Crow grumbled in understanding before sending Aldrich way up high to the top floor of the mega complex in just one flap of his great wings. There, on the balcony, in the pouring rain, Aldrich saw Valera with Casimir standing behind her giant shield.
Valera trembled with excitement at seeing Aldrich, wanting nothing more than to crawl all over him, but she composed herself, standing tall and stiff with her shield out and her armor covering her form head to toe, maintaining her duty as Aldrich's sub-commander to the utmost of her abilities.
Aldrich hopped off of Crow and landed on the balcony with a heavy, crashing thud. He sent out a mental command to Volantis, and the helm of his armor parted in half before folding into the gorget with an almost organic fluidity.
"Master," said Valera. "It is good to see you back."
"And here I was ready to finalize my will," said Casimir with a bow.
"Good work, Casimir. All those men and women under you that you had to sacrifice today - you have my greatest gratitude," said Aldrich.
"Thank you, Mr. Vane, but your gratitude is misplaced. It deserves to those that have fought and fallen, not I who is merely protected," said Casimir.
"The devotion you have to your staff is admirable, Casimir, and I will see to it that tonight, no more of your people will die," said Aldrich.
He would have also liked to have fully raised the Red Circle staff, but one weakness that Aldrich possessed in raising undead was that to create a Risen Undead, that is, an undead with their souls intact, it required their souls to be present at the time of reanimation.
However, souls faded extremely quickly.
Approximately within one minute - the same length of time they lasted on screen in the game before fading away. In the game, one minute was a very, very long time for a drop to last, but in the real world, it was a vanishingly small sliver of time.
By the time Aldrich had returned to the Red Circle, Casimir's staff had been dead too long to raise with their souls intact.
Thus, they were just mindless zombies.
At the very least, when this all over, Aldrich would give Casimir the option to have the zombies laid to proper rest.
"And Valera, excellent work managing our forces," said Aldrich. "Under your guidance, losses have been minimal, even when I took so much time in the other realm. For that, you have my apologies."
"No, my master, there is no need to apologize," said Valera as she put her hand over her breastplate. "As your guardian knight, it is simply my duty to serve."
Aldrich saw Valera tremble again in barely contained excitement, and he nodded to her. "Come on, I've taken my helmet off, and we're safe for now. You can stop the formalities and holding back now."
Valera immediately dematerialized her armor, leaving her base unarmored outfit of curve-hugging black leather leggings and leather and white and red tunic. She rushed towards Aldrich and wrapped her arms around him in a deep, crushing hug.
"I missed you, my master, I did so very much!" said Valera.
"My lord, we are taking damage!" protested Volantis as his metal form groaned and creaked under Valera's hug.
"I-I forgot you gained levels with me," said Aldrich. "For once, I thought I'd be immune to damage from your hugs, but I guess not."
Valera pulled back and stared at Aldrich's armor. "Living armor…? Fashioned from that demon, Volantis was his name, no?"
"Right," said Aldrich. It made sense that Valera knew. She and Aldrich had defeated Volantis together twice already back in the game.
But it also seemed that the chronology of these events were all jumbled up. If everything was linear, then Volantis should have been level 80, not 40 as he was now. Valera should have been level 100.
And so on and so forth.
These were matters to think about another time, though.
"I see you have understood how wonderful it is to be in service of my master, good" said Valera as she crossed her arms and looked down at Volantis's armored form.
She gnashed her teeth together and put a hand to her mouth while muttering under her breath, "But to think that a piece of scrap like you has the chance to wrap yourself over my master's body like that, even before me…"
"I do not know the worth of this one that I am now bound to," said Volantis, his smooth yet threatening voice echoing out from the armor. "But I hold no protest binding myself to a fighter who has managed to best me not merely once, but thrice, for it is my firm belief that in pure and true battle, the worth of one's bones is laid in full display."
"And that isn't the only armor I found," said Aldrich. He took Valera's hand and placed his gauntleted hand over it. He willed items to be transferred over to her.
"M-master!?" said Valera, first reacting in surprise, then in understanding as she saw what Aldrich did.
Valera could not receive miscellaneous items from Aldrich, but she could hold equipment sets and weapons for her to wear in her inventory.
In this case, Aldrich transferred over to her the strongest armor and weapon set he had found in the Necropolis. Her basic armor set developed with her, but it was rather generic and just aided her defensive stats and abilities as a Shielder.
The armor set from the Necropolis, however, was one with far more flair and suited to giving her an impressive edge in pure offense when she flipped from Shielder to Berserker.
Aldrich stepped inside the apartment and looked up. There was a massive hole in the ceiling where rain and wind poured down. The living room was thoroughly trashed, the table and telescreen there shattered apart, not to mention the rain pouring in and drenching everything.
Fisk and Spybird gathered up electronics and shielded them from the rain under a small tarp.
"What happened here?" asked Aldrich.
"Some giant shark dude thing just jumped in from the ceiling!" said Fisk. "Damn near bit my head off!"
"It was a stronger beast, that one," said Valera as she came by Aldrich's side and looked up at the hole. "One of the commanding monsters, most likely, judging by its strength and stature."
"What happened to it?" said Aldrich.
"Well, by the time it intruded, the power you left the death realm with funneled into me through our Chosen bond, so I was more than strong enough to deal with it," said Valera. "I punched it out of the very same hole it made to come in.
I don't think my blow killed it, but I doubt it has any fight left in it, considering it has not returned."
"…I see," said Aldrich. He could imagine the rather comical scene of the shark variant crashing in, expecting a fight, only to get one punched several blocks away. "It's good to see that you're still more than capable of dealing with problems with, well, simple solutions too."
"There is no problem a good punch cannot solve," said Valera with a fanged smile.
"That said," said Aldrich. "You mentioned a commanding monster? Are the variants using military tactics now? When I look up at the sky and see this storm, the mantas carrying variants, and the flying variants raining down suppressive fire, it looks strangely organized."
"Da. Like a proper army," said Spybird. He reached into his trousers and withdrew a wide canteen. When he unscrewed the cap, the acrid smell of strong alcohol filled the room. He took a huge glug from the canteen and continued. "Not good army, no, simple in tactics, but still, tactics.
Ever heard of variants using tactic?"
"No," said Aldrich.
It was well known that variants, generally speaking, were basically just larger and scarier wild beasts.
They did not come remotely close to organizing into armies like this, let alone devising war strategies.
"Then you and me are just the same," said Spybird. He rubbed his wrinkled forehead with stubby, calloused fingers. His expression was stern and thoroughly tired. "But I think long tonight, and I remember. I was at the sinking of Neo-Moscow seven years ago. Giant worms attack the city, use hit and run tactics.
Start with small worms first, scout city defenses. They find weak points that way.
Then, they sink buildings with forcefields. Makes the city defenseless.
Then, they show up with the big worms.
Then heroes die, half of city sinks, everything horrible and bad."
Spybird took another swig of alcohol. "This reminds me of that. But you know what? If the situation is similar, then that means there is main commander. Big shot that controls everything.
In Neo-Moscow incident, when main worm deep underground died, all worms fled.
Maybe same here, I think."
"I see," said Aldrich. "So take out the head and the rest fall? Well, any candidates for this main unit?"
"Yes," said Valera immediately. "There is one. A shelled monster leading the vast majority of its brethren at the center of this human settlement. However, I must warn you, my master, that the creature is incredibly powerful.
If you faced it alone, even as you are now, you would fall."
"Good thing I'm not alone, am I?" said Aldrich.
Valera smiled. "I was just about to say that."
"But before I move out, I need to have more information," said Aldrich. He looked to Spybird and Fisk. "Have you two managed to get any news from outside?"
"No net connection," said Spybird.
"Yeah, this storm's got everything tech related real messed up," said Fisk.
"How long has it precisely been since the start of this attack?" said Aldrich.
"Almost two hours," said Casimir.
"Two hours…?" said Aldrich.
"Yes, Mr. Vane, and you must be thinking what I am thinking. Two hours without any resolution to this horrid incident? Where are the heroes? Where are the Panopticon's battle drones?" said Casimir.
"I saw Panop drones out there," said Aldrich. "But they looked like Class 5 drones, the disposable kind that the Panopticon has millions of. A city-wide attack like this should warrant a class 3 at the very least. I also saw heroes, but strong enough to be in the A class."
"Indeed," said Casimir. "Even considering the hypothetical scenario that the AA and the Panopticon are both uncharacteristically incompetent to their extremes, a response time lagging beyond one hour for an attack of this scale is absurd.
You may call me a pessimist, Mr. Vane, but I do believe Haven has been abandoned. The two A rankers stationed here have either fled or have fallen, either way, the end result is much the same: the city falls too."
"You're probably right," said Aldrich. "But I doubt it's because the AA or Panopticon wants to abandon the city. Either something's blocking them out, or something so big's come up elsewhere that it requires all their resources.
Regardless, I can't keep dealing with hypotheticals and questions. I need solid information." Aldrich turned to Spybird and Fisk. "I need you two to connect to the Net."
"But how?" said Fisk. "Nothing works, and believe me, we've tried basically everything."
"Then we brute force it," said Aldrich. "The storm is blocking you two out, is it? Then why not fly above the storm?" He waved his hand, and Crow's enormous black form hovered by the balcony like a living shadow.
"…Above?" said Fisk. "Aren't there like…tons of variants up there?"
"Do you doubt the master's ability to keep you safe?" said Valera sternly.
Fisk immediately shook his head. "No, no, it isn't that, it's just, like, I'm piss weak, you know. A stray fart from one of these things might kill me!"
"You're right. You are too weak," said Aldrich bluntly. He looked at Spybird. The short man was definitely cybernetically enhanced. At the very least, the segments on his skin showcased that he had some form of dermal plating layers that would make him far tougher than the average man. "Spybird, you're coming with me."
"Damn, you could have at least tried to tell me I wasn't weak…," complained Fisk.
"So what? You want to come along?" said Aldrich.
"I'll be here doing, uh, research!" said Fisk as he immediately began to fiddle with his laptop despite the fact he could not connect to anything.
"Me? Heh, just my luck. Run from one city ending disaster, find the next. Well, good thing there is vodka to make things better. But no use complaining. I will come," said Spybird.
"Take a moment to get ready," said Aldrich. "Arm yourself if you need, but make sure you prioritize getting a connection to the outside world."
"Get ready, eh?" Spybird nodded. He smiled before he glugged down the rest of his canteen down to the very last drop. He then crushed the metal canteen like a soda can in his bare hand before tossing it away. "Now, I am ready!"
"The alcohol won't slow you down?" said Aldrich.
"Slow me down?" Spybird furrowed his brows and made a heavily offended face. "No, it makes me warm. Makes me sharp. Keeps me alive."
"…Alright then," said Aldrich. He turned to Casimir for confirmation.
"It is true," said Casimir. "Spybird does function better with a deadly dose of alcohol flowing through his veins. He even claims he possesses a generator in his liver that converts the alcohol into power, but I am still unsure whether that is true or drunken rambling."
"Heh, and you will never know," said Spybird. He packed a bag with a laptop, a small rectangular signal generator, and various wires and cables.
While Spybird packed, Aldrich spoke to Valera. "Valera, optimally, I would want to take you with me. But everyone in this building is low leveled. You are the only strong warrior I can trust to defend this place."
"Understood, master," said Valera. She bowed her head. "But promise me, if ever you are out there and you feel as if your life is in danger, even the slightest bit, do not hesitate to call me. I would give my life and soul - everything - for you."
"You won't have to worry about me staying alive," said Aldrich. "I'll be careful. And I do have to give you an answer, no? Can't do that if I'm dead."
Valera's pale faced turned bright red as she stammered out, "Y-yes, that is true. I'd…almost forgotten about that with how busy this night has been."
"All set!" said Spybird as he went out to the balcony and hopped atop Crow's back.
Aldrich nodded to everyone before he also got on Crow, aiming now towards the stormy, variant filled skies.