Chapter 163: Superior Halo
Valera sighed through the telepathic link. 'I know. Ever the one to never leave a quest incomplete, regardless of whether they hail from the lowliest of commoner or the greatest of gods. I suppose, though, that is yet another thing I do like about you.
A one track mind that finds goals, seeks them out, and achieves them with no room for distraction. When I first met you, my master, and my purpose so very lost, it was your determination that I used to anchor myself to.'
'Once I get things settled here, I look forward to clearing out those quests in the Nexus with you,' said Aldrich. 'It'll be just like old times, won't it?'
Except this time, for Aldrich at least, it would be for real. Valera had lived all the quest and adventures she had gone through with Aldrich. They were a deeply personal part of her being and cherished memories that defined her character now.
But to Aldrich, all that had been a game.
Now, though, it would all be real, and he looked forward to it. Who knew that the game that had once been his escape, his hideaway from a world that tried its best to crush him under its heel, would turn into something that changed his life like this?
'Like old times, yes,' said Valera. 'I would have wanted to stay with you a little longer, I always do, but I suppose promises of good times together brutalizing our foes in quests will have to do.
A pause. Aldrich waited, having a feeling that Valera still wanted to say something.
'Master? About that time in the Red Circle…no, never mind,' said Valera. 'I should know better than to distract you any further. I will await you in the Nexus, tending to your Legion with all the care I can give them.
I know I do not have to say this to you, but I will still say it, just because it makes my heart ache a little less: please stay safe, my master, for I would not know what to do without you. I would sooner tear this strange new world down into nothing but bare wreckage than bear the thought of walking it without you.'
'Nonsense,' said Aldrich. 'We'll clear the Trial quests together. And we'll take over this world together too.'
'Together…,' Valera repeated the word, savoring it on her tongue. 'Understood, master. I shall ensure that all our forces make it to the Nexus without harm. Until then-,'
'Until then,' repeated Aldrich, and their communication ended.
Aldrich took a moment for himself to gather his own thoughts about Valera. He knew what she wanted to ask. She wanted to ask what his feelings for her were. After all, he did promise to give her an answer.
What was his answer going to be? He had not thought about it much, admittedly, and that was not only because he had been so busy this fighting and managing his units and whatnot. It was because, to be honest, he did not know what his answer was.
At first, it seemed so obvious. Here was Valera, a beautiful woman fiercely devoted to him, who believed him her world and more. Who would not say yes to that? Who would pass up a chance like that? If Adam had been in Aldrich's place, he knew that simpleminded guy would have said yes a million times over.
But it was precisely because Aldrich could feel so much love from her that he did not know what to do.
Throughout his entire life, the only people he had loved were his parents, and even that had been torn from him. Something warm like love was foreign, almost alien, to him now. He had no idea whether he could feel love or give it properly.
Aldrich did not like to admit it, but he was afraid. He was never afraid of fighting, of facing monstrous variants or staring down the hateful eyes of powerful Alters that wanted nothing more than to reduce him into a bloody smear on the pavement.
Fighting and struggling and surviving – Aldrich had never felt fear from all that.
But Aldrich was afraid now.
Afraid that he did not have it within him, within that broken void carved into him from the horrors of his life, to give Valera the love she deserved. To give her just as much as she gave him. He just did not know whether he was capable, and he did not know whether he wanted to find out.
"I don't like the sight of that," said Seismic as he snapped Aldrich out of his thoughts.
"What is it?" Aldrich turned to Seismic, seeing the older man look up into the sky. There, in the distance, he could see that several Panopticon Bugs had formed into clusters that blinked brightly with green light.
"Bright green. That's a Clear Signal," said Aldrich.
Once Panopticon drone fleet responses came and finished what they were assigned to do, which was usually wiping out variant threats, they formed green signal lights to allow civilians some peace of mind and also to guide heroes for post battle operations like tending and evacuating the wounded, repairing critical infrastructure, clearing corpses, and so on and so forth.
There were other, differently colored signals for things like asking for reinforcements, abandoning an area, detection of poisons, etcetera.
"You're surprisingly knowledgeable about how the AA works," said Seismic.
"I did my research. But my knowledge isn't absolute," said Aldrich. "If you know something, tell me."
Seismic nodded as he pointed at the drone clusters forming the signals. "The Clear Signal is a good sign. But it's their arrangement I don't like."
Aldrich observed as the blinking green lights that the Bugs formed arranged into a discernable shape. "A ring?"
"A halo. Superior Halo," said Seismic.
"…" Aldrich look at the ring-shaped arrangement of drone clusters, at how their blinking green shapes marked out a halo that phased in and out of visibility.
What a Superior Halo indicated was the incoming appearance of a S class hero. Aldrich had seen it on the news, in videos. There was nobody that had not. It was a symbol synonymous with humanity's might. Something that promised that whatever threat was present, it was going to go away soon.
Even the reason that the halo was green, normally a color for safety, was to indicate that regardless of whether there was an active threat or not, an S rank hero would guarantee the dawning of safety.
In the background of the sky, Aldrich's storm moved, its haunting green glow brightly passing over the Superior Halo as it too made its way towards the Red Circle.
"You don't seem too surprised," said Seismic.
"I knew they would send heroes here," said Aldrich. "Heroes to take me and my forces into custody."
"You're prepared for that."
"I am. What I did not expect was that they would send a S-rank hero here," said Aldrich. "The fighting is over. They shouldn't be expecting any threats from variants, or at the very least, not anything that warrants that level of firepower."
"Pretty…" Okeanos muttered as he looked up at the sky, his rainbow eyes staring right at the halo.
Aldrich looked to Okeanos, then at Seismic. "Which means they're expecting a threat from me. From my forces."
"Yes," said Seismic simply.
"A threat worthy of a S rank hero, then, is it?" Aldrich, underneath his helm, smiled. "I'm quite flattered, to be honest. But I'm not in the mood for a fight tonight. Okeanos-,"
"Yes?" said Okeanos as his antennae perked up.
Aldrich pointed away from the Superior Halo, towards the southern skies where Crow's midnight black feathered figure moved through the air.
"Follow Crow," said Aldrich. "If you lose track of your directions, Valera will guide you."
"I leave you…so soon?" said Okeanos.
"I won't be gone long," said Aldrich. "Now go."
Okeanos nodded and sprinted off, smoking hot skid marks followed by a strong breeze from his high-speed movement. Aldrich was now nearly fully without protection. He had sent off most of his variants and larger units into the Nexus as the AA could reliably scan for strong variant signatures or giant beings. And he had sent off his humanoid units with Casimir.
As Aldrich was right now, he was almost at the weakest he could be. A Legion Necromancer without his legion.
Though his personal strength was nothing to scoff at, especially now that he had the [Frosthallowed War Scythe] as part of his gear, he could not come close to fighting a S class hero, especially if their powers were geared for combat.
But Aldrich did not intend to fight. He wanted to negotiate. And, as for as the AA and the rest of the world was concerned, they had no way of knowing where Aldrich's forces would be once they were in the Nexus. They had no idea whether he had a power to conceal them, whether he could summon them at will, or whether they were flat out gone.
And that uncertainty would make them cautious. It would make them afraid of the damage he could do if they wronged him. It would make them listen to him.
In other words, this was not only a way to make sure that none of his forces were harmed, but it was also a massive bluff.
"You sent the Locus away," said Seismic. "What about me?"
"People know who you are. They'll give weight to your words. I'll trust you'll use them to back me," said Aldrich. "Now come with me. We're heading to the shelters."
"Shelters?" asked Seismic. "For what purpose?"
Aldrich pointed at the Superior Halo.. "To make it harder for them to get rid of me."