Ptolemy seemed to be in a daze as he was led back towards the baking area by Aratta, until the moment that a hand fell on his shoulder.
“Wait a moment.” The Ghosthound bodily spun Ptolemy around, his emerald eyes locking onto Ptolemy’s gaze, then holding it. Ptolemy felt something connected to his soul seem to tremble, and then still. Then, it was like a bucket of ice water was poured over him, and Ptolemy doubled over, gasping.
After several seconds of panting, Ptolemy struggled to straighten. That took a few more seconds, until he finally stood, his eyes squinting at the Ghosthound. Sometimes it was easy to forget that he was a normal man, especially recently, when he had been wearing his bone cloak. It was a cascading sheet of white around his body most of the time, that hid his form, and caused his passage to be marked by the soft and dangerous clicks of bone on bone.
But without the cloak, he was just a tall, athletic man. At least physically. But around him, there was always this air of… mystery was the wrong word, but rather… certainty. But what the Ghosthound was certain about… it was hard to tell.
Still, it was there in the green of his eyes, in the sharpness of his gaze, in the hardness of his jaw.
“What were you just doing?” The Ghosthound asked, still staring at Ptolemy intently.
“I….” Ptolemy gestured helplessly forward, towards the door to the basement, which was slightly ajar. “I was just following Aratta. She invited me to help her bake, so…”
The Ghosthound’s smile was razor sharp. “Well then, let’s go help, shall we?”
With the Ghosthound in the lead, the two of them descended into the basement. The staircase was surprisingly long, and the deeper they descended, the more the chill in the air grew, until Ptolemy wanted to shiver, even though outside, when he had been standing by the training area, the sun had been so warm that he had sweat a little without even moving.
At the bottom, there was another door, which was locked. The Ghosthound jiggled with the handle and then frowned. “Well, I suppose you were invited, so…”
With a dull cracking sound, the Ghosthound pulled the door off of its hinges, the stone portion of the wall around the deadbolt cracking and shattering. Then, in a surprising show of restraint, the Ghosthound set the door down gently to the side of the opening and walked through. Hesitant, Ptolemy followed.
Aratta looked up from her mixing bowl and smiled at the new arrivals. “Oh, you are just in time. Will you help me pour these muffins?”
Freezing, Ptolemy remained stuck there, standing, halfway between apologizing and agreeing to help. This… this was unusual, correct? They had just broken down the door and entered into the… kitchens? Without permission, just forcing themselves into the situation. In addition, what was that strange stupor that had brought Ptolemy here, and how had Aratta been leading him one moment, then deep down a staircase, behind a locked door, the next…?
Largely ignoring these questions, the Ghosthound nodded and walked over to Aratta’s side. As she turned away, reaching for a bowl to hand him, the Ghosthound aimed a glare at her back, full of a… something. There was a palpable weight to his gaze as if he was scouring her figure for something. He was searching for a target.
Ptolemy gulped at the boldness of his gaze. Then, from the back of Ptolemy’s mind, arose the possibility that he and the Ghosthound weren’t so different after all. Perhaps what the Ghosthound was looking for right now was her…
…her smile curving upwards, her body bending forwards in the sauna, reaching for his…
Then Aratta turned back, handing the Ghosthound the bowl, and immediately his expression was mild. As the Ghosthound turned around, he caught sight of Ptolemy and did a double take. Huffing with annoyance, the Ghosthound shook his head and began to carry the bowl over towards the baking containers, to prep the mixture to be thrown into the ovens.
Had the Ghosthound been able to read his mind…?
Ptolemy’s face went white. Had he been imagining himself with Aratta while the Ghosthound read his mind, or the Ghosthound himself…?
Trembling, Ptolemy stared at the floor while being handed a bowl by Aratta. Then the group continued to move in silence, just going about the task, largely ignoring each other. Each time they would run out of batter, Aratta seemed to produce more, so they were endlessly working, moving from one tray to the next, filling up more and more trays. Ptolemy couldn’t help but wonder how many people really lived in the village if they had this many muffin trays-
The Ghosthound coughed lightly, and Ptolemy froze. Looking down, he realized that there was nothing in his hands, and he was just miming pouring batter into the trays. He must have set his bowl down without noticing, that was how intently he was going about the task.
Or…was there something sinister about this…?
There was a thick fog over Ptolemy’s mind, he abruptly realized, covering his thoughts, guiding them. But the more he thought about it-
The air seemed to be filled with an emerald pulse at that moment, a breeze of pure air that blew through that deep dungeon, but instead of shivering, Ptolemy clung to it, his eyes narrowing. What was going on…? Was Aratta-
Aratta shrugged apologetically, her robes rustling, the ripped cloth over her eyes pointing towards the Ghosthound. “It is not even a conscious thing, it is simply in my nature.”
“And what sort of nature is that?” The Ghosthound hissed in response, his hands tightening into fists. Aratta’s smile widened.
Ptolemy believed it would have come to blows there, had not a notification popped up through the group chat.
Rose: GH, we need you up here. The villagers are leaving. All of them.
The Ghosthound stilled. Then he turned and looked at Aratta, his eyes once more measuring her, burning into her, seeking. But whatever he saw there was not what he expected, and not what he wanted. Sighing, the Ghosthound closed his eyes. The room turned silent, and in that silence, Aratta gestured at Ptolemy, and he reflexively began moving the 10 trays they had made into the ovens on the far wall.
This time, he had counted the tasks before he began, and so when he finished the 10th tray, and he saw dozens more arranged on the tables, he paused, some silent part of him insisting that he shouldn’t bother with them. He struggled against it, but the current him had the will of a wet noodle, and the other part was like iron.
Just that thought alone was enough to cause Ptolemy to frown. When was the last time that he had thought of his will as a wet noodle? Not since the System arrived, that was for sure-
“Fine. But I can find you.” The Ghosthound said, opening his eyes, his voice calm.
Aratta smiled back at him. “That’s all part of the plan, love.”
Still panting from the sparring session, Ace watched the departing villagers with narrowed eyes. There was something… strange about this. And it wasn’t his normal instincts screaming this, but his villainous instincts. This was too quick, the progression erratic. They should have either been lured into a false sense of security, or there should have been a growing sense of dread as they stayed at the village.
Aside from the always practical explosive bang, those were the two slow ways that villainy revealed itself to the world. And yet….
Ace’s instincts insisted there was a villain here. But this abrupt departure stunk of an amateur villain, with no training, or class. His hands tightening into fists, Ace swore to himself that he would find this half-baked plot and crush it. Perhaps, from the remnants, he could cobble together a scheme of his own, that will let him have the cake of being here in the Dungeon, and eat his Randidly too…
Making no moves to hide his malevolent grin, Ace turned and glanced at Rose. She was distancing herself from him, purposefully, of course, speaking with the rather intense Clarissa, discussing the application of Skills to induce the creation of Resistance Skills. It was heavy, violent stuff, and did nothing to dispel Ace’s good mood. They were both more intelligent than most everyone around them knew, and both almost compulsively interested in magic and Skills.
From this, a friendship developed. Perhaps even a relationship that was so close that in the future, when Ace gave a fiendish order, Rose would waiver, feeling conflicted based on her feelings for Clarissa. Everything according to plan.
Humming softly, Ace waltzed over to the rest of the group as Randidly, glowering and stormy, arrived to witness the strange movements of the villagers.