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A note from puddles4263

9/14

The group fell silent, everyone’s attention fixed on the two men sitting across the first from one another, Hank and Dinesh. Hank looked around with an easy smile on his face. Dinesh smiled back, surprised how easily the expression came. Apparently, it was not only Nathan that was playing the fool tonight. Truly, there was more to this Hank than meets the eye. If he had the chance, he would grow into a formidable man.

But even the best seeds need the proper soil to grow.

“Well… it is hard to say why our Zone was so lucky,” Dinesh said with a smile. “But several key individuals emerged… I also think, due to our lack of guns, we were forced to revert to more primitive methods of combat in order to survive. Although the initial risk is much higher, I am confident in saying it pays dividends down the line.”

“Huh,” Hank said, looking thoughtful. But he didn’t press the issue, which left Dinesh feeling very relieved. Trying to explain the Ghosthound was a certain sort of trouble, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was the Ghosthound expressed the desire to keep his own influence in the Zone a secret for as long as possible, so he could accomplish his own goals.

“You seem strong,” Affina said simply, and Karlito chuckled as he tended to the fire.

“Of course, we would be very interested in trading any supplies you might have on you, I assure you that we likely have items unavailable elsewhere,” Dinesh continued, thinking of the Ghosthound’s other side project. “Potions and elixirs that produce a variety of effects… including a one time boost to stats. They can only be used once, they are still a valuable commodity in our Zone…”

Dinesh didn’t mention that they were experimental in nature, but he figured that the Ghosthound had worked out most of the kinks in their creation. Affina and the woman Katie looked up sharply, but both Hank and Laurel seemed unconcerned. In fact, Hank was so unconcerned that Laurel had to elbow him in the side to break him from his revery.

“Hm? Oh, yeah, we can trade for sure. I’d like to check on my man though. See if he recovered from… overdrawing himself.”

After Dinesh gave his assent, the rest of the group dispersed. The Zone 32-ers stayed around the first, slowly gathering closer together. Even Tanya appeared from the house, coming over to join them at the fire. Her gaze was timid as she looked over towards the individuals from Zone 1, but she was no longer as skittish as she had been before. The Ghosthound’s crazy crusade, with the rest of them as entourage, assured that.

There were some things that either killed you or transformed you.

“They seem nice,” Bruya said, in her placid way, as her fingers spun a tiny illusionary figure of Hank. The figure in her hand drew his pistol, spun it, and then fanned the hammer in a brash way, spraying bullets everywhere.

“Soft too,” Tykes said, but he kept his voice quiet. This was a relief to Dinesh. He suspected that all three of the women in the other group had the power to hear quite a distance away, and he didn’t want to insult them. Plus, the look in Tykes eyes wasn’t as harsh as it had been 6 months ago. It truly seemed that the Ghosthound had taught the other man something about channeling helplessness and frustration.

“What are we doing next?” Nathan asked, turning to look at Dinesh.

Dinesh shrugged. “We wait for the Ghosthound. But what he likely does depends on the result of his time in the Danger Zone. There is much to learn there, but also much danger. With the exception of Tykes, we cannot follow the Ghosthound there. Even with the accompaniment of Neveah, to defeat the Boss is a tall order. If he defeats it, and the benefit is a good one, he will likely push us to conquer the others that belong to Zone 32. If not…”

Shrugging helplessly, Dinesh raised a hand to the sky. The rest nodded, even Tykes. The Ghosthound was relentless and intense, but he also was sometimes strangely whimsical and became fixated on strange notions. The flip side of that that his work ethic and broad range of skills that allowed him to generally succeed at these strange whims.

They had chosen their path when they followed him out of Donnyton. The past 6 months had been a brutal series of conflicts, moving to the largest groupings of monsters they could find and fighting them. Because of that, they had hit the ground running in the reconfigured Earth. Sure, only Dinesh and Tykes could fight against the monsters here alone, and even then it was just to a standstill, but they could hold their own.

Dinesh wouldn’t mind if they took a break here, for a while.

******

When Hank arrived before Ezekiel the man was sitting up, sipping on a glass of water that the cook's wife had left next to his bedside. To his surprise, there was none of the man's usual bluster in his face, just a deep bitterness.

"You slept well, I see," Hank drawled, crouching down next to the man. They were a fair distance away from the thorny house, and all of the people from Zone 32 had entered into it, giving Hank some confidence that they wouldn't be overheard. Although human capability was determined largely by stats now, instead of innate physical gifts, there were still some predictable measures that could be used to protect the secrecy of their conversation.

Ezekiel chuckled. "Well enough."

Then the other man fell silent, looking at Hank with very strange eyes. Hank said nothing, gazing back at him. Of course, there was a part of him that wanted to be angry, that wanted to rant and complain, and another larger part of him that wanted answers. But it was clear that this was a strange occurrence that had influenced the mood of Ezekiel, a man who in their brief period of interaction seemed completely unflappable.

As Hank expected, Ezekiel broke the staring contest first, leaning back and looking up at the sky.

"I've never seen a sky this blue," Ezekiel said softly. "My ex-wife would have loved it. She always was fascinated with the sky. As if the future was above us, slowly drifting down and settling over us all..."

"You have a family?" Hank would permit him a short digression, but ultimately, he would not let the matter of that wild attack go without an explanation of some kind.

Ezekiel grimaced. "I did. Well... just by a fucked up coincidence my Father-in-Law was in Zone 1 when the System arrived. That wily snake will be the last person in this world to breathe his last. I have no idea how my ex-wife could have survived the System, but my son..."

Ezekiel paused. He closed his eyes. "We barely even talked. He was 21, and I hadn't even bought him a drink. He was across the country, going to school at Rowlands."

"Smark kid," Hank said shortly, his expression easing somewhat.

"Yea, but... he was a little lost. Just couldn't find it in him to commit to things, or he would be something truly great. Maybe... maybe that's my fault." Ezekiel paused. Then he sat back up and looked at Hank. "I'm a selfish person, I've always known that. And that's why... that's why I am what I am.

"My Class," he continued, "Is... very special a Named Class. Which means it is a bit more powerful, but I also was injected with... instincts, associated with the Class. My Class is Beelzebub, the Taker. The personification of Gluttony. And earlier... I was hungry. I hadn't eaten in a long time."

Hank frowned. "We had lunch only an hour prior. How-"

"Not food," Shaking his head, Ezekiel seemed extremely pained. "Lives. When I kill... I take a single Skill from the people I Consume, their highest leveled Skill. Which is why the Skills I can use are so varied. And while I'm hungry... I lose one stat point a day, as I waste away. Some inner part of my withers if I don't constantly feed."

This was more than Hank had been expecting. He sat back on his heels. "Why are you telling me this?"

Sure, this was the information that Hank had looked for, although he hadn't predicted its shape at all. But there was a lot of information included in this explanation that wasn't exactly... pertinent. He was being told for a reason.

Chuckling, Ezekiel said, "So you understand why it's necessary that I kill, no matter how much I don't want to. This is just... the way things are."

"Are you a fucking idiot?"

Ezekiel blinked up at Hank.

Hank continued, "I don't mind if you are a shitty person, but at least own up to it. Why is it other people's fault your selfishness brought you here? Don't punish an innocent for where your choices brought you."

Eyes blazing, Ezekiel straightened and glared at Hank. "How was I supposed to know this would result?"

"You weren't what you were supposed to do is bear your own burden," Hank said, feeling extremely strange as he spoke. Not because he didn't believe what he was saying, but because while he was speaking, he could clearly hear his father's voice, speaking the exact same words. "A man's worth cannot be seen in the amount of weight he bears, but in the percentage of his own burdens he pushes onto other people. You, sir, are not selfish; you are a coward."

Ezekiel bared his teeth. His hands clenched into fists.

Hank just looked at the slight man.

"Ah, fuck you," Ezekiel said, laying back down with an abrupt thump.

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