Sydney and Ace crouched in the shadow of a fallen building, doing their best to keep their breathing even. The shuffling and sniffing of the wolves was one of the loudest things that either of them had ever heard. To his surprise, Sydney had a death grip on Ace’s hand, slowly squeezing the life and blood out of it.
But he didn’t really mind. After all, it was one of the rare moments that he had ever seen her care about something. Aside from Randidly, of course.
They both knew that this would only buy them a few minutes. With his free hand, Ace gripped the fire poker they had been able to scrounge up in the few hours after the System arrived. It was a poor weapon against the monsters that hounded them, but it was more than nothing. Sydney sat, her eyes pressed closed, focusing as well as she could on Meditating, so she could recover enough Mana to use one more Ice Shard spell.
The silence around them was deafening, broken only by the sniffing. Which was why they both jumped to alertness when the sniffing stopped.
A wolf padded out of the darkness in front of them, not the lean wolves that you saw on National Geographic, but a hulking, motorcycle sized creature that breathed out in long, foggy breaths. Sydney hissed between her teeth, and Ace stepped forward, interposing himself between them.
But at the same moment, two more wolves appeared, at the other end of the opening to their small, impromptu cave. The eyes hung in the eye, glowing golden. A small promise of death.
With a sinking heart, Ace realized that all of the excitement he had for the game-like System, and his special skill called Adapt, was completely unfounded. Sure, it could someday become extremely powerful. But for now… it was barely any advantage at all.
And in the face of Lvl 6 monsters, they needed an advantage. Any advantage.
As if by unspoken agreement, Ace and Sydney began to dash forward, towards the lone wolf. If they were going to survive this, they would need to break through this wall of muscle and teeth. It sat on its haunches, waiting for them. When they arrived, Ace took the lead, fainting high and then swinging the poker like a baseball bat, aiming for its knee joint.
If they could reduce its mobility, even a little…
But of course, the wolf moved, rushing forward, the blow hitting its shoulder, but barely throwing off its stride. It leapt, tackling Ace and sending him sprawling. He had poured most of his spare stat points into Strength, but it was barely a candle to what this Level creature could bring to bare.
Luckily, at the last moment, it yelped, and scrambled to get off him, its claws leaving long, but shallow, gashes in its chest. Sydney was pantining, her eyelids fluttering, barely able to stand, but there was an ice shard through the wolves right eye.
With a grunt, Ace pulled a spare kitchen knife from the hastily made sheath at his side and rammed it through the right eye.
Now the wolf was truly howling, but it stumbled back, blind and hurting. As fast as he could, which wasn’t fast at all, Ace got to his feet. He picked the poker back up, staggering to face the two other wolves, who undoubtedly would have caught up with them by now. But the attack never came.
Instead, framed in the opening to the outside world from this collapsed building was a figure, standing over the two corpses of wolves.
“Are you two alright?” A voice asked, a warm voice, and the figure stepped closer, becoming less a silhouette, and more a person. It was a tall, burly male with an affable smile and a rather untrimmed brown beard. His arms were wrapped in what looked like black iron gauntlets, which just rounded at the front, making his arms appear longer, but without fingers.
Ace looked at Sydney, who swayed, barely standing. He wanted to reach out and give her assistance, but from that almost dead look in her eyes, he knew from experience that in the face of this stranger, she would refuse even the smallest sign of weakness. So he let her sway, and instead stepped forward.
“Who are you…?” Ace meant it to sound intimidating, but it just came out as weary and helpless, which was very much how he felt.
The man’s smile grew wider. “I’m Roy. And I’m going to be a Hero.”
Sydney’s eyes flashed as she looked at him. “Why are you being stubborn? You know I detest the man, but this is about humanity as a whole. We helped each other with our Tribulations, why are we allowing his idiotic whims to endanger hundreds of lives?”
Ace folded his arms. “Because you know he will refuse help.”
“And you know he needs it,” Sydney said, mirroring Ace’s stance. “He can’t do this alone.”
“The Class he has is Hero. It’s the most powerful we have ever seen,” Ace reminded her, almost helpless. Sure, he would love to help Roy, but…. He had taken a man’s stance, and he had his pride. He refused to force Roy to give up his dream that had carried them so far up until now. The dream of justice. The dream of fairness. The dream of a happy ending.
The dream of a hero.
“A tribulation comes for your weaknesses. They will not fight him. If it comes with a pretty face…” Sydney left the rest unsaid.
Ace’s face twisted into a frown. “Those women are probably exaggerating.”
Sydney said nothing, but gave him a look that just reminded him how far apart they had drifted in the last 6 months. Hell, how far they had been drifting apart for years, since she was diagnosed with cancer. But that was her fault, and now Ace knew very well that he was pushing them farther apart.
And although he was dismissive outwardly, Roy’s excesses were not unknown to him. But for the sake of the dream, but for the sake of the hope he had felt that first day, hidden in the wreckage of a destroyed building, ready to die… Ace didn’t mind ignoring a few small flaws.
Life was too cheap these days.
“If you insist on this…” Sydney said, breathing deeply. “I will kill you one day.”
“...What….?” Ace blinked, unable to comprehend what she had said. Instead, he just stared at her for several minutes. And then several more, as she simply turned and walked away, saying nothing more.
“Refugees are already arriving.” Rose reported, viewing the clipboard dispassionately. “Fighting is happening in the Village, heavy fighting. And based on the numbers fleeing…”
Ace’s hand’s tightened into fists. So… Sydney had been right. Roy had lost. Their hero had fallen.
“A couple dozen even arrived here, and we-”
“They need to be eliminated immediately.” The village spirit, interrupted, a very tall and skeletally thin man. “Their bodies will begin to transform shortly, if their town really has fallen. Into monsters. Monsters of a strength that will damage us.”
Rose blinked, looking at the Village Spirit. “But… they are people.”
“They are a liability, then.” Ace said slowly, surprised at how empty his voice sounded. He lifted up the biker helmet and placed it over his head. He was so tired of this. So tired of everything. There really was no justice, no perfection. People were shit, and they struggled, and then they died.
The world was only shaped by strength, and without it, everything fell to anarchy. What you needed was not a hero then… no….
But a power. A power strong enough to wipe away all others. The ability to burn the rest of the world to the ground if it dared threaten you. And to Ace…
That sounded an awful lot like a villain.
“Ace, we should-” Rose began to speak, but again, she was interrupted.
“When I have the helmet on… I am only Dauntless.” Ace said dispassionately, all the human elements of his voice muffled by the plastic. “I will remove the liabilities.”
Ace blinked, coming awake. Then he winced. Then he chuckled, looking at the ceiling. Rose was at his side, looking down at him with concern. Brute, Left, and Right, were at the far while, their spines ramrod straight, looking at anywhere but him. The small doctor clucked her tongue and began explaining how and when to take her potions over the next two days to fully recover.
Apparently Randidly had did a number on him.
“So… I lost.” Ace said shortly. The doctor fell silent.
Grinding his teeth, Ace said, as quietly as his voice would go. “I gained 10 Levels in Adapt in 1 minute of me being destroyed… it’s laughable…. Why….”
There was a tear in his eye, but Ace crushed it, pressing his eyes closed so tightly it was grinded to extinction. “Why is that power not mine….?”
No one spoke. For the weak, the world had no answer.