"If you hadn't intervened..." Then Tatiana paused. She smiled shyly at Randidly. "...well, mostly your actions were extremely effective at diffusing the danger of the situation. If things had escalated, and you two weren't there... I suspect some of my girls would have been injured. So again, I am in your debt."
Sonya was snoozing quietly, leaning against the wall. Next to her, Gregory was slowly nodding off. Their lowered Vitalities were finally overwhelmed by the drink they had consumed. Sonya would be quite upset that she missed this seductive woman in her new dress, Randidly reflected.
'Ha, did you calculate the volume of water it would take to neutralize the plasma on the fly?" Griffith asked, turning to Randidly.
Awkwardly, Randidly could only shrug. Griffith began to howl with laughter. Tatiana raised her hand to cover up her own smile. In order to change the subject, Randidly said to Tatiana. "Your girls?"
"Ah. Well, as you may or may not have guessed, Mr. Stain hired several high-end escorts to attend the party. Although I came to work, I am a part owner of the establishment that he shopped at. Tatiana Rhubarb, businesswoman, palm reader, Tier 1 Citizen, at your service." She performed a little bow. To the side, Griffith was still chuckling.
"Ah, forgive me for being a bit shocked," Randidly said, "But I'm surprised businesses like that are still around, with the System's arrival and all. But I suppose-"
Randidly froze. He had been about to say that he was from a different Zone, with less population. Shrugging, he left the sentence unfinished.
Tatiana shrugged. "You have a point, but it was just coincidence that it turned out this way. A lot of the apartments that the girls were staying in were included in the Zone. Basically all of the management too. These girls had been doing it before, and there was still demand for it after the initial chaos died down. So why not continue? Not everyone has the strength of will to risk their life fighting monsters. Others prefer... a softer approach.
"Plus," she added. "They were also weak to the draw of the Leveling. To see themselves Leveling their charm and... ah... service related Skills brings a certain amount of satisfaction. It's what they were good at before, and earned them PP quickly now. Why would they do anything else."
Randidly couldn't think of anything to say. Luckily, Griffith had recovered enough to join the conversation.
"It is pretty hard to imagine things like that going on, when you are on the frontlines, fighting monsters. Or if you are in a place like this, that actually produces the products that those people rely on for safety. Easy to lose touch with how the other half lives. But the government takes a big slice of everything. Such is the way of things."
"Well anyway," Tatiana said. "I suppose there's no reason to bog down the conversation with political complaints. I might pick up bad habits; I wouldn't want to call a general a spoiled moron the next time insults the chef that prepared his filet during our date. Here is my card. If you ever need anything-"
She placed two cards on the table, sliding them towards Griffith and Randidly, but as she did so her watch lit up and began to chirp.
"Ah, apologies. It's my business partner. Please excuse me." Tatiana stood with an apologetic smile. "Perhaps another time for the palm reading."
"Actually, I should be going too," Randidly said. He needed to get back to work in the Steel factory. He was pretty excited to try out some of the things he had learned at the party, talking to Sonya and Gregory. Nodding, Griffith stood too. He provided his number as well, and the three agreed to meet again. They left Sonya and Gregory there at the table, snoring away with the tab waiting.
As they all split up, Randidly wondered whether these numbers were useful to him. After all, he didn't have one of their weird watch phones. Were they hard to get? Who could he ask without seeming like an idiot...?
Hank looked up and sighed. They felt it, as soon as they passed the invisible barrier; they had left the borderlands. Zone 32 lay sprawled before them.
It had taken much more time than Hank had expected, almost two weeks. It made the fact that the thorny house had appeared after two days all the more impressive. It turned out that the two Zones were on a direct line East/West from each other. Even though the entrance to the borderlands was to the Northeast portion of Zone 1, what you had to do was head Northeast, and then swing around to head Southeast, which took a bit of time for Hank's group to realize.
However, it made more sense when Alan reported to him that the Zones were slowly expanding. Perhaps soon, the entire portion of their East/West connection would be revealed. This prospect excited Alan, who already had plans to expand the manatech line to facilitate trade. Hank was more cautious.
They hadn't met anyone else form Zone 32, but that first group had left a powerful impression on him. Before they tied their fate too closely with this group of people, they needed to feel them out a bit.
"What is that?" Affina asked, her blind eyes turned forward, toward the new Zone.
Hank squinted. "It looks like a fog bank in that valley. Can you feel the weather somehow? That's mighty impressive."
"No, I cannot," Affina said, shaking her head. "But there is something... something special about that area that I can feel."
"There is something inside that fog," Laurel said, her voice quiet. Hank grunted. Ezekiel maintained his stoic silence. The group moved on, cautiously going to investigate the strange fog.
Hank was teetering between avoiding it and taking a closer look as they approached until the sounds of other people reached their ears. It was clear that within the fog, there was some sort of mining operation going on; the sound of yells and the clink of chisels was clearly audible. Hank's group exchanged a bemused glance, then walked into the misted area.
Even still, Hank was extremely cautious. They hadn't encountered them very often, but there were monsters that would use illusions to confuse a person. But Laurel had weapons to combat and recognize that, so Hank allowed them to proceed.
The mist was thin. It muffled sunlight but still allowed a person to see a good 15 meters in every direction. Everything was just... a bit cloudy.
"Look, there." Ezekiel's voice cracked from disuse as he raised his hand and pointed. He had been surprisingly introspective since parting ways with his son, probably grappling with the cost of his Class in a new light after seeing his progeny. Hank had little sympathy for the man, but there was no denying it was a hard spot to be in.
Ezekiel pointed towards a large object in the mist. As one, the group circled it and approach. Only when within 10 meters was it obvious that it wasn't a stone, but instead a large block of ice. And only when you were right up next to it did it become obvious that there was a shadowy figure, frozen in the middle of it. Laurel raised her hand, conjuring a mage light to reveal a strange ape creature suspended in the ice.
It's eyes were narrowed in concentration, and the veins at its temple were throbbing with palpable anger. It was obvious that it had been frozen almost instantly before the reality of its situation could occur to the creature. Strangely, its body seemed almost... plantlike, with vines running naturally across its arms and merging into the thing's chest.
Everyone paused, wondering silently what had occurred here, leaving this monster stuck in this ice. But the sounds of the excavation were even louder now, so very soon the group tore themselves away from it and walked closer.
"Careful, this ain't our neck of the woods any longer," Hank said quietly. He gave Ezekiel a long look. "Best behavior, ya hear me?"
Ezekiel smirked, but Hank could only frown. Now was not the time to get into a spat with this quirky man.