So it was, about a month and a half since Randidly had arrived in the Zone, he had $9,670.00, and was just about to begin the smelting of what might be his final batch of metal as a steelworker when there was a knock at the door to his rented workroom.
Randidly paused. This… had never happened before. Was it Foreman Davey?
But when he opened the heavy metal door, there were two unfamiliar men in military uniforms. Both were wearing packs that contained expandable exosuits. Both seemed to be relatively capable, for men from Zone 1.
“Mr. Baloo Erickson.” The first man said. “It is unfortunate, but the military has been extremely hard pressed with the expansion of the Zone. Thousands die because we simply don’t have enough bodies. We are here to inform you that your military Skill has been noted. Congratulations: you have been invited to be part of a rescue operation, occurring tomorrow.”
Randidly smiled. “Unfortunately, I’ll be fulfilling an order for Foreman Davey tomorrow-”
“Such an invitation is compulsory for those who do not possess Tier I citizenship. Our orders come from a power much stronger than the Analytics team.” The man said with a sneer. His partner regarded Randidly with a more mild gaze, but the milder one was the more dangerous one, for sure. Still, it rankled to have these two here to strong arm him.
“...fine then,” Randidly said softly. He could flee, or resist, but he truly had felt guilty about the fact he had so much power and didn’t use it to help these people. He could have prevented thousands of deaths. These past few days, he had been haunted by those lives. And this haunting was far worse than it was when Randidly had killed the guards back in Shal’s world, as they escaped from the prison. This was a different sort of guilt, one he couldn’t shake. And it was affecting his image formation.
Then Randidly made to close the door, but the sneering guard stepped forward to block him. “Mr. Erickson, I trust you understand we cannot trust citizenship-less individuals. You haven’t proven yourself to the country. As such, you will be staying in a holding-”
“Oh?” Randidly’s voice was still soft, but now his smile was reckless. He opened up Indomitable Will of Yggdrasil and Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil. His whole bearing changed. Around him, he felt the illusion pulse and warp somewhat, under the Skill’s powerful effects. But at that moment, his eyes were emerald suns, burning with a righteous fury. “But I don’t want to. And that is enough, isn’t it?”
Dull-eyed, the guard stumbled backward, taking the Skills directly. Immediately, Randidly cut them off and turned to the other guard. “I’ll be there tomorrow. Be safe, friends.”
The other guard, who had only been hit by the edge, was still white. But he gave Randidly a tight-lipped nod as Randidly closed the door. Frowning, Randidly moved away and headed back to his metals. The fact they had approached him here… this wasn’t a random thing. Perhaps this was Tatiana’s warning finally coming to fruition. Was someone within the government throwing him in harm’s way as a favor for Tooya?
Randidly hadn’t seen the man or his brother around since the party. Even Ricky Stain had left him alone, although Randidly knew that the slimeball was still approaching other metal workers and getting them to go through him for their raw materials and sales. As Randidly expected, rumors had emerged that Ricky Stain provided raw ore that was of the most inferior grade, and most everyone had distanced themselves from him.
But there were always the desperate.
As for the current problem, the only question was whether the person who caused this would monitor his performance and attempt to hurt him more directly, or whether this experience was enough.
Randidly sighed. Remaining low-key was hard.
“Bulletsto- ah, fuck this.”
Hank stepped back, waving his hands placatingly. Grinning, Kayle stopped and spun his knives across his fingers.
“Surrendering so soon? That makes your record 0 and 10 against us.” Kayle said, the gloating evident in his tone.
“1 and 1 and 9,” Hank corrected, for the millionth time.
Kayle waved his hand airily. “The duel where you collapsed counted as a loss, not a draw. And also, the win was against Vandal. He’s just a kid. But you’ve recovered well, and you are much sharper now. Excited to head back into the borderlands, huh? We’ve finally been given orders to do a sweep through the edge of the Zone and find any more survivors. It will be good to move on from this Ghostice.”
Hank nodded slowly. It was time for their group to move on as well. They had stayed here two weeks already, first to allow him to recover from that close brush with a deadly Aether Starvation, and then to give Hank’s group the chance to fight with the locals, if they wished.
It was a summarily humiliating experience. Laurel had abstained, preferring to talk with the Zone 32 mages as to their training methods. But Affina, Ezekiel, and Hank when he recovered, all challenged the various members of the other expedition.
It quickly became apparent that there was a definite tier amongst the people, and between the two groups. At the bottom, there was the average fighter from the buckle wearing town, East End. They were strong, quick, and competent, but they were ultimately just grunt soldiers, and Hank’s group didn’t bother with them. Above them, there was a vast space with the Donnyton Squad members. They each had different strengths but were mostly role players. These too were ultimately set aside as opponents. Beyond them lay the third tier, and the place where Affina and Ezekiel found themselves suitably challenged. That was Vandal, the leader of Squad 29, and the two vice-captains of the other Squads.
These four were great at everything, and incredible at their own individual area. Fighting against them was usually a matter of a chess match, where you would try and get the opportunity to take advantage of the area in which you were great, and kept the opponent from doing the same.
Hank, especially after he had obtained the three new Skills and his evolved Soulskill, found these four to be increasingly easy to suppress. As he recovered and familiarized himself with his new tools, he felt an increasing gap opening up between them. Mostly, Hank believed it was his new SoulSkill, The Ballad of the Righteous Coyote. He just felt… grounded in a way that he had never previously. Like he was connected to something bigger, like the fabric of the world’s story was laid out before him.
With his Soulskill, he could understand a bit of what was occurring, or about to occur in the world. Knowing his role allowed Hank to exceed his normal performance. He was poised and ready for any trouble the world might throw at him. And in a strange way, Hank felt he could lift his nose to the wind and smell trouble coming a mile off.
Right now, he smelled it both in front of him and behind him, which was disturbing. But his instincts seemed to push him forward. Besides, he had a responsibility to speak with the political leaders of this Donnyton. This was his path.
Well, that was at least how it felt to Hank. It was a nebulous thing, this feeling his Soulskill gave him. But it was delightful to feel.
When he brought it up to Laurel, she gave him a strange look, then shrugged. This gave him more worries than relief because she was the type that became extremely quiet and solemn only when she felt something serious was occurring. When Hank asked Paolo and Kayle, he received a much more direct answer.
They exchanged knowing looks, and then Kayle said. “You’ll have to talk to Nathan if you want to know anything more specific… but I suspect what you feel is a bit of pure Aether. It will make the System more malleable to you for a while. Relish this chance, they are hard to come by.”
After some searching, Hank had learned that Nathan had returned to the borderlands right after helping him. He resolved himself to thank the kid when he came back through the borderlands.
When Hank himself wasn’t dueling, he was watching other duels, of all levels of strength and skill. There were group battles too, generally 5 on 5s, between the Donnyton Squads, and also between Donnyton and East End. Although there was a powerful rivalry, there was also an admirable comradery there. But Hank supposed that was just the way it had to be, between people of this level of strength. Everyone knew how hard getting here was. There was a respect for that.
Hank tried the group fights once, but it was a whole different animal. In that match, he was isolated from his squad and knocked out. Luckily, a woman who used two shields, named Cassie, smashed apart the enemy forces in the time it took for Hank to finally go down, rendering his squad the victor.
But the fun couldn’t last. It had been two weeks of training, and it was time to move on. When Hank counted up his PP, his eyebrows rose precipitously. He had gained almost 70 Skill Levels over these two weeks. Most of it was in his new Skills, but still…
That was more PP than he had gained in any month for the past year and a half. And that was with him spending most of the first week recovering in bed.
‘This is the difference between us,’ Hank thought, reflecting on his losses. ‘This is the line. And from what they said… Paolo and Kayle are some of the best, but they aren’t the best. Hell, what is the best of Zone 32 like?’