Drake clutched the fragile edge of the hot air balloon. The old man giving him a ride, Kairon, simply grinned at Drake’s obvious discomfort. And this was only about 50 meters off of the ground. Based upon what Kairon had told Drake, they would go much, much higher.
At this point, it was impossible to hide it anymore: Drake was afraid of heights. Almost cripplingly so. Before the System arrived, Drake used to love going on carnival rides that strapped him in and took him high up into the ai. At that moment, the crippling fear and adrenaline mixed in his bloodstream and set his heart a pounding.
A breeze blew past, causing the entire apparatus to sway. Drake’s grip on the rope frame tightened into a death grip. So much so that Kairon flapped his hand on Drake’s hand until he loosened his grip. After all, with his Stats, it was entirely possible to wear through even the most durable of ropes with an overly panicked grip.
Grumbling to himself as a way to not pay attention to how fragile the vehicle was, Drake sat down in the middle of the basket and reflected on what crimes he could have committed to end up here.
After washing up on the shores of a small village island with a dragon in hand, he had struggled for several days to talk to the locals. Due to the System, they obviously understood him. But it quickly became clear to Drake that the people living on that island didn’t care for his plight at all. There were probably just under 50 people grouped on the island, with about that many people again on a few smaller islands in the surrounding area. Every day they would get up and work, farming rice and fishing around their islands.
If it was a good day, they could also harvest fruit from some islands that were a farther distance away. On bad days, the village gathered and repelled the minions of a Raid Boss that would charge out to ambush the fishermen.
Drake’s second day was one of those bad days. A call quickly went up from one of the fishermen as he spotted the dark forms in the water swimming closer. In surprisingly quick fashion, the people gathered and equipped themselves with weapons. Although they were still dismissive of Drake’s request, he was pulled into the defensive line, although towards the back.
They came out in a wave, shrieking and screaming. The villagers, by contrast, fought in near silence as they filled the monsters full of holes and drove them back into the bloody water. By the end of the attack, Drake had worked his way to the front and was using his large frame covered in the Skeleton Armor to knock a half dozen fish monsters back at a time.
Perhaps this practical assistance was the key because soon after that the attitudes of the villagers warmed to Drake. He was treated to a basic meal of fish and rice fried in a fruit juice and was directly told that no one here could help him.
Initially, Drake assumed that the small boats that the village possessed were unable to travel the distance necessary to find the large island that served as the core of this Zone. Because due to what the villagers said, there was only one Village in the whole Zone. It was a rite of passage for young men and women seeking a Class to travel there and obtain power.
Some returned and others didn’t. It was difficult for the villagers to know if their young chose another island to start their home or died, but they seemed surprisingly ambivalent about the outcomes. By the end of hearing their explanation, Drake was actually starting to be profoundly impressed by the very utilitarian outlook. And based on everything he saw, everyone contributed and possessed a very high Skill Level in their individual tasks.
There was a difference in outlook here that likely originated before the System’s arrival, but it made the people here uniquely prepared to embrace the System. They were used to struggling to survive on a daily basis. The addition of monsters was troublesome, but Levels were convenient for the people here. Likely, that was why they were the third Zone to connect to the new Earth.
It made Drake re-evaluate what he expected from the most powerful warriors here. They were likely not a group to be trifled with.
But Drake’s strange assumptions about this Zone were popped when Kairon arrived with goods to trade. He arrived by hot air balloon, from Ifrenne, the city of dreams that sat above the clouds.
Sitting in the bottom of the hot air balloon basket, Drake repressed his dizziness as best he could. Sure, his Stats were incredibly high. But this was more instinctual than that. It was an irrational fear.
‘Well, not irrational,’ Drake thought to himself as his elemental crawled up onto the lip of the basket and sniffed the air. ‘One slip, and then…’
That gave Drake pause. With higher Stats, exactly how high was it possible to survive the fall from? Even into water? There is a terminal velocity, so in theory at some point-
Very quickly, Drake lost himself in the details of the fear, and the worst of it faded away. His hands stopped trembling and his breath came more easily. They likely traveled like that for a few hours when Kairon clicked his tongue.
“We are lucky,” Kairon announced. “The city has moved South for the fruit harvest. Look, friend, and witness beauty.”
Drake looked. He didn’t see beauty. To him, it looked like several sadistic twelve-year-olds were given all the materials in the world and were asked to build heaven. Instead, they built something that looked like a cross between a giant ropes course and a homemade treehouse made with recycled wood.
The thing truly was seemingly thrown together by hundreds of different people who were not working towards any common theme. There was a clear location where other hot air balloons were docking, but other than that it was all plank bridges and ropes between different spires of wood and tarp.
From Drake’s vantage point, there were 6 of these “spires” that were clustered in a group. Rising up from each was thick cables, and above there were absolutely enormous balloons, hanging above them like a fat and close moon. These balloons seemed to be sealed, so Drake surmised some sort of Skill kept them all afloat.
There were some smaller clusters of wood and rope, and these seemed to resemble floating apartment buildings more than anything else. They circled around the six main spires like bees, with thin ropes stretching to connect them to each other.
At least, Drake thought with disgust, there were several layers of nets hanging underneath the six main spires. But the ancillary buildings were floating above nothing. A fall from there-
“You are speechless; I was too on my first arrival.” Kairon said proudly. “But like all things, you grow used to it. Come, I will show you my home. In exchange, I only ask you tell me stories of these other Zones, haha. It is strange to think our narrow world is expanding once more…”
Heedless of Drake’s pale face, Kairon continued to chatter idly, an abrupt switch from his earlier recalcitrance. It seemed that his love for this city was so real that it could make the man ignore the danger of such a floating city. What if something was lit on fire? What if someone cut the ropes holding one of the spires up? Wouldn’t it drag the rest down? How much extra weight could the city handle?
What was WRONG with these people?
Very quickly, they approached one of the main spires, which did ease Drake’s worries somewhat. The docks were located near the top of the spire, spreading out like branches of a tree in zigzag patterns. As soon as they were close, Kairon hopped off of the basket with surprising spryness and began tying the balloon to the nearby posts. The wood creaked dangerously.
“Ah, before I forget… watch your step. My family is well enough off, but we must dock in the older sections.“ Kairon said apologetically. “Some of the wood here is beginning to rot from exposure to the elements. Watch your step.”
All of the blood drained out of his face. With extreme care, Drake leaned over the side of the rope basket and looked down. Beneath him, there were planks of wood, as would be seen on a normal dock. But below that, there was a 10-meter drop and there was a bulge of buildings and wooden enclosures. Ropes crisscrossed, seemingly at random. But if Drake looked to the side…
He saw the top of a cloud. A chilly wind brushed at his feet. The sun was setting in the West, casting a wave of warm color across the cloudscape beneath them. Truly, it was breathtaking. In the same way that death was.
Breathing out slowly, Drake stood and put his foot on the rickety looking boards of the dock. He shifted his weight slowly, and then pulled his second foot out and put it onto the dock.
The board broke underneath him with a gleeful crack.