Randidly blinked. Well, that’s certainly not what I was expecting…
“I’ve gone over your shipping manifests for the last several weeks. Item by item, and certainly, the confusion because of the peculiar status of Erickson Steel’s import and export process makes it quite the hassle to track everything flowing into and out of your company… but did you really think you would be able to explain away the sudden surge in production by hastily adding a provision about mineral extraction to our deal?”
“The extra volume of materials was extracted from a Dungeon, I assure you,” Randidly said rather dryly. After his own internal crisis about how other people viewed him, this accusation of interzone trade violations felt rather surreal. Although he could understand the Senator’s confusion. Randidly had spent a year within the Dungeon harvesting with his Infinite Fingers of Yggdrasil, and even then, he wouldn’t have been half as effective without his Riders.
Randidly had come back to Earth with hundreds of tons of metal and rare wood. For someone who wasn’t aware of the mind-boggling amount of Skills that Randidly possessed, it made sense that they would assume foul play.
But what Randidly couldn’t understand… he narrowed his eyes as he looked at Senator Cliff Heathridge. The man’s silver hair and almost apologetic smile were invalidated almost completely by the sinister aura that was wafting away from him. To Randidly’s Grim Intuition, it was clear that this man wasn’t here to peacefully arrest him for violating an import law. He stunk like trash left in the sun for a week.
So why are you really here?
Randidly’s eyes flicked sideways to Evan Crane. This one he knew. This was that peculiar individual who coveted Erickson Steel. But already, Randidly could tell that being present while he unleashed his focused image for the future of this city had deeply affected the man. Honestly, if he hadn’t come to confront him with such a sinister figure, Randidly would consider allowing the man to stay.
Because it was clear that if the rot was removed from Evan Crane’s heart, what he possessed was a genuine appreciation and admiration for Erickson Steel.
As for the third person…
Randidly didn’t recognize him at all, although based on his title it seemed he was involved in Erickson Steel’s business. Briefly, Randidly considered sending Tatiana a message to ask about him, but it really didn’t seem like it was worth it. This wouldn’t take long.
It was a small diversion to draw out the flaws in Erickson Steel. Nothing more.
“Mr. Ghosthound, if I may,” Chuck Ballard drawled. “I’ve enjoyed my time working with Tatiana immensely. She’s a good enough girl to handle business while you are away, but really, business like this should be done between equals, like us. Let’s not think about this as an arrest, just a chance to share a meal and work out the finer details of where your materials are coming from…”
Even through the complex exosuit he was wearing, Evan Crane’s smile was vicious. “Believe me, no matter how staunchly you believe your customers will remain, their mood will shift very rapidly when the entire company is disgraced. You will be ruined.”
Chewing his lip, Randidly considered Evan for several seconds. When Randidly’s attention was focused on him, the man’s shoulders bent like he was enduring a great weight. But then Randidly turned back to the central figure. “I don’t have much time to play; what is it that you want?”
“Mr. Ghosthound,” Senator Heathridge’s teeth were pearly white as he beamed at Randidly. “I’m only doing this because I admire you… all I want is to be partners.”
Senator Heathridge took a step forward along the metal catwalk. The closer he was able to get to Randidly Ghosthound, the easier his fallback plan would go. His eyes briefly focused on the small woman next to Randidly. Not a threat. His focus pivoted back to the young man with burning emerald eyes. “Fine then, let’s bare our hands. The trick you pulled with the ‘mineral extraction’ clause was a work of genius. Two goals accomplished simultaneously by an innocuous and understandable request. Were you inspired by the floating city of the Royal Sea? Don’t try and play coy, I know exactly what your plan was.
“Over the past several months, you’ve been making connections with various political factions. Bargains with Zone Seven to act as an intermediary to fence their raw materials is just the tip of the iceberg. All to leverage your connections at the World Summit in a few weeks and nominate Erickson Steel as the new world capital!
“And when people complain about its location, you will have the perfect response; that it can become mobile. I know that your “mineral rights” wasn’t just a method to fudge the numbers on your imports… it was also a justification for when you will eventually take away the entire city and break the deal with the Zone 1 government. But at that point, what could they do? You would house the world capital. They will be nothing for you.”
Senator Heathridge took several more steps forward along the dimly lit catwalk, measuring Randidly Ghosthound with his eyes. Before the System arrived, the Senator had always prided himself on being able to tell what sort of person someone was with just a glance. It was his secret ability that saw him rise from an aide to a Senator himself.
Yet now, when he looked at Randidly Ghosthound…
Nothing. He feels nothing.
The smile on Senator Heathridge’s face grew forced. He raised his voice as he continued to walk forward. “Such a large ambition, you have, Mr. Ghosthound. Truly, do you think you can keep it all to yourself? All we want is a piece of the pie. To relocate some of our own business interests to Erickson Steel and obtain shares in the city. For that, we will ignore your import transgressions and even throw our support behind you at the summit.
“We all desire the same thing, Mr. Ghosthound. Let’s do this civilly. Trust and partnership are the foundations of any great venture. So, what do you say?” Senator Heathridge barred his teeth. Behind him, he could hear Evan Crane’s extremely loud breaths echoing in the vast chamber around them.
The question hung in the air for almost a minute. Senator Heathridge’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to press the issue, but he found that he couldn’t. Blinking rapidly, the Senator also realized that he couldn’t even move, let alone breath. He was frozen in place by Randidly’s emerald gaze.
It’s not that Crane is a hapless mouthbreather, Senator Heathridge realized in horror. He’s… struggling to breathe even with the help of the exosuit.
Then Randidly Ghosthound laughed, abruptly breaking all of the tension in the room. Senator Heathridge gasped and staggered backward. Swaying on his feet, his face flushed with blood. Fine then, we do it the hard way.
“If you refuse to go peacefully, we will force your hand. No one wants that.” Senator Heathridge spat out. “Least of all you.”
“You… have no idea what I want, Cliff.” Randidly grinned at him. The flush on Senator Heathridge’s face deepened.
“Everyone else may think you are an invulnerable warrior and a masterful inventor,” Senator Heathridge’s chest heaved. “But I’ve been too long in politics not to recognize what you are: a charlatan. A little bit of illusion magic from Zone 32, the right sort of timing and tone to your persuasive speeches, and suddenly you can make people believe anything. But although the world has changed, one thing remains the same: people are still people. They are WEAK-”
Senator Heathridge balled his hands into fists. “GREASY-”
He took a step forward and jabbed his finger toward Randidly Ghosthound, who continued to watch the trio in amusement dancing through his emerald eyes. “-and FLAWED. You are no different! You aren’t better than any of us. In fact, I expect to find some very sordid secrets when we finally pry away the glamour with which you’ve shrouded yourself.”
Randidly didn’t respond at all. His eyes seemed to gleam as he continued to watch Senator Heathridge.
Senator Heathridge opened his mouth before Randidly could conjure that strange weight again. “Evan Crane! It’s time to demonstrate that we mean business.”
The servos on Crane’s exosuit hummed to life. Moving with purpose, Evan Crane shouldered past the other two men and strode toward Randidly Ghosthound. The extremely small and slight woman next to Randidly took a step forward, looking toward Crane with interest. But Randidly Ghosthound, damn him, simply laughed again.
“Actually, this is perfect. I’ve wanted to have a test run of this. You’ll be my guinea pigs. Time to wake up the heart.”
Senator Heathridge was trembling in fury as Randidly turned away and pressed a few buttons on the terminal. A low yellow glow began to shine out from some of the glass windows to whatever was within that tall cylinder.
Although most of his outward expression of emotion was a front to cause Randidly to underestimate them, at its core was a thread of truth. Because Heathridge always instinctively knew when one of his accusations had hit the mark. No matter how good of an actor someone was, there was always a flinch when something struck too close to home.
But since they had arrived, nothing had phased Randidly. It was like this was a fucking game to him.
Roaring, Evan Crane sped up to a dash. With all the grace and momentum of a freight train, he careened down the metal walkway toward the core area where the two figures were standing. But as Crane began to accelerate, the entire building shuddered. The yellow light grew brighter and then turned white. And when Senator Heathridge looked around, he realized that strange lines were flickering to life along every surface.
Senator Heathridge paled. Those are… Engravings?!? But the size-
“Crane! Stop! It’s a trap!” Heathridge yelled, but it was too late; Crane had built up too much momentum. And what was even more aggravating was that it appeared his shouted line set Randidly to laughing so hard that he slapped his knee in amusement.
After the Engravings surged to life, motes of forest green light began to shoot out from every surface and gather in a huge ball directly in Evan Crane’s path. Rather than slow down, Evan Crane activated the Meteor Impact function that was the culmination of two year’s work for Senator Heathridge’s design team. The entire exosuit began to glow cherry red and radiate waves of ghostly flames.
Those motes of light congealed into a two-meter tall golem that seemed to be made entirely of moss. It released a deep trumpet noise and took a step forward to meet Crane.
Senator Heathridge felt a strange flash of fear. All of this was happening too fast. If Evan Crane was defeated now while he still had the documents on his person-
But when the exosuit hit the golem, the golem was blasted into motes of light ones more. In fact, it was so sudden that Evan Crane decelerated as he almost tripped in shock. Then the man straightened and raised his fist.
“Ha! Did you think you could stop me?!?” Crane bellowed. He leapt up into the air and raised his hands over his head.
Yet Senator Heathridge could only pale as he realized that the motes of light weren’t dispersing. More and more were congregating. As Crane arced through the air, the motes swirled up faster than the eye could follow and formed four more moss golems around Crane’s flying form. With their large hands, they quickly latched onto the exosuit.
“Get the fuck off me!” Evan Crane roared. With sharp movements, he began to systematically lash out and rip away the limbs that had seized upon him in his travels. Which meant that he was distracted by the fireflies buzzing around him while missing the moon of forest green energy that was forming above Randidly’s head.
That moon rippled and spread, becoming an arm as long as a skyscraper was tall. It’s comically large fingers clenched into a fist. So when Crane had finished dealing with the moss golems around him, he turned to face forward and was smashed in the nose by an enormous fist. Even with the exosuit, the impact was enough to cause his bones cracked and send blood gushing out of his mouth.
Chuck Ballard rushed forward to hastily catch Crane’s broken form. Some of Crane’s blood spattered all over the man, but it was at least clear that Crane was still alive.
“You really dare resist arrest? We aren’t just uniformed cops. We represent the will of Zone 1. Do you really have what it takes?” Senator Heathridge said quietly. His mind was rapidly calculating. That sort of Engraving… if it was over the whole of the area, Randidly Ghosthound could have the entire world capital under his complete control if he accomplished his scheme.
A vision of this one man ruling the Earth came to Senator Heathridge. Those emerald eyes seemed to rip right through the Senator and see that future. Heathridge bit his lip so hard that it bled.
“I don’t think a relationship with Zone 1 is very healthy any longer,” Randidly said lightly. “If someone like you is respected here… I fear that the rot is a little too deep to be easily dealt with.”
“Fine then.” Time to shift to Plan B. Senator Heathridge looked sharply behind him. “Crane? Do you have the papers.”
“Of course,” Crane managed to mumble. From his interspatial watch, he produced a manila folder and weakly gave it to Chuck Ballard. The foolish man blinked.
“Open it,” Senator Heathridge urged as he produced an object from his own interspatial watch. “We don’t have much time.”
“I… fine.” Chuck Ballard, nervous and shaky from having his hands slick with someone else’s blood, did as he was bid. He pulled out the papers and covered them with his bloody fingerprints. His eyes unfocused as he scanned through the front page. Suddenly, he frowned. “This-”
Senator Heathridge’s Mana reinforced bullet took the man between the eyes. He was dead before he hit the perforated metal of the catwalk. Releasing a smile, Senator Heathridge allowed him a satisfied smile of victory. Yet when he turned around to regard Randidly Ghosthound, the other man was simply puzzled.
You’ll soon come to regret remaining so passive. Now I’ve got you right where I want you.
Senator Heathridge barred his teeth. “You won’t be able to maintain that expression for long, Mr. Ghosthound. Especially considering the fact that the contract in his dead hands outlines a deal that includes the signatures of you, our newly deceased Chuck Ballard, and agents from Zone Seven.
“And now his brain matter is spattered across the deal. Was Chuck Ballard having seconds thoughts about betraying his nation for money? Is that why he came to you to renegotiate his involvement and you had to kill him? Truly, you are a man whose thirst for power knows no bounds.”
Senator Heathridge laughed long and loud. “And the only way to hide your sordid deeds would be to kill both Crane and I. Was that why you used your superweapon to strike him down? But I’m a Senator. I’ve made it known that I was coming here tonight. Not only would you need to endure the investigation that would follow my death, but do you think your dream of having this place become the World Capital can live through an extremely high profile unsolved murder? So you can kiss-”
A heavy moss golem hand settled on Senator Heathridge’s shoulder, silencing him. As had happened before, Senator Heathridge couldn’t move at all.”
“You,” Randidly said simply. “Are an idiot. Goodbye, Cliff. I hope we won’t meet again. But I will give you one last gift. The name of this city… it’s Kharon. I have a feeling that you will be one of the ones that cannot stop chasing it.”
Then Randidly Ghosthound turned away from him and began to touch the strange pillar of engravings behind him.
“Finally! I was getting pretty bored. No more initialization; let’s go at full power.” The cheery voice of the woman next to Randidly struck Senator Heathridge dumb. Why… why doesn’t he even care? His image- the public perception...
But before Senator Heathridge could do or see anything else, he was pulled up by one of the moss golems. Two more grabbed Crane and Chuck Ballard’s corpse and spirited them away through the maze of tunnels underneath the Erickson Steel compound. All the while, the hum of an engine grew louder and louder behind them.
After about five minutes, they were carried out of a secret door and into the nearby forest. Without any warning, they were unceremoniously deposited on the ground. The moss golems took a step back but remained nearby with folded arms. To Senator Heathridge’s horror, when he looked around to get his bearings, all of his agents were also present and looking miserably at each other. Even some of his agents that he hadn’t activated to sneak into Erickson Steel today. “How…?”
A dull rumbling interrupted him. When he twisted around, the ground a few meters behind the moss golems was buckling. Trees beyond that line trembled and swayed. Like a piece of cake being lifted, the edges ripped as the area around Erickson Steel lifted higher and higher away from the ground. First a few inches, then a dozen, then a full meter.
Dirt by the handful fell away as the ground lifted away, revealing a strange brass disc that had been buried just below the surface from the ground. As Senator Heathridge watched with wide eyes, the continued rise revealed that every few meters from that upper ring, thick bars of steel stretched downward, even deeper into the ground.
The only problem was the fucking scale of the portion being lifted up and away. To Senator Heathridge’s eyes, it was a flat line; it was so wide he couldn’t grasp the edge of the curve.
And then a gleaming steel talon slithered up out of the ripped portion of ground and grasped onto the solid ground that was being left behind. Very quickly, it became taut with tension as it helped pry the huge piece out of the ground. Stones rattled and fell as bits of soil were dislodged and left behind. Thin roots poked out of the exposed ground, ripped out of the soil that wasn’t currently being moved.
It’s not just the Erickson Steel compound… Senator Heathridge thought in horror. How much land are they planning on taking?!?
Hundreds of more legs surged out and assisted, until the ground being removed seemed to be only partially land, and partially a vast metallic spider. Very quickly, the height of the rising land increased from one meter to three. The moss golems dissipated into motes of light and returned to the compound, sinking right into the soil exposed between the steel support beams and brass discs.
Almost a zombie, Senator Heathridge swayed and stepped up to the edge of the rising land. He hesitantly reached out and to touch one of the metal legs, but as soon as he came near it pulled away. Then, as one, they all retracted back into a thin steel ring that became visible as the land was pushed higher and higher. Senator Heathridge leaned back and looked upward. By now, it must have reached almost five meters.
The ground in front of Senator cracked and disintegrated, forcing him to take several steps backward before he could get a more accurate grasp. The wall of soil and stone in front of him continued to ascend. More and more silt and loose earth tumbled down. Then there was a noise like a giant releasing a gasp, and the ground lifting up out of the ground began to taper inward.
And in that moment, Senator Heathridge could look down into the huge crater in front of them while the huge shadow cast by this rising city began to swim around the abandoned people who watched the city Kharon move. Always, the city was rising, moving farther and farther away.
And then Senator Heathridge could see underneath the bottom to the other side of the crater, where the sun illuminated a messy slope of shattered stone and gravel. Even now, it was difficult to grasp what was happening. Because the amount of space-
And at the center, pushing the city higher, were four huge spider limbs. With the original ones that the Senator had seen were about three meters long, these were easily three meters thick and almost fifty meters long. As the ground cracked and groaned, those huge metal legs began to shift and move.
One stretched outward, ponderously slow, and stretched up to the edge of the crater left by the city departing. It pressed downward. That side of the crater collapsed almost immediately, sending stones the size of houses tumbling downward. Still the enormous leg pressed, grinding stone until it settled to a shuddering stop on something that was capable of bearing its weight.
The back two legs flexed, pushing it forward in the direction of the first question leg. Then a second leg stretched outward, curling up to slide out of the crater and then pushing down even further away from the crater. This time, the ground cracked in a spiderweb pattern but held.
Humming with the sounds of whirring machinery, the Erickson Steel compound leveraged itself up and out of its crater. The speed of its ascent tripled at that moment. Suddenly it loomed high above them, like something that existed in a different realm than the people left behind.
Then, with earthquake inducing steps, it began its shuddering march to the Southwest.
“Kharon… huh…” Senator Heathridge muttered to himself. He had a vicious headache. He wondered what he had missed. Why was I so wrong? Is he just walking away, after all he has done to foil my plans?!? What… does Randidly Ghosthound truly want?