Tatiana blinked at Randidly’s rather disheveled appearance as he stumbled into her office. After setting down the fork with a perfectly portioned bite that featured selections of her medium-rare steak, onions, and baked potato, Tatiana pushed her chair back and stood. She walked hesitantly over toward him.
At her behest, Randidly had worn something close to a suit to go train the Order Ducis recruits. Tatiana had given a persuasive speech to him about the power of the image, and how people would more readily believe he could accomplish the impossible if he looked put together. So, rather bemusedly, Randidly had worn an expensive set of leather armor Tatiana had recommended over his personal equipment.
Now that armor looked like a pinata in the wake of a six-year-old lumberjack’s birthday party.
While seeing Randidly so covered in mud and gore was rather off-putting, that wasn’t the reason why Tatiana felt the sudden need to set her dinner aside. No, what immediately grabbed her attention was a strange heaviness that came into the room when Randidly had arrived. Something was… off. “Ah… is something wrong?”
“Turns out Neveah is a sore loser,” Randidly chuckled and the heaviness immediately lessened. Drips of blood fell from a long gash across his shoulder and landed on Tatiana’s carpet. He raised his right hand awkwardly toward his right shoulder while emerald fire began to dance across his fingers. His own flesh mirrored Randidly’s mouth in hissing as he pressed his flaming hand to the wound, but when he pulled his hand away, the gash was gone.
With a great sigh, Randidly collapsed onto Tatiana’s impossibly expensive werewolf leather couch. Some of that strange moodiness returned. This time, Tatiana was sure it wasn’t her imagination; she could actually see the lights in the room dim as Randidly’s mood turned sour.
“I see,” Tatiana resigned herself to having the couch professionally cleaned later. More important issues to focus on right now. “So, are you alright? It looks like someone dropped a mountain on you.”
“Like I said, sore loser.” After a brief smirk, Randidly’s expression transformed to become extremely serious. “How was the reaction to the moss spirits.”
Moss spirits, that’s what they were, Tatiana reminded herself. She cleared her throat. “Well, quite positive considering the… rather sudden arrival of them. Per your instructions, the workers for the government’s lodgings were escorted away from the affected areas. The guards we used to keep tabs on them were rotated so they were each touched by the… moss spirits. Plus, when people realized that the spirits healed wounds, they took to gathering as many as possible. It became something of a game.”
“Heh, that will have interesting effects.” Suddenly Randidly’s good cheer was back. He straightened, leaving dried blood and dirt smeared on the couch. After a long stretch, he asked Tatiana another question that gave her pause.
“By the way… what do people think of me?”
Due to the strange tremor in Randidly’s tone, Tatiana considered her response carefully. She looked at his shoulders as he faced the wall, ostensibly to examine the impressionist painting of a horse on the salt flats Tatiana had recently added to her office. “What do you mean?”
“The people. The workers. I’ve pushed them and pushed them, and I’ve done things for them that might be impossible. I’ve been trying to impress them on purpose to keep them motivated… but I can’t help but wonder what that makes these people think. Especially with my images… Yggdrasil and the Grim Chimera… those are things of fantasy. I can easily imagine that people would begin to doubt if I’m even human.”
For several seconds, Tatiana stared at Randidly’s back. Strips of leather armor and flesh had been flayed away and hung limply from his back. For several seconds, she couldn’t find an answer. The heavy air pressed against her chest, keeping even her from sucking in a breath to speak. Gritting her teeth, Tatiana forced the words out. “Fame’s a weird thing, isn’t it? Sometimes, it can feel like your life isn’t really your own.”
“Yea, I suppose that’s right,” Randidly replied lightly. And to Tatiana’s relief, some of the pressure around her dissipated.
She took several breaths, struggling to remain as quiet as possible so he didn’t notice. “Even if you stay the same… people start to treat you differently. Because you are a famous actor, a rock star, a CEO… and now a monster slayer. That’s just the sort of culture we live in. People love to put someone up on a pedestal. And toward you… they think you are a hero. To many you are. They found homes and lives working for you, so...”
“Honestly, its not the fact that people have begun treating me different that bothers me,” Randidly replied quietly while still facing the painting. “I’m just starting to wonder… at how much I’ve really changed over the past five years.”
Five years? Is that how much time… has passed for him since the System arrived? Tatiana wondered. With Dungeons, it is a little hard to keep track, but the fact that the time he spent is close to double the actual time… it’s no wonder he’s so far ahead of us. How does he avoid Aether Sickness?
“Randidly, if you ever need to talk, I’m perfectly willing to listen-” Tatiana began, but Randidly waved his hand and turned around. Abruptly, all the pressure in the room was gone.
“No, it’s nothing like that. In fact, I’m actually in a good mood. Sparring against Neveah… really cleared my mind. I was just… curious I guess.” Randidly said with a beaming grin. His emerald eyes were as luminous and clear as a moss-lined pond in a rainforest. “But, I’m going to head to the engine room. Have everyone prepare for some light growing pains as we get everything started.”
“Of course,” Tatiana replied dutifully. Then she bit her lip. She wanted to press again about that strange weight that had hung around Randidly, but some part of her hesitated. But as Randidly’s friend and subordinate, she needed to do this. So she opened her mouth.
And the words that came out completely missed the issue altogether. “...so what are we going to call it? This… new facility you’ve been building.”
“Ah, about that… I’m glad you asked. It’s not just the facility, we will be an entire city now.” Randidly scratched his cheek. “It’s a little on the nose… but we will be Kharon.”
Tatiana narrowed her eyes. “Kharon? That sounds familiar.”
Randidly walked toward the door and waved his hand. “Kharon, who grants passage across the River Styx in Greek mythology. The ferrier between worlds. The bridge to impossibility. Be prepared, Tatiana, because that’s what we need to be.”
And then he was gone. Leaving Tatiana with her regrets and her cooling dinner.
Sighing, Tatiana walked over to the wall and pulled down the impressionist painting. After a guilty glance around, she cracked the frame and shredded the painting within.
Seeing Randidly spend so long looking at it, she had abruptly become aware of how tacky it was. But it did bring her quite a bit of pleasure to destroy something on which she had spent quite a bit of money.
At the core of Kharon was the powerplant that made all of the facilities possible on a mobile platform. It was the masterwork of an extremely overworked Wendy, who sat with a rather numb and blank expression as she stared at Randidly. “What do you mean I need to go back before you turn it on? It’s my engine!”
They were standing on a steel walkway around the cylindrical column that was the core of the reactor. Around them was a vast chamber, designed to house the powerful ambient energy that the impressive engine Wendy designed would throw off. Even though the walkway they used to arrive here was lined with dim lights so they didn’t fall off into the depths of the spherical energy housing chamber, the vast darkness was incredibly oppressive.
For now, the heart of Kharon had yet to experience its first beats. And Wendy had been positively tingling with excitement to see those moments.
Sighing, Randidly shrugged rather helplessly. “I have some… guests who are coming this way. Some very confused and foolish people. I expect things will get violent. So it’s better if you return to the Alpha Cosmos for now.”
“I will seriously burn this all down,” Wendy fumed. She fumbled in her pocket for several seconds and produced a miniature blow torch. A bright blue triangle of flame flickered to life in front of the nozzle as Wendy looked defiantly at Randidly.
He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Wendy, there’s no need for that. And we both know that it’s pointless. Kharon is built of stone and steel anyway, what will you burn down?”
Your fucking ego, Wendy fumed. She waved her torch back and forth to demonstrate how seriously she took this issue. “Then I guess I’ll melt the inner wall of the reactor.”
“You would burn down something you spent so long to build? Before you even turn it on?”
“I’m staying,” Wendy said aloud through gritted teeth, forcing her voice an octave downward so she sounded more authoritative.
Their eyes were locked for almost thirty seconds. Randidly’s expression softened. “...fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Wendy kept her blow torch lit for several more seconds to make sure he was serious about the capitulation. Then she directed a surly grimace his way and deactivated the torch. As she did so, she grumbled at him. “If these guests are so dangerous, why do we need to wait for them to arrive? Just start the damn thing up now and the whole city will run away from them.”
“Isn’t there something cathartic about the first action this city takes being an exorcism of the demons that covet its image?” Randidly said with a smile. Then he patted one of the steel walls. “Isn’t that right, buddy?”
A pattern of light in the shape of a closed eye danced across the walls as the entire room rumbled. Where there was once vast darkness, for a split second they seemed to be standing at the center of a vast sphere of forest green light. Wendy paled and took several steps backward. “T-that is what you spent so much time working on?”
“Yup.” Wendy despised how smug Randidly’s expression was, but she couldn’t deny that her first sighting of this mysterious project that consumed him was certainly impressive. But she wouldn’t put it past him to have made it extremely showy in order to demonstrably outdo her own contribution to the city...
Randidly continued to speak while Wendy’s thoughts simmered dangerously. “Plus, they snuck into the Erickson Steel compound when there was supposed to be a complete blockade; someone let them in. It won’t get rid of the problem of them tracking the city completely, but kicking those couple of people who helped them out will be a good start.”
“Ah, so it’s a trap. You have people watching them?” Wendy asked disinterestedly. Instead, she walked over the wall and knocked experimentally against it. To her deep satisfaction, no impressive phenomena manifested. As I thought. Randidly is crafiter than I thought.
“Actually no, but my area of observation grew quite a bit recently,” Randidly replied. “Plus, like calls to like; their greed will resonate with the people who are supporting them. With that, it will be pretty easy to sweep out all of the low hanging rotten fruit.”
Wendy opened her mouth to ask how that worked, but Randidly raised a finger to his lips and pointed toward the end of the hallway. Along a suspended catwalk that connected the main core of the engine to the outside world, three people were approaching.
They came cautiously at first, hesitantly moving through the darkness where only their path forward was visible. But when they neared the bright white light that was shining from the terminal screen of the reactor core, their steps lengthened with purpose.
“I believe introductions are in order,” Randidly said in a booming voice. The reverberations echoed out the wide inner chamber designed to capture and harness the radiation from the core with such efficacy that wondered how many joules of energy Randidly’s voice contained. The three figures stopped in their approach.
Wendy shivered. Standing next to Randidly Ghosthound, she suddenly felt extremely hot. Sweat trickled down her back. He seemed to be burning more energy than even her reactor could produce.
“Evan Crane. Just a fan of your work, Mr. Ghosthound.” The right figure said. It was difficult to distinguish his features through the strange suit of armor that he was wearing. But a casual glance was enough for Wendy to distinguish that there were strange components functioning behind the scenes. Her fingers itched for the chance to dismantle it.
“Chuck Ballard, head inspections officer for the area in which Erickson Steel operates,” The gruff man on the left said. He folded his arms and stared off toward the intricate runes and mechanisms that covered the wall of the outer reactor chamber. It seemed that one had a vision Skill of some sort.
“And I’m Senator Cliff Heathridge. Truly, what a pleasure to meet you here, Randidly.” The middle figure said warmly.
Wendy winced as the heat whirling around Randidly intensified. “I’m sorry gentleman, but it appears that you are lost. This is for authorized personnel only. Please, let me escort you out of here.”
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Ghosthound,” The man who introduced himself as Senator Heathridge said with a sad smile. “Or at least, we must simply insist that you accompany us in leaving. You are wanted on suspicion of illegally importing underpriced Zone Seven materials and passing it off as ore you’ve managed to extract with your ‘mineral rights’ in the area. Considering all the recent excavation work you’ve done…”
Senator Heathridge idly examined the gleaming steel reactor in which they stood. “...we have quite a few questions for you.”