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A note from puddles4263

8/14

“What…?” Tatiana blinked in surprise, not even needing to fake her slightly bewildered surprise. Her mind danced around, touching all of the connecting threads. She forced her face not to shift from that shock as she rapidly calculated what such a move by the government that would mean. Based on Holloway’s phrasing, he seemed to indicate that the government would be the one funding this venture. And she didn’t think that he would lie to her face.

If they were offering something that would obviously benefit Erickson Steel, it meant that they were confident on getting a return on the investment. A lot of return. Which meant that they would ask for an assurance that-

“Of course… it’s a business deal. In exchange for such a partnership, Erickson Steel simply has to sell back its land to the government. We would enter into a lessor/lessee relationship and could begin the project immediately.” Suddenly, Lee Holloway’s gaze turned sympathetic. He spared the empty liquor bottle on Tatiana’s desk a glance. “I’m sure you’ve realized it… but Erickson Steel is in a somewhat precarious situation.

“Previous laws allowed the creation of special business districts as Zone 1 was developing in New Earth, under the discretion of designated officials vetted by Congress. But it is a rather murky issue of whether those special officials could sell the special business districts to third parties without leave of Congress. Honestly… it seems highly unlikely that such arrangements would stand up in court.”

Tatiana just looked at Lee Holloway. Her face continued to smile politely.

“...I’ll give you some time to think it over.” Lee stood and headed to the door with the abruptness and capriciousness of a prowling cat.

Of course, you will leave, you smug prick. Tatiana thought as she suppressed the urge to yawn. I haven’t looked into the way Randidly obtained the land rights here, so I’ll need time to realize whether your threat is a genuine one. At that point, I bet you expect me to panic for a while. No need to force the issue immediately.

But of course, Lee stopped at the door. This would be the looming blade above Erickson Steel’s back. But the threat about Helen’s interaction with the police didn’t emerge. Instead, Lee took an entirely different tack.

“Ah… there is one more thing. Since we will be moving into a more working relationship, I wanted to give you a heads up. Due to bureaucratic oversight that resulted from the rising threat of monsters in the South… some of our patrols in the area have been erratic. Forced to return early due casualties, forced to avoid growing Raid Bosses due to lack of supplies… suffice to say, the normal patrols have not occurred. Intelligence operatives predict that monsters are massing in the South around Lake Apollo.”

Tatiana’s face twitched. She carefully raised her hand and pretended to cough into it in order to cover her mouth.

Holloway’s smile was sharp. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if we will be able to rectify the situation in a short amount of time. Please, take some precautions to protect Erickson Steel’s interests.”

You won’t help until we sell out, you mean.

After Holloway left, Tatiana waited three seconds. During those stretched moments, Tatiana demonstrated a depth of character and Willpower that she hadn’t realized she possessed. Then she laughed, so loud and long she was holding her belly and gasping five minutes later.

I’m sure they would be extremely surprised to find that one bored spear-hellion eradicated your carefully cultivated threat in a single afternoon, Tatiana thought with amusement. Then she shook her head and wondered what she could get for Helen as a gift for taking away one more problem Tatiana had to deal with.

But very quickly, Tatiana’s focus shifted to what the government was after. Giving the government the land would obviously put Erickson Steel at their mercy, but it wouldn’t be a rapid death for the company. They could slowly charge higher and higher rent and tolls, but Tatiana doubted they would use such a roundabout approach if their goal was really to destroy or dominate Erickson Steel.

Tatiana thought for sure they would ask for a controlling interest. But instead, they targeted the land. What did it mean…?

Humming softly to herself, Tatiana leaned back in her chair and let her thoughts slowly sift through the information she possessed.

*****

Randidly shook his right hand, but the annoying numbness wouldn’t disperse. Since his trip to the center of the plateau and discussion with Chulroon four weeks ago, he had begun working to raise his Nether Resistance as much as possible before he returned to normal time. He didn’t truly dare to try and attack himself with that dangerous blue-black triangle, but unleashing the mythic rated Skill inflicted more than enough damage to push the Skill Level up to Level 53.

Now, with only one week remaining in his self-imposed time limit, Randidly was beginning to feel some extended wear from exposure to Nether. And this was just from utilizing it as a weapon, which proved how dangerous a substance it was. Randidly had considered staying here longer, but a few extra months wouldn’t matter much to Nether Resistance. Because of how the damage took an almost pre-System amount of time to heal, he would likely need another year in the Dungeon to show significant progress.

Yet Randidly still hesitated to isolate himself for that long. Part of it was keeping his mentality sharp, but part of it was beginning to actively develop Erickson Steel. He couldn’t avoid this tiresome task forever. Besides, his growth in all areas but Engraving was slowing to a crawl. It was time to stop avoiding the march of time.

“I hope this is fucking worth it…” Randidly frowned down at his hand. With his brand new metallic left arm, he flicked his right forearm repeatedly to restore some of the feeling back to it the unresponsive flesh.

Thankfully, the new arm performed admirably, with an even higher articulation than the original design. And although Randidly hadn’t Engraved any Skill into it, he really felt no need to do so without a specific goal. The physical destructiveness of Chulroon’s chisel was practically a broken Skill all on its own. The capability of a Level 99 weapon made from a Fate lived up to the hype.

Besides, not Engraving now kept the option open for the future, in case he encountered a problem that he couldn't easily solve on his own.

Combined with the extremely thick image of timelessness that was slowly radiating outward from the limb, Randidly was immensely satisfied with how things had turned out. Even if it was difficult for Randidly to do anything to improve his images at the moment, he knew that the constant nurturing of the image would cause a qualitative change eventually.

Plus his newfound arm had the added benefit of allowing Randidly to resume his Engraving training. Engraving with a single arm was possible when he relied on Influence of the Molten Core to manipulate an item, but it also split his attention in too many directions. His precise control of the image he was using wavered frequently.

Even with Randidly’s high Control, he had his limits.

Which, in turn, had made Randidly finally realize the big issue that was holding him back from improving his image: Uniformity. Like Mana in Engraving, the level of detail in his image needed to be uniform. In his enthusiastic attempts to increase the detail in his image, he had painted in broad but haphazard strokes. As such, the image was like a poorly balanced weapon with a heavy tip.

It was possible for him to grow more skilled in its usage, but it was probably better to just spend some time shifting the weapon back toward balance before he learned bad habits.

Therefore, with his other areas of training at a plateau, almost all of Randidly’s final days were consumed by the pursuit of Engraving.

While Randidly continued to methodically move his limbs to keep from stiffening, he walked out of his training area and headed East, toward the plateau. After walking for about ten minutes, he reached the sprawling bones of the moving city that he had begun to assemble out of the pieces that Wendy had designed.

Like rib bones of an ancient clockwork giant, the curving metal legs and knobby rivets gleamed like silver and brass in the late afternoon light. Piles of intricate gears lay stacked in containers, covered by canvas overhangs to protect the pieces from the elements. More than anything else, the area that Randidly used for the assembly of the moving city reminded Randidly of an abandoned paleontological dig. It was all deep pits, dust, and strange bones laying scattered about.

At first, Randidly was rather worried about the assembly and movement between the outside world and the Soulskill, but it seemed that the restriction that his Domain placed upon people didn’t affect items in the same way. Therefore, Randidly had workshops in both the Dungeon and his Soulskill, so he could experiment and tinker with working pieces whenever he had time.

Therefore, he was rather free to assemble portions both within and without of his Soulskill. However, the larger the object was, the more exhausting it was to move between the two realms. As such, Randidly had no plans to make any single piece any larger than these large legs. Then he could move them between the Soulskill and outside world with reasonable ease and assemble the final product near Erickson Steel.

But Randidly continued past through the towering architecture of steel and bone to another area. After all, today was another day that Randidly planned on throwing himself into further study of Engraving. This work area was another ten minutes jog East, right at the edge of the plateau. Along the way, Randidly politely nodded to several patrols of his Riders that were moving through the area.

Not that it was really necessary. Now, an entire year later, there was basically no hostile force remaining the Dungeon. But new resources harvested from the plateau came through this area before being processed by Randidly, so he couldn’t exactly blame them for taking their jobs seriously.

Finally, he reached his Engraving practice ground.

Here, Randidly had his Riders bring him huge stones to construct a tower that stretched upward toward the sky in an approximation of the lighthouses found within his Soulskill. The heavy stone building was so tall that it stretched up past the lip of the plateau and into the sky beyond. Once he had the building made, Randidly had used All Things Succumb, Yet Time Whirls the Earth to develop a series of plans for a complex, vast Engraving that would cover the surface of the tower.

Even though all Randidly did was develop concepts with the Skill, each use found him exhausted. And the next day, he would try again with a more specific image in mind and let the plans get refined just a little further. In a way, it felt like Randidly was working with another individual to make the final Engraving. Which was slightly disturbing.

Every day included a few hours that Randidly simply came before the tower and studied the plans that the ultimate Engravings version of himself had designed. He examined the small models that he had made to test the viability of the designs. Then, using the Engraving encyclopedias as a reference, Randidly furiously studied to raise his own understanding of Engraving.

What was unfortunate was that improving his knowledge didn’t truly raise his Skill Level. It certainly made it easier for his Skill Level to improve, but there would be no direct improvement in the Skill Level from studying. As such, Randidly was beginning to feel that he was improving quite a bit in terms of Engraving while his Skill Level remained completely static.

He knew that he could rectify this rather quickly if he would spend a few weeks just testing his theories with repeated experiments, but now this foundation building seemed more relevant to his future tasks.

So with glittering emerald eyes, Randidly studied. Not long now…

He glanced up at the towering stone pillar, unadorned and smooth. Soon, we will have to see how well this works. An emerald, flaming eye as the Engraving pattern… a Skill that can Level which will enable the entire city to recognize friends or foes just from looking… Let’s try to push the envelope as much as possible.

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