Randidly was distantly aware that Donnyton sent squads to help out their sister village, which apparently was a thing, but ultimately decided to ignore it. He had his own work to deal with, and they were adults. It was no longer solely his job to defend the village. And these opponents seemed to be on their level.
Under Mrs. Hamilton, with Lyra’s occasional assistance, the training continued to escalate. His footwork drills came under increasing strain as Lyra used more and more mana birds, moving in strange, beautiful patterns to encircle him. The weights he was forced to train with grew and grew.
Afterwards, he would have sometimes short, sometimes long conversations with Lyra, answering her one question a day for her assistance. The longest day, was, of course, when Lyra had wormed out his intimate relationship with Ace and Sydney, and asked him how he had met Sydney.
There was a short answer, that they were born next to each other in the hospital, on the same day, and there was a longer answer, that he hadn’t learned her name until his best friend, Ace, had brought this girl back to their apartment after a party, and their eyes met, both filled with recognition.
Strangely, as Randidly told this story, he found he couldn’t stop, and he told her about how the three of them had grown so close, and how a shadow had come across Sydney’s life, and it made him realize some things about his own life, culminating in him breaking up with Tessa and walking home in the underground tunnel, when the world changed.
Lyra had simply nodded, and walked away. The next day she asked him what his favorite meal was, and he answered honestly; veal cutlet with spaetzle and red cabbage. In the same manner she nodded again, and the training continued.
For the accuracy test with the hanging loops to thrust through, the spinning speed increased. Then he was no longer allowed to touch the hoop, but had to thrust through it without disturbing its motion.
The strange exercise with letters on the spinning poles grew more complicated, as a second set of letters were scrawled on the sides of the pegs, painted with a different color. Sometimes he could use both, but increasingly often he would need to use just one, or need to alternate between the two. Or Mrs. Hamilton would make up an esoteric and pointless order for the colors, and he would need to memorize that, while calculating how he could move.
Soon there were 4 colors, and more often than not, his movements led him into a dead end, where he couldn’t move forward at all. But eventually he could push through, retrying his exercises. By the end of the day, he had managed to fit in everything Mrs. Hamilton had planned, barely, and Randidly turned his focus to spells, or to meditating on his Soul Skill.
Around 2 AM, he would then go to work with Sam, slowly learning Engraving. His skill improved gradually, as he mastered, or at least managed to achieve moderate success, at controlling the flow of his mana through the needle. He successfully completed one of each type of rune they had available, slowly nearing 40%, which Sam told him would be the line to become an uncommon quality item, and therefore much more useful to the village.
Still, Randidly remained just a hair away from that line, even after several repetitions.
From dawn until Mrs. Hamilton had prepared the day’s exercises, Randidly went out by himself and created avatars of roots to practice the spear with. Form by form, detail by detail, he carefully examined how the system guided him, seeking to understand why those motions improved his skill with a spear, and to improve on that.
After two days, Randidly was forced to make a more sophisticated root avatar, so his grip and stance were more realistic, so he could continue to refine his form. A few days later, Randidly had enough control and mental strength, barely, to manage two Avatar’s at once. He pressed and pressed, working tirelessly even in his “rest” hours. After all, there was no other way for him to follow his own path of strength.
When he was called over to train, he went slightly begrudgingly, bitter and yet excited to see the impossible feats that Mrs. Hamilton would set for him. Although he hadn’t yet been physically unable to complete anything, some had come very close. And often, he would fail, and be forced to restart the exercise.
At first these failures didn’t mean anything, until one day, when a new individual arrived at the scene; a strange, hunched over and wrinkled man who looked like a turtle. For a long time, while Randidly struggled through his exercises, the man stood with Mrs. Hamilton, listening to her talking animatedly.
He spoke infrequently, but when he did, Mrs. Hamilton’s smile, which Randidly had somewhat come to dread, spread ever so slightly wider.
Finally, he completed the assigned task, and after a brief water break, walked over to the two individuals.
“This is Bert,” Mrs. Hamilton introduced the man simply. “He is from Kith Klark. Due to our assistance with a little pest problem earlier in the week, he agreed to do one favor for our Village. We have chosen to have him give you some guidance. He is, I am told, an extremely accomplished fighter.”
Randidly felt it too, there was something… slippery about the turtle man, as his eyes slowly blinked and glanced at him. When he finally spoke, what he said surprised Randidly greatly.
“You… have created a skill for yourself?”
Randidly blinked, then nodded.
The turtle smiled, and it was a small, twisted thing, and suddenly Randidly swayed, slightly dizzy, struck but a wave of battlelust from that old turtle. But then it disappeared. “I will show you the exercises I used to develop the skill that made me the most powerful warrior in Kith Klark.”
So the old turtle did a strange, scuttling dance, waving for Randidly to join. And under Mrs. Hamilton’s approving grin, he did. There were three basic exercises, each more strange and impossible than the last. They involved squats and tiptoes, and spins, and rotations.
After a single time through the first exercise, Randidly stumbled almost falling on his face, despite his high stats and his Grace skill. He shook his head in wonder.
Bert just grinned and completed his demonstration. Luckily, Mrs. Hamilton’s training had familiarized Randidly with memorization, so it was quite easy to follow the steps. They weren’t complicated, they were just designed to be impossible for legs to actually perform.
“Strength comes from the base. Do these, and your base will be strong.” Bert grunted, turning back to Randidly. “But remember, to form a skill, most important is-”
“Image.” Randidly whispered, and Bert grinned at him, and then turned and left.
Mrs. Hamilton stepped forward. “I have good news! Not only did he provide that, but he also had some suggestions as to how we can add some leg exercises to the other activities. Oh, and whenever you fail one of these training activities, you will do Bert’s dance as a punishment before continuing.”
‘God I’m tired.’ Randidly thought, eyes bright, nodding seriously at Mrs. Hamilton’s comment, his posture one of barely controlled excitement.
And although his body truly was approaching its limits, he weirdly didn’t feel tired at all. So he continued, his feet carrying him further, following his own path.
Glendel closed his eyes and reached for his ghosts, feeling their strange whispers all around him. It had been almost 3 weeks since the portal to Kith Klark opened. In the wake of Annie’s actions, all of the monsters from the slain Raid Bosses in the area attacked Kith Klark with a vicious anger. Donnyton decided to intervene, sending their best squads over to help the defense.
It was a long battle, but one that resulted in the villages’ victory.
More importantly, it markedly improved relations between the villages, and now people could travel freely between them. After several profuse apologies, the turtles actually led the way with lavish gifts of armor and crossbows, some reparations for their previous shortsightedness. Above all else, the Turtles appeared to value martial prowess, and had a great respect and reverence for the squads of Donnyton, especially the numerals, after their performance in the defense of Kith Klark.
Meanwhile, the Rabbits appeared more focused on cleverness and arts, and took very quickly to coffee and alcohol, two of Donnyton’s luxury exports. All were glad when Razor’s grandma was to inebriated to remain conscious at the end of every day. But unfortunately, she leapt up again in the morning, the alcohol burnt off by her vitality, to start the process again.
There was still the strange incident involving the attack against Razor, but neither side wanted to bring up the issue, so those who hadn’t forgotten simply filed it away for later. As Kith Klark slowly regained use of the surrounding areas, they provided Donnyton their own special wares. Fish, Honey, and most importantly for some, Spider Silk, which they used to create beautifully soft clothes. Even now some of the more intrepid farmers were trying to Cross Breed plants to create flowers for dyes.
Like a zombie, it looked like the fashion industry was determined to rise from the grave that the arrival of the system had placed it.
During this time, they learned a lot more about Kith Klark, their world and culture, their strange species, and the practice of choosing who you wanted to be at 15. Most interesting about their choosing a breed was that even the system recognized it; they were given a Soul Skill based on which they chose, which gave them a stats advantage in the long run.
1 on 1, it was likely that a Classer from Kith Klark was more powerful, if they were at the same level. But after weathering their tribulation and dealing with the Raid Bosses’ harassment, Kith Klark had only around 150 Classers, with about double that of NCCs. Meanwhile, with the influx of people from Franksburg, and the slow trickle of people who wanted to find out what the light pillars and villages meant, Donnyton now had around 1200 Classers, and almost 8,000 members of the village.
The Council finally found a group of decent architects, and was currently designing plans for a larger city area, if just for the market area that they needed, what with traders from both Franksburg and Kith Klark.
Franksburg had successfully weathered its own tribulation, mostly due to a monstrous effort by Lucifer, who apparently had to cut out the heart of the tribulation and eat it, in order to prevent it from regenerating.
Although their tribulation wasn’t particularly gifted in magic or illusions, their tribulation was large and almost unkillable. It took 3 days and almost 1000 lives, but Franksburg made it. And Lucifer, for his actions, earned the strangely specific class “Avenger of Franksburg”. The Freedom Fighters were very tight lipped about the details, but from the secrecy, it was easy to see that it was a powerful class.
Glendel breathed in and out again, listening to the reports from his ghosts.
Kiersty was finally released from the house arrest she had been placed under by her mother upon her return from Kith Klark, and was dancing with several children, and with most of the traders who came from Kith Klark.
For whatever reason, the Rabbits especially were fascinated with the tree, especially the 20 ft tall original planting, which was wreathed in flame most of the time, due to its boughs being thick with leaves. Although a leaf withered and fell every time someone used a skill, there were currently 8 sproutings in Donnyton, and 2 in Kith Klark, and the rate of Arbor’s Blessing spawning had increased greatly. So they came and danced, enjoying the immaculately kept park that surrounded Arbor.
Another ghost whispered, distracting Glendel. As it had been for the past weeks, Tykes stood at the base of the mountain path, gazing upwards, but still unable to muster enough Willpower to walk up and approach Raina, who went up there every morning to draw.
Her drawings were actually very popular, for portraits and scenery, but especially for the changes that she recorded over time that demonstrated the rapid evolution Donnyton was experiencing. Some painters involved in the design and construction of the new Donnyton had taken some of her sketches in order to make several great murals. They had even interviewed Donny, Sam, and some of the original Classers, getting an idea about how the valley originally looked, almost 2 months ago.
But of course, the most popular items were the sketches of the Ghosthound. These were always done in charcoal, but there were several different varieties. There was even one where he was cooking, which made people dubious, but when you looked at his eyes… Raina had a gift for shading, and in those eyes, there was darkness, rage, intensity, and more than anything, concentration. The scenes around him seemed to fade, but those eyes remained the same. And for that, people wordlessly bought the drawings, until most people had one such within their home.
What was even more shocking to people was that this masked woman, who they had thought of as a skilled drawer, announced she would be performing a musical concert. The whole town buzzed with excitement, even Kith Klark’s population was curiously optimistic about this strange “concert”. A sound system was imported from Franksburg in preparation.
‘And,’ Glendel thought to himself. ‘It will happen tonight.’
Turning his attention away from Tykes’ lonesome figure, Glendel followed his ghosts, away from the forges, past the areas where the Numeral X was being challenged by the Squad ranked 11th, out towards the prairie area, where he found the Ghosthound.
For whatever reason, this was Glendel’s favorite time to watch the Ghosthound, the intense and driven man who made this town possible. He stood still, his hands casually wrapped around a spear, three strange creatures made of roots near him. Those root creatures each thrust out a spear, and then after a small delay, the Ghosthound himself followed.
This continued almost endlessly, every day, but Glendel loved it. Although his own power was incredible, and growing daily, when he looked at these strange root beings…
It just felt like magic. Real magic. In a way that Glendel, no matter how skilled he was, could never match. This was the level of the Ghosthound, who had created this town, and nurtured it to the 10,000 people city that it was approaching being.
But eventually, as it was his time to scout, he turned his attention away, flowing around. Finding nothing more of note, Glendel returned to himself.
4 other things of note had happened in the past 3 weeks, which could be divided into two groups. First, a pillar of light had appeared to their west, signifying that another village had been founded, without any assistance from the Ghosthound. Not a day later, two more appeared, to the Northwest, in a similar direction, but apart from each other enough that they were clearly separate.
After much debate, Donnyton’s council had decided that they would wait to send scouts in that direction. First because there was always the chance that the village would fall to its tribulation. Making contact before they passed that might be pointless. In addition, there appeared to be a large area in the middle of their Zone where monsters between the levels of 28 and 35 roamed freely.
It was one thing to defend a village from monsters of that level. It was quite another to wander out into a landscape you knew nothing about and attempt to survive, hounded by those monsters. So they decided to wait.
The second group of news was more happy. First, Sam proposed to Regina, and she said yes.
Then, choosing to eschew social norms, Annie announced to the world that she was pregnant.
Both of these bits of news also created excitement, for different reasons. First because there was going to be a huge celebration and party for the former. And the latter because basically no babies or toddlers had survived the arrival of the system. This baby would be Donnyton’s first, perhaps even the first of the whole Zone.
Glendel heard Daniel ask Dozer wonderingly if he thought the baby would get any bonuses for being the firstborn into the world, and was promptly punched in the gut.
There was also a push by Regina and Mrs. Hamilton to change their governing structure, but talks had stalled in recent days as they attempted to figure out how exactly it would work. In the meantime, Donnyton itself just buckled down and prepared for the night’s concert.
Daniel looked around the table. “So we are in agreement? The Communications Array can be purchased?”
Everyone nodded, and Daniel did so, glad to finally have this. He opened up his menu immediately afterwards and was gratified to finally see the “Friends” option was open. Even more exciting was that it seemed there would be chat and parties available through this. There was even a social tab that displayed all individuals that you had encountered in the past.
Once the Communications Array had been purchased, it was possible to purchase “Communication Towers” which effectively gave people within the area a minimap that displayed different locations of import, allies, and enemies.
Daniel was practically drooling.
There was a secret here, Randidly knew. He carefully watched the rotation of the energies inside himself, seeking an answer to it. The grass grew, the rot came, ballooning outward. The fire came, burning it all away, leaving only ash-
But then Randidly frowned. He focused more, pressing his will upon the image, going closer to the ash. Ash was…
He could see it, glittering darkly on the ground. Although all of the biological matter was burnt away, leaving only carbon and trace elements…
It seemed as though those trace elements were slowly building up. With glittering eyes, Randidly focused closer, watching as the grass grew, it rotted away into a bulging mass of filth, and then was burned away.
Rot couldn’t consume the ash, and the grass didn’t grow off of the ash, it grew out of the ground and water. Instead, the ash remained, the refined little carbon bits from the burnt rot. So as he watched…
His Soul Skill was slowly spreading a layer of ash over this area where Aether dwelled. Of hardened and refined carbon and other trace minerals. But what was the point of that? What could ash…
Randidly opened his eyes, their green iridescent and foreign. Unless something could be planted in that ash. Unless that bed of ash could nurture something.
But then movement in the corner of his eyes, distracted him. He twisted sideways, noticing strange sigils forming on the ground around him. He stepped forward, using Footwork of the Spear Phantom, and the weeks of training paid off. He practically teleported 3 meters forward, out of the range of the sigils.
Except when he looked back, they were still there, all around him, as if they had followed him. And just like that, soundlessly, the spell activated, and Randidly disappeared.
Dozer looked up, frowning.
Warning! The Tier III Raid Boss has spawned! Swiftly discover whether it spawned in the zone of you or your sister village, and hunt it down. The Village that earns the kill will be greatly rewarded. All villages who survive the Tier III Raid Boss will receive a reward. But be careful, for just like you, this Raid Boss has found its own path, and wants to walk it to completion.
‘Was it really that time already…?’ He wondered. But then he shook his head.
No rest for the wicked. The system was always throwing another monster in front of him that he needed to kill. Why would it be any different now?
In the distance Dozer heard the celebrations that had happened in the wake of Raina’s concert silence themselves quite quickly. It seemed everyone understood; their brief respite was over. It was once more time to focus on survival.
“Tsk, tsk, a single notification and you are already so serious. You already look like a father, with that grumpy face,” Annie said, yawning as she stretched, arching her back provocatively in bed. Dozer just grunted, turning away before he could get distracted.
“You shouldn’t fight like that.” He said simply, hoping she would listen to him, just this once. Annie was many wonderful things, but obedient was not one of them.
“Well obviously I’ll get dressed first.”
“No. You know what I mean.” Dozer said, turning back to her and frowning. “What if the baby-”
She stood and looked at him, her eyes round and sad. “What about you? Will you fight like that? Knowing your death means….”
She trailed off, and then just bit her lip. Not provocatively, just emotionally. And for the first time since they had met, Dozer saw fear in her eyes.
And immediately after that, he was hit with a wave of panic. He was 20! And going to be a father? And he had to fight monsters? Teach other people to fight?
It was strange how quickly his life had changed. In the past, Dozer would have gone out and hooked up with some random chick, fucking her until his cum drowned out his worries. But now, he could only close his eyes.
They really couldn’t back out now. So he opened his eyes and tried to smile, saying,. “...alright, but be careful. And stay near me.”
Annie nodded meekly and walked into his embrace, her fingers going to the spot the spell from the Ghosthound had ripped a hole in his bicep as Dozer protected her. They stood like that, silent and still, for several minutes, until the summons from Glendel’s ghosts arrived.
Then Annie flounced herself, doing her best to lose contrite in his field of vision, but his enhanced perception told Dozer she moved much more animatedly away from him. He knew that she played it up around him, but he also knew that she truly felt fear.
Annie was not a simple woman, Dozer thought as he hefted his huge club over his shoulder, but she was his. That’s all he needed.