Movement caught Randidly’s eye, and he saw, for the first time, two cats streaking across the wasteland together. He supposed they had to breed somehow, so it wasn’t surprising. It was honestly more surprising that he hadn’t seen it before.
Monsters did breed. That’s why some of the Classers had captured some Wolverines and Lizards and were starting a farm for meat. They even apparently accepted domestication well enough, as long as someone with a level over 10 was there, or equivalent strength. They had some intuition about who could kill them.
But, the two together made his hunting more dangerous, but also doubly as efficient.
They hadn’t appeared to have noticed him, so Randidly crept forward, hiding in the shady side of a large crack in the earth. As he moved into position, he received a level in Sneak, which made him chuckle; it certainly had been awhile since he used this skill.
As they came hurtling past, a Wall of Thorns sprang up, which the first one plowed right into, setting off a series of long yowls. Spearing Roots rushed up, silencing it quickly.
The other dodged to the side, narrowly avoiding the thorns, and was caught in the back leg by a Spearing Roots. Already the next Spearing Roots was rushing towards its hobbled form, but this cat did something that Randidly had never seen before.
It swayed its upper body, receiving some scratches, but largely dodging the attack. Then, also contrary to form, it leapt away, streaking back from whence it came, leaving a trail of blood.
Strange, usually they would attack him on sight, regardless of their injuries.
Randidly collected the body of the first cat and squinted at the fleeing one. Shrugging, he decided to follow it. Although it would be increasingly dangerous if it returned to a den or warren of the things, it would also speed up his hunting quite a bit.
A smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, Randidly loped silently after it.
Dozer, Donny, and Decklan glanced fearfully at each other, and then down at the stack of papers in front of them. The immaculately scaled and designed forms were soggy and wet from coffee.
When the man who wanted to grow coffee had arrived, he had sweetened the deal by offering some of his already roasted beans. Naturally, those bribes slowly percolated up the chain of command until they arrived at Donny.
Only 16 years of age and not such a coffee drinker, he had turned to Decklan and Dozer for their expertise on the subject. All and all, the two had assured him it was an excellent strain.
Unfortunately, they had knocked over the pot, spilling all of the remaining coffee.
Unfortunately, the sheets they were supposed to rank all the classers with had been ruined.
“I mean… What can he really do…? I’m the village chieftain….” Donny said uncertainly.
“Good, you take the blame. “ Decklan said, crossing himself.
“He distributes the food…” Dozer mumbled. “He controls who gets weapons from the shop with SP, rather than having to save up gold themselves… Wood that comes up from the NCCs? He controls that. You wanted to start to build a house, didn’t you, Donny…?”
The three considered the issue solemnly, picturing Daniel’s pudgy face contorted in fury. It was honestly difficult to imagine. It really couldn’t be that bad, right…?
“Well…” Dozer said uncertainly. “He did mention that all he really needed was a 1-10 ranking… we could just….”
“Rank everyone? Today?” Decklan snapped.
But then Donny, blinked, then laughed.
“Yes! That’s exactly what we do. With the most efficient method for determining strength!”
The other two looked at him. He smiled widely and spread his hands. “With a Tournament!”
The three of them straightened, their worried looks turning into flinty, evaluative ones.
“A tournament…” Decklan said calmly, making a knife dance across this hands.
“A tournament.” Dozer agreed, his chest heaving, his eyes bright.
“I’ll go tell the squads, and grab Sam. I’m sure we can assemble a stadium or something by the time we get to the top 16. People who lose in the preliminaries need to build.” Donny said, picturing himself being crowned champion.
“Ah.” Dozer said, blinking. “Will the… Ghosthound be participating…?”
They mulled this question over for several seconds.
“Let’s… not bother him with this.” Donny said. “After all, it is purely administrative work. It is being done to rank the Classers, nothing more.”
“Nothing more,” The other two echoed, eyeing each other.
Randidly had followed the trail to the edge of a small path, leading downwards into a ravine, before he hesitated, the hair on the back of his neck tingling. There was something… strange here. Something wrong.
But the trail of blood led forward, and Randidly felt a familiar thrill growing. Against his better judgement, he walked down into the gorge, around twisting turns, through meandering paths, until finally, deep within the gorge, Randidly arrived at a large cave.
The trail of blood had long since disappeared, so Randidly was expecting an ambush. Eyes of the Spear Phantom were activated and scanning around, but when he finally spotted the enemy, it wasn’t one that he needed to be using any extra skills to see.
It was large, as large as a short bus. Body of a lion, head of a woman, wings of an eagle. Its eyes slowly opened, its amber eyes drifting over towards him. It lounged in front of the entrance to the cave, plain as day.
The floating text above its head dominated Randidly’s focus, freezing him solid. In a bright yellow text that Randidly didn’t recognize, he immediately recognized that he might be facing his own doom.
The Hungry Tribulation, Ep-Tal Lvl 30
“My, my, my,” The creature murmured, getting to its feet. “It seems the sheep have wandered quite far from the shepherd. And what soft wool you have. Haven’t even received a class yet… Well, well, well….”
“What…. Are you? Your name is yellow-”
“Ah, ah, ah,” The creature said, seeming pleased. It sat on its haunches, regarding him with a glimmer of interest. “So the sheep does know some things. Yes, I do not fit into the normal hierarchy of enemies you face. I am… special. I am the tribulation that waits outside the edge of the Newbie Zone for freshly formed villages. A desolation, but perhaps also a blessing. The Hungry, Hungry, Hungry Tribulation.”
The sphinx flashed its teeth.
Randidly remembered now, the fear he had learned first in the Dungeon, surrounded by enemies much more powerful than himself. Although this enemy wasn’t as high as the level of the Boss of the Dungeon, the suffocating aura was 10x as great, and there was no Shal here to take the brunt of the damage. The feeling came, wet and raw and fresh. The old dread of a predator, looming above him. His hands were shaking, but his smile was growing wider and wider, his eyes bright.
He might die here… But he definitely felt alive here, too.
In a smooth motion, he drew his spear and leveled it towards the sphinx. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me a riddle or something?”
Its smile widened, and it lowered its stance into a crouch. “No, no, no… But we shall enjoy our time playing together. To a wandering, lost sheep, there are a few lessons that I am willing to teach, teach, teach.”
It leapt forward, and Randidly dodged to the side, activating Haste, Empower, Footwork of the Spear Phantom, and Mana Strengthening. His eyes narrowed, sensing rather than seeing that he wouldn’t make it in time.
He instantly used Phantom Half-Step, creating some distance, weighing his options.
But whereas the cats had been annoyingly fast, this creature was mind bogglingly fast, and already crossed the distance to him, its huge paw swiping sideways.
His spear got up in time, and he activated Mana Shield and Iron Skin. At the same time, he used Spearing Roots, aiming for its underside while it was distracted attacking him.
It laughed as it sidestepped so fast it vanished, avoiding the roots, and belched fire at him.
Randidly felt sweat on his brow as he raised his hand, simultaneously channeling Root Manipulation and shooting a fireball to intercept the fireball spat by the sphinx. Randidly didn’t doubt that he wouldn’t be able to take many of those fireballs due to his low Resistance.
The fireballs met in a huge explosion of roaring flame, and Randidly could tell that his was slightly weaker. But he leapt over the smoke, using the cover to pull out and down a stamina and mana potion. Then he narrowed his eyes, scanning for the sphinx.
“Here, here, here…” It cooed from behind him, its paw smashing into his back.
The impact was brutal; even with iron skin, Randidly could feel that several of his bones had broken, and some of his organs were failing. He simply pressed his hands to his chest and activated healing palm, barely keeping his health afloat. Staggering to his feet, he drank two health potions, feeling his body snap back into place, quite painfully, but otherwise without any repercussions.
Randidly had also come to a realization. It wasn’t that the Sphinx was fast, it simply used the same skill that Lyra did.
It could literally teleport anywhere around him. Snickering, he felt it move.
Rather than trying to track it with his eyes, Randidly raised his spear and prepared to receive its attacks. If Lyra had taught him anything in the past few days, it's that the things she did came at great cost; it was not a move that could be used indefinitely.
And when it ran out of mana, that was his chance. He simply had to survive that long.