After presenting the equipment to Randidly, Sam hurried back to the weekly dinner. When he arrived, everyone was there, including someone who generally didn’t bother with such gatherings.
“Clarissa, did you finish the investigation already? Aren’t you tired from hurrying back from Zone Eleven?” Sam asked in surprise.
Clarissa smirked. Her hair was sticking up in every direction, but her face was beaming with pride. “Ha, you should see my new Cloud Steed Skill! Finally, I’m as mobile as Annie. I bet if we dueled right now-”
Chuckling, Mrs. Hamilton said. “Don’t let Annie hear you say that. She would challenge you immediately. Alana probably would too.”
That took a lot of the color out of Clarissa’s face. For several seconds, she was silent as she scowled at the table. “...Really, just because they have a slight edge on me, they always take every opportunity to bully me…! I’m not specced for duels. And yet they always insist…! Let’s take it to a large scale battle and then I’ll show them how I can…”
As Clarissa continued to grumble to herself, Sam shook his head and took his seat. The food was already served, so Sam helped himself to the crab bisque that had been laid out for him. After a bit, Sam grimaced; it was cold.
But then, sometimes they served dishes like this cold on purpose, didn’t they…? Sam scowled down at his unsatisfying and tepid soup. Regina passed him the croissants and butter. With a wolfish grin, Sam applied a liberal amount of the butter to the still-warm baked good.
Whoever they get to do the baking here is damn good, Sam thought as he gobbled the croissant down in three bites.
Eventually, Donny coughed lightly and said. “By the way Clarissa, what is the situation like in Zone Eleven? We understood that it was filled with people who had embraced the System elements as something akin to Dungeons and Dragons… but where is the political power located?”
Clarissa looked up with a serious expression, her previous grumbles forgotten. “Most of the power is concentrated in four Villages. However, they spent most of their gathered points on defenses, so all of the Villages look like castles. Well, I shouldn’t say it's pointless. It's just… campy, you know? There’s this whole etiquette thing… “
Then Clarissa shook her head. “But each village has a head. Talking to them will be pretty easy, as long as you get used to the strange names they’ve made for their version of Peerage. And besides the nobility… there are just the Classers.
“Within the Villages, most everyone is affiliated with a party that they adventure with. Right about the time that they connected to New Earth, they were discussing whether it would be possible to create something like an Adventurer’s Guild, but I think they have enthusiastically chosen to adopt the Orders as the vehicle for that.”
Then Clarissa paused. “Of the four Villages, the most powerful is Shiro, a Village built on top of a mountain. It was their party that cleared the Raid Dungeon and are the major force outside of the Villages’ combined strength. But all four Villages are reasonably strong, and have at least one party that would rival the strength of a Donnyton Squad between 5 and 9.”
Everyone at the table considered that. Between 5 and 9 would mean that they weren’t any other exceptional individuals, but it would be a group where every individual was over Level 50. A team of that caliber could pretty reliably clear out monsters around Level 60. And once they start gathering more of those monsters, their Levels will rise quickly to the higher Levels, where the Skills earned were extraordinarily powerful.
But that didn’t mean difference-makers would necessarily appear. And without them, a Village would be forced to accept a slide toward mediocrity.
That was something that Franksburg was struggling with even now. They had plenty of satisfactory military personnel, but aside from Lucifer and a few others, there was no one that could pull out a surprise victory amongst their troops.
It was to avoid the same problem that East End was spurred toward focusing so much of their development toward fostering Elementals and the Classes that were related to them. And so far, it seemed to be working out very well.
Before Randidly arrived, the leaders of Donnyton were somewhat at a loss as to why certain individuals were simply better at utilizing the System. Their Skill Levels came more quickly, and at the same Level, they could utilize a power that others wouldn’t be able to touch with each Skill use. Although the Donnyton Leadership didn’t want to admit it, it seemed that there was a “talent” component to the System.
And it just so happened that Donny, Mrs. Hamilton, Annie, Dozer, Decklan, Sam, Glendel, Clarissa, Paolo, Kayle, and Ptolemy all possessed it. In terms of talent, Donnyton had a definite edge over the rest of New Earth.
That wasn’t even considering people like Raina and Regina Northwind, whose Skills wouldn’t really ever be used on a battlefield.
Randidly’s answer to why Donnyton had the advantage wasn’t much easier to swallow than talent; he said it was their strong images that gave them an advantage. But once that perspective was pointed out, it certainly appeared to be a reasonable explanation for what was happening. The individuals that showed this edge often had a very specific Class and embraced the special flavor of that Class. Part of it might just be compatibility between the early Paths they had chosen and their character, but a clear image also seemed relevant.
It was a natural confidence that came from accepting what you had become.
For several seconds after Clarissa described the military strength of these Villages, the table was silent. Already Donnyton was moving to push individuals into Classes that were easier for the holder to imagine themselves using with its most recent batch of NCCs ready to take a class, but everyone had doubts if this would materially affect their power.
Four more Villages with at least one Squad with that level of strength wasn’t a lot, but it would also shift the power focus across Earth. With more assistance coming from this new ally, Zone 1 would be able to rely on Donnyton’s controls less.
Which would then free up Donnyton to use its military resources for other projects, but it would mean they were losing political power.
Mrs. Hamilton clicked her tongue to bring everyone’s attention back to the current conversation. “And Zone One? Is everything still peaceful?”
Now Clarissa grimaced. “Well, it’s going to be rough in the next three months. The Senate has been doing alright after President Howard was found to be a vegetable, but elections are coming up. A lot of people are waiting to see if the Senator who built the Orchard is going to run.”
Mrs. Hamilton nodded absently. Sam scratched his chin in irritation. Although he wasn’t very much interested in these discussions, it was good to keep abreast of current affairs. And Sam could tell now was not a good time for Donnyton’s political power to be waning.
Donny leaned forward. “Anything out of Ghost?”
“Nothing much,” Clarissa said with a shake of her head. “Since the Senate passed those privacy laws, Ghost was forced to really curtail his observation drones. But there have been a lot of talks between Erickson Steel and West Providence. It’s clear that they are preparing to roll something out. Maybe a new Drone model.”
“I hope that means the old models will be cheaper,” Sam grumbled. He was always fascinated by the drones, but there just didn’t seem a point to spending the exorbitant sum that Erickson Steel demanded for them. Better to just purchase the raw steel.
But that didn’t mean Sam didn’t want to get his hands on one any less.
“Finally…” Donny spoke in a low voice. He folded his arms. “Were you able to get anything from inspecting the energy traces left by the Winged Serpent…?”
“A bit,” Clarissa said with a frown. “The formulae were complicated, but that was until I realized that all the component parts drawn with energy were actually 3-D figures imposed upon this plane-”
“Clarissa...” Donny sighed.
Clarissa jabbed her finger at him. “Very few other people would have thought of it! I’m just explaining so you can appreciate what I do for all of you. But yes. Nothing specific, but the origin is clearly East of Donnyton. Likely somewhere in the unexplored North part of the sea.”
Sam grimaced. If it was in the sea, they would need to rely on the locals in order to get there. As a landlocked entity, Donnyton didn’t have any navy. And the only real port they had access to was in Scant, which was a bit...
“The Royal Sea,” Mrs. Hamilton said with a curl of her lip. “That is what their… king has taken to calling it. The Royal Sea.”
Ed, who had blessedly been quiet until now, snorted loudly. “That man certainly has some balls on him, now doesn’t he?”
“He can back it up,” Mrs. Hamilton said calmly. “As far as we can tell, that Zone is almost five times the size of ours. Even now the edges of it continue to expand, although we have been stuck at our current size. The Royal Sea itself is about as wide as the rest of New Earth combined. Even if he doesn’t have the natural resources now, as his population grows he will inevitably become rich.”
“Why? Most of the sea hasn’t been explored. They can’t claim to be using it.” Alana said bluntly.
With an elegant gesture, Mrs. Hamilton shrugged. “Maybe, but I don’t want to be the first Zone to claim a portion of another Zone’s land. Besides, there is a lot that we can still do here, to improve Donnyton-”
“We aren’t claiming their land right now,” Alana said with flashing eyes. “We are tracking down these fucking Nemesai and putting them down. Even if the Ghosthound killed two, that still leaves-”
“He killed two?!?” Ed said, completely aghast. Sam sighed inwardly. The poor fool didn’t realize how out of his depth he was.
“Not that I think he won’t postpone, but we still have the challenge against Randidly in two days,” Mrs. Hamilton pointed out, ignoring Ed’s digression. “We also received word that we have been cordially invited to the first meeting of Zone Leaders in the Peerless Capital of Zone Seven.”
“Pretty bold of them to send out invites for the first world meeting after so recently joining New Earth,” Regina said quietly. Everyone’s expressions turned grim.
All except Mrs. Hamilton. She simply shrugged. “Honestly, someone had to. And I didn’t want it to be us. Because whoever did it, these sort of resentful feelings would have emerged toward us. We don't’ need that right now. Better that they take on this thankless task.”
“Ah, there’s one more thing,” Clarissa said. Everyone turned to her. After taking a long gulp from her glass of water, she spoke. “It wasn’t confirmed… but Ghost did say that he believes that another Zone connected Southwest of Zone 1.”
The table went silent for several seconds. The distant pressure of the System that they had been aware of for quite some time suddenly loomed over them.
“Which means…” Mrs. Hamilton finally said. “That only one more Zone connecting means the First Calamity will descend.”