Crisp County-Cordele Regional Airport, Cordele - 6:37 PM
Kayla and Jeff walked through the watermelon patch without any troubles. In fact, the plants were downright courteous to them. It was almost like walking through Etson National Forest all over again. The vines moved out of the way of their path, and the giant gourds grew brighter as they passed to better illuminate their surroundings.
Whenever they arrived at one of the golden watermelons, Kayla would stab it with Betin’s Fairy Dagger. Then, Jeff would throw the truffles inside and she would push them deeper using the same dagger. The vines would start moving to attack, but they were slow to start and gave the Mills plenty of time to get away while the watermelon died.
I stood back and played tug of war with a transformed Corwin. My thoughts remained on what the Mills said about me hurting myself. While I certainly could see where they were coming from, it was simply resource management to me.
Thinking back, I was unclear on how long ago I had first started seeing my hit points as just another resource to exploit, but it was around the time I started becoming accustomed to pain.
After all, Mental Points were harder to regain than hit points were. That was especially true after getting the Writhing Belt Whip. They replenished much slower than HP did even naturally, and the only way to get more of them was to find rare potions. I still had a single Mental Health Potion left in my belt pouch, but I was saving it for a special occasion. Like the next time I had to Break Free and I didn’t want to spend points, perhaps.
“Hey, Anthony!” Jeff called, snapping me out of my thoughts. “You good, bro?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I replied before lifting the chain I was using to play with Corwin. He refused to let it go and left the ground, wiggling and growling but keeping his teeth locked.
The Evolution Hound used to have a thick, knotted rope he adored, but he had gotten a little overzealous and transformed while playing tug of war. The already frayed toy lit on fire almost instantly and they had to get a new one. We grabbed a tow chain off of the back of a truck to replace it since his teeth could handle biting down into metal, and he hasn’t had a problem since.
“Which topic do you want to talk about first?” Kayla asked as she and Jeff approached us. “Administrator or Angel?”
She wore my old Straw Hat of the Seer, shifting it to get a better look at me, though it no longer had the Clear Eyes skill attached to it. The watermelons kept things illuminated enough that she didn’t need the skill despite it being night, however.
Upon seeing them, Corwin let go of the chain and ran towards them, changing back into his base form before running into his owner. Kayla reached over and gave him a scratch behind the ears before looking back at me.
“Let’s start heavy with the administrators and then I’ll talk all about what happened in the hive,” I said, taking a deep breath. “So, that scum sucker Seraphim certainly did start his speech with ‘population of Earth,’ but the first thing you have to realize is that all administrators are glory hogging liars. That’s also why he’s going by Seraphim, a type of Angel, to help sell the lie that he was sent here by God or whatever.”
He’s also the ugliest Angel impersonator I’ve ever seen. Seraphim is a total slob and a discredit to the name.
“We are pretty predominantly Christian where we live,” Kayla started, giving me a strange look as I held back a laugh.
“Right, and the population isn’t going to catch him out on it until they leave his region,” I continued, snapping to close Sara’s message. “Which most people won’t do because they’re attached to where they grow up or just don’t like to travel. Plus, the world’s a much more dangerous place, and people who don’t want to go to cities because of crime rates definitely don’t want to go there now that the crimes are being committed by actual monsters.”
“So how big is Seraphim’s area?” Jeff asked.
The vines stopped wiggling about as the golden watermelon finally perished. Just like before, the other melons around it dimmed but didn’t stop glowing completely. We began moving towards the next target.
“It’s around the Georgia-Florida line all the way down to a few miles north of Orlando,” I explained. “Covers most of the coasts, but not the panhandle. It stops just short of Tallahassee. Jacksonville also has its own administrator.”
“So he’s got, what? Stanley, Daytona, and Etson as the biggest cities in his region?” Kayla wondered. “You wouldn’t even be able to fill up half of Jacksonville with the amount of people he’s in charge of.”
“That explains why he’s got a stick up his ass for Ant, here,” Jeff stated. “Everything I hear about the dude makes it seem like he radiates little dog energy. Like an exceptionally feisty chihuahua.”
“An exceptionally feisty chihuahua?” Kayla repeated, tilting her head as she thought about it. “Yeah, I can see that.”
“That’s basically it,” I replied with a chuckle. “But it’s also what makes him dangerous. He has more time to flesh out scenarios and tweak them for the maximum amount of deadliness allowed by the system before he’s put in time out. Normally he impresses the administrators above him and gets tasked for bigger areas once the world starts opening up, but I’m not so sure where he’s going to be after the Writhing Zeppelin incident.”
“That does make sense, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I hadn’t considered it until now,” Kayla said. “Why would he get put on probation for a single act if he’s in charge of everything? This clears up a lot of things for me.”
I nodded. “Yup. He’s got his own team beneath him that he oversees, most of whom are tutorial administrators. Al Showman is based in Chicago, for example. They’re all mixed up in the beginning before going to their original teams.”
“What about Doctor Shake ‘n Flake?” Jeff asked.
I paused, literally stopping as I turned to look at him. “I’m sorry, who?”
“The administrator for my tutorial, Doctor Shake ‘n Flake,” he repeated. “He basically gave us the spiel and let us wander around a giant maze of a hospital. No enemies, just other people and constant hallways and rooms. Creepy for sure, but it was pretty harmless.”
“That sounds like a horrible tutorial experience, but they tried to kill me right out of the gate because they can’t bring up my information so maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad,” I replied before I continued walking. “I have no idea where… Doctor Shake ‘n Flake is, though.”
“Well, you win some you lose some, I guess,” he said with a shrug.
“I guess,” I chuckled. “Benedict Merder is another tutorial administrator, though I’m not sure where he was sent for his tutorial or what it was. Never asked. He’s in charge of Merder Stadium and basically the entire downtown complex surrounding it. Centennial Olympic Park, World Congress Center, Safe Arm Arena, which used to be State Farm Arena, but you know how the system can get. It’s all one big safe zone, so there’s a lot of people.”
“It’s nice that it’s a safe zone, at least,” Jeff said.
“Not… really,” I started off slowly. “I mean, yeah, it absolutely is, but there’s things going on that make it all a bit sinister. Never trust an administrator because they’re only in it for themselves.”
“What’s going on there, then?” Kayla asked.
I paused as I thought about it. “I’ll let you know as things develop,” I finally said. “If something ever happens to me, check my desk because you’ll find what you’ll need to know. I don’t want to keep you in the dark, but I feel like some things should be, you know? The more information I disseminate into the world, the harder it is for me to figure out where things will go.”
“Is that why you haven’t told us what this Watermelon Walter is?”
Giving Kayla a thin smile, I shrugged. “I like to see how you guys do without a lot of direction. If it’s something really bad I’ll warn you about it, but this guy’ll be cake after Amlex.”
“Still testing us?” Kayla crossed her arms and rolled her eyes.
“Only a little bit? I guess? What I need are a couple of critical thinkers, not errand boys,” I stated. “Well, I need one critical thinker, Jeff’s okay being an errand boy. And friends. I need friends.”
Jeff snorted, but didn’t seem to take umbrage with my friendly jab. He nodded towards the next golden watermelon and grabbed Betin’s Fairy Dagger from his wife’s hand. “I’ll take care of this one,” he said, giving Kayla a quick kiss before running off. “Wanna get back in time for the Angel conversation!”
“Be safe,” she said, running her hand along his arm as he left.
“Of course, my queen!” he replied, causing her to lower her head and shake it.
Once he was far enough away, I lowered my voice. “He seems to be holding up alright,” I stated.
“Toxic positivity,” Kayla responded softly. “When Jeff starts feeling down, he tends to go overboard with doting on me. It’s how he copes. I try to reciprocate the best I can, because that's his love language, but it's hard sometimes, you know?"
"I hear you. Relationships are tough, and the apocalypse is definitely a make or break event for any couple."
"We've already had our moments like that. This is just another day now."
I frowned, but didn't let her see that. "And how about you? You holding up?"
"I've got a job to do, and I've got Jeff by my side. You, too, but he's my anchor," Kayla said, staring at him with a sad smile on her face. Jeff saw her watching him and waved, which prompted her to do the same. "He’s trying to keep me from slipping, even though he’s not doing too well himself. But don't worry about us, we’ll be okay.”
“I’m trusting you on that. I’m trusting you both.”
Kayla nodded at my words and reached out to pet Corwin, who still hadn't taken their eyes off of Jeff. He had been commanded to stay by me, and he was being a good boy.
“So who’s the administrator for this area?" she asked. "And Atlanta, I suppose, if they’re different.”
“They are different,” I confirmed. “Brickwell is the administrator here. He oversees a wide area, but he’s a bit lax. Spends most of his time personally overseeing Columbus, which is one of the reasons why I don’t mind stopping out here in Cordele.”
“And Atlanta?” she asked.
“Frastina,” I replied. “She’s more hands on than Seraphim. Morning announcements, shows up to the games held in the stadium, sometimes makes appearances on the streets. Frastina loves the adoration of the players she could squash in an instant.”
Kayla arched an eyebrow. “And you want to be paraded in front of her like that?”
I chuckled at her choice of words. “Benedict Merder is going to want to keep me around and, while the stadium is his pet project, Frastina is all in because of the benefits she could reap. It’s a dangerous game, but it’s one where I keep winning so I keep playing. Plus, I’m able to convince them that I’m just a glitch that lived, which takes the heat off from what I actually am.”
“That sounds like a segue if I’ve ever heard one,” Kayla snorted. “But at least wait for Jeff to get back.”
My attention shifted to Jeff, who was nearly to the golden watermelon, and I nodded. “That’s fair.”
“What about the Dealer?” Kayla asked. “He’s obviously not one of us, knows a lot, but doesn’t seem to be on the side of the administrators.”
“He’s not an administrator, he’s a Treasure Hunter,” I explained. “They’re… You know, I never did get a decent answer.”
“Wow, that’s not what I was expecting from you,” Kayla stated with a smirk.
“Hey now, I don’t know everything,” I said, putting my hands up. "And this isn't something the administrators are putting a lid on, but the system itself. And when the system doesn't want you to know? You don't find out."
"How do you know it's the system stopping you?"
"Because I managed to get another Treasure Hunter named Azrel incredibly drunk and asked. A few times actually," I explained, putting on a thin lipped smile. "Didn't get through the first sentence before popping out of existence, never to be seen from again. Until I reset, at least. No matter how I phrased the question, the same thing would always happen."
Kayla looked at me curiously as I said I reset, but only shook her head. "Okay, so there's no answer. What about Treasure Hunters? Why are they called that?"
"They’re called Treasure Hunters because that’s what they are. Some are employed directly by Patrons, others like the Dealer work freelance. They’re very well paid for the items they retrieve and the services they provide. Normally, they’re not attached to a player like me until much later, and only when a Patron pays them for their services. As for why they’re here, I’ve got theories but as I've said I've never really got a straight answer on them. Behind the scenes is locked up pretty tight.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“In their own way, sure, but they’re also more likely to bargain with you or to ignore you completely,” I answered.
Jeff started running back as the vines around him began to whip back and forth. He had to jump over a few, but otherwise seemed like he was going to be fine. We cheered him on, yelling our support loudly. We were doing this to draw out Watermelon Walter, after all, it didn’t make sense to be quiet about it.
“Got it!” Jeff said as he stopped in front of us. He fell to one knee and pulled Corwin in a hug, running his fingers through the dog’s fur. Corwin didn’t mind at all, wiggling and shaking as he tried to lick Jeff’s face.
“That should be enough, good work,” I told him.
“Thanks, What’d I miss?”
“Brickwell is in charge of this area, Frastina is in charge of Atlanta and is a lot more hands-on than Seraphim,” Kayla reiterated. “Psychic boy thinks he’s going to be fine because he’s always fine, so we’re trusting him on that. The Dealer is not an administrator, but a Treasure Hunter. He hunts treasures for Patrons.”
Jeff nodded along to his wife’s words. “Solid summation, Kay, thanks,” he said with a grin. “Anything you’d like to add, boss?”
“No, she nailed it. Solid summation, indeed,” I admitted. A smile I couldn’t stop bloomed on my face as I spoke my next sentence. “So, now we get to the part with the Angel.”