Compared to the first challenge, the second challenge took much, much longer. Yet Alana couldn’t look way the entire time. The fingers of her hand dug into the wood armrests of her chair. “What the hell is this…?”
During the entire second rung, Randidly didn’t move. Instead, Helen was the only one who fought against the Squads of Donnyton. While she didn’t possess any of Randidly’s overwhelming power, she was also able to fill the arena with a strange image of a sea of blood.
Within that sea, she moved like a sharp blade, flitting back and forth and cutting into the surrounding Squads. The surprising part was how often she seemed to be surrounded. Yet she always moved at exactly the right time to escape certain death. Even as Skills rained upon the ground where she was just standing, Helen was already gone.
At first, Alana just rolled her eyes, somewhat exasperated at how overexcited the Squads were, allowing Helen to narrowly escape. It seemed that although these were some of their more talented recruits, they were still green.
Yet, as time went on and Helen continued to narrowly avoid disaster…
The other strange detail was that there was always a too convenient hole in the Squad’s lines that created the perfect opening for Helen to slip away. One person was always a step to slow or too fast in moving into position.
As the battle dragged onward, the wounded in the Squads slowly growing, Alana’s eyes narrowed.
So, this is a controlling sort of Domain, huh… well, if it’s just to this level, we shouldn’t have a problem resisting it…
But still, Alana could tell that everything Helen was currently doing was just with an image. If Alana wanted to fight against this, she would need to rely on her actual Domain. Which would require a serious amount of resources to activate and maintain.
The power of image…
Alana’s eyes focused on the completely calm and still Randidly.
…maybe we were thinking about it too shallowly.
After thirty minutes, Helen had been able to cut down enough of the weak links that the stragglers in the Squads were all removed. Which left the group at three fourths their original numbers, but they were now the best of the Squads from eighty to sixty-one.
Yet Helen only continued to accelerate. Which made Alana’s expression even grimmer.
“She grows stronger the more wounds she inflicts,” Mrs. Hamilton said quietly. Alana nodded. At this point, the sea of blood had steadily darkened with the spilling blood of the Squads. There was a crimson haze in the air, continuing to restrict the Squads while allowing Helen to move increasingly quickly.
As she moved more quickly, the haze seemed to concentrate around her body. Very soon she was less like a woman, and more like a force of nature in the sea, effortlessly piercing through the strange currents of that realm to harass the Squads.
“Hey…” Isabella said, her expression blank as she stared at the blurred figure of Helen. “If the two of them work together… don’t you think…”
“If both of them stick to what we’ve already seen for the later challenges… heh, wouldn’t that be boring? Nah, someone like Rand will have something even more overwhelming prepared.” Hank said with a smirk. The rest of the box stayed silent.
Because they knew the bitter truth that lay at the heart of this challenge; Randidly had more tricks up his sleeve. But these initial tricks were more than enough to give Donnyton pause.
So this was Image.
“Are they weak?” Xia, asked, studying the steadily growing pile of bodies dragged off the arena after the second challenge. The wounded gritted their teeth and did their best to keep their voices from echoing through the wide arena.
But after the second rung, the crowd had fallen largely silent. Every gasp and moan could likely be heard by the entirety of the spectating public.
Han Yazhu shook his head in answer to her question. But then he quickly returned to his constant scanning of the surrounding bodies in the crowd. He had been extremely against the idea of Xia herself coming South to see Donnyton, even in a disguise. So much so that he was practically a mute, his attention completely consumed with guarding Xia.
Sighing, Xia said. “Yazhu. If it will make you feel better, let’s leave the crowd for now. There will be another break soon. This… farce is almost done.”
That finally perked Yazhu up. “Yes, of course, your Greatn- ah, Madam Xia. Let us get away from this rowdy bunch.”
They stood up and filed past the other spectators in their row, squeezing through the press of bodies to make it out of the crowds. Xia didn’t know why Yazhu was so on edge; most everyone was just looking grimly at the audience. Even as the two of them pushed passed to get out, the people of Donnyton didn’t look away from the bloodsoaked stage.
This was a battle they watched with a fanatical intensity.
Xia understood the conflict in their hearts. Donnyton had two great points of pride: Randidly Ghosthound and their world-renowned Squads. To see the two at each other’s throats must be difficult.
Even more so when one side appeared to be mopping the floor with the other.
Very quickly, Xia and Yazhu escaped the stands and were able to stand in a wide-open avenue lined with food sellers, who were busy preparing for the rush after this rung. After all, it would be noon, and most everyone would likely take this opportunity to eat.
Xia turned back to Yazhu. “I asked you a question, Yazhu. Are they strong? They fell easily enough. To a single woman, no less.”
Immediately, Xia regretted saying that. The bitterness in her tone…
But of course, Yazhu answered without any change of expression. As if her implicit statement was one hundred percent correct. “Well, for a woman she is very capable. In terms of her strength… I must admit there are only a dozen in our service that would be able to handle her.”
Xia’s eyes narrowed.
Undoubtedly, he is being overly generous. I’ve seen our side fight, and compared to her… even with my rather abysmal Perception, I could tell. So… maybe only… Huang Li…?
“What about the Squads? They lost to her. Badly. It took some time, but that could be attributed to the difference in numbers.” Xia said simply.
That silenced Yazhu for several seconds. “…they are not weak. In terms of power… The Third… no… they likely could match the Second Blessed Brigade.”
Xia felt her tongue go dry. “…these Squads were groups Eighty through Sixty-one. Are you saying that these men who are being picked apart by that woman are enough to fight against our Second Brigade…? But that would mean-”
“Our Zone is undoubtedly the most powerful,” Yazhu said, bringing a hand to his heart. But this his face creased into a frown. “…yet we cannot deny that our Path to greatness has seen us take some shortcuts. Our industry was the main focus; in terms of power, we only invested in Sir Huang and his subordinates. Concentrating power and advancing quickly has costs.”
“They connected to New Earth more quickly, Yazhu. In terms of speed… were we not fourth?” Xia said quietly.
Yazhu had no answer for several seconds. When he finally spoke, he said. “…that’s just how it is. It will do us no good to deny the truth of the situation. Is that not why you insisted on coming in person? To witness the strength of Randidly Ghosthound, and of Donnyton?”
Xia grinned in spite of herself. It was an awkward grin. “…from what little I could tell, he was just as fearsome as promised. Although having him as a looming figure is dangerous… everyone is watching this challenge. It will be good for Donnyton to take a few punches in the eyes of the surrounding Zones.”
But both of them knew that this was an oversimplification; if Donnyton lost now, it would show a hint of weakness in their impenetrable armor, sure. It would, therefore, be easier to push for Zone Seven to serve as the capital of the New Earth. They could push for more economic concessions as they slowly seized control of the economy.
Yet a weakness now would be shored up later. Donnyton being struck down from its throne of strongest could only happen once. If they wanted to seize the weakness again… they would need to target the Ghosthound himself.
Which was difficult just because he was a single individual who often moved around and even disappeared. But also…
The image of that terrible phantom appeared in Xia’s mind. It towered above the bleeding bodies, howling toward the sky. Whereas the woman Helen had methodically weakened the Squads until she could overpower them, Randidly himself had simply broken their spirit in ten seconds.
Two hundred people were forced to give up after only ten seconds of fighting against a single individual. It was the difference between heaven and Earth. One individual who could slowly wear down the strength of an army was a genius. A man who could shatter the spirit of two hundred with a single action is a force of nature.
The weight of the word “Ghosthound” was not an empty thing. Especially not here in Donnyton, the seat of his power.
“Well anyway, let’s get lunch.” Xia finally said. What intimidated her the most was that this was just the appetizer. The main course of the challenge was rapidly approaching. Soon, they would get to see the core strength of Donnyton.
Yazhu bowed hurriedly. “Right this way, Madam Xia. It is a quaint place, but there is a cafe in Donnyton that has become very popular recently. Even I am swayed by its relaxing mood and palatable fare. If you would just follow me…”