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A note from puddles4263

9/14

Han Yazhu knew it was petty of him, but he secretly wished that the sinkhole that had opened up beneath the quarry would have continued to spread. After witnessing the challenge, he realized more than ever that Zone Seven needed all the help that they could get.

Donnyton’s Squads… those pinnacle experts that fought against Randidly Ghosthound… They had left a deep impression on him. Until some other group was able to field a comparable team of experts in battle, Donnyton would remain an unshakable power on Earth.

As it was, Han would need to be satisfied that the gulf of blackness that abruptly opened up in the wake of the final explosion consumed the entirety of the quarry. The nearby cliff collapsed down into the darkness of the hole, but the mountain on which Donnyton’s residential district was based was ineffable. In the face of oblivion, it stood firm.

From what Han could tell, there was some small damage to the North portion of the production district, but it was all slight. Some of the lands had sunk about a foot or two, but more people weren’t swayed by that. They only felt fear over the possibility of this event occurring again in the future.

The shockwaves of battle had weakened the bedrock under the town, and healing such wounds were difficult. But most people couldn’t believe that the battle above could have really caused such deep damage below. More likely, there was already structural weakness that the battle exacerbated.

Yet when Han used his Perception Skill to view deep within the whole, he saw a series of inexplicable tunnels.

Or the network that would be created by a vast tree, Han reflected inwardly. But he didn’t dare vocalize that theory. If it were true...

During the course of the few hours that Han observed the hole, the strange rock mage that Donnyton employed was revived from the dead by Surgeon Northwind and given gallons of high-quality Mana potions. He then proceeded to dutifully reinforce the area around the sinkhole and investigate how deep the damage to the ground went.

Han dispassionately watched the man run ragged, circling the crumbling edge of the sinkhole. It was an unenviable time to be a rock specialist in Donnyton. He turned to Xia. “We should not be this close. It is still dangerous. If something were to happen-”

Frowning, Xia didn’t even bother to turn and face him as she spoke. “You know as well as I that we both have enough mobility to avoid anything dangerous. But… can’t you feel it? There is something in the air around this sinkhole… It carries a trace of him. If we return, we must carry with us a hint of that trace.”

Han kept his face neutral even as he was cursing his luck inside. Of all of the three pieces of Xiang Le, it was his own rotten luck that saw him babysitting Xia. She was the most willful and unpredictable of them, making it difficult for Han to toe the line between giving her the respect she was due and preventing her from getting herself killed.

She did not seem to realize her own fragility. Even now, Han suspected that her low strength made her unable to understand how disastrous the power displayed in that final fight was to Zone Seven’s hopes of becoming a superpower.

In this case, Xia was likely correct on both counts. It appeared the spread of the sinkhole had reached its high water mark. In addition, several of Donnyton’s Squads were nearby, preventing them from approaching any closer. No one wanted someone to go into the hole unprepared for how deep it might be. There would be no imminent threat of danger to them today.

In addition, Han could feel it too. Part of Randidly Ghosthound’s image still lingered here. Yet Han Yazhu did not believe that copying that power would be easy.

The System gave people power, but it was still a small thing before the might of a whole world.

What Randidly Ghosthound was able to do was to capture the power of a world, the power of a story. It could not be earned through special actions. The System would not provide that mastery.

It is a power one has to bleed for, Han knew.

As for the feel of the air… Han’s expression stiffened. It was heavy with blood and humid air The huge hole seemed to breathe, producing a strange vibration that sounded like faintly audible from their current distance. Likely, it was almost deafening when one stood right next to the hole.

Rather than a natural phenomenon, it almost seemed like this whole was a scar inflicted upon Donnyton by Randidly Ghosthound. Similar to this sinkhole, Han recalled the empty blackness of the monster’s maw, covered by the thin layer of skin. Shivering, Han turned away. “I believe we have gathered all that we can. Is there any more meaning to remaining here?”

Xia ignored his question and asked one of her own. “What is Donnyton’s stance on what happened? Will the final rung of the challenge still occur?”

Han shook his head. “Donnyton has announced that this rung was Randidly’s win. However, due to the arena being destroyed, they had no choice but to postpone the final rung. Therefore, the status of the challenge sits at an indefinite draw.”

“A draw? Who are they kidding.” Xia’s tone was bitter. “No one who watched that battle believed it to be a draw.”

It is surprising she understood enough to see that. Yet she has no fear of the future of our Glorious Zone...? Han wondered. Then he inwardly shrugged. Truly, the actions of Xiang Le were unpredictable. They were the head, while he was just a lowly ambassador. Perhaps there was no need for his earlier panic.

Folding his arms, Han considered the teams of Donnyton elite moving slowly to the edge of the sinkhole. It had been a few hours since it appeared, meaning that it was likely around midnight. Yet they were already making preparations to explore this new arrival. If nothing else, Donnyton certainly was tenacious.

“And Randidly himself?” Xia asked. “If possible, I would like to arrange a meeting with him. Considering the status of his relationship with Donnyton…”

But Han shook his head. “The woman he fought alongside, Helen, went to speak with Donnyton’s leadership. But from all of our spies in Donnyton, there has been no sighting of Randidly himself. After the… final attack he unleashed, it is like he vanished off the face of the Earth.”

Xia rapidly tapped her fingers against her leather belt. “If that is the case… I suppose there is no more reason for us to remain here. We must return as quickly as possible and begin research on images. Were you able to capture the essence of this technique?”

Han’s expression became aggrieved. Capture the essence of this technique…? The people who executed it are barely capable of being described as human. How could understanding it be so easy…?

Even now, air rushed out of the sinkhole and filled the air with a faint moaning. Han gritted his teeth. “I have witnessed this technique, and I’m sure our brightest minds will be able to do something with the knowledge we obtained.”

Xia gave him a sidelong glance but said nothing to that. She likely understood that this was the best he could do.

*****

After being healed by Regina, Alana sat alone in a dark tent with her gaze fixed upon her hand.

The feeling… was something like this…

Her gaze on her hand intensified. She gritted her teeth. The thin muscles of her jaw stood out in the dim light of the tent. The air around her hand began to ripple. Faint swirls of orange air gathered around her fingertips before vanishing almost immediately. Alana’s gaze sharpened and she pressed harder.

The air around her hand shook a little. Then there was nothing. Like a broken down car engine revving, but unable to start.

With a sigh, Alana sat back in her canvas chair.

I didn’t realize how much of what I had managed to achieve was due to circumstance, Alana thought bitterly as she regarded the wisps of an image that she was able to manifest. If I use a Skill, I can easily empower the effect by wrapping my image around it. But to actually have the image without a Skill…

That was what still floored Alana, even hours later. Had Randidly been using Skills in that last portion of the fight? Those final three strikes… they weren’t like the ways he had attacked earlier. The image of the Grim Chimera, as Helen had informed them it was named, had completely replaced his body. When it struck…

...he had to have used a Skill, right? Those weren’t just strikes of pure image?

Alana stretched and stood. Helen had informed them that Randidly was isolating himself to recover before the next rung, which was a fine bit of irony after the Skill Beryl had used against him, and would be ready whenever they wanted to finish the Hound’s Ladder. Mrs. Hamilton had the good sense to play dumb in the face of the threat and say that it would be entirely impossible to continue at the moment.

Not just because no one would have the heart to try that again… Alana thought. Without the surprise, most of what we can do became moot. And my ability to use images...

As the final rung needed to include all the previous rungs together, Mrs. Hamilton had insisted that they needed a suitable space for the battle to occur. Helen asked them to name the time and the place. Donny begged Helen’s understanding in this instance, because they needed to devote time and resources to addressing the structural stability of the town in the wake of the challenge.

For now, the final rung was indefinitely postponed.

Alana knew it was rather pointless to attempt again while she was completely exhausted and shocked from the events of the challenge, but she couldn’t get her attention to shift away from the details of that fight. Once more she focused on the feeling of that bitter wind, blowing the iron-rich dust in waves across the wasteland.

If she wanted to follow Randidly up to the next tier of strength, she needed to build her image. One detail at a time.

A glimmer of orange wrapped around her fingers, illuminating the tent. Narrowing her eyes, Alana pushed harder. The light brightened, shifting from a firefly to a candle.

In the final three strikes, Randidly had moved and the sky had darkened. His entire body had become that of the Grim Chimera. And yet now, without the support of Donnyton, her image had to struggle to produce a bit of light…!

Not that Randidly’s attacks had been perfect, but they had shown… fulfillment. They were from a point on this path that was immensely more advanced than Alana’s own. Their charm had been obvious.

He had left Donnyton a Path. And a sinkhole to remind them of the cost of straying from it.

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