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Decklan sat with his arms folded, tapping his toes on the ground. Tera looked at him anxiously.

“Don’t you want to go see?” She asked.

Decklan shrugged. “The battles he has against the lower squads will be over quickly. What would be the point?”

They had been informed earlier today, as had all of the individuals who were part of a squad, that The Ghosthound would be sparring against every squad, in turn, from lowest ranked to highest, and giving them pointers. The average squad member was incredibly nervous, but excited. After all, it wasn’t often that the Ghosthound interacted with most of Donnyton’s population, even the Classers.

“Well yes….” Tera said uncertainly, “But-”

They were both distracted by the hurrying form of Ptolemy, who was followed by two individuals carrying a large cooler.

“What’s the hurry?” Decklan asked, yawning.

Ptolemy made an uncertain face. “... I’m not sure. Apparently they needed more mana potions down at the quarry for The Ghosthound’s trials.”

Chuckling, Decklan asked. “...he ran out of mana already? He’s certainly bringing out the big guns.”

“No… its…” Ptolemy hesitated. “It’s apparently for the healers.”

Then the trio was past them, hurrying North towards the quarry. Tera and Decklan exchanged a glance. Even though their appointment wasn’t until much later, Decklan sighed and began to follow, heading towards the trials area.

When they arrived, they found Paolo and Kayle, standing next to each other, uncharacteristically silent. Decklan and Tera pushed through the surrounding crowd, moving to stand next to them, with a good view of the trial ground.

The entire area was silent. The Ghosthound stood alone, holding a long pole of wood, surrounded by a dozen or so moaning bodies. Methodically, the Ghosthound began pointing with the pole and commenting.

“Too timid, when you see an opening, take it. You, you have too much fear of pain. Either get used to it, or quit the squads. You, do you really think you can consider yourself a leader when you freeze up in the face of the unexpected?”

The Ghosthound shook his head. “Also, why is there not a single one among you that has started to train Mana Bolt? Are you incapable of handling an opponent at range? Even throwing knives would be better than just waiting for me to walk up to you.”

Several healers were moving among the knocked down squad members, healing their injuries. They were helped off the arena, to an area where a small number of grim faced men and women waited, the previous victims of the Ghosthound. In an imperious way, the Ghosthound banged his pole against the ground twice.

“The 25th Squad of Donnyton has fallen. Who dares step forward to fill the gap?”

After a few seconds of silence, a voice answered. “We, the 24th Squad of Donnyton, dare.”

It was almost ritualistic, Decklan thought, fascinated as he watched the next squad walk out onto the arena, with serious faces. They whispered to each other, arranging themselves on the ground, forming into a square. 11 individuals, 10 members and the squad leader, drew their weapons and stared at the Ghosthound, waiting.

He did not keep them waiting long.

To Decklan’s surprise, he simply dropped the pole, and started walking towards the squad, just strolling forward. Next to him, Paolo and Kayle narrowed their eyes.

“This is…?” Tera asked wonderingly.

“This is… the Ghosthound that moves to crush resistance. He has been cycling through 4 modes, rather randomly. Overwhelming strength, crushing the opposition with the pole. Unstoppable magic, simply blowing his opponents away. Impossible speed, moving like a ghost… and this, the final method…” Paolo spoke slowly.

Kayle finished his thought. “...this is a lesson in futility.”

Unlike the previous squad, the 24th squad shot several mana bols at the Ghosthound, and the squad leader threw several hatchets towards the approaching form. He did not dodge. He simply allowed the projectiles to hit him, unphased. His speed remained constant.

The squad leader barked a sharp order, and two individuals with long spears moved forward, prodding at the Ghosthound. With a slow, casual movement, the Ghosthound grabbed the shaft of one of the spears, yanked, pulling its wielder close, and punched the man directly in the face. The crack of bone was audible, and the man collapsed immediately, senseless.

With another order, the squad rushed forward, weapons raised, trying to push the Ghosthound back and bring the wounded comrade to safety. But the first man was smashed backwards by a kick, the second had his shield pulled away and was thrown 5 meters in the air. Then the squad leader was before the Ghosthound, whipping three hatchets at him, lightning fast. The first two simply bounced off his skin. The third slashed a shallow gash in his shoulder, and a thin trickle of blood running downwards.

The Ghosthound’s hand stretched out, grabbing the lip of the squad leader’s armor, picking him up like he was a misbehaving dog. Then he whipped the squad leader sideways, hitting the squad’s healer from behind, who was still bending over the first man.

The rest of the squad kept rushing forward, but the Ghosthound simply waved his hand, knocking away their attacks and delivered several short punches and kicks, incapacitating the rest of them.

As he surveyed the fallen bodies, and more healers rushed out, treating the defeated squad, the Ghosthound said. “...you made the right decisions. You were simply too weak. Coordination cannot overcome weakness; only true skill can. Without raising your skill levels, this will forever be your limit.”

“Why is he doing this…?” Tera asked wonderingly.

Decklan grinned in response. “The town treats him like a guardian angel. Looks like he’s fed up with it. It’s a good experience, too, for the squads to get reminded of their limits. And finally…”

“It’s a challenge,” Paolo whispered. “To us, to Donny, to Dozer, to Annie. Asking us if we are enough to beat the monster that is the Ghosthound.”

The Ghosthound returned to his pole, and knocked it twice against the ground once more. “The 24th Squad of Donnyton has fallen. Who dares fill the gap?”

****

Dozer sat cross legged in darkness, his eyes closed. To her surprise, when Annie located him, Donny was there too, also in a meditative state.

“Is it fine to just sit like this…?” Annie asked. To her surprise, Dozer was the one who answered, opening his eyes and frowning at her.

“Yes, those detail obsessors Kayle and Decklan will watch. There is nothing there that we don’t already know. And we…. need time to prepare.”

Annie shrugged. “Prepare for what? It’s just a spar, right?”

Donny snorted, finally opening his eyes. “Not exactly. Randidly… came back from Franksburg a lot colder than he was previously. It seems like his search for his friends was fruitless. And when he came back… he found that in his absence, Lyra had to sacrifice some part of herself in order to save the town. They might not actually be involved with each other, but there is some… connection between them.”

“This,” Dozer said, closing his eyes once more. “Is the Ghosthound, angry, coming to collect his pound of flesh for letting her be forced to this. The earlier trials will be a warm up; the I and II squads, as well as our personal squads, will be fighting him all at once. At that time, he will stop pulling punches, and we will finally see the Ghosthound bare his teeth.”

Donny shivered. “...I can’t even wait.”

Dozer gave him a sly smile. “Me too.”

Annie sighed, wondering why men were sometimes fascinated by the thought of violence.

****

The kids talked excitedly, watching as the men Mrs. Hamilton sent over dug up the area surrounding Arbor, leveling and flattening it. They created a stone path that led towards it, and a small wooden stand surrounding it, an area to approach the tree, and touch its ashy trunk. Several women came over, planting rare herbs and spices around it, after they had learned that its presence provided its strange energy even to plants nearby.

Kiersty nodded, satisfied. Arbor too, wiggled with glee, as this action on Mrs. Hamilton’s part was a tacit admission of Arbor’s use for the village. The NCCs already were beginning to treat it with a strange reverence, due to its positive influence on the nearby flora.

They even wanted to surround Arbor with farms, but Kiersty knew that would upset Arbor, just being surrounded by plants all the time. Although the farmers were disappointed, they knew that this small girl had some strange connection with the tree, and deferred to her.

For now, at least.

Nathan walked up to Kiersty, looking nervous. “Mom wants to talk to you.”

Kiersty paled.

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