“Morning Vye,” Nerrick said with an enthusiastic nod. “Are you free tonight?”
“I don’t date men who work with metal,” Vye replied perfunctorily while cursing Tatiana for throwing her so immediately into this shitstorm of work and constant harassment. Then Vye blinked rapidly, letting go of her daydream of climbing distant mountains in the monster-infested wilderness in order to come face to face with the mundane reality of her situation.
The two of them were standing outside of the main foundry of Erickson Steel. Which, unfortunately, was where Vye needed to remain while she filled in for Crosby. She had already answered a slew of questions from some of the earlier workers who noticed Crosby’s absence and had finally believed she had fielded all questions when Nerrick arrived, likely late to his shift.
Truly, disaster struck only when one let themselves blinded by hope.
I’m not traveling the world, Vye repeated to herself dourly. I’m working as a temp. A temp that was rapidly promoted to assistant to the CEO, but still a temp. I’m going to leave soon and travel the world. All this… is just to give me some money to work with. And to Level a bit so I’m not devoured by a two-headed otter-
Nerrick’s grin refused to be damaged at all by her matter of fact retort. “Doesn’t that seem hypocritical? You work with metal. What if your Prince Charming worked with metal? You would doom yourself to sadness simply because you weren’t willing to broaden your horizons.”
“I think what you meant to say is ‘willing to lower my standards,’” Vye yawned and stretched, mindful to keep her stretch as innocuous as possible. The last thing she wanted to do was given this gritty crustacean of a man any sort of excuse to approach her again.
Please, please, please, be a busy day… She had prayed. What she hadn’t meant was busy for her. Why couldn’t there be a fire or something in a portion of the foundry she wasn’t watching? Then everyone would gather over there and she could just sit around and talk to Terrence, who had just returned from the Donnyton branch.
Vye had so many questions for Terence about Zone 32. It seemed like a completely different world from Zone 1. A world where anything was possible. And to the South, they had the sea-
“Ahhaha! You always have jokes, don’t you?” Then Nerrick leaned forward. “But actually, I’m not here to flirt. Actually-”
Really? Vye thought tiredly. She wondered if she could move fast enough to pop a chocolate into her mouth without the man noticing.
“-there was something work-related I came to you about.” Nerrick scratched his head. Some of his aggressive confidence faded. “I know it’s not… I don’t know, against the rules, but… well, there is a man walking around the foundry barefoot. He’s sitting over at one of the mess tables right now, but isn’t that dangerous? And no one recognizes him, so-”
“Ah yes,” Vye said seriously as she rubbed her chin. “Could this be a spy from another corporation? I’ll need to investigate immediately. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
Then, as if she transformed into a cool autumn wind, Vye fled from Nerrick so quickly that the man didn’t even have a chance to say anything in response. As she left, Vye shook her head slightly. Having to fill in for that airhead Clarry these past two days might have been boring, but at least I had time to read up on news from other Zones. But this job...
It was just an excuse to move away from the foundry, but Vye also thought someone wandering around without any foot covering within the area was rather strange. As she was thinking that, however, a certain silhouette appeared in her vision, sitting at one of the metal dining tables around the cafeteria.
A rather tired-looking young man, who perhaps was the most powerful person on Earth, sat at the table with his back slightly arched. Baloo Erickson. Randidly Ghosthound. A man who single-handedly cleared the first Danger Zone and gave up the reward of personal power in order to give the whole world a boost in experience. A man who pioneered the technique of refining monster corpses to mix with metal to improve the performance of Erickson Steel.
An engraver who was more talented than the ultimate AI that was the culmination of America’s brightest minds over the past ten years, boosted by the presence of the System.
What must he have seen? Vye wondered as she approached. I wonder if it's true that he’s gone to other worlds. They say he learned his spear arts from a flaming tree, and his Engraving came from runes he found buried in a low-Level Dungeon. They even say that he finished a Dungeon before he even had a Class…
...What kind of enemies have you been cursed by to accomplish so much…? What sort of sights have you been blessed with…? And meanwhile, I...
And when Vye arrived at the mess area and saw the black-haired young man sitting at the table, she chuckled self-deprecatingly. Then she carefully controlled her face into a neutral expression and produced a pair of steel-toed boots from her interspatial ring. Somehow, Vye found it extremely difficult to imagine that the barefoot man in front of her was that legendary figure who had basically accomplished everything she dreamed of...
His presence… was altogether nonexistent. He seemed just like anybody else. Like a guy she might have gone to high school with.
But would anyone else have the gumption to offer no further proof of his identity and smile easily at me in a place like Erickson Steel? Some part of Vye asked. But Vye ignored that voice. It was somewhat easier for her to control her envy if she continued believing he was just a guy like everyone else.
The System had changed so much. World traveling couldn’t be that special, right?
As she approached, Vye drew up short. Because suddenly Randidly’s back arched even further. An expression of agony spread across his face. Wide-eyed, Vye watched as his hands tightened and punched right through the metal of the table like it was paper.
Several seconds passed, and slowly his expression eased. He carefully raised his hands, inspecting the table with not a small amount of bitter amusement. Coughing lightly, Vye walked carefully forward toward him. She held the pair of boots aloft. “Mr. Ghosthound… are you alright?”
Vye paused and considered him. His eyes were somewhat dazed and it appeared as though he hadn’t heard her. Then she said helpfully. “...did you stub your toe? If you want, you can borrow these boots for your stay here in Erickson Steel. They will prevent something like this from happening again.”
Randidly Ghosthound paused in his pained slouch, then looked slowly up at Vye. Then he sighed deeply, shaking his head. “I wish it was just a toe stub. Hey, you were the receptionist at Erickson Steel, right? I-”
Before he could continue, Mark appeared nearby, giving Vye a slight nod. Randidly paused in his words, his gaze shifting to the new arrival. Vye almost rolled her eyes in response. I get it, you want my job. Honestly, you can have it. I’m starting to wonder if Erickson Steel is really where I belong.
“...I suppose there isn’t any point in putting it off,” Randidly said with a shake of the head. He forced out a smile, only looking a little worse for wear for whatever experience afflicted him. “Anyway, thanks for your concern. Hopefully, we can talk later..”
“And the boots…?” Vye asked while holding them aloft.
Randidly waved his hand and walked away with Mark. “They won’t be necessary.”
For several seconds, Vye just watched the two of them walk away. Then, as the implications of what just happened sank in, she quickly grew pale.
“Doesn’t this mean…” Vye said slowly. “That I no longer have a reason not to go back to work?!?”
Randidly went into the storeroom where Mark had laid out the latest samples of the most recent Erickson Steel products and then was left alone with the assurance that Mark would be right outside.
Grimacing, Randidly waited until the man was gone before gracefully collapsing into a seat. For the moment, the metal samples would need to wait.
Under the constant flow of energy from his Soulskill, his Class did seem to slowly mend itself back together. It wasn’t the sort of damage that would weaken him directly by taking away Skills or Stats, but it might create deviations in the weave of the Aether he was using to build himself. Over time, such defects would quickly lead to a weakened Class.
As such, Randidly had no intention of gaining a Level until he could give the Class a thorough once over. And that would need to wait until the strange fractures from whatever had just occurred ceased spewing waves of agony like someone with food poisoning.
The strange impressions that Randidly had seen after completing the Perfect Soul Bond Path lingered in his mind. That vast crystal. The mountains covered in light devouring engravings. The being that stirred at the core of the crystal.
I’ve finally found you, Yystrix. My one and only love.
Wait for me.
Even now, the memory of those words set Randidly to shivering. After that, the attention had shifted to Randidly himself. That brief moment of examination by that being was enough to shatter his Class. The weight of that thing’s attention had reached the point that it could kill someone. Just as casually, the attention had caught the scent of its true quarry and followed that trail off into the universe.
Frowning at the table, Randidly considered the sinking feeling of dread that the encounter had left in his heart. Yystrix… that is the name that Lyra used for the Creature. And I did find out from the Creature’s memories that it very carefully was taking all these actions in order to avoid detection from the System.
...Did I spill the beans early? Will this have… consequences…?
...that’s probably a dumb question...
Very likely he did expose the Creature to danger. Which would lead to unpredictable consequences. It would be bad if the Creature came back to Earth seeking retribution, but it would also be bad if whatever monster was living in that crystal could not find the Creature and therefore returned to Earth in order to look for clues within Randidly’s Soulspace.
In addition, there were two small facts that truly filled Randidly with fear.
The first was the way that the notifications appeared. It was very clear that the overlay System knew something was going wrong midway through the Path completion message. Very quickly it reported an error. But then the overlay seemed to have been seized by something and thereafter used to speak directly to Randidly.
What sort of entity could speak directly through the System?
Perhaps even more worrisome…
Why had completing the Perfect Soul Bond Path triggered that sort of result? A result which had included a list of his exact name and Class. Was that a part of the original Path, or something that was just a warning of the deviation that was about to come?
Was it triggered by Randidly himself? Had Octavius Shrike put some limit on the things that he could accomplish, and this Path had somehow transgressed that boundary?
But at Randidly’s core, he had a single worry. And that was that it wasn’t him at all that triggered the strange change in the Path completion. No, his secret fear was that what caused the strange being to move was what he was now connected to.
Did the System know that Neveah had an Aether Crossroad?