Tatiana’s eyes shot open, then they narrowed. This was a yell she recognized, one she had heard far too many times in the past to mistake. The man Tooya was standing above Kari, glaring down at the fallen women. There was a fresh red mark on the side of her face where he had struck her.
Then things began to happen very quickly.
Her hands clenched into fists. There was a hand in hers, but it had slipped from her mind in the heat of the moment. Abruptly, she felt a flash of concern. Her Strength wasn’t something normal people could take, and she released the man’s hand. Hopefully, he would forgive her later.
Then everything was lost in a flood of red as Tooya raised his hand for another blow.
Ricky Stain was talking next to her. “Hey now, none of that at my party-”
Launching herself forward, Tatiana ripped through the 10 meters of space across the pool in a single step. When she landed, she leaped again and found herself next to the infuriated man and his grinning brother.
It was that grin that did it. It reminded Tatiana of grins she would rather forget.
Her Sinister Presence smashed outward with all of the fury she could muster. Intimidating Figure kicked on, as well as Ambitious Strength. The brother stumbled backward away from Kari, while Tatiana’s hand casually rose and stopped Tooya’s next blow.
For several seconds, Tooya struggled as the brother regained his feet. Almost at the same time, they realized what had happened. Their eyes narrowed in just the same ways; they were truly related, and the traits they shared were not ones that Tatiana would consider desirable. She suppressed the urge to strike to man and kept her voice even. Around them, the party was slowly grinding to a halt.
“Take a step back.”
Tooya seemed to finally realize what was happening, and why. And there was only incredulity in his eyes. “All this, for a fucking slut? She was-”
Tatiana flexed her hands, and her power gauntlets came out of her spatial watch and formed around her hands. “Back the fuck off, you prick.”
Across the pool, Ricky Stain was shouting. The brother drew a plasma pistol, but before he could get a bead on her, a hand grabbed his wrist and forced the pistol down. Griffith stood there, towering over the brother.
“No need to escalate this,” He said calmly. His gaze slid to Tatiana. There was a warning in his eyes. He would stand with her as long as she didn’t seek any retribution. His gaze traced her gauntlet, then flicked back to Tooya.
Then, as one, Tatiana and Griffith realized that neither had paid close enough attention to Tooya.
“If you don’t let me go, I’ll blow you the fuck to smithereens.” Tooya raved, waving around a plasma grenade in his free hand. Luckily, Kari seemed to finally come to herself, and she scrambled up and out of the middle of the standoff. Someone in the crowd caught sight of the weapons, and one person began to scream.
Then dozens joined, and people rushed away from the group standing around the pool.
“You’ll die too, I’ll only have a scar,” Tatiana hissed, hating that she would be forced back by this man’s idiocy.
His eyes were gloating and vicious. “You think I won’t-”
“No, you won’t.”
The man Baloo was there, and plucked the plasma grenade out of Tooya’s hand. No, he ripped it out of his hand, breaking several fingers in the process. The man began to howl. The grenade beeped as it engaged. Without a care, Baloo tossed the thing into the pool.
“Even with the water, that-” Griffith was saying, but then the grenade went off, a geyser of superheated steam and water shooting upwards in the air. A shockwave of air hit the group, staggering most of them. Steam billowed outward, blanketing them all. Tatiana’s initial thought was that the plasma would eat through and drop on the apartment below, but then she stood and spun because the brother had come free. Griffith had let go when the shockwave hit.
The brother was aiming, but not at her. Her guard slackened, and she opened her mouth to warn Baloo, but the brother already fired. The bolt of plasma streaked towards the man…
...and he casually reached up and caught it, then tossed it to the side. Then, as if it stung a bit, he shook his hand vigorously, as if to dislodge any remnant pieces.
Did Baloo have… some sort of gauntlet equipment too…?’ Tatiana wondered. But then she snapped back into focus, and spear tackled Tooya to the ground before he could regain his balance. With her non-gauntleted hand, she punched him, hard enough to break his jaw. Just one, for the one, hit he landed on Kari. Then she stood.
Griffith knocked out the brother. Baloo stood there casually, seeming to ignore the superheated steam. The pool was a smoking crater, barely any water remaining.
It seemed the party was over.
There was a cough.
“So,” The woman Sonya said, swaying as she walked over towards them. “Who is up for a nightcap?”
The bars that serviced the steelworkers were always open. It wasn’t Randidly’s first choice, but he was annoyed that the asshole Tooya had interrupted him from getting his fortune told. To his delight, Tatiana agreed to meet them for drinks, after she had checked in on the woman who had been hit. Griffith agreed to come too.
“It’s rough, out there,” Griffith was saying, as the group sat in the corner of the bar where Randidly had been approached about this party. They had gathered a small crowd of steelworkers, who were listening intently to Griffith’s story. “The monsters in the borderlands… they are made on a different scale. Before 50, each one gets stronger as they Level, but now they get smarter too. I don’t know how much you pay attention to Ghost’s quarterly information releases, but immediately after the borderlands opened up, he released a supplement confirming that monsters had Skills.
“Before, no monster had bothered to Level them. Now, it’s all they do. They were designed to kill.”
“Maybe,” A steelworker said, as Randidly flexed his hand underneath the table. “But the Tier 5 guys can handle it. This is what they trained for.”
Griffith just sighed. Surprising himself, Randidly spoke up. “...eventually, yes. Griffith isn’t saying they can’t, he’s saying that in the past, there were Levels, stats, and Skills. Levels could be adjusted, humans would have higher Skills, and monsters generally have higher stats. But now, the monsters have higher stats and higher Skills. Until the people can get their Skill Levels up to match, it will be hard. And as the difficulty of Leveling gets so high above 50…”
“Above 50…? Has someone reached it?” A young man asked, looking with bright eyes at Randidly. He opened his mouth, then closed it, shrugging. Well yes, someone had, but no one you would have heard of…
The discussion was about to resume once more when the door to the bar opened. Tatiana stepped through, looking exactly like a woman who wandered away from an opera into the wrong part of town. But despite the fact that she wore a cream dress covered in the prints of blooming golden flowers, she confidently walked into the bar, scanned around, and made a beeline for their table.
Feeling somewhat unsure, the steelworkers shuffled out of the way. She smiled at them kindly. “Please excuse me.”
It wasn’t that there were no female steelworkers, or that their steel town was so small and stuffy that there weren’t any pretty women here, but… Tatiana truly was at her best when eyes were on her. She had a strange ability to captivate. She was the perfect foil to Randidly, or perhaps the old Randidly. Begrudgingly or not, Randidly was slowly learning to deal with people. It was much easier now when the people here didn’t know him as the Ghosthound. Gave him a blank slate to start from.
After Tatiana sat, most of the steelworkers slowly started to drift away, giving her awed glances. Then their gazes turned envious as they looked at Griffith, Randidly, and Gregory, but still, they left. To them, it was probably clear that Tatiana came for a discussion that they wouldn’t be privy to.
And when the last person had drifted off, she started talking, and it wasn’t what Randidly was expecting.
“Thank you. Both of you.”