Simon held his hand up to his eyes, shading some of the sun's harsh rays. It had been over an hour now since the group had gone into the Raid Dungeon, and Simon was a nervous wreck. Because even with his Class of the Dreamer, there was nothing that he could do to penetrate through the temporal differences to see what was going on within the Raid Dungeon.
In fact, it was only through a supreme act of will that Simon was able to tear his focus away from the Raid Dungeon. But based on what the difference in time was, it was possible that the group would take a day or two of real-world time to finish the Dungeon. Even that was dependent on the performance of the Dungeon divers, which Simon didn't doubt, but they had no way of knowing how difficult it would be, how many challenges would be arrayed before them...
Sighing, Simon left his room and walked outside, vaguely intending to tend to the garden. In the end, he simply took the watering pale and sat next to the garden, his arms wrapping around his legs, pressing his eyes tightly shut. While he was so deprived of his sight, he did his best to ignore the humming presence of his Astral power and focused instead on the sounds around him. A squirrel climbing up a tree, the drone of bugs, his own breath.
As he did so, the knot of tension in his neck slowly eased, flowing out of him into the ground beneath him. There was something... profoundly healing about the world, Simon reflected to himself. It was almost as if, compared to the great weights the planet bore, their small woes and stresses were so minuscule they could be absorbed without noticeable difference. Very quickly, Simon's breathing had eased to the point he could lean back, and feel the warmth of the sun on his skin.
"It just... it sucks being left behind," Simon whispered to the air. He was currently living with his mom in Star Crossing, and due to her high standing, and also Simon's, their house was about a half mile out of town, upon a high hill that gave a good vantage point for the surrounding territory.
In a post System world, a half mile wasn't so far that sprinting help couldn't arrive in time to help handle emergencies, but it was far enough that the bustle of the city fell away. Plus, with rumblings out of Franksburg of development of an electrical grid, and a fuel substitute, their tiny suburb on the hill might soon be seen as all too close to the noises of the city.
Even with the rising threat of doom, should the Raid Dungeon team fail, by and large, no one below the upper levels of the VIllage's Administrations noticed. Or at least, the people gossipped and talked about it, but never really doubted that their heroes would succeed.
Simon pressed his eyes shut. It had been hard, these past few weeks, to listen to so many people praising Thea for her bravery and power. They talked about how she was from a relatively common Class, as far as the Raid Dungeon party went, and still was able to stand among them as equals, due to hard work and determination. Every time someone talked about her, Simon felt a hand grip his heart to the point he simply ached, all other emotions driven away. To think that now, she was out of his ability to assist or understand...
Tensing his entire body, Simon hissed. "I'm so weak! All I could do was watch as they left, and now... not even..."
He trailed off, unsure of what to say. As his thoughts always did when faced with the question of how to become stronger, Simon's thoughts turned towards... David. The Ghosthound. The man who, more than anyone else, had gotten to where he was due to hard work and determination.
Oh, Simon didn't deny that Thea's recent emergence was due to those same traits, but he was likely the only person who realized that Thea's emergence coincided with meeting the Ghosthound, and watching how he mercilessly drove himself forward, always pushing harder, farther, faster. He was a man that lived under a dreadful weight. At this point, Simon wondered if the Ghosthound could stop pushing... or would the sheer momentum of him continue to drive him farther and farther from the rest of humanity.
Simon had trained his Skills, but he wasn't as exacting as he knew he would have to be to move among the highest level of Classers. When he grew tired, Simon didn't want to push even further, he simply wanted to stop and rest. Of course, he wasn't going to baby himself up to that point, but everyone he had talked to had told him that any work that he would put in after that moment he sincerely believed he couldn't go on any longer was just as valuable, if not more so, than all the work that came before that. Therefore, those that could push past the weariness were getting in double the work as those who couldn't.
These principles were derived from pre-System exercise science, of course, but all the experts agreed that post-System, Skills improved for a lot of the same reasons that muscles did previously. It simply left Simon exhausted, feeling like a vast gulf was opening between himself and others, even with the rarity of his Class. That space between himself and the Ghosthound was a given, but now it was surely between himself and Thea-
Simon spun around, jumping up to his feet in response to the sudden sound. The broken body of the bird that had slammed into the glass window seemed glued to the impact zone, the thin crack holding it in a vengeful grip. But then the moment passed, and the body tumbled down and settled into the bushes next to the house.
Letting out a breath, Simon muttered, "Fuck this," and closed his eyes. He reached for his Astral power, and his awareness spread rapidly outward.
He could feel how, in the living room, his Soulbound companion got to his feet, shaking his oxen head in displeasure. It was very clear that his friend did not look kindly on him giving in to temptation so quickly, but Simon didn’t care about that now, he simply let himself get lost in the teleportation, allowing his perceptions to shoot off across the horizon, scanning quickly.
Simon blinked, and then his smile split his face widely. They were back!
The Raid Dungeon party was there, looking considerably the worse for wear, even the Ghosthound. His once fearsome cloak of bones now truly looked like something that had been kept in a crypt for 100 years, crisscrossed with broken bones and holes.
The longer Simon looked at the group the more his smile faded away. Something was… definitely wrong. The group’s faces were grim and said. There was very little talking, and most of it was the Ghosthound speaking quietly to Rose and Alana, while the whole group was very specifically not looking at-
Kneeling on the ground, next to Chrysanthemum.
The urge to vomit was so strong that Simon was knocked out of his trance, brought back to standing in front of his and his mom’s garden. His vomit was acidic and yellow as he spewed it over the ground, and he took several long seconds to blink away his tears and regard the stomach liquid he had produced. It seemed so chemical, so foreign, so far from how he would describe himself, even his most inner workings. So close to being something… other.
Shivering, Simon closed his eyes and looked at Chrysanthemum again. Her hair had fallen out and her skin was coming off in large flakes. She seemed to be some sort of rotten fruit, lumpy yet soft, unnaturally shaped, her previously strong bulk now emptied like a spent water balloon.
Gently, Thea stroked Chrysanthemum, whispering something that not even Simon’s Astral ears could hear. Out of habit, he had formed a small Astral Projection of a bird, but he let that dissipate, hoping that no one had noticed. Simon’s thoughts were bouncing around his head, violent and strange, and he couldn't deal with the Ghosthound turning his baleful green eyes to him, issuing some order.
Simon needed time to understand what had happened.
Next to Thea’s body, there lay a sword and an antlered helmet, which he recognized as the Regalias of the Champions. At least they had accomplished that goal. And as suddenly as he had thought of goals, there was a flicker from the Dungeon behind the group, a burst of golden light, and a notification appeared in Simon’s vision.
Congratulations Zone 32! Your strongest warriors have cleared the Raid Dungeon! The ambient energy in the air will be increased to 1.5x previous levels. In addition, the Raid Dungeon will remain a powerful Dungeon with great rewards in its depths. Continue to defeat this Dungeon and you will perhaps discover hidden secrets!
Due to the victory, the area of Zone 32 will be increased by an extra 50 miles in each direction. Warning, when this planet entered into the System, some smaller portions were frozen in time. Some humans might be contained within these areas. However, the monsters in the new area will be between Level 35 and Level 45, so act quickly! Those areas will open tomorrow.
Contained in the new areas will also be an additional Rare natural treasure due to being the 2nd group to clear the Raid Dungeon on your planet, and the 5th in your Cohort! All humans born in your Zone will receive an extra +5 to all Stats while within your Zone!
In 6 months, your Zone 32 will be connected to the New Earth. The New Earth will be composed of resource-rich Danger Fields and other Zones that have cleared their Raid Dungeon. Each Danger Field will produce powerful spawn unless the Field Boss is defeated once every 6 months. Each Zone that joins the New Earth will cause 2 Danger Fields to connect to the New Earth.
In the next 6 months, prepare, because once the New Earth has 7 Zones, the System will progress to the testing stage. Beware, humans. A Calamity approaches…