“I will take the lead,” Paolo said as he adjusted his leather gloves. The thick leather was almost purple, a dulled remnant of the vivid dinosaur that Paolo had slain in order to acquire the leather. After that, the processing of the material had taken even more effort; he had to pay Sam a small fortune due to how intensive it was to handle the stubborn skin.
Kayle smirked, examining his reflection in one of his long knives. The knife was impeccably polished, revealing every contour of his jaw. “Is that so? One shouldn’t make statements so casually when you clearly lack the capability to follow up on them… what if a child hears and is disappointed?”
With a flick of the wrist, the beautiful blade spun into a pure silver disk. Then, just as quickly, Kayle slid the knife into one of the many sheaths that were strapped to his hips and waist. The two shared a single glance. And in that glance was enough condensed violence that everyone nearby felt something akin to a physical slap.
Stan sighed as he rubbed his tingling cheeks. “You must work together. His spearwork is aided by that powerful image, but-”
“Impossible.” Kayle seemed aghast. “We are separate Squads.”
Paolo blinked. “With him? It would do more harm than good-”
“-his ability to even notice me moving at high speeds is in doubt-”
“-what if I break him accidentally with a wild swing? His thin wrists-”
“-and Stan, please do not get me started on his smell. Do you know he chews basil raw?”
Rubbing his forehead, Stan pressed forward. “His moves are unrefined and wasteful. Your Squads are the only groups that have a hope of catching him in those weaknesses. Every member of the Squad is an elite. If you move as one unit and exploit those weaknesses, we can make a better plan for the final.”
Both men fell silent and turned to look at Stan skeptically.
“Isn’t the plan just to win?” Paolo seemed incredibly disinterested. He turned to a woman from his Squad, which passed him a warm towel. With practiced ease, he produced a razor with his one hand, rubbed his head with the towel, and then began to studiously shave his head. “Why over complicate it with things that can go wrong. Like Kayle and his lackeys.”
“I agree, but for different reasons.” Kayle’s Squad members brought a wrought iron table and chair and set it before him. A man walked forward and flapped out a tablecloth that was quickly spread across the table. A moment later another man arrived and placed a soup and salad on the table.
After taking a taste of the soup, Kayle looked speculatively at the darkening sky. “Well… we will need to work on this recipe. Just like Randidly needs to work on his fighting style. It’s not like we noticed it. I don’t doubt even that monkey caught a hint of it.”
“At this point, I could imitate his style so well that even his mother would be hard-pressed to tell whether I was her own flesh and blood,” Paolo said with a yawn as he casually scraped the razor across his head.
Kayle didn’t bother to acknowledge the other man. “Should we really give him this trial run to hone his Skills? It might be better to surrender and proceed immediately to the real challenge.”
“Coward,” Paolo said softly. But he didn’t bother to contradict Kayle. Instead, he set down his razor and accepted a peeled orange from one of his Squad members.
Kayle twisted his mouth and distaste and flicked a few drops of vinaigrette across his salad. With great vigor, he began to eat.”
Stan shook his head. “If it were truly so easy to refine a fighting style, all of us would have risen to the level of Randidly Ghosthound during this challenge. Believe me, all we need to do now is expose his weaknesses. With the Raid Groups, we will be more than capable of defeating him. Randidly Ghosthound will fall.”
“You fear loss,” Paolo commented. He sniffed loudly for effect. “I can smell it on you. Desperation breeds mistakes, even if the decisions are sound ones. If I can smell that desperation, fate can smell it too. Fate doesn’t even spare children. You will be devoured at this rate, and take us with you.”
Stan clenched his hands into fists. “Yet neither of you is my tactical equal. Can you deny that both of you lost to me? Trust me. I know the flow of battles. This is our time.”
“And how many battles have you fought against the Ghosthound himself, little man?” Kayle mocked. But then he shrugged and set down his silverware. “Ah, it’s too late, you’ve already ruined my appetite. Might as well just go out there and face him.”
“I hope he punches you so hard you vomit up that shit,” Paolo said with a shake of the head. But he too stood and stretched his arms above his head. His shoulders popped with such volume that Stan flinched.
“I hope he smashes in that misshapen head of yours. Finally, give it some symmetry.” Kayle said around a yawn.
Then all at once, both focused.
“Time to work.”
“Don’t hold me back.”
Together, the two and their Squads stepped up into the arena.
Feeling extremely frustrated, Stan returned to the VIP box. Even now, he sat several seats away from Mrs. Hamilton, trying his best not to stare at his own drying blood that stained the ground. The empty space where his pinky had once been was aching painfully.
When he returned, Mrs. Hamilton grinned at him. “What did they say?”
“...nothing of note. Just their usual banter.” Stan said bitterly.
Mrs. Hamilton chuckled. “Didn’t we have a talk about lies?”
Stan felt his heart squeeze itself into a knot. Blinking rapidly, Stan considered the chances that he would be able to dodge an attack from her at this range. Even his numbed instincts quickly returned a negative. But Mrs. Hamilton’s hands stayed neatly folded in her lap. Slowly, Stan felt his hackles tremble and lower toward something close to relaxation.
Or more likely, his nerves simply had given up hope.
She continued to speak. “From your expression… ah, they said that they shouldn’t even fight this rung. Interesting. They have good instincts, you know. They are not Squads 1 and 2 for nothing.”
Stan pressed his lips together. Truthfully, he also didn’t know how much these two Squads could accomplish. Even Clarissa’s attempt had felt dubious to Stan. There was only so much they could accomplish alone against Randidly.
Even if they needed the information the brief skirmishes could provide, throwing small numbers against Randidly just seemed foolish. It was better to wait until they had the weight of numbers on their side, then spring it all on him at once.
Yet… the back of Stan’s shirt was soaked in cold sweat. The look he had seen in Mrs. Hamilton’s eyes… she had planned on killing him. She would have done it, had his motivations not been sufficient to placate her.
Hers was the hand that guided Donnyton in Randidly’s absence. And for the first time since Stan had received his Soulskill from Randidly, he realized that this was his fault. At some point, he had given up control of his life and treated it like it was a game. Had he not been so callous, or lazy, or apathetic, he could have steered himself away from this point.
Yet now that he felt the hungry fangs of consequences sinking into his flesh…
Stan was desperate. He needed more information. So he clasped his hands to hide the trembling and ignored Mrs. Hamilton’s amused gaze. His eyes narrowed to slits as he looked out at the arena.
He needed this.
Randidly cracked his neck as he walked toward Kayle and Paolo’s Squads. “You know, I don’t think we’ve ever fought all together before.”
Paolo grinned. “Unfortunately not. Before you left Donnyton, we were simply minor characters. It took me a while for my natural talents to shine through the chaff. And yet somehow I still feel obstructed.”
“If you want to come for the Squad 1 spot, I’ll welcome the challenge anytime,” Kayle said smugly. Then he bowed at the waist to Randidly, fully 90 degrees. “It is wonderful to meet you here. There is no better way to know a man than to fight him. And truly, I have long admired everything you have accomplished.”
Randidly’s gaze slid from one to the other. “...then the two of you must know each other pretty well.”
“There were some sacrifices on the road to greatness.”
Both answered with grimaces, such perfect mirror images of each other that Randidly laughed. “Well then. This match will certainly be fun. You are both… you feel strong. And out of everyone here… it is the two of you that seems the closest to where I want Donnyton to go.”
Both grinned, Kayle’s sharp features and dark hair contrasting perfectly with Paolo’s blunt face and clearly broken nose. Randidly had meant the compliments; both were strong. And it wasn’t just them. A scan with Aether indicated that part of their strength came from the fact that everyone in these two Squads was over Level 62. There were no weak links here to exploit.
As he examined the Squads, there was abruptly a change in the air. Quickly, he refocused on Kayle and Paolo. Randidly was sure that both were thinking of the small bits of advice that he had given them in the past.
The air around Kayle sharpened, as though he steadily transformed into a naked blade that stood aloft, glittering with vicious deadliness. His hands flexed, abruptly reminding Randidly of the vicious readiness that he had sometimes seen from Hank and his revolver.
Paolo raised his hands to the sky and Randidly could distantly hear the sound of cheering. The noise grew increasingly thunderous, especially as people in the crowd got caught up in his rising nascent image and began to cheer. Some of the vigor that Randidly had stolen from the audience emerged again until people were stomping their feet and screaming out all of the stress and confusion they had felt watching the previous challenges.
This was the pinnacle of Donnyton’s Squads. This was their pride. The dying embers of Donnyton’s strength were stoked and came surging back into focus. This was Donnyton. They would not fall. And all of that pride and confidence swirled around Paolo, giving weight to his movements.
Randidly grinned. He looked sideways at Helen, who bright eyes seemed to sense the same thing that he did. This was going to be fun.
On cue, the referee announced the start of the match and all twenty-four of the figures on the stage surged into motion.