Honestly, when the head of the Order Machina wandered back from the brief meeting with Tatiana wearing an expression of deep confusion, Evan Crane felt a rush of catharsis. So much so that he had to carefully school his face to remain neutral.
Truly, if Erickson Steel would have fallen to this sort of diversion, it wouldn’t have been a company worthy of having Evan at its head. It was only because it continued to elude the many traps that Senator Heathridge set in its path that it proved to be the gem that Evan Crane so long obsessed over. It was worthy of his jealousy due to the fact that so few other hands were able to brush it.
“How could they just reject me out of hand…?” The head of the Order Machina mumbled. Devin Finde was a rather young man, considering his position, but he had been a rising star at an Engineering firm before the System arrived. But, of course, he was an insufferable ass who spent more time tinkering with old cars and obsessively trimming his goatee than actually attempting to improve himself.
Not that what he had accomplished wasn’t impressive. Devin had created a parallel methodology of creating drones that involved heavily reinforced exteriors and interior circuitry that was much closer to old-style technology than the Erickson Steel method of simply Engraving runes onto the materials.
The benefit of the Order Machina style was that machines could be preprogrammed to respond to quite a bit more scenarios. That internal machinery gave the makers a lot more real estate to work with in terms of Engraving surfaces. In addition, it did not require that they be connected to Ghost’s network in order to be controlled to fight. They could function on their own, should Zone 1’s network ever be taken down… or if the drone owner wanted to accomplish something without Ghost being aware of it.
Which is why people like Senator Heathridge and his slimy ilk pushed for the Order Machina to be inducted as an official Order. There was a lot of dirty money that flowed into Linde’s many businesses that desperately needed an air of legitimacy.
However, that variety of drones were extremely time-consuming to make. Undoubtedly they would have been completely priced out of the market by Randidly’s drones… if only there were more people at Erickson Steel who were capable enough to make the Engraving based drones.
Randidly’s Engravings were theoretically open to anyone to utilize, but most people were dumbfounded by the elegant ingenuity that they incorporated into their structure. Without an Engraving Level over 100, it just wasn’t possible to do what Randidly did with any sort of consistency. Hell, without an Engraving Level above 150, doing what Randidly could do in an afternoon took an entire week.
Perhaps there is some sort of tool that Erickson Steel possesses that gives Randidly that ability… Crane fantasized. His fingers twitched, but he resisted the urge to pull out and light a cigarette. This was his last pack for today, and he wanted to save them as much as he could. And when Erickson Steel becomes mine… then it will be ME that is the greatest Engraver in the world. I’ll call it the Crane-method...
Abruptly, Crane realized that Finde had settled beside him on the hood of Crane’s humvee in a slump. “Ah… she didn’t give any reason to reject the Order Machina?”
“Bah, she said it was because they didn’t need our help.” Finde’s hands curled into claws. “I told you we should have waited until the monsters started to wander up here. Hmph, then we’d have the pleasure of watching that bitch Tatiana begging for our help.”
That lovely eventuality, of course, was something that Evan Crane couldn’t allow. Because if they waited for the monster attack to actually come, Erickson Steel would likely suffer irreparable damage. And that was something that Crane couldn’t bear. So he just grunted noncommittally in agreement.
“So our next move-” Crane began, but he trailed off as he saw a group of very dirty travelers jogging down the road toward them.
Although the Order Machina had brought out their drones with their full regalia to impress Erickson Steel, it was possible to condense their forces into a much smaller group of transport carriers for ease of movement. Which, after they were rejected, was exactly what Finde did. All of his pretty little toys were folded into smaller pieces and then moved around through the surrounding forest North of Erickson Steel to the East road, where Crane had been watching the whole process play out.
And now, from the east, a group of about thirty people was jogging past in an extremely haphazard looking line.
All of the people in the ragged column were at least a little dirty, but the group was led by three individuals who seemed a little bit more put together than their followers: a teenage boy, a lizard person, and a cockroach.
Crane narrowed his eyes. Why do these three seem so familiar…?
Aside from the three more composed and stoic leaders, the followers seemed completely gassed. They staggered forward, often stumbling over even the smallest obstacle in their exhaustion. Large drops of sweat gathered on their foreheads as they continued onward. And the more that Crane looked, the more he released that they were equally covered in dirt and blood. It seemed like these people had wandered out of a battlefield to arrive here.
“Should we…. Help those people?” Finde scratched his nose, his own depression driven out by the extremely bedraggled state of the new arrivals. He straightened and climbed onto the hood of the humvee. Then he put his hand above his eyes and peered at them and the direction from which they originated. “Are they refugees? But why would they be coming from the East…”
For almost ten seconds, the two men watched the procession approach. With the drones stored away in their transports and hidden in the surrounding forest, it was likely that this strange parade of wounded wouldn’t even see the pair. Which was probably for the best, because Crane just couldn’t put his finger on why-
Finde went pale, then abruptly bright red. “Unless… the monsters did attack. But they somehow wandered past Erickson Steel and attacked another town…?”
“Shit...shit.” Crane gritted his teeth. If that was true… Senator Heathridge would be pissed. Part of the agreement here was for Crane to maintain control over the situation. It wasn’t hard for Senator Heathridge to arrange for the patrols to vary and allow monsters near Erickson Steel to build up, but the good Senator would be thrown under the bus at the drop of a hat if the oversight came to light.
If the damage had been to Erickson Steel, no one would care. But if there were other population centers involved…
“Alright, let’s retreat now, and run damage control,” Crane said while his mind spun at one thousand miles a minute. “As long as we can get on scene and mop things up quickly, we can control the news and spin it w we want.”
Linde’s response was bitter and childish. “But if we kill the monsters before they can threaten Erickson Steel-”
Crane punched Linde full in the face before he could finish that sentence. Although sowing more discord between them might hurt him in the long run, Crane couldn’t deny how much he enjoyed the feeling of dominance he felt afterward as he looked down at the blank-faced stare that Linde gave him.
“That is business,” Crane said bluntly. A business I don’t want your grubby fingers touching. “This is for the good of the Zone. Let’s get going.”
Oblivious, the staggering group of thirty people ran past, arriving before Erickson Steel.
They didn’t have breaks, not really, on their trek West to return to Erickson Steel. But even so, there were exercises that took significantly less energy than the others. Which ended up being the equivalent of rest. Jogging was actually the most restive of those, but there was also time given to the aspirants of the Order Ducis for “self-improvement”.
During one of those self-training exercises, Vye had mentioned to one of the other applicants she had become close to, Garrett, that she wasn’t sure how their training could grow worse form this current level. Despite her Level, she hadn’t had her Stamina above one-third full the entire week. Let alone sleep, their meals were so truncated that Vye felt less like a civilized person and more like a beast hurriedly devouring carrion before an even greater predator arrived and stole the lion’s share of the spoils for itself.
During the week they had spent sweeping sinuously North and South on a meandering path back to Erickson Steel, the Order Ducis has antagonized and exterminated every Raid Boss they encountered while carrying weights and sprinkling in random ‘duels’ between the different members of the training camp.
At one point, at Ajax’s barked order Vye had to hurry out from a protracted siege of a warren filled with monstrous badgers to participate in a duel immediately. Afterward, he had urged her to return, because ‘everyone had saved her spot in the attack.’
And truthfully, Vye had hurried back. Because she had been forced not to advance in an attack, but simply hold her ground without killing any monsters while some of her companions had dutifully marched out to duel. It was hell. And then it was a relief when the person dueling returned and the group could finally resume killing the monsters. God only knew where Naffur had come up with such a hellish series of rules to exacerbate the difficulty of fighting even further.
Garrett’s expression darkened while he listened to Vye’s flippant joke. “Heh, make sure you don’t say that too loudly. Believe me, they have ways.”
When Vye raised her eyebrows, Garrett shook his head sorrowfully. “I was there… as the first three were inducted into the Order Ducis. Afterward, Randidly insisted on personally training Naffur. Now I know that Naffur isn’t the most outwardly intimidating… but you’ve seen his obvious Stamina by now. But… a half an hour later… Naffur had practically every bone in his body broken.
“Perhaps even worse… the rumor was that the Ghosthound had learned Naffur’s Skills during the training session and used them to beat him bloody. It was mental and physical suppression. But Naffur later admitted that he had gained almost a hundred Skill Levels from just that one session with Randidly Ghosthound. So… it will get worse, but we will grow faster”
“When I met Randidly… He honestly seemed rather normal,” Vye said lightly.
Garrett sighed. “Of course, because you were just a person to him. But to those in the Order Ducis… I’ve heard he tortured someone who slacked too much on their training just by looking at them and unleashing his killing intent…!”
Blinking, Vye tried to rationalize the view of Randidly as this average, barefoot man with him as a torturer. “He… tortured someone…?”
“Well, I think that’s a rumor,” Garrett had said. “But just remember, it’s gonna get worse when the Ghosthound starts handling our training.”
Now, after a week of training that had been plenty exhausting for Vye, she was standing outside of the gates of Erickson Steel. Which was, perhaps, the most exhausting activity she had done this entire time.
Mental and physical suppression, Vye thought bitterly. But she refused to give up. She would find the Path Randidly used to become powerful… even if it killed her.