Randidly swore with such passion that Astral Simon jumped to the side, moving his attention a bit farther away from the group. Thea, heedless, continued to cry next to the weird, rotten remnants of Chrysanthemum.
Simon felt somewhat cold for feeling that way, but…
“Will there be enough people to mount a rescue?” Rose wondered aloud. “We need to move fast, either way. Get people at the borders-”
“I’ve no doubt Mrs. Hamilton is moving Squads as we speak.” Alana grunted.
Randidly nodded, his face dark, his eyes intensely focused. He seemed somewhat preoccupied, but Simon watched as he forcibly relaxed, then shook his head somewhat helplessly. He gestured to the group, and they moved somewhat away from Thea, giving her some privacy.
After they moved far enough away that her sobs were no longer audible, the Ghosthound turned and regarded the others, his gaze sharp. “I would like to say something to you all, before we part and begin dealing with the many problems that the days will brings. Especially those of you… I am not very familiar with.”
Simon regarded the group. Aside from the Ghosthound, there was Alana, Annie, Clarissa, and Ptolemy from Donnyton. Rose and Dauntless from the Refuge, although right now, Dauntless looked rather lost, simply following the Ghosthound with wide eyes. Lucifer from Franksburg. Finally, Drake from East End.
Especially the four from other Villages regarded the Ghosthound coolly, Rose especially looking like his tone set her teeth on edge. Apparently noticing the reaction, the Ghosthound raised a hand. “Relax, it’s nothing like… there are no real threats here. Just…”
Pausing, the Ghosthound turned and looked towards the sky. “I just… wanted you all to understand how your lives will change after this.
“It might be different for some of you, but you are about to go back to an old life after you’ve been pushed to the edge of death constantly for a month. That may seem like a short amount of time. And truly, it is. But in the time between who you were prior, and who you are now, there was a moment, perhaps multiple, where you neared your limits and expected to die. Yet you did not.
“Think of that as a marker you have left yourself. One, that if you continue to train and hone your Skills, you can use to propel yourself to greater heights. It is unadulterated power to know how far you are capable of going. A power and a deathly certainty that others won’t have. That certainly will give you an advantage in every aspect of your life, as long as you don’t lose your way. Don’t underestimate the power of what you have experienced.
“The second thing I would like to point out, although you won’t realize it yet, is that your standards have shifted greatly. You might say again, it has only been a month. So I ask you, which of you would fear an ambush from a Raid Boss, at the moment? Tier III, with time to spawn lieutenants? Who believes that we wouldn’t be able to sweep it away like wind through dried leaves?”
No one said anything, just standing there, staring at the Ghosthound. On the faces of a few, Alana and Rose especially, were faces of confusion, wondering, perhaps, where the Ghosthound was going with this sudden monologue.
The Ghosthound continued, saying, “And even if you were alone, who believes they wouldn’t be able to escape? Who here would be flustered by sudden attacks or numbers and lose sight of the larger picture? Who doubts for a second that under fair odds they would be victorious against these common enemies?”
No one said anything, but Rose raised her hand, the corner of her mouth twisted upwards in a smirk. The Ghosthound chuckled and then continued.
“You will know more fully what I mean when you get back. When everyone talks of training, and of small slights between each other, and of the pettiness of living in close proximity with other humans. Which leads me to my third, and final point… without a doubt, we here are the group of the most powerful people in our Zone, likely on Earth.”
Simon shivered, feeling extremely out of place among this crew. The Ghosthound had a point. Although Simon wasn’t sure what these people had gone through, all their armor was scarred, but their faces were even and direct. Their gaze were bright and determined. Now that it was pointed out to him, he could sense from them all a wonderful feeling of certainty. To someone like Simon, who always doubted himself…
It was like poking a million tiny holes in a balloon at night, and it silently collapsed in on itself.
“Let me tell you… it is not what you are expecting. ‘It is lonely at the top,’ is a true sentiment, in a lot of ways.” The Ghosthound looked down at his hand, speculatively, then flexed it. “...It likely sounds trite, to hear it now, but when people look at you, they will no longer see you. They will no longer see your names or identity. No, more than anything else, at the forefront of people’s minds will be your deeds, and from these impressive acts they will form their opinion of you.
“To be eternally defined by your glory, rather than self, is to realize that to all others you are frozen,” The Ghosthound said softly, looking at the ground now. “And that unless your glory has risen even higher… you cannot move forward. You will have lost yourself in your past, and see your sense of self dissipate, like a mirage in the desert.”
Abruptly, the Ghosthound looked up, grinning at them. “Of course, you are also the most powerful people currently, so there are also benefits. But don’t let your power blind you to the dangers of possessing it.”
“You…” Rose said. Then she laughed, shaking her head. “That was an impassioned speech. I’m honestly surprised at you, Randidly. I didn’t know you were the sentimental type.”
Of all reactions, the Ghosthound blushed. The rest of the group laughed somewhat, although it was a muted reaction, as it appeared that some of them hadn’t forgotten of Thea’s continued pain.
Simon couldn’t cry in his Astral form, but if he could have, rivers would have worn wide grooves on his cheeks. His Astral form had kept his senses sharp, so even from this distance, the sobs from Thea were just audible, deep sounds full of anguish. Even hearing them, Simon could feel the edges of himself fraying away somewhat, and that hand around his heart was squeezing so hard that there was nothing but the pounding and the pressure in his chest.
You are…. You are so… Simon wanted to say something, hurl an insult at the Ghosthound in this undetectable Astral form, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Privileged, that’s the word, he finished lamely, scrounging for something more satisfactory, but the more he thought about it, the more furious Simon became. Because the Ghosthound hadn’t started with this, he had worked for it. He had changed himself, over and over again, until he was unrecognizable to those who had known him previously.
The man, no, the force of nature, Simon looked at now, fresh from a victory in the Raid Dungeon, was far from the wounded man that Simon had nursed back to health. And that even proved the Ghosthound’s point, didn’t it? That these powerful individuals were changed so much that their perspectives were far warped from that of the average people.
They could no longer be bothered by the squabbles of those without power. They couldn’t be bothered to stay with Thea and mourn with her, sharing in her pain, even though it was obvious that Chrysanthemum had been a part of their team. They couldn’t-
Simon became too choked up to continue that train of thought, and just clenched his Astral body as hard as he could, causing himself great mental pain, but feeling strangely invigorated by it.
If I… If I could be like you. Simon whispered. If I could push myself that hard, just a bit further… and grasp power in my own hands, I-
Simon paused. Because suddenly, he was struck by a thought. A method to power that others had talked about while he had been monitoring them with his Astral form.
Immediately, he pushed the thought away or tried to. But that part of Simon that revelled in the pain just giggled somewhat, and reached out and latched onto that thought. Part of the path to power… was the willingness to grab it.
The Ghosthound taught him that.
So, without thinking about the consequences, Simon created an Astral Projection next to Thea. She didn’t even look up, so he had time to work, sculpting his body in exacting detail. This new, raw Simon took a sick pleasure in making sure every one of his flaws was displayed in plain view. His thin arms, his pudgy belly, his crooked nose, and his greasy hair.
And when he was done, he walked forward and patted Thea on the back. “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for a lot of things. But I have to do this, don’t I? So I don’t… so we don’t….”
She didn’t even answer, she simply continued to cry.
Somewhat expecting this reaction, Simon didn’t become emotional. Something larger than emotions had taken over him. So he simply sighed, and said. “I promise I will protect you, Thea.”
And then Simon reached down and grasped the discarded Regalias.