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A note from puddles4263

16/21

Ed was sweating as he dashed down the hill toward his bakery. Due to an… unfortunately timed backup at one of his facilities, he had spent all of the prior two days up to his elbows in shit. Literal shit. The problem ended up being that the Engravings on their processing equipment were starting to wear down under the constant use.

It turned out that they had expanded too fast. The current staff that Ed employed wasn’t enough to handle this scale of equipment. But finding more people willing to participate in this line of work was a bit...

Because of the backup, they needed to go through and cast the Cleanse Skill by hand. So now wasn’t exactly the best time to bring new people onto the team. Basically, Ed ended up handling most of it himself.

Which normally Ed wouldn’t mind, but there was another factor in the background that complicated the whole process.

For whatever reason, his bakery was the talk of Donnyton.

The so-called guerilla marketing…? Not that it matters. With my baking ability… it was inevitable that the quality of my desserts would seize the hearts of Donnyton…! Ed eagerly buttered his own ego as he hastily applied the illusion to his face and rushed down the sloped paths to the North side of Donnyton. Even though it was two hours before dawn, there were still a few people on the roads who gave him annoyed looks as he careened past them.

But he had to hurry. For the first time since his bakery was founded, he had missed a day. Now that his overwhelming talent had finally caught the eye of the Squads, he couldn’t let his chance to finally escape his shit industry slip away…!

His sanity was counting on this…!

Once more, Ed was brought to a dead stop as he entered the square where his shop was located. Because despite the early hour, there were almost a hundred people milling about the square.

Haha! Of course! Even with a single day’s delay, the hold my chocolates have over these people-

But Ed’s train of thought was brought to an abrupt stop as he looked more closely at the surrounding area. Although the people were around his shop… it seemed like most were being served at tables immediately adjacent to Ed’s shop. At… other shops…? The people… there were waiters and waitresses...

“What the hell…?” Ed muttered as he stomped forward.

For the last year that Ed had owned this storefront, the shop to his immediate left had been run by an old woman who offered clothing repair services. The shop to his right was one of the many second-hand shops, where one could purchase used and damaged equipment for only a few coins.

Obviously, neither was doing very well. The old woman only did it to keep up the appearances of trying to gain Skill Levels so her daughter wouldn’t bother her, and the second-hand shop was a front for something much darker. Ed always meant to investigate that, but now...

Now, both were cafes.

“What the hell…!” Ed growled as fury erupted in his chest. To think that vultures would be circling so quickly! But they would soon see. As soon as Ed’s shop opened its doors, the transcendent smell that he was able to produce…

“Ufufu… you must be the owner of this… fine establishment… It must be nice to be able to sleep in...”

Ed spun around and came face to face with a very familiar foe. “Slugworth…!”

Slugworth smiled wanly. “You must be mistaking me for someone else. Of course, my name is… Mr. Jones.”

Ed narrowed his eyes but said nothing to this obvious lie. Upon examining Slugworth further, it was clear that the man was using an illusion to shrink his positively dominant hawk nose to the size of a button. Due to the size of the man’s long face, the effect was slightly off-putting. But then again, Slugworth was always detestable. His general aura was one of disrepute and seediness.

Yet Ed dare not call the man out on the lie, as he himself had used illusion to rid himself of his distinguishing mustache. Both of these two eternal rivals were incognito, and there was a tacit agreement to say nothing, lest the other spoil their own cover identity. They would duel on even terms here, on the merits of their businesses.

Slugworth was an old foe of Ed’s, a man who worked tirelessly for the farming communities around Donnyton to provide composting services. The walking slimeball was constantly haggling over the quality of excrement that Ed sold to him. If not for Slugworth squeezing every bit of scrap iron he could out of their deals, Ed would be significantly more well off.

Often, he stayed up late and complained to Bekany about how different their lives would be if only Slugworth would have spawned nearer to a monster at the beginning of the System. It was one of Ed’s favorite conversation topics.

“...apologies, Mr. Jones.” Ed said through gritted teeth. “I saw a dying pig on the way here, and the resemblance was rather uncanny. Perhaps a cousin of yours?”

“Let’s cut the pleasantries, there is no need to be so formal. We are neighbors, after all.” Then Slugworth leaned toward Ed and sneered. “It’s so strange. I have talked to the many patrons who were interested in your bakery, and you know what they always said…? The desserts were… passable, but the reason they came back was for the ambiance. There is just a feeling in the air…”

Slugworth turned and grinned. “Honestly, I don’t know how a snake like you managed it, but I feel it too. This place… it feels like home. So I’ve set up my own little… side business here. Let’s get along for the foreseeable future, kekeke.”

“To even buy up the shops on both sides of me… You’ve gone too far this time, MISTER JONES!” Ed rumbled.

“The shops on both sides…?” There was a flash of confusion across Slugworth’s face. Then his expression twisted in bitterness and paled. “No, I-”

A voice cut across him. “Ah, gentlemen. A meeting so early in the morning…? Perhaps I, as a fellow shop owner in the area, should join.”

Ed spun around to face…

For several seconds, Ed’s mind struggled to comprehend the strange figure he was faced with. The hair was shorter…. But…

Wasn’t this clearly Mrs. Hamilton, guised with an illusion…?

But as he was given the chance to examine the figure further, Ed’s face went red with fury. Because in addition to shortening her hair, she had also added a mustache to her face. A very fine, extremely voluminous and well-maintained mustache that any true man would envy. Even now, she stroked it contemplatively as she smiled at Ed. Her expression was vicious and provocative.

It was, of course, Ed’s mustache. The real deal on Ed’s face twitched excessively in protest, even as it was hidden by the illusion.

“What the hell are you doing?!?” Ed hissed.

Mrs. Hamilton chuckled and spoke in an excessively deep voice. “Hohoho… there’s no need to shout. I simply wished to introduce myself. I am… Mr. Greene. A new arrival to the area, who simply loves commerce. And you-.”

Mrs. Hamilton paused as an attractive man dressed up as a maitre de came and whispered in her ear. Then Mrs. Hamilton gestured helplessly behind her to her very popular cafe. “So many customers, I’m sure you understand. I have not the time that the two you possess, having fewer individuals demanding service from you. Honestly, I’m quite jealous. Hohoho…”

Then she walked away, leaving Ed as red as a beat and as volatile as nitroglycerin.

*****

Randidly glared at Acri. “What did I tell you? Stop killing them all! I need to get the experience myself.”

Acri wriggled in dissatisfaction as if asking how it could grow it didn’t get experience too.

Randidly threw his hands up into the air. Yes, his hands. Because over the several hours of hard running down to the Southeast he had managed to reach a passable proficiency with his arm. While he wasn’t at the point that he could control it instinctively like a normal arm, but the process of adjusting to it was proceeding faster than he would have suspected.

It seemed that Aether being the medium did a lot to speed up the process.

Looking at the cooling bodies of the monsters, he understood Acri’s complaint. This was likely the largest break in using Acri Randidly had experienced since he had rescued his spear from the Death School. And that honestly wasn’t very long ago as well.

Plus, now that he had both of his hands back, Randidly desperately needed to spend some time practicing spear forms. He simply hadn’t had the chance for a few weeks, and he would need to be on his A game to fight against Donnyton. Yet he hadn’t.

Without two arms, Randidly had largely need to set aside Acri and focus on images and Engraving in order to improve. It made sense that Acri was slightly disgruntled. But after his experience of the insubordination of his Riders, Randidly wasn’t going to let this slide.

He leveled a glare at the spear even as the dozen or so remaining grizzly bears cowered nearby. “Look, these are mine, alright? I need to Level up. After I get used to the feeling, I promise I’ll go back to using a spear. But for now…”

Then Randidly shook his head. “Anyway, you’ve helped me a lot to get here. I would not have survived if not for you. But that doesn’t mean you can put your own concerns in front of mine. What would you do if I died down the line? Would you just wait for someone else capable of using you to show up? I know your feelings are hurt, but right now I need to become comfortable with this new body as soon as possible. Otherwise…”

Randidly trailed off. Acri wilted. It, too, remembered the fight against Aegaint. It remembered how powerless they had been before him. If it wasn’t for the help of outside sources, they likely would have slowly perished inside of that lava pool. And likely, that was exactly the reason that Acri was so determined. Because just like Randidly, it never wanted to experience that feeling ever again.

“Okay, good,” Randidly said with a kind nod. He raised his bulky left arm and turned back to the grizzly bears that remained. They were between Level 45 and 49, and therefore were pretty good experience for him right now. At least good enough that Randidly would stop and deal with them. “As for you…”

Instantly, the bears perked up. Randidly did feel some pity for them, but it wasn’t to the point that he would be merciful. Especially when he could sense human bones in their den some distance away.

They get pulled from their homeworld and taken to a place where they need to kill to survive… and then we kill them for killing, Randidly thought sadly. But even if the larger culprit is the System… They can’t escape their own Path.

He activated Wild Phantom’s Raucous Finale and blurred into motion. The Skill propelled him forward with unstoppable speed toward the largest of the bears.

Honestly, Randidly hadn’t truly succeeded in creating the finisher he wanted. What he received was similar to the Spear Advances, Ash Trails. With two important difference.

The first was that the motion of Raucous Finale was much more volatile. It wasn’t just a straight line charge that could be easily read. Of course, it was slightly slower, to give Randidly control of the movement.

And the second detail…

While the Spear Advances, Ash Trails was mainly focused upon the idea of piercing, the Raucous Finale smashed.

Randidly’s fist hit the bear in the chest and the monster’s fleshy torso disintegrated into flecks of blood and gore.

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puddles4263

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