Ed was guzzling wine when Mrs. Hamilton spoke to the group. She needed to act quickly, while he was distracted. This was not a subject that he would normally have much knowledge about, and therefore shouldn’t offer an opinion. Of course, that meant he was all the more likely to say something.
It was a balance, these dinners with Ed. But he was valuable in his own way. So Mrs. Hamilton ignored the sound of gulping and said. “I think it’s time we all acknowledge a fact: Randidly is back in town, and he will very likely rile up the Squads for another challenge. Even considering his prior failure... I am worried.”
To her great relief, Ed didn’t seem particularly interested in this tidbit of discussion. But around the table, Sam stared at the glossy reflection of his butter knife. Donny frowned down at his lap. Alana meticulously tore small bits off of her roll and devoured them.
“And they will love him for it,” Alana commented lightly. Like an eagle’s talon, she scythed into the bread and ripped herself off another piece. “Even I can feel my heart pounding at the thought. Who will win, I wonder?”
“There’s no way he can grow fast enough to keep up with an entire Raid Squad,” Donny finally said as he raised his head to look around the table. Bekany tittered and poured Ed some more wine. The man had the decency to hide a belch behind his hand but then continued to drink. “He’s strong. Still the strongest? Perhaps. But against a whole group…”
“He treated the Ogre Ironfist like a child,” Alana said. “He didn’t even need to move to cow them; he simply dispersed their Skills. And he didn’t appear particularly worn out by the whole experience. At least in terms of scale, he has the capabilities to handle a large group of people. It would be better to think of him less as an individual and more as an established Raid Boss with Lieutenants that are just as dangerous as he is.”
“What are his lieutenants then?” Ed cut across the discussion as he scratched his belly. Everyone seemed rather surprised that he had spoken. But Mrs. Hamilton felt a great deal of relief. One of the few things that she respected about Ed was his ability to accomplish a task. Although few things struck Ed as appropriate enough to get involved in, the man was a master of finishing things he started.
So Mrs. Hamilton had left out enough bait that he would be drawn into this very conversation. Because under no circumstances could Donnyton allow itself to be dominated now by Randidly Ghosthound. Their previous victory had preserved their honor. They needed another victory to truly establish independence.
Still, it was a delicate balance to deal with Ed. It would be very easy for him to lead the talk straight toward bickering.
“His Skills,” Sam finally said. Mrs. Hamilton felt something like pity for Sam. She knew how much he disliked Ed, for all of his practical uses. Speaking up must have been difficult. “We are aware of his abilities with plants and fire. But it would be too much to hope he hasn’t gathered a few more tricks since we have seen him last.”
“Huh,” Ed said. Then he cut himself another piece of the cheesecake.
Mrs. Hamilton pressed her lips into a line. Seemed like this wasn’t enough to get him involved. Well, it was a long shot anyway. Besides dragging Ed into the discussion, she also wished to make sure everyone else understood how important this upcoming challenge would be. Assuming Randidly would bring it up.
But Alana was right; Randidly would obviously bring it up. It was in his blood to test himself. It would feel nostalgic to Randidly to attempt it. It would feel natural to seek his value against that of the world for Randidly. He was young. That was his prerogative.
Yet Donnyton couldn’t afford to have its title of strongest shaken at the moment.
Donny leaned forward. “If we come at him together, I doubt he would be able to stand it. There are limits to human ability. He might toe that line, but he cannot cross it.”
“Agreed,” Sam said. “Besides, I could tell from his mannerisms that his lost arm is a recent development. Even for the best warriors, that will slow him down some. His Skills are powerful, but he is not critically weaker than he was previously. If we bring it close, he will have no choice but to be pressed onto his back foot.”
Alana looked at Mrs. Hamilton. Mrs. Hamilton sighed. “Perhaps that may be true. But you must remember that whatever place he went to previously saw him returning vastly improved in close combat. Even with a handicap, he shouldn’t be underestimated. In addition, he now has a Class. He has been Leveling. Don’t you recall the growth you experienced after obtaining a Class? In terms of Stats, I doubt anyone is close to his match.”
That silenced the table. Bekany tittered. “Wow, I can’t wait to meet him! I’ve heard so much about him.”
In agreement, Ed thumped his fist on the table. “It’s high time that I meet the boy as well. He basically founded the town, right? I need to give him a piece of my mind.”
As one, Alana, Donny, Sam, Regina, and Mrs. Hamilton rolled their eyes.
“Why did he choose a location so rife with limestone? Does he understand how difficult it is to add sewage lines through ten feet of limestone? If this was the world before the System…” Ed muttered darkly. Like all things, this somehow revolved around Ed and his work.
After a suitable amount of time had passed, Mrs. Hamilton continued. “I’ve contacted Stan to talk about tactics. But I simply wanted to bring the matter up so everyone was aware of what was occurring.”
Regina, who had been quiet for most of the dinner, sighed. “Not only is Sam refusing to come home at night, but now I’ll need to ready the Surgery Division, shall I? I don’t suppose such a challenge can be kept… within safe parameters?”
Alana and Regina’s relationship was close enough that Alana didn’t bother to suppress her low and throaty chuckle.
Clearing his throat, Ed spoke again with the red flush of intoxication infusing his cheeks. “Is such a fellow really worth all the time and attention heaped upon him? As long as he is isolated, I don’t see why this is such an ordeal. Simply tire him out and knock him down. It should be almost impossible for one man to pierce the defense shell erected by Donnyton, regardless of Skills.”
“Unfortunately not,” Donny said with a sigh. “That’s what makes our run-ins with the Nemesai so dangerous every time. Most of Donnyton’s training is focused on making the soldiers ready for monster attacks. Although they use Skills, it’s mostly a matter of physical superiority and size. Attacks are generally powerful but predictable.
“Not so against people. They have Skills, they are mobile, and they generally can the hard defenses and strike where you are weak. For all that I think we will win, Randidly won’t make it easy.” Donny rubbed his chin. “In terms of Agility… it will be hard to keep up. Trapping him would be a high priority, and that will definitely need a plan.”
Alana drummed her fingers against the table. “We’ve only really given Stan rather low-stress engagements to control so far. Things he has felt far away from. With how nervous he is-”
Donny waved a hand. “We can’t coddle him forever. Besides, his problem started with something Randidly said to him, didn’t it? Perhaps a chance to redeem himself is exactly what he wants.”
Ed nodded emphatically in agreement. “Exactly! A man needs to fight his enemies. Perhaps not physically, but in a direct fashion! It’s only by facing your foe that you grow to understand him. Take this Randidly character, for instance. Now I won’t obviously bother to force it to a duel, but I will do my damnedest to stand up for my moral code. He might waltz into town thinking he owns the place, but-”
“Yes yes,” Sam said dismissively. “But we haven’t discussed the most important detail. I’ll be creating armor for Randidly, so I feel somewhat conflicted to be here-”
“You aren’t seriously suggesting that your armor would shift the outcome of the fight?” Ed scoffed. On cue, Bekany tittered.
Regina sighed. “Oh, he definitely is.”
“To compare a well-equipped man to a barehanded one is to compare a cannonball to a grape,” Sam growled, his eyes narrowed and locked upon Ed.
Mrs. Hamilton sighed; it seemed that all hope of a productive discussion had been lost for the night.
Ed leaned forward and pointed his thick finger at Sam. “You need to stop treating this man like he’s some sort of incarnate of god. He’s just some punk kid that was at the right place at the right time. Now sure, he’s stronger than the average, maybe even currently the strongest person on Earth. But how long will that last? He’s just one man! And probably arrogant to boot. I’m starting to rethink meeting him…”
Donny chuckled. “You don’t have a choice, Ed. You might think you do, but you don’t. That’s just the type of guy he is. As long as you remain in Donnyton, he will creep his way into your life without you even noticing.”
At the crack of dawn, Ed snuck out of bed, careful not to wake his wife. Not only to save himself from the nattering but because Ed had a secret life. One that he kept secret from his wife not to keep her from finding out what he did, but to prevent everyone else from finding out that the thing he did was done by him, Ed.
With a little application of illusion, he erased his own mustache. For several long seconds, he stared sourly at his reflection in the mirror. Without his fine mustache, he just looked… old. And balding. Shaking his head at the sacrifices he made for his love, Ed snuck out of his home.
This all was necessary because Ed had made his money creating the sewer system of Donnyton and then expanding it to Franksburg. With all the shit flowing between two booming cities, he established a super large waste treatment center between them. His wife believed that he spent most of his days down South at that facility, running experiments to make the conversion of human waste more efficient.
That wasn’t the case. Because Ed had a dream.
A dream that was wholly incompatible with the man who was known as the lord of shit.
Humming softly, Ed strolled across Donnyton toward the Northern portion of the city. At this time of the morning, there were a lot of individuals flowing down from the mountain toward their work. Due to the steady flow of bodies, he was simply lost in the throng.
It was only outside his secret shop that Ed paused. He twitched his invisible mustache. Was there something… different about his door?
Ed considered it for several seconds. Then he harrumphed. Probably the contractor used cheap paint, and the color was washing out in the sun. That’s what Ed would have done. Tsking at being taken advantage of, Ed unlocked the shop and walked into the store.
After all, he needed to get a start on the day’s baking. For whatever reason, there was an increase in customers for the past two days. Perhaps that black-haired young man was right. Perhaps a change was coming to Donnyton.