Naffur did make an appearance at Mareen’s rescheduled birthday, but it was just a brief one. After he dropped off his gift box, he immediately made an excuse and vanished.
The rest of the night Naffur wandered the streets of the Orchard, listless. People were still abuzz with hushed arguments over what the attack on the East Gardens meant, even as the Orders quickly mopped up the rapid attack. Rumors about how the Nemesai accomplished it led to a frantic energy that did little to dispel Naffur’s funk.
With a sigh, Naffur settled down on the corner of the roof above the flower crown stand. It was near dusk, and the different stand owners were moving back and forth as they took down their wares for the night.
“What should I be doing…” Naffur said softly, looking up at the darkening sky. Stars were just beginning to peek out, but they just looked like small holes in the world. It was hard to have any enthusiasm when Naffur realized how little he could accomplish it.
Part of it was the gift he had given Mareen, which seemed like one of the dumbest things he could have done, but the other part was seeing the other figures from the Orders. Sydney, Alumuran, Alana… even the scaled man from the Order Infandus had ripped through the monsters like a hot knife through butter. When they acted, they could accomplish. To compare that with Naffur’s losing his cool and punching an ape enough to cause Mareen to be horrified.
“I won’t grow stronger here…” Naffur said. But immediately after he did so, a sharp spike of fear cut through his chest. Did he want to grow? Raising his hands, he looked at the gnarled and bruised knuckles that remained from attacking the ape. Already, the dull ache in his fingers was dissipating as his meager amount of points in Endurance and Vitality overcame the bone bruises he had given himself.
Even though it was a dim echo of the pain, it still made it difficult to seriously consider what to do to get stronger. Because Naffur knew that he needes higher Skill Levels, higher Stats, and eventually a Class. And his growth in Orchard…
Slow. The incident at the Manhattan building was less than an hour of activity that had earned him almost 30 Skill Levels. Violence and struggle increased the speed at which you gained Skill Levels. The reason why this occurred was unclear, but it couldn’t be denied that the fastest way to grow was to risk yourself.
And risk meant pain.
Naffur pressed his eyes shut and clenched his fist. It was difficult. It was so difficult to overcome the hot nervousness in his chest. Naffur wished that the had the ability to just push aside his fear and go out into the world to fight and grow. But his hands were cold and sweaty. His ass seemed to have filled with lead, keeping him firmly placed on the wall.
Even though Naffur had a deep resentment and hate for the fact that he was given the Path of Cowardice, his mind was still coming up with excuses as to why he shouldn’t go. If he was going to go out and grow, shouldn’t he research first? Shouldn’t he practice combat Skills? Shouldn’t he prepare supplies, form a team?
The hot shame sunk in Naffur’s chest, going from an animating energy to a surly restiveness. Somehow, Naffur knew that he wouldn’t leave the Orchard. He could stay here, and his Devil’s own Luck for Entrances would force him a little outside his comfort zone. Even if it wasn’t as fast as Naffur had heard from soldiers who had served out in areas controlled by monsters, his growth had picked up.
What Naffur pointedly didn’t think about was how far behind he was from those at the frontline. A split second of heat and warmth, annihilating monsters over Level 50.
Besides, he had a role in the Orchard as a masked vigilante. People relied on him. Because people at the Eastern Gardens had seen him, the Order Ducis was talked about as one of those Orders that had stopped the terrorist attack. It pressed a heavyweight of shame on Naffur, but still, it wasn’t like he hadn’t helped-
Mareen was walking across the almost deserted sweet in the twilight, picking her way through the closing down stalls. As she approached, the old woman who worked the flower crown stall straightened. While Mareen walked forward, she never looked up and saw how Naffur’s face was locked in a rictus scowl.
“Little Mareen!” The old woman said with a smile. “I’m so glad to see you are safe! I hope your birthday wasn’t ruined by that tragedy in the gardens?”
“We had to move it, but it turned out well enough,” Mareen said with a smile.
“Wonderful, wonderful. Now, what can I do for you? Surely you didn’t seek little old me out just to chat?” The woman asked.
Mareen’s smile faded somewhat. She held up her hand and produced an object from her interspatial watch. “I’m sorry to ask this, but… am I able to return this?”
In her hand was a flower crown.
Naffur’s ears were ringing. His face flushed with so much blood that it felt like the skin of his face was burning. She… she was going to return it…?
The two continued to speak but Naffur couldn’t even hear it. His eyes were just locked on the flower crown. Blinking, Naffur was surprised to find tears falling down his face.
The next thing Naffur knew, he was rushing across the rooftops, his vision blurry from tears. His breathing was rough and the dull pain in his hands was lost amongst the sea of crashing emotions. Fear, anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness…
As Naffur ran for longer and longer, his breathing became even rougher. Although he had a passable amount of physical fitness, Naffur had never done anything like this. The size of the buildings slowly lowered. Above, the sky grew darker and darker. Stars loomed overhead, seeming to stare down on Naffur and notice his every flaw.
“I can’t stay here… I can’t stay here… I can’t stay here…” Naffur repeated it like a mantra. Every time he said it, there was a split second where he lost the sharp memory of what had just happened.
It wasn’t a big deal that she returne his gift.
It just meant she didn’t care.
She didn’t care.
As the tears slowly transitioned to sobs, Naffur was forced off the roof onto the ground. Passing the stacked piles of materials near the new construction on the outskirts of Orchard, Naffur stumled out of the city and into the wild. He didn’t know where he was going, but he wasn’t going to stay here.
She didn’t care.
“I’m sorry to ask this, but… am I able to return this?” Mareen said, feeling profoundly awkward.
The flower stall owner frowned. “So soon? You have been looking at this flower crown for months! If you just wanted it for your birthday party, I would have let you rent it.”
“No, no.” Mareen’s smile turned soft. “I do love it, but… someone got me another. Someone special. Somehow… he picked the one I liked the most. Isn’t that something.”
“Ahh….. indeed.” The old woman reached out and took the flower crown. Then she blessed Mareen with a warm smile. “Serendipity is a strange thing… listen when the universe tells you something, little Mareen.”
Blushing, Mareen looked at the ground. “Yea… I think I will.”
Randidly looked up at the sky. The stars made strange shapes in the Tellus sky, showing a completely different universe. One part of Randidly wondered what sort of distance separated the Earth from Tellus. Was it possible to traverse the distance physically, or were the two located in separate universes?
But that was a small part of Randidly’s gaze. Most of his attention was on the Aether that filled the sky.
The heartbeat of Tellus, the sharp image of the spear, was becoming increasingly clear. Aether was being produced as the flow of Aether rubbed against the calcified Aether of Tellus and slowly wore it down. By now, the force of the heartbeat of the sky had reached a critical mass of strength, and it was rapidly breaking down the previously held Aether of the world. Soon, the old images would be worn down to nothing.
Still, Randidly frowned. Because he couldn’t help but notice that although the Aether was broken apart and set forth in the world in a much more digestible form, a lot of the sharp violence and aggression that was present in the old Aether persisted. If anything, the breaking served to exacerbate it. This vicious Aether drifted downwards, settling on the increasingly active front lines.
Randidly’s fight with Helen would be the day after tomorrow. Today had been an explosion of attacks of the Wights in the wake of Aylwind Sky finally moving. Most of the the fighting was not near the capitol, but Randidly communicated with Platton and learned how there was a groundswell of support from farmers and tradesmen. They were aggressive and they were out for blood.
Tellus was changing. And Randidly had a sinking suspicion that it meant he was going to learn quite a bit about the Second Calamity, at the cost of the lives of people he had met here.