Decklan knew what he was doing was foolish. That deep swamp of darkness that he had slowly been wading into over the past year was not Randidly's fault. Yet as soon as he saw the familiar lean figure with emerald eyes, Decklan wasn't able to stop himself from collapsing on the damp wooden deck.
So much would have been different if… if…
If I had your power, the tightly held emotions in Decklan’s chest whispered. It wasn’t a fair reason to blame someone at all. And yet here he was, glaring at Randidly.
The tight ball of his emotions that he had so carefully packed away had exploded in a kaleidoscope of pain and color. Words that his tongue wasn't eloquent enough to say bounced back and forth in his chest. His entire being was a swirling maelstrom of darkness that made Decklan grit his teeth. And yet he couldn't stop crying.
Decklan hated, purely and completely, this world that had driven him to this point. This world that held the bar above his head and refused to budge from its unforgiving path.
In a small way, he hated Randidly for the very same reason.
"You weren't there," Decklan croaked out. "You were supposed to be Donnyton's shield. You were..."
But his words choked off into silence. Because Decklan knew that his accusations shriveled up to something very near to whining in the light of day. Part of the deal that Randidly had made with Donnyton was that the responsibility for the town's protection would be determined with a duel. And Randidly had lost that duel. Given his all... and still lost. Which meant that from that point forward, Donnyton would seize its own fate. The Path the Village would now take was under its own control.
We were so proud, Decklan thought bitterly. His sobs slowed and silent tears coursed down his face as he struggled to focus his fuzzy gaze on Randidly. We believed we had won our future. The System would just be another foe that they would overcome. Did you know how foolish we were?
They had been lucky before. Decklan had been lucky. There had been losses… but they weren't close to him. Not like Tera was.
She died in his arms, after buying time for the rest of the Squad. Decklan had been delayed and she had put her life on the line to protect those weaker than herself. She was a hero. And seeing her body lying broken on the cracked dirt of the badlands, her life leaking out through her extensive wounds...
Every night Decklan dreamed of her, looking just like that, reaching for him from the clay-colored ground. She was trying to say something, but his dream was always eerily silent. No words could pass between them, not now. To fill the silence, there was only his own labored breathing as he struggled with the knowledge that it was too late.
It was unfair to blame Randidly for her death, and the dozens of deaths that followed as Donnyton struggled to protect is steadily growing interests in the surrounding Zone, yet what else could Decklan do?
Because another truth dominated the core of Decklan; much more poignant than any animosity he held toward anyone else, he hated himself bitterly. He hated his own weakness and the obsession with the man standing so calmly in front of him. He hated seeing pity in Randidly's eyes as Decklan was collapsed into a heap of limbs in front of him.
This reunion was supposed to be different. Randidly… he was supposed to… But Decklan’s thoughts were muddled and confused. The emotions continued to surge within him, crashing against his ribs. His skin felt so thin and tattered, barely containing him.
It shouldn't have happened. The forced emotional stoicism that Decklan had embraced shouldn't have been something that so easily fell to pieces. Not from a single look! Yet before Randidly, all of that carefully managed suppression evaporated like shallow puddles underneath the sun's rays. In its wake, salt and bitterness pooled and cracked, coloring Decklan's twisted face.
Randidly, who had remained silent through most of Decklan's breakdown, finally spoke. "...is protecting this Zone from the Danger Zone truly so… exhausting?"
Decklan blinked rapidly and shook his head like a dog drying off. "That...? No... What I want to hold you accountable for is...!"
For making me dream that I no longer need to be weak, Decklan admitted to himself. Yet what could he say to Randidly? The man had already proved that great strength was possible if one pushed hard enough. The obvious reason for Decklan’s failure was himself. That was the unadorned truth that squatted between his ribs like a feral pig.
Yet how could he say that to Randidly? Even Decklan's hatred was a cowardly thing that scurried away to the deepest part of himself as he stood before Randidly. What the hatred left was poisonous envy and deference.
More than anything, at the moment, Decklan’s emotions were slowly giving way to deep shame. Why had he broken down like this?!?
After grimacing, Randidly slowly said, "...although I would not normally ask, you should be aware that revival is... possible..."
"Don't," Decklan hissed. He pressed his eyes together. Watching Tera die a second time was even more heartbreaking than the first had been. That wildness in her eyes on that dark day, the sight of Decklan's own dagger shoved into her chest... "All experiments in revival... ended in failure."
Randidly absorbed that. Decklan wanted to speak, to curse Randidly for bringing up such a topic, but what could Decklan say? His thoughts at the time of her death had been exactly the same. If it could be done with Roy, the Undying Hero, why couldn't Tera also return from beyond the grave?
Mrs. Hamilton had okayed it, so Coppernicus was brought in for no small amount of coin to attempt it. And the result...
Whatever lay beyond life’s fragile box warped all those who touched it. Without fail, all bodies revived, regardless of time spent dead, went mad and instantly attacked each and every living being that they could find.
The result of which was Tera dying again. By Decklan’s own blade, because she was not the first that they had attempted, but she was the one that Decklan had prayed to be special. Yet like all the others, she needed to be put down.
So she died once more. And then, again and again, every night in Decklan's dreams, for the last year.
By now, Decklan's tears had slowed to a trickle. His face felt oddly numb. Whatever strange impulse overwhelmed him had departed and left the inside of his head overturned and ransacked. Yet strangely, the explosion of emotion now left him feeling empty. Blessedly empty. The numbness settled over him like a cloak. With a deft gesture, Decklan used his Dagger Manipulation Skill to summon the discarded weapon back to his hand. Instantly, he felt Randidly straighten. Then Decklan looked directly at the other man and prayed that he would let that moment go without comment.
It was… unbecoming. And dwelling on it wouldn’t help anything.
"Apologies. I was... not myself. Anyway, you are heading to see Neveah, right? I'll take you there."
"Decklan-" Randidly began, but Decklan couldn't stop himself from glaring at Randidly.
Don't talk to me right now. Don't... don't you dare. Even if my hate isn't fair... Even if it wasn't your responsibility...
You breathed life into all of this. Doesn't that mean you need to bear our pain when we fail? That is part of the Path that you chose.
This wound… is the last thing Tera gave me. Don’t you dare touch it.
Whatever Randidly saw in Decklan's expression, he kept his silence. Without a word, Decklan leapt upward and grabbed onto a rope hanging off of his boat, the Incognita. With a monkey like agility, he clambered up onto the deck and gave a few short orders to the members of his Squad that had been carefully watching the action below.
None of them met Decklan’s eyes as he hissed out frigid orders and set the group in motion.
After he finished, Decklan turned around. He could hear Randidly talking below with the crew of the small ship that had brought him here. Likely, for similar reasons. Would Randidly bring those people? It didn’t matter much. It would be easy to hitch their boat to the Incognita. After finishing his discussion, Decklan had no doubt that Randidly would climb upward to join him on the deck.
An old impulse stirred in Decklan's chest. While climbing over the deck, it would be very difficult for Randidly to keep his guard up. There would be a single moment where Decklan could strike. With his unique combination of Skills and Stats, Decklan had the utmost confidence in his burst damage against an unguarded foe.
The memory of those emerald eyes had erased any confidence Decklan possessed. Even now, that gaze seemed fixed on him, peering through the wood of the boat. They ripped apart all unnecessary substances to peer through his actions and ascertain his goals. It was a gaze that seemed to suggest that Randidly had seen it all, and now he was simply waiting for everything to play out as he expected.
Those eyes were the sort that only one who had long danced with death would possess. Even on such a common activity, would Randidly drop his guard? Even if he did, was Decklan’s damage truly enough?
So Decklan just waited. Numb and bitter and tired and furious with himself, Decklan waited for Randidly to come join him on the deck.
"You've got quite a reputation," Randidly said lightly, wanting to shift the conversation away from the strange unpleasantness from earlier.
Decklan grunted. "Mostly a series of arranged deceptions. The connection with the Danger Zone was immediately discovered by the frogpeople, and they sent clippers out immediately to explore Earth. Neveah pulled me in and put me on the ship in order to mop up the ones that escaped before she could put a cap on the portal. But those clippers found and massacred quite a few vessels. When people heard about the disappearances and investigated, we already controlled the seas in that area. We made an example of them."
"So your ship was the assumed culprit because that was all that could be seen in the scene of the crime," Randidly said, feeling strangely relieved. Negative emotions roiled off of Decklan with an intensity that neared that of a palpable image. Honestly, Decklan probably was the individual closest to being able to use images as was done on Tellus that Randidly had encountered on Earth.
Which made sense. Decklan had the same sort of violent determination that the people of Tellus had. His Path would eventually lead to the development of a powerful image.
Although those violent, negative emotions had settled after Decklan’s outburst, Randidly's Crown seemed strangely keyed into the radiating anger and hatred from Decklan. It fed on it, somehow. And it also made Randidly realize that the images he was encouraging in the world weren't always solely the positive ones. For all that there were moments where Randidly would be motivated to help the strange girl with the brilliant sapphire eyes, there were also these moments.
Moments were his willingness to ignore emotions would be mimicked and slowly lead a man toward madness.
Yet even though he knew that was the case… Randidly would say nothing even though he could see the ways that Decklan was nearing a more dangerous variety of breakdown. He couldn’t that wasn’t the Crown that Randidly wore.
And what could Randidly offer him? If it was a fight that Randidly could engage in for Decklan's benefit, maybe. If Decklan needed to shatter some expectation, to live his life in a completely unique way...
This emotional problem...? Randidly knew his weaknesses. He was not very emotionally savvy. Besides, this sort of downward spiral wasn't something that could be easily solved with a word or two. There was something rotten in Decklan's outlook. Until that infection was removed, this strange emotional instability would continue.
Until Decklan was willing to address it, there would be no way to move forward.
Although Neveah was relying on Decklan now, it might be a good idea to search for more dependable support in the future. Otherwise…
Humanity likely couldn’t bear the wounds a desperate man could inflict. Especially because Randidly used Aether Detection and could feel the dangerous contours of Decklan’s Class. He was a Level 61 Killer. And the nascent image of bloodshed associated with that Class hung heavy around his Aether.