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Exactly how long is this gonna take? Jake wondered as he balanced atop the pole of stable arcane mana, holding his bow ready. It has to have a time limit or something, right?

Staring down, he observed the arena below, mainly using his sphere as the dense miasma covered pretty much everything. Inside this cloud of thick miasma, right smack-center of the arena, lay a torso with only a head attached. Fifteen meters away to one side was a leg, an arm was nailed to the wall in another direction, the second leg was thrown all the way to Jake’s starting area, and the final arm was nailed into another wall directly opposite the first. Well, alright, the limbs weren’t all in complete condition, but the majority of them were spread out like that, with a few fingers and plenty of minor parts just lying about below.

Jake had entered his rematch with the Necromancer, now knowing what kind of foe he would be dealing with. He spent his fifteen days preparing everything he could while replaying the same damn social interactions again with Polly and Owen. Only through sheer struggle did he overcome the urge to bring up future knowledge and attempt to convince them he was actually a time god.

As for the fight itself… there was not much to say. Jake had learned all he needed about the Necromancer’s fighting style during their first fight, and for the second time around, he didn’t bother with some big finishers.

Instead, he quickly moved to get the upper hand by using his special arrow to take off one of the Necromancer’s legs. After that, he promptly separated it from the Necromancer and, one by one, severed his limbs primarily using ranged attacks. With one leg, the Necromancer couldn’t really dodge anything, and using mana strings, Jake was quicker at yanking away limbs than the Necromancer.

Of course, that still meant he had a cloud of miasma to deal with, but Jake also had a way to handle that.

When Jake had entered the fight initially, he had not only brought what he could store in his Ring of Deft Hands but also several poles of stable arcane energy with one end sharpened, making them look almost like spears. Two of these were now used to hold limbs in place; two had gotten destroyed, and Jake was standing on top of one that had been embedded into the top of one of the pillars. There were still a few left in the miasma below, but he didn’t need those anymore.

Once the Necromancer was well and truly cut up, the miasma nearly covered the entire arena, at which point Jake penetrated the pole into the top of one of the pillars and stood on it. The miasma was heavier than air, it seemed, and it never went higher than a little above the pillars, so when Jake stood on a two-meter pole, he was entirely in the clear. It was also a nice way to practice his archery while balancing.

Because even if the Necromancer had lost all his limbs, he still tried to get them back. Jake hadn’t seen it the first time around, even if the Necromancer did mention during their short conversation before the fight he was capable of it, but the dude could summon skeletons. Weak-ass skeletons, but skeletons, nevertheless. He didn’t try to fight Jake with them but used them to retrieve his limbs, so Jake still had to keep an eye out and shoot a skeleton once in a while as the minutes passed.

Standing there, waiting for the Necromancer to just die already, he had plenty of time to fully reflect on his prior loss. It had been his first ”death” ever since the system arrived, even if it wasn’t a true death. Jake would have thought the feeling would have been more upsetting, but he felt oddly fine with it… because he knew that if this had not been a Challenge Dungeon but the real world, he would have just upped and left the second the Necromancer became seemingly immortal.

Jake wasn’t averse to retreating if the situation wasn’t salvageable. He just treated the Challenge Dungeon differently, as he knew dying was just part of the experience. If he treated the real world like the dungeon by just staying moronically in a fight he couldn't win, Jake would have died quite a few times already, such as when he nearly fell to that damn mushroom below Haven when he was still in E-grade or versus the Termite King.

Comparing a true death to one inside a Challenge Dungeon was just idiotic. Besides, many Challenge Dungeons were designed to only end when one died. Maybe the Colosseum of Mortals even worked like that. One also had to remember that these were fights taking place in an unfavorable setting where Jake would avoid fighting if it was a true fight to the death.

The arena was just ridiculously advantageous for someone like the Necromancer. Seriously, it was a small, enclosed arena versus a semi-immortal guy who was all about outlasting his opponent who created a cloud of miasma. A cloud that, under any normal circumstances, Jake could have just stayed away from for the entire duration of the fight, making it a total non-issue.

Finally… if this had been a fight in the real world, Jake would have been willing to risk far more. For if true death was on the table, he would be willing to pull on anything to survive and, at the very least, try to ensure mutual destruction.

Jake was thrown out of his thoughts as he suddenly felt the miasma below start to thin out, signifying something had changed with the Necromancer. For a second, Jake considered if there was a second phase or some shit like that, but when he focused… he felt that the soul of the Necromancer had left his body as his final words echoed out.

”Your victory… well-earned…”

With those words, the miasma seemed to evaporate instantly, and even the small insignificant smidgens in Jake’s body were eliminated.

”And we have a winner! The Doombringer has brought doom upon the Necromancer! It was a grueling and hard-fought battle, but the Gauntlet of Champions continues for the challenger! Now go! Rest, and return to continue your conquest!”

Cheers, and all that sounded out… and Jake’s suspension of disbelief was seriously beginning to wane. Did nobody in the audience care that the fight had effectively been Jake bisecting his opponent and then waiting on a pole for a good ten minutes for him to die? If Jake had been an audience member, he would have demanded his money back, especially considering you couldn’t even see the arena for the majority of the fight due to the miasma.

Anyway, Jake had to remember why he was there and once more reminded himself that trying to understand the dungeon was a fool’s game. So, rather than waste his time and mental energy, he walked out of the arena, his next objective already in mind.

Three Champions down, four to go. And Jake, after doing some research, had already decided on who he wanted to fight next. Originally, the plan had been the Lord of the Hunt, but during these fifteen days, he happened to encounter a certain Phoenix Queen, which had made him quite curious about her.

She had a Bloodline, after all.

Jake couldn’t wait to find out what it was all about… and she seemingly couldn’t either. While the Archmage and Necromancer had both wanted a full month, the Phoenix Queen made the wait just three days. This did put Jake on a bit of an unexpected timer, but he just had to make a special arrow, as he already had a game plan for everything else she could throw at him. Besides the Bloodline stuff, of course.

”Not that interesting of a rematch,” Vilastromoz shrugged.

”Hey man, we had to make him a one-trick pony, or the fight would have been impossible,” Minaga said, leaning back. ”And Jake dealt with his one trick and won. Pretty simple, really. Or are you saying we should have given him the Undying Banner?”

The Viper nodded, smiling at the notion of him having that monstrous artifact. Naturally, the real Undying General would not die to something that simple, and he had plenty of methods to control his miasmic cloud and keep his opponents and allies inside of it, but for the Challenge Dungeon, they had to make him way weaker or he would indeed have been impossible. It was very much the same reason why Jake didn’t meet a single opponent that could fly. While Jake could still handle a flying opponent, to some, it would just mean a default loss, as they, at level 0, simply would have no means of fighting back.

Of course, that didn’t mean there weren’t more unfair opponents. In fact, of the final four Champions, Vilastromoz would rate two of them as straight-up unfair, with the first of which being Jake’s next opponent.

It was a fight he was genuinely curious… for it would be a clash of opposing Bloodlines. A Bloodline rooted in the power of illusions that sought to fool your opponent’s senses and fool reality itself and one that was purely Perception-based. It was a rare opportunity indeed.

Though, perhaps, knowing Jake… Vilastromoz should not have been surprised by the outcome.

The entire arena was a bloody hellscape. Everything was on fire as an inferno roared, brought on by a single beastkin floating around with labored breathing as she unleashed her magic. Transparent flaming wings sprung from her back, spewing out fire like there was no tomorrow. All in an attempt to burn a singular archer within this sea of flames.

Jake, standing toward the middle of the arena, was entirely covered in flames, yet they seemed to not bother him. At times, he would still dodge seemingly nothing as he loosed the occasional arrow, forcing the Phoenix Queen to try and dodge or block. She had about a seventy-percent chance to avoid getting hit, but with time, the damage was accumulating.

What’s more, was the mental damage she was taking as nothing she did seemed to work. Jake was pretty burnt in many places, but the more time passed, the less he got hit.

Jake had taken a bit to figure out what the Bloodline of the Phoenix Queen was all about, and it had taken a bit longer than he would have liked. In the end, he concluded that her Bloodline was linked to illusions, more accurately, fire illusions.

The Phoenix Queen was capable of creating flames that were both real and unreal at the same time. Illusory flames that were obvious illusions to Jake’s Bloodline-powered senses, yet at any moment, they could become real and burn you, with the opposite also being true: very obvious real flames suddenly turning illusory, doing nothing.

Nothing mundane could truly distinguish them, and the most dangerous was when she mixed the two, creating flames that were real but that you couldn’t feel. These flames could even be ”real” to the body but only illusions to your clothes, making you burn without your equipment getting affected. It was like they bypassed the Perception stat and even armor entirely, and she could set someone on fire without them feeling an iota of pain. If they watched their Health Points, they could probably see it going down, but there really was no other way…

Well, there was no other way for anyone normal. Jake was far from normal.

See, the reason why Jake had taken so long to understand the Bloodline – and even now, he wasn’t entirely sure on most things – was that… well, it didn’t really work properly on him? At least it didn’t seem to work correctly based on the reactions of the poor Phoenix Lady.

Jake could still easily distinguish the real from fake flames, and while she could change their states, it wasn’t instant, so he had a pretty easy time dodging the fires that actually hurt while they were still transitioning from fake to real. And with the vast majority of the flames being illusory at all times, Jake had plenty of space to judge with, even if the arena looked fully on fire.

Needless to say, a level 0 could not fill the entire arena in a sea of flames by themselves, especially not for a prolonged period, but when ninety-five percent or more of the flames didn’t actually exist? Yeah, that definitely saved a lot of mana.

Not that it helped the Phoenix Queen much that she saved this mana… as chances are she would run out of health before mana.

Ultimately, no two Bloodlines were equal. When the two of them were put on an even playing field by being the same level, the main decider was whose Bloodline was better… and, well, Jake won handily there. If Jake had been level 250 and faced the Phoenix Queen as a level 280 or something, chances are, she could have fooled even Jake’s Bloodline because, at that point, two Bloodlines clashing was akin to two normal skills clashing, as they were both equally outside the rules of the system.

So, with a level and power advantage, her flames should have been able to fool Jake… maybe. In all honesty, Jake wasn’t sure if it could totally fool something like his Danger Sense and Intuition as they didn’t ”interact” with the magic directly but were more something based entirely on himself. His Sphere, though? Yeah, even the level 0 Phoenix Queen’s illusory flames took Jake a moment to see through, even now that he kind of understood how they worked.

By this point, the fight itself had already been going on for nearly five minutes. Jake, despite being at a disadvantage at the beginning as he tried to understand his opponent, now firmly had the upper hand as the Phoenix Queen focused on dodging, relying on her high speed brought on by her summoned fire wings.

Using her illusory flames, she tried to hide her form and even made fire clones of herself, but Jake easily distinguished them and focused on the only real beastkin floating around. She did try to hide using all means possible, even making sure to pull out any arrows Jake struck her with so he couldn’t use his own mana to track her.

Not that it helped her when he could see the entire arena using his sphere. Again, it was quite a bit more difficult than normal, as most of the illusory flames did look real to his sphere at first glance, but with focus, he would tell the difference between more complex illusions like her clones and the real thing pretty easily.

With her illusion not working and Jake capable of dodging most of her attacks, she didn’t have much more to show for herself. Jake, deciding to finish the fight, set up a trap as he cast a net of arcane strings that managed to entangle the Phoenix Queen’s foot, and before she could burn it off and get free, Jake landed his special quasi-Protean Arrow. The design of this one was pretty simple as Jake wasn’t sure exactly what he would need, but he did know that she wasn’t heavily armored, so he went with one to maximize damage.

That turned out to be a good choice, as the Phoenix Queen was blasted back. Jake had hit her square in the chest, sending blood flying everywhere. She crashed into the back wall of the arena, her entire middle section crushed, and when the arrow exploded, her entire body was practically obliterated. In the end, she had been a caster, making her quite squishy, and to ensure his victory, Jake had no real choice but to just go for the kill.

At least, he thought he had gone for the kill.

The scattered blood and guts suddenly turned into deep red flames and flew toward the corpse of the Phoenix Queen, gathering as it formed a new body. The faint cry of a phoenix echoed throughout the arena as the beastkin’s body was entirely remade with seemingly not a single injury.

Jake was momentarily taken by surprise at her resurrection – which he really shouldn’t have been as she was called a bloody phoenix – and quickly nocked an arrow. However, before he could shoot, she opened her mouth.

”I… I surrender!” she yelled with labored breathing as she leaned against the wall. At the same time as she declared her loss, all of the flames disappeared like dew in the morning sun. Taking a second look at the Phoenix Queen, Jake understood why she had surrendered. Whatever resurrection move she had made had also turned her into a sitting duck, and based on how weak she felt, she was in no condition to fight. Probably wouldn’t be for a long time.

”We have a winner! Once more, the Doombringer…”

Jake didn’t listen much more as he just smiled and raised a hand as the support staff of the Colosseum rushed in to help the Phoenix Queen stand. With confident steps, he walked out of the arena headed straight for the Quartermaster to get his armor replaced, as while he had avoided most of the flames, he was still pretty much half-naked after the fight.

Having such an easy opponent after the Necromancer was a nice feeling… and a nice example of how these level 0 fights were very much a rock-paper-scissor kind of situation, much like the Battlemaster had explained. Someone like the Phoenix Queen could have probably beaten the Necromancer by burning away his miasma, while Jake would assume someone like Umbra could just kill the Phoenix Queen before she truly had the ability to display all her skills.

And… in all honesty, Jake could have probably beaten the Phoenix Queen way earlier, too, if he hadn’t wanted to understand her Bloodline first. He was a counter to her, after all, so if he didn’t have an easy time, how was anyone else supposed to even beat her?

Of course, if one wanted to become the Grand Champion, one had to beat people they were weak against. They had to become the infamous gun in the game of rock-paper-scissor. In other words, become a complete cheat that could beat anyone. Even if it did take an extra life here and there.

Either way, this was four Champions down, with three to go. As for who the next target was?

Well, it was high time to prove that Jake was the true Lord of the Hunt.