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Sunny remained in the ravine for a few minutes, considering his options and hoping that the unknown archer would have to shift to another target.

He had already revealed his ability to teleport during the Gate battle, but the quality of the recording hid the details of how he was able to do it. With the crystal clear picture of the Dream Tournament broadcast, though, Sunny couldn't risk using Shadow Step again. Even if he really, really wanted to...

Neither could he send his shadow to scout the position of the archer, which left him in a bind.

The best option would have been to stay hidden for a while, but luck was really not on his side today. Shortly after he had defeated the other Awakened taking shelter in the ravine, the sound of the rustling leaves subtly changed, and an ominous darkness suddenly moved between the roots of the ancient trees.

As more and more people were eliminated, the remaining challengers were bound to start having trouble finding new opponents in the vast arena. So, the arena was designed to grow smaller as time went by.

This year, it seemed, the players would be forced to move toward the center by the fact that the beautiful forest was slowly turning back to its true nature — that of a giant, abominable, flesh-devouring titan.

'Great! This is just goddamn great!'

Pushing off of the rocks, Sunny cursed and started climbing up the slope.

***

Some time later, full of annoyance and with sparks of light falling off his armor, he walked out of the cover of trees and entered a small clearing. There, an Awakened in a lustrous brass armor stood above the disintegrating corpses of two others, holding a heavy war hammer in his hands. A few steps away from him, another was bandaging a shallow cut on her forearm.

The man threw one glance at Sunny and rolled his eyes.

"Great! Another Mongrel impersonato…"

Before he could finish speaking, though, the blade of the odachi pierced his throat, sliding precisely between the lip of the brass breastplate and the bottom edge of the helmet.

As the body of the Awakened hit the ground, his partner looked at Sunny with wide eyes. A battle axe fell from her hands.

"Oh crap! You're… you're actually him!"

The girl turned around and tried to run, but before she could, Sunny was already upon her, ending her participation in the battle royale with one swift strike.

"Challenger Abel was eliminated."

"Challenger Wynne was eliminated."

Sunny sighed and remained motionless for a bit, resting.

…He was more than a little bit tired.

But the worst was still to come.

Suddenly, the sound of trumpets rolled across the ancient forest, and the pleasant voice of the Dreamscpae announced:

"Only five hundred challengers remain!"

"Bravest warriors are: Dar of the Maharana clan, seventy-eight kills; Fireshing, thirty-three kills; Mongrel, twenty-seven kills."

Sunny stared at the sky, the black mask hiding a grim expression on his face.

"Seventy-eigh kills… gee. Who is this monster?"

He had a hunch that he already knew. Defeating his own twenty-seven opponents had not been exactly time-consuming, but looking for them was. Who wouldn't need to waste precious minutes prowling the woods in search of enemies to kill, though?

A damned archer with a strange ability to sense his targets across vast distances and through any obstacle, perhaps?

'I need to step up my game, I guess.'

It wouldn't do for Lord Mongrel to lag behind some Legacy prince.

As if to answer his thoughts, a dozen figures suddenly appeared from behind the trees, surrounding him. These Awakened were armed with all kinds of weapons, looking at him with satisfied expressions. It seemed that they had planned this ambush really well… Sunny had nowhere to retreat, and no chance to escape.

And since the midway results had been announced just a few seconds ago, it was obvious that there was at least one person with some sort of clairvoyant Ability among them. Otherwise, no one was supposed to be able to pinpoint his location this early into the battle.

What else did this bastard know?

Sunny sighed.

One of the ambushers took a step forward and smiled.

"Sorry, Mongrel. All of us here really respect you, especially after you risked your life to hold that Gate. But those Valor weapons are just too sweet, and we need to think about ourselves. No hard feelings… right?"

The menacing figure in black armor stared at the young man for a few moments, and then an elusive, but strangely familiar voice resounded from beneath the fearsome mask:

"...None whatsoever."

Inwardly, though, Sunny was not at all calm.

'Bastards! Lowlifes! Scoundrels! Twelve against one?! Where is your shame, thugs?! Come here then, you damned cowards! I'm gonna kill you, and then your grandmas!"

Just a moment later, the ambushers obliged. All kinds of Aspect Abilities activated at once, turning the small clearing into a furious storm of deadly elements and steel.

'...Oh crap!'

***

"Oh no! It seems like Mongrel is in trouble!"

Syclus glanced at the sea of outraged comments, and then back to the broadcast. Both he and Dimi were glued to the screen, even forgetting to do their job and fill the silence with informative or entertaining chatter.

The scene in front of them was just too… terrifying.

Just a moment ago, they saw a lone figure in black armor standing motionlessly in the center of a bright clearing, staring at the twelve ambushers surrounding him with cold indifference. Mongrel's voice sounded from the speakers, strangely dark and ethereal:

"...None whatsoever."

And then, everything exploded in a brutal symphony of violence. The ambushers attacked without wasting even a second, their assault deadly and well-coordinated.

Syclus held his breath.

'Come on, Mongrel! Use your spatial Aspect!'

From what he could see, this was the only chance the demonic swordsman had to escape.

However, as a fan himself, Syclus knew that Mongrel never used his Aspect in the Dreamscape, as if it was somehow beneath him. Mongrel only ever relied on his sword, his skill, and unadulterated technique.

'Such dignity…'

And this time, too, the mysterious warrior refused to compromise his unassailable, noble principles. Instead of activating his Ability, he simply lunged at the enemies without fear or doubt.

Then, something strange happened. His infamous odachi suddenly turned into a stream of impenetrably dark, liquid metal and flowed onto his arm, soon turning into a round shield. With that shield, Mongrel deflected an incoming javelin, then twisted his body, dodging a hail of razor-sharp windblades, and dove into an immolating stream of fire that one of the Awakened breathed out of her mouth.

…Miraculously, he emerged on the other side unscathed, like an infernal monster that could not be burned even in the flames of hell. The black armor reflected the crimson flames, somehow becoming even more menacing.

In the next second, Mongrel's spiked gauntlet connected with the face of one of the ambushers.

It was as if the poor man was hit by a mountain. His skull caved, and then exploded, the lifeless body folding as it flew to the side and turned into a rain of sparks.

What happened next could only be described as pure carnage.

The black figure pounced on the ambushers, using both his gauntleted fist and his round shield to sow devastation among their ranks. Mongrel moved with terrifying speed and devious cunning, using the bodies of his enemies to block or prevent attacks from their comrades. Syclus wasn't sure, but he thought that he saw a couple of them die from friendly fire.

The rest fell to the demonic butcher himself, though. Every move Mongrel made was precise, calculated, and deadly… but also brutal and utterly cruel. He danced among his enemies like a grim reaper, killing them one after another without showing any sign of even knowing what mercy or hesitation were. Blood, screams, and flashes of light filled the clearing for a good couple of minutes.

And when it was all over, the lone black figure was left standing alone amidst the bodies, covered in blood from head to toe. A moment later, that blood turned into sparks of light, too, and awash in light, Mongrel stepped forward, his armor as black as pristine as ever.

Syclus remained silent for a few moments, and then said hoarsely:

"Hey, Dimi… Did Mongrel just… slaughtered twelve Awakened solo?"

The older man cleared his throat.

"That, uh… you know, I might rethink my bet. Actually, my money is on that man."

His colleague blinked a couple of times. After that, he glanced at the comments and forced out a smile.

"...Is he even a man, though?"

***

Meanwhile, Sunny was on the verge of collapsing onto the ground.

'Argh! Everything hurts! What the hell, why is this stupid battle royale so intense?! I almost sullied my pants!'

That battle… hell, it was too close. He barely managed to survive, and had only prevailed because the twelve Awakened were clearly not a real cohort. They were experienced enough to coordinate their physical attacks, but when varied and unique Aspect Abilities had come into play, all their cohesion turned into pure havoc.

He had used that confusion to quickly get rid of the most dangerous opponents, and then somehow cleaned up the rest. The Mantle of the Underworld still took several solid hits… the armor itself held, but his body beneath was bruised and battered.

'Are these damn rewards even worth it? Damn, they'd better be!'

Suppressing a pained groan, he willed the Soul Serpent to turn back into an odachi, and headed away from the clearing.

'Just five hundred... four hundred and eighty-eight left. This is going to be a long day...'