Hank watched as Alana considered the land before them.
“It’s a trap,” Dozer rumbled calmly. Alana chuckled but said nothing.
Before them lay the borderlands. And not just the borderlands, but it was the borderlands that lay directly between the two Zones. The path previously uncovered was a path out of the Northwest of one Zone to the Northeast of the other. But as the surrounding area was slowly pushed back, that path was moving Southward.
At least in theory. As it was, no one had really explored that area, as far as Hank could tell. The people of Zone 32 were too busy, and the people of Zone 1 didn’t even care. They barely put much thought into the diplomacy aspect of Hank’s mission. They seemed content to just keep him and his party there in order to keep an open channel of communication and to watch for any strange movement of troops.
Perhaps that was the reason he went with the group to hunt the Undying Hero that had committed an obvious murder and then fled West. It was the right thing, surely, but also…
Hank had grown restless. There was a wildness in the air that he felt now after his Soul Skill changed. He had a sense of endless adventure in the world around him…
His father had beaten his sense of duty into Hank. But what about his duty to the wider world? Surely, if he owed a debt to his country, he owed a larger debt to his world. Therefore, it made sense that-
His watch beeped, derailing his train of thought and attracting a glance from Alana and Dozer. Hank smiled lightly.
“Pardon me, seems I have a call,”
When he picked up, he was surprised that it was a female voice on the other end of the line. And what she said-
Hank’s eyes widened.
“What the fuck… is Alan….?”
They were numerous, but they were weak. The exosuits gave them almost superhuman strength and reaction time, but compared to Randidly… compared to Tykes… compared to Dinesh…
These were just children.
Even though Randidly wasn’t able to use his spear, for fear of being associated with his actual identity, his fire-based spells were more than enough to destroy clumps, and he was so much more physically dominant than any who came close to him that they were ripped to shreds. Even with numbers, they didn’t possess anything that could damage Randidly’s group.
So they died.
The lumber yard was now pitted and marred and charred to a completely unrecognizable state. His spells had ripped through both the opposition and the outside of the compound. So while the lessor golems, Dinesh, and Tykes mopped up the remnants of the exosuit users, Randidly descended into the darkness.
The innards of this facility were a lot like the one he had visited previously, on a larger scale. Randidly walked down a long hallway and saw living quarters, operating rooms, and gyms. But this time, there were also blank rooms that reminded Randidly of the stereotypical room from an insane asylum. The walls were blank and padded, with simple lines that split the room into squares.
But there were different varieties of these rooms. Some had black squares, some yellow, some pale violet. Other rooms seemed to be surrounded by speakers, large and small. As Randidly was pausing in front of a strange chamber that seemed to be filled with different squares of fabric, the ceiling opened and an insectoid machine dropped out.
His eyes flashed, but then Randidly paused, because the insectoid backed slowly away from Randidly, and then stood on its back legs. It was the size of a full grown dog, so even when it stood it was shorter than him. But it gazed at him with intelligent eyes.
“How… inappropriate that you would be the one to find this place.”
There was a ringing in Randidly’s ears; he recognized that voice It was tinny and full of distortions, but that voice… that was the Creature.
Narrowing his eyes, Randidly reached forward. “Grasp of Lava.”
But the insectoid spun, and dashed away, scuttling on the ground. The Grasp missed, and Randidly roused Lucretia, almost trembling with something akin to excitement. For so long he had wandered through this Zone, getting whiffs of her. But now, finally-
He broke into a run, following after the strange metallic insectoid. He was annoyed to see that it was entirely mechanical, so he couldn’t just wreck the runic boards that ran it like he could with a drone. Instead, he had to physically overpower it.
For a second, he hesitated, as Lucretia rushed to join his consciousness, and spread around for signs of the Creature’s Aether. Then he gritted his teeth, and the entire pathway for the next 30 meters was crushed by a flood of plants that wormed their way into the facility. Now isn’t the time for subtlety. If he could catch it now-
Randidly, I can’t… I don't’ feel her Aether. Lucretia said, sounding puzzled. It’s almost like… could this be a trap? Someone understands your fixation, and-
Who would know, aside from the Creature? Randidly growled back. Then he leaped forward, ripping through the plants to follow the insectoid, with the Lava Golem hot on his heels. By some miracle, the insectoid had squirmed its way through the crowded passage. But then it disappeared down a side hall, and it was up into a vent. Each time it turned, Randidly smashed its path with plants. But each time it accelerated, moving even faster towards the center of the facility.
Fury building in his chest, Randidly seized his Mana and prepared to completely destroy the entire middle of the facility, but then he realized with a start that he wasn’t able to. His plants scrabbled for purchase, but there was a dome in the center of the facility where they could find nothing. In addition, the metal there had a strange electromagnetic charge that destroyed his plants when he pressed them against it for too long.
“Fine, let’s do it the hard way,” Randidly grunted, and his Lava Golem sprinted forward. Without the insectoids knowledge of the facility, it took some time to work his way through the labyrinth of operating rooms and lodgings. But it a short four minutes later, Randidly was standing in front of a sealed door.
Randidly glanced at the Lava Golem. It began smashing its hands against the metal of the door, tireless and mindless. Very quickly, the strength of the blows and the heat conspired to render the door structurally unsound, and it was broke open. As it did so, there was a puff of stale air out of the inner room.
Randidly frowned. This place… hadn’t been opened in quite a long time?
It was the Creature’s Aether. It still wasn’t… strong, but it was unmistakable. It was flowing weakly out of the opening. After the Lava Golem had ripped a large enough hole in the wall to step through, Randidly followed with his senses on high alert.
The inner area of the room was dim, but not dark. At the center, there was a glowing cylinder that went from the floor to the ceiling, 20 meters up in the area. The entire room was about the size of a football field, with plenty of smaller desks and monitors along the sides of the room. Even now, the displays were filled with numbers and readings, monitoring what was occurring in that cylinder.
The cylinder itself was teal, and the glow was constant. As was the humming.
From the base of the cylinder, there were thick cables running out into the wall. These cables were so thick that even Randidly felt shocked when he saw them. There was no sign of the insectoid at all, or any being. The Creature was nowhere to be seen. The room was filled with dust as if it had been quite a while since anyone had been inside of this room.
“This is…” Randidly paused, looking around. The buzzing, the cables, the strange displays… “...a power plant?”
Before Randidly could consider further, he received a message from Dinesh. Increased enemy presence. A different variety of exosuit, but similar make. Likely same faction. Much more powerful. Are we holding?
Randidly blinked. Will remaining be a problem?
There were a few seconds of silence. Then: No. But one made it through.
That caused Randidly’s eyebrows to rise. One had made it through the combination of the Lava Golems, Dinesh, and Tykes? Perhaps more came than they had been expecting. He checked in on the Lava Golems, and they all seemed to be fine, so Randidly shrugged and focused on the room.