Sydney looked tiredly down at the two bundles of paper stacked neatly on her desk. The past few days had been hectic, as a whole new area opened up for exploration, and the East End’s resources were stretched far past the breaking point in order to explore a portion of it.
Donnyton took most of the Eastern areas, but East End could basically monopolize the North, as both the Refuge and Star Crossing were too central to send troops easily, and were more concerned with their relatively more pressing Western border.
East End might have failed, even then, and been forced to ask Donnyton for assistance if not for Drake. He was a force unto himself, clearing away high Leveled monsters with ease, acting as the keystone that kept the expedition safe and in order. Even Sydney had gone to the front lines, and her confidence in her strength had been crushed after witnessing Drake fight. Agan and again, she threw herself into danger, pushing towards her limits, but he was frustratingly capable.
It was a good thing, Sydney knew, but she didn’t like to lose. That was the whole reason she had installed a private Dungeon in her room, so she could grow without peer. But it seemed that the limits of the Aether Starvation were more pressing than she feared, even with the reward from completing the Dungeons. Her connection to the Village had withered somewhat, and she had to allow it to heal before she could press further.
They had found and rescued several hundred people. For one reason or another, Sydney planned on pushing most of them out of their Village and down towards Star Crossing, but she had her men conducting interviews now, to find anyone who was skilled in their particular field. She had found one particular gem already, an aeronautical engineer, and she was consulting with other as to how feasible constructing a plane would be in the post System world.
It was, of course, only a pipe dream at this point. But it was a path for survival for East End, who was outclassed on all aspects by other Villages. If they did not specialize, they would be left behind.
Sydney closed her eyes. That was entirely what one of the bundles of paper was, a report from Drake. He recommended that East End move immediately in one of two directions, throwing their resources behind either of these, but not both. To try both, Drake pointed out, was to show an only slightly superior product to Donnyton and Franksburg, and have those two outclass them again in months, simply through superior numbers and infrastructure.
Of course, that was the best economic solution, but the political reality was that the people of East End were satisfied with what they were doing now. There were some free resources, and some non-Classers that Sydney had been grooming, but she couldn’t just drop everything for these possible future industries. Still, they were both legitimate and worth pursuing.
The first was to capture some of the mostly released and wild horde of mounts that the Wild Rider had possessed. Now that the Wild Rider was no more, these monsters were swiftly turning feral. They were largely pretty near to East End, and if they moved on them, they could capture a fair number and begin training them. Cavalry would be an asset, and getting those Skills up now would be an advantage later, for these new individuals to get riding-related Skills.
There would be a probation period for these new arrivals, obviously. They needed to be taught about the changes that have occurred in their world. But Sydney had high hopes.
The downsides of this option were that Star Crossing might be better situated to take this path, as many of them had the Soulbond Companion Skill, and if they both went for the same thing, East End would likely lose out.
Meanwhile, the second option was that one Classer’s random Class had been Elementalist, and recently elemental spirits had been spotted in the nearby area. They were largely harmless, just small sprites with a bit of power, but the Elementalist could channel them through her body to great effect. Drake theorized that as the Elementalist grew, and if there were more of this Class, more Elementals would appear, and more powerful ones.
If the Village became focused on Elementals, it would undoubtedly be powerful. But it was a much harder sell to the people already here and established. If Sydney used her groomed non-Classers and the Elementalist plan turned out to be a bust, it would be a waste of resources. The benefit from Elementals was much more nebulous right now, even if the eventual payoff seemed higher.
Sighing, Sydney turned her attention away from the present issues and to the second bundle of papers, the real reason she was exhausted; Ace had sent a letter. She supposed she should be happy that he had apologized, but when Ace apologized, it only meant one thing.
He was going to do something even more stupid.
And based on his request for Coppernicus, Sydney could see what he would do. He would raise the Hero, that misogynistic pig that had tried to get them all killed. Coppernicus’ Skill might bring the man back, but it was hard to say what sort of Soul would inhabit the raised skeleton. Copernicus had been revived by a fluke almost immediately after death and hadn’t really spent any time truly dead.
But even in that small shard of time, Coppernicus sometimes spoke of a great darkness, and an endless desert filled with floating bells. It didn’t seem so horrifying an image, but the times he spoke of it were the only times she had seen emotions cross his skull. As such, Sydney was largely inclined to believe Coppernicus when he said it was a good idea not to revive anyone who had been dead for too long.
On the other hand, the Skill might not work. Raise Dead required that the killer be a willing participant in the ritual if the Skill user wasn’t himself the killer. Very few people would willingly bring back their enemies.
Roy had obviously fallen to the Tribulation, but it wasn’t clear whether he truly died. Perhaps Ace, who went in and was the first person to crush the Dungeon, could truly be considered the killer. Then, if he possessed the skeleton…
Sydney shook her head. Too many ifs. But it wasn’t her problem. Their previous relationship was done. This apology allowed her to put the negative emotions behind her, but she wouldn’t elevate him back to where he was before. He would need to earn it.
Sighing, she sent word to Coppernicus, ordering him to assist Ace.
Thea had long since ceased crying, but she still didn’t know what to do. It was a lot like watching a car crash in slow motion; she couldn’t look away, but she felt her soul being torn in two as the slow progression meant the screams seemed endless. That was what Chrysanthemum’s feeble struggles to cheer her up were. They were horrifying in a way. That even now, her sweet partner would…
She forced herself to let that train of thought go when her face threatened to split open again. Her body didn’t even have any more moisture to force out of her tear ducts, but she could sit there and tremble for a while, perhaps hoping in some distant way to shake off the constant grip of fear and despair that was on her.
There was a part of her that wanted to lay blame at someone’s feet, but very quickly Chrysanthemum’s gentle spirit had warned her away from that. Even as the fury of Dance of the Ghostbear kept turning her vision red, the calm compassion of Chrysanthemum kept her alive.
Of course, that influence was slowly disappearing.
By now, Chrysanthemum was almost entirely unconscious. Her life was slipping away, drifting off of her and into the Earth below. Thea knew her mother would probably say something inane about the big bear feeding so many plants, which would feed so many animals and people, but Thea couldn’t stand that line of thoughts right now. It made her want to produce her hammer and crack her own skull open.
She was so filled with wild emotions, and yet so perfectly empty and hollow, just a listless zombie that was watching her partner pass.
Around her, Simon continued to try and cheer her up, but she ignored him. Honestly, it was growing increasingly infuriating. Thea just wanted… well, she wanted Chrysanthemum to live. But the more time passed, the more Thea realized it wouldn’t happen. There was no one to save Chrysanthemum. The injury to her bear was something that no one yet truly understood; that vast passage of time was a blow that could even fell entire worlds.
What Thea truly wanted now was just… to be alone. The Ghosthound had understood that, which is why he had left her here, with her grief. The Ghosthound probably had gone through something similar in the past… and had learned from experience.
Abruptly, Simon’s flowers and birds and stars were gone. Instead, there was a low mist on the ground. Thea looked up, confused, wondering if this was another ploy by the idiot to make her smile or something shitty. But instead of Simon, she found herself face to face with a female figure.
And it was someone she recognized dimly, but also by reputation. It was the golden angel of Donnyton, Lyra. The woman who had somehow become a Village Spirit.
Thea was shocked enough by her presence here that she momentarily forgot the pain in her heart. But all too soon, it crashed back in, and some surly bitterness crept up. “What are you doing here? Leave me alone.”
Lyra smiled, wider now. “It doesn’t have to be like this, you know.”
“What?” This time, Thea didn’t bother to push back the rising tide of red. Furious, she stood. “If I could avoid this, don’t you fucking think I would? She’s my-”
“Yes, she’s a part of you,” Lyra said, her smile never wavering. “Which means you can save her. If you want Chrysanthemum to live… take my hand.”
Lyra extended her hand, and it was wreathed in green fire. Abruptly, Thea realized she recognized the fire; it was the same color and consistency of the Skeleton Knight before the Ghosthound defeated him.
“I…” Thea’s anger drained away, replaced by the crushing sadness, and just a small spark of hope. “I don’t believe you.”
Lyra snorted, her lovely nose wrinkling as she laughed. “Then what’s the harm in taking the chance?”
Thea had no answer that made sense to her, after two days of crying. So she reached out and took Lyra’s hand. The other woman laughed, watching the flame spread up Thea’s arms, to her chest, and then rushing up to consume her. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as she was expecting. Very quickly, she could feel the flames feeding into her chest, flowing through the bond between them to Chrysanthemum. She felt her own strength decreasing somewhat, but she felt Chrysanthemum’s tremble, and then start to rise.
As Thea made to pull away, rushing to Chrysanthemum’s side, Lyra’s hand tightened on her own.
“For where there is Champion…” The other woman hissed, her eyes glowing violet. “There must be Nemesis. Open your eyes, girl, and understand what you now are.”
Thea opened her eyes and saw, very briefly, the fabric of this world, and her place in it.