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Lyra watched Randidly carefully as he went through the second exercise, this one focused on weapon accuracy and eyesight. It was an extremely large mobile, with dozens of small wooden disks hanging from it. The disks were numbered 1 through 60. Randidly’s task was simple; hit them with his spear in order, within a certain amount of time. Complications emerged as Randidly had to hit them while they rotated slowly around him, and also while the disks themselves spun, sometimes hiding their numbers from him, as they were only written on one side.

But despite this, his spear blurred, his expression determined, the soft click of wood evidencing his success. Although, most of it was due to the fact he appeared to have memorized where the first 30 or so were. They would need to rearrange where they were hanging soon.

With his eyes narrowed, his mouth firmed into a line, he seemed extremely capable, and Lyra couldn’t help but feel a bit of that old longing for his approval, an acknowledgement from him. Still, it was different now, without the strange magic that the system had worked on them, drawing them closer to one another.

Unfortunately, the exercise that Lyra had administered had gone rather poorly. Mrs. Hamilton had insisted that she keep a steady number of birds, and keep them at a steady speed, to use as a baseline. Therefore, although Randidly was forced to dodge back and forth, and he was clearly out of breath by the end, it wasn’t the embarrassing performance that Lyra had assumed would happen in her heart.

The weight was obviously having an effect on him, but it wasn’t enough; his skills still let him move with an unnatural grace, avoiding her swarming birds. If she had been allowed to make them move just a little faster….

But Lyra had learned very early on in her life that playing outside the rules didn’t pay off in the end. It was much more satisfying to beat him at the game than cheat.

“How smart are you?”

Lyra blinked, turning to look at Mrs. Hamilton, who was regarding her speculatively. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean in a bad way. Just I have some thoughts about the dodging exercise, and I just need to know how much complexity you can handle.”

Frowning, Lyra said. “...as much as you can give. I can use more birds-”

“No, that’s unnecessary,” Mrs. Hamilton said, shaking her head. “Just like he’s training, consider this training for you too. The problem isn’t the number of birds, although the problem might solve itself with more birds. Just like Randidly would still be strong just by increasing his stats to the point his skill levels don’t matter. Maybe even by getting a class. But do you know why he doesn’t do that?”

Inwardly, Lyra was torn between feeling annoyed and feeling intrigued. She had always known that Mrs. Hamilton had expertly handled the NCC village, and basically managed housing, production, potion making, food, and clothing distribution, but that had always struck Lyra as slightly dull. But now, as Mrs. Hamilton coldly looked her in the eye, a small smile on her face, Lyra abruptly remembered that Randidly had given this woman a very sinister sounding class.

So she suppressed her annoyance, and like any good actor, allowed the emotion the audience wanted to see come to the surface. Curious, Lyra said. “Because our Randidly’s normal face hides a perfectionist. He wants every advantage he can have.”

“...Yes, in a way. He takes the extremely long view. Based on his actions, he seems to think that an impending crisis is just beyond the horizon…” Pausing, Mrs. Hamilton turned and looked back towards the village. She stood still for so long that Lyra thought she would have to speak, but just as she was about to, Mrs. Hamilton turned back, shaking her head.

“...Well, if something bad happens, I’m sure someone else will notice. Anyways, the reason Randidly can dodge is because when you attack with the birds, you are only moving 2 or 3 at the same time. The rest just drift in a direction. I suggest instead of attacking, you work on making several smaller units, and just move them around. Namely, 3 rings of 4 birds, moving in a circle. Go on, try it.”

Lyra did, making the 3 circles. She furrowed her brow, and was able to swiftly get the hang of it. Honestly, once you had them set, it was relatively easy, and she was able to tie the mana together in such a way that it didn’t take much attention.

“Good. Now, I’m going to switch up the disks and have Randidly try this exercise again from the beginning. In the meantime, try and master 3 things; moving the rings, with the birds staying in formation, widening and tightening the rings, and reversing the flow of the birds. Once you can manage those three things, we will see how easy it is for Randidly to dodge.”

*****

Alana sat with her legs folded beneath her, contemplating. It was a simple thing, but it was a question that had tortured her endlessly: should she get her very rare sounding class, or should she continue to train.

It was now widespread knowledge that a certain amount of skill levels, quite a bit over 400, without getting a class would lead to a strange “Aether Starvation”, but the Ghosthound had made some cryptic comments to her the previous night that would seem to indicate that she didn’t have to worry about this issue, and could continue to train for as long as she wished.

Based on what she could tease out of his statements, and other explanations of the problem, it seemed that her connection to him provided her with the Aether she needed. Of the other 3 who received the blessing, Annie had continued to train without a class, Sam had obtained his class immediately, delighting in the new skills he received that would boost his crafting efficiency, and Mrs. Hamilton would only smile sweetly when asked, refusing to answer.

Those three’s answer was very demonstrative of their personalities, but Alana was at a loss. Was seeking the strength of the class now a mistake…? She knew that every 10 levels, the Classers would receive an extremely powerful class skill. Alana had heard rumors about how Decklan’s Killer’s Instincts, Donny’s Righteous Bonds, and Dozer’s Troll Constitution had made all the difference in the fight against the Ghosthound. Although two of them were passive skills, and Donny’s was defensive, they still were profoundly apparent in battle, and likely won the day of the squads of Donnyton.

They assured her, however, that there was no rush. It was just incredibly frustrating to be weaker than them, and Alana knew it was only because they had access to levels…!

Alana looked at her stats.

Alana Donal

Class: ---

Level: N/A

Health(/R per hour): 192/192 (83)

Mana(/R per hour): 74/74 (21)

Stam(/R per min): 103/127 (26)

Vit: 21

End: 19

Str: 24

Agi: 23

Perception: 32

Reaction: 35

Resistance: 15

Willpower: 13

Inteligence: 22

Wisdom: 11

Control: 6

Focus: 6

Skills: Blessing of the Distant Southern Mountains Lvl 49, Ferocity Lvl 19, Running Lvl 23, Physical Fitness Lvl 20, Spear of the Broken Ridge Mastery Lvl 6, First Aid Lvl 12, Leap Lvl 29, Animal Skinning Lvl 19, Hunting Lvl 17, Sun Strike Lvl 9, Fighting Proficiency Lvl 20, Hawkeye Lvl 14, Block Lvl 19, Heavy Blow Lvl 32, Herculean Strength Lvl 14, Spear Deflect Lvl 12, Sweep Lvl 20, Mana Bolt Lvl 16, Battlecry Lvl 16, Dodge Lvl 14, Hot Blooded Lvl 8, Child of the Sun Lvl 5

She had focused on increasing her Physical Support stats, which she believed was the best path to power. Although her max speed wasn’t as high as most other people who chose to put points in Agility, her Perception and Reaction still gave her enough of an edge that she could spar with Classers without making a fool of herself.

Still, she had to acknowledge that it was profoundly frustrating that the real reason that she was having such success against the Classers was due to the bonuses of her Soul Skill, and the oppressive power of Sun Strike. Whereas Thrust had been useful for keeping a careless opponent on their toes, Sun Strike had enough raw damage output, especially during the day, to knock an opponent who wasn’t ready on their ass.

Feeling slightly foolish, Alana decided to consult with Daniel or Mrs. Hamilton before she made her decision. Perhaps there was something she wasn’t thinking of. Truthfully, in her heart, she wanted to consult with the Ghosthound, but…

It would be extremely shameful, after he gave her this gift, to run back to him asking how to use it, wouldn’t it?

*****

As the strange circling orbiting circles of birds floated towards him, Randidly narrowed his eyes, curious. He, of course, had seen them practicing this, but he wasn’t too impressed. Did they think it would be more difficult if it was more predictable…? That didn’t make sense. But Mrs. Hamilton’s easy smile, and Lyra’s determined expression made him nervous.

The weight of the vest was starting to get to him as well. After all these exercises, he was tired. His stamina came back, but he burned through it just as quickly, hastened by the exercise.

It was exceedingly strange, too, to spend half the day training like this, and to not receive a single skill level up notification. He supposed that was proof that he was much too reliant on it, but it was hard not to get discouraged, and wonder whether it was worth it.

The bobbing circles of birds approached, snapping him back to attention. Calmly, Randidly activated Spear Phantom’s Footwork and moved quickly forward, into the first circle. But Randidly didn’t stop there, and he rushed further forward, moving around the second and towards the third.

This was-

Suddenly, Randidly scrambled backwards. He had meant to go inside the third one, but it had abruptly shrunk, becoming a rapidly spinning blur of bird. As he twisted, Randidly saw that the two behind him had expanded, and the edges of their circles were approaching.

Randidly activated Haste and pushed his Spear Phantom’s Footwork work to the limit, avoiding the surprisingly difficult birds as they calmly circled. The weaved together, changing size and elevation, sometimes coming at him high, sometimes coming low.

Panting, Randidly found himself in the middle of the three circles, surrounding him. They were successively larger, but even the closest one was some distance away. Still, now that he was here… he didn’t feel great about his chances of escaping.

His eyelid twitched. The outer ring was rapidly shrinking, while the other two maintained a constant velocity and size. Randidly sprang into action, rushing forward. If he could get past the first ring before the third arrived-

But as Randidly made to step through the rotation, the first ring stopped. And then reversed, a bird arriving almost immediately at his chest. Hissing, Randidly activated Mana Strengthening, Haste, and Empower, pushing his Spear Phantom’s Footwork to its limit. He moved like a real Phantom, ripping around the dangerous bird with pure speed, emerging from the encirclement in a second.

Gasping for breath, Randidly went to check his stamina, but stopped himself. No notifications would be easier if he didn’t see anything. So he could only grit his teeth and prepare, as his body informed him he was running on close to empty.

*****

Razor Fleetfoot stretched and yawned, feeling slightly sore in his neck, but otherwise profoundly relaxed. It was a good idea to take a nap, he assured himself, opening his eyes. Now that he had shaken his jitters, he could find someone in charge of this village and finish his mission.

But the more that he thought about it, the more droopy eared he became. After all, if it had been easy to do, why hadn’t he been able to do it already…? And of these strange hairless creatures, most just seemed to ignore him, even though he looked so different from them.

“What sort of strange village is this…?” Razor muttered aloud. He was profoundly shocked when someone responded.

“That’s mighty presumchus talk for a giant bunny rabbit.”

“Presumptuous, Nathan” A little girl with ash smeared on her cheeks said to the little boy next to her. The boy folded his arms, annoyed. The little girl turned back to Razor and smiled. “So Mister Rabbit, what are you?”

“Err- it’s Fleetfoot, Razor Fleetfoot,” Razor said, extending his paw towards the girl. Then he felt profoundly silly, for introducing himself to a little girl, but he was just so pleased that someone finally acknowledged him…

But to his further surprise, the girl grasped his paw and shook it firmly. “I am Kiersty, Priestess of Arbor. Would you like to come see something pretty with us?”

Razor opened his mouth to say no, but then hesitated. After all, what could it hurt? At the very least these children probably were raised by someone who could point them in the right direction. So he nodded, and then followed the two children.

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