“What.... how did he seem?” Sydney asked softly, her fingers tapping the wood of her desk. Although her voice did not quaiver, she had lost a sense of her question halfway through, which was not something that Drake was used to seeing. When it came to this Ghosthound character… it seemed everyone and everything went sideways, even the System.
Not that the man didn’t deserve it. From there two brief run-ins, the man had enough strength to warrant the attention. And yet he didn’t seem like the type to go mad with power, like Dauntless, or lose himself in pointless rigamarole and pomp, like Star Crossing. He raised a village of discipline focused elites, and spoke only sparingly.
Drake’s mouth twitched. Even he was starting to admire the man. It was just… when it came to Sydney…
“He…” Coppernicus finally answered, seeming to think very deeply about the question. “He seemed… driven, focused. He also… was visibly shaken when I mentioned your name. Do you two…?”
Even Vandal perked up at that, although the kid did his best to hide it. Everyone immediately underneath Sydney had a small crush on her, no matter how deeply they suppressed it, or denied it. It wasn’t her looks either, although she was clearly beautiful, made more so by the System.
No, if Drake had to put it into a word to it, Sydney was…
“Fate…” Sydney said in a whisper, while her voice seemed so broken, so tired. “Insists on pushing us together. Before the System, before everything… we knew each other. He’s my first memory…”
Drake blinked. The word would have been insatiable. Sydney always seemed to have a furious disregard for what everyone else thought, almost purposefully rejecting the status quo in order to pursue her own goals. But now, as she talked about this man, with only a sentence… he seemed to unravel that.
In Drake’s heart, something hardened.
“...Anyways, what do we know about the Raid Dungeon?” Sydney said, snapping her focus back, instantly that intensity returned to her gaze.
“Very little that wasn’t included in the notification. Star Crossing is scrambling, and the Ghosthound’s party is traveling rather slowly back to the village.” Drake reported. “Our sources will likely know more when they meet with the Executive Board there. Assuming they begin to gather a party to clear the Raid Dungeon, should we…?”
“Do nothing for now.” Sydney said, flexing her hand and creating a goblet of ice. She grabbed a bottle, snapped off the top, and poured herself a glass. The red liquid looked eerily like blood, even though Drake knew intellectually that the crimson liquid was just wine. After swirling it, and sipping it, Sydney continued. “He will come here on his own.”
“Looking for a fight…?” Vandal muttered, clenching his fist, but Coppernicus spoke louder.
“How do you know he will come?” The Skeleton man asked, folding his arms.
“...because,” Sydney said, the wariness back. “That’s how fate works.”
The group continued its steady trek back to Star Crossing. Most everyone rode Neveah, or at least those from Donnyton, while Simon was on the back of his Soul Bound companion, watching the Ghosthound, who was sitting with his eyes closed. His attention seemed a million miles from here, which made Simon nervous.
Because his attention had just been… well a lot of miles from here, and what he had found had made Simon extremely nervous. And he had been looking for an opportunity to talk to the Ghosthound.
His emotions over the past two weeks had been hot and high, but after seeing that final fight against the Skeleton Knight, Simon felt some of his stubbornness crumble away, just leaving him feeling foolish. Sure, being lied to sucked, but… why did he really take it so harshly…?
Simon knew the answer to that. Because he had been so desperate for the very thing he thought was invalidated by the lie that he had force all of his own insecurities about never having a friend on someone else. He had blamed it all on David, on the Ghosthound. Which wasn’t fair.
David was just a name. They… they were still friends, right…? Nothing had really changed, right…?
Well, except the two weeks of Simon avoiding any contact… Which some might see as a reason to stop being friends, but the Ghosthound had seemed regretful and somewhat guilty about the lie, right…? So he would definitely understand…
Back and forth his thoughts went, chasing himself around in a circle of doubt. Such a thick cloud of doubt, that he didn’t notice when his mount simply trotted up next to Neveah and threw Simon onto her back.
He landed awkwardly, next to the Ghosthound, who cracked an eye to see who had approached. Then the Ghosthound blinked, the other eye focusing on him.
“Uh… hi.” Simon said, unable to think of anything else. The Ghosthound nodded, his expression carefully neutral, although SImon could tell from the intensity of his gaze that his thoughts were shooting rapid fire behind his eyes.
“Um… I don’t want to take up much of your time…” Simon said weakly, dragging his foot across Neveah’s bone carapace. “But… I had some things I wanted… um… we should talk.”
“Sure.” The Ghosthound’s voice was the same as David’s, deep and reassuring. Abruptly, Simon felt a tingle on his neck disappear, one he hadn’t even noticed. Then he realized that the tension had left the spine of a man slouched several meters behind Simon, who had been focused entirely on his presence, although he never spared him a glance. The man returned to spinning his iconic dagger across his fingers, the gemstone pommel flashing.
The Killer of Donnyton, Decklan.
Simon began to sweat, losing his nerve at talking. But now the Ghosthound was staring so intently at him, so…
“There’s nothing.” Simon blurted out, unsure of what else to say. The Ghosthound raised an eyebrow. After that small encouragement, Simon continued further. “Beyond the boundary of the Zone. There’s nothing but darkness. Like, there is the barrier, right? That but my Astral form can go through it. Beyond that… like 30 meters of land, and then a sharp cut off. Like someone came down with a cake knife and just took a slice of land, you know?”
A lot of expressions flitted across the Ghosthound’s face. Curiosity, wariness, a flash of concern, and then amusement took over. He chuckled wryly. “...just a giant alien cake knife? That’s what the System is?”
Simon blushed. But he knew, somehow, that there was a good natured kindness behind the joke. Almost unconsciously, some of that strange stiffness Simon had carried in his due to his anger melted away.
“You got over your…. inhibitions?” The Ghosthound asked casually.
Simon nodded. “You.. you can say it. My fear. Yea… I didn’t want to stray too far from my body, but… It just seemed so strange, you know? That I would be limited like that. ANd I realized… I’m not. I can go anywhere. After I saw the notification for the Raid Dungeon, about being cut off, though, I wanted… I wanted to see. And we are, big time.”
“The only problem is we don’t know whether it was always that way or not…” The Ghosthound said, frowning and looking down at Neveah while he rubbed his chin. Simon felt a flash of guilt in his heart that he had taken so long to adventure out to the edges, but even as he felt that, he came to another realization.
For all of the virtue and strength in the Ghosthound’s body, more often than not, there were careless moments like this, where he said things without even thinking about them, without worrying or stressing or considering what would happen when he said him. The Ghosthound would probably never know how much that off-hand comment struck at Simon’s insecurities. But in the same way, the Ghosthound would decisively act in a situation where Simon would fear the consequences.
Not really because he couldn’t puzzle these moments out, if he turned his rather formidable mind to them, fueled by his high stats. But because he was missing… something that made him pause and consider before acting. Because his first impulse was to do, rather than to wait.
Which, in this world, could be a great skill, the headstart that someone needed in order to be the most powerful man in the Zone, probably the whole world. Or whatever was left of it, anyways. But it also numbed him to smaller things, some more delicate and finer things.
Decklan’s eyes lazily scanned over Simon, and then he yawned. ...and that was why they were so protective of him, why the Ghosthound himself ran nothing. He was support and guidance, a man who could create miracles. But his actual people skills were a bit…
Simon didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Ghosthound as David wasn’t just hiding himself, and trying to be quiet, but he was actually just a guy relishing in the fact that no one knew who or what he was. And the only times he had spoken….
To treat his horrible pain, or to help Simon. Those were the only moments where he was compelled to speak. Simon released a long sigh, which made the Ghosthound lookup.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. For now, it’s actually a pretty small priority.” The Ghosthound said, putting the pieces together to realize Simon might feel guilty, attributing his sigh in an annoyingly incorrect way at this point. “The System probably does this on purpose, and the way the world is rebuilt is dependent on who makes it passed this stage. Or at least I think…”
The Ghosthound fell silent, his attention once more inward.
Which was not what Simon wanted. Before this moment could pass, he blurted out, “I’m sorry.”
“What?” The Ghosthound blinked.
“I’m… I’m just sorry. For how hard… how dumb I was, for the last few weeks.” Simon said weakly. “I shouldn’t have been like that.”
The Ghosthound’s bright emerald eyes pierced through every fiber of Simon in that moment, a furrowed, intense gaze that was like nothing he had ever seen before. This was the Ghosthound that appeared on the battlefield, the man that could duel a Champion and win. The man who had almost died, and perhaps would have, if not for Simon’s intervention and healing.
It was… a good feeling.
The Ghosthound laughed, his face splitting in a grin. “No worries. I’m just glad we are back.”
In that moment, Simon realized the other reason this man was so strong. In that moment, in that pronouncement, there was no hesitation. It was all pure and genuine appreciation. And to be near that, and to feel that again…
Well, Simon was willing to do a lot.