The kid with the orange hair from the run-in with the Dungeon Divers was leaning up against Hank’s door, snoring obnoxiously loud. Ezekiel chuckled quietly to himself as Hank clenched his fists so tightly that his knuckles popped.
This was not what he wanted to come home to.
So he decided to ignore it entirely. With the pale, wan light of the morning sun behind him, Hank stomped passed the kid, silencing him with a look. He took out a long metal key, that he had made himself, and unlocked the door. Leaving the door open, he walked straight through the messy hallway, past the living room and kitchen, to his room.
When he was in his room, Hank popped the top off of an old whiskey bottle that he had been nursing for about 6 months. Although people were gradually getting the hang of it back, the homebrewed whiskey they had access to now wasn’t near the quality of the stuff they could make before the System hit.
For whatever reason, alcohol hadn’t really been considered as a luxury good worth stockpiling in that frantic few months between the contact from the System’s representative, and the actual arrival of the System. In a lot of ways, their Zone 1 was blessed. But for this way only, Hank resented his Zone viciously.
After taking a careful swig and savoring the taste, Hank got into his bed and leaned back into his pile of pillows. His eyes flickered, then closed. He didn’t need to sleep, per se, but right now there was very little else that would clear away the annoyance Hank felt towards the world.
‘Am I really going to do this?’ Hank asked himself.
‘If you won’t, who will?’ Hank’s father’s voice replied.
In his dream, Hank was standing on a mountain, looking down over a long valley. But the valley was shadowed in a thick fog, completely covered by moving air currents. Blinking away some of his bleariness, Hank peered closer.
Although he couldn’t get more than shapes, in the fog, something was moving. It crept, insidious, but it was clearly spreading from the depths of the valley, winding its way up the ridges and around streams. Hank did some quick calculations in his head; if things continued as they were, the strange tendrils spreading from the monstrosity down there would reach him in a few hours. He raised a hand to cover his eyes and looked up.
In the sky, there were seven spheres, each a different color making up the rainbow, red orange yellow green blue indigo violet. The light filtered down and sizzled strangely against his skin.
Abruptly, Hank’s father was next to him. “Do you know why I hate the aristocracy?”
Hank just looked at him.
“Because they are the veneer of civility on the collar of the great Beast,” Hank’s father announced, the flesh of his face falling away, revealing the bones underneath. “And when Beelzebub hunts for the rest of us, they are nowhere to be found.”
Hank blinked, coming awake immediately. Someone was in his room.
Hadn’t he locked the door…?
No, he hadn’t, although he had meant to when he had stomped away from his hangers-on, leaving them on the entranceway. Sitting up, Hank found himself face to face with a very familiar face, framed with a cascade of deep, auburn hair.
He cleared his throat. “Hello, Laurel.”
His ex-something-or-other regarded him with a critical eye. “You were dreaming again, weren’t you? What did you see?”
“Ain’t polite to just wake a man up and ask him about his dreams,” Hank grunted, standing and moving past her to the bedside table. He almost sighed when he saw the aspirin and the glass of water waiting for him there. He had hoped, but in his heart, he knew that he hadn’t left anything of the sort there; she had brought it.
Even now, she wanted something from him. Just what was it…?
Saying nothing about the newly arrived medicine, Hank took the pills and threw them back, then gulped down the water. Some spilled out the edges of his mouth and ran into his quickly growing facial hair, but he ignored that. The feeling of cold water was too sweet to pass up.
Another benefit of the System, Hank reflected, lowering the glass. Water quality had improved by leaps and bounds, as it had to pass somehow through the barrier around the Zones to reach them. What came through was free of lead and other contaminants, although Ghost had released a study that seemed to indicate it was also full of strange, unearthly nutrients.
But by that point, they had been drinking the stuff for months, so what was the point?
Hank turned around. Laurel had just waited for him, looking at him with her sad eyes. Shrugging, Hank said, “It was just about my father. It probably didn’t have anything to do with you. Why’d you come, anyway? I thought after we… uh… had that talk we agreed to spend some time apart.”
Hank did his best not to say that he had assumed she had broken up with him. Her presence here seemed to indicate that she hadn’t shared that interpretation of events.
Laurel shrugged. “Look, Hank, it’s not a big deal. I’m not gonna say I don’t want kids, but if its a choice between you and the kids, I pick you. This isn’t some bullshit trap either; if you say no, I won’t try and convince you somewhere down the line. If you change your mind, I’ll be right here, just as I have been.”
She stood and walked up to him, her eyes searching his. “I came because you are leaving for this mission, and the spirits are whispering about something big. This opening of the Zone… it feels like it’s a trap, somehow. Like something dark is waiting out there. If you are going, I’m going to.”
Hank opened his mouth to deny her. He agreed with everything she had said about the danger. It raised his hackles that they were so bolding going off into this new, unknown territory. Hank felt like that having the Zone be rather static, aside for some high-level dungeons that spawned 6 months ago, had lowered some of their guards.
He was also quite glad that she had come to visit him now and agreed to resolve things so simply. But for all the reasons she didn’t want him going alone, he didn’t want her coming along at all. But Hank knew that fighting her on this would work, but it would likely put him back into her bad graces. No need to throw more shit on himself than he already had.
Instead of saying no, Hank elected to say “I can’t make a decision like this on my own. Why don’t we ask the rest of the squad?”
This ended up being a mistake.
“Of course, why not?” Ezekiel said, his face serious as he pushed his glasses up his nose. “The more the merrier. If it’s going to be dangerous out there, I would love another trusted comrade at my back.”
His voice was dripping with sarcasm, of course. But Laurel ignored it, if she noticed it at all. The miserly, assholish man completely ignored Hank’s glares. As it turned out, after Hank had laid down, he had slept for almost 24 hours. Being forced to wait like that for no real reason likely didn’t sit well with Ezekiel, and the contrary man was taking it out on him now, just by inviting Laurel along.
That amount of sleep shook Hank for another reason; he would not normally sleep that long, and the only explanation was that Laurel’s Spirit Walker Skills had, in fact, influenced him, causing that dream. A part of him wanted to go back over the details and try and figure what the spirits had been meaning to tell him, but another just wanted to let the matter drop. After all, Laurel would be insufferable if he admitted she was right.
Hank made a mental note to grab Laurel’s ass as much as possible in front of Ezekiel in a perverted form of retribution against them both, should things not go his way..
“She seems capable, I agree,” Affina said simply, sipping on a tea that she had either brought with her or dug up in the cesspool that was Hank’s kitchen. She was something of a mystery, and the more Hank thought about it, the more foolish he felt for putting this up to a vote.
“Aye for me as well. I’ve heard a lot about your ability. Invaluable for Dungeon Divers, warns of danger beforehand yea? I’d love to see it in action.” Katie said, offering a had to Laurel. The two women shook, exchanging smiles. Hank had even slept long enough for Katie to return from her hometown, what with less than 24 hours remaining until they had to be on red alert, ready to depart.
They, of course, wouldn’t actually depart until another Zone connected, but Hank would humor them and keep himself in a semblance of readiness. It was an excuse to do more patrols, anyway. Get him some more alone time in the woods.
Seeing the two women next to each other made Hank realize how uncanny their likeness was. Although Laurel was a bit wider in the hips, and Katie had a narrower face with higher cheekbones, they were almost identical in the colors: skin, hair, and eyes.
Although Hank felt somewhat weird about it, both of them moved smoothly into simple compliments for the other’s hair and dress.
But, the nail in Hank’s emotional coffin came from an exterior source.
“Hmph,” The orange haired kid said, folding his arms across his chest. “Look, you might be pretty, but this is a serious mission. You can’t just have a bunch of girls running around, ruining things. My vote is no.”
“You don’t get a vote,” Affina quipped, sipping her tea.
As the kid turned to glare at Affina, Ezekiel turned to Hank, amusement clear in his gaze. “Your little deputy voted no. Looks like you are still outvoted, chief.”
Helplessly, Hank threw his hands up in the air.