Randidly was rather surprised when he walked down the path into Donnyton on the morning of the challenge and saw the absolute sea of people milling about. There were so many people talking and laughing in the square that Randidly was able to slip into their midst unnoticed. After all, very few of the average people of Donnyton knew him well.
He was just a normal traveler, here for the challenge. In that, this entire crowd was united in purpose.
Plus, he wasn’t wearing any of his new pieces of equipment and stored Sulfur and Acri within the space of his belt. He was a simple individual, dressed in worn leather and wool like everyone else. Randidly had a small worry that if he walked up to the gates of the arena dressed like this, he would be asked to pay for admission.
It was somewhat bemusing to walk through the crowds without anyone caring about his presence at all. It settled Randidly’s heart.
There was a lot of pressure on Earth. Because Randidly had seen both sides of what could happen to the planet, with his association with Tellus and also with the Patron of Ash. It was a constricting fear that was deeply planted in his heart. At all costs, Randidly wanted to guide people toward the Tellus end, albeit in a much more efficient fashion.
Today would be the first steps on that path.
So Randidly passed through the crowds, meaning to head toward that quaint bakery he had stopped at when he arrived at Donnyton. While walking, he listened to the talk. Most of it was centered around Randidly’s challenge of the Squads, of course. Popular opinion on the outcome was mixed. Those that supported Randidly argued vehemently that he was the cornerstone on which Donnyton was based. Randidly Ghosthound could never lose.
The detractors pointed out that he had lost in the previous challenge. Randidly thought that wasn’t really a fair assessment, but couldn’t deny that he had conceded rather than using deadly force against the Squads of Donnyton.
The previous challenge had made Randidly realize that he couldn’t keep protecting Donnyton. It needed to grow on its own.
This challenge was to make the Squads realize that they wouldn’t be able to protect Donnyton if they stayed on this path. Images had that much power, especially at the high end of the spectrum. They needed to start to build the base image for Donnyton now.
The grim specter of Aegiant laughing as he evaporated fucking lava to force Randidly out into the open was a hard sight to forget.
Randidly reached up and pressed his hand to the leather bindings that wrapped around his metal left arm. Although Randidly’s figure wasn’t really associated with a metal arm, he had still covered it up for good measure. But the loss of his arm was the price he paid for the power to escape from that painful pool of lava. He would probably carry that grim truth with him to the grave.
When Randidly arrived at the bakery, he blinked. Gone was the sleepy square with only a few squad members loafing around. Sure, he had come at a later hour than he had previously, but could things really change so abruptly in a few weeks…?
Gone were the seemingly closed shops. Instead, there were about a dozen fenced off areas filled with tables. People laughed uproariously and ordered food that professional looking waiters quickly took back to the main buildings. Street performers stood outside the gates, dazzling with the breakfast eaters with System-assisted tricks.
Honestly, Randidly felt like he was standing in the middle of a tourist destination.
Squished in between all of these affluent cafes was the familiar bakery. Although there were people flowing in and out of the bakery itself, it was a pittance in comparison to the vast crowds that were frequenting the surrounding cafes.
Somewhat bemused, Randidly pushed his way forward and entered into the bakery. A familiar face without a mustache looked up sharply, then went abruptly pale. Without addressing him, the man turned and rushed into the back room, leaving a teenage girl working alone to satisfy the five or so other customers in the shop.
Randidly smirked after Ed. Certainly, your decision to retreat is pretty decisive… are you still afraid of me revealing your identity? I can sense almost every one of the nearby owners is also using an illusion…
Not that it really mattered. Randidly wasn’t here for any more complicated reason than getting some of the baklava from the shop.
His task finished, Randidly left the shop while munching on his purchase. Then he allowed himself to be swept away by the flow of bodies toward the great arena in the area North of the Production District.
Already thousands of people had arrived, so there were extremely long lines for seats that stretched backward up into the surrounding hills. There were also stands built on the ridge above the quarry, allowing those with high Perception to sit without being so tightly packed together. And with the advent of the System, there were a lot of people who had the requisite Stats to be able to observe from afar.
Randidly finished his breakfast with a grin. Which would be fine, if we were going to be moving at the speed that most of these people could follow at all…
Eventually, Randidly slipped out of the line and walked alone into the hills. Rather than waiting to get in, Randidly thought it would be more appropriate to simply pull himself out and appear right before the first challenge.
Such was the prerogative of being Randidly Ghosthound.
It didn’t take long for Randidly to clamber into a crack in the stone wall of the quarry and find himself an overlook where he could view all of the press of bodies that were lining up in order to witness the spectacle today. As he scanned the crowd, he didn’t see a single person he recognized; it seemed that the important players shared his plan for the event.
Randidly looked up at the sun. It was getting close to the promised time. The Hound’s ladder would begin within the hour.
The first rung would be the easiest, but easy didn’t mean that he wouldn't need to try. His first fight would be against all of the Donnyton Squads numbered 100-81.
Most of these individuals would have arrived at Donnyton after Randidly left for the first time. They had been raised on the stories of Donnyton’s frantic struggles against the early monster hordes, but they wouldn’t have actual experience with him.
To them, this was undoubtedly an exciting day. The day to prove to Randidly Ghosthound, a man who had steadied then entire 32nd Zone, that they had grown strong.
In his chest, Randidly’s Crown of Upheaval and Gloom was breathing deeply of the air of excitement that covered the battleground. It was not something that he enjoyed doing, but Randidly couldn’t deny a certain sick fascination he felt as he imagined crushing all these people with the reality of the situation they would be facing.
In fact, Randidly felt downright smug with his superiority. He quickly pressed that feeling down. It was that sort of thought that would cause him to underestimate them. Because for all that these were the lowest of the Squads, they were still the worst of the best Earth currently had. They wouldn’t just roll over.
To face 20 Squads meant that Randidly and Helen would be fighting against two hundred and twenty trained Classers. Classers that had been on the frontlines of Donnyton’s efforts to keep the entire Earth safe. They were not inexperienced in battle. The last year of their lives had seen them rapidly working to improve their capabilities. To the point that they had earned the right to wear the insignia of a Squad of Donnyton.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, Randidly felt the squad memebrs gather, their bright eyes and excited faces more feed for his Crown. They congregated at one end of the arena, slowly stretching and warming up. Randidly’s Crown pulsed, sucking in their energy.
Truly, this Crown is only good for destroying things sometimes…
But that wasn’t such a bad thing. There were a lot of terrible organizations in this world that Earth would be better off without. The Skills to destroy might be a simple application, but it was enough also a necessary one for this life.
The crowd slowly made its way into the stands. More and more people arrived, cramming themselves into an extreme tight space. There were Classers with telekinetic Skills shouting offers for food and drink, and floating the concessions up toward the extremely tightly packed customers. There were cheers and flags…
There was so much pride in that noise. So much surety and optimism.
Eventually, Helen appeared, swearing and shoving her way through the crowd until she could walk out onto the arena proper. Seeing her there, Randidly was reminded of their fight in the under-25 Tournament. The venue this time was much smaller, but there was a completely different air of excitement hanging over it all.
Helen raised her head and closed her eyes, seemingly tasting the image of confidence that was hanging over the arena. Good. It seems she can sense the same thing that I can.
At exactly the opponent time, Donny appeared, strolling out onto the arena. Instantly, the crowd erupted into a sea of cheers.
Randidly closed his eyes. So much noise.
“Welcome, one and all, to the Hound’s Ladder! And the reason that this attempt is special is the man attempting it… Randidly Ghosthound himself!”
Following that pronouncement, the crowd started howling like beasts, raising their heads up to the sky and shrieking their enthusiasm. To them, Randidly was an idea. A celebrity. To see him in person, ready to struggle, was something of a cathartic experience for these people.
This is what they are here for, Randidly realized. They want to see me fail, and be reassured that I’m human. Everyone has their secret dreams, and inevitably you are less than you believe you could be. That deep frustration… they need a symbol to share that. They need a great hero to be sacrificed so they can accept their own insecurities.
The stadium rumbled with such noise that Randidly could feel the shaking in the stone of his hiding spot. But Randidly just grinned down at the shouting people.
I’m sorry, but I can’t give that to you. Normally it would be fine to just be yourself, but… Randidly’s emerald eyes narrowed. We can’t afford that. Not now. Not with the System breathing down our necks.
It’s time someone reminded you how dangerous this world truly is.
“Assembled here we have Donnyton Squads 100 through 81!” Donny continued when the noise died down enough for him to be heard. “And standing opposed to them…”
Donny turned and regarded Helen quizzically. She just snorted.
Randidly leapt, activating All is Ash as he did so. He streaked across the sky, fueling the Skill with a fist full of Mana until a cloud of ash the size of a pool gathered around him in an ominous swirl. Screened from their view, Randidly took his equipment out of his ring and slipped it on.
Acri and Sulfur.
Sun’s Teardrop Belt.
Ancestral Circlet of the Broken Ridge.
Iradak’s Tinglesilk Gloves.
When Randidly hit the arena, he was surprised that the ground was well made enough to endure the concussive force. Only a few tiny cracks emerged from the collision. But that just made Randidly’s smile widened. I’ll get to you later.
The ash billowed outward, obscuring himself and Helen from being seen. They exchanged a look. From the anger and ambition in Helen’s eyes, it seemed she was prepared. Then Randidly looked away and waited, allowing the ash to slowly blow away in the wind.
When the crowd saw him, they fell silent. Which gave Randidly space to speak.
“Have someone on standby to help the wounded off the stage,” Randidly said bluntly. “And also someone to shield the crowd. This challenge… I won’t be pulling my punches.”