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Randidly watched with amusement as the group moved towards Franksburg. He had detected the enemy scouts around them and faded away, avoiding their notice. It seems like his party would be ambushed, but he wasn’t worried.

Alana was a capable leader, and Devan’s eyes missed nothing when it came to approaching threats. They would find their way out of it.

Besides, despite Daniel’s groanings, they had all been provided with Spatial Rings to store their supplies. They would probably be searched lightly, but Randidly didn’t think the world had degraded to the point that you would steal dingy rings off of captives. All their hidden supplies would be safe.

For himself, Randidly circled around to the far side of Franksburg, his heart beating wildly as he saw more and more Rawlands University buildings. Some of them were strangely split, in half, only parts here, with rooms exposed, like a giant had sliced them and moved a piece, but some people from Rawlands had definitely made it here.

Cautiously, he revealed himself and began walking towards the interior of the city, looking lost. Monsters had apparently been cleared out in this area, although they were thick outside of the city limits, so there was nothing that would force him to reveal himself. Eventually, A group of people in police motorcycle helmets and full body camo came trotting around the corner.

When they saw them, they froze, the people in the back running into the people in the front, and Randidly raised his hands, doing his best to look unthreatening.

He supposed he should have changed out of his shirt and pants made out of wolverine fur.

But before anything else happened, one of the figures spoke. “It that… Randidly….? I can’t believe you are alive!”

The girl removed her helmet and rushed him, wrapping him up in a hug.

Randidly coughed awkwardly. “Uh, Yea, I made it. It’s good to see you too, Tessa.”

****

Tessa was, of course, Randidly’s ex-girlfriend, although it was hard for him to think about her as that presently. That was primarily due to the time warping effects of the dungeon, however. After all, Randidly had been walking back from breaking up with her the moment the system initialized. So to her, it had been only about a month.

She chatted excitedly the entire way back, hanging right next to him, and Randidly was curious to see that none of the other members of the group seemed to care about his presence. In fact, they didn’t really seem to care about patrolling at all. There was no real formation, just wandering around in a large square.

Still, although it was… slightly strange, Randidly was reassured by her presence. She was an influence from the past, before the system came. She also was proof that more Rawlands University had been here, which gave him hope for Sydney and Ace.

However…. Tessa was never… comfortable with his relationship with them, especially Sydney, so Randidly found it difficult to bring up the subject. Even though he had broken up with her, and didn’t have any lingering feelings, he still was slightly cautious.

Tessa seemed to notice his frown, and gestured awkwardly at the group. “Oh, this sort of job is just a commission thing. When they have need, they offer food and people do tasks. It’s actually my first time patrolling like this, haha. I don’t know if I could actually kill anything, even if a monster attacked me… oh! But don’t worry, I’m still pretty strong! I have a skill level of 84, so I’m pretty tough, ehehe.”

“Skill level?” Randidly’s focus sharpened. She had a skill at level 84?!?

“Yea, like, the total level of all of your skills leveled up, added together. Because that’s how many points you have to put into paths. What’s yours, Randidly?”

Randidly nodded slowly. It made sense that they needed a way to gauge strength without levels here, because they didn’t have access to a class. “...I’m about 70.”

‘With just two of my skills,’ Randidly thought inwardly, but let the number sit out there.

“Oh wow! That’s pretty high, actually. I guess you’d need to get skills, to survive in the wild for so long. What are you wearing, anyway?”

The conversation was starting to wear on Randidly, and apparently the leader of the patrol too, who turned around, took off his helmet, and sneered at Randidly. “Don’t let her sweet talk you; 70 is nothing. I’m 91, and I’m still here, stuck patrolling around. Some people are born lucky, and others aren’t. Levels don’t mean anything in front of fate.”

“Oh fuck you Alex,” Tessa said, partially glaring at Alex, partially glancing nervously at Randidly.

But Randidly just shrugged. It would take a lot more than this to offend him, especially when he knew that his Intelligence stat was only 1 lower than the total number of skill levels this guy had gained.

The group lapsed into silence, and soon they arrived at a gated area, which Randidly recognized as part of Rawlands campus, a bored looking man let them through and then handed out small bags to them all.

When her turn came to receive a bag, Tessa stepped forward, pulling Randidly. “We, uh, found someone. An outsider.”

The man’s eyes widened, and then he walked over to a little kiosk. “Been awhile since we’ve seen one of those, figured most everyone outside was dead…. Here.”

The man handed him a bundle of papers, stapled together. Randidly flicked through it, and saw it was general information about Skill levels, monsters in the area, how to find work and food in the city, etc.

Apparently they had gotten so many refugees that this had been necessary at one point. But Randidly had to admit that it was a pretty big city. People had probably flooded here, rushing to escape from the monsters running rampant in the wild.

Then the man wished him luck, and Randidly followed after Tessa. He spared her a glance. She had shoulder length brown hair and glasses, and a face with high cheekbones. What had originally attracted Randidly to her was the small frown that she was perpetually  wearing, as if every moment was a struggle against the injustice of the world.

The first impression that Randidly had of Franksburg was people. Whereas Donnyton was cozily crowded, tucked into a valley, here there were people everywhere, filling the streets, hanging out windows, calling and cooking, selling food for tokens that Tessa explained were from the government.

Eventually, Tessa stopped in front of a building, her mouth twisting. “This, uh, is where I live. I have a bunch of roommates, but since you probably need a place to stay, you could-”

“Thank you very much,” Randidly interrupted, and Tessa’s smile was wide.

“But for right now,” He continued, looking around. “...I haven’t seen this many people in… what feels like forever. I kinda just want to see the city. If it’s not too much trouble, how about we meet back here tomorrow morning, and you can show me what living here is like?”

Tessa’s face fell slightly, but she maintained her smile and nodded. “Yea, sure. You should be safe inside the city. But my apartment is #576, if you get cold and…. uh, need a bed.”

After she had left, Randidly found himself a bench and read through the packet. After reading the entire thing, he rubbed his neck and looked around.

Honestly, it was very similar to the way Donnyton operated, just on a much larger scale. There were a lot of large, short term projects and every day new jobs would be announced for different times. People would go and work, and receive food or tokens.

Randidly was also curious about whether the ‘government’ was making any moves to find a gold coin and found a Newbie Village. He assumed they had to be, and they should have enough strength to do so after 5 weeks. It was only a matter of time before this place became a village too. And with the huge population, it would gather SP extremely quickly. The pamphlet said the population was around 15 thousand here, but Randidly had no doubt that it had grown precipitously since the pamphlet was made. He wouldn’t be shocked if it was more like 50 thousand now.

But for now, Randidly wanted to do several things. Meet more people, and gather information on Franksburg. And the easiest way to do that…

Randidly stood and walked around, heading for a Job Cryer, to find a job for the night.

*****

Karen frowned down at her two children, Nathan and Kiersty. They stood guiltily in front of her, their faces smudged with soot.

“Where have you two been? And how did you get so dirty? Did you wander over by the forge again?”

Both children shook their heads, but kicked the ground, remaining silent. Karen upped the voltage on her glare.

Eventually, Kiersty mumbled something.

“What was that?” Karen said.

“We were taking care of a special tree for the Ghosthound.”

“You were… what?” Karen asked skeptically. Then she snorted. “A special tree, huh? Where is it? Let’s see how special it really is.”

Karen had been expecting her overly curious twins to take her to an old log from a long dead fire, but to her surprise, they led her behind the farms, passed the area where the domesticated wolverines were raised, into a small clearing, hidden by low hill that should really just be called a mound.

There, standing in the middle of the clearing, was sure enough, a tree. Its bark was black and seemed to be covered and soot, and there were no leaves on it, but it had a trunk and branches, just like a normal tree.

The thing was only about as tall as her chest, and was swaying lightly in the breeze, moving side to side. Karen reached out and touched the bark, and sure enough, her fingers came away covered in soot. The tree began to sway more rapidly, buffeted by the wind.

Karen let out a relieved smile. At least it was just a tree, even if it was a scrawny, weird one. But then Karen froze.

There was no wind. There hand been no wind this entire time. Karen stumbled backwards, afraid, and almost tripped over her children, who were standing behind her, arms raised, swaying side to side.

Karen looked from the children to the tree. The children moved left, and the tree mirrored them. They moved right, and it followed.

“What… what are you doing, honey?” Karen gasped.

Nathan turned and said matter of factly. “Dancing. The Tree likes it when you dance with it.”

****

An hour later, after taking Nathan and Kiersty home, Karen returned to the clearing and the weird tree with Mrs. Hamilton in tow. To Karen’s surprise, Mrs. Hamilton insisted they wait, and the portly boy who ran the Classer compound came down to meet them.

The three of them proceeded to the clearing and stared at the tree a while.

“So…” Daniel coughed impatiently. “What is this about?”

“Apparently the Ghosthound gave two children a seed. And it grew into a dancing tree.” Mrs. Hamilton remarked with a bemused expression. “Do you know how to make it…?”

Karen just shrugged helplessly. “You just… dance…. I guess?”

Daniel snorted and stepped forward, up in front of the tree. Then he began to perform the robot, doing a surprisingly good job. Mrs. Hamilton chuckled amused.

“Oh shut up, I just-” But then they both stopped, shocked. The tree, jerky and slow at first, but then with increasing proficiency, imitated him, doing the robot.

“Well, fuck.” Mrs. Hamilton said, her eyes wide.

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