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All night Randidly tirelessly practiced the movements of Footwork of the Spear Phantom, working on what Mrs. Hamilton recommended. First he just let the moves flow, moving back and forth across the ground however he wanted to, letting the steps spiral endlessly forward.

It really was an incredibly profound way of moving, that was focused on small, delicate steps that seemed incredibly light, but contained a large amount of power. An opponent who witnessed the moves would be endlessly surprised by the large steps that did nothing, and the small steps that could instantly cross several meters.

Randidly realized that it wasn’t exactly an efficient way of moving in terms of distance. His sprinting speed, both real, and with just a sideways leap, was much higher than what he could manage with Footwork of the Spear Phantom. Instead, the footwork enabled him to end up in a range of very different, if close to each other, places with the same motions, depending on how he chose to apply the delicate power in the steps.

So, with a direction in mind, Randidly plotted out the 10 steps that made up the footwork, first without the power, then second with the power, slightly awed by the 1 meter difference in where he ended up.

1 meter might be a rather small distance compared to mountains. Even compared to spears, it was slightly lacking. But in terms of the distance it takes to kill an opponent, it was more than enough.

Pausing, Randidly considered how to move forward. Previously, he had always done the motions with the power, burning quickly through his stamina pool. With his continued denial of using the system screens, Randidly wasn’t sure how much stamina he was burning through with his moves, but based on the feeling in his chest, it was decidedly smaller. Only a thin, warm thread of stamina was required to do the steps without the energy.

Such a small amount that he could practice like this almost endlessly. But this wasn’t the goal. It was to intermix his steps, sometimes using the delicate power, other times not, confusing an opponent.

A spear phantom did not value distance speed, it valued near infinite mobility in close combat.

That, then, would be Randidly’s goal.

Systematically, just like Mrs. Hamilton recommended, he practiced, giving himself a deep familiarity with the 10 moves. Although he had practiced them mindlessly before, driven on by Shal’s threat of violence, he hadn’t really thought about them. After he left the dungeon, he had practiced them in the order taught to him by Shal, never really experimenting. But now…

Now they were toys, they were puzzle pieces, they formed a base.

They were steps, leading him up towards a higher level. And in his heart, Randidly still wondered what he was doing, what he was looking forward to. But… it was fun. This path was his own, and he would walk it to the end.

More than anything, he craved the knowledge of what was waiting at the end of his path. And he would work himself into the ground in order to be strong enough to triumph over whatever he found there.

*****

Almost against her will, as if she was being driven forward by someone else, Raina woke up once more at the crack of dawn and walked up the mountain path, returning to the outlook over Donnyton. It really was a beautiful view, and a strategic one.

She suspected, in the future, that they would establish a base of sorts up here, or at least a watch tower. It gave a great view of the different important areas of the town, and also of the different avenues that monsters could attack from. The only blind spot was to the north, near the quarry, due to the curve of the mountain, but it was still enough of a view to warn of something large heading their way.

Taking advantage of the rising light, she pulled out her notebook and took up where she left off yesterday, adding detail and contour to the valley. It wasn’t big yet, but… Raina had a hunch that this town would experience explosive growth soon. This was still the area from which the only visible pillars of light have emerged, and now Franksburg’s pillar lay beyond them, acting as a beacon for those too fearful of the changes the system brought to head this way the first time.

Now though, now that they understood that the system appeared to be here to stay…

Raina slapped her cheeks, banishing these thoughts. Then she began to hum as she drew, losing herself in the soft, slow lines of the valley she now stayed. Perhaps someday, it would even be the valley she called home.

****

Tykes stilled, a strange noise reaching his ears. But as soon as he heard it, the wind blew, covering up any hint of the noise. But Tykes was a patient man. He had learned to wait quietly all his life. So he waited, standing in the forest clearing, holding his iron ball high, looking like a pitcher standing at a baseball mound.

The wind continued to blow. Tykes started to sweat. But his willpower was firm, and he refused to give into weakness. He had learned a valuable lesson two days ago, standing before the Ghosthound, witnessing the almost unfathomable depths of strength that a human, a man who had been just as normal as him a month ago, could reach. It was sobering.

And it set Tykes’ world on fire. If he could grasp that strength…

The wind continued unabated, the brush and trees rustling incessantly. Tykes’ arm was beginning to tremble from the strain of holding the cast iron ball aloft. He really needed to talk to someone about getting a lighter model made…

But in his heart, Tykes knew he wouldn’t because that same weight that made it necessary for him to constantly train to hold it, raising his Herculean Strength skill, also meant that it would hit the opponent that much harder.

Unable to keep up with the strain, Tykes let go of the ball, letting it fall to the ground with a crash. The forest floor would have one more crater, Tykes thought gloomily, but then he stilled. Because the forest had stilled around him too, the pesky wind finally gone. And without the incessant noise, he could hear it, just barely. A soft humming.

A scrap of a melody. Still, it was more than enough to fill Tykes with a breathtaking longing. It reminded him of an old home, the warm smile of his mother, the hot oatmeal he ate everyday as a child. It reminded him of free and easy laughter.

Leaving the metal ball in its new hole in the ground, Tykes walked deeper into the forest, creeping through the trees, treading his way slowly up the slope. And as he did so, the humming became louder. In a way, the volume didn’t change, but it seemed as if the tune itself pervaded the entire forest, every leaf and branch and bush buzzing with the music. It pulled him forward, almost stumbling, up the hill, towards the source.

As he neared it, it seemed as though it became more quiet, as if the forest stopped carrying the tune across the distance too him. The voice was a little more rough, but the pitch was still impeccable. Tykes stumbled through a large thorn bush, cursing quietly to himself, and then froze, as he realized the noise had stopped.

Looking up, he saw briefly trees, the rising sun, sloping ground, Donnyton lying below. His eyes took in briefly a notebook and a pencil, but then he simply blinked, and looked at the humming woman, who looked at him with a shocked expression.

She was…

“Beautiful…” Tykes muttered.

****

As Randidly slowly used repetition to memorize the distances each of the 20 different steps covered, 10 powered and 10 unpowered, he did not halt his training in spells. For the first several hours, he had been working on Root Manipulation and Summon Pestilence. He chose these two for the specific reason that they required profound control to utilize correctly.

So while he stepped, he controlled a tightly packed stream of flies, zooming to and fro, sliding between an obstacle course he made on the spot with roots. It was certainly challenging, both because of his divided attention, but also because Randidly was slowly coming to understand more about the skills.

There were some things, keeping the insects he summoned, or the roots, under control, or in a specific shape, that were hard. But if he pushed, and focused, he was able to keep them on track, or at least extremely close to what he wanted.

There were other things, like keeping the insects in a ball, or lifting a boulder with the roots, that were impossible, either because of the skill level, or his current stats, Randidly wasn’t sure. But it did mean that there were a lot of places that the utilization of his skill was sloppy.

If he could succeed on all the “hard” tasks, pushing himself to the limits of his potential, he didn’t doubt that his skill level would rise, giving him even more potential to draw out. It was an endless cycle of intense training for small gains, a path of tiny steps. But for some reason, Randidly couldn’t help but grin.

This was exactly what he wanted. If there was any benefit of the system, it was that it was infinitely easier to see your own improvement. Of course, by the same token, it was possible to see the vast gap between yourself and someone else. Which could be discouraging, but it could also be motivating.

Idly, Randidly wondered what the villagers had thought, watching him fight against their squads. But he supposed it was pointless to wonder. From now on, he planned on staying away from the limelight whenever possible. Perhaps, given a few months of intensive training on Randidly’s part, the village would gradually forget about him, leaving him in peace.

He supposed he would always consider this his base. When other Newbie Villages formed in the zone, he would probably go, just to check for signs of Sydney and Ace, and also to slowly connect their villages into some sort of trade organization.

But until then…

Randidly closed his eyes, and concentrated. He was starting to get a finer sense of mana and stamina as well. It was strange, how he could feel their relatively minor influences over the strange pulse of Aether in his chest, which had become a constant companion, but he could. And he could feel how he could burn more of the resource to have an extra effect when he cast his spells. It was a small thing, extremely small. But this was, after all, an endless path of small steps.

Eyes springing open, Randidly pressed, burning as much mana as possible, a Ring of Flame exploding outwards around him.

The heat scorched the nearby ground, leaving charred parts of the ground. Grinning, Randidly flexed his fingers, and began moving back through the 20 steps of the Footwork of the Spear Phantom. Intermittently, he would release Rings of Flame, blowing damage outward. Dawn was rising above him, but Randidly did not pause, he did not tire. Because he craved to see the end of this path he was on.

So he would tirelessly continue forward.

*****

“Excuse me.”

Alana looked down, surprised to find the small, strange girl that was always hanging around Arbor. As always, her cheeks were smeared with ash. Her brother, as he always did, was hanging around with a worried look on his face.

What was strange was that in her hands, the girl appeared to be holding a glowing seed of fire. And there was an anthropomorphic rabbit standing next to her, looking at Alana nervously.

Alana coughed into her hand so as not to stare. “...Er, yes?”

The girl nodded seriously. “We’ve been given an important mission by the Ghosthound. I need to escort this Ambassador, and this gift, back to their village. Will you call one of the squads over to guard me?”

Frowning, Alana looked at the Ambassador Rabbit. He smiled weakly back at her. Alana’s eyes returned to the three individuals in front of her. “....an Ambassador…? Where is he from?”

The Ghosthound’s name gave her some pause, and this strange girl certainly had some connection to him due to her relationship with his plant, but… Alana was still slightly suspicious. Why, exactly, did this person look like a rabbit…?

The girl pointed towards the Classer compound. “It’s right this way; follow me.”

Bemused, Alana followed the determined girl. As they walked through Donnyton, Alana saw Devan and his squad, and flashed him a hand signal. Due to their long hours together during their trip to Franksburg, they had hashed out some basic silent communication. Not that it ended up being necessary, because they were so much stronger than the people there. But it was a good way to pass the time.

Instantly, Devan said a quiet word, and his squad moved forward to surround Alana.

When he arrived at her side, he asked. “What is it?”

Alana ruefully gestured to the girl. “Apparently we are on a diplomatic mission, a la the Ghosthound. Guard the weird rabbit man, bring a gift to his village, something like that.”

Much to her annoyance, as soon as Devan heard the Ghosthound’s name, his face eased, and he nodded tranquilly. His whole squad followed suit, and they spread out further, surrounding the two children and rabbit in a protective formation. Abruptly, she regretted bringing up the Ghosthound. After all, she had no evidence that this was actually a mission from him. If they ended up going on some wild goose chase…

Embarrassed, Alana wasn’t sure whether to speak up. While she was struggling inwardly, they marched into the Classer compound, and headed towards the center. Multiple squads were training, but they parted quickly after seeing the group of them. After all, Devan and Alana both had quite a bit of influence, and the girl’s face was known around Donnyton as being related to the magical tree.

But the second looks they received were because of the floppy eared man glancing around nervously. Still, although it was an unusual sight, after exposure to the system, people weren’t moved enough by the rabbit man to investigate further, and they swiftly refocused on their training.

They swiftly arrived at the zone where the entrance to the kept dungeons were, where a line of people waited, but the girl lead them past that. As she walked forward, she approached a strange circle of stone on the ground that Alana had never seen before. The girl turned around and smiled.

“It’s right through here.” The air shimmered behind her.

Then she turned forward, and took another step. The air rippled like water, and the girl disappeared. The Rabbit followed her a second later. After a small glance between themselves, the two leading members of Devan’s team followed, stepping forward and disappearing.

“Uh…” Alana began, but after a few seconds, one of those two reappeared, gave the all clear signal, and then stepped back into nothingness. Devan and his squad quickly marched into the strange void, disappearing before her.

“Uh………” She looked around. No one appeared to have noticed their group had vanished. Donnyton was a busy place, with squads constantly coming and going, training and disappearing into dungeons. So their actions would probably not attract much notice…

Should she report this to someone…? But if the Ghosthound really did send them to do this, perhaps everyone already knew…?

Feeling something was out of place, but unsure of what to do, Alana stepped forward, and was teleported to another world.

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