Sydney tried, for the entire walk back from the South end of the mall to the staircase to the roof, to think of the word that could describe how she felt, being near Randidly after so long. To her surprise, it was most aptly described as a violent apathy. She could feel her emotions smashing leftwards and rightwards, furiously, but there was no need for an outlet. She seemed eminently content to remain silent, feeling nothing.
Perhaps the real problem was that she had been struggling to quash her hope for the past several months, that the absurd name Randidly Ghosthound actually referred to HER Randidly Ghosthound. And then she had been furious how much she wished it was him. Then she felt guilty for wishing so vehemently that it wasn’t him, and that she sorta hoped she would stumble across his dead body in a ditch so she could finally put the damn emotions to rest.
On and on they would cycle, swirling within herself, a snake chasing its tail, continuing forever. Or it would have. Had not he actually come, actually been… Randidly, causing her emotions to grind to a halt. Now….
Now she did her best to ignore him, as she walked purposefully forward. When they reached the roof, she paused, waiting for his reaction. Although it had taken some doing, Sydney didn’t regret building a miniature castle on top of the mall, a sprawling, hulking behemoth of a thing that had taken her months. It certainly looked sinister now though, especially in profile. Plus, doing it had done wonders for her in the beginning, giving her a fanatical purpose, and also grinding some Skills up to the point she could begin finishing Paths, and gaining useful Skills.
Randidly peered up at it, his face solemn, ignoring the rain plastering his hair to his skull.
At this moment, while he examined the heavy stone castle on top of the mall, Sydney allowed herself to really examine him, looking at him, and more specifically, what he was wearing.
The most obvious, and the eye-catching thing was the strange cloak he was wearing, that appeared to be some sort of… bone-mail made entirely of tiny rings of bone. At first, Sydney had assumed it was some sort of metal, but there was a hollow clinking sound when the different pieces shifted, which was completely different than the noise metal would have made. In addition, each of those small rings of bone was covered in strange runes. Sometimes, they would flash with a strange energy as Randidly moved.
Now though, as he stood still, he was just covered in a strange, bulky white cloak. It almost looked silly, but Sydney’s instincts told her that it wasn’t a simple thing. After all, even the idea of threading so many of those bones together gave her the pangs of an oncoming headache. Whoever had produced this cloak had spent an incredible amount of time working on it, shaping it to be just so.
Underneath the cloak, Sydney could make out a set of leathers, lightly dyed red, that were even more impressive. East End had its own tanners and leather workers, and although they had heard how proficient the forges of Donnyton were, Sydney wasn’t too worried. She had believed that even if they could produce more, the geniuses working tirelessly under her could do better, in small doses.
That red-brown leather set shattered that confidence. But that was an issue for another time.
Randidly turned from the castle and looked at her. Sydney turned away and walked into the castle. They walked through the wide, wooden doors, into the entry room, where Sydney led Randidly towards the stairs. For this… Sydney planned on heading to her private study. Some privacy would allow her…
She paused. Her emotions continued to swirl, seemingly heedless of her thought processes. They were almost a separate entity at this point.
But honestly… why did she need privacy…?
Her body was another separate entity and carried her forward. Within minutes, she walked through the door, allowed Randidly to enter, and told Drake to guard the door. Then she closed the door and turned to Randidly.
With a flick of the wrist, she created a goblet of ice. After a second of reflection, she created another, then cleared her throat. “Would you like a drink?”
Nodding slowly, Randidly said. “…Yes. Still, hard to really feel anything these days…”
“But it’s better than nothing,” Sydney said, going to the cabinet and removing some spiced rum from the shelf. She knew what he meant in more ways than he perhaps meant. It was very difficult, even for her who didn’t focus on Vitality or Endurance, to reach a point of being drunk without multiple bottles of liquor. But more than that, she was so cold, so numb. Feeling things was a distant memory.
As she was pouring the drinks, he started speaking.
“I thought you died.” He said, his voice almost… wondering. Raw and lost, filled with a strange tension that Sydney could also empathize with. Sydney at least had Ace, for all that the human monster they had fought with had warped him into something… broken. She wasn’t alone, facing the vicissitudes of the System. Randidly had no one.
Sydney wanted to turn around and hug Randidly, tell him they were back together after so long, that again, he had shown up, surprising her, when she thought that she had seen everything he could manage. And from the rumors that she had heard about him… the things that he had been able to accomplish… they were impossible. He was the most powerful human alive, and he was that same dumb boy that couldn’t hit a tree from 20 meters.
But instead, she found herself turning around and saying. “So. Why have you come?”
Randidly straightened slowly, looking at Sydney, really looking at her. Her usual streaks of dyed hair were gone, leaving all of it a rich dark brown, that could be confused with black. Her eyes were light, a mix of grey and blue, cold as the glacier they seemed so intent on imitating. And yet…
Sydney hadn’t always been this cold. In the time after Randidly’s move in middle school, they started talking all the time, and by high school, they had been really close. When it came out they lived next to each other growing up, Randidly was bewildered, but the pictures showed Sydney as the correct one. Then in the months leading up to college, Sydney had sat Randidly down. Then she had told him the school she was applying to, and the acceptance rates.
After looking at him with her eyes, so warm then, she had said. “This has been….strangely fun. But… it can’t keep going. Good luck.”
Then her eyes cooled as she turned away and departed. Randidly had never in his life really wanted anything before that moment. He had been content to sit quietly, ignoring his mom and her boyfriends, drifting to and from school, just… letting life carry him forward. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, it was just… he had never found anything worth caring about.
That changed that day. Sydney had given him a challenge and then left. He would not keep her waiting long. And yet, when he saw her that first day of class, freshman year…
Her eyes went wide, and she took an involuntary step backward, right there in the world history classroom, and said. “What did you come for? Did you follow me?!?”
Randidly froze. After a brief, awkward interlude, Sydney stormed out, and the professor coughed and said something very opaquely about boundaries in relationships that had Randidly burning. Then the tall, athletic-looking blonde man in the seat next to Randidly chuckled.
After casually leaning over, he whispered into Randidly’s ear. “Man, if I had a chance with that girl, I’d follow her around too.”
“That’s more than a little creepy,” Randidly replied, more shocked than anything else to be so… poorly received by Sydney. Hadn’t she encouraged him to try? Wasn’t this exactly what she wanted…?
Randidly had driven himself into the ground, trying to cram enough extracurriculars and volunteer work into his last year of high school to get into this school. The whole time, Randidly was thinking about Sydney, about how she cared enough about him to encourage him, even when the task set before him, when considering his history, was impossible.
Yet in that year Randidly had learned something about himself. Although he had drifted for a long time, that was due to a lack of direction, not a lack of spine. It was not easy, but he had made it.
The blonde man laughed and then offered Randidly his hand. “Yea well, only in private. My name’s Ace. Who are you, lady killer?”
Now, in the present, in the wake of the System, standing in a castle built on top of a fucking mall, it hit him in the gut to hear her use those same words in reaction to him, after so long apart. Was it really, just this….?
Randidly opened his mouth, then he closed it. Sighing, he shook his head. Then, he straightened, and this time, the person looking out at Sydney was not Randidly, but the Ghosthound, his eyes glowing emerald.
“…You’ve seen the notifications, I assume. We are launching an expedition to clear the Raid Dungeon. There is a 10 person limit on the party that goes in. As the leader of one of the Villages in the North… you can have one slot if you want it. You can come with us.”
Sydney’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing. Randidly recognized this mood of hers. It was most of what he had dealt with, in her reactions to him before Sydney began dating Ace before she was forced to be civil to him. Before she had been diagnosed with cancer, and her frosty exterior finally cracked.
“Ace will be coming,” Randidly offered, taking a calculated gamble. Immediately, the change in her face, the tightening at the corners of her mouth, informed him he had chosen incorrectly.
“I… have a question.” Sydney downed the rest of her drink, and straightened, her goblet of ice twisting into a glittering bracelet. “I think it’s a reasonable one. What qualifications do you have to lead this expedition, Mr. Ghosthound? Do you really have the strength to do so?”
Randidly opened his mouth to speak, then he closed it. Because he knew how stubborn she was too. And right now she was dealing with the Ghosthound. He gave her a sharp look. It was a show of good faith and support from Randidly to come and offer her a slot in the party to go into the Dungeon. Randidly didn’t doubt it would be dangerous, but that the rewards for passing it would be similarly phenomenal. And sure, there was the added benefit of seeing Sydney, but…
She never was very sentimental.
“Fine,” Randidly hissed, his eyes glowing even more brightly.