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A note from puddles4263

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There were a few moments of silence between them, as Coppernicus examined his own situation, but physically and emotionally, while Sydney attempted to capture his lines. Eventually, Sydney leaned back, and if she wasn’t satisfied, she was at least found her work grudgingly acceptable.

"Until that duckling showed back up in my life. But this wasn't one of those stories where he had transformed into a swan after the intervening two years... no, if anything, he had doubled down on his stubborn dumpiness. It was confusing, but I would have walked away, too concerned with my world than to allow his to stain me, but..." Sydney sighed, remembering the sound of Randidly's father hitting him, in between those two SUVs. "But... he was accused of never attempting to fly. Of never trying, and that's why he failed. I could accept that the world didn't respect his process... but not that it questioned him for taking it. He was on the right path. He worked hard.

"This time... it was like the world seemed to say that we were meant to be. We both tried our best... even if the way our attempts were received was so different, just by both struggling..."

Coppernicus grinned at Sydney. "It is a very heady thing to know a secret that no one else seems privy to."

Snorting, Sydney waved her hand. "Say what you will. Circumstances conspired to encourage me to embrace the duckling once more. So for all of high school, I accepted the duckling. Then I told him... how I would leave him, and go on alone. Because... I wanted to find the world where I belong, where the calculus of life was simple."

"That place doesn't exist..." Coppernicus said, breathing a rare sigh out, his eyes unfocusing to a place neither here nor there.

"Perhaps, but that was only because I hadn't created it yet," Sydney said, eyes flashing. Then she leaned back in her chair, setting down the pencil. The jawline was broader and more smooth than a skull's should normally had been, but to Sydney's chagrin, she had relied on memories of another jaw to settle on a profile she was satisfied with. "Either way, this time... after I left the duckling behind... he flew. Not high, and not high, but he had done it, through sheer stubbornness and ill will, as far as what I can tell."

"And," Sydney added, her eyes blazing as she ripped the sketch in half. "This time, the duckling himself seemed to say that we belonged together. And there is nothing that makes you hate something more than if you've been told your whole life you belong together. Especially a teenage girl..."

Coppernicus' eyes were mild as he examined Sydney. Really examined her, not looking at the style and persona that she cultivated, but the body underneath it, looking at her eyes, her bearing, her age. It was a very nostalgic look, similar eyes to the way Mr. Ghosthound used to appraise her, not sexually, but also not as a person. Perhaps considering solely her value as a commodity. "Yet I can't help but ask, what does this have to do with Drake?"

Sydney froze the scraps of paper, and then stood, turning away from Coppernicus. "I had assumed this was a discussion about my fitness to lead, not an offhand comment to Drake."

Every smile of Coppernicus' bared his teeth, but Sydney could sense that this particular brand of smile had some extra venom to it. "I've never been a big picture fellow. I live in the details. Please settle my perturbed heart."

Rolling her eyes, Sydney said. "No, if you are wondering, I do not plan on going to war with Donnyton. Not only is it short sighted, it’s also rather pointless. In the future... if Donnyton is allowed to develop in the way it has been... it will become an industrial hub. That will be more beneficial to us than you know. Because we will offer services that they will desperately need, once they reach that certain size..."

"Ah, the special projects are rounding out nicely. Who knew that Vandal could be productive when not eating," Copernicus said, chortling. Sydney smiled.

"But I think that after this Raid Dungeon situation is resolved... we will be connected to other Zones, yes? In that direction lies the war, as the powerhouses begin staking claims on the last bastion of humanity. And it is very hard now to doubt that the Ghosthound is heads and shoulders above everyone else..."

Trailing off, Sydney frowned for a long second, then sighed. "And I can't deny that at this point, to finally see that ugly duckling grow into the stubborn monster he always was moving towards... I feel a certain amount of responsibility. I do not want to fight him."

"As for Drake... this can be considered a test." Sydney said, walking away towards her chambers. "To see how much he will let his emotions cloud his judgement. I don't need liabilities for the coming war."

"I suppose that goes for me as well," Coppernicus said with a smile, standing. "Please excuse me, I'm off to carry my weight."

Sydney's smile was sharp as she watched him go. Then she turned and headed towards the personal dungeon that she kept in the back of her chambers. Which had recently been bumped up from a Level 37 Dungeon to Level 44 by the accumulated contribution points of East End, from slaughtering monsters and completing quests.

"So am I."

*****

The giant praying mantis lashed out, its long scythes ripping through the air towards Chrysanthemum, making Thea's heart jump. But it wasn't with fear, not anymore. It was with the vicious fury that she had received when she had upgrade her new Skill, that dyed her vision red and thrust her forward into the fray. It was so hard to know when she had to hold in it, resisting it, and when she could lose herself to it.

Now, while the Ghosthound pinned down 4 others, while Ace was forcibly beating another into submission, Thea let the fury take her. Bellowing in rage, she let instinct guide her as she simply stepped in the way of the scythe that was about as long as a dinner table and swung her hammer to meet it, activating every Skill she could.

Luckily for her, Lucifer, in his strange way of intuiting allies moves, was already there with her, his huge, jagged blade a hair ahead of her swing, aiming to assist. His blade smashed into the scythe with a screech, slowing it.

Thea's hammer arrived, the conduit to her savage fury, and shattered the scythe.

As the largest of the praying mantis' screamed, the others looked up. Or the other praying manti would have looked up, but one was reduced to mush by Ace, one looked more like a porcupine made of arrows, another had become a frozen block of ice, and the final two were lost within a squirming mass of vines and roots. Even the strange insect monster seemed to sense that the tide was turning, and began to back away.

"Finish it," Rose's voice came, and in the heat of fury, Thea was resentful. Yes, she got it, kill the monster. Don't say superfluous things. But perhaps because of her flash of irritation, Thea wasn't the first to respond; Chrysanthemum was. The past day of slaughtering cats and strange Raid Boss caliber opponents had given Chrysanthemum a huge boost in strength, and when she stretched to her full height, she was almost 3 meters tall, coming in like a rockslide on the relatively fragile looking praying mantis.

But the thing hadn’t played out its tricks, and it spread its wings wide. A blast wind smashed outward, not stopping Chrysanthemum, but stalling her, giving Thea time to dash out from behind her bear companion, who had took the brunt of the wind Skill, and allowed they to move in for the kill in that moment.

With its good scythe, the praying mantis slashed sideways, but Thea just grinned and leapt over it, raising her hammer and smashing the praying mantis’ thorax. With one last screech, it collapsed, spasming periodically. Everyone shifted backwards, letting it settle into death as peacefully as possible.

When it finally ceased moving there was a flash of light, and a small item appeared next to its body as an item condensed. Instantly, everyone focused. Items appearing on their own were rather rare, mostly they had to be manually refined form the bodies of the dead. If an item appeared, it usually meant that something powerful and unique had appeared, that would boost someone’s combat powers immensely.

Walking slowly so as not to scare anyone, Thea, who was the closest, went over to it and picked the item up. It appeared to be a small backpack, with four tiny insect wings stick up out of the back. Examining it, Thea’s eyes widened.

Wings of the Reaping Mantis Lvl 46: A natural treasure formed when a Reaping Mantis dies under special circumstances, allowing its wings to be salvaged in their entirety. Agility +15, Reaction +10. The Wings may be activated, causing them to grow to their full size and granting the wearer the Skills “Sonic Advance Lvl 46” and “Air Shockwave Lvl 46”.

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