“9 Skill Levels from less than 60 seconds of fighting,” Hank whispered, looking at his hands. It had taken a while, but the headache from the sound waves had passed and now that the group had moved some distance away from the moaning ram they had some time to reflect on what exactly they had gotten themselves into.
They were lucky in that no one was seriously injured. The first ram was young, and the second was arrogant enough that it was stuck on the fact that such creatures as their team would challenge its child. By the time it realized the enormity of the threat that these humans could pose, it’s greatest weapon, its horns, had been cracked.
Even now, the thing continued to live, thrashing around in the valley below them. Laurel had access to some warding Skills, so they penned it in and left ways to monitor it. The ward wouldn’t be able to block it at its strongest point at all, but with its health deteriorating, it was likely bound by them. Even if it wasn’t, with enough warning, the team could arrive and finish it off quickly.
But if it would die on its own, there was no reason to expose themselves to more risk.
First with his fingers, then with Mana, Hank thoroughly worked over the golden horns fragments he had collected from the area of their battle. They were a metal but felt far, far heavier, denser even than lead. It was something otherworldly, something that seemed to sing with power, even though it was something that had been broken by his infused bullets.
'This is what I was missing,' Hank thought, but his eyes weren't on the golden fragments, they were locked on the unfocused middle ground of possibilities.
Because he had learned something today, about the System. Sure, he had heard similar things from Ghost, but it hadn't meant as much as the true experience he just experienced. When it came to leveling Skills, repetition and practice weren't enough. What you truly required was struggle and strife. Compared to someone who threw themselves on the front line, Hank who spent most of his time patrolling a small border town was only one third as Leveled.
Sure, he had been diligent in raising his Level, but almost immediately upon arriving in the borderlands, they had come face to face with a threat that vastly outclassed them. Levels were one part of it, but it was a part that they would naturally close the distance to in time. But the destructive power of those sonic horns, even while damaged, demonstrated that it wasn't just stats, but Skill Levels that lay between their two relative capabilities.
"I've grown... soft." It was a hard thing to admit. But after saying it, Hank's face split into a wide smile. His father had impressed upon Hank the importance of a hard day's work, and that's all this was. Perhaps he had wandered away from that creed in recent years, where his antagonism towards the Tier System had left him bitter and reliant on alcohol, but a legitimate threat instantly wiped that away. The new perspective showed Hank what could be accomplished, and how he might do it, but it also warned that it would be dangerous and difficult.
If you don't do it, who will?
By the firepit, Laurel leaped to her feet. "The ram is moving!"
Everyone quickly got up, their faces serious. As one, their gazes converged on Affina, who was frowning.
"I cannot sense much, but... the jade should still be growing," She said, with a slight hesitation. Ezekiel snorted but said nothing. As one, the group dashed out of the treeline and to the area that Laurel had warded.
When the crested the hill and had vision on the ram, their faces froze.
It was a mass of gore.
That was perhaps the first, and most striking of the occurrences. That ram, which had resisted both Hank's bullets, Ezekiel's spells, Katie's plasma, and Affina's strikes had been reduced to a smashed lump of flesh and blood. It wasn't just the ram that what crushed, the ground underneath it had been thoroughly recked as well; there was a crater about a meter across underneath the body, and several thin cracks running outward from the zone of impact.
Next to the ram, there were two men, who were gazing up towards them. They had been talking, as Hank had been able to pick up the sound of their conversation earlier. But as soon as the group moved to approach after Laurel announced something had happened to the ram, they had ceased to speak. They had heard Hank's group coming.
The two diverse groups regarded each other, scrutinizing the other.
The first and more imposing of the two men was a young black man. He currently still showed some youthful exuberance in his face and body, but it was clear that when the young man truly matured, he would be more muscle than man. Already, his arms and legs were thick and powerful, the veins clear on his limbs. The black man kept his dark hair cropped short. Then Hank looked at the most impressive part of the man: he was holding what appeared to be a giant iron ball, probably a meter across.
The implications weren't lost on Hank. This man had used brutal, physical force in order to crush the ram in a single strike, likely taking advantage of its blindness and wounds to finish it in a single blow. Some part of Hank was quite annoyed that someone else had swooped in on his kill, but the fact that the man could casually crush the ram's entire body... it seemed that these two were powerful enough to be confident walking around the border zone alone. What was more impressive was that they had crossed the entire distance between their Zone and Hank's Zone so quickly. They had a day's headstart, but... It also meant that the two were confident that they could travel quickly, as well as safely. And likely, these two men filled the same role that Hank and his group did.
After a few seconds of examination, the black man turned to the second man, his eyes flicking to the side, his mouth curled into a frown. Hank's eyes narrowed in response; so this second man was in charge.
The second man seemed to be of Indian descent, with dark hair and strong cheekbones. But where the black man was physically domineering, the Indian man slender and almost gangling. He obviously was in shape, but it was the shape of someone who jogged casually on the weekends, not of an athlete. Unlike his companion, the Indian man had no obvious weapon, but-
Hank's eyes widened in shock. He had been so focused on figuring these two figures out, that he had missed the largest and most obvious detail about them: they were dressed up as if they were heading to a renaissance fair. Both wore leather armor, with glints of light off of chainmail that they wore under it. Hank's first reaction to think it ludicrous, but then he realized that the leather likely wasn't taken from cows, but from monsters. Depending on the monster, the leather would likely be impossibly strong; there were some Level 40 monsters that could resist several direct blasts of plasma before they were wounded.
Such a thing was considered by Ghost, but ultimately, the difficulty of processing the bodies of monsters, combined with the reliability of the exosuits had invalidated that possibility.
Not in this Zone.
The silence between them had now stretched for 10 seconds or so. Hank was very away that the black man had held his giant ball aloft and still for the entire period, without even a hint of strain. That was Strength of 250, at least, but it would be easier to estimate if they had one of Ghost's cameras.
Now that was somewhat odd. Ghost hadn't insisted that they bring a camera with them.
Before he could follow that train of thought further, the Indian man cleared his throat. "You are the group that cleared the Raid Dungeon first, yes? Congratulations, you are a credit to humanity. I am Dinesh, and this is Tykes. We hail from Zone 32."
Coming from Dinesh's mouth, with the two of them standing over the corpse of the ram they had so struggled against, the compliment sounded incredibly hollow. Still, it was an opening, and they had to start somewhere. Hank responded, "We are from Zone 1. We were... surprised how quickly another Zone beat the Raid Dungeon. But I suppose we can both benefit greatly from helping each other out. Do you-"
"That was our kill," Ezekiel interrupted, his eyes bright and dangerous.
Tykes responded by showing his teeth. "If it was your kill, you would have killed it."
In the hand that wasn't holding onto the large metal ball, Tykes spun an object in his hand with obvious satisfaction; it was the intact golden horn from the ram. Ezekiel's eyes turned red. There was also something extremely strange in the air, a feeling of foreignness that was coming from Ezekiel that was disconcerting.
Both Hank and Dinesh started to speak at the same time.
"Now listen, y'all-"
"Perhaps we can-"
Ignoring them both, Ezekiel drew a plasma pistol and fired, aiming for Tykes.
"Shit," Hank drew his repeater but didn't fire, feeling somewhat helpless. His bullets could pierce through the plasma if he used his Trick Shot, but that would only stop a small portion of the plasma. He simply didn't have enough time or the angle to destroy the projectile.
Dinesh frowned, and Hank saw a Mana Shield spring to life in the middle of the two groups. The plasma hit the shield and almost instantly ripped through the shield, but it lost a lot of its momentum, its arc pulling it directly to the ground where it sizzled and ate itself a sizable hole into the dirt.