Ezekiel Ghosthound was a man who was haunted by the choices he didn’t make in his life. He made the decision to accept a modest financial aid package to a middle tier school and graduated with honors. Although he likely could have pushed for higher honors, or a place in his University’s executive board, or done a more ambitious thesis project, he didn’t
In his mind, that phrase hung heavy and dense.
At the time, he didn’t realize that his golden years were slipping past. Very soon, conversation and advancement wouldn’t come fun and easy to him. Out in the real world, he received a job at a mid-tier firm and did an alright job. Although there were opportunities for promotion, Ezekiel watched them go to other people, usually people from more prestigious schools, people who were willing to put in ridiculous hours.
Ezekiel couldn’t do that. He had married his college sweetheart and she was now pregnant. In the beginning, she was a bright and free spirit that invigorated him. Very quickly, with the stresses of life piling up, Ezekiel found himself frustrated with a wife who cared very little for the necessities of modern life. Even when mortgage payments and phone bills and insurance premiums siphoned away their money, she remained unflappable, happy and bright.
To her, it was enough that they were together. They would make a family together, and if they were only barely above the poverty line, Ezekiel’s wife didn’t mind it. She had made her peace with it.
For the first time in his life, Ezekiel found himself driven forward with a vicious need to succeed. His bitterness became sharp claws to tear down his competition, and slowly drag himself up the corporate ladder. Perhaps his underhanded and cold methods were noticed, but so were his increased sales numbers. He received his first promotion on the day his son was born.
Ezekiel’s wife knew how important this was for them, and didn’t mind that Ezekiel couldn’t make it. She knew that he was doing this only because he cared. She also believed that naming the child Randidly was a good idea.
They never explicitly fought about it, but Ezekiel couldn’t help but notice how wounded she was in the wake of surprising him with the name and watching his expression. Ezekiel wasn’t even sure what emotions were clear on his face. But they were true, and they were honest. They never spoke of it, after.
When their fight eventually exploded, and they were divorced, Ezekiel could have maintained a better relationship with his son, who he called Rand.
When he saw his son struggling with his own strangeness, which Ezekiel privately thought was due to the boy being on the autism spectrum, perhaps he could have intervened. But rather than that, Ezekiel believed that the world was a much better teacher than he could ever be. In the sharp wounds left by bullies, Rand would find armor or he wouldn’t; very little Ezekiel could have done would have likely changed that.
A part of him suggested that Ezekiel should feel bad for treating his son so callously.
As Ezekiel rose to prominence at his company, he was oddly dissatisfied with his current lot in life. The positions above him were occupied by competent people who rose ahead of him and wouldn’t leave anytime soon. Again, he seemed stuck. No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t force out anyone above him.
That is, he one day realized, he couldn’t force anyone out by playing by the rules.
He didn’t think twice about any of the hard decisions that he had to make after that.
It was serendipitous, in a way, that the System would come right after he was named CEO of his company. Because at that time, he had accomplished his goals in 7 short years, and now was left… empty. Finally, his dream was realized; the company was his. But this wasn’t what he wanted. What he wanted was to ride that high of the bitter hunger that let him slaughter his way to the top.
Those bitter claws that had seemed so fragile and ugly had become masterful tools to dismantle another person. His teeth had grown sharp. In terms of empathy, he ranked even lower than his autistic son.
Normal people would have enjoyed being at the top.
He didn’t. It stunk of sloth and pride, and those were not Ezekiel’s sins. No, he was gluttony, and he wanted more.
Was he surprised at his Class? Obviously not. And originally, he had been very happy with it. But eventually, as time passed, Ezekiel came to realize the astronomical price he had to pay in order to not have his stats regress. One life a week was required. Sure, every time he killed someone he took their greatest Skill. But he didn’t get any stats, and he didn’t receive the PP that those people had. He could only grind up his Skills the old-fashioned way. His stat gains were some of the highest Ghost had ever seen, but it wasn’t enough.
Ezekiel wanted more.
And he would fight to take it.
As Ezekiel followed Hank towards the source of the sound, he winced, feeling that strange otherness of the Class inside of him, still complaining of hunger. Truly, Ezekiel feared Hank in a straight up fight, and he didn’t think that Ghost would accept if Ezekiel arranged for an accident to befall the man; he was too useful a tool to let go.
No, for now, Ezekiel would need to find other ways to-
He froze, his jaw dropping. A young man stood there, kicking the ground and swearing to himself. He was tall and athletic, lean and powerful. His black hair was cropped short, only a few curls making it down to his forehead and around his ears. But most noticeable were his eyes, piercing and emerald, and seemingly luminous, even in the afternoon light.
They were his mother’s eyes. This was his son.
“Rand?” Ezekiel’s mouth moved without him even thinking about the action, or what might come next. All normal intelligence was smashed to the side by raw shock coursing through Ezekiel’s veins. He was alive. He was alive!
They both moved, appearing before each other like apparitions, stopping about 1 meter apart, both searching the other’s face and body for hints of how they survived. To have reached this point, both had gone through almost unimaginable situations. Ezekiel had even felt he had lucked out in a lot of ways; a friend hadn’t told him explicitly that the System would occur, but was hosting a party and inviting over a lot of contemporary business leader. Ezekiel was lucky enough to be chosen.
For the first several hours, the man’s personal guard protected them, and they were informed about the System, what little was known. Afterall, the forewarning had been exceedingly vague, but it was enough to prepare some things. Unfortunately, they underestimated the power of the monsters that appeared, and after the first few hours, Ezekiel had to fend for himself. It was a hard thing.
To Ezekiel’s surprise, his son seemed none the worse for wear, even though his fitness made it clear that he was a fighter now, and a strong one if he was a member of this party from Zone 32. If anything, the kid was thriving.
When Ezekiel realized that the silence was stretching, he forced himself to raise his hand, half meaning to wave, half meaning to shake his son’s hand. Neither gesture was sufficient to convey the raw relief coursing through his body, but what else could he do? “You… you look good.”
Instead of reaching out to take his hand, Rand did something that completely floored Ezekiel, literally. Rand opened his arms and tackled him, hugging him to the ground. There was no malice in the movement, so Ezekiel just let it happen. But as soon as they touched, Ezekiel wondered if he COULD have resisted. The boy’s grip….
….it was sorta hard to breathe….
There were only two, one for each eye, but there were tears on Randidly’s face. “I can’t believe… I never thought I’d see you again.”
Ezekiel’s shock softened into warmth. Although they weren’t particularly close, they were blood. He should have known that would be enough to keep their bond healthy. Reaching out a hand, Ezekiel planned to pat his son’s head, even though he was probably 22 or 23 by now, but he didn’t see his hand, but the monster’s hand.
He saw the hand of a man who framed or blackmailed coworkers to rise to the top. He saw the hand of a man who had taken one life a week for a year. His fingers were gnarled and blackened, his nails were sharp and bloody. His hand twitched and stop, midair. Deep in his chest, Ezekiel felt a deep stab of fear.
Ever since the divorce, Ezekiel had pushed his son towards excellence, hiding his feelings of pride for his son’s accomplishments, for fear of making the boy complacent, like he had been. Could he truly let that all fall away and just… connect with his son. They had been so distant, for so long…
You are a coward, Hank’s voice repeated, and something in Ezekiel snapped.
He didn’t want that stuck up cowboy to be right, not about this, not about his son.
Hesitantly, Ezekiel put his hand on Randidly’s head. “I’m sorry.”
Randidly looked up, blinking, then grinned. “Well, it’s not like I was a great son. Things were hard after you left. But compared to all we are fighting against now… that stuff feels a little small, doesn’t it?”
“Yea,” Ezekiel said, feeling strangely overwhelmed and touched by the sudden intimacy between them now. It would likely pass, but this moment was a warm moment, and Ezekiel wanted to stay here for as long as possible.
For the moment, even his hungry was quelled, as though simply being in Rand’s presence was enough to sate him. It was… a relief.