned the surrounding area. Although the sudden concession came as a surprise, he supposed he understood why it had happened. Randidly was playing in a different league then these people. There were one or two who were above Level 50, but no one was above Level 52. They couldn’t cope.
Of the first group that Randidly had broken through, twenty-three of thirty were laying on the ground slowly bleeding out. Of the second group that Randidly had hit, only a single woman was still standing, the ashen blade that was cutting toward her dissipating instantly after the group conceded.
Almost fifty percent of their fighting strength wiped out in an instant. The remaining group might have been able to put up more of a challenge now that they understood Randidly’s moves, but the leader was more concerned with saving those who were seriously injured than achieving any merit in the battle against the Ghosthound.
After he spoke, Randidly watched the man shiver and turn away from Randidly, rapidly moving to help other people toward the healers that were streaming onto the arena.
Randidly felt a flash of bitterness at the devastating familiarity of the awkward air of a battlefield. I… well, it doesn’t matter what they think, does it? This is a lesson they need to remember. They-
“ T-thank-k y-y-you for your g-guidance…”
Randidly looked down. A short woman who had been hit in the thigh sat up with a grimace. Her hands glowed with light green energy, and the wound mostly closed on its own. When she looked up toward Randidly, there was no fear in her eyes, just awe.
Randidly turned away. He felt his face twist, but he couldn’t be sure what his expression was, at that moment. He spoke while looking back toward Helen, who was tapping her foot impatiently. “On the battlefield, you only have one chance. Don’t forget it.”
“I won’t,” the woman whispered. After she finished recovering her ability to walk, she hobbled over to her squadmates to assist them.
Randidly walked slowly back toward Helen, not looking at the bodies laying on the ground along his path toward her.
Helen’s gaze was sympathetic. “The point of having a knight is having someone else’s hands to stain with blood, you know.”
Randidly just waved a hand. “To them, I’m the great benefactor of this town. No matter what they’ve heard… I need to show them what I’ve become in order to achieve that. They need to see the Path the Earth needs to walk.”
Shaking her head, Helen said. “That image. It’s strong as hell. But don’t you think… it resembles the Spearman’s image? His original one?”
“The violence? Yea. The thought occurred to me,” Randidly said quietly. Both looked toward the horizon, pointedly not looking toward the individuals being helped off the arena.
Helen eventually broke the silence. “The rules are a five-minute break between rungs. Will you have enough time to recover?”
“...the next rung is yours,” Randidly said. Blood, dripping from its fingers… that vicious hunger… “I think I’m going to take some time to refine the image.”
Helen smiled like a wolf. “I’ve been waiting to hear that.”