Nikko met me by the cash registers, “Where’d you go dummy?” He asked, smiling. There was something off about him. It took my brain a second to realize what it was. He was transparent. I was looking at him, but I could also make out the glass case of cheap watches and rings directly behind him.
I was taken aback, “What the hell happened!?”
Nikko laughed and waved my concern away, “Ah, it's just an ability. A new one. Its called Ethereal, and it increases my movement speed and reduces the physical damage I take.”
“But at what cost?” I asked.
He shrugged, “Just a little bit of my life every second, but that shouldn’t be a problem with my robes. If I am around enemies, I could keep it activated almost constantly.”
I let out a breath of air I didn’t know I was holding, “Oh, so you can shut it off?”
I shook my head, “Good, but you should still be careful. You’re turning into a real Lich, with the robes and the see-through-ness and all.”
“You know I don’t know what the fuck a Lich is man,” Nikko said, annoyed.
I turned in the direction of my drying trench coat and motioned for Nikko to follow, “Well you should - because you are one.” Nikko cautiously deactivated his ability when I looked away and I grabbed my trenchcoat. It was still damp, but I was feeling empty and cold from my encounter in the parking lot, so I put it on anyway. My world lit up with a dozen different colors and a paragraph of text.
Congratulations! Hero’s Armor Set Completed!
✓ Hero’s Katana
✓ Hero’s Fedora
✓ Hero’s Trench Coat
Set Bonus - Prepared for life’s challenges
+10% Physical damage resistance.
+10% Initiative from Hero’s Katana.
+10% Resist Peer Pressure from Hero’s Fedora.
+10% Intelligence from Hero’s Trench Coat.
“Holy shit,” I said as I read the prompts. Nikko raised a questioning eyebrow, so I read them out loud for him. “Yea, so, we need to find you a set of armor too.”
Nikko nodded with his eyes wide open, “Sure. I’ll just wear Susan’s entire outfit.”
It took me a second to pick up on his sarcasm, but then I remembered the long name of his robe, and couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. “You laugh, but Susan was a obviously a boss.”
“No, she was the assistant.”
“Yea, yea, alright negative Nancy,” I said dismissively, “Did you find your tattoo ink?”
“Yea. I am good to go,” Nikko tapped the outside of a few different hidden pockets of his robe, then nodded.
We left the WalMart and began the twenty-minute journey back to the mall. We made pit stops in the stores of the smaller shopping plazas as we went, checking for treasure toilettes or sources of canned food. We did find some food, but arguably more important, at least to me; we also found a motorcycle shop where I looted a full face helmet. It had a clear visor that I could put up or down, a strap that buckled around my chin so it wouldn’t fly off in the wind or knock off my head if I fell, and a flame paint job. That last bit was the best part, but only because I would be riding a dragon when I wore it. Otherwise, painted on flames were never my style. I didn’t think they were anyones style in the first place, but I wasn’t really qualified to hold such an opinion. At least, that was what Nikko said as he rode next to me and Avalanche on his new electric motorcycle, complete with a flaming paint job.
We approached our mall and saw Ben, guarded by a handful of survivors. His hands were in the air, manipulating something only he could see. I was familiar with his process and knew that he was using his builder ability. With a snap of his fingers, the construction only he could see just moments ago, appeared. It was a tremendous support beam that resembled a leg of the Eiffel tower, only made out of much stronger metal.
“He’s finally building your roost,” Nikko said over the soft hum of his motorcycle.
“About time,” I said from Avalanches shoulders. The roost I had commissioned from Ben shortly after acquiring the Drade consisted of a large bowl on the roof of the mall. It seemed simple in theory. All he had to do was add a new roof onto the guard platforms since they wouldn’t be necessary with my Drade patrolling the air, and then build a giant metal nest on top. It would create an entirely new floor for Nikko and me. The only problem was that the bowl was extremely heavy, as was the massive creature that would sleep in it. Because of this, Ben had to rebuild the mall from the ground up and then some. The fact that he was now working on the ‘and then some’ portion meant that he had finished re-building and securing the first floor of the fortress.
“About time?” Nikko asked, dumbfounded, “He can build Rome in a day.”
We caught up to Ben and his squad of severely under-leveled and under-geared guards by the spot I usually parked Avalanche. “Hey Ben,” I said as I walked over to join them, “Is it too much trouble for you to remove that ramp I requested? I think you were right; it was a terrible idea.” The crowd was taken aback by my pleasant words.
Ben stuttered, “I.. I.. Uh, No, it’s no trouble.” Then he walked over to the ramp, manipulated the air with his hands, and snapped his fingers. The ramp was gone as if it had never been there in the first place. Shit, he can undo all this with a simple flick of his wrist.
“Wow,” I said, summoning all the enthusiasm I could muster, “What a great skill that is, truly. We are going to go far together.” I took his hand in my own and shook it. I could feel Nikko’s disapproval burning a hole in my back. It was almost as tangible as his deathly aurora. The other survivors noticed my strange change in behavior as well and wore appropriately confused expressions.
Ben began to chuckle and smile and cough, “Well thanks man!" another cough, "I think so too.”
“Oh,” I said, gesturing to my forehead, “I almost forgot. I got you something.” I pulled out the Steel Helm of Reduced Concussions from my bag and handed it to him.
“Woaa,” he gasped, “Thanks!” He pulled me in for a hug. I let it happen. Although I didn’t admit it, the human contact was rather nice.
Laughing nervously, I said, “Hey, don’t mention it.” Then I turned to his small group of guards, “I will keep an eye out for gear for all of you as well. In fact, you are all welcome to come on our next supply run. It might be worth it for the experience alone.” The group’s confused expression turned to a wary one. I spread my hands and pointed both palms at them, “Just putting the option on the table. Come or don’t come - I just want to help.”
“What was that all about?” Nikko asked as we passed the new, secured entrance of the fortress. The previous glass paneled doors were completely replaced with thick black metal doors that were be triple barred from the inside. Ben even went as far as to construct pillars and barriers on the outside landing before the door, so that you had to walk in a tight zig zag pattern before you even approached them. I imagined this was to prevent any potential enemies from driving a heavy electric vehicle right through our defenses.
“What?” I asked, “Me being nice?”
“Nice?” he scoffed, “It looked like you wanted to suck him off.”
We passed by a newly converted thrift store as we walked. All of its signage and windows were replaced with metal, as were all of its walls. A thin but volatile cloud of burnt nylon hung to the ceiling while the poor choice of torch material dripped to the floor in regular splatters. I walked into the cloud and immediately double over. After my fit of coughing, made worse by Nikko’s Rot aurora, I looked around to see if anyone could overhear us. No one was around, but I was paranoid, so I didn’t reply to Nikko until we got to our temporary room. We had to walk the entire length of the mall to get there, since the food court escalator and the hole it feed into was completely sealed. But Nikko realized that I did have a serious response to his prodding, so he refrained from teasing me any further.
“So,” I said as Nikko closed our door behind us. “Ben can undo all of his construction in a second. You saw him remove the ramp right? That was two stories of heavy metal and its supporting structure, gone with the snap of his fingers. That is why I was being nice to him.”
“Yea, yea,” he replied with a dismissive wave before falling into his beanbag, “I figured as much when you didn’t answer me. What I don’t understand is why we don’t just kill him once the roost is complete.”
I sat down carefully in my massage chair and sighed, “I thought about that. And besides it feeling wrong to me, I don’t think it is a good idea. The rest of the survivors will revolt if we attack him.”
“We are going to attack him to summon Ragnaros anyway.”
“Right, but only after you inscribe shields over everyone's door. Once you do that, and we declare war on them, they will be trapped within the shields and unable to rebel.”
Nikko nodded, “So we will kill him once the shields are installed and the roost is complete. Are we sure the shields will even hold them?”
I considered this for a moment, “No, but I think it will hold them long enough.” I leaned forward and put my elbows on my knees, “So it will go like this. The fortress is 100% complete, traps and all. We will attack someone to declare war when everybody is sleeping in their stores, or I guess they are just homes now...” I shook my head, “It doesn’t matter. We will declare war when they are sleeping. No one will be able to attack us for a while since they will be asleep and won’t see the notification or they will be trapped behind the shields for a bit. Raggy will come, the front door will be open. He will be forced to walk through every floor of the mall to get to us, and hopefully, the traps I will station everywhere will kill him before he gets too far. If they don’t, then we will kill him.”
“Or flee on your Dragon,” he added flatly.
“No,” I said looking up from my feet, “That isn’t an option. At least not for me it isn’t.” Nikko gave a solemn nod. “And no, I don’t think we should kill anyone. Just a simple punch should be enough to declare war. Maybe we can just imprison Ben somewhere though. That way Raggy can’t torture him into deleting the fortress.”
“Sure,” Nikko replied, “I can handle that part.”
I sighed, “Thanks. I just really don’t feel comfortable killing anyone. Even though I know Raggy will probably kill them all on his way through. I don’t know… Maybe he won't,” I let out another sigh, fell back into my chair, and closed my eyes. I contemplated my values, everyone I killed to get where I was, and if I was a hypocrite or not. Sleep took me before I could settle on a definite answer, or at least, before I could admit one to myself.