Mrs. Hamilton raised an eyebrow. "It certainly took you a while to head down here. But I suppose I should have expected that you would drag your feet… Did you get lost?"
"I was watching, just... from a ways away." Stan frowned down at the relatively empty VIP box. Alana and Hank were still sprawled in their positions, but the rest of their group had gone. Hopefully, the Cortez siblings would recover quickly enough to watch the next rung, but they hadn’t yet returned. "But you can't be angry at me, no one else is here either..."
Hank cracked a nut loudly between his fingers. Alana just shook her head in disgust as she continued to brood and stare at Randidly.
"The rest are mostly doing their own personal preparation," Mrs. Hamilton said, studying Stan closely. "They will be here when we need them. But we did want to make sure you had the chance to watch Randidly fight-"
"Yes, I saw him massacring the Squads," Stan said darkly. His face was thin and pale, and the dark stubble on his chin and neck revealed that he hadn't shaved in several days. At the best of times, his brand of self-care was… sporadic. But Randidly’s presence brought out all of his fears and insecurities.
You were too rough with this one, Mrs. Hamilton thought while hiding her sigh. He cannot rid himself of the flinch you implanted in him.
After scratching at his neck in irritation, Stan gestured out to the arena. "This is his element. He's... feeding on us is in a weird way. Challenging him here was foolish. Rather than this direct confrontation, we could have just-"
"Too late now," Alana pointed out.
“Bah.” Stan threw up his hands in disgust. Then he folded his arms and muttered, “You want a miracle out of me.”
Mrs. Hamilton shook her head slowly. “Nothing so precious as a miracle. Just an opinion. As leader of Donnyton’s forces, you have a responsibility. One to face all the battles that come our way, regardless of how afraid you are. Right now, we are fighting a battle against Randidly Ghosthound. And it is not going well.”
Flinching, Stan took a step back. His bloodless lips pressed tightly together as he struggled to control the sea of emotions that was surging in his chest. Emotions he helplessly absorbed from those in the surrounding area. Right now, more than anyone else could ever possibly understand, Stan was feeling the weight of Donnyton’s struggle with the challenge.
Their loss of hope was much more dangerous than just a single man bleakly watching the Ghosthound rampage. He was living Donnyton’s reaction to the challenge, played out in miniature.
To see him so full of doubt was obviously a sign of how badly things were proceeding, but Mrs. Hamilton would have been shocked if it was otherwise. That was just how thorough a thrashing Randidly was giving to the Squads.
But aside from his mastery of strategy, that familiarity with Donnyton’s emotions was exactly why they needed Stan. To goad Donnyton forward, Randidly was striking at the hearts of the people of Donnyton. Stan was a direct line to that battle.
If he could be brought around to their side…
Then it would become about momentum. And I have no intention to allow Randidly to pass the 8th rung.
For the moment, Mrs. Hamilton was satisfied when Stan’s expression shifted to studious blankness. Rather than facing the emotions, it was fine that he relied on his inherent Skills to numb himself. Ever since Randidly had… changed something inside of Stan, shown Stan some truth about himself, the man had become increasingly reliant on numbness to get by in his daily life.
It was a dangerous reliance. But right now, Mrs. Hamilton couldn’t deny that this cold version of Stan was better than one rocked by bitterness and fear.
Yet in the face of his continued success as a commander, Mrs. Hamilton had no reason to remove him from his position. She regretted her passive watchfulness now, but there was nothing that could be done at the moment. Stan was necessary. Which meant she would ignore his dangerous proclivities.
When Stan finally spoke, his voice was rough. “Fine. I will stay here and watch. But I cannot promise you the Ghosthound’s head. Just a possibility of catching one of his hairs.”
Alana chuckled darkly. “I mean right now, even that would be an improvement…”
Stan clicked his tongue. “Perhaps. But I suspect that Eli will not allow this rung to pass without striking an important blow against the Ghosthound.”
“Eli is strong, sure,” Mrs. Hamilton said calmly. “And when you are unaware of his Skill, you can quickly fall into his trap. That’s how he was able to seize the spot of Donnyton’s First Squad for a week. But Randidly is smart; once you know Eli’s trick… well, it can be seen from the fact his Squad has fallen to Tenth.”
“If it’s just one battle… and if the Ghosthound loses his cool… It is possible for him to be tripped up by Eli Iron.” Stan announced to the room.
Both women raised their eyebrows at that. Almost guilty, Stan shrugged. “Ah, well… I had predicted that our conversation would go about as it did, so I took some action beforehand. I ordered Eli to do something very foolish.”
Mrs. Hamilton’s gaze sharpened. But Stan remained determined in the face of her ire. His back was straight and she could tell that he reduced his reliance on his numbing Skills. But that just made Mrs. Hamilton’s mood turn even sourer.
This fool… if he wasn’t about to take an extremely dangerous chance, he wouldn’t be nervous enough to keep himself sober. What the hell have you done, Stan…?
Mrs. Hamilton’s regret was gathering together and forming a lead weight that pressed against her diaphragm.
Stan gritted his teeth. “If we didn’t start to change the pace now… it would be too late by the time you all got out onto the stage. In this challenge, we need to make sure the illusion that Randidly Ghosthound is invulnerable is shattered.”
Randidly looked across curiously toward a tall old man that was striding across the arena toward him. It seemed that the next group, Squads Twenty through Ten, had already arranged themselves in formation. The next rung of the Hound’s Ladder would be starting in a few minutes.
Randidly gave Helen a sidelong glance. Sensing his intention, Helen shook her head sharply; she wasn’t familiar with who this was.
So Randidly simply accepted this and passively watched as the man approached. His grey hair was combed back from his head and tied up into a man-bun, making the man resemble a retired samurai. Of all his hair, only the man’s sideburns were still thick and black. He had a plain face that would be more at home in an accountant’s office than on a battlefield.
But Randidly could tell from the man’s gait that he was a warrior, through and through. And the man’s posture spoke of calm confidence as he walked toward this most recent battle against the man who founded Donnyton.
When he arrived before Randidly, he extended a calloused hand. “Hello, Mr. Ghosthound. I’m Eli Iron, captain of the 10th Squad. I fought in the first challenge as well, although I was just a regular member back then so you probably don’t remember me…”
Randidly looked down at the hand. And then Randidly grinned. Even if Eli Iron was over here just as a ruse to make Randidly seem more approachable and friendly to the watching public, Randidly didn’t mind that sort of manipulation. Even if the introduction was completely a cover, the aura that Randidly threw off was not so weak that someone with a half-assed motivation could approach easily.
This man had strength. Which meant that Randidly would give him the respect he deserved.
So Randidly reached out and took Eli’s hand. “Even regular members have a role. And the fact that you grew to this position makes me doubt you were regular-”
Blinking, Randidly’s first response was confusion. For a split second, he was so shocked by what he was seeing that he didn’t react. He felt Acri tighten its grip on his neck, but still, Randidly didn’t move.
It seemed to him that what he was seeing was incorrect. Like a warped, surreal monster that appeared and made one realize that they were within a dream. The dull talk of the arena spectators stretched into rumbling drums. Finally, Randidly gave Acri his assent.
Randidly blinked again as Acri slashed forward and cut off Eli’s hand. The appendage and the clutched dagger soared past Randidly’s arm and hit the arena ground with a clatter. Tilting his head to the side, Randidly tightened his grip on Eli’s right hand. Flecks of blood hit Randidly’s cheek.
For a full second, no one moved. Blood spurted out of the stump of Eli’s wrist, dripping onto Randidly’s White-Steel greaves.
To Eli’s credit, he didn’t flinch and had the decency to flush with embarrassment. The arena, which had steadily increased its volume to a murmur since Randidly had triumphed over the Cortez siblings, instantly froze.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed. What the hell was that…?
When Eli spoke, his voice echoed throughout the whole arena. “I suppose a sneak attack was a bad idea. But still, I hope you understand I bear you no ill will.”
The bone’s of Eli’s right hand began to groan as Yyrwood Body of Yggdrasil instinctively activated. Randidly’s grip tightened like a vice. “Did you really expect that to work? No, you must have known it wouldn’t. So why…?”
“Someone had to change the focus,” Eli sighed. Even though the pain of his hand being crushed must have been immense, his face remained entirely focused on their conversation. “You are coming at Donnyton with intent to destroy everything that Donnyton has worked to accomplish over the past few years. And yet we still revere you as a hero. Isn’t it strange to respect you when you are threatening our livelihood with this challenge?”
Almost disgusted, Randidly looked at Eli Iron. He was also hyper-aware that there were thousands of people listening in to their conversation. The possibilities buzzed in Randidly’s temples. “You are one of the most powerful people in Donnyton. You lead the Tenth Squad. Setting aside the competition… breaking the rules like this and trying to attack a guest has consequences.”
“Maybe. But I think I have a good read on you,” Still Eli seemed to be obvious to his twitching hand on the ground. The respectable seeming old man looked earnestly at Randidly, as though he were urging a student to put in just a little more work to pass the course. “This is still within the zone you can accept. Besides, you want to shatter the image of power that Donnyton has, right? Certainly, my actions helped in that regard. With this… isn’t Donnyton shattered?”
Fury coursed through Randidly veins. Because Eli Iron was certainly right.
But this isn’t fucking about our challenge or my goal of getting Donnyton to embrace a new image… Randidly fumed inwardly as he felt a bone in Eli’s hand shatter. This has political ramifications. That Donnyton was willing to strike at me to try and win a challenge that they were clearly losing before. Even if it had no effect on the challenge, the effect on Donnyton’s pride…
Randidly’s gaze swept sideways to the VIP box. This was a politically idiotic mood. It was basically suicide for Donnyton’s global aspirations. This single event, if the viewers correctly grasped what was going on, would result in the other Zones always having a bullet to the head of Donnyton’s political credibility.
The modern world couldn’t function without trust in the institution. Donnyton was the same; the threat of violence could only carry you so far. It was possible to be feared and revered, but to change the world...
It was true that Randidly was here to erase the “mission statement” of the current institution. But he didn’t want to destroy the whole establishment. Images were his focus. Yet this made the consequences of the challenge much more far-reaching.
If he had been able to figure out what was happening a bit more quickly- but no, how could he have been ready for such a poor executed sneak attack?
Even now, Randidly quaked with wrath as he considered it. Mrs. Hamilton would not have gambled so brazenly with Donnyton’s credibility. No, this-
Randidly gaze alighted on a certain individual. A coward who could not even face his own truth. Randidly’s expression turned grim.
The moment continued to stretch. Only a few seconds had passed since Randidly had severed the hand. For most people, the violence had happened more quickly than they could follow. The words were not vague, but the casual tone likely confused anyone who could listen. Even now, the spectators were struggling to catch up and understand what had just occurred.
The referee stood on the side, his face blank. There was still a few minutes until the rung was scheduled to start. It was clear from his expression that his Perception was high enough to understand what had just occurred. Right now, he was simply trying to rationalize why the attack had occurred.
Finally, Randidly’s gaze went back to Eli Iron. An old man, strong too. Level 57. Certainly capable, likely well respected based upon his status. Yet he now faced Randidly without the hint of remorse. Eli only displayed embarrassment that he had failed so spectacularly. That he had taken the chance to attempt to tear down the Ghosthound and instead brought a calamity to Donnyton.
Randidly squeezed, and Eli’s remaining hand shattered. Powerful and confident. Someone who could influence the future of Donnyton. Decisive and self-righteous… very suited to an image. If you weren’t… I might think about killing you. No, you would already be dead.
His gaze slid to the referee, whose face twisted into a frown; the man had come to a decision. Randidly’s thought flitted back and forth. Then his gaze darkened.
...was this a trap?
He gazed for a very long second at Stan, unleashing his bloodlust. Even though they were fifty meters apart, and there was the wall of the VIP section separating them, the man flinched and stumbled backward.
Because Randidly came to one conclusion; no matter what his thoughts were on his image, allowing Donnyton to be known as a traitorous group would be disastrous for Donnyton. Not only that, but Randidly’s plan involved Donnyton influencing the rest of the world to pick up an image as well. But this small incident had enough weight to completely shatter his plan.
Which left only a single option.
Randidly would need to take the fall for this transgression.
An ashen blade cut Eli Iron’s legs at the knees even as the referee was opening his mouth to say something. Once more, the spray of blood froze the man.
Randidly gestured sharply at Helen. Although she was confused. She nodded and rushed forward toward the arranged Squads. As though they had prepared for just this eventuality, they fell into formation and lowered their weapons.
Randidly smiled like a hungry shark. Fine then, Stan. I’ll walk into your trap. Let’s see if you’ve developed any bite while I’ve been away.