Chapter 46: Alice
Lyle was in a bad mood.
It was hard not to be with the events at the prison a couple days before. He had been so close to cleansing his father--with just another minute or two, he could have freed Stephen from the clutches of whatever evil caused the Corruption. Instead, he had provoked the man into losing control and likely prolonged the prison sentence. What could have been a miracle had turned into a disaster.
Lyle just hoped that his father was able to wrest back control of himself from the black mist. If he had done it once, perhaps he could do it again.
And now the next Gate clear was on his mind. That would be happening with Fabe’s group later this afternoon. Lyle had been ever-so-slowly gaining power from the recent excursions, but now it seemed like a waste of time and effort to keep hiding his abilities and identity just so he could receive the measly experience reward.
Over the last four weeks of clearing Gates in Chicago, filling the mid-level guild space that Regal had vacated, he’d gained a whole six levels. He was so frustrated with the pace that he was almost ready to jump back into the labyrinth.
Almost. The last labyrinth and its near-fatal reward were still too fresh in his memory.
Lyle had put what few points he’d received into the lowest of his stats to make sure they stayed up to par. Little bit of Strength, of course. Little bit of Stamina. The rest went into Protection and Perception.
At least the Perception made a noticeable difference. He was starting to more and more easily detect the usage of magic and abilities--anything that cost mana, really--even if it happened out of line of sight. That made keeping track of all the people in the group easier, not to mention how it improved his first five senses.
A couple of weeks ago, he’d bought a chestpiece from the local Tower Auction at the behest of Fabe. That had improved his Protection stat, too, even though it wasn’t particularly special. It was so unimpressive that he was conflicted about even spending money on it, considering that any items he got from the labyrinth would be a million times better.
But that would require entering the labyrinth again and risking his life. His thoughts went around and around in a circle until he finally decided to just buy the damn chestpiece.
<Light Leather Armor>
<Plain, brown leather chestpiece that covers the entire torso and shoulders.>
<Increases Protection by 3.>
It was incredibly dull and generic looking, and only granted three Protection. On the bright side, in the past couple of Gates it had prevented him from having to buy a new shirt again at least once, so it was at least reasonably effective as armor.
“--breaking the line of skirmish, which will have to be moved back,” the TV informed him in the corner, where it sat on a light brown cabinet.
Lyle was trying to pass the time and take his mind off of things before he had to get to the Tower that afternoon. Unfortunately, instead of anything remotely feel good, the caster was talking about how the defensive line around New York was being breached in places, which meant it would be have to move back. Then the military would have to cover even more ground, use more expensive and powerful weapons, and likely still not be enough to hold back the tide of Gate creatures. Too many of the monsters just developed resistances to tiny things like bullets.
Lyle should have known better than to watch the news to make himself feel better.
Now the man was talking about the nuke that had been dropped on the city following the dungeon break a few years ago, while Lyle lounged in his hotel bed and seethed. The bomb had completely wiped out all of the buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and even some of Newark. When the dust cleared, the Tower still stood, completely unharmed. The monsters that had been outside of it at the time were destroyed, but what did that matter? They just spilled out again almost immediately, retaking all the ground they’d lost and caring little to nothing about the radiation.
“In other news,” the anchorman said, “we turn to a local story. Unfortunately, folks, it isn’t a happy one. We all know of Redemption, one of the most powerful guilds in Chicago and perhaps the entirety of North America. It’s with a heavy heart that I inform you that the guild has been wiped out.”
Lyle sat up, shocked out of his ennui. Wiped out? What the hell?
“These are photos taken yesterday,” the man continued as photos appeared on the screen of a large building in ruins. “Around eleven thirty five, Wednesday, May twenty fourth, the Redemption headquarters collapsed. Bystanders claim to have witnessed Randolph Stokes, the guild master of Redemption, both killing members and bringing down the structure. Some are claiming that he has been Corrupted, but as of yet we have no confirmation of this fact, nor do we have any footage of the event itself.”
Another image appeared on the screen of a graph that rose over time as the man was speaking. “However, it does seem that the number of Corrupted is increasing over time, so it’s not outside of the realm of possibility.” The graph disappeared and a man in a tailored suit, smiling smugly, appeared. He wasn’t particularly handsome, but he was very large and muscular. “If you see this man, exercise extreme caution and retreat. Do not engage him in conversation or combat. Call the police or DOER immediately, so that they may take care of this situation. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims, and if you have any more information, please deliver it to your local police station or DOER office. That’s all for--”
Lyle shut off the TV, disgusted. If I’d been there, maybe I could have…
He shook his head. No, if Lyle had been there, he would have died with everyone else. In order to cleanse someone, he needed to injure them, and the likelihood of Lyle injuring Randolph Stokes was akin to the likelihood of a child pushing over a mountain. The man was an S rank tank with incredible strength and durability. His items were of the highest quality, and there was simply no way that Lyle would have been able to stop him.
Nonetheless, the regret of knowing he might possibly have done something to help--especially after failing to help his father--hung heavy on his shoulders as he made his way to the Gate that afternoon. Today they were meeting outside--Fabe hadn’t actually told them for which floor he had obtained a license.
Lyle walked towards the Tower after getting out of his taxi and slipping on his mask, where he spotted Fabe standing in front of the entrance along with another person Lyle didn’t recognize.
She was quite short, maybe only two or three inches over five feet. She wore baggy clothing, including a large sweatshirt with the hood up, that made it difficult to tell much else about her. Most of her face was shrouded in shadow, and she stood facing away from the Tower as Fabe seemed to talk at her without receiving much in the way of acknowledgement. No one else in the group was present, though when Lyle looked around, he spotted Rita, Hal, the other rogue Fatimah, June, and Samuel talking to each other at one of the picnic tables outside the Tower Cafe.
He raised a hand as he got within shouting range of Fabe, getting his attention.
“Oh, hey!” Fabe called. “Bunch of other people are getting ready on the floor. You want to go up now?”
“Uh, sure,” Lyle said. “Are you going to introduce me, or…?”
“Right!” Fabe said. The woman had turned to look at Lyle as he appeared and was now studying his mask. He could see some of her face now. Her skin was very pale, and her face shape was vaguely Asian; perhaps she was mixed. Her hair was short and black, barely dropping below her high cheekbones.
“Blade, this is Alice,” Fabe told him, gesturing enthusiastically with his hands. “Alice, this is Blade.” Then he just stood there happily.
“Nice to meet you,” Lyle said, holding out a hand. Alice merely stared at it for a moment before slowly reaching out to take it, her own hand still mostly enfolded by her too-large clothing.
“Likewise,” she said eventually. Her voice was high and pure, but she hesitated to speak more than a single word, and she quickly looked away from Lyle’s mask.
Several things struck Lyle thanks to his high Perception as they shook hands. Her hand was small, but incredibly strong, she wore colored contacts, and the latent power within her small body was beyond anything he had ever seen. It rolled over him, enveloping and choking him until he could barely breathe.
“We’re on floor thirty one today,” Fabe said to Lyle, snapping him out of his vision.
Lyle breathed deeply, then tilted his head. “Thirty one? That high?”
“Nina dropped group and flew back to Idaho,” Fabe explained. “You knew her a bit, right?”
Nina was the swordswoman that rounded out the trio with June and Idil. Lyle had spoken with her briefly a couple times over the last few weeks, and she seemed like a nice enough person, though possibly a bit bored with the one-Gate-per-week schedule.
“Yeah, she left?” Lyle said. “What does that have to do with being on thirty one? Wouldn’t that mean we’d have to go lower again to make sure our teamwork stays… uh… coherent?”
“Yeah,” Fabe said excitedly. Lyle noticed that Alice was looking at the ground now. “But Alice here is S rank, so we’ve got a safety net today.”
Lyle raised an eyebrow but otherwise said nothing. Fabe kept looking at him with his hands raised a bit, as if waiting for him to say something.
“Uh… Blade?” he asked after a few seconds. “You there?”
“Oh, sorry,” Lyle said. “I forget about the mask sometimes. Why is an S rank grouping with us?”
“That’s a question for Alice, not me,” Fabe said, turning to the woman who was still looking down. “I was just taking a few minutes to explain to her how we usually strategize so we don’t have to go through all of it with the entire group.”
“You might not even need our help with this,” Lyle said to her, laughing a bit to put her at ease as he spoke to her. “We might just be in the way.”
“No,” she said softly, without looking up. “I’m sure that… won’t be the case.”
Lyle and Fabe exchanged a look and Fabe shrugged.
“Alright, cool,” Lyle said. “Sounds like a good opportunity to practice harder floors, I guess.” He looked back to Fabe. “Should I meet you up there?”
Fabe nodded and pointed to the group at the table. “Yeah, or you can go hang with them if you want. We’ll be heading up soon--just got a couple more people to point in the right direction as they arrive. Kate’s not here yet, and neither is Ryan, but both of them texted me and shouldn’t be long.”
Lyle ended up walking over to the picnic table to talk to the group there.
“--can’t imagine why he would--oh, hey Blade,” Rita said as he approached.
“Hey, guys,” Lyle said. “How are ya?”
“Little depressed,” Samuel said.
“So, normal?” Hal said with a smirk. Samuel raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips.
“We were just talking about Redemption,” Rita explained. “Did you hear?”
“Yeah, I saw it on the news before I headed over. It’s fucking tragic. Do you guys think Randolph Stokes is Corrupted now?” Lyle took a seat between Hal and Fatimah.
A grumble went around the table. Lyle looked at them confused as they didn’t answer immediately.
“What?” Lyle eventually asked.
“Corruption is always the excuse whenever an Empowered does something bad,” Samuel said. “He was human like any of us.”
“I literally met him,” Fatimah said. She sounded annoyed, like she had already explained this. “He was a little arrogant, sure, but seemed nice enough. Certainly not like a psychopath.”
“Sometimes you can’t tell,” Samuel said.
“To be fair,” Hal cut in, “he led Redemption for a long time and they only ever had good things to say about him. You’d think he would want to maintain that group. And, if not, then at least one of them would have noticed something. At least, that’s what you’d think.”
Lyle shrugged. “I’ve met a Corrupted.”
The table fell silent and they all stared at him.
“Holy shit, really?” Fatimah said after a moment.
Lyle nodded. “Yeah. He’s… gone, now, so we don’t have to worry about that.” He didn’t feel the need to explain that he knew of another that was being held in the Dillers Penitentiary Center right outside the city limits.
“Well?” Samuel said, prompting him for more information. “What was he like?”
“Psychopathic. Evil. All the things you guys know already. He turned literally anything into a reason to kill or further his ambition, even if it was at the cost of his own children’s lives.”
“Shit,” Fatimah said again.
“Do you think Randy is a Corrupted?” Rita asked.
Lyle shrugged again. “I can’t be sure, at least not without having seen him. And, frankly, I don’t really want to see him.”
“Here, here,” Hal said with a smirk, miming raising a glass. “I’d rather not be in range, also. Man was a beast, even before his… this.”
“Yeah, and if he’s been Corrupted… I don’t like any of our chances,” Lyle said. “Except maybe her.” He pointed furtively to Alice with his thumb, who was still apparently listening to Fabe as he talked at her. When the group glanced over, they also caught sight of Ryan and Kate arriving together.
“Yeah, apparently she’s S rank,” Rita said.
“So I heard,” Lyle said. “Guess we’ll get to see an S rank in action this Gate. Should be interesting.”
“She’s a bit of a mystery,” Samuel said, focusing back on the people around him so Alice wouldn’t notice. Lyle knew it was probably too late--undoubtedly the Perception of an S rank was plenty high to hear all of what they said. “She didn’t want to give us her last name, and we couldn’t find much on her history with guilds or other Gates or anything.”
“I’m sure she’ll be great,” Lyle said, cognizant of the fact that she was probably listening. “And we can pick up the slack wherever needed.”
“Yup,” Hal said. “Well, there’s Ryan and Kate. Let’s head up.”