Annie actually thought that this ambassador from Zone 1 was rather cute, if misguided. There was a very… aggressive pleasure in slowly shooting the arrows until his clothes revealed the body underneath, for all that the man was probably 10 years her senior.
Besides, there was something very pleasurable in how he refused to concede even when it had become increasingly obvious that there was a vast disparity of power between them. Of course, this meant that he had probably gained two dozen Skill Levels over the course of their confrontation, but that didn’t mean that most people could see the benefits in remaining in the fight and being humiliated. Men especially found it a hard pill to swallow.
There was a spark in this one’s eye; he was desperate for the wildness and thrill of testing himself.
Crossing her fingers, Annie hoped that Dozer wouldn’t be too rough with him.
Dozer moved with surprising quickness for his bulk and closed the distance between himself and the cowboy. The cowboy, for his part, said nothing to imply he rejected the challenge. In fact, he raised his fists and adopted a boxing posture.
Dozer was not a particularly emotional man, although he truly was more insightful than Annie gave him credit for early on in their relationship. But when the cowboy adopted a stance, he smiled, pure and wide. It was the look of a child who had found the toy he had been waiting for.
At an unspoken signal, both rushed towards each other, the cowboy moving much more quickly than Annie would have given him credit for. She had been aware that part of her advantage lay in her use of her stealth Skills to keep him from being able to read her shots, but it was still impressive to see his stride eat up the distance. His movement style also revealed that he was a competent boxer as well.
Dozer had no grace, just momentum. Then he threw his first punch. There was an audible crack as Dozer tightened his hand into a fist and raised it. The blow seemed deceptively slow.
To his credit, Cowboy rolled backward instantly. But as the cowboy looked up at Dozer, his eyes narrowed, and she sensed he could intuit that he had just made a mistake.
Building on his momentum Dozer rumbled forward, two more blows smashing outward. From anyone else, these would be casual jabs. From Dozer, it could kill a regular human, and even those with Classes would blanch at the thought of being hit with the fist directly.
Instead of dodging, Cowboy stepped forward and under the blows. After he had narrowly missed getting his head knocked off, he threw a left of his own, one that smashed into Dozer’s midsection. Dozer had a good 7 inches on the man, and the closest target to him was Dozer’s huge torso.
Without bothering to dodge, Dozer brought his left arm around in a hook.
The cowboy expertly stepped to the side and then threw two more lefts. But before they even landed, his eyes widened as he sensed the danger. After throwing the hook, Dozer twisted his left arm and clawed outward at the cowboy, using a lot more force this time. It was fast and too late to dodge. The cowboy’s eyes narrowed.
He adjusted his stance and twisted to throw a right at Dozer’s jaw.
It hit, and Dozer’s head tilted incrementally to the side. At the same time, Dozer’s hand landed on the cowboy’s shoulder. There was a moment of pause as the cowboy was knocked off balance and stumbled while Dozer gathered his strength.
With a roar, Dozer burst into motion, his body twisting almost 90 degrees to the left. His attack was now more of a grab than a claw, and the cowboy yelped as the rapid rotation caught him and brought him around, flinging him into a nearby tree.
He tumbled head over heels and crashed into the tree, which cracked. Wood and man collapsed in a broken heap to the ground. Silence reigned for several seconds.
Annie rolled her eyes. “I know he’s tough, but jeez. That barely took any time at all. You need to learn to savor your meals.”
Shrugging, Dozer cracked his neck while rubbing his chin thoughtfully. All the while, that wide grin stayed on his face. “It was a good punch.”
Randidly stared intently at the remains of the bonfire he had made the previous night.
There was a weight to burning, he was slowly realizing, and that was key. There had to be a certain amount of constant heat in a large area around it, and then like a seed, an even deeper and more dangerous seed would slowly bloom. That bloom would slowly spread outward until it filled the entire space that the prior heat had occupied. If there was enough fertile ground now, an even more powerful heat would be born there. But that required area.
The coals in front of Randidly glowed orange and red, a luminous rainbow of ambient energy. It was impossible for him to up the scale of the experiment without alerting Ghost, so he had simply made a small example after a barbecue was held in the small shanty town.
It was very far from what happened in the case of a sun’s formation, of course. But it was illustrative of where the power came from. It was almost pseudo-science at this point, but that heated area slowly increased the possibility of something greater being born.
The supernova phenomenon occurred because at some point that seed of heat that bloomed was, to the functioning process of a sun, fundamentally more dangerous than any of the vast space had been previously. It broke the balance.
Unfortunately, no balance would be broken in a small fire.
Congratulations! Your Skill is now 75% formed.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t something to learn.
However, before he could consider further, Randidly received a message from Dinesh.
I found another one of Unity Church’s facilities.
Randidly eyes glowed, emerald and vicious, in the darkness. It was time to find out what the Church was truly doing. He had been somewhat hesitant about what to do after learning that his Grandfather was part of the Church. After all, Randidly’s relationship with his mother was… strained to say the least. She had a similarly distant relationship with her father, who had raised her alone after his wife died.
But there was always a wariness there. On those rare occasions that Randidly saw his grandfather, he had always been on his best behavior. Because the man was extremely eccentric and volatile. One time, to prove to Randidly that there was nothing to fear from riding a bike, his grandfather had ridden a children’s bike 12 miles, from the store back to his house and back.
He had returned with Randidly’s overnight bag because he was staying with his grandfather at that time. Then his grandfather had checked his watch. “I might as well just tell your mother to pick you up here. Good day.”
Then he had left Randidly and the bike and gone home. It was confusing, more than anything else.
Plus, right now Randidly was Baloo Erickson. There didn’t seem to be any organic way to approach the man while he remained affected by the illusion. Well, other than joining the Unity Church, which was becoming increasingly popular in the area. More and more Raid Bosses had been showing up in the area, so their assistance was useful.
Of course, Randidly kept the area around him clean with the help of Sulfur and Acri, so it wasn’t too pressing. But it was slightly annoying. He had even begun to suspect that the Raid Bosses were being herded somehow into the area, to scare people into joining because there were suddenly so many more than there had been previously.
Letting his thoughts go for the moment, Randidly asked Dinesh for the location. Then he returned to the underground base, to meet with Bruya. She adjusted his illusion to look more like a Randidly sized Lucifer, with short but vivid orange hair and a strong nose.
Looking at himself in a mirror, Randidly flashed a smile. The mini-Lucifer sneered back at him, looking so haughty that he couldn’t help but laugh. “It’s perfect.”
So it was only an hour after he had received the message from Dinesh, the two of them were standing above the location of the compound. It was a peat bog from the look of it, and the day was humid and hot to match it. The wetland was covered in a dozen or so low mounds, and they stared at the smallest of these from a nearby hill.
“I followed a suspicious truck to this location,” Dinesh said quietly. “9 individuals were unloaded very quickly, while they were bound and seemed semi-conscious. I don’t have confirmation, but I knew you would want to know.”
Randidly nodded absently. Already, he reached out to the plants in the area, and their tendrils wound their way downward. He turned to Dinesh. “How many trucks did you need to follow to find this place?”
Dinesh simply shrugged. Chuckling, Randidly let it pass. Let it never be said that he complained of the presence of competence in his groups. Then, abruptly, he received feedback from the plants surrounding the underground bunker. Very quickly, his expression soured.
“We are going in,” Randidly grunted.