It was announced very quickly that this break would be extended to two hours so the arena could be reconstructed. The combination of the roots and the gale-force winds had reduced the large arena to a pile of rubble. Even the engineers seemed rather nonplussed by the devastation; everyone was slowly coming to terms with the capability they just witnessed.
A rather shell-shocked and confused Xia allowed herself to be escorted by Han Yazhu out of the arena and toward Donnyton proper. The sun was sinking toward the horizon, signaling that it was time for dinner. The break couldn’t have come at a better time.
Sluggishly, the crowd shifted around them, still trying to understand what had occurred in the last two fights. Everyone could feel it; something had changed. But no one could quite put their finger on what was now different. It was a feeling in the air.
The low brush of the wind sent everyone into a fit of shivers.
Eventually, Han led the two members of the Zone Seven government to an adorable little restaurant that smelled strongly of garlic. A smiling Italian woman took their drink order and flounced off, leaving them with a modicum of privacy in their tucked-away booth. There was a candle in the middle of the table that Xia stared at for several seconds before speaking.
“Han, what was that?” Xia said shortly.
What followed was a long pause while both of them wrestled with that question. Xia could tell from Han’s expression that he had a similar reaction. The culmination of the most recent challenge had been… difficult to follow. From a rather mellow discussion, the fight had abruptly accelerated to the point that their Perceptions were completely insufficient.
It started with lightning. With a power that was intimidating in its own right, Clarissa began to throw huge bolts of lightning that crashed downward toward the standing form of Randidly. Even more intimidating was the fact that those attacks were easily neutralized by the huge tree that towered over him, without him needing to act at all.
But then Clarissa’s Skills came faster and faster, stronger and stronger, stirring up the air and causing a veil of low clouds to form above the arena. Small, chilling drops of rain had landed on Xia’s hands and neck. Tingles spread throughout her body and the hairs on her arm stood straight up.
Then the attacks grew in frequency to the point that it was impossible to see what was occurring in the arena. Lights and noises blended into a rich fog of animation that didn’t seem to be real. Soon that too passed as a terrible darkness descended over the arena. There was only the terrible roaring noise and gusts of dust-choked winds that screened vision.
When all of the chaos subsided, Randidly stood, surrounded by wickedly twisting roots that were thrust into the air. More than anything else, those curling roots reminded Xia of gravestones. It seemed to her that their presence was an overt statement of power; had Randidly Ghosthound given it his all, he would have left the most recent squad buried on that ruined arena.
The wind exhausted itself and Randidly stood over a kneeling woman in an empty graveyard.
“...it is difficult to answer,” Han Yazhu finally said. “There were things I have seen that likely you were unable to witness, but… there were also things I do not know. By the end of it… their power...”
“What is there to know? We do not have that kind of power.” Xia said bitterly. She had always known that Donnyton was powerful. Economically and socially, all roads in the current political climate of Earth seemed to lead to Donnyton. But to see someone conjure a storm out of thin air and use it as a weapon…
Zone Seven was struggling to catch up to Donnyton in terms of production; they held no hope of rivaling that amount of military power. And Clarissa was only a single woman.
Han leaned forward. “Do not falter. We always knew that Donnyton had deep reserves of strength. Is that not why we have refrained from stepping up hostilities with them? No matter how small the pond, the local ruler wields immense strength. But we need to take the long view-”
“How long would it take for our armies to stand against that storm?” Xia couldn’t contain her frustration. Her hands were trembling. She couldn’t forget how she had so recently recommended that they do just that: engage in overt fighting with Donnyton before they could grow stronger. If the fellow minds of Xiang Le had agreed with her…
Xia shook her head. “We are a people that have always sacrificed small comforts for the long view of the world. Yet is there a path where we could overtake Donnyton?”
To that, Han Yazhu just looked tired.
Xia knew it was a difficult question. The System was a variable that continually threw new threats at them. Zone Seven had stabilized by turning their Villages into fortresses, but that also meant that there were portions of the countryside that were filled with Raid Boss spawn. The concentration of people gave Zone Seven increased control over the population, but it had bred resentment. Even ever-loyal Han wouldn’t deny that.
Yet those costs would have been worth it if it would lead Zone Seven to a glorious future. And yet now...
Their conversation was further derailed by a man sauntering up to their table and tapping his finger against the heavy wood. He flashed a handsome smile at the two of them, pushing back his hair to reveal sharp eyes. “Have room for a third?”
To Xia’s surprise, Han Yazhu nodded seriously. This made her give this new arrival a more careful inspection. There was no way that Han Yazhu’s panicked protection of her would allow him to simply allow a stranger to make himself comfortable at their table. Therefore, this must have been arranged.
The arrival was tall and self-assured, grinning at Xia in an extremely disrespectful way. But as she examined his cocky demeanor with more focus, a name clicked in her head. “Ah. Ace, correct? To think the leader of the Refuge would slip into Donnyton for the challenge as well. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Who would miss it? It makes my blood burn to watch. I almost wish I could join the Squads fighting up there.” Ace laughed. “It’s easy to forget he’s human, Randidly. The way he fights… the things he creates. He just keeps on surprising me…”
“Did you see how he did it?” Han interrupted. Xia pressed her lips together; she didn’t like the frank statement of their weakness. To ask Ace with such desperation in the tone was to reveal they had not been able to find out the answer themselves.
Although both she and Han Yazhu had trained to become sufficiently strong, they had to go through none of the hardships that those of Donnyton’s Zone endured. Zone Seven was one of the eight Zones that received word beforehand of what was to come. So they were prepared.
Or they thought they had been. The System was much more dangerous than they had been warned.
Yet right now, Xia couldn’t fault Han; she was curious about what had occurred as well.
It was obvious from the remnants that Clarissa had someone summoned a great deal of destructive wind. It seemed like the ground had been ripped up in a cone, the point aiming directly toward Randidly’s heart. Yet as that dust settled, those tall twisting roots remained, unbroken by the earlier violence.
Yet as the dust settled, Randidly stood in that same spot, just looking at the exhausted Clarissa. She hadn’t even been able to force him to move.
Ace grimaced and rubbed his shoulders. “Well, I can’t deny that I saw it, but I don’t think me telling you how he did it will make much sense… Some parts of his life just sound made up. Randidly used those roots to reach up and… snatched the wind. Physically covered it with roots and pressed down. Smashed it into nothing.”
“You cannot grab the wind,” Han said with a curt shake of the head.
Ace laughed awkwardly. “I don’t know what to say to that. But I can say that Randidly certainly did just grab the wind and smash it to nothing. That’s just the sort of man he is.”
“Wind is air,” Xia said tartly. “It would flow right around any attempts to grab it. It compresses easily into small spaces and it is part of grand weather patterns that dwarf the significance of humans. The strength of an entire climate is not a simple thing, Mr. Ace.”
“Call me Mr. Ridge, if you insist on being stuffy.” Ace said with a shrug. “If you were right about that… we wouldn’t be so impressed, now would we? It shouldn’t be possible. It definitely wasn’t easy. And the worst part was that he wasn’t spent after the process. Which is why we are speaking, is it not? Because you have witnessed the depth that Donnyton possesses. Even setting aside the monster that is Randidly Ghosthound, could you endure Clarissa?”
That silenced Xia. Her logical brain continued to insist that explanation wasn’t plausible. Yet she was also struck by the truth in the second thing that Ace suggested; that even the loser in that exchange was beyond Zone Seven.
The System had pushed Earth beyond a logical understanding. It was now almost more story that substance. Which Randidly was pushing even more forcefully with his focus on images. Zone Seven was prepared to buckle down and work together to advance the glory of their Zone to be the gem of Earth. That was their image. Progress through unity.
Donnyton worshipped individual power. Clarissa was practically a miracle worker with the Skills she was able to use.
Yet Randidly Ghosthound was on a completely different path. A path that ran roughshod over both. And the power he displayed made it seem very foolish to not walk that same path.
“But it’s brought us together, hasn’t it?” Ace’s smile was wide and shark-like. For the first time since they met, Xia felt a dangerous tingle between her shoulder blades as she looked at him. Her eyes narrowed. For all that this man looked like simply a fool, he was dangerous. Powerful enough to have assisted the Undying Hero and endured Donnyton’s ire.
It isn’t simply Donnyton that possesses a hidden monster.
“A beautiful and auspicious meeting,” Han agreed with a dry tone. Ace’s smile stretched wider, but he didn’t comment on the edge of sarcasm to Han’s voice. “Our brilliant Zone would be happy to arrange a trade agreement with the Refuge. From what I understand, much of the… less official goods pass through the Refuge. It is said that you can buy anything under the sun within its walls.”
“It is true,” Ace agreed with a smile. “So… What does Zone Seven want to buy?”
“...obviously challenging Donnyton directly is difficult…” Han said slowly. Then he leaned forward. “Yet… I have gone into the markets, and seen many… unique items. Bits of pure elemental energy, condensed. As Donnyton’s production is very… idiosyncratic, they are moving toward relying heavily on these bits of energy. If we would be able to dominate that market...”
“East End’s Elemental condensations,” Xia said quietly. “How are they made?”