After they had surrendered, Randidly walked over and stood looking at the completely placid pool of water that surrounded the arena in the quarry. There wasn’t a ripple to be seen on the crystal clear water. Behind him, the audience was finally starting to wake up from the violence it had just witnessed.
Before him, Randidly let his eyes glaze over as he traced the lines of the revealed bedrock.
Behind him, Donnyton slowly grasped that something had irrevocably changed.
Helen came to stand next to Randidly. “You lost your temper.”
Snorting, Randidly shrugged in acknowledgment. It was not like he could deny it now. The proof of it was too visible. Especially for Helen, who had experienced the ebb and flow of his moods for quite some time.
When Randidly didn’t say anything else, Helen continued to speak. “Are there not other groups who will follow you on this world? This is your homeworld, after all. This betrayal need not be a big thing.”
That earned a scowl from Randidly. Some of the tension returned to his shoulders as he tightened his right hand into a warm fist. But then he sighed, and all of the tension sluiced out of him and into that placid water beneath him. “...you are right. I own a company, or at least I used to. And also there is an Order that I sit at the head of. If all else fails, I’ll be able to influence those organizations to go down the route of images, should Donnyton choose…”
Randidly trailed off. What had they even chosen here? It was one dumb action by one reckless individual. Most of the other details of his relationship with them hadn’t changed. The monolith that was Donnyton can’t be shaken so easily, could it?
But now I know this could happen. Randidly thought sadly. That even now, they need me to protect them from themselves. And without a thought, I stepped in and fixed it. If I continue to protect them like this… they won’t grow. No matter how realistic I make the threat, I spared them the consequences of Stan and Eli’s foolish plan. They will correct, but…
“Probably the Order would be my choice,” Randidly said finally. “It is respected amongst the other Orders. There are individuals there with talent. But it might become a geographic problem, more than anything else…”
The Order would need a base. That base would need to be an area that wouldn’t be politically troublesome by setting up within another Zone, while also having the reach to influence the rest of Earth. Balancing those two issues was almost impossible, considering the current state of affairs.
“Is there a plan for the next challenge?” Helen’s voice softened as she moved past the difficult conversation about Randidly’s relationship with Donnyton. For her willingness to allow this to proceed, Randidly was immensely thankful.
Because, without him even realizing it, Donnyton had always been that avenue to spreading the strength of images throughout the world. That was what he had imagined. And now… well, likely he would struggle to understand what had exactly happened for quite a while.
“No,” Randidly said finally. “Although if my memory serves… you might not get the chance to participate. This next rung… will probably be more about brute force than anything else.”
Helen raised an eyebrow, but Randidly just shrugged.
“So, give me a very short and compelling explanation for why that was necessary,” Mrs. Hamilton said with steel in her voice. Her fingers flexed with all the subtlety of a bear trap being wound open. “If you do not…”
“You would resort to violence without a trial? What happened to the rule of law in Donnyton?” Stan’s face remained an impassive mask even as he had the nerve to snark. Mrs. Hamilton just looked at him.
Small beads of sweat began to form on his forehead. Finally, he broke and shook his head. “...it was a joke. Look, we learned a lot from that challenge. And when Clarissa goes up there for this next one-”
“It’s like you didn’t hear me give you instructions.” Mrs. Hamilton said icily. Currently, the individuals in the VIP box were herself, Stan, Alana, Hank, Clarissa, and the recovering Cortez siblings. Aside from Mrs. Hamilton and Stan, the rest stood like mute statues as spectators for this roasting session.
For the Cortez siblings especially, they seemed frozen by the weight of violence that Mrs. Hamilton was throwing out into the area. Isabella was pale and Mrs. Hamilton hadn’t seen Pan take a breath in almost a minute.
“Trust me-” Stan said, but Mrs. Hamilton had enough. Her fingers twitched again, but this time with a much different purpose. The razor-sharp wires that Mrs. Hamilton had spread throughout the VIP section twisted and sheared off several locks of hair from Stan and took the tip of his ear with them.
Everyone who hadn’t been absolutely still now froze.
“He is Donnyton’s closest and oldest ally. A benefactor.” Mrs. Hamilton hissed. A thousand emotions were seething in her chest for this brave, black-haired boy she had watched shifted into a young man who now had to bear the weight of Donnyton’s stupidity on his back. And yet this twisted little shit…!
Mrs. Hamilton took a breath. “You alienated him. You broke the trust between him and us and then forced him to take responsibility for it so that Donnyton wouldn’t be completely locked out of the political posturing that is to come. And all you can say-”
This time Mrs. Hamilton took Stan’s pinky finger and bound him by the wrist, pulling his hand upward and splaying his fingers outward with the thicker version of the metal wires he hadn’t noticed weaving through his limbs. The severed pinky dropped to the ground of the booth and rolled almost a meter.
Now Stan was even paler than bloodless. He seemed so flimsy that a gust of wind would rip the fabric of him to pieces. Trembling, he gazed with wide eyes at Mrs. Hamilton.
“...is trust me?” Mrs. Hamilton finished sweetly. She rid her heart of that wild anger with a chilling flick of her wrist. The severed pinky on the ground twitched. The anger would serve no further purpose than the threat and blood price already had. Her empathy too, for the cold weight that Randidly bore, needed to be set aside. He was past the point that she could help.
God help me, but that boy who pulled us out of the darkness needs to walk out alone into the wide world. Mrs. Hamilton closed her eyes.
When Mrs. Hamilton opened her eyes again, she was the spider who would protect Donnyton, personal attachments be damned. Her gaze focused on the man in front of her, a pale sheet of a person without any sort of resistance remaining within him.
“Let’s try again.” She said simply.
Stan nodded jerkily, carefully moving his neck to avoid cutting himself on any of the gleaming metal threads. “Ah- the two things that make Randidly almost invulnerable is his high Perception and his seemingly endless Mana pool. But the Mana pool cannot be endless and if we can’t overwhelm his Perception, all we need to do is cloud it. We can use his emotions to do that if we press the right buttons. So triggering his protective instincts was the best way to accomplish both of the prerequisites to defeat him.”
Mrs. Hamilton smiled sweetly. Her tongue tapped against the backs of her front teeth before she spoke. “What you are saying… those things about alienating our greatest ally… it was all on purpose?”
Apparently, Mrs. Hamilton achieved the desired sort of verbal execution, because Isabella gulped audibly.
The eyes in Stan’s head rolled around for several seconds like he was an oversized bug being smashed by the thumb of a child. But eventually, he calmed down. He was still trembling, but his voice was even when he spoke. “...Yes.”
Not a coward, at least, Mrs. Hamilton reflected. And a much better truth than him being the ignorant kind of fool…
“Then you are undoubtedly ready to explain why this challenge was so important that you would incur these disastrous losses,” Mrs. Hamilton purred.
That seemed to surprise Stan. He blinked and then glanced up at his bound hand before speaking. “... isn’t beating him here the most important thing? Can’t you feel it? He’s… taking the spirit of Donnyton. He believes our current spirit is too weak, which is hard to deny when you see what he is capable of. Yet he’s… taking something precious from us. I don’t think we can recover if we lose that… spark. It’s what makes us Donnyton.”
For several seconds, Mrs. Hamilton regarded the pale form of Stan. Then she wiggled her fingers. Like docile worms, the wires that stretched across the VIP came back to her hands and wound themselves around her arms and up her sleeves. Even though Mrs. Hamilton knew that humans feared to lose what they already had more than was logically correct, some part of her agreed implicitly with Stan.
Which meant she would at least wait and consult others to determine Stan’s further punishment, rather than taking his life immediately.
After all, it’s a bit too soon for these two to see the fangs it takes to lead Donnyton… Mrs. Hamilton thought with a glance toward the Cortez siblings. Both were pale, to the point that any more would leave a lasting mark. My way of guiding Donnyton cannot last forever. They need to see a better path. Hopefully it is Randidly’s figure they remember from today...
“It wasn’t worth it,” Mrs. Hamilton said lightly. “But the rest can wait until later.”
Then she turned to Clarissa and raised an eyebrow. “I assume you plan on running wild in this next challenge?”
Clarissa cracked her fingers with an expression of immense satisfaction on her face as though the whole interrogation had taken place far away. Unlike the siblings, she had been at the periphery of Donnyton’s leadership since the beginning. She likely was aware of the many greed-motivated individuals who conveniently decided to stop pursuing their personal agenda as Donnyton grew into a superpower.
Clarissa had seen enough to recognize that these decisions were not just lucky coincidences. Someone had intervened actively to guide Donnyton. So this level of threat didn’t even phase her. “Of course. Since Randidly’s been gone… well, it's tough being the most powerful spell caster in Donnyton. I want a challenge. I want to see how far these Skills can take me.”
Mrs. Hamilton smiled sharply. She had no doubt that Randidly would accept Clarissa’s challenge. She just hoped they glimpsed a path to beating him during it.