20. Standard of Excellence (II)
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Casey watched with contained marvel as Macy turned an overpriced room at a lowly tavern into a workshop.

For as long as Casey knew her, Macy lived her utmost as a girly girl. She shied away from grime and hard work. She looked down on people who had to do manual labor for a living. She wanted nothing more than to live life in constant ease with an endless supply of money to spend.

But the [Crafter] Class had changed so much of Macy. Or it brought out what had always been hiding inside the credit card-slinging shopaholic—letting shine an obsession similar to Casey's standard of excellence.

Macy had [Valuehound] at Level 1 to help her pick out the good from the bad in her random assortment of doohickies. Then she received [Restore] at Level 3 to improve those pickings, taking a Skill meant to maintain gear to refurbish what would've been stuff that was barely above being called rubbish. Fortune and misfortune smiled on Macy when she picked up [General Handicraft] from a Skill Book before Level 6, which thrust Macy into the unglorified handywoman role to fix a drawbridge or patch up a magitek elevator lift they'd needed to cross from one zone to another. Then Macy had gotten [Swift Craft] at Level 6 before the party found another [Crafter]-based Skill Book, [Gnomish Inspiration]. Altogether, Macy rocketed beyond the Rank 1 ceiling when creating things that were half-Skill magic, half-System assistance, and all imagination.

"We're short on time, Macy," Casey informed her.

The [Crafter] raised her head, half her face smeared in grease. She flipped her goggles up and gave the [Fighter] a big grin.


"Oh, sweet, I got it right on the first try," Macy said with a bubbly giggle. "This crack should be about large enough. I can feel it with my Discovery's help!"

They were now climbing the base of a ginormous link of chains, one of the four holding up Hilltop. Casey looked dubiously at the massive chainlink Macy chose to plant her homemade bomb. There was a crack the size of a giant tree trunk inside the link's side where Macy crawled into. The rest of the metal link was so massive that Casey couldn't see how the bomb would do anything but scuff it even if it was good-quality.

Once Macy slipped out of the crack, she dashed down the links. Casey joined her. They returned to Macy's pack left on the ground, picked that up, and put some distance between them and the bomb. They headed back toward town while looking at Hilltop, a stupid name since there wasn't a hill involved. Hailey had commented before they got split up the first time it was probably a King of the Hill reference.

"I'd never think of bombing the chain thingies if it wasn't for that one cutie I was following a year ago. The teenage star who got caught being a radical terrorist. That sucked so much that it stuck with me. How can one of my future boy toys be that reckless and build a bomb? That's all dirty and dangerous."

Macy shook her head as they slowed to a stop. "But look at me. I'm following after him. Am I a terrorist now?"

Technically, yes.

But Casey understood the virtues of crafting a political response that alleviated guilt. Macy had extreme levels of arrogance. But she was still a person of weakness, easy to hurt with the wrong words.

"No," Casey answered. "We're the heroes."

"Awesome!" Macy cheered. "That damn girl who keeps running against me for Cabinet Financer will lose it when I'm a girl of the people, too! As long as the people keep their distance because poorness has a strong smell."

Casey let out a small chuckle.

"Nine minutes, 33 seconds," said a nearby speaker bot. The smugness in its crackling voice grated, ruining Casey's lightened mood. "I know what your [Mage] and [Medium] are doing. An exemplary plan, I'll give them that. It'll certainly take out the key trick that's been putting you crawlers in your place."

Macy shifted behind Casey, glaring at the speaker bot from behind her [Fighter] sister. Casey stood tall and mighty, happy to oblige as a shield. Her new short sword and round shield were drawn, ready to carve her dominance into the enemy.

The speaker bot crawled closer on its spider legs. "Your other party members might've succeeded if you had a few more minutes. But you don't. They won't make it to you in time and transport you to the Rubbish Chief. And whatever your imbecile of a [Crafter] is planning won't work. You are at a loss, Crawlers. I will see your home dimension made into rubbish and regain my lost Rank 3 glory."

Macy sniffed. "I'm incredible."

"What?" the speaker asked, incredulous.

"I'm incredible, I say! Casey believes in me, and Casey's the most incredible person ever other than the Queen Goddess. So, I'm not listening to you anymore, pleb!"

"I'm the dungeon core, the main reason this entire space exists!" it roared. "I am the furthest from a plebian!"

"Doesn't matter. A pleb is a pleb. And you reek of being a pleb." Macy sneered. "You'll go down a pleb, be remembered a pleb, and then fade from memory. Like a pleb."

The dungeon core raged through the speaker bot. It hurled useless insults drowned by crackling, distorted feedback. Macy slandered it in return. She sank her nails into the dungeon core with every barb and didn't let go. A girl as insecure as Macy knew how to attack other insecure people, even a dungeon core with a personality.

Casey smiled approvingly.

The bomb exploded.

It filled the cavern with a magical whooping roar. The noise shook up Casey, tensing her up until things settled down. A minute passed, and other than the giant creaking and groaning sound coming from the blasted chain, nothing cracked. Nothing came loose. Hilltop remained up at the top of the cavern.

"You see, you should throw your [Crafter] away," the dungeon core said smarmily. "It's not a [Demolitionist] or any sort of specialist. It's a poor adventurer's generalist, and–"

A sharp, ear-splitting creak filled the air.

"You know how you wear this nice cardigan for months," Macy said. "It's not necessarily fast fashion, but it shouldn't be worn daily. But it's super awesome, and you love it, so you wear it. After a while, individual threads start coming loose. If you're not careful, a thread can get caught on a branch or the edge of something and unravel your wonderful cardigan."

A massive, air-shrieking noise filled the cavern when the chain Macy had bombed tore. Casey looked up as the immense chain holding the platform taut fell to its own weight. The freed links that had been closer to the broken part of the chain rattled up a chute in the cavern wall, smashing down boulders of rock that went rolling toward the girls. Casey hoisted Macy and her pack up on her shoulder and ran them out of the way. When they reached safety, the loosened chain settled partly on the town while some of it hung from the edge of the platform. Hilltop swayed uneasily, now supported by three chains.

"Look!" screeched the dungeon core from another speaker bot that came rolling up. "Hilltop still stands! I imagine you used your best loot to create that bomb, making you a poor pleb and a failure! There are 3 minutes, 56 seconds left before I have my victory."

Casey felt nervous. Could she move fast enough to climb the chain dangled into town? She would have to solo the boss while drained of energy if that came to pass. But there was no other choice, so she–

Macy grasped Casey's arm gently.

"Listen," Macy said.

Casey quirked her eyebrow.

"It's the sound of the threading pulling apart some more. It's such a horrible noise. Like ripping an old pair of jeans you've worn a lot because you had too many shortcakes after dinner when you know you shouldn't. But those shortcakes wouldn't be a problem if you had newer jeans or you maintained your jeans better. But you're okay with wearing out your clothes until they fall apart, so you get to deal with the consequences."

"What nonsense is she sprouting?" cried the dungeon core.

Macy smiled as another chain made a viciously terrible noise tearing at the cavern air. Casey felt shaken by the sight of Macy's gleefully deranged smile that would make a terrorist look soft. She gaped at the unbelievable sight of Hilltop falling from the sky after losing the chain it needed to stay up. It swung like a pendulum. The buildings up top fell aside and rolled off the platform. What remained collided with the cavern wall on the other side with such horrific force, the sound damaged Casey and Macy.

When Casey got her bearing, she was greeted by an unexpected message.

Congrats! Your party has slain the Rubbish Chief Dungeon Boss, Rank 2, Level 13, along with countless dungeon monsters! With this explosive win over the main boss plus the elimination of the Sleepgas Pirate Optional Boss (due to your party's unexpected split-push maneuver), you've conquered the Old Dwarven Rubbish Dungeon with such destructiveness, additional awards are being drafted as this is written to you.

Casey sat down in disbelief. It couldn't have been that easy, could it?

Macy sat with her and hummed a silly tune of delight.

"Hee! Hee!" Macy laughed. "I'm a badass!"

Minutes later, Emily and Hailey appeared on a busted hunk-of-junk of a flying ship. They slammed it into the ground nearby and rode Hailey's Broom of Aspiring Nightriders to disembark. Emily ran with her dark, spectral trenchcoat she'd gotten from a party treasure chest fluttering uncannily behind her. Hailey zoomed four feet above the ground on her broom.

"How?" Emily asked, breathless from her shock more than the run.

Casey blinked at the beaming Macy.

"No way," Hailey said.

Casey nodded.

"Huh, I won the bet," Emily said.

"What bet?" Macy asked.

"We were betting who'd do the biggest thing ever on our first crawl," Hailey explained. "It made sense that it would be Casey. She's the starring phenom of our sister pack. I couldn't find a logical reason not to choose her. That logic stayed ridiculously strong throughout the crawl each time Casey pulled off stunning wins over our foes in all the skirmishes we've fought."

"I chose you, Macy," Emily said. "You're a bizarre contradiction set up as a background character. Easy to dismiss and overlook. But look around us." Emily waved her arm. "This is a place of recyclable stuff. A treasure trove for a [Crafter]. This environment was gift-wrapped to you, and the way the dungeon core kept trashing you told me it was scared of you. You're the boogiewoman, Macy, and the core knew it."

"When you explain it like that, I feel dumb I didn't see it," Hailey said, pouting. "I'm sorry, Macy. I dismissed you as just an essential helper that'll get more important later in our journey when you craft the good stuff. But I was worried you wouldn't amount to your full potential with how general you were becoming."

"It's not bad to have a generalist when they leverage every advantage they could find," Emily said. "And don't feel bad, Hailey. I can do the people thing decently, even with dead people. You're still way smarter than me. Who could've tricked the Sleepgas Pirate into walking off its ship and falling to its death? Your curses and illusions are OP."

"I love you all," Casey said.

Hailey and Emily froze. Macy burst into tears again. The number of times she'd cried on this crawl could fill a bathtub. The subsequent hug she gave Casey was expected but welcomed as Casey melted into Macy's hold.

Then the other girls joined in, feeding Casey all the love she'd never gotten enough of growing up. She lived at the summit for so long that she never realized how lonely it could be. Her mom was the epitome of professionalism and rarely, if not ever, displayed affection with Casey. Her mom didn't want to make Casey soft.

The stand of excellence shouldn't be soft.

It bred weakness, her mother had said.

"I love you, too!" Macy said. "You guys are the furthest from plebs. And you deserve your flowers, Casey. You're such an inspiration to me."

"I try to keep inspiring myself by myself," Casey said. "Sometimes, I wonder if it'll make me lonely."

"Then let me help with that," Macy said. "I think it's time for Operation Court the Goddess to go green, girls."

As notifications detailing their victorious earnings flitted through Casey's mind, and the dungeon started to chip away and fade, the [Fighter] felt worried for the first time in a long time. She suddenly felt apprehension about leaving the dungeon.

"What's this about?" Casey said, her chest feeling gooey and weak.

"We're going to get you a date with YoAnna," Emily said. "I'm going to dig up stuff on YoAnna's earthly past to help cover all of your bases. Apparently, we don't know enough to get to the center of our Goddess if the childhood friend angle blindsided us so hard."

"I got the perfect places in mind," Hailey explained. "It'll have three parts ranging from midmorning to late evening. Something active that might make you two sweat and feel alive under the sun. Then a nice, relaxing meal somewhere with a great view of the landscape. Finally, a dark and intimate place where you could enjoy a show and, dare I say it, hold hands?"

"And I'll help you pick out an outfit!" Macy waved her arm in cheer.

"But, but, but," Casey's voice failed her. The uncomfortable feeling in her chest grew. She wanted to die. She barely pushed through. "What about Jay?"

"Casey, she told him no," Macy said, patting Casey's arm. "That means we can still make you two a thing. We have to try, at least, or you'll regret it. Super bad. And we can't let that happen to you. All three of us know how intense you can be and how much you'll hurt yourself when you get too intense over your own faults. We want to do this for you."

"It'll be nice to see Captain Casey be vulnerable with somebody other than us," Emily said.

"And Jay can't just sweep in and take your girl when you've been laying in the work for years." Hailey puffed her cheeks. "It won't be wise for any of us to underestimate him, especially if he's childhood friends with our Goddess, the First Nerd, and the Second Nerd. But he doesn't have the connection we've developed with YoAnna since sophomore year, even if she'd been pretending to be mortal."

"Honestly, YoAnna's divinity makes a lot of sense," Emily said. "The past two years felt like being around a supercharged Disney Princess. I would've tried dating her if Casey hadn't fallen for her first. And I'm not even into girls."

"It's YoAnna," Hailey said plainly. "Straightness need not apply with a Goddess."

"Technically, Godling," Emily corrected.

"Godling, teenage goddess, whatever, she's our Queen of Divinity," Hailey replied.

"And that divinity deserves someone as excellent as Casey at her loving side!" Macy trumpeted, and the other girls raised their voices in agreement.

Casey shuddered as a notification counting down their time till departure appeared. When she started this crawl, she reasoned she would return with her standard of excellence raised higher than ever. She figured she would be the star, too, and her sisters would follow behind her.

But she was not the standard of excellence on this crawl. Not alone. They all were. They were the Divine, four sisters sharing a single father with four separate mothers. By strange circumstances of fate, they came to live together and enjoy each other's company through thick and thin. They may be viewed as the mean girls, but they truly adored each other with a love a surprising number of traditional families lacked.

Casey cried, allowing herself to be less than the standard of excellence. Maybe for this once, it was okay to be a subject of weaknesses.