Ace considered Randidly. He felt stupid for not noticing the changes in him immediately when he had accosted him in that bar in the Refuge. But perhaps he had locked so quickly onto the familiar things that he had overlooked the differences.
Although it was impossible, Randidly seemed subtlety larger, like an inch or two in height, and wildly more masculine and aggressive. It was in the way he carried himself, how open his chest was, how direct his eye contact was. He would make a fine villain, Ace decided, if the fucker would just make the extra effort to cultivate a persona.
The problem with villains, that Ace quickly discovered, was that you could not be yourself while remaining a villain. That was a shortcut to madness. Rather, what you needed to do was bind together several traits of yours, true traits to keep the authenticity, and dial them up after a certain ‘switch’ has been flipped, allowing your own personality to warp. By keeping them as true portions of your personality, the warping did no lasting damage. For Ace, the switch was putting on his helmet, and it helped him keep his two modes separate from each other.
Randidly’s persona… Ace considered this problem. Stubbornness as a trait was an obvious choice but gave no drive. It would strengthen his spine, however, and get him into a lot of trouble when he clashed with the forces of justice when he wouldn’t admit he was wrong, or back down from a challenge. No, the driving forces behind Randidly’s villain persona should be…
Hatred born of loneliness, and paranoia born of anxiety. A slow building villain, but one that would savor every second of slowly ripping his victim’s world apart.
The real Randidly, who had tragically missed his perfect moment to transform into a villain, and Ace hoped was currently waiting for his next chance, narrowed his eyes and leaped forward, moving quickly towards the winding train of villagers. Dalton, the pedophile who appeared to lead the weird group of beings here, noticed Randidly’s approach and split off to intercept him.
Feeling frisky, Ace wandered forward to join the parlay.
“You… are leaving?” Randidly asked, his annoyance showing through on his face. Ace sighed inwardly. One of the many great advantages of being a villain, and basically a caricature of yourself, was that things affected you much less strongly. Although a villain would be suitably annoyed at this unexpected development, the expression on a villains face would be more sneering disdain and less… frustrated.
“The Death Cultist resistance in this area is becoming… too much for us to reasonably handle.” Dalton said shortly, his expression curt. “There are other settlements nearer to the Great Passage that we can relocate to. Although there was resistance, for a long time, we have waited-” Here, Dalton paused, and Ace’s eyes sharpened. A lie would come next.
“-we have wanted to do this for a long time,” Dalton explained, some of his dismissiveness falling away and revealing wariness. “We apologize, but the journey will be difficult enough without protecting you and your people. If you come with us, you will die. If you have it in your heart, please remain here for a time and protect Aratta. She… doesn’t have it in her to leave the area.”
Randidly didn’t speak, likely because a notification popped up in front of them at that moment.
Protect Aratta! As the rest of the village departs, seeking refuge in the Great Passage, the Holy Land of Zith. Dalton, in a rare moment of weakness, requests that you stay in the area and protect Aratta. She refuses to leave the area. If you protect her for 10 days, you can consider your debt to the small hospitality of Dalton and his village paid back. Reward: Further increase your relationship with Dalton’s village, and receive 40% experience towards your next Level.
Ace bared his teeth. That was an increase of 10%, which was not small. The people in this party who were past Level 45 would look at this prize with red eyes. Alana especially. If she obtained this, she might be over halfway to achieving Level 50, a boundary that everyone was eyeing with interest. Based on the way the System was treating it, something special happened then, but…
What it was, remained to be seen. And the cost of reaching there was to protect Aratta for 10 days. Based on the difficulty of the prior mission, and the reward increasing now, it would not be a simple thing. Plus, it would mean that they were letting the villagers slip away.
The sudden movement meant that something else was happening here, and Ace wanted to sniff it out. He cast his gaze over the departing adults, more and more appearing every moment, about 200 so far, with their numbers dwindling as everyone who was leaving the village had already shown up.
“I accept…. On the condition that Cyndra speaks to us before she leaves.” Randidly said slowly.
Ace’s eyebrows rose. What was Randidly thinking, falling for this obvious bait…? Sure, the reward was great, but the secret they were using the reward to hide was undoubtedly the sweeter prize.
“Perhaps we should-” Ace said, turning his charm all the way up to 10, but Randidly gave him a look that was very familiar, yet somehow strange. Because it was a look that Ace recognized, it was a look that meant ‘I’ve got this’; Ace had given Randidly that look hundreds of times in the past, when they were out at bars when they were caught trespassing, when a cashier told them they were out of something. Ace had just never been on the receiving end of that look.
Dauntless stirred, one eye-opening to coolly examine this threat, but Ace didn’t have his helmet on, so he laughed goodnaturedly and didn’t continue the sentence. Ace, for his part, was pleased with Randidly’s transformation. Sure, no one would ever mistake Randidly for someone with charm, but he certainly had enough social skills to interact with strangers now. Before he even knew it, his little Ghostpuppy had grown up and become a real hound.
“...That I can arrange,” Dalton said, glancing between Ace and Randidly. When neither seemed inclined to say anything else, Dalton put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. After a few seconds, there was a return whistle, and after another minute, Cyndra appeared, still armed to the teeth.
Ace admired her intimidating costume. But she, too, wasn’t a true villain; she performed evil acts very clearly, but her face was creased with the wrinkles of regret. For all that though, her gaze was firm. She had chosen her path, and she would not hesitate on it now.
“What is it?” She asked.
“The… travelers wanted to speak with you. Since you owed them a favor.” Dalton said, his face going slightly red. It was a peculiar exchange, in Ace’s eyes, and his gaze flicked back and forth between them. There were advantages of being the sidekick in a discussion. Your gaze is much easier for the other side to ignore. It let Ace freely assess these strange creatures.
Although Dalton had always taken on a dominant position in their brief previous interactions… he was now much more hesitant and subservient. Could perhaps the decision to move be one he opposed for a long time before now, until now? And that would make Cyndra head of the faction that wanted to move…? Or perhaps Cyndra had always been the true power in the village…
Or Ace was just extrapolating from an extremely small sample, which was bound to lead to inaccuracies. His mouth scrunched into a thin line. He certainly could identify with Randidly’s frustration here. They weren’t giving the group time to figure out what was going on in this Dungeon, things were just moving too peculiarly, in too many half shapes.
“Oh for fuck's sake, don’t bother with them,” Cyndra said dismissively, turning away, preparing to trot back to the convoy.
“You owe us. We did as you asked.” Randidly said quietly, his serious eyes locked onto the other woman, narrowed with a subtle threat. Ace was honestly surprised at this. From his behavior, it was clear that Randidly considered this woman a threat.
Ace gave her another focused glance. Sure, she looked tough, but…
Dauntless, still bored, cracked an eye open to examine her too. And within a second, both eyes were open and narrowed. Something baleful billowed out of Cyndra, a harrowing aura of bitterness, guilt, and determination that made the air taste like rust. It wasn’t with any particular sense, but it was through the strange image technique of Donnyton that Ace could just barely get the shape of the spirit surrounding this woman.
Then he lost it, and Dauntless growled inwardly, annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to wake up fully to deal with this threat. But Ace kept the affable smile on his face; his switch hadn’t been flicked. Randidly’s skill in this particular area was undoubtedly higher than Ace’s, better to let him handle it.
“And you received your reward,” Cyndra said dismissively.
Abruptly, Randidly changed tactics. “We noticed you swept the battlefield clean. What items dropped?”
His voice was casual, but Randidly clearly smiled when Cyndra stopped dead.
So he was bluffing, Ace mused. He hadn’t known whether that would be an important bit of information but had guessed it might be, based on how quickly the village had acted... But if whatever they found was also the impetus for moving…
What sort of powerful equipment had dropped…?
Very slowly, Cyndra turned around and glared at Randidly. But at this point, Randidly, bless his soul, knew he had the advantage, and just stood still, his hands at his sides, the picture of cool confidence. Perhaps Ace had underestimated his talent for villainy. This display of calm control was exactly the sort of execution that a true villain needed!
Ace nodded approvingly, rubbing his chin.
“Are you going to make this into an issue?” Cyndra spat out, her eyes blazing. Randidly’s eyes narrowed somewhat, but he did not fold.
“Not if we have our quest.” He said simply
Again, Ace thought this was an odd choice. But what was annoying him was that as time went on, it seemed increasingly like this was the correct choice. How had this fucker so quickly identified what was going on here…? His weakness targeting was at Rose level...
“Fine.” Cyndra hissed, before spinning around and departing. But another notification popped up in front of them.
Decimate the Death Cultist’s Headquarters! Cyndra has told you the tragic story of her brother, captured and tortured by the Death Cultists, and after begrudgingly acknowledging your strength, she had told you his remains lay within their Northern Eyrie. Plunge into the heights and slay the High Cultist, and then bury Cyndra’s brother’s remains to succeed. Reward: The Treasure Trove of the Death Cultists and 20% towards your next Level.