Hoping that this was the end of the incident and they could brush it off, Hank turned to Ezekiel, but he stopped short. The man's entire eyes had turned a crimson color, and there was a strange, sulfurous smell in the air.
"Mine... mine... mine... MINE!" What started as mutters transformed into a bellow, and Ezekiel waved his hands wildly. "Acid Maelstrom!"
Globs of green liquid appeared around Ezekiel and in the air above him. First a dozen, then a hundred, but soon a thousand, without the genesis of the strange globs slowing in the least.
"I'll take it ALL!" Ezekiel shouted, his eyes red, foam forming at the edges of his mouth. Those thousand globs of acid began to spin together in a strange formation, then the whole thing shot forward, followed by the hundreds of follow up globs. Again, Hank was frozen, shocked by the sudden change in Ezekiel. Sure, the man was always an asshole, but this was just... insane. These were PEOPLE. If they could ally with this Zone 32-
After throwing the attack, however, Ezekiel shivered and then collapsed. But the dice had already been thrown. Around Hank, the rest of his party seemed similarly shocked, even Affina looking slightly aghast, her blind eyes searching in the sky for what was occurring. Only Katie seemed to know where this was coming from, a bitter expression on her face. Apparently, Ezekiel was kept in the Holding Area for good reason.
Contrary to expectations, Dinesh and Tykes didn't seem upset. Their eyes glowed with interest, and they shared a glance. After a second, even as the huge attack covered over half of the distance between them, Tykes rolled his eyes and snorted. His giant iron ball disappeared and he folded his arms.
Meanwhile, Dinesh smiled.
"Domain: Labyrinth of Mirrors."
Instantly, dozens of transparent squares, 1 meter by 1 meter, flew up from Dinesh. The air around him crackled, and he folded his palms in his hands. After another second, the air began to bend and twist, and Affina spoke.
"This... this man's Mana is so strong and thick that it destroys the air. I can see him... see his silhouette as clear as day."
The two forces met. The hissing and bubbling acid globs smashed into the transparent squares. From what Hank could observe, these squares were a variation on the Mana Shield. But they were so, so much more than that. Hank wasn't sure whether the acid was stronger or weaker than the plasma, but he hoped it was weaker.
It took about 3 globs to destroy a square, and often that just let the square with a large hole in the center. Instantly, when their blocking capabilities were compromised, the squares would pivot backward, flying towards Dinesh. Another square was already there to take the first's place, and the wounded one would slowly heal next to Dinesh.
A thousand collisions happened in the first second, and hundreds in the following 10 seconds. Very quickly, Dinesh's strange domain was devoured, the acid ripping its way through, but there was always more barriers there, folding outward, collapsing inwards, guiding the poison so it was useless, so two globs would ricochet off of each other, depleting their effectiveness. And after the first wave pierced through, Dinesh's Skill expanded outward, boxing in the poison, separating each branch of the Maelstrom, making it so that they couldn't concentrate the attack in any one direction, piercing through with force. The Poison Maelstrom was helpless, as Ezekiel collapsed, leaving it without direction.
By the 12th second, the attack was defeated, and Dinesh's strange Skill folded back into himself, disappearing into nothing.
Hank coughed. "Mighty obliged for that. I dun know how I would have explained to my boss that we killed the first diplomatic delegation we ran into."
Tykes snorted, and Dinesh smiled politely.
"The pleasure was all mine," Dinesh said. "It is very rare that I get the chance to test my Domain as thoroughly as that... perhaps you would be willing to accompany us back to our current base. There we can confer... and of course, compensate you for stealing your kill."
Tykes rolled his eyes.
An hour later, Hank and his group arrived at the base of the Zone 32 delegation, which turned out to be... extremely peaceful. Almost disturbingly so.
Ezekiel hadn't yet awakened, so Hank and Katie had created a stretcher to carry him. When they arrived, they carefully set Ezekiel down. Hank had a lot of questions, but couldn't think which to ask first.
A 10-year-old child, who had been peacefully cutting wood, stopped and looked at them. Then he skipped over to them as if there weren't monsters in the surrounding area that would rip his stomach out as soon as look at him. Behind him, there was a strange sort of house, constructed of what looked like tightly wound together thorny roots.
"Oh wow! You found people so quickly!" The boy said. "It's only been two days!"
Tykes shrugged, as if this was completely natural, considering his level of Skill, and ruffled the boy's hair as he walked past the kid to head towards the house.
Inwardly, Hank was shocked. 'What do you mean finding us in two days was fast?!?. We had a head start! How did YOU set up a vacation cabin here in the woods so quickly?'
The surrounding land was rocky but idyllic. It did not look like the type of area to be in one of the most dangerous areas known to man. At the other end of the rocky slope, there was a cleft in the rock that was the start of a ravine. Then entrance was smoking and ominous, and Hank's instincts were telling him that that path led into a danger zone. Yet this group was bold enough to just set up shop here?
"We got lucky," Dinesh said to the kid. "We encountered them in the wild. If we had to go all the way into the other Zone, it would have taken much longer. Where is Randidly?"
"Ah, him and Neveah went back in there." The kid said, pointing towards the ominous opening. "You know how pissed he was that the... uh... 'ogre-bastard' had the immunity Skill. He swore to finish it this time."
"Thank god that crazy bitch is gone," Tykes whispered, a flash of fear in his eyes as he continued to walk towards the cabin.
From the cabin, two people emerged, a short Hispanic man and a large, well-endowed woman.
"Guests!" The Hispanic man said, his voice almost hysterical from excitement. He instantly turned around and went back inside.
Dinesh rolled his eye, and turned back to Hank's group. The kid came and stood next to him, regarding them with interest. "Don't mind them. It is obvious that all of you share some common military training. We are more... haphazard in our training. But I assure you that we are all strong, in our own way."
"No offense taken," Laurel said, turning on the charm for this strange. "It's welcoming. Nothing is as important as genuine goodwill. I'm very curious, however; you are all wearing... leathers?"
The kid made a face. "Do you jeans in my size? I really miss jeans."
As one, the group chuckled. Dinesh said. "Yes. Our Zone... had its advantages, but having stores of pre-System goods was not one of them. We were forced to make most everything form scratch, so we were technologically set back quite a ways. But of course, this meant that we learned very quickly to produce System style equipment, to provide modest boosts to our stats. It balanced out in the end, I suspect."
Affina blinked. "System style equipment?"
Dinesh tilted his head to the side, confused. "Yes, like you can buy from Village stores you can purchase for points.,
"Oh." Affina said simply, nodding. No one was fooled. Dinesh was now giving their group a very strange look. Hank rubbed the back of his neck.
"...as I understand it, our leaders made the decision to save all points and put them towards upgrading the Village. We very rarely used points to create the buildings offered."
"Oh." Now it was Dinesh who didn't know what to say.
"That's dumb." The kid announced.