Randidly scratched his head, looking at the raw anticipation on Helen’s face. It seemed like the act of watching Randidly had really raised her anticipation into something resembling obsession. “Ah, by the way…”
“Hmm?” Some of the hesitance in his expression must have cut through her excitement because Helen blinked and looked at Randidly with a frown. “What is it? You already promised I could have the next one. I’m not fucking back down now.”
“No, it’s not that.” Randidly shook his head. “But there is an hour break between matches, not five minutes.”
“What? But when I attempted this, they kept the breaks short so my Stamina…” Helen trailed off.
Grinning, Randidly just shrugged. “The benefit of being the Ghosthound, I guess. Don’t wear yourself out getting excited too early.”
Helen ground her teeth so fiercely that Randidly heard the sound and winced.
“So, what did we learn?” Alana said coolly, turning to look at Isabella and Pan. Both were inscrutable, but Alana understood the female Cortez sibling a little better.
Isabella’s face was split into a deep frown; likely she knew exactly how dangerous Randidly’s mobility was. In terms of tactics, she was head and shoulders above Pan. Although Alana felt somewhat bitter based upon how the siblings had used her for their fame, she couldn’t deny the other woman was damn good in a pinch.
For the future of Donnyton, polishing her was a good idea. Despite how smug she sometimes looked about their record.
Yet of the two of them, it was Pan who Alana studied most closely. His expression was mild, as though Randidly Ghosthound hadn’t flayed fifty people within an inch of their life within two seconds. He was looking out at the arena quietly, but Alana had no doubt that his mind was slowly rotating behind the scenes.
In terms of strategy, Pan was only below a single individual in Donnyton.
“...fast. Numbers don’t mean anything to that sort of speed.” Isabella finally said. “Most of the members from lower Squads will just be in the way. Even in our Squad, there might be a few who can’t follow his movements…”
“Well, it’s not true that the numbers mean nothing,” Mrs. Hamilton cut into the conversation with a smile. “Do you know why they end up being meaningless?”
“They can’t hit him, his defense is too powerful. If the mages were more powerful-” Isabella said bluntly.
Alana shook her head slightly, indicating that particular train of thought wasn’t the most fruitful. It wasn’t that Isabella was wrong; if they possessed someone with overwhelming power, they would be able to crack open Randidly’s shield.
But that wasn’t how someone in charge of a squad should think. Monsters were more powerful than people. That was just how it was. Strategizing to simply have more power than the opponent wasn’t worth a damn.
The silence stretched as Isabella frowned at her knuckles. Finally, Pan looked upward and opened his mouth.
“It’s that ash he has. It didn’t seem to be costing him anything. It seems like he could defend against the Skills without effort. Unless numbers are enough to overwhelm that, having more people is meaningless.” Pan looked up at Alana, his eyes bright.
“Much closer, but still wrong,” Glendel said. Alana glanced over at the gaunt man, surprised. Then again, it made sense that he would understand the main reason that Randidly Ghosthound was so fearsome; Glendel possessed the same natural advantage, after all.
“The reason that Randidly Ghosthound is powerful enough to make numbers meaningless,” Alana said. “Is his Perception. Whether it be by Skill or by Stats, he can see everything that is coming his way and react to it. He has the Intelligence, Focus, and Control to address everything in the surrounding area. Numbers are meaningless because we haven’t reached the point where he can’t account for everything.
“Strength is something we can account for,” Alana continued. “We can learn to deal with his huge variety of Skills. If we layer Skills, I have no doubt that we would be able to defend against his attacks. Yet he won’t let us; his Perception means he sees everything that is coming his way. Which is the most difficult sort of foe to defeat.”
Both Isabella and Pan stared at Alana, somewhat mesmerized. Alana cracked her knuckles as she watched the medics help up those that were most seriously injured. Truly, if the medics had been a little lax while moving to assist, there might have been fatalities. But it now looked like everyone would pull through.
Good. Alana thought grimly. It would have been our fault if someone died, arrayed against the Ghosthound when they clearly weren’t ready.
“...from the way you are saying it, you make it sound like Perception is a super power,” Isabella said with a frown. “But that’s just not true. We get shit on all the time because our Champion is always dreaming, and has no real combat power. That’s why the Nemesai have been able to run wild in Zone 32. They even were able to attack Donnyton-”
“Sorry girlie, but you are wrong.” A rumbling voice cut across Isabella. A tall man with a face covered in dark stubble walked up to their private box at the front of the stands, wearing an easy smile. At his hips, he wore two leather holsters for handguns that were worn smooth with use. “They need to attack here. Of all the Champion’s, Simon’s power is the one that can cross into other Zones. If they would strike heavily at another Zone, Simon could use his dreaming power to assist that other Champion, effectively doubling the resistance.”
“Hank, you made it,” Mrs. Hamilton said warmly. “What took you so long?”
Hank sauntered into the room and pointed the greasy brown bag in his hand. “Peanuts. I didn’ think Rand would finish so quick.”
He politely offered the open bag to everyone in the room. Of them all, only Alana took a handful of peanuts and began methodically crushing the shells and popping the nuts into her mouth. Hank took the seat next to Alana, casually removing his holsters and slinging them across the chair back.
Isabella seemed annoyed at the interruption, but Pan looked intently at Hank. “...you…. Are the gunslinger right? I saw you fight once when you came to Donnyton chasing after the Undying Hero. Would you… uhh… sign this…?”
With a gesture, Pan summoned a repeater handgun from his interspatial ring. Alana immediately covered her mouth with a hand to hide her smile.
The gun was sparkling in the sunlight, clearly the recipient of frequent cleanings and polishings. In addition, the repeater itself was an Erickson Steel product, from the H-series of handguns that they produced. Which, Alana knew, were heavily influenced by Hank’s very high requirements for his guns. Compared to the average gun on the market, this model could handle an extremely dense and powerful amount of Mana within its bullets.
That quiet Pan was secretly a cowboy fanboy…? Alana thought with amusement.
Hank seemed surprised at first, but then his face split into a wide grin. He happily took the gun, spun it expertly, testing the weight with his hand. Then, with his finger glowing with concentrated Mana, he quickly scrawled “Hank Howard” across the barrel.
Pan accepted the gun back sheepishly, a rare smile across his face.
“Well anyway,” Isabella said, clearly irritated by both being told she was wrong and by her brother’s interruption, “Is Perception really that important? It just seems… wrong to say that is his greatest strength, when he has that evil-looking skeleton Skill…”
“...it wasn’t a Skill,” Alana said with a grimace. “I don’t have the same sort of ability of that secretary in the Refuge… but I can sense Mana and Stamina expenditure. That monster wasn’t a Skill. Using it… didn’t cost him anything at all.”
“So that was an image,” Mrs. Hamilton said wonderingly, looking out at the arena. All of the bodies had now been cleared, and a team trooped out to inspect the arena and repair any flaws. Very quickly, the arena rippled and shifted to form a whole surface.
“So what did y’all do to piss him off so much? He seems a mite heavy-handed,” Hank drawled.
Alana laughed aloud at that, glad that someone else shared her detached fascination with his attitude. “Ha! Well, I don’t think it was us. While Randidly was away… he saw something. Something dark. Can you feel that heaviness around him…?”
Hank’s eyes narrowed. Everyone in the box looked out toward Randidly Ghosthound. Helen was pacing in front of him, clearly infuriated by something. But Randidly himself was sitting quietly with his eyes closed. He seemed to be resting, gathering himself for the next fight.
Hank clicked his tongue. “I don’t suppose there’s any way I can join in this fight?”
“Afraid not,” Mrs. Hamilton said sardonically. “It’s against the rules.”
“Isn’t this a one-person fight?” Hank said sourly. He folded his arms. “Why does he get an assistant? An she’s as lovely as the wide sky, too.”
Mrs. Hamilton shook her head, but Alana privately agreed with Hank. From what Randidly said, Helen’s presence on Earth was due to his Soulskill and Domain. Therefore, they had allowed him to bring her to the Hound’s ladder. But it was a little bit against the spirit of the challenge to have two people taking part.
Still, even if she spent the equivalent of a few months in the Dungeons, can she really grow quickly enough to matter…? Alana wondered.
She had seen Helen fight previously. There was… something extremely odd about her style of fighting. Although Helen was quickly learning to cover for it, it was clear that something strange had happened to Helen.
Her body often jerked as it moved in an unpredictable manner. It was as though she was used to being much more powerful, and suddenly her body was restricted.
Her mind and body were not in sync. And as such, she couldn’t fight to her full strength. Likely, the extended time in the Dungeon was to address this. But even if you recover your unity, your strength shouldn’t be enough to change the outcome of this contest.
Alana’s hands clenched into fists. It was one thing to teach the Cortez siblings what they should look for in regard to Randidly. But the ugly truth was that Alana and Mrs. Hamilton were doing the same thing.
Because they were the final bosses waiting at the end of this series of challenges. And they needed to be ready for anything.