Rose was beginning to grow worried. Listless, Ace continued to sit in the window of his study, staring out at the figures moving through the streets of the Refuge in the slow dying light. His hands were still, and his eyes were dull.
Rose hadn’t seen him this bland and lifeless since… well, since that horrid man that had shaped both Ace and Sydney so powerfully had fallen to the Tribulation and left them both unsure of how to move forward.
Meanwhile, Rose was pleased with the way things had turned out. She always believed that Ace would be better served by giving up the strangely hypocritical and sexist habits that he had developed while spending time with that man. That was the strange, magnetic power of a person who had the shape of a hero, however. Until they fell to adversity, they continued to pull at those around them.
It was like gravity. It wouldn’t cease until the world settled into its new balance, or the foreign influence was removed.
Ace and the Ghosthound’s previous associations aside, Rose couldn’t deny that the Ghosthound would be a constant source of influence on the Zone, let alone the entire world, once they came within his sphere of influence. There was no part of Rose that had hoped the bear hadn’t intervened and saved the Ghosthound’s life, however.
No, at this point removing the Ghosthound would likely cause too much political and infrastructure damage to be a feasible way of moving forward. He was the glue that held the Villages to a tentative peace. Long had Rose considered the relative merits of taking over another Village, to see what the concrete effect of obtaining for the Village a larger flow of Aether. But it was difficult when there were so few Villages here. Perhaps they could figure out a way to move inside of Donnyton and going into the other world, the animal world.
There, their actions will be much more politically neutral, and Donnyton wouldn’t let a foreign army just march out of that portal and through its capital. But such an action wasn’t feasible, and it remained to be seen whether the Refuge possessed enough strength to actually accomplish that goal.
Ace sighed longingly, leaning forward and placing his forehead against the glass, hiding his expression from Rose. She rolled her eyes. It would be especially difficult with Ace like this. Although it was another extreme option, perhaps Rose should contact Sydney, as she could-
“I always thought I would be the hero, you know?” Ace said quietly, so quietly it was only several seconds later that Rose realized he was speaking to her. By the time she had considered his state of mind and constructed her answer, he was speaking again.
“When you grow up playing video games, succeeding at sports, acing all the tests…. Who doesn’t have a secret belief that when the world comes crashing down, you will be there, ready to hold up the remnants with sheer personality and force of will? I understand that a portion of it would always be luck, but I’m lucky, I’ve been lucky. I didn’t die, I slowly grew in strength. I found people who believed in similar things, and we created a Village. Even now, I look at my hands in wonder; I could kill a man, a bear, wreck a fucking freight train with these hands.”
Rose frowned at his back. “So are you finished with your kick of being a villain? Is Dauntless dead?”
Such a mental shakeup was… unexpected for Ace, but wasn’t something that would truly derail Rose’s plans for the Refuge. In fact, it might even make things simpler. If Ace was willing to behave like an adult when confronted with problems, the running of the Refuge would become that much smoother. The people who came to the Refuge usually came for power and lawlessness, but that wasn’t the way a Village could exist; it simply wasn’t a stable political base.
“Ha! You truly don’t understand. Listen, Rose, can’t you just stop and admire the tragedy that there can only be one hero? And of all people, it was Randidly? Not that he was a bad guy, even before I would trust him with my life. That was the only reason I didn’t kill him immediately when I knew for sure something was going on between him and Sydney. No, he was good, and kind, and innocent in a way, and yet…”
Ace stopped speaking abruptly, and when he turned to face her, Rose felt a flash of pleasure when she saw the pure heat in Ace’s eyes. This… this was the reason that she followed him. She had found no one, even the Ghosthound, that could match Ace in terms of heat of passion. Sometimes, Ace shocked and scared her with how powerful and volatile his emotions were.
But that was the draw of him. The danger.
“But I suppose that’s the point. Life doesn’t make sense.” Ace said finally, that passion disappearing behind a frown. But it was clear he was thinking of something.
After around 10 minutes of waiting, so much so that even Rose began to feel the edges of her patience waning, Ace’s arm snapped up, pointing at Rose. “Fine, if life will fuck with me… time to fuck with it back. I want you to write a letter to Sydney. Tell her… tell her I apologize. Tell her she was right, that Roy… that Roy wasn’t as strong as he wanted us to believe. That his pride doomed himself and a thousand people… and I let it happen.”
Then Ace went silent, and he went to the side of the room, to the bookshelf. With a grand motion, he brought his arms across and knocked the books to the ground. Behind the books was a small alcove in the way, with a box in it. Although it was clear as day in the empty shelf, with the books there, it had been completely hidden from view.
Rose’s heart rose up into her throat. She had always suspected, but…
Ace pulled down the box carefully, setting it on the ground. With a light touch, he soundlessly lifted the lid, revealing a pile of dirty bones. Human bones.
“Finally… ask Sydney to send that Skeleton Mage of hers.” Ace said with glowing eyes. The passion was back, which gave Rose some hope, but was a twisted monstrous thing. Rose’s mouth crept open into a small smile. If anything, the twisted nature of Ace was for the best. The more his personality was twisted and warped… the greater the pressure, the larger the explosion when his inner passion won through.
“Let’s see if it’s true that he can Raise Dead.” Ace whispered. “We need as many Heroes as we can get.”
After knocking on the door, Randidly let himself into the training room. Donny, covered in sweat, paused in his attack on two other Knights from Donnyton. The two sparring partners saluted Randidly when he entered. Nodding, Randidly turned his attention to Donny and focused his gaze there.
Donny had been a skinny punk of a kid when they had met. When the option to become tied to a Village emerged, initially Randidly had pushed that responsibility onto Donny in order to avoid it himself. Randidly had never been good with people, and he didn’t think the apocalypse was going to change that.
Not that Donny had been particularly good with people either, but… he certainly possessed an enthusiasm for them that Randidly lacked. Back then, he had rather beady eyes and greasy brown hair. Long-limbed and awkward, he had been the type that it was more easy to picture as the kid who got rejected when he asked a girl to prom than the leader of thousands of people.
Time, the System, and Randidly’s gift of being the Village Chieftain had been kind to Donny. Whereas his body could have previously been described as wispy, he was now wiry. Although his limbs weren’t overly muscled, they showed clear signs of repeated training. His skin now had a healthy copper glow from long hours working in the sun. His hair was now kept cropped short, giving him a stern look that helped age him a bit.
He was still clearly a teen, but now, at least, he was one with the sense of worth to meet your gaze when you looked at him. Combine that with his powerful looking shield and leather armor, and you had more than a Chieftain: you had a Knight.
Was he 18? 19? 17? Randidly wondered, trying to remember how much time had passed on Earth. His own journeys now put him just over 3 years or so, but even that was suspect. And perhaps most confusingly, their time together, and apart, seemed to have deepened their connection between them, even when they weren’t together. When he looked at Donny, looked him in the eyes, he could see the admiration and respect. He saw a young man who had learned to carry responsibility and pay his debts.
A man who had the strength of personality to protect Donnyton, regardless of what was thrown in his path. That was, of course, only if Donny had the strength to manage it. Willpower was only half of the battle.
“You two can leave,” Randidly said shortly, gesturing to the two training partners. After a hurried bow, they followed his instruction, closing the door behind them. When they were alone, Randidly examined the surrounding area. It was a nice space, plenty of room for both close and far range practice. Although Randidly suspected that Donny focused primarily on defense in the former case, and team battles in the latter.
Well, it was time to shake things up a bit.
“What’s up?” Donny asked curiously, using a towel to wipe away his sweat.
Flashing a smile, Randidly threw a spatial ring at Donny. He caught it nonplussed, and examined the inside. When he discovered that there were about a hundred Health and Stamina potions within, his eyes widened, looking in askance at Randidly.
“I… have thought a lot about Donnyton’s future.” Randidly started, and when Donny went to speak, Randidly held up his hand. “No, nothing to do with how you guys are handling the governing. I have divorced myself from that, and I don’t want that to change. No… I just have come face to face with the realization that I may need to leave Donnyton. And I want to be sure that if I do so, it will remain safe.”
“You are leaving?”
Randidly smiled sadly. “…It seems all but inevitable right now. I’ll give it a chance, but…”
He trailed off, then shook his head. Then, with a steady gaze, he looked at Donny. “After the rescue operation tomorrow, to sweep the new areas for people… you and I are going to spar. For 24 hours straight. I won’t hold back. It’s going to hurt. And I hope to god you convince me I made the right decision choosing you as the Village Chieftain.”