Clarissa checked her timepiece. “If you could make the decision quickly, that would be for the best.”
The three members of the Executive Board of Star Crossing exchanged glances. In the corner, their Village Spirit petted a small dog, which appeared scared out of its mind, but also was unwilling to vocalize its fear. It was just a small toy in the Village Spirit’s hands.
It was distasteful, but applying pressure would be the best way for them to stay on schedule. And based on the predictions they had received from Lyra, they were unfortunately a bit behind schedule, in terms of timeline. Restraining her urge to click her tongue in annoyance, Clarissa watched them.
“We understand the need for speed, but this request…” The man said, looking between the two people around the table with him. “Is it really necessary for us to decide immediately? There were even reports that the third Tier III Raid Boss-”
“No, agree to it.” The Village Spirit interrupted, looking up from the pet in its hands. The creature was good at hiding its nature, Clarissa supposed, but it was still a monster. The greed in its gaze was clear, when it looked at what they had offered. The group around it seemed to want to haggle, which was fine, although their bargaining power had dropped precipitously now that the agreement was almost completely made.
Still, Clarissa allowed them this small bit of pride. The connection would go both ways, after all, no reason to antagonize them now.
Clicking her tongue, Clarissa checked her timepiece again. Closer to schedule now, but still behind. They would need to move fast.
“How soon can we expect the building to be completed?” Clarissa asked the Village Spirit.
It thought for a minute before answering. “At top speed…maybe three days. Will that suffice?”
That was quite impressive, all things considered. “It will be within… acceptable parameters. Glad to finally be working with someone with a sense of urgency.”
“No, no,” The Village Spirit said, smiling widely. “The pleasures all mine.”
Randidly looked down at the butchered komodo dragon monster, with most of its body filled with bone arrows. There was very little flesh remaining on its frame, the rest having been flayed from the bone. Neveah growled next to him, and then slowly moved to start devouring the creature.
It seemed she ate mostly bones, and as she hadn’t yet eaten since she had become… well, herself, she was hungry. Very quickly, the entire thing was gone, leaving only the shattered body of Kirk alone on the ground. Randidly considered the body dispassionately. Not only was this guy somewhat arrogant, but also Randidly didn’t really have any particular relationship with him. As such, his death barely made Randidly blink.
His lack of reaction disturbed himself somewhat, but the death itself did very little.
Meanwhile, the rest of their party seemed more ill at ease. Ace and Rose had come, accompanied by Brute and two women with long braids. They were twins, and referred to themselves simply as Left and Right. Everyone but Ace paled when looking at the devastation.
Randidly surveyed the area around them. Perhaps the worst was not the dead bodies of the Riders, but rather the sea of bones that caked the ground around them. Sure, the Riders had been routed and slain, the Regalia and the “Wild Rider” lost, but the enemy had paid a heavy price to achieve that. Even though their skeleton recruits were cheap, they weren’t free.
Perhaps complicating the image in the people’s eyes was the fact that once she developed a taste for it, Neveah swiftly began to suck the ground clean of bones, devouring them. It didn’t add much reverence or meaning to the view.
“How could this happen…” Thea asked, her face blank. Chrysanthemum stood solemnly beside her, a sentinel to protect her from the world.
“That’s the way of the world.” Ace said hollowly, his eyes moving quickly around from the situation here, to the nearby geography, likely scanning for possible ambushes. “Death… unless you are strong.”
Randidly’s focus narrowed, centering on Ace. He had wondered why there was a spot of darkness in his friend- his one time friend. It remained to be seen whether they could find a new way of fitting together, now that Randidly wasn’t willing to be constantly belittled.
But that could wait until later. For now, it was enough that Ace took this seriously. The man was not the goof ball that he had been before the System arrived.
“It is how this story was always to go…” Ten’Malla said quietly, looking around at the ground. “The Wild Rider must run and flee… with the cold hands of the Skeleton Knight searching for her.”
“Well that’s royally fucked, isn’t it?” Simon said bitterly. “The Wild Rider is probably dead by now.”
“…No…” Randidly’s voice was soft. Everybody looked his way. He looked at Ten’Malla, his eyes dark. Although few things made Randidly angry, the callous way she had handled this was starting to really get under his skin.
No, it wasn’t the callous manner she reacted… it was the fact that her reactions indicated that she knew exactly how this was going to play out. She left Jemma here, knowing that the girl would be captured by the Skeleton Knight. She was just a child. Yet this monster just tossed her into the maw of the beast, without a single ounce of guilt.
That was Randidly’s mistake this time. He had treated her like the child she resembled, as she asked to accompany them on the trip to the Refuge. To him, it had just seemed like a whimsical decision. But of course, it was not. This creature did not become the Champion “Wild Rider” because it was foolish.
Underestimating her was not something that Randidly would do again.
“Mr. Randidly is technically correct,” Ten’Malla said, smiling as if she was amused by a child’s antics. “…I am the Wild Rider. I left the girl Jemma with my Regalia while I was away, and it appears that fate was not kind to me. Rather than being here to help repel the skeletons… my animals were butchered while I was gone.
“Not that I would have been able to help much,” The Wild Rider said, turning to look at the wide-eyed Simon and Thea. “My strength is still weak, as Traefalgr is in his growing period. There would be very little that I would be able-”
She paused, trembling, mostly because Randidly had focused Anguish into a tight ball and hit her with it, as hard as possible. Every single bit of his frustration and fury was tied up in that small area, his refusal to accept her version of events.
This was her fault. All of it… if one hair of Rhaidon’s head was damaged… if Jemma was broken by this…
His fury was hot and sharp, but after hitting the Wild Rider with the Anguish for several seconds, he withdrew it. One because the focus of keeping it from spreading and hitting the rest of them was more difficult than Randidly wanted to wrestle with right now, but also because he owed her a debt. When he was injured, she had provided him with a path forward.
With a huge effort of will, one that consumed almost all his Willpower in that moment, Randidly dropped the issue and forgave the Wild Rider. But all of the good will that had been built up between them disappeared along with it. Once more, Randidly was alone.
Not alone. Us.
Neveah reminded him, looking up from her buffet. Randidly smiled in spite of himself.
There was another reaction, as Randidly acted. Rose gasped, her eyes going wide as she looked at him. Randidly scratched his ear awkwardly. He had forgotten about her ability to detect skills. Based on her reaction… it wasn’t just that she could read a skill’s name, but perhaps she could sense its strengths, or some of its effects. Which was an incredibly powerful effect, and it would probably cause more problems than Randidly was willing to deal with, if she would see some of his other skills…
“…Anyway,” The Wild RIder said, after she had recovered. She nodded toward Randidly, acknowledging what happened. That sickened Randidly even more, that she would accept his attack gladly as payment. Her brutal calculus of life was too much for him to handle. “This level of forces… this could only happen if the battle in the South concluded. It appears that Donnyton is no longer tying down 3/4ths of his forces. We need to be on our guard, and run-”
“We will be returning to the Refuge.” Rose interrupted. She shrugged in a manner that was supposed to seem apologetic, but was clearly not. “If this many skeletons are coming up… we need to make some preparations.”
The Wild Rider simply shrugged. She hadn’t been counting on them to begin with, but she would have accepted them. Randidly couldn’t figure that out. As more meat shields? Or-
But then the Wild Rider spared him a glance, and he got it. The Refuge simply was another lever she could use to bind him to her. A convenient coincidence for the Wild Rider, had it gone right. Randidly’s blood went even colder, his heart slowing.
“Sure, sure,” Ace said affably, waving his hand. He turned to Randidly, and opened his arms wide and embraced him. “You are welcome to come back with us. We could use your strength. Together-”
“I’ll come back after this is over.” Randidly said quietly. “But… someone I know was taken in this attack. The look-alike for the Wild Rider. I need…. I want to try and help her.”
“Hahah! When did you become such a hero type?” Ace asked frankly, his eyes scanning Randidly. “You aren’t particularly religious, or moral. Or is that just an excuse. Are you looking for battle…? Do you have that lust in your heart…?”
Randidly had opened his mouth to answer Ace, but then he continued speaking, and Randidly began to frown. “…Perhaps. I certainly don’t act like a hero. But this is… transactional. She did me a favor in the past. I’m paying her back.”
Laughing, Ace moved back, and the strange twisted heaviness of the moment passed. Perhaps Ace had more demons than Randidly had expected. That would be something he looked out for, next time they met. For now, Randidly turned to Simon and Thea. Randidly noticed how although Simon still kept his distance, his gaze wasn’t quite so icy as it was previously. Which was good, because their options were limited.
“I’m heading for the Skeleton Knight.” Randidly said bluntly. “It might be safer for you to stay with Ten, but god knows that might not be much safer. But if you come with me… we need to figure this out.”
Randidly stood still, trembling inwardly. He winced, just remembering it. God, he couldn’t believe he just said that. And despite every part of him that wanted to curl up and look away, he found himself staring straight at Simon.
For several seconds, Simon was just looking at the ground. Then he seemed to notice the gaze, and looked up. Their eyes met. There was something there… something dense and emotional and confusing.
Randidly would rather fight Drak again. His stomach roiled unpleasantly. The seconds seemed to crawl past, as they just held their gazes. But being with Ace reminded him of the old days, of the way he could be, if he had the right energy. Where he needed to steal that from Ace before, Randidly knew in his heart that he could create that too, especially now.
He had grown strong. Strong enough by far to communicate.
Or at least try his best. Simon opened his mouth slowly, seemingly ready to speak, but they were interrupted.
Randidly turned, annoyed. Ace had walked over to Rose, and now turned and regarded Randidly with a grin. “I’m done with you, but…”
Very slowly, deliberately, Ace removed a grey mask, featureless except for two eye holes from his bag, and put it on. “…That does not mean Dauntless will remain silent.”
His voice didn’t change, precisely, but it gained weight. Randidly narrowed his eyes. There was definitely an edge of madness here, and honestly, he wasn’t willing to put up with this shit right now. If he could find a way to settle this…
But now Ace was settling into his role, and his voice boomed as he spoke. “Randidly Ghosthound! You came to my town. As we were friends, and I am a respectful host, I did nothing. But now…If you insist on leaving my influence, I must first test you. Let us own a wager. If I win… I demand your soul. Fight for me, for all of eternity. If you win… you may take your life and slink away. For I am Dauntless, and there is nothing I dare not do.”
“Generous terms,” the Wild Rider said, not even bothering to hide her smile.
Randidly felt… strange. After all this, really….?
True, the Ace that Randidly knew was competitive to a fault, wild, reckless, and stubborn. But this was to a whole different level. This was a self destructive recklessness combined with a satirical amount of hubris. But another very real part of Ace was his deadly seriousness when he set his mind to something.
Things had slowed down a lot, since he came back to Earth, as he recovered, explored the strange new wrench in the System, and tested his new knowledge. But now that he had a concrete purpose, and wanted to move forward…
The world resisted.
What did it matter though? He would break the world that wouldn’t bend for him. And every idiot who thought his hovel was a castle. Randidly cracked his knuckles and smiled.