Gary Firefly was a meticulous man. It was what earned him his job as a curator at the National History Museum, and it was what enabled him to best take advantage of the arrival of the System, letting him become a Senator. He ate the same breakfast every day: squeezed apple juice and sauteed spinach and peppers. It was the reason he had lived to the age of 58 before the System, and the reason he would continue living to be 100, now that he had used his Stats to reinforce his Vitality and Endurance.
Therefore, it was a bad Tuesday when he had been told that someone had demolished his private orchards and erected a castle there. During a four hour span of time.
The orchards he maintained because a cute fellow curator, Ms. Terrygate, had always talked about the apple orchards of her youth. When he became a Senator, he planted the orchards on a whim, just a half mile from Carrolshold, the heart of his district. Almost casually, he had asked Ms. Terrygate if she would work for him, caring for the orchard.
He obviously didn’t intend anything untoward; he had been a married man before the System’s arrival, and she was 20 years his junior. It was very unfortunate that his wife had perished in the System’s initial chaos, and Gary couldn’t deny that Ms. Terrygate made him feel a sense of warm comfort.
Gary Firefly at first wanted to send a few chosen military elites to get to the bottom of this, but he was cautious in addition to being meticulous. Doing something so rapidly required some manner of resources. Until he determined who was behind this, he would remain tranquil. So Gary went himself to visit this strange new castle.
When he arrived, he bid his security detail of 6 men to wait behind. Although Gary himself was only Level 39, he had on him at all times an energysuit that had been specially designed with protection in mind. Without a monster above Level 50 appearing within the bounds of the Zone, Gary was relatively confident that nothing could harm him.
There was a gate, of the sort that was 3 meters high and 2 meters wide, and would normally have been filled with wooden doors. There were no wooden doors. There was only the cold, imposing stone of the castle walls. At the entranceway, Gary cleared his throat. Then he did it again, more loudly.
When no answer was forthcoming, Gary hesitantly stepped across the threshold. Within, there was a wide courtyard and a keep. The courtyard was populated with strange, stoic statues. Gary’s frown deepened as he took several steps forward, examining a female figure holding a spear. The handling was rough as if the sculpture was hastily done. But the casual nature of the doing couldn’t cover up the talent of the artist who had done these. Even without putting an eye out for detail, they were still excellent.
The woman in front of him felt like an ancient Amazonian warrior, with a strong jaw and a long spear that radiated the possibility of a sudden strike. She was beautiful too, but in an abstract way that Gary found fascinating. Although very little time was done with her face, the more Gary looked the more he could see that there were places where the artist had slowed down to capture the right feeling. The hands, for one, with the lines of tendons so clear that Gary brushed his own knuckles across them. The feet too, and the knees.
It was in the physicality that the artist concentrated their focus, and it made for a raw, awe-inspiring sculpture.
So the owner of this new castle wasn’t just wealthy, but also appreciated fine art. An individual of class, then.
Gary Firefly continued farther until he came upon the entrance to the keep. Like the outer wall, there were no doors in any of the entranceways, and the windows were also wide and bare. Gary shivered; it felt as though he was walking through the bones of a castle, rather than a castle proper. Why had the owner done this, when she or he showed such an eye for detail in the sculptures…?
Because physicality was important, Gary realized with a chill. From afar, none would know the gaping entrances of the place, they would only see the castle. This then was a message.
At the entrance to the keep, Gary stopped and cleared his throat once more. Again, there was no response. He grimaced. This was what he was worried about. If no one was here… what was he to do? He could obviously destroy the castle, but-
“Do me a favor?”
Gary Firefly half turned and saw a young man with short black hair that was coming around the side of the keep. His eyes were fierce, but there was a powerful curiosity in that face. The young man spoke again.
Then, without waiting for an answer, the young man stopped, stared fixedly at Gary for several seconds, and then raised his hands and flexed his fingers. The ground trembled, and then rose. Stone seemed to flow like liquid upwards, resisting the power of gravity.
Gary’s eyes widened immediately. This man… was using a Skill to sculpt? And not something like Sculpting, but in fact, he had a Skill that would allow him to control stone? Gary was privy to some of the most top-secret disclosures that Ghost provided to the government, so he understood conceptually that Skills could accomplish almost anything if they were trained.
But he had also cast his vote to focus the Zone towards technology, rather than developing the “magic” of the System. Humans had been on top of the food chain for thousands of years, and Gary Firefly had firmly believed that if they continued relying on the technology they possessed, they would continue to be so. Initial results, before the borderlands opened up, seemed to prove Gary right.
But now, watching this artist work…
It took all of 10 minutes, with Gary standing transfixed as he watched the man work. First the shape, then the face and posture, and then the details. A very long minute spent elaborating Gary’s right hand, and the spatial watch he had there, held at the ready for any ambushes. Also, a long time on Gary’s tie and collar, accentuating his distinguished state of dress.
When the man finished, he didn’t say anything, but his face brightened. Then he grinned at Gary. “Randidly Ghosthound. I just moved here.”
“I…” Gary blinked, gazing at Randidly’s outstretched hand. Ghosthound…? That name sounded familiar. But then the reality of the situation and the memory of the destroyed orchard came back with a vengeance. Gary took the man’s hand but coughed lightly when the man’s shake was almost limp.
It was like he had never shaken a hand before. Gary made sure to make his own grip vigorous. From what he understood, those who focused on magic would oftentimes leave their physical Stats low. Any edge now would be useful.
“Indeed? My name is Gary Firefly, as I’m sure you know. I own this land. I am just wondering who put you up to this stunt of destroying my orchard?” Gary’s tone was dry.
“I didn’t know. You grew apples? Sad.” The young man said, shaking his head.
Forcing to keep his rising blood pressure even, Gary said. “Those orchards meant a lot to me. Do you have any idea who I am?”
“No. I’m from the other Zone,” The young man said, matter of factly.
This stalled Gary’s next comment, leaving him somewhat confused. This was… not how he had expected the conversation to go. But before he could gather his reaction, the young man continued speaking.
“But taking something is bad. I owe you a favor. What would you like me to do?”
Again, not what Gary had expected. He had expected to walk into a strange political meeting of some sort, where someone got his attention with the orchard but had a larger plot backing them up so that Senator Firefly would be kept from seeking vengeance. Instead, he found a young man that claimed to have no knowledge of who he was, and offered him… a very open favor…?
Was it possible the young man was telling the truth? He definitely had some capabilities, based on how quickly he had made the statue. But crossing over from the other Zone…? So quickly….? Not only would one need to be strong, but they would also need to be strong enough to travel quickly.
But if this strange character was truly that strong…
Gary Firefly wasn’t usually a person who went off of gut feelings or went out on a limb, but the combination of the strange castle, the sculptures, and this man’s attitude had put him on his back foot. So he smiled and said.
“If you replant my orchards and bring me the body of a Level 60 monster, we can call it even.”
What he did not expect was for the man to smile and ask, “Maybe we can be friends as well?”