As the two figures approached each other, Hank eyed them both carefully. Ezekiel because of the information he had just revealed to him, and the young man because he was the obvious answer of who had yelled with such concussive force. Perhaps his Skills related to sound or air pressure?
When the two stopped and regarded each other for several seconds, Hank could see the resemblance between them. Strangely, they were a demonstration of opposites, even while sharing many features. The young man was tanned and athletic, while Ezekiel was thin and pale, like a scholar. The son seemed to burn with health and vigor, while the father had pale skin and always had bags under his eyes hidden by his glasses. The sun’s face was full of warmth and joy and the father hesitated, fear clear in his frantic eyes.
But both of them shared dark hair, prominent noses, and sharp eyes that made them striking, even if neither was handsome in a traditional sense.
Although Ezekiel had only shared a bit of that emotional scar inside of him, Hank felt a thin threat of empathy for the man. Which made Hank wonder how he would feel to be reunited with his own father, had he not died prior to the System. Honestly, the old man would have thrived in this environment, that bastard. His lectures would be absolutely insufferable.
With his arms wide, the son tackled Ezekiel, and for a few minutes, they lay there, exchanging quiet words. After 5 minutes passed, the two stood quickly, brushing themselves off, and Hank noticed that the boy wasn’t wearing any shoes.
But the closer he looked, the easier it was to see how calloused and worn the kid’s feet were. Did he always walk around like that…?
The individuals from both Zones had gathered to witness the reunion between father and son. They stood apart, Zone 32 near the cottage, while the Zone 1 group stayed near the spot where the cooking fire was made. But both groups seemed to have small smiles on their faces, enjoying the pleasant ambiance.
Everyone but the man Tykes, who glowered at the two.
“How… how did you survive?” Ezekiel asked, giving his son a once-over with his eyes.
The young man shrugged. “Probably the same way that you did. I-… uh, I became a potion brewer. That’s why I came along with this group; they sell my wares.”
Hank’s eyes narrowed at the hitch in the young man’s voice. It smelled like a lie. “Really? I’d love to see the work of a master potion brewer.”
Belatedly, he saw Laurel’s glare and felt her pinch, but Hank pressed his lips together stubbornly. Sure, maybe it was rude of him to call the young man out so directly, but Hank wasn’t a man that took being lied to well. Besides, why would he lie to his father about how he survived?
Maybe because he needs to kill a person to keep living,
a dark part of Hank’s mind whispered, He shoved that voice back.
The young man turned and regarded Hank, a small smile on his face. The punk looked fucking amused at Hank’s interruption, like he saw through the challenge for what it was, and had something prepared to deal with it.
“We haven’t formally met,” the young man said, extending a hand towards Hank. “My name is Randidly Ghosthound. A pleasure.”
“The pleasure’s mine,” Hank said, reaching out and taking the extended hand while doing his best to ignore the glares from Laurel, Ezekiel, and Tykes that were burning six holes in his back. The handshake was firm and quick.
After pulling his hand back, the man tipped his hat towards Randidly. “The name’s Hank Howard. You weren’t here for our earlier discussions with your party, but I’m the leader of this political expedition. I don’t suppose you would be willing to send a message to someone you know back in a Village so we may make contact?”
Randidly smiled helplessly. Of course, he could, but he believed things were better done in person. Besides, based on the information that Dinesh was feeding him via message, the people from Zone 1 were woefully under-equipped against the high-level threats they would face. Walking into Donnyton would do a lot to help correct their perspective on the System.
At least, that was what Randidly believed. Beyond finding the Creature’s involvement in Zone 1, he couldn’t find it in him to be too concerned with what the individuals from this other Zone did. In the end, Randidly had supreme confidence in the people of Donnyton, regardless of whether he was there or not; they weren’t so weak as to be overwhelmed by the petty tricks utilized by politically minded forces.
“…I suspected as much,” Hank said with a sigh, shaking his head.
Randidly considered the man. Based on his intuition, this man was the strongest here, but the girl with the cane was a close second. He wore a cowboy hat and a pistol at each hip. Nathan had already sent him several excited messages about the man’s Class, expressing his deep interest in it. At the time, Randidly was too busy fighting against the ogre to pay much attention, but now Randidly couldn’t deny his curiosity was aroused.
Randidly’s eyes scanned back and forth, taking the rest of them in. He tried not to be too obvious about it because he was still feeling warm and jittery after finding his dad here, and having the man be… almost kind to him.
Perhaps it was the emotional baggage, but Randidly couldn’t guess much about what his father’s role was. The woman standing near Hank he judged to be a support type. As for the human looking robot thing… A tank of some sort?
But then his eyes sharpened. He met the gaze of the robot woman. Refocusing its cameras, the thing began to brazenly scan him. Inwardly, Randidly snorted. It was held together with a thin tether of Mana, that was clearly extending off from it back towards its home Zone. It was interesting, that this was possible, but it also confused Randidly.
The skill of the tether was… childish, even though it followed some of the principles of Aether. Suddenly, it occurred to Randidly that this was similar to Mana Engraving, that it created something like an Aether Connection, done with Mana as the medium.
Randidly didn’t think that the Creature would bother to use such methods as a disguise to gain information on him but wasn’t willing to risk it. A wave of Erode Image slid outwards, passed the people around him, hitting that fragile Mana Tether. It twitched and then dissipated.
His father began to speak. “So what were you saying about potions-”
But all eyes turned as the robot woman collapsed.
There was some hubbub as everyone hurried over. It quickly became clear to Randidly that no one in the Zone 1 party knew that this was not a true human, and they seemed shocked and suspicious towards Randidly’s group when they realized that her body was turning cold. Luckily, Dinesh knew some healing arts, so he went forward and attempted to cast a spell on her.
When it failed, he frowned. “This…. This woman is not alive.”
“You think that fuckin’ helps?!?” Hank said, his eyes flinty, but Dinesh simply made a placating gesture.
“No, you misunderstand. She was
alive. She is a robot. Do you have such cyborgs in your Zone 1?”
Hank opened his mouth, and then closed it. Then he closed his eyes. Randidly wondered how he would check if a woman were a robot. The simplest way would, of course, just be to cut into her body. But desecrating a corpse was never an easy thing for humans, and her abrupt “death” had set everyone on edge. Inwardly, Randidly sighed, wishing he had thought of a more subtle way to handle it.
Still, he couldn’t risk it. And in his mind, it simply reaffirmed that he needed to move as quickly as possible towards Zone 1, and begin to search for the Creature or its tendrils. It would be difficult, especially when Randidly wanted to do his best to keep a low profile, but hopefully, his father would be helpful in that regard.
Knowing that Dinesh would handle this situation far better than Randidly himself could, Randidly walked over to his father and pulled him a bit away, and began to ask him quietly about what the other Zone was like, were there robots there like this, what did Ezekiel do there, etc.
Perhaps Randidly shouldn’t have been surprised, but his dad just blinked, and then shrugged in a very dismissive way that was very familiar to him. “Well… I don’t think so. But I likely wouldn’t know. I spent most of my time in jail, so…”
Sighing, Randidly just looked helplessly at his father. Only this man could seem proud of being placed in jail after the greatest trial humanity had ever faced arrived.
Seeing Randidly’s expression, Ezekiel said “No, not for a crime, you understand. It was more of a holding cell. It was for my own protecting.I’m an important government asset.”