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A note from puddles4263

13/14

“Let me go North to Zone Eleven,” Helen said with a determined expression.

Randidly was honestly rather amused. “No. Let Alana have her own fight with a Dragon; how would you feel if someone came barging in to steal your prey?”

Helen was clearly grinding her teeth, but there was nothing she could say to that. With a snort, she walked away from Randidly’s assembly location, muttering something about assisting with the Rider’s training. Randidly prayed for his Riders, but let Helen go. The low clouds drifted in front of the sun, covering the surrounding area in a much-needed veil of shade.

It had been five days since Randidly had returned to Erickson Steel. During that time, Tatiana had found the initial deeds to the land that Randidly had originally obtained and realized that Erickson Steel had already expanded to a size that was significantly beyond the limit of the land that he owned. But no one had made use of the surrounding area, so it had never been a problem up to this point.

Of course, Tatiana took the news like ghost that had been blasted to oblivion by salt. She drifted around her office, pale and listless. But honestly, Randidly didn’t seem the problem. Since they were already past the limits, no need to act shy about it now.

Not that he particularly wanted to steal land from anyone, but he certainly needed space right now. And as talks were already underway with this Halloway character, might as well add a couple more demands to the request list. If the government of Zone 1 wanted to create an addition on Erickson Steel, a request for additional land seemed like an obvious choice.

But the Zone 1 government also had some rather annoying inspection demands. Which put operation moving city into a time crunch.

So Randidly was now handling the thankless task of moving the hundreds of tons of extracted raw materials he had obtained from the Dungeon and storing them in a vast warehouse that had been set up to the South of the Erickson Steel compound. Nearby, a crew was hastily assembling several workstations that Randidly and the other highly Skilled members of Erickson Steel would use to assemble parts over the next few weeks.

While all this was going on, there was another group that was responsible for sorting the materials that Randidly produced. Already, two of the assistants that Tatiana had given him were reduced to blubbering idiots as they inventoried the resources. Randidly just hoped they wouldn’t try and tell him how much it was all worth again. He was, after all, only halfway finished.

And god save me from the mental strain of moving the completed short legs through… Randidly shivered. Just the thought of it gave him a sympathy headache for his future self. At the very least, his Domain Skill was improving at a noticeable pace, currently reaching Skill Level 134. By this point, even Helen had to begrudgingly acknowledge his progress as she was finally able to utilize something close to her original strength.

Even though they were the “short” legs, these metal limbs were still fifteen meters long and as thick as a tree trunk. They would handle the bulk of the moving’s cities support and stabilization function, so they had been absolutely covered with Engravings done by Randidly or Lucretia personally. Due to their mass, the prospect of moving them out of the Alpha Cosmos was a daunting one.

Each pound that passed from within to without was a drain on Randidly. Inanimate objects were definitely easier than animated ones, but only by a little. Which was why Randidly had transferred a few over earlier, then ceased when his vision grew a little hazy.

Randidly didn’t exactly hide the finished legs from the clucking assistants, but he did store the thirty he had prepared so far underneath a tarp awning behind the warehouse. The poor assistants clearly weren’t ready for them yet. Which was fine for now, but it wasn’t like Randidly was going to slow down the rate of assembly just because it was inconvenient for these fools.

These shocks are what we need to reinvent the image that Erickson Steel has for itself, Randidly reflected. As long as they learn to accept that anything is possible… we can make some real progress. Which reminds me…

Randidly raised his head and looked West. Originally this had been a series of rolling hills, but one of the first things Randidly had done was level the area with Infinite Fingers of Yggdrasil. Half of the space went to him for the preparations for the moving city, while the other half went to the Order Ducis, so they could continue their training.

Apparently, Naffur took his request to recruit more individuals into the Order Ducis very seriously. He had arranged an entire six-month long camp in order to determine suitability for the Order and was closely recording the progress of all of the participants.

In a way, Randidly found that dedication inspiring. Rubbing his chin, he looked over toward the frantically training individuals. Perhaps its time for me to lend them a helping hand…

*****

“What’s this?” Vye whispered to Garrett.

The tall man shrugged. “I don’t know… but I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Good news everyone! We have an exciting surprise that we are pleased to share with you all.” Naffur said brightly. He stood in front of the assembled 36 individuals with his arms folded behind his back. Since they had arrived at Erickson Steel, several more individuals had trickled into the camp. Competition intensified. But also, the difficulty of their tasks spiked sharply upward, leading to a general decrease in optimism in hope across the board.

Which was why Vye grew suspicious at Naffur’s tone.

Naffur gestured to the three steles that were behind him. “Our leader, Randidly Ghosthound, has created three of these ‘Image Stones’ so you can familiarize yourself with them. Each stone has a unique image that it releases. If you proceed closer to the stone, you’ll have to endure a greater portion of the image released from it. The Ghosthound stated that they are relatively flawed products… so he will be forced to strengthen the image within the stones every few days. Starting next week, we will work these stones heavily into our training methods… so we recommend you familiarize yourself with them now.”

Among the crowd of 36 dirty and exhausted individual, most people looked side to side with the same question on their lips: You seriously want us to train even more…?

As if sensing the crowd’s reluctance, Naffur smiled slyly. “Of course… these aren’t just ways to torture you. After discussing the matter with the Ghosthound… there is also a reward for those that can get close enough to the Image Stones to touch them… you will be given a day off, usable whenever you wish.”

Silence. There was abrupt silence. No one amongst the crowd was even breathing.

Finally, the spell was broken; Someone in the crowd gulped down a mouth full of saliva. Even Vye couldn’t help but feel her heart begin to pound. The past week had been so filled with training and weird exercises and rules that she had forgotten what it was like to make her own decisions.

If she touched an Image Stone… she could decide for herself to take a break. Any time she wanted.

Of course, the reason that Vye stuck with the training was she could feel how much she had improved after even one week. And at her core, that dream of being able to seize the freedom to travel the land with impunity was still the engine that drove her forward. But even so…

Vye’s fingernails drew blood on her palm as she regarded the three Image Stones. Having a modicum of control like a break day was definitely the first step she needed to take.

This is the first time there has been a reward like this… it's practically an announcement by Randidly Ghosthound that this is the strength that we need to have to reach his level. I’ll touch those fucking stones if its the last thing I do…

After giving his short speech, Naffur walked off to discuss things with Ajax. Which meant that the aspirants were free to wander toward the standing stones to investigate.

With slow and deliberate motions, the aspirants split into groups of two or three and wandered around the outside of the newly renovated area. There were three stone steles about the size of a person arranged in a wide triangle. Around each was a series of circles that had been carved into the ground. The outer distance of the largest circle was twenty meters, but there were also circles at ten and five meters.

In addition, there were also piles of rope with hooks on the end laying about. The aspirants regarded each other in confusion. They looked back over to Naffur. He seemed to be completely content to allow the aspirants to explore, so they returned their focus to the image stones and carefully studied them. They had learned in the past week that Naffur wouldn’t instruct them when they were meant to find things out on their own. So it was up to them to perform their own investigations.

That was the way of the Order Ducis. It wasn’t just strength that was revered here, but also the ability to make confident decisions under less than ideal circumstances.

Vye made her first realization as she began to walk at the edge of the twenty-meter line around the Image Stones: they weren’t kidding about this being a type of training. There seemed to be some engravings at the edge of the twenty-meter circle that veiled the outside from the image stones, but there was still a palpable pressure as they moved through the area.

The pressure was something that you barely noticed at first, but it rapidly became apparent that although the strain was small, it quickly added up. Many people began to frown toward the Image Stones.

Gritting her teeth, Vye turned to Garrett. The man’s sour expression didn’t change at all after entering the area, so Vye inwardly softened her choice of words about the Image Stones. “This… is certainly one sort of training.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” Garrett said again. Vye rolled her eyes. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised. If there was one thing that was predictable, it was Garrett’s gloomy outlook.

But then she looked to the side because Valor Rend was rolling up his sleeves and walking directly to the edge of one of the twenty-meter circles.

Of everyone amongst the aspirants, Valor would be the unanimous frontrunner to join the Order Ducis. He wasn’t as fast as some other people, or as strong, or possess ranged Skills that were as overwhelming as some others, but he was probably close to the top in every category. Like Randidly Ghosthound himself, he pursued the Path of an all-rounder.

His hair was even short like Randidly’s, although Valor’s was a golden-blond. His bronze skin and heavy muscles somehow made the constant film of blood and dirt that covered all of the aspirants look somehow heroic.

At the edge of the circle, Valor raised his chin. The focus of all of the aspirants settled on the golden boy. After a breath, Valor stepped through the circle into the inner area.

“Huh…? Urgk!”

Immediately, Valor grunted in pain. His eyes widened, and it was obvious even from this distance that his pupils dilated. But the man gritted his teeth and took several steps forward. Yet that just caused his eyes to widen further.

“I will not be stopped here…! My destiny…!” Valor bellowed as he stretched his arms wide. Then he took two more firm steps forward.

After swaying for a second, Valor crumpled to the side. His face smashed into the ground with an audible noise. It was only a few seconds later that his body slowly rolled to the side.

He was foaming at the mouth and clearly unconscious. There was no circle in the area he collapsed, but from the few steps he had taken… he probably hadn’t even made it to the fifteen-meter mark around that Image Stone.

“I suppose that’s what the ropes are there for…”

Vye turned to look at the speaker; the barefooted and bushy-eyebrowed Aldo stood next to her, regarding the collapsed Valor. At her gaze, he shrugged and gestured toward the body. “He faced the full force of the Ghosthound’s image. Is this little bit of mental damage a surprise? Just be glad he wasn’t eviscerated by roots…”

The brightest star of the Order Ducis recruitment camp continued to lay on the ground, foam studiously bubbling up out of his slack-jawed mouth.

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