Randidly burned the body without any remorse and continued the operation. There were no more strange incidents, and they were able to cover about 70% of the shallow areas of the lake. There was likely more hidden in its depths, but this was a preventative measure only. This wasn’t meant to rid them of the problem, just buy them some time.
Hopefully, the military would get off its ass and mop up the rest, but if it didn’t they could just come back and be more heavy-handed.
Truly though, they had killed so many monsters that even Randidly was shocked. Thinking of an entire ocean full of the things… Randidly shivered.
When he made it back to the farming compound, Nathan was waiting for him.
“Just like you, I couldn’t find the source,” Nathan said with a shrug. “It’s definitely coming from something internal. But he doesn’t have a Class, and it's not his Soulskill. It’s like… he soaked in the Creature’s Aether for a while and now some of it has soaked into him. But I can’t figure out how that would be possible, or why it would be done.”
Randidly grunted. He had suspected as much when he had performed his own examination. There was the unmistakable taste of Aether on his body, but it seemed to serve no purpose. It was unbelievably frustrating. Still, there was little more that he could do. He was something of an Aether expert with his Skills, but they could extract no more information from the boy.
After Nathan left Randidly to sit on the log bench and think, he only had about 10 minutes alone before a new person approached him.
“You’ve never really made sense to me until I saw you around your… friends.” Tatiana said simply, sitting down next to Randidly.
Randidly gave her a sidelong glance. “What do you mean?”
“It seems like you are competent at almost everything you do. Fighting, steel making… even those brief times I’ve seen you cook, it always comes out smelling wonderful. For the longest time, I was just stuck on wondering why Baloo Erickson was working so hard in a small steel town…” Tatiana tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “...but now it makes sense. This isn’t your real life. That is. Speaking and being listened to. Thriving under the System.”
This time when he glanced at her, Randidly’s eyes were much more serious.
She smiled sadly and shook her head. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not questioning everything. It just clicked into place. I could see you for what you really are. I’m not sure what you are trying to do working in a steel town, but I don’t doubt you will accomplish it. And if possible… I want to help?”
Now Randidly was truly surprised. “What?”
“I want to help,” Tatiana repeated, turning and looking at Randidly. Her eyes were earnest as she continued to speak. “You are in charge of a business. Or at least a small squad. I have experience with management, and a lot of girls who are making due based on what we can grow and what I can buy with my saving. It seems… it seems that the details of my own predicament were nowhere near as simple as I thought. I’m stuck here for a while. Since we both have things we want, why not work together?”
Randidly breathed out through his nose. Then he looked at Tatiana. He really meant to consider what she was offering. After all, he was aware of her Skills and the competence of the women who worked under here on the farming compound. Idly, he would balance the benefits they could bring to him against the cost of protecting them. This compound was an eyesore as far as drone coverage was concerned, and there was already that spat with the Unity Church.
Not that he wouldn’t fight the Unity Church anyway, but this was a point of weakness that could be exploited. That was dangerous.
But instead of thinking it all through, Randidly simply looked at Tatiana.
With his powerful Perception, he could see every pore in her skin, every fine little hair on her cheeks. It was clear that although she looked presentable in a casual way, Tatiana hadn’t had time to really sit and relax in the last several days. She was determined and hardworking. Her eyes were bright and clear, looking straight at him.
He also knew that it took a lot of guts to put oneself out there, asking for help. Because although Tatiana framed it as them engaging in an exchange, help was exactly what it was. There were long-term benefits that he might reap from having Tatiana and her group be more closely bound with him, but in the short term, it would just be liabilities.
Randidly pulled in a breath and let it out. “You don’t know what you are asking. Associating yourself with me… is dangerous.”
“Maybe. But this is the world with the System. Everything is dangerous.” Tatiana said simply.
Shaking his head, Randidly tried to figure out how to explain easily. It wasn’t an easy thing. But he tried to at least be honest. “That’s true, but… we are talking about another kind of danger altogether. If you cannot grow strong quickly, you will die around me. Think about it, if not for yourself, for everyone who follows you. Can they keep up? If they do not, they will be ground to dust by weight of what I mean to do.”
Although he had initially meant to just explain how dangerous it was around him, halfway through speaking Randidly felt a tremor in his chest. Suddenly, his mouth began to move and speak grandly of what he was and will become. Midway through, he wanted to stop. But at the same time, Randidly sensed it was true.
It was his new Skill at work again.
And due to that same impulse, Randidly extended his hand towards Tatiana, even as he wanted to say she should run away. But fate insisted there be an offer.
Tatiana didn’t even hesitate. She took his hand. A thread of karma formed between them while their hands were clasped. “Don’t be an ass. No one works harder than my girls. So can you tell me, what exactly are you trying to do? Why are you spending so much time working on steel and now making drones?”
Chuckling, Randidly lowered his arms. “I’m looking for whatever is rotten here in Zone 1. It… isn’t going as well as I hoped. The steel working and drones were originally to gather information, but now I think I’m doing it to create weapons to keep people safe. At some point, I won’t have time for this, so I want to try and equip people now.”
“What, are you going to go on vacation?” Tatiana asked, squinting at Randidly.
Randidly grinned and looked up at the sky. “Something like that. Alright fine, if you want to be a part of my… organization, we are going to need to do a few things. You have a Class, yea? How good is it?”
Tatiana just looked at Randidly, then shrugged her shoulders. “What do you mean, how good is it? It’s a Class. It’s not the best, but-”
“We will get you a better one,” Randidly said, enjoying slightly how Tatiana’s eyes narrowed. “What about Skill Levels? Not just for you, but for the other women working here. We will talk to Dinesh, and he will set up training programs. Your Skill Levels need to go up. What’s your highest Skill Level?”
“74,” Tatiana said through gritted teeth.
“Oh, that’s not as bad as I hoped,” Randidly said with a nod. “But I doubt that all of the rest of the people are as well developed. Within a few months, I’m sure we can get you up to standards. In the meantime, I’ll plant some more vegetables and fruits and build up some tree cover. That will hide the true size of your base while we expand. Next-”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Tatiana said, raising her hands. “This is all… this is all great. And I have no idea how you think you are going to accomplish this. But… let’s be realistic. Getting my Skill Levels? At this Level, it’s hard. Tree cover? Guiding the growth like that will take a long time, even with the System’s help. And getting a new Class? Are you insane-”
“No,” Randidly said simply, but he let a fraction of his Indomitable Will of Yggdrasil show out. There was a small flicker from his illusion, but Bruya’s work held admirably well underneath the strain. “Well, maybe I am. But I still keep finding myself able to move forward. So I’m not just gonna stop because no one else is doing what I am doing.”
Randidly once more raised his hand and offered it, palm up, to Tatiana. This was a second offer, the real one. “The System is bigger and more dangerous than you think. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish; I want to insulate the average person from the parts of the System you can’t see coming. So, Tatiana, are you in?”
Her face split into a smile so bright and rich that Randidly trembled to see it. There was so much vulnerability and blooming trust in it that it almost broke his heart. The threads of karma tied themselves slowly tighter. “You sure have a roundabout way of asking a girl out on a date, Viking. I already said yes, didn’t I?”
Randidly rolled his eyes. But he didn’t say anything to correct her.