“What was that about?” Garrett asked a few minutes later after the two had parted from the man who owned everything in the surrounding ten miles. While Randidly had been there, it had been almost difficult to speak. But now that they were alone in the alley again...
Vye scratched her cheek. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Garrett rolled his eyes, but Vye could tell that something was up with him. The edge to his tone had none of the typical stoic acceptance that it usually did. “Well, you can say whatever you want. But it’s clear that he wanted something from you. Something… ah, perhaps less than professional.”
After she had introduced herself, Randidly Ghosthound simply stood and looked at Vye for several seconds. His eyes were bright in the alley, luminous enough to see the rest of the stark lines of his face in the long shadow cast by the warehouse overhead. Vye suppressed the urge to shiver. It felt like he was using that emerald light of his eyes like a jade knife, cutting out her every secret and examining it.
Finally, Randidly’s eyes settled on Vye’s left hand; she flinched almost immediately, but Randidly only frowned.
His voice was resonant, like some part of it originated from Vye’s own chest. “After my speech… come find me. There’s something I want to give you.”
Then he turned and walked away.
“Less than professional?” Vye felt herself flush and hated the feeling of blood rushing to her face. Why was she even embarrassed? She stopped and glared at Garrett. “What’s up with you right now?”
“I’m just saying, that’s the man that Randidly Ghosthound is,” Garrett gave Vye a meaningful look. “Whatever you do, be careful. He will hurt anyone who gets close to him. I’m just trying to protect you. He is closer to a monster than a man, these days.”
“Seriously, what the fuck are you talking about?” Vye said, her tone colder this time. Her left hand began to burn, and she gripped her left wrist with her other hand. “First of all, I don’t need your protection. I’ve got it handled, thanks. Second, I’ve always found your depression vibe somewhat weird, but it's not half as fucked up as this strange outburst about the Ghosthound. Especially when you are trying to join his Order.”
“I need to be in his Order,” Garrett rumbled. He turned away from Vye. “I… need to make sure he fulfills his end of the bargain. That’s all. But this and that are different. You haven’t seen it, but he’s a man filled with a terrible darkness. He hurts people just by being. That’s the consequence of his power-”
“I’m totally not going to have this conversation with you right now,” Vye snapped. She jabbed her finger at Garrett. “Look, I don’t give a shit if you have a weird outlook on Randidly Ghosthound. He’s… well, he’s more rumor than person at this point. Is it supposed to be a surprise that he might have made some mistakes? With the System, he’s the most powerful man in the world, and it seems like that the second place person isn’t close. But what I do care about is that you would take your fucked-up-ness and act like it’s my problem.”
Garrett slowly pivoted back to look at Vye. His eyes narrowed into slits. “You… you remind me of someone important to me. And Randidly asked you to meet him alone. I’m just-”
Vye raised her hand. “Rejected.”
Almost unconsciously, Vye felt the heat in her left-hand crack through the thin layer of skin and erupt into the air. A thin trail of blood dribbled down through her twitching fingers. A shimmering barrier appeared between the two of them. Although Garrett continued to move his mouth, none of his words could pass through the strange barrier. Sound between them had been cut off. Even so, Vye could read his lips. She knew what he was saying.
-trying to protect you-
Both of Vye’s hands clenched into fists. Her mouth opened to spit out a retort, but then she paused. She remembered Randidly’s confident smile the first time that they met.
Do you have any proof?
Confidence as vast and placid as the sea on a calm day.
Shaking her head, Vye let the energy burning through her hand slowly taper off. Sensing the change, Garrett stopped speaking. His long arms hung uselessly at his sides as he watched the barrier dissolve between them and listened to her. “Look, let’s not have this conversation now. And that isn’t a request. I’m me. Whoever you are stuck on… don’t try and make me out to be her. I’ll take care of myself, thanks.”
Vye turned and walked slowly away. She thought that Garrett would follow, but thankfully he did not. After taking a couple of sharp turns around the sides of the warehouses and making use of her experience working in Erickson Steel, Vye was confident that she had lost him. Then she sighed and collapsed against a pile of gleaming metal ingots.
That was certainly weird. And Vye’s hand hurt too much right now for her to want to find out what was going on behind the scenes.
I will control my own destiny. I left Erickson Steel to find a way to grow strong… and I stayed even though I came back because this does feel like the right path. Vye raised her left hand toward the sky. The moon was slowly creeping upward into the tapestry of stars, receding to become an innocuous pale white orb amongst a thousand small diamonds.
But it’s not like Garrett’s worries are unfounded… Vye bit her lip. She was rather clear about how Randidly’s partnership with Donnyton had ended, after several years of amicable relations. Would something similar happen with Erickson Steel and the Order Ducis when Randidly didn’t need them any longer?
And on a personal level… it wasn’t that Vye didn’t find the Ghosthound attractive. And it had been something of harmless gossip to talk about why he never was seen on anything close to a date. He was always seen either training or working. Yet people had a hard time believing that Randidly Ghosthound didn’t also want to satisfy his baser cravings. Plenty of people dreams about being on the receiving end of such desires. Such was the weird influence of fame-
Wincing, Vye lowered her hand to cradle it against her chest. She kept her breaths short and even and focused on enduring the waves of agony that spread up her arm.
After using her hand, the pain that from her entrance into the Image Stone was once more scrabbling at Vye’s will with white hot and greedy hands. She pressed her lips together. To distract herself, Vye tried to imagine kissing that confident smile. She tried to imagine what his lips felt like and the heat of his skin.
Then Vye shook her head. Like that would happen.
After a few minutes of breathing, Vye heaved herself back up to her feet. She turned and began to walk back toward the festival. Even if her hand made Vye want to curl up and die, she would force herself to go and watch the award ceremony. It was said that Randidly himself would be giving a short speech at the end of it.
Yet as Vye trudged back toward the festival with her hand cradled against her chest, one question remained fixed in her mind.
What sort of gift does the most powerful man in the world give?
Even though Evan Crane knew it was happening, he could hardly keep his eyes from glazing over with greed as he looked up from the crowd packed in like sardines in front of him before the stage. One day… all of this will be mine.
After a rather stuttering introduction from a pretty but obviously empty-headed girl, Randidly had walked onto the lavishly decorated stage with an extremely petite woman at his side. There were four individuals standing nervously in a row with their hands in various states of scrunched up. Along the back wall of the stage was a series of four trophies, shaped to look like the profile of a tree.
Each tree had its own glowing rune carved at the center of the trophy, defining that category that the reward was given for. Even from his spot amongst the thick crowd some distance from the stage, Crane could tell the Mana density around the trophies was insane; they weren’t just ordinary trophies.
After announcing the names of the four winners to enthusiastic applause from the crowd, Randidly gave a curt gesture to the woman next to him, who stepped forward and began to speak to each individual winner. At first, the winners seemed rather dissatisfied, but then their eyes widened as the woman went through their different innovations, step by step, and told them the mistakes that they made.
You don’t even handle the running of the company, Crane chuckled. Others might see this as just you flaunting how deep the foundations of Erickson Steel are… but they don’t understand what this means as I do. It means that your throne is hollow. Anyone could sit where you are. The only advantage you ever had over the rest of us was being the first to get here, Randidly Ghosthound…!
After the awards, the crowd began to murmur in excitement. Although some people wanted to see the winning innovations, most of what they were here for was what followed: a speech from Randidly Ghosthound himself.
As he walked up to the podium, the crowd fell silent. His bare feet made soft noises against the wood of the stage. Then Randidly Ghosthound looked out at the crowd and offered them a wide smile. Even though he hated the man, Evan Crane couldn’t deny his charisma. The air seemed to hum with it. And as Crane breathed out, it seemed to him that the entire crowd was breathing out with him.
And that Randidly Ghosthound was breathing all of that ambient energy into his body. It immediately set Crane’s teeth on edge.
What Randidly Ghosthound did to get here was not as simple as Evan often made it out to be. The man was certainly more than lucky. He was capable. But still, Evan barred his teeth, buried deeply and safely within the crowd, at the man. It was a small resistance in response to the strange breathing phenomenon. It was Evan Crane assuring himself that he wasn’t like all the others. He would not be taken in by Randidly Ghosthound’s tricks.
And to Evan’s slack-jawed horror, it seemed that Randidly’s gaze slid smoothly through the crowd until his emerald eyes landed on him.
For a second, their gazes locked. Evan Crane was trembling. There seemed to be a monster standing behind Randidly Ghosthound, a forsaken thing wreathed in ash and shadow. It didn’t have a mouth, just a wide, dark hole. In a twisted mockery of Evan’s own expression, that dark hole leered at him.
Randidly’s smile widened.
Then Randidly looked away and the strange phantasm was gone. Coughing lightly, Evan Crane took an involuntary step back. Cold drops of sweat slid down his temples and back. When he took a step, his shoe caught on someone else’s leg and Crane felt a stab of panic.
But before Evan Crane could regain his balance, there was a hand on his back.
“Exciting isn’t it, seeing him in the flesh?” A young man helped the swaying Evan Crane stay on his feet. “I can’t wait to hear what he says.”
Then Randidly Ghosthound began to speak.