When the knock sounded on her door, Thea looked up. “I’m coming.”
Thea swiftly dressed herself, petted Chrysanthemum seven times for good luck, then walked out of her room into the hallway. With her typical, lumbering gate, Chrysanthemum followed. Thea wasn’t sure if she could have gone through with this without her support.
Not that she was ever really apart from her, due to their bond, but still…
Mrs. Hamilton stood there with Donny, a small smile on her face as she looked at Thea. “Are you prepared? Time is of the essence, but the Ghosthound doesn’t mind if you delay somewhat to make up your mind. You only have one chance at this.”
But Thea shook her head. “No, I’m ready.”
“Would you like my advice?” Mrs. Hamilton asked, her smile widening a fraction.
Inwardly, Thea wondered whether she would be like this woman when she grew up. Although their interactions had been few, everyone talked about the Grey Spider of Donnyton, and how she was the force behind the scenes that animated this place. She was both manpower and mastermind, a woman who seemed to have an endless supply of time, attention, and energy to deal with Donnyton’s problems.
She was cool and calm, and a woman that Randidly trusted implicitly. Thea had never seen her fight, but when she looked at this woman, her instincts were completely silent, as if the space in front of her was occupied by driftwood, rather than woman. And yet, here and now, as they stood, waiting for her to make her decision…
Perhaps it was just artifice, but… there was such kindness in her voice as she inquired whether Thea wanted her advice.
She did, she truly did, but… what if her advice was couched in such a way to serve Donnyton, rather than Thea? Thea wasn’t an idiot, she understood that Randidly wanted to observe the process so he could discern… something. Something important, that everyone was keeping very hush hush about.
Trying to keep her shoulders from sagging, Thea said, “Yes, of course. Any advice you can give is appreciated.”
Mrs. Hamilton’s smile widened, and she walked towards Thea and fell to her knees, and pulled Thea into her embrace. Thea froze at first, shocked by the sudden display of affection, but then softened, as the genuine warmth from the gesture melted away her inhibitions. She buried her head into Mrs. Hamilton’s shoulder.
Mrs. Hamilton was probably a foot taller than Thea standing, but kneeling, she was several inches shorter. Thea was wrapped in armor, while Mrs. Hamilton wore a long black dress. Between them, there was probably 20 to 25 years age difference, although the System would probably make that much more difficult to discern in the future…
They probably looked almost silly, they in their strange embrace, but Thea didn’t care. She had struggled all week, beaten bloody in training by almost everyone, driven to her limits, shown the true strength of Donnyton, and god damnit, being strong for so long fucking sucked. Plus now, everyone was waiting on her decision on what to do with her one use item…
It was all too much. So Thea buried her face deeper into Mrs. Hamilton’s shoulder, while the other woman stroked her hair. Even if this was just to manipulate her… Thea knew she needed this. This small moment of weakness, of kindness from a stranger.
“Oh, child.” Mrs. Hamilton whispered, the smile still in her voice, although Thea couldn’t see it. “My only advice… is that you already know the answer. The women and the young have for generations suppressed our guts to listen to others telling us what to do… But now you have the power to change that. Seize that power and make it yours.”
Mrs Hamilton pulled back and smiled at Thea, who could only blink.
Then she straightened and walked away, Donny following after her as if nothing happened. Then, several seconds later, Thea staggered after them, her head swinging, as Chrysanthemum brought up the rear.
Just… trust her instincts…? Seize the power…?
What the fuck did that mean….?
Stan sat in the Cathedral, gazing at the Ghosthound. There was a calmness in the air, a numbness, perhaps, keeping him from feeling the feelings of people around him. It wasn’t oppressive like it had been previously, but rather… regal, in a way.
When Stan had seen the Ghosthound walking up to greet him as the winner of the Tactics Assessment, all the joy that he had felt over the fun of the game fell away, replaced by anxiety. When they had met previously, that strange numbness around the Ghosthound had stripped Stan of all of the emotions he had felt, especially those he absorbed from the powerful emotional broadcast that was Raina.
With that void inside of himself, some emotions that perhaps had been… suppressed in the wake of the System, and suppressed further now that he had encountered Raina, were able to squirm to the surface, filling him with powerful angers and vicious hatreds. But something had… changed about the Ghosthound.
Squinting at the man, it was even possible to see the difference in him. His body, while not necessarily bigger, looked… different. Like he had been made out of skin and bone in the past, but now he was made out of twisting wood and molten metal. There was a density and grace to him that had been present, but… much more subtle. Now the man could hardly move without making everyone around him notice the difference between them.
Bitterly- well, as bitter as Stan could feel- Stan supposed that was just the difference between their two fates. He was slightly interested in the Soul Skill that the Ghosthound proposed, but Stan didn’t harbor any hopes that whatever he gained from this would be able to change Raina’s relative opinion of the two of them…
But more than the physical changes… it was that strange presence that the Ghosthound had now that enabled Stan to survive near him. It was like being on a beach, where the constant low hum of the wind robbed the world of their words, and reduced everything to a humming. In the same way, the powerful presence masked everything else, but not so much that everything was numbed away.
Still constant was the chilly pride that suffused him, that strange self-confidence that bordered on arrogance. It made Stan feel inferior, but not in a way that he was angry about. It was like swimming next to a whale.
In front of the realities of nature, how fragile was a human’s pride?
There were 4 people in the room already, and they were apparently waiting for a few more. There was himself, the Ghosthound, the winner of Knowledge Assessment, and a bored looking woman called Clarissa. Clarissa was a name that Stan had only heard vaguely during his time in Donnyton, and seeing her here, chatting so amicably with the Ghosthound, Stan almost wished he had paid more attention to her, so he could understand her role.
The Cathedral itself was a beautiful area, filled with tall, ivory pillars, and warm wooden benches. Unlike a typical church, however, at the center of the Cathedral was not an altar, but rather an indentation in the floor, in which there was a small resting chamber, where a person could lay. It was somewhat like a permanent casket had been placed there, drawing everyone’s gaze.
About 10 minutes passed, and just about the time that the Ghosthound was looking impatient, 4 more figures came into the inner chamber of the Cathedral. The leader was Mrs. Hamilton, who was followed by Donny and one of the head healers, whose name was Ptolemy. Following him was a youngish looking girl who seemed extremely confused, as if she had wandered in off the street.
But, based on the Ghosthound’s gaze, this girl was who they had been waiting for. And Stan was very interested in starting, but…
...somehow the fact that one of the head healers had come here gave him a sinking feeling in his chest…
“Are all three of you prepared?” The Ghosthound asked, his eyes glowing a luminous emerald while he looked at them all. In turn they all nodded.
Breathing out through his nose, the Ghosthound exhaled slowly. “Alright then. Let’s start with you. Here this is the Stone of Genesis. You have the idea for the Skill that you want?”
After a brief pause, the elderly woman he was referring to nodded. There was a nervous energy in her stance, but she was clearly suppressing it in front of the Ghosthound. Stan felt a slight annoyance that his emotional reading was suppressed, because it would have given him some comfort to feel these emotions through another, and then to finally feel her relief when her part was over, and his would have to begin.
Taking the stone from the Ghosthound, she looked around, confused. Donny pointed. “It’s… slightly unfortunate, but… you just need to lay in the resting area down there. This whole building is designed as a focus of sorts, and it will improve the efficacy of the stone.”
“Oh, but first.” The Ghosthound reached out and touched the woman’s shoulder. A tremor ran through her, and she stumbled. The Ghosthound didn’t move to help her, and stepped back. Wordlessly, she turned and looked at him.
“A gift. Use your imagination to your fullest… the stone can give you anything right now.” The Ghosthound said, speaking softly. He folded his arms.
Nodding, the woman stepped down, and laid inside of the resting area.