The Drowned Man gurgled unpleasantly, tossing the mush that was Father Foster’s body and Thea’s remnants on the ground. The Obsidian Duke and the Undying Hero gathered around, peering down at the remains. Although he wasn’t a Nemesis like the rest of them, Thea believed that the Undying Hero deserved the moniker, from all he had heard about his antics.
“Dispel the illusion,” Thea said. She hated how thin and weak her voice sounded, but she had truly brushed death today. Randidly… he had been aiming to kill her. And if it wasn’t for the last minute intercession of the Undying Hero, she might really have perished.
The remains shimmered for a second, and then Thea’s broken body became a pile of flesh that was all that remained from Father Foster. As for Thea herself, her left arm had been obliterated by the force of the strike. Her internal organs were largely ruptured. Even with her Endurance vastly improved as a Nemesis, the shockwave of Randidly’s blow had brought her to the brink of death.
She attempted to stand and toppled over. Chrysanthemum, who had taken a blow directly, wasn’t much better. She had collapsed by a large rock and leaned against it with a groan.
“Well,” Thea finally said to break the silence. “This will certainly set our schedule back. It will take some time to recover. But I’ll talk to Yystrix, and I’m sure we can-”
“Ah, yes, the Foreigner,” The Drowned Man interrupted. His voice was strangely vibrational, perhaps due to the tentacles from his mouth. “I must make this clear. I agreed to assist, as you are a fellow Nemesis. But if you insist on working under such a thing, I will not work with you.”
Thea blinked. “What?”
“She was in my Zone for a short time, and did little but cause minor mischief.” The Drowned Man said dismissively. “Her goals are not my own. You might not understand, as I am led to believe you were originally from this Zone. But for the rest of us, we must cause constant damage. It is the only way to gather Aether for our Homeworlds.”
The Obsidian Duke rumbled his agreement, crossing his arms. Thea blinked up at them both.
“But with Yystrix’s information-”
“With her information, we almost got killed.” The Obsidian Duke growled. “Who the fuck was that, Spectral Rider? He handled all of us while holding back a fucking lake. I agree with the Drowned Man. We would be most effective if we were alone.”
“The very strength of the Nemesai stems from the fact we can group up in any Zone. If we toss that aside…” Thea’s lips worked soundlessly for several seconds. They wanted to leave? It wasn’t particularly important to her, but Yystrix had some concrete goals that she expected to accomplish. On her own, Thea wasn’t sure if she could accomplish them. Her growth now was much more strange and difficult than it had been before. Doing everything, while injured… it was impossible.
“Again, you don’t understand us,” The Drowned Man said with a shake of his head. Then he turned and walked away.
The Obsidian Duke sighed, looking at her awkwardly. “Look, you are right… but we don’t have to win, Spectral Rider. We come down in pairs, yes? The Jade Prince is my opposite, but he is from the same homeworld as I. Although we do not like each other, no matter which triumphs, my world will receive the Aether. There is no reasons to take risks, not when… not when that man is out there.”
And so they walked away, leaving Thea standing with the strange creature they called the Undying Hero. His name was Roy, Thea believed, and he was smiling widely at her, despite what just occurred.
“Is something funny?” Thea snapped, glaring at him.
Roy only chuckled. “No, no. I was just… lost in thought. It was shocking, right? That man? Just wow. Reminds me of a younger, less handsome version of myself, eh? Well anyways, don’t sweat this too much; it always happens to a hero. You split the party to accomplish smaller tasks. Only at the last moment do we all come back together. It’s honestly hack.”
Thea just stared at him. This set Roy chuckling harder. “Ah, sorry. You are probably a bit young to have gotten into Dungeons and Dragons. Anyways, I’ll stick with you in the meantime. And my Class is Hero, so you’ll get an experience buff while we are together. You’ll be right as a barbie at a 7-year old’s birthday in no time!”
“Really?” Thea said bitterly. Already she could feel Yystrix’s call. She would expect an explanation. And what could she say? “If you are truly so capable, why have you been locked up in the Refuge for 6 months.”
“Ah well,” Roy seemed sheepish now. With growing alarm, Thea watched as he took his hand and plunged it into his stomach. The flesh stretched and then ripped. Blood and bile spurted out, covering his hands and dribbling down his pants. He began pulling out intestines and looking at them curiously. “I had to power Level. It was embarrassing, but the hero was far behind in terms of power. After meeting your friend Randidly there, I almost feel like I left my training arc too quickly. But the montage had already lasted for a while…”
He trailed off, his hand gripped on a ropey pink intestine. Then he frowned and put his hands on both sides of the thing and began to pull. It stretched and stretched and stretched…
His body flickered, and he was back to a whole and healthy man, the illusion restored. He was beaming at Thea. “But this just means I’m an underdog! Which is great. Because if the Skeleton Man was a higher Level, wouldn’t that just make him a demon king? Hahaha! What a joke. Can you imagine how broken a demon king with the Hero Class would be? In all Creation, only those well behaving hells would remain at my suffrage. All those things whole and uncooperative would pass from this nightmare to blissful oblivion.”
Thea shivered. But abruptly the vicious darkness of the Undying Hero was replaced by Roy’s smiling face, and some of the dread passed away.
‘He has a charm Skill,’ Thea mused. She did truly fear him, but it was hard to think about that too deeply while he was smiling. And the fact he had a Skill at the Level that could affect her proved he was strong. Hell, when he had attacked Randidly was forced to defend. Perhaps… perhaps Thea really did want to be a part of his party.
There was a strange buzzing in the air as Roy’s smile widened. “Excellent, it’s decided. Now, why don’t you introduce me to Yystrix? I have heard so many different things, I’m excited to meet the vilified ‘Creature’. I expect to get along swimmingly with her. After all, I do believe we have both been… unjustly blacklisted by the director.”
Randidly just walked in the front door, which was open when he arrived. He expected that the other would know he was coming, but it was still rather convenient that all of the doors opened as he approached. He supposed that was just the convenience of being in the good graces of an AI that controlled most of the Zone.
Not that he believed he was truly in Ghost’s good graces, but he didn’t care at this point. Randidly’s inaction had allowed widespread war crimes to occur. That was over. But he also needed to see how culpable Ghost truly was in the whole ordeal. Based on the information that Randidly had gathered, Ghost wasn’t nearly as powerful as he would like people to believe outside of the cities. But it would still be best to confirm before he decided what to do about the AI.
It couldn’t be denied that Ghost had the potential to accomplish great things for the Zone. His observational capabilities had helped the Zone fight against much stronger monsters than they normally would be able to by identifying weaknesses. In addition, Ghost controlled the drones in real time to eliminate threats. Without Ghost, they would need to rely on pre-programming, which was a hassle on so many levels.
And yet, Randidly’s eyes were grim when he walked into West Providence. Because the evidence weighed very heavily against Ghost.
Eventually, he reached a large antechamber, and a hologram of a teenage boy appeared there. For all that Randidly knew he was throwing off murderous vibes, the boy’s expression was placid. But Randidly supposed he should remember that he wasn’t truly dealing with a human.
If he wanted to kill him, he would likely need to burn down the whole city. Then his mouth twisted sardonically. Well, not literally. Killing everyone in the city was a little bit overkill. But he certainly would search very diligently for Ghost’s actual body.
“For the first time in my existence, I am jealous, Randidly Ghosthound. And truly surprised,” Ghost said finally. “Your talent… I don’t know how to classify it. Not only are you a powerful warrior, but you are also the genius drone creator I’ve been admiring lately. Let us not even discuss what you accomplished at the lake… What you did with plants required Control… at least 500. What… are you?”
Randidly grimaced. “I’m just a man. And that’s all I’ll ever be, for all my strength. But it’s never been about what you are… it’s all about what you do. And what have you been doing recently, Ghost?”