“What’s our play for this rung? I’m ready.”
Randidly’s eyes flicked open. Helen was enthusiastically stretching. It was clear from her vicious grin that she had gained much more than she expected from the meditation session. The corner of Randidly’s mouth curled up.
To think that we could gain so much for our images from something like this… plundering the image of another. Could it be that it didn’t happen on Tellus due to the calcification of the images…? Or had these sort of incomplete images been all plundered by the time that I arrived…
Randidly had expected that he would be able to obtain concrete practice with the images and be able to refine them over the course of the fight. He had no doubt that the pressure of the Donnyton challenge would push him to new heights.
What he hadn’t expected was to actually feel strength flowing into his image while he began slaughtering the Squads. It was akin to the feeling he had in his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom; energy from his experiences seemed to flow into him constantly when he took certain related actions.
Yet for his Ashen Phantom, it was fighting that gave it strength. As Donnyton’s overwhelming sense of superiority began to fracture underneath his constant assault, his Ashen Phantom devoured the broken pieces of that image and became more condensed. So much so that the image itself seemed to be developing rapidly.
“…let’s both go,” Randidly said finally. Helen’s grin widened for a second and then she composed herself and nodded seriously.
The group of Squads they would now face were those that numbered from Forty to Twenty-one. They had already arrayed themselves into one large group, standing bolding in front of Randidly. That made him raise his eyebrows. It seemed like they wanted to challenge him directly.
“I’ll hit from the front, you pick off the sides,” Randidly said quietly. Helen nodded.
As everyone made their preparations for the beginning of the next rung, Randidly scanned them quickly with his Aether detection. What he found made his eyebrows quickly shoot upward. There were two very unexpected presences on the other side.
The two of them stood at the front, the woman clearly issuing orders to the surrounding group. At her side was a slender Hispanic man, testing the point of his rapier. Both were under Level 50. The woman was Level 47, while the man was Level 49.
Randidly’s eyes slid to the VIP box, where Alana had sat back down. He had noticed these two were with Alana, Glendel, Hank, and Mrs. Hamilton, but hadn’t really thought anything of it. But looking back, it was clear that these two were being groomed for something more than just being a Squad Leader.
Let’s see what the best talents of Donnyton can do…
Randidly thought with a wide smile. Somehow, he sensed that this battle would be different. Although there was no one amongst the Squads that he knew personally, there were many that he recognized. These Squads were filled with people who had been in Donnyton since the beginning.
If the previous group of Squads protected the sensibilities of the masses, these Squads were the gatekeepers of Donnyton’s elite. Now that Randidly had leveled his spear at their pride, they grimly rode forth to put him down.
The thought was unbidden and completely honest. Randidly laughed aloud.
This will be fun.
When the referee signaled that the next rung had begun, Randidly wasted no time in charging forward. The arrival of the Ashen Phantom above was increasingly brutal. The sky trembled as a typhoon descended. And riding it was the Ashen Phantom, its terrible fingers wreathed in ash and hunger.
“Shoot!” The woman shouted, quickly producing two long shields that she wore along her forearms, extending an extra meter beyond the elbow. With a step that cracked the arena, she rushed to meet Randidly. At her back, her brother clung to her like a shadow.
Randidly was slightly surprised to find that the Skills were arcing upward toward the Ashen Phantom, rather than being aimed toward him. As the Skills smashed into the Phantom, it roared and the wide-area influence it exerted over the arena waned.
Randidly’s eyes narrowed.
Tsk, too much to expect that you would miss that fact, right…?
“Helen, the mages!”
“Already there.” With a rushing noise, the backside of the arena was blasted in a wave of crimson. Currents of energy began to whistle widely about as Helen rushed toward the individuals who threw the spells. Although this quickly put them on their back foot, they had been instructed how to respond.
Another volley of spells ripped outward, this time targeting the substance of Helen’s Domain. But that just made Randidly smile.
Small tears emerged in the Tides of Blood, but the rushing currents quickly repaired those flaws even before the Classers could escape. As they saw their efforts come to nothing, they quickly paled and stumbled backward. Helen rushed forward even as the ranks of melee fighters closed in around her.
Helen’s Domain is the real deal. You have no idea how hard I worked to train resilience into it…
Randidly thought with amusement.
Unfortunately, it seemed that the opposing side knew that ultimately, images were rather fragile things. If they were uncontested, they could exert extremely dangerous power. But there was an extreme way to break an image, even if you had no real images to use.
That is, you could use Skills.
Every Skill had an implicit image in it. That was where Skills drew their power. In fact, Skills could be viewed as tutorial images given to people by the System. Which meant that the Squads could brute force something akin to an image by relying on the number of Skills, but the difference in Attribute expenditure would mean that Randidly didn’t mind the trade.
Still, it was a relatively unsatisfying way to win a fight.
“You need to-” The woman bellowed as she looked at Helen’s rapid advance, but then she was forced to direct her attention back to the front. Due to her wild charge, Randidly had already arrived in front of her. The combination of the Inevitable Phantom Arrives and Spear Advances, Ash Trails broke the sound barrier as it rushed toward her.
She raised both of her arms and took the blow on directly.
The force blew her body back almost a meter, but she absorbed most of the impact with her legs. Randidly blinked in shock and then twisted to the side, avoiding a sharp thrust from the rapier-wielding man. Before Randidly could counter-attack, the man had withdrawn and once more hidden behind the woman.
The woman grinned at him. “If you think-”
A scream cut her off. It seemed that Helen had reached the long-range Classers. That was good. Instantly, Randidly resummoned the towering form of the Ashen Phantom. Its empty eye sockets stared downward at the two individuals under Level 50 that dared challenge Randidly.
Ash filled the air as Randidly prepared his next attack.
The woman’s gaze snapped back to Randidly, forcing herself to allow the battle at the other end of the arena to sort itself out. “If it’s just power, I’ll handle it. One day, I’ll be Donnyton’s impenetrable shield. Today, I’ll show you how light the name of Randidly Ghosthound truly is!”
…how light my name is…?
Fury burst in his chest, rushing toward the core of his being. Instantly, another image began to activate, a terrible visage of a tree so old that it had achieved apotheosis. But at the last moment, Randidly gritted his teeth and suppressed the righteous fury of his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom.
Not yet. That image should be saved for later.
Spear Advances, Ash Trails. As the Sun Stills.
Randidly spear became a blur, spiraling forward in a thrust that strained the limits of even his own Perception. The woman flinched and raised her shields, but that moment stretched. Somehow, Randidly’s spear was still rushing toward her too fast to see. But time slowly ticked past even as more and more weight gathered behind the spear.
They were frozen, each in their own space. Nervousness condensed around the woman, while Randidly slowly felt the dying heat of a sun shift to weight at the tip of his spear. And in that great weight, a gravity that could even warp time emerged.
The Ashen Phantom shrunk until it was only about double the size of a man. Standing behind Randidly, it reached its hands toward the woman like a beggar pleading for coin. The sadness and longing twisted in on itself as that desperate need turned to hatred.
“Isabella, you need to-” But the brother’s warning came too late. Randidly’s spear finally arrived, even as the woman, Isabella, twisted her shield to the side.
Her left shield shattered into pieces, but Randidly rather bitterly realized that she had managed to disperse most of his attack. The shoulder was probably dislocated, but the damage wouldn’t be serious.
Still, the force of the attack blew her backward into her own lines, knocking several people over. Randidly stepped sharply back to avoid a rapier that stabbed toward his throat. Such was the speed of his step backward that his ash continued forward, allowing him to activate All is Ash and fling himself a short distance forward.
Randidly condensed behind the man, surprised to see another rapier heading toward his current position. It was a little off, but the man rapidly adjusted his attack.
“Good prediction,” Randidly said, honestly rather surprised.
“Better response,” the man said sourly. The blade of ash Randidly created smashed the rapier to pieces before the man’s attack landed. He managed to step out of the wave of another thrust from Acri, but then Randidly could step forward and simply kick the man in the chest. With the Strength boost from his equipment and the blades on Randidly’s new greaves, the man flew backward like a ragdoll.
But before Randidly could follow up, the bulk of the Squads arrived.