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“So what’s happening?” Donny asked, scanning around the table, his eyes landing on Glendel. Only 6 minutes had passed,but  the ghostly whispers in their ears had drawn the entire council to the main building of the Trainee Village.

Except Decklan, who from Glendel’s sweaty brow, was still encountering quite a bit of trouble.

“I don’t know how I missed them… it’s like they just sprang into existence. But all of the sudden the area to the north was filled with monsters. From what I can see, there are two Tier I Raid Bosses, and a Tier II as well… It’s like someone was hiding them this entire time…”

“The Tribulation,” Daniel said, his eyes glittering. “It’s not directly powerful, but seems to be skilled at subterfuge. It apparently knew enough about us to avoid your ghosts, which is disturbing. What sort of numbers are we talking?”

“I mean only about half the amount of a normal monster horde, but… Their levels are all at least 24. Because the Raid Bosses have had time to spawn-”

“Rough sledding,” Dozer rumbled, his face peaceful.

“And Decklan?” Donny asked.

“Still being chased by one of the Raid Boss’ forces. But-” Glendel said, but Regina interrupted.

“Tell him to distract and engage. At that level, we can’t take them all on at once. Better to lure those we can to the village too, so we can make use of the Aura of Arbor.”

“No need, they will come,” Nul said. “Seeking my life. Your utmost priority-”

“Defense for now, gather ourselves for a strike? The mage corps can probably blow a pretty large hole in their lines. It’s a bit more awkward without Clarissa, but it should still work,” Sam said, rubbing his chin.

Regina nodded. “My thoughts exactly. Donny, will you take your squad and rendezvous with Decklan? Dozer, you are on mop duty. Take the Numerals with you, it’s time to see if all their swagger is worth anything. Save your strength as much as possible.”

Then she turned to Nul. “Do you know where the tribulation is?”

He hesitated, then shook his head. Regina glanced at Glendel, who simply shrugged.

Sighing, Regina said, “Well then, we will hold until we get a lead. In the meantime, the important targets are the raid bosses. They will be coming through the quarry, yes?”

“ETA 10 minutes.” Glendel reported. Donny, Dozer, and Ptolemy got up and left, heading to reinforce their lines. Glendel closed his eyes, commanding his ghosts.

Sam glanced grimly at Regina and Mrs. Hamilton. “If we don’t find where it is-”

“Damn, its really rough missing both The Ghosthound and Clarissa. Their firepower would alleviate a lot of pressure,” Mrs. Hamilton muttered.

“But what can we do?” Regina asked, her voice frustrated.

“Actually, I have a solution.”

All four of them, looking up to find Lyra, followed by 4 limping individuals. When they made it into the room, the four collapsed.

Lyra wiggled her fingers at the group. “Just buy me some time, okay? I’ll have everything fixed up in a jiffy.

****

Decklan raced forward, his expression locked into a scowl. The ambush had been unexpected, but nothing they couldn’t handle. But then they had harried and disengaged, seeking to gain some space, and had backed up into another enemy.

The first group of monsters were cyclops, tall, physically powerful beasts who were deadly in close proximity, but slow. The second group was skeletal horses, who had more than enough speed to chase down their group.

Luckily, they weren’t controlled by one leader, so there was some friction between the groups when they encountered one another. By sticking in the space between the two groups, Decklan and his squad were able to keep enough distance not to get crushed by the cyclops, and keep far enough away from open stretches to not get run down by the skeleton horses.

And they would have done it perfectly, without any casualties, if Ivan hadn’t madly tried to finish off a cyclops for the stat gains, and hadn’t done enough damage to kill it. In a fit of fury, the cyclops struck. His body was splattered against the cyclop’s skull by a palm, a sight Decklan wouldn’t soon forget. It was a good, if costly, reminder that this wasn’t a game.

They were running in a long arc, meaning to bring them eventually around and towards Donnyton, but a strange thing sticking out of the ground caught his attention. It pointed. Decklan immediately shifted, following its direction, hand signalling to Terra and the rest of the crew to follow. They flowed smoothly behind him, nervous, but they had their faith in their squad leader.

If they hadn’t, they would have broken when Ivan died.

Their path cut them sideways through a few cyclops, but they followed without complaint. Daggers and throwing hatchets and other projectile weapons hitting the vulnerable eyes of the nearby enemies. Once they got wind of it, their eyes snapped shut, but it bought them the few seconds the group needed to dash through.

Decklan signaled again, and the whole group increased in speed, rushing towards a copse of trees 400 meters away. They would burn through their stamina reserves to get there, but, if Decklan’s suspicions were correct…

As they neared the trees, he saw they were thick with low hanging vines. He ducked under and led the group in, not stopping even as the cyclops chased after them.

“Decklan, if we stay here, we are going to get trapped.” Terra said nervously, glancing around. Something about these trees…. Then she froze as the vines moved revealing a suspended, floating mass of rot and flesh.

Thorn had grown since Decklan had seen it last, and grown a lot. The mass of flesh was probably just as large as he would be if he curled up into a ball. The air below it was thick with thorny vines, sinking into the ground and spreading around, covering the entire group of trees.

“Let them come,” Decklan said, turning to the group with a manic glint in his eyes. We are going to make our stand here. And we are going to bleed every last motherfucker that tries to come for us.”

As if understanding Decklan’s words, the whole copse began to rumble, Thorn vibrating in pleasure at the thought.

*****

Randidly breathed heavily, staggering forward to meet the Yeti. Time and time again they had rushed together and crashed against each other, Randidly’s Sweep meeting the mighty swing of the Yeti’s ice hammer. Randidly had lost out just slightly, especially at the beginning, but he quickly mastered the art of recovering from that and using Ghastly Slash to inflict debilitating wounds on the Yeti’s shoulders, easing some of the burden on himself.

Unfortunately, the Yeti was intelligent enough to see through Randidly’s plan, and had made him pay for it; a glancing blow with the shaft of the hammer had cracked a few ribs, and the Yeti had taken to swinging great, overhand blows that that almost completely killed Randidly’s legs. Even now, he could barely keep standing.

Still, to fall meant death. With glowing eyes, Randidly tightened his grip on his spear and followed it forward, meeting the hammer.

BOOOOM.

The force of the blow reverberated in the clearing. It seemed like the monster horde had finally been hunted to extinction, and now Franksburg was noticing the battle happening between Randidly and the Yeti. However, they didn’t dare approach, both because of the level and speed of the fighting, and due to the notification that warned them about interfering with the Judgement.

Which suited Randidly just fine; more people would just get in the way.

Randidly grinned at the Yeti, his smile all teeth. To his surprise, the Yeti smiled back, its eyes still bright with hatred, and then said something in a low rumbling tone. In a very distantly familiar manner, the strange sounds swirled, and snapped into focus.

“Schai killer, you are very strong. But even suppressed to classlessness, I am stronger. There are always those such as you, who struggle. And yet every time the system crushes them. You cannot fight against Aether, it is life.”

“As pleasurable as banter is, I’m just going to kill you.” Randidly remarked, raising a potion to his lips, taking advantage of the space to regain some health and stamina. The Yeti just chuckled, and removed a vivid pink potion, downing it quickly.

It’s body shuddered, then the flesh knit itself back together, its shoulders once more whole. Then it took its ice hammer in its right hand and raised its left. Another vortex formed, ice falling to condense into a second hammer. Dual wielding hammers, the Yeti strolled forward.

“This is the day you die, Heretic.” It commented.

Randidly frowned. Not only did the Yeti have potions, it seemed as though its potions were an even higher quality than his! How was that fair?

Inwardly, Randidly admitted his potion abuse was most of why he could gain victory over these individuals with levels. But it definitely didn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of it.

“Actually Randidly won’t be dying today. Humans aren’t the type to abandon each other.”

The female voice surprised Randidly, because he hadn’t heard anyone coming. He turned to find Lyra, standing next to him with a bright expression, smiling at him. Something inside Randidly melted slightly, looking at that smile, as lovely as the morning’s first ray of sun, heralding the coming warmth of the day.

His Phantom Thrust took her in the chest, where a heart would be on a human.

“Lyra doesn't talk like that,” Randidly commented.

Lyra blinked, and then vomited out a mouthful of blood. “Randidly…. Why….”

Randidly frowned in annoyance. “And she wouldn’t be so dumb as to let me attack her. What are you?”

Seeing that the Yeti had stopped, and was regarding the situation with curiosity, Randidly’s arms blurred as he unleashed a Ghastly Slash, bisecting Lyra’s body entirely. A spray of blood covered Randidly, wet and warm. Then it all evaporated into mist.

Then the mist recondensed several feet away, still Lyra, still smiling prettily. But a name hung above her head.

Kim-Lath, The Tribulation of Many Faces Lvl 38

“I’ve waited a long time for this.” Randidly commented, leveling his spear. But the creature just laughed.

“This is just an illusion. Fight me here all you want. The only reason I bothered to appear now is that soon Donnyton will fall, and then I’ll be able to fight you directly. Plus, if I can kill you while you don’t have access to mana…” The illusion morphed and shifted, turning into another 3 meter tall Yeti with two large ice hammers.

“Your interference is unnecessary,” The first Yeti said, frowning.

The other Yeti laughed, still talking with Lyra’s voice. “You are bound by the will of your Patron. You are Judgement. Descend upon the Heretic, and end his transgressions.”

The first Yeti frowned, but said nothing as it began approaching Randidly once more.

Unable to resist it any longer, Randidly began to laugh. It was long and loud, and came from his gut. Double the difficulty? Perhaps more with the addition that each had two hammers? Interesting! Too Interesting! This is exactly what he needed.

“Good, good…” Randidly said, settling into his stance with hungry eyes. The more fertilizer, the better. The faster he would grow.

The faster he could acquire the power he needed to survive.

If you crave something, take it.

In that moment, there was nothing Randidly craved more than power. He activated Agony and threw himself at the two shocked Yeti, his spear howling through the air towards them.

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