Randidly’s gaze scanned through the people who began to filter up onto the stage. Truly, Donnyton was sparing no expense to fight against him.
Alana, Dozer, Annie, Sam, Mrs. Hamilton, and Donny all were present, slowly stretching their limbs. With them was a sea of familiar faces that were all-powerful in their own right: Glendel, Ptolemy, the Cortez Siblings, Clarissa, as well as the hale and healthy-looking Paolo and Kayle were checking their weapons.
When he saw Randidly’s gaze, Paolo offered a large thumbs up, forcing Randidly to chuckle. Truly, that man was one who cared for nothing but fighting. Even after that last strike, none of his good cheer had been smashed out of him.
In addition to the powerhouses, there were also were a group of thirty or so members that felt like they were extremely powerful but not as poignant or individual as the leaders. These, then, would be those members that were only present in the Raid Groups. It seemed they had noticed his ability to steal a small amount of Stamina and Mana because they had selected only the most powerful to participate in the challenge.
More annoying was the fact that almost all possessed Fates. With them, they would have some inherent resistance against Randidly’s images.
Yet Randidly was also pleased to see that Eli Iron would not be present for this challenge; if he had been, Randidly might have lost his temper again.
“You know…” Randidly finally said. Mrs. Hamilton, who was closest to him on the arena, looked up sharply. “If Decklan were here, it would be a reunion. Most of the people who founded Donnyton would be gathered…”
Mrs. Hamilton smirked. “Ha! Decklan missing this… well, can you imagine the look on his face? I have no doubt that when you see him next, he will be extremely…”
She trailed off, as though unsure of how to proceed. Inwardly, Randidly winced.
Honestly, he hadn’t thought about it, but perhaps the problems with the frogpeople were growing more pronounced and Neveah couldn’t afford to let him go even for a brief period of time. Decklan was running constant damage control on a vast area. After all, even after removing Roy, the ripples that idiot had created would take some time to disperse.
However, Randidly was confident after seeing Neveah that she could handle it. And if she couldn’t, she wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to him. After all, Earth was a special place to her. Her small crush and that stupid garden were here. And Randidly himself, although he had never really felt anything like protective feelings from Neveah. Although that might be his own fault. His level of capability meant very few people had the nerve to try and care for him…
I’m too strong… even my home town has to come together in order to rival me… Randidly thought with only a small amount of bitterness. From the people arrayed before him that would actually be fighting, Randidly looked up into the sea of faces looking down at him from the stands.
“We are ready to begin,” Mrs. Hamilton said quietly. Behind her, Donny began to speak to the crowd, speaking warmly about all Donnyton had accomplished. About how it was only possible because of teamwork. How everything in the System was achievable with hard work and determination, which Donnyton possessed in droves.
Just like with Paolo and Kayle, the audience came slowly alive under his careful ministrations. Their spirit was roused to fight once more. Their cheers slowly increased in volume. “There won’t be any coming back after this. Are you sure… this is necessary?”
Randidly looked at Mrs. Hamilton and sighed. “Yes, it’s necessary. This is only the beginning of what the System will throw at us. I’ve experienced the best that Donnyton has. It isn’t enough.”
Although it looked like Mrs. Hamilton wanted to say something else, Randidly spoke before she could. “Besides… Stan burned my path to retreat. So we fight.”
“So we fight.” To Randidly’s surprise, Mrs. Hamilton smiled, even as Donny continued to whip the spirit of the crowd into a weapon to use against him. “Honestly… I’m excited.”
Grinning, Randidly studied Mrs. Hamilton. The middle-aged woman seemed outwardly so… well, safe and conservative. Like she was the sort you could trust to watch your back or protect your bag in a crowded restaurant. Yet right now, the smallest spark of battle lust could be seen in her eyes. “Don’t tell me… while I was away, did you spend too much time around Alana?”
“No… but capability brings with it a certain amount of joy,” Mrs. Hamilton said while chuckling. Then her face turned serious. “This doesn’t mean that you cannot return to Donnyton, you know. Even if-”
“No, it doesn’t,” Randidly said. But his voice was no longer soft. “It just means that I cannot pretend that I’m like everyone else. So I’ll no longer be a guide… I’ll be the goal. I’ll be a self-righteous villain. Come at me, Miranda. And experience personally why I believe Donnyton is too weak to save the Earth without me.”
When he spoke her name, her eyes just widened. Then, Mrs. Hamilton watched Randidly as he turned and walked toward Helen. Around them, Donny had finished his work with the crowd, and the cheers were causing the entire area to hum. Unlike the previous weight generated by Paolo, these cheers were filled with faith and confidence.
Yet Randidly didn’t miss the thread of desperation that ran through the sound. It was a small thing, but Randidly had spent too long submerging himself in images to notice it. Especially now, as his own images were finally built with a powerful foundation, it was obvious how fragile this joy of Donnyton’s was.
“Any plan now?” Helen asked as she stood close enough to Randidly in order to be heard above the roar of the crowd. Donnyton’s elites were drawing their weapons. Mana began to swirl around Clarissa, Glendel, and Ptolemy. Even Randidly had to be impressed with how thorough their control over the energy was. They would all be threats, he had no doubt about that.
Yet before his Aether Detection, Randidly could see them all arrayed before him. There would be no surprises today.
“Are you ready?” Donny asked in a bellow, his eyes blazing with competitive spirit.
Randidly examined the Aether around Donny with a frown. There was… something here. Something more than his Fate. Perhaps his Soulskill? Donny had more riding on this challenge than almost anyone in the whole of Donnyton. His name was in the title of the town, for god’s sake. Randidly’s attack targeted him, albeit indirectly.
He was someone that Randidly hadn’t seen fight in a long time. Yet a quick examination of his Aether proved he was not weak. At Level 59, he was one of the highest Leveled in the group. In addition, Donny had an exceedingly strange Fate that Randidly couldn’t seem to pierce through. Although Randidly wasn’t skilled regarding Fates at all, he had begun to recognize some familiar shapes within them. Donny’s was different..
...he is their blade, Randidly realized suddenly. He spared Mrs. Hamilton a glance. The shield of Donnyton… Has become a weapon. Out of all of them, his Aether seems the most dangerous…
But Randidly couldn’t help but laugh. No matter how dangerous, I won’t run away. It’s time to stop holding back. It seems they realize that the fight will be decided here, either way.
Spreading his arms wide, Randidly conjured the image of Yggdrasil. The emerald leaves, the deep brown of the bark, and finally the spiraling lines of golden runes that covered everything shot up out of the ground behind him. Very quickly, the image shot upward to fill the air above the arena.
The leaves jingled like bells. The sound was his answer to Donnyton. The fight would start, and he would win it. Before the suppressive effect of Yggdrasil, the cheers of the people of Donnyton slowly died away. They couldn’t help but lose spirit; they had seen this tree inflict too many grievous injuries upon Donnyton’s pride already today.
This was Randidly’s answer to Donny and Mrs. Hamilton. And to layer on top of the dominant image of Yggdrasil, Randidly finally conjured his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom. The pale grey metal of the Crown flashed into existence above his head. Along with its appearance, a rumbling wave of force emanated from Yggdrasil.
Honestly, to add the image of a Crown into a tree had stumped Randidly for a long time. It couldn’t be so large to wrap around the entire canopy, then its shape would be warped. It also couldn’t just be wrapped around the trunk. And with Yggdrasil this huge, it wasn’t a possibility to have it floating above the tree. Then it would be practically impossible to see.
Yet Randidly had found the answer with the addition of Mana Engraving to the tree’s image. Slowly, within the golden lines, specific characters began to glow. The change in light was small at first, yet as Donnyton’s Squads gathered together in a tight formation, that light quickly rose to brilliance.
From within the trunk of Yggdrasil, a Crown was the source of that light. It clearly danced across the trunk, rippling ominously. It was as though the burning heart of the tree was this terrible Crown that signaled the descent of Woe. Randidly bared his teeth at the sky.
Information began to flood into his mind as the Crown gathered information within the surrounding area. The Skill became the next best thing to a Perception focused Domain without an opponent’s image present to resist him. As long as his Crown was able to operate, all of these people were within his hand.
Yet no sooner had he thought that than there was a brilliant flash of red-orange light. Upon Alana’s face, a glittering helmet condensed, silver wings extending back over her ears. Lowering her spear, something within Alana shifted into place. Like a car shifting gears, the roiling hum of her Aether increased rapidly in volume.
Suddenly, a towering image of winds blowing red sands through the air spun upward from Alana. It was not a true image, but it was a powerful force of condensed violence that had enough punch to resist Randidly’s image in a localized area. Honestly, it reminded him a lot of what Drake had been able to conjure.
Still, this was on a much wider scale. Alana was not the spearhead of Donnyton for nothing.
“They are facing us directly,” Helen remarked. The clash of images caused wild winds to whip her hair across her face. Yet her gleeful gaze was locked upon the opponents.
Chuckling, Randidly raised his hand. “Then let’s go to meet them. But there is no need to go alone.”
With a wave of the hand, the ground around them cracked and burst. Slowly, twelve Riders of the Baleful Wood twitched and crawled out of the ground. Immediately afterward, their rhino/camel/spider mounts followed, using their stick-thin legs to leverage themselves out of the ground.
Hearing their liege’s order, the Riders raised their lances and formed into a tight wedge that began to blur toward the Donntyon group.