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A note from puddles4263

Quad release~

I won't have a day off for the 20th chapter per my usual routine, as I will be on vacation and will release no chapters August 17-20th.

As he watched their independent movements, their wild freedom and swiftly developing personalities, it was almost as if they were alive-

Randidly hesitated. Were they alive- he had assumed they were somehow part of himself, but if they were some of sort of life- or some form of sentient energy- Maybe they were Aether itself? The actual form of it? Was his Soul Skill creating Aether? That didn't make much sense, or Soul Skills would be even more in demand than they were already. Were they perhaps refined Aether?

But for what purpose? And also why would a Soul Skill work as a crucible to refine Aether?

This made Randidly muse briefly on the larger question of what a Soul Skill actually was, but he didn't think that he had the requisite materials to answer that question yet. Instead, he let himself relax somewhat, playing with the two freshly born wisps, as they discovered the wide world that was the inside of his soul.

*****

Helen held the male spear attendant in a headlock for a long time, but she eventually loosened her grip, as her focus shifted on the presence of the Tassles hanging on the poles. For around 10 minutes, nothing happened.

Then, rather abruptly, a few Tassles came down from the poles. Very quickly after that, on the poles where a Tassle had already come down, more and more fell, until those afflicted only had 5 or so Tassles remaining. One of the poles even fell to completely 0.

So when a Tassle on the Ghosthound's pole fell, Helen felt her heart seize.

She had never assumed that the Ghosthound was powerful enough to win. She knew those geniuses from the main Styles, even in the Northern Region, were absolute monsters. but she had...

Yes, she had wanted it. Perhaps it was just a way of paying the Ghosthound back for the extra bit of Aether that he seemed to have imparted upon her. But...

She wanted him to win. All of it. Everything. To stand above the nurtured youths of the world with his piercing emerald eyes and his frowning face. So she continued to watch, squeezing her hands together. But it seemed that her worry was for nothing, because after one Tassle fell from Randidly's group, nothing changed.

Helen released a breath that she hadn't really even been conscious of holding. The difficulty of this exercise was that there were no punishments to the group at large for a successful passage, but there were many, many punishments for a member of the group failing. Once one failed, the group would need to support larger and larger amounts of weight.

Very quickly, that weight would grind away at the hope of the remaining individuals, as it became clear that they no longer have the ability to pass by the +20% rule. They were struggling even with just this amount of weight, how could they increase it by 20%? Instead, they could only hope to pass by making it to the final 20% of participants

If one group managed to have the whole group pass... the more people that passed through the 20% rule, the less could be still struggling when the failure rule applied.

"Crn uff et meerghooo." The male spear attendant said from her armpit. Helen blinked, and then looked down at the man in disgust. For someone who specializes in defense, he truly was way too weak. Although she supposed it wasn't really defense that he practiced, but being on the receiving end of abuse. In this, he was truly the number one individual that she had ever met.

Helen released him, and then blinked slightly. It was strange. She had been so physical in the past. And now... well. Not only had she… well um, engaged in physical activities with the Ghosthound, but now she was roughhousing with the male spear attendant. In her mind, she had always attributed her disgust with physical affection to the terrible smells of the tanneries of her childhood, but here she was now, wearing leather, and stinky leather at that, as a disguise.

Then Helen shrugged. “Life is fucking weird.”

Her attention was pulled back towards the poles, because another Tassle fell off Randidly’s pole. His still flapped brilliantly, the gold letters catching the light, but…

As she feared, 5 other Tassles fell within the next few minutes. The crowd of people who could bear the weight was quickly thinning. For a few seconds, Helen wondered how she would fair, if put in a similar situation, holding up a crushing weight for an extended period of time. But then she shook her head again. These fucking thoughts were pointless.

‘But you know what’s really fucking pointless?’ Another part of her snapped. ‘That you are sitting here fucking watching basically nothing. You can’t even see him. Better to spend this time training. What if that Aether inside of you fades even further away?’

Helen tried to ignore that voice. Inner her snorted.

‘Fine, deny it all you want. I’m just saying that you know we have a fucking shit sized bundle of feelings to sift through in regards to him. What if it also turns out that taking that D is what gave us the Aether? Would we do it again? And if we do, is that wrong? That we are just using him for Aether?’

Helen frowned, annoyed at herself, even though she knew it was something she would need to address eventually. ‘People use villages all the time for Aether. That’s not a bad thing.’

‘In what ways are a person similar to a village?’

Luckily, her thoughts were put on hold by several poles having Tassles drop off like flies. The most notable was the fact that the pole numbered 19 had only a single Tassle remaining. A rather bland red, without any notable markings. The Reflecting Pool Style, it said.

Helen’s eyes went back to the Ghosthound’s pole, and grimaced. Not only was she annoyed by his flagrant disregard for his Style by refusing to put it, and instead putting his name in bold on the Tassle, but she also felt a thread of worry as two more Tassles fell to the ground. Only half of the Ghosthound’s group remained, and about the same overall. Of all of the participants, it seemed that only 3 had passed. This didn’t include the last remaining individual of the 19th pole, who seemed to be aiming for the overall length prize, rather than taking the passage for being the final individual in that group.

Around 30 minutes had passed, and as the crowd muttered, watching the poles, nothing happened for a while. Only when the time had reached closer to 50 minutes did a few Tassles begin to drop once more. Slowly but surely, like browning leaves from trees in fall, the Tassles drifted away.

The Challenge of Tarnak, the full experience, was a 24 hour experience. It could be seen from the fact that so many had failed before the 1 hour mark how difficult a bar that was. But to be fair, it also demonstrated something else about the challenge: if you could make it through the first parts, you can make it for a while more. It, ultimately, was not about Strength at all. But Willpower.

And in her heart of hearts, Helen could see the eyes of the Ghosthound, burning brightly like ignited salt. That was not a weak willed man.

There was some commotion away from the stage, and she was surprised to see that the source of the commotion was Claptrap, pushing a cart. On top of it were pastries and sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper, prepared in the manner demonstrated by the Ghosthound from his homeland. Although Claptrap was initially very skeptical about Cooking, and unwilling to dedicate one of his last 3 skill slots to it, he was brought around by the ridiculous amount of markup on the price that people seemed completely willing to bear for the convenience and taste of the Ghosthound’s food.

The prices that Claptrap was yelling were enough to purchase bottom tier armor, and would not have earned him a sale in Qtal. But this was Deardun, and there was a different clientele here. A lot of the disciples of the larger Styles, whose strength had been “vouched” for, and they didn’t need to participate in these preliminaries, were here to see their competitors, and had some amount of spending money.

In addition, wealthy armor sellers and merchants were here, pandering to the upper tier Styles, and also looking for a destitute challenger from the preliminaries who they could give their armor to, for free publicity. These facts, combined with absolutely mouth watering scents wafting from the food, made it so a few curious individuals wandered over.

More than that, all in all, this was exceedingly boring to watch. This extremely novel idea, (imagine, bringing food around on a cart?), attracted some attention of a very bored crowd.

And once they tasted it….

Very quickly Claptrap had sold out, and he began taking out the materials to set up a permanent stall, to make food during the attraction. People were milling around, pointing their greasy fingers excitedly, and the merchants had taken notice, and were sidling up to Claptrap, asking him some pointed questions. He just smiled and shook his head, and they left, disappointed.

But they were intelligent men and women, after all. They also tried his wares. Although they weren’t sure of the recipe, the seed of the idea had been planted in these very enterprising heads. Over the course of the next few months, no non-combat individual was more sought after in Deardun than the Cook.

But for now, Helen just smacked the male spear attendant. “What the fuck are you doing? Go help.”

“Why me?” The male spear attendant whined. But as Helen advanced towards him, a gleam in her eye, he scrambled to his feet and hurried down to help with the stand. Helen sat down with a pleased expression. Although the leather workers back home were wary of her, they didn’t have the same fear in their eyes that the male spear attendant did. It truly set her heart at ease to see him scurry to work like that.

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