Arbor, Ajax, and Madelyn crouched around Naffur, who was vomiting noisily into a metal bucket.
“This is my fault,” Ajax said with a shake of the head. “A miscalculation on my part. I had not predicted he would appear. And to take his frustrations out on you-”
“No,” Naffur managed to speak in a few seconds of time where he was simply dry heaving. “I- I asked for this.”
Ajax and Madelyn seemed confused. Everyone except Arbor, who only shook its head sorrowfully. There was a reason that it had never asked its creator to teach it to fight. It could be seen by how weird Thorn had turned out how dangerous such a request was.
Madelyn’s friendship with Naffur warred with her undying devotion to the Ghosthound. “What… did he do….?”
Naffur winced at the memory. “Sparring…”
The group considered this word.
“But,” Naffur added, feeling compelled to give Randidly his fair due. “I did gain 50 Skill Levels in an hour.”
Arbor crossed its arms, clearly indicating it wasn’t worth the obvious suffering. Ajax rubbed his mandibles in consideration of such a trade. It was clear from the excited clicking that he had decided such a calculus of pain and Skill Levels was right up his alley. The worshipful gleam returned to Madelyn’s eye.
“Incredible, to achieve such results in so short a time.” She whispered.
Naffur vomited noisily into the bucket.
Feeling rather invigorated from their all too short spar, Randidly headed South and West. Although he inwardly wanted to pull his hair out of his scalp at Neveah’s second and final request, she could sense his actions and would know if he skipped it.
It was, Randidly decided, profoundly annoying to be so intimately connected to another. Especially when your wishes ran counter to theirs.
But for Neveah, Randidly would go to some politically and tactically inconsequential flower garden and care for the plants. Despite how inane it seemed.
For all its inanity, Randidly also planned on contacting Ghost while he was there. And the task itself wasn’t likely to take longer than twenty minutes, meaning it was a relatively short diversion in the Orchard.
Besides, Randidly was curious about the Orchard, one of the few places in Zone 1 that wasn’t either a manicured gated community or an industrial ghetto. It tiptoed that line but felt real enough that Randidly didn’t mind.
What surprised Randidly the most was how big the city had gotten. In the six months since he had passed through, it seemed the city had swollen to double its previous size. Part of it was probably the constant need for cheap labor that the city used to throw up new buildings, and part of it was the fact that it was one of the few places in Zone 1 that was willing take in the refugees while the influx was at its height, but Randidly could feel something else in the air as he passed into the city limits.
The people he saw on the streets as he walked through the outskirts were gruff and dirty and hard at work. It was the sort of population that cultivated a very particular outlook. When enough of those people gathered together, it became a contagious ethos.
Randidly suspected that over time, such an attitude would morph into an image.
The scaffolding and steel shells erected at the edges of the Orchard looked like the bones of some ancient gods, rising out of the ground under the mid-morning sun. It was clear that this portion of the city had been carefully laid out, and soon would be an excellent area to live.
Unfortunately, the middle part of the Orchard was less impressive. Much of that powerful outlook was lost as Randidly proceeded deeper into the city. The “frontier” region of the Orchard swiftly became the inner city, where poverty and crime ruled. The main thoroughfares through the area where frequently patrolled by police, but Randidly could sense some of what was going on in the darker alleys, and he wrinkled his nose at it.
One of the less savory truths about the System was that its protection against diseases meant that HIV was a thing of the past. It took with it a powerful inhibitor against rampant injection based drugs and sexual promiscuity. Not that Randidly was particularly against these activities on principle; they simply seemed like a waste of time.
Besides, none of the people partaking seemed to be doing well enough in their lives to tempt Randidly.
It was something of an interesting question of whether drug use related Skills would be possible to develop. Randidly saw no reason why not. Was there a Drugdealer Class?
During his time in the seedier part of the Orchard, Randidly saw several people eyeing him and wondered whether someone would attempt to mug him. It didn’t end up happening, and Randidly was somehow disappointed. But when he looked at his dirty leathers and bare feet, he supposed that they couldn’t be blamed.
Honestly though, what did Randidly have on him worthy of robbing? Acri and Sulfur were one of a kind, but they were rather nondescript when not serving their function: Acri was currently a belt and Sulfur just looked like a thick grey bulletproof vest.
His ring was filled with rare metals, monster bodies, and training spears. And some engraving notes, which he supposed were valuable enough to the right people. Likely invaluable, to Ghost. But those were the sort of things that were impossible to spot.
So Randidly proceeded deeper into the city, moving from the more destitute areas to neighborhoods with flower shops and small houses with cramped little lawns. Luckily or unluckily for Randidly, his city streets event was coming for him: just not in the form that he had anticipated.
“Sir, we don’t allow begging in this neighborhood,” A gruff police officer said. He and his partner had made a beeline for Randidly as soon as they saw him peering over the low walls around the houses in the inner part of the city. It was clear from his tone that he didn’t believe for a second that Randidly was in the area for begging. But rather that he was here for a much seedier purpose.
Namely, that he was casing the houses to rob them.
“Scram,” His partner added, barring the naked threat that the other police officer had the decency to hide.
Randidly suppressed his urge to laugh. A quick Aether probe gave Randidly a great deal of information about the two in front of him. The bad cop was a Level 17 Brute, likely the more junior of the two. The good cop was a rather respectable Level 35 Constable. With a Level that high, this man must have served some time in areas where he actually encountered monsters.
Or the Orchard had a high-Level Dungeon that it allowed its officers to farm, Randidly supposed. Both made a certain amount of sense to recruit police from soldiers. It meant that they would have discipline and training to survive the dull days, and the physical training to survive the rough encounters.
But Randidly didn’t want to lose his guise of anonymity, and neither did he want to disrespect the police. They had a hard job. Doubly so considering most people could be hiding strength enough to kill them easily. The System made people a lot more dangerous.
It was also somewhat amusing to Randidly that the bad cop had the same Class as Dozer. But there was no resemblance between this small minded man and the brick wall of muscle that had the job of enduring Helen’s tireless challenges for a duel.
Besides, Dozer had obtained a new Class from Nathan, did he not? Randidly somewhat regretted not scanning Dozer during their time together to figure out what it was.
In order to defuse the tension, Randidly smiled and said. “Look, I know I don’t look it, but I’m a soldier. I’m not here to rob anyone, just to do a favor for someone very special to me. I’m supposed to go to this address and take care of the garden.”
At the mention of being a soldier, the Constable scanned him again. His eyes lingered on the stump of his left arm. Apparently, he was satisfied by what he saw, so he nodded in respect of one fighting individual recognizing another. Unfortunately, the Brute’s gaze only seemed to get meaner. In a way, Randidly understood it; this man was resentful of soldiers because he felt inferior to them.
A soldier, therefore, was a chance to prove himself.
“What’s the address?” The Constable asked even as the Brute chewed on his lip.
Randidly gave the address given to him by Neveah. Instantly, the faces of both police officers changed and Randidly realized his mistake. The Constable grew almost pitying, while the Brute’s face twisted with glee.
But still, the Constable gave the Brute a look and asked, as if hoping for an affirmative answer. “...do you have any proof that the owner of this address would know who you are?”
Of course, Neveah’s house was in a very rich neighborhood. It was likely enough for these policemen to see the street name and know that it was highly unlikely that Randidly belonged there. Especially due to his wound and current dress. Which was somewhat insulting to Randidly.
I really need to get shiny new armor from Sam, Randidly thought sourly.
In an attempt to add some levity, Randidly said. “I’m just surprised you recognized the address. Who knew I was rubbing elbows with royalty.”
“Everyone in the Orchard knows where Tia Alexandra lives,” the Brute said nastily, immediately reaching for the baton at his belt. “And one of my favorite parts of my day is getting read of the sickos like you that stalk her.”
For several seconds, Randidly couldn’t place the name. It was familiar, but-
Then Randidly froze. And his annoyance with Neveah quintupled.
She was seriously sending him to prune the garden of that pop singer? The one Neveah had been engaged to using his name and the very same one that refused to continue their engagement when Neveah revealed that she wasn’t him? From what he could tell, their relationship remained amicable, and Neveah continued trying to pursue the girl, but this was fucking ridiculous.
The Constable sighed. “Look, in consideration for your service, how about we just escort you out of the area. Without proof, it’s not our call; we can’t let you near the property.”
Some part of Randidly urged to say ‘Try and stop me’, and then proceed to wipe the smirk off of the Brute’s face. But ultimately, Randidly overrode that impulse. For all that the one partner was a bully, that didn’t mean Randidly had the right to be a bully back. And at this point, Randidly didn’t think they would believe him if he told them his real name.
So he smiled, selected a person some distance away and used Phantom Half-Step. Before the two police officers could move, he was gone.
For all his anger, Randidly proceeded to the house in question and scaled the wall, careful to avoid the sensors of the hover drones and cameras. Truly, it felt like he was breaking into the compound of a celebrity from pre-System Earth. Deep within the winding maze of outbuildings and walls, Randidly found a garden, and even though Neveah hadn’t described it in detail, he instantly recognized the work of her hand.
Sighing, Randidly’s annoyance melted away. Instead, he walked up the garden and rolled up his sleeves. Or meant to. But with one hand, he couldn’t really roll up his one sleeve. So he sent a mental command to Acri and got it to do it for him. And then he pulled a root out of the ground and grew it into an arm that he could use for the gardening.
The garden was filled was different strains of colored chrysanthemums and leaning lilies. They were arranged artfully, hand selected and planted from the look of them. From his own experience with plant growth related to his Skills, Randidly had seen wild things; this was not wild. It was curated.
At its center of the garden was a tall grouping of pale lavender roses. The color reminded Randidly of Lucretia’s hair.
Without any context, Randidly asked a question mentally to Neveah, confident she would respond. Is there a meaning behind lavender roses?
As he expected, the answer came instantly. Love at first sight.
Randidly sighed and rubbed his forehead. Great, his intimate connection was with someone who was at least one fourth a fool. But he had made a promise, so he got to work.