Aldrich hovered in the air on his alloywing eagle with Valera behind him. One of his Ghasts was tethered to him, preventing anyone from capturing footage or photos of him.
Valera tentatively wrapped her arms around his waist and nodded her head from side to side in happiness. Meanwhile, he looked down to witness the chaos below.
There were thin, packed streets lined with hastily built shacks, shops, and stalls littered with fire, smoke, rubble, and roving slime creatures. Here, people whimpered and screamed as they ran away from slimes or cowered in homes that were broken down from disrepair far before this recent disaster variant attack.
These were the Projects. Ghettos where Dud populations were corralled to live in under government subsidy. Here, they suffered from neglect across all sectors of society.
At the top, the city governments barely provided for them. They had a few city and nationwide government programs that subsidized Alters, and the most visible of these programs were the housing projects where the city built mega-apartments for Duds to live in at for highly subsidized or even free rent.
This sounded good in practice, but because these mega-apartments had no real long term profit potential, the manufacturing companies that sucked up contracting money to build them abandoned them once they were done.
Not to mention that these apartments were built with zero care. Their rooms were impossibly cramped, stacked tightly together to try and shove in as many Duds in as small an area as possible.
Each building had no thought for decoration; they were just concrete and steel, dull grey, featureless spires that looked like prisons villains would get locked up in.
Over the years, these mega-apartments, already built with less than stellar standards, fell to increasing amounts of disrepair.
On top of this, Duds in the Projects faced high crime rates from low life Alters who wanted to steal what little powerless Duds already had. To put insult to injury, Project neighborhoods also faced discrimination from city police forces that did little to nothing to help Duds.
The only people that helped keep these neighborhoods even remotely safe were assigned supers, but for Project neighborhoods, the patrol pay, and subsequently the quality of the supers patrolling, was low.
Most of these supers were either highly idealistic first timers fresh out of some mid to low tier academy who needed a safe job to start out with or disgruntled older supers that cared less and less about protecting the neighborhood as the years passed.
Either way, any heroes patrolling here were weak. E rank, mostly, D rank at best.
More screams littered the air as a gathering of slimes surrounded a small ramen shack, inching close to a family of elderly husband, wife, and grandchild.
Aldrich shook his head. Since the manta disappeared, the slimes it produced stopped self-replicating, meaning that the many E/D/C heroes left could start rapidly clearing their numbers out with the aid of armed police.
But of course, nobody gave a sh*t about the Projects. Here, slimes still ran rampant.
"Get me down there," said Aldrich.
The eagle flapped its wings and dove down. When Aldrich was two dozen meters above the ramen shack, he jumped off with Valera. He landed on solid, cracked concrete sidewalk with a roll to disperse impact while Valera aimed her fall so that she landed with a solid downward punch on a slime, completely splattering it apart and smashing the concrete below.
Eight blue slimes started to extend tendrils towards Aldrich and Valera.
Aldrich casted eight [Chill Bolts] in rapid fire succession from both his hands. In just one second, all of the eight slimes were completely frozen over, suspended in icy still motion.
[Mana: 183/183 ] 151/183]
[8x Manta Slimes defeated]
[EXP Bar: 400/2000 ] 440/2000]
'Not a bad rate of EXP gain,' thought Aldrich as he looked at his status screen. But regardless, he was not here to efficiently farm. He was here to meet Casimir, and while at it, have Valera clear this neighborhood out of slimes with the Ghast attached to prevent surveillance.
The owner of the ramen shop, a slight, middle-aged man with far too many wrinkles on his face for someone of his age, came out and bowed his head several times. "Thank you! Thank you so much, hero!"
Aldrich stared at him through his [Phantasmal Mask]. The man's wife, a woman of similar age and similar stress induced wrinkling, thanked him too while making their child, a little boy of about five, bow.
"Monster!" shrieked the child as he looked at Aldrich's mask and equipment.
The mother covered her child's mouth in panic, not wanting to offend Aldrich. Aldrich was not offended, but Valera -
"You would dare to insult him as a monster!? After he has saved your short and unworthy lives!?" began Valera.
"It's alright," said Aldrich. "He's a child, and he's scared."
Valera calmed at Aldrich's voice and stood her killing intent down. He had forgotten the lack of value she placed on human lives. She was freely willing to unleash bloodlust against humans as she considered them lesser beings.
"You must be refugees from the Fukushima Attack. Life must have been hard," said Aldrich, trying to diffuse the trembling fear that Valera had instilled in the family.
Five years ago, a S-ranked Disaster Variant struck Fukushima, Japan, drawn in by the city's nuclear energy. The ensuing destruction it caused made Fukushima uninhabitable, causing a mass influx of refugees.
"Yes, very, very hard, but that doesn't mean we have nothing," said the man. He rifled through his pockets, scrapping up a few credit chips. "Here, this isn't much, but this should be good-,"
Aldrich shook his head. "No. I'm going to clear this street of slimes, and because they aren't replicating anymore, it should be safe. Stay in here. AA reinforcements and Panop drones should be coming. Where's the hero that's supposed to be patrolling the Projects?"
"Cowboy?" The man spat in the ground. "He does nothing for us. Probably already ran away!"
"I see. Stay safe." Aldrich nodded and made a mental note to address this 'Cowboy' later.
He sympathized with the plight of the innocent. Especially the Duds that had suffered just like him. He knew he had to place his own safety and survival above all else, but that did not mean he could use his power to alleviate some of their suffering.
At the very least, it was what Adam and Elaine would have wanted.
Aldrich left with Valera. He headed north, towards the Red Circle. He hovered above at a casual pace on his alloywing eagle and gave Valera a single command.
"Destroy the slimes you see. Make it quick."
"My pleasure," said Valera. She then turned into a blur as she sped forwards.
Whenever Valera encountered a slime, she would annihilate them. She coated her hands in a bright red aura of blood that imparted explosive effects to her punches, and these destroyed the gooey bodies of the slimes instantly.
Aldrich did not try extensively to clear the entirety of the projects.
Only the few neighborhoods he walked through.
These ones were the most exposed as they housed the Duds that were too poor even to live in mega-complexes, needing to live in rough shacks exposed to monster attacks.
The slimes could not get through mega-complexes once their doors were blocked and barred, rendering those within relatively safe.
Plus, there were not that many slimes. Almost all of them were concentrated in the Eastside.
The ones this far south in Haven were stragglers dropped by odd chance.
For the next twenty minutes, Aldrich hovered in the air on his eagle as he watched Valera blitz through the neighborhoods at super speed. She zipped from one shack to the other, splattering slimes that harassed them, leaving civilian Duds confused at how they had been saved.
By the end of this, Valera had killed a total of seventy slimes.
[70 Manta Slimes defeated!]
[EXP Bar: 440/2000 ] 790/2000]
Of course, the blocks around the Red Circle were completely clear of slimes as the nightclub was basically a military compound guarded with 'valets' that acted as sentry towers with a small army of villains and mercenaries to boot.
Near the Red Circle, Aldrich had the eagle fly off while he changed into his suit while Valera dematerialized her armor and into her dress set.
The Ghast, too, he sent away, tethering to the eagle to keep the undead variant a secret.
Aldrich passed by the valet guard with no issue for they recognized him now. At the entrance of the Red Circle, he met a familiar face.
"Welcome back, Mr. Vane," said Hirondelle, her violet eyes gleaming as she smiled and bowed.
"Business meeting," said Aldrich.
"Already so soon? Casimir must take quite a liking to you. I have never seen him meet so much with the same client," said Hirondelle.
"Maybe I'm just a people person," said Aldrich.
"Right this way." Hirondelle led Aldrich and Valera through with a small escort of staff.
Some of them brought refreshments like towels, water, and fruits, but Aldrich and Valera ignored these and headed straight to Casimir's office.
There, Aldrich passed two guards, one of which was Walters, the giant waiter, flanking the office door.
"Mr. Vane! Here to finalize the details of our event, I presume?" said Casimir. He was turned away, watching a news broadcast from a deluxe widescreen wall mounted telescreen.
There, the news reported that the manta had been beaten back by two mysterious vigilantes, showcasing zoomed in video footage of Mel and a few still pictures of Seth Solar.
It also reported that the Panopticon's VSSA (Variant Sensor Satellite Array) could not track down the disaster variant, determining that because it could not detect any Ether signature, that the variant had died, its natural regeneration unable to keep up with its wounds.
"You presume correctly," said Aldrich. He and Valera sat in plush velvet chairs in front of Casimir's desk.
Aldrich stared at a tall, blonde haired woman by Casimir's side. By the way she held a laptop at her side like it was a part of her, he could tell she was his secretary. He gave her a look, and Casimir understood immediately.
"Blanca, my dear, can you leave the room for some time? Those invitation cards you drew up look marvelous. Go ahead and send them out," said Casimir.
Blanca nodded and left, but not before giving Aldrich and Valera an emotionless, analyzing look.
"Your secretary, yes?" said Aldrich.
"For ten years now," said Casimir. "A most wonderful woman who I would consider more precious than my very own hands."
"Ten years? That's quite some time."
"A business venture such as the Red Circle takes years and luck to build, Mr. Vane, though I am sure you of all people know that." Casimir's emote face smiled. "But what all these successful entrepreneurs, these men and women who are the face of their mega corporations or rising ventures, do not like to mention is that their success was not carved out alone, no matter how much they wish to claim so.
Always, always, there is someone behind them, someone that gave them the inspiration, the funds, the opportunities, the support-," Casimir paused. "The comfort.
Nobody can stand at the top without first having others raise them on their shoulders first."
Valera nodded happily, thoroughly agreeing with Casimir.
"That's a surprising level of humility. I hope you do not take offense to this, but I did not expect that from you," said Aldrich.
"I came from nothing, scrounging about on the streets of Haven, begging and stealing to see another day," said Casimir wistfully. He then looked down at his dazzling rings, gold watch, and bracelets. "And because I came from nothing, I understand truly how to appreciate everything.
But enough about my biography, I am not important enough for that. Business, business, that is what we are here for, no?
Now, Mr. Vane, what did you want from me?"
"Nothing much," said Aldrich. "It seems like you've been handling everything excellently. The event is still on for this Saturday, yes?"
"Indeed," said Casimir. "The turnout was smaller than I hoped, perhaps about forty villains, and unfortunately, the Butcher will be the only one to come from a high-ranking organization."
"The Butcher is all I need," said Aldrich. "And Seth Solar? What has he said since beating back that variant?"
"Ah, Seth, that hot headed boy? He is still quite willing to come. In fact, he has been hounding me on the phone about offering not just five, but ten samples of Boost. This on top of a requested VIP table at your event."
"Give him whatever he wants. So long as it gets him and his friends to come," said Aldrich. This would be Seth Solar's last few pleasures in life. Akin to a final meal served to a death row prisoner prior to execution.
"At this point, you should have no worries about Seth," said Casimir. "In fact, I have managed to woo a good majority of the A-class in Blackwater."
"Good," said Aldrich. "Once again, incredible work, Casimir. You've managed to do all this in what, a span of a day?"
"Efficiency is king in today's fast paced world, Mr. Vane," said Casimir.
Aldrich materialized the Death Lord's Sign Stone. The glowing green, diadem shaped rock shone from his palm.
"My, my, what is that?" said Casimir as he leaned in, his emote face turning into one of scrutiny with a raised brow.
"To start off the event, I'll be making a short speech on the performance stage at the head of the dance floor. I want this projected for all to see on the performance stage screen," said Aldrich. "Consider this a business card of sorts. Something I would give to people when I bid them a proper goodbye."
"Of course, Mr. Vane. Ah, I will tailor the entire event to be…hm, in the theme of emeralds, yes," said Casimir. "To match this wonderful, lustrous glimmer of green."
"I'll trust your marketing sense on that," said Aldrich. "I wanted to request that my wife and I stay here until the event. I want to be there in person before it all begins, ready to make my speech.
I also want to address a few more matters of business, specifically in seeing whether I can become a partner in this business venture of yours."
Becoming a partner meant Aldrich would effectively be the face of this organization along with Casimir. This way, he would not only get a huge split of the Red Circle's profits, but it would also put him on the face of the organization.
Or, more accurately, his Bruce Vane alter ego.
Aldrich had taken a liking to Casimir and the man's quick wits and efficiency. He wanted to preserve Casimir for after this Saturday, where, if everything went well, the Red Circle would be no more, its connections to all villain organizations severed.
However, there was nothing stopping Casimir from rebranding and rebuilding the Red Circle with Aldrich's support.
Aldrich knew there were many like him.
Vigilantes who did not fit with either supers or villains. Those that wanted to do right outside the scope of the law. He would in time, with Casimir's help, create a space for them to find purpose.
Not to mention that with Casimir heading a business/organization under Aldrich, his issue with raising credits for his supposedly wealthy Bruce Vane alter ego would completely disappear.
Aldrich waited for Casimir's answer to this partnership.
With Casimir under Fler'Gan's powerful mental suggestion, he would be positively inclined to anything Aldrich said.
However, this did not mean Casimir was utterly brainwashed.
Casimir would take the vast majority of Aldrich's suggestions and follow them, but if something was too risky for both himself and Aldrich, then he could oppose the decision.
Like this, Aldrich allowed Casimir to exercise his high level of judgement for Aldrich knew he did not know everything. An opposing opinion, especially one from someone capable like Casimir, was always valuable.
"A partner?" Casimir tossed and turned this suggestion in his mind for several seconds. "That could be arranged. However, Mr. Vane, your investments are still in the shadows.
Any liability that occurs from mismanagement in the Red Circle falls solely upon my shoulders to blame.
If you establish yourself as my partner, however, there will be many prying syndicate eyes upon your back."
"That's fine, Casimir," said Aldrich. "After this event on Saturday, everything will change. When that happens, you won't be worrying about my safety. No, you'll be thankful for yourself that you have a position as my protected partner."
Casimir drew his hands together, and his voice grew lower, more serious. "I am not saying anything, Mr. Vane, but if something…extreme happens this Saturday, then I cannot guarantee that you will not become a target."
"I see. So you already know what I'm planning," said Aldrich.
He had intentionally left out that he planned on wiping out everyone on Saturday to try and keep Casimir working for him without complaints.
But it seemed like Casimir knew what was up. Not only that, but Casimir was willing to see it through with Aldrich.
Of course, if Casimir complained too much, he would have had Fler'Gan fully mind control the man. Aldrich might have been willing to compromise and discuss at length about other issues with Casimir, but this Saturday night of vengeance was one thing he would never compromise on.
But it was good that Casimir was willing to work with Aldrich even now.
"You hide it very, very well, Mr. Vane, but I know the gleam of vengeance when I see it. You can always see it in the eyes," said Casimir. His emote face smiled. "It is a sight with which I am intimately acquaintanced with.
Again, I do not mind aiding your vengeance, especially if you promise me protection. So long as I am alive, I can re-allocate my assets and enter into different business ventures. I was thinking of retiring with my fortune in a few years with Blanca in any case - she deserves the rest and peace.
But your safety-,"
"You have no need to worry about that, Casimir, and remember, this is a partnership. You have more years left in that capable head of yours.
Years working with me," said Aldrich. He reached out a hand, and Casimir took it in a tight handshake. "And together, I guarantee we can make sure that those of us who came from the streets, those of us who were beaten and spat on, have a chance to see some of the good we enjoy now."