Drake scratched his chin. “I don’t get it. What am I going for?”
“As an ambassador, of sorts,” Sydney said peacefully. She was meticulously sculpting the ice in front of her to resemble a reindeer. Her hands were smooth and even, all the while she spoke to him. “The Order Caelum cannot solely be based out of East End; we need a new source of Elementalists. Everyone will send representatives. I want you to get there first.”
“My point was less about the usefulness of this…” Drake said slowly, keeping his chin high. “I just wonder why I am the best candidate. I believe my abilities would be better spent here, training to take down the next Danger Zone. The boost to experience gathering has reignited the fury for Leveling in Donnyton. If I don’t-”
“You were successful in condensing your Fate, yes?” Sydney said coolly.
Almost subconsciously, Drake glanced down at his hand. The process… had not been pleasant. But on his left hand was a gauntlet made of bone that was his Fate. In addition, something inside of him had broken and been reformed. He was now a Bone Revenant. But just as soon as he made his name true by returning, he was being sent away once more. And Drake didn’t know why.
“Yes. But perhaps some time to consolidate my new Skills would be for the best,” Drake finally said.
“What are your new Skills?” Sydney asked without missing a beat.
Drake winced. If he had thought about it, he would know she would ask this. And it wasn’t like he minded telling her. Drake knew quite well that she would respond just as coolly if he refused to tell her; the actual answer didn’t make a difference. It was just that he had piqued her curiosity.
Increasingly, she was detached and cool like this. It had started when she obtained her ice elemental, but it had slowly grown worse as she had become more and more powerful. Drake knew that even the sculpting that he was witnessing now was a carefully designed activity to push her mastery over her Skills.
That was what she had become. Perhaps that was the answer, Drake reflected. She had become a true leader in her own right, capable of swaying others. No longer was she a young woman who led a town solely by default. The responsibilities of her role had shaped her. And that shape no longer needed her capable right hand.
It left Drake feeling somewhat confused. What… what should he be doing? The answer that he had insisted on for the last several months was protecting the East End, but now-
“Drake? You were spacing out.” Sydney said.
Drake blinked. “Tireless Counter and Eternal Grasp. Tireless Counter-”
“Spare me the details, we have lived with the System long enough to realize that we have grown far too specialized to benefit much from dwelling on each other's every Skill.” Sydney leaned back from her sculpture and stood. The reindeer stood almost two feet high, and its eyes seemed to be locked on Drake’s. “Did you find anyone from the new cohort of guards that you… believe in?”
“No,” Drake said with a shake of the head. As the Zone expanded outward, all of the Villages had obtained an influx of residents. East End had a certain allure as the nexus of Elementalists and people had steadily been coming in. Unfortunately, most of these were not the type that fit well into Sydney’s Grey Guard, the fighting force of East End. Rather, most were either mage leaning or at least scholarly. Most had writer’s bodies.
Drake would have liked nothing more than to train a few strong guards. Sydney had been pushing specifically for him to find a number two, which was a daunting prospect. Who else could accomplish what he could? And why would she need anyone to? And now she was sending-
“Well then, that’s too bad,” Sydney said with a sigh. She held her hand palm up and there was a burst of cold. Suddenly, a pale grey owl sat on her hand: her Ice Familiar. “It just means you will have to go alone. It’s true, I cannot tell you what exactly you are aiming for while you go into this new Zone. But the people there are stubborn and independent, so I believe that if anyone can convince them to join the Order Caelum, it's you.”
Drake didn’t point out that this made no sense; he had been in the military his entire life and grew up following orders. How could he reach these independent people?
Instead, he saluted and went to the door. Sydney flexed her other hand. There was a sharp crack and a blue raven formed on her other hand. It turned one of its beady eyes on Drake.
“Any questions?” Sydney said. She always asked this before he left to accomplish her orders.
“None,” Drake said. He always answered this before he left to accomplish her orders.
The journey to the new Zone was honestly rather simple. From East End, you traveled briefly West to Star Crossing and took the portal to Donnyton. From there, the newly established Manatech line ran South to Franksburg. Once you were in Franksburg, the hardest part was convincing the guard that he wasn’t up to no good heading into the borderlands. Although there was no law against it, it was strongly discouraged to go walking into the borderlands.
After all, the city didn’t want the blood of the foolish on its hands.
But Sydney had been right, as she usually was. There were already caravans heading Southeast under heavy guard to make it into the new Zone. The Donnyton Squads involved were all very polite, but they made Drake somewhat uncomfortable. Not only were they outside his chain of command, but he could tell from their barely hidden whispers that they knew of him.
More than that, they knew that he had been a part of the legendary Raid Dungeon team who had fought next to the likes of Alana and Randidly Ghosthound. He was a hero in the flesh.
They were just so young.
The time in the borderlands was uneventful, in the way that they suffered several attacks from monsters but none that was enough to force Drake himself to fight. The Squads went to great lengths to keep him relaxed. The Level of the monsters in the borderlands was high enough that this mid-tier Squad from Donnyton wasn’t able to kill them, but they did have methods to deal enough damage to scare monsters away.
Watching them, Drake shivered. They weren’t untalented, but they were raw and exuberant in their moves. It was the type of fighting that you would learn training with friends, not a style learned while a horde of screaming monsters was attacking you. They never had to realize that to fail was to kill everyone around you.
Yet still, they had strength. They obviously worked hard, but Drake also looked at their equipment very closely. The top of the line stuff no longer made it out of Donnyton due to how powerful the equipment Sam could make was. Finally, they said he had learned how to harness the significant power of his Class, the Dawn Smith.
They said that Alana in her new suit of armor was the Goddess of War made flesh, resplendent and golden.
Tutting softly, Drake opened his hand and Ryx looked curiously up at him. Ryx was a porcupine with dusky skin and maroon eyes. He was Drake’s familiar and was the only Death elemental that East End had ever seen. A lot of the bookish type Elementalists in East End thought that Ryx’s presence and element was a breakthrough for the subject of Elemental research, but to Drake, he was a rare excuse to break with the rigid bindings of military tradition while traveling by cart to the new Zone.
Ryx hopped down off Drake’s hand and inspected the surroundings. After he satisfied himself, Ryx settled in Drake’s lap and practically purred as Drake rubbed his snout.
Having your Elemental constantly manifested was a powerful drain on Mana, but from watching Sydney Drake had learned that it did more than increasing the Skill Level. It also somehow improved… empathy between the parties, and this in turn marginally lowered the Mana associated with all Skills. Developing a relationship with the elemental also improved the speed that it evolved.
Elementals were only partially a Skill. They also had their own strange Leveling System that occurred behind the scenes. In theory, one could have several Elementals. The newer Elementals would benefit from a portion of the Skill you had with a prior Elemental but would need to start over from the beginning in terms of individual abilities.
Still, there was only one person who Drake had seen actually attempt this. And that was a secret.
When they arrived, it wasn’t to fanfare, but rather to a chorus of moans. Drake got out of the care to find that there was a backup of “ambassadors” waiting at the edge of the Zone. Because there was a small fishing village here, and then the water stretching as far as one could see.
The villagers were a hardy, slight people with an Asian cast to their features. They noticed the new arrivals and then went about their business. Having nothing better to do, some of the delegations from other locations met Drake’s group for news. In addition to himself, there was a politician from Franksburg and a band of traveling performers looking to make their mark on the world.
Drake slipped away as quietly as possible and approached a small hut at the edge of the village. After scaring an old woman who was gardening, he asked some questions about the situation.
Apparently, most of the population of this Zone lived on the central islands or on large boats that sailed around. These fishing villages were in the minority. And Rahman Strait, the boat captain who had attacked Franksburg, had owned the nearby waters. Aside from his fleet, very few boats stopped in the village. And now that he had taken his warriors to shore to take land, most of his remaining sailors had left and his boats had been stolen or scavenged.
Above all else, Drake learned that the people here were practical.
“So…” Drake said finally, looking at the layers of calluses on the old woman’s hands. She lived here alone, and money was a foreign concept to her. She traded for what she needed and made do without what she couldn’t afford. The System was a great boon for her because it helped mitigate the effects of age on her life. “How long do you believe it will be until other boats come back.”
“Not long.” She said. Then she was silent.
Drake wanted to sigh. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but this woman…
Then he spotted a small rowboat in the reeds near her hut. Drake pointed. “Could… could I use that to get to the islands where people are?”
The old woman chuckled and gave him a discerning glance. “If you give me that nice leather vest… I’ll even paddle you halfway there.”