Randidly stood after the one hour break. Helen was still slowly applying bandages to her wounds. Her body was crisscrossed with small little cuts that oozed blood. Although she was able to suppress the strength of Donnyton’s Squads, she sustained significant wounds while doing so.
And it was clear from her periodic twitches that she was deeply humiliated by this fact.
“You did well,” Randidly said lightly. “They were not weak. And considering how difficult it is to transition through my Domain-”
“You don’t need to comfort me,” Helen grumbled. “I won. Let’s not dwell on the irrelevant details.”
Chuckling, Randidly nodded. Then he looked up at the crowds that were slowly drifting back to their seats after the break. Only a few minutes remaining, now.
Compared to the noise they were making when the challenge started, the people of Donnyton were much more reserved. They moved quietly, muttering to each other as they shifted into their seats. They had full stomachs and heavy hearts, slowly processing what they had witnessed in the earlier two rungs of the Hound’s Ladder.
Randidly’s eyes moved to the arena. Once more it had been repaired, but they hadn’t thought to wash away the bloodstains that sprinkled the ground. Most of it was trampled away, but wide splotches of rust-colored dried blood had begun to stain the arena.
This place had been marked. It would never be the same.
Which was the point. Truth was always a difficult weight to bear. Facing the proof of your own weakness was doubly difficult to swallow. More and more images slithered through the air to join with Randidly’s Crown of Upheaval and Gloom. Slowly, the weight that he was forced to bear was growing as he relieved the people of Donnyton of their feelings of security.
Randidly closed his eyes. Although he walked down a path that was similar to the Spearman’s Randidly did not fear it. I will not be the monster that he became. I do not think that I’m any more perfect than these people. No, my opinions might be even more suspect. With the Creature, and my time on Tellus… I have been warped.
When Randidly’s eyes sprung open, his emerald gaze was clear. But they need to watch. This time of building has softened their edge. The people of Donnyton need to remember how desperate our position truly is. The Calamities… will not die as conveniently as we wish.
Better I take that fear onto myself now than they need to learn it the hard way from a being who was designed to kill…
“I’ll be ready in time for the next challenge.” Helen finally said.
Randidly waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. You felt it, right? It’s easy to grow while struggling like this alone. Sit out this one, and we will work together on the next one.”
“I’m not a child,” Helen hissed. “I don’t need you to baby me.”
The corner of Randidly’s mouth quirked up. This was the Helen that he knew. She had been altogether too accepting of his orders since he had agreed she could participate in the challenge. It was good to see that dutiful glow was wearing off. It was much easier to count on the vicious Helen than the quiet one.
“It’s not about babying. You felt it too, right? That fight was close to your limit.” Randidly said calmly. “Take this time to refine your image. Otherwise… will you be able to help me against the later rungs?”
“Well, when they don’t fucking come two hundred at a time,” Helen muttered darkly. But she sat back down and began to meditate. Very quickly, the air around Helen began to swirl with dark currents. Energy from the bloody arena flowed toward her, pooling above her sitting form.
With those raw materials, Helen could begin to create for herself an even more dangerous and detailed image. It wasn’t as though the only benefit of the challenge was to protect Donnyton. Randidly had no doubt that he and Helen would grow a significant amount from these perspectives.
Randidly cracked his knuckles. It was time for him to get prepared as well. The Squads Sixty through Forty-one were forming up into eight groups. A quick scan with Randidly’s Aether Detection Skill made it obvious that these fighters were at a whole different level. The air of competence around them was palpable.
Smiling quietly, Randidly stood before them, stretching his hands and flexing his fingers. The Tinglesilk Gloves draped across his hands, leaving a familiar tingle as they brushed against his skin. Honestly, the constant feeling of numbness was relatively exhilarating. It certainly meant that Randidly would never forget that he was on a battlefield.
Acri crawled down from around his neck and straightened into his rigid spear form. Randidly’s grip tightened on his shaft. So far, Randidly had only needed to rely on his new combined Skillset of the Ashen Phantom. He hadn't really even had the chance to showcase the new armor that Sam had made for him.
But this group was, on average, about six Levels higher than the prior group. And as everyone was past the Level 50 marker, each Level was a struggle. This, then, was finally the Squads of Donnyton that fought valiantly in the trenches. Not those that shined, but those that were dependable.
This was the last bulwark of Donnyton’s image, Randidly could sense. It floated above the entire arena, clear in the tense silence that had seized the crowd.
Donnyton had suffered losses in the past. Grievous losses that left deep wounds. The attack by the Nemesai only a few days ago was just another example of a setback that took the town by surprise.
Yet there was a group that always threw themselves in the way of threats. They were the true bulwark that created peace of mind for the average individual living in this world. When you grew to the size of Donnyton, you couldn’t avoid taking punches.
What really mattered was how Donnyton responded to the cheap shot. These Squads had been that response for the past year.
I don’t mean to say you all must be warriors, I am not the Spearman. Killing is not the only path forward. Randidly thought sadly as he looked out at the intent crowd. How many people were here? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? And it seemed like even more were lining the space above the quarry as he considered the wide sea of people. More and more people were finishing their day’s labor and hurrying over to see this historic day.
But… this isn’t enough. Threats from the Ogre World, the Frogpeople, the other Zones looking for weaknesses… our enemies are mounting. You need to wake up. You’ve forgotten that we will die if you don’t keep moving forward.
Maybe that was the reason that Randidly had decided to challenge Donnyton. Because although he had this deep fear that even Donnyton wasn’t strong enough, he wanted to be proven wrong. He would have liked nothing better than to come out here and be struck down by the Squads of Donnyton.
Yet that hadn’t happened yet.
“I’m ready whenever you are,” Randidly said quietly.
The overseer in charge of this batch of squads was a broad-shouldered woman holding a greataxe. She nodded respectfully at Randidly’s words and then barked out a series of orders. Her voice seemed to cut through the whole arena, immediately banish all talk from the stands.
Everyone was intent on the action in the arena.
“First Position!” The woman bellowed.
Instantly, the eight groupings fractured into dozens of smaller groups, moving apart into a specific formation. The varying groups rotated around him a series of rings. Skills rapidly began to rain toward Randidly as the long-range attackers sought to keep him on the back foot with sheer numbers.
As ash spiraled slowly around Randidly, he watched the shifting formation in front of him with interest. Honestly, Randidly never had much experience with commanding troops. Even during the genesis of Donnyton, Randidly simply led by killing more monsters than anyone else. He never had any real grasp of strategy or tactics. So it was intriguing to see the different methods that they used to deal with him.
Although Randidly might not have any experience leading, Randidly had plenty of experience fighting against varying numbers of opponents. Instantly, his emerald gaze scanned the surroundings and arrived at a single conclusion: insufficient.
You correctly saw that my ash blades can only remain active within a certain radius of me, so you split into almost forty smaller teams so it will take me longer to eliminate them, Randidly thought with disappointment as the ash around him cut the oncoming Skills out of the air. Ideally, this time would allow you to tire me out…
A fine strategy, but… will it really be me that tires out first…? Randidly barred his teeth at the opposing commander, who measured him with a steady gaze. The entire while, she moved professionally with her small grouping, protecting a relatively powerful mage who through slashes of darkness toward Randidly.
A wind came then, pulling small flakes of dried blood left by the wounded and gathering them into the air. Slowly, a darkness came across the arena once more. It seemed their commander understood what was happening, at least, because she gave an order to increase the frequency of attacks.
Globs of poison, swords of darkness, lances of light, waves of frost, bolts of fire, huge masses of arcane energy, empowered arrows and javelins, bullets empowered with Mana… Projectiles came toward Randidly like drops of water in a rainstorm. The churning ash around him began to roil and seeth, more and more forming as Randidly fed the Skill a thread of Mana. Very soon, it seemed Randidly was standing in the eye of a whirlwind of ash.
As the projectiles increased, so did the blades Randidly used in his defense. He didn’t move, standing very still and looking out toward the arena. All the while, that strange wind continued to blow, gathering the dried blood from those that came before.
Slowly, that dried blood spun upward and joined some of the dissipated ash from the blades Randidly used in his own defense. More and more accumulated, forming into a tightly packed ball of ash, spilled blood, and resentment.
From that, the Ashen Phantom was born.
This time, when the Ashen Phantom roared and exploded outward into its form, the entire arena could hear the raw noise of it. This time, Randidly’s image was much more concrete. As its hideous screams rocked the arena, the rain of projectile’s faltered.
This time, when it released a breath, it spat out enough bloodlust that Randidly could tell the weaker spectators weren’t able to breathe.
Ash exploded outward in a wave. Once more, the iron-grey skeleton condensed while a haze of ash kept its body indistinct. Once more, it did not possess a lower jaw, and its upper teeth stabbed downward out of its maw. Its dagger-like fingers flashed, tasting the edge of its ash cloud.
This time, however, it was clear that the coloration of the skeleton shifted from the core toward its hands. The change was gradual, but the while the rib cage was grey, the phantom’s fingers were almost entirely maroon.
This was an image thoroughly stained with blood.
Rumbling clouds rolled overhead as the phantom bellowed again. Those constant waves of ash soon filled the entirety of the arena. Randidly grinned.
All at once, one thousand blades of ash condensed, covering the entire combat space. The leader of the Squad paled as she looked up at the darkly gleaming blades.
Now do you get it? With an image, this is possible. This will be much weaker than a Skill, but…
Without any warning, the blades began screaming down toward the Squad members.
...this isn’t something you can beat just by being dependable.