Liz was pretty impressed with the the evolution of the obstacle course they had managed to throw together. The platforms were built to scale and were spaced similar to the school’s exterior. It gave a great platform for Mark to perform his abilities. It had been a bit of a chore to get the measurements during their last drop-off, but Dad had been a little more lax on exploring the outside of the building rather than the inside. On the plus side, Liz had the school layout in her head pretty accurately and Eddie had told them the standard sizes they should expect for building code stuff. The first day it was just a bunch of platforms and ladders but just one day and an eager Camp Randall had really helped it all come together. Liz could tell they were getting better with their skills when training on it.
The only thing not coming together was actually getting the note. Yesterday when they tried a second attempt it had been almost as bad as the first. Liz was forced to admit they would need to work together to pull this off. Liz and Mark had formulated a pretty solid plan together and Liz clenched her teeth in frustration as she thought back to the attempt they had just failed at. Their combined efforts had gotten them really close, but they had actually run out of time before they had gotten to the note. Dad applauded their efforts, but didn’t budge an inch on his requirements for letting them go into the school.
Liz sighed and let some of the stress drain away. No sense worrying about it now. She was actually enjoying the freedom of being able to work on her skills in relative peace. The morning hunting sessions were easier and easier as people developed the skills and abilities they needed to survive in the new world. Also, they stopped doing multiple groups. Even though it took longer no one complained. Nothing even closely resembling the giant beak bear had appeared and the hunts had been relatively boring but the memory of the beast was enough to keep them from taking risks.
There were still a few spots of concern in the back of Liz’s mind. She pulled up her log to review the main culprit.
Zone CO80232 Bleed-off successful.
Stabilization Crystal at power density level 1
Capacity reduced by 5% (54% current)
Their own zone was doing fine and their continued hunting efforts were yielding great results in terms of capacity. It was whenever they entered the area around the high school that she got nervous.
Zone CO80228 Bleed-off failed.
Stabilization Crystal at power density level 1
Capacity increased by 3% (94% current)
The fact that the system was now displaying the zip codes to their respective areas lent further credence to the idea that this was somehow a group of humans helping them along. She couldn’t imagine a group of aliens researching zip codes to define geographic areas. The only problem with this factoid was that if humans were building the system, then it would mean getting to 100% would probably be a really bad thing. At least, Liz would only design a display going up to 100% unless something major happened at that number. You also wouldn’t put the word ‘fail’ in front of a notice unless it was a problem.
Shaking her head in anger at the sheriff’s refusal to see logic she turned her attention back to the obstacle course. While today’s attempt failed they knew their plan was solid so the only thing to do was practice. Mark had gotten Natasha into place using his abilities, and now it was her turn. Liz had been practicing her Eyes of the Beast and it was now much improved. She could get much more information from her pets and her range had increased dramatically. With her new enhancements she could give better advice to her pet and use the feedback from the ability to help her get around the building much easier.
Once she was dropped off, Natasha and Liz had no troubles successfully navigating the rest of the obstacles. She hi-fived Mark and petted Natasha in celebration. That was the first time they had run the course flawlessly in it’s new iteration. They were as ready as they could get for their attempt tomorrow. Honestly, Liz worried that this was going to be the final attempt regardless, whether they succeeded or not. If that counter crossed 100% she didn’t know if the new situation wouldn’t require them to openly walk into a burning building instead of sneaking in under cover.
Natasha created a little platform out of shadow and used it to leap up to Liz’s shoulder. She smiled seeing the manifestation of her pet’s ability. All her pets had started to gain increasingly impressive abilities. Liz wasn’t sure if it was the mana cores they ate or her own growing ability levels causing the change. She wasn’t going too worried about it though. The shadow manipulation was really cool.
“Who’s the best spy mouse!”
Natasha is best spy! Natasha projected lifting her arms up to indicate that yes, she was indeed the best spy mouse.
Mark probably would have grumbled about her pets getting cool powers, but she could tell how eager he was to try and get the note. Whatever slight he felt at not developing a cool new ability during the past few days was outweighed by his need to succeed. She hoped the fact that his control on his current set of abilities had skyrocketed would help keep him focused too.
“We’re going to rock this Mark. We’ll get a message to George, and if things are bad we’ll get him and everyone else out.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s just no one knows what’s going on there. Haley is a mess. I feel real bad for her, you know?”
Liz did, and she knew Haley wasn’t the only one worried about what was going on in the high school. Quite frankly, most of Camp Randall had expressed concern. All the other pockets of people they had found were more than willing to share information and resources, keeping the dire warnings from the system at bay by helping with hunting and organizing clearing parties. The fact that the high school was the only human stronghold near Green Mountain complicated things even further, since they were particularly close to the crystal. Tomorrow. Tomorrow they would find out what was going on inside those walls.
As Liz started clearing up some of the obstacles Alana gave a caw of warning. Mark immediately turned at the sound and Moonlight dashed over to Liz. Liz put her hand on Moonlight getting ready to run if needed. Her wolf had mostly healed, and while she couldn’t ride her that well, she could still hang on to her for a bit and get some distance from any immediate dangers. Looking through Alana’s eyes she saw a small group of people coming up. She relaxed her grip and returned to her own senses.
“Four peeps incoming!” She shouted, and Mom walked over to process the newcomers. It was starting to become a somewhat normal circumstance. Over the past few days another six people had filtered in from various places. She sent Moonlight back as a giant wolf was not the best welcoming committee for people looking for refuge and shelter. She wondered if she had made the right call as the group got closer. She felt that this group was off somehow.
“Well, lookey here Foss! We got ourselves some beauties! Armed too! So scary!” They said with a mocking tone as they looked over the assortment of weapons the Randall’s carried.
“Yeah Bobby, I see. Ladies, kid, looks like you’re expecting trouble. What do you say you give us those weapons so as we can help deal with that trouble for you.” The man, presumably named Foss, made an exaggerated motion with his wooden bat as he slung it over his shoulder. There were some nails at the end as well as some dried blood.
“Mom, are they trying to intimidate us?” Liz asked confused. The guys were all overweight and out of shape, but she knew that wouldn’t necessarily mean anything these days. “Can you see their levels?”
“All level one, no abilities.” Mom quietly replied. Her observation skills had grown over the past few days as well and the information she could get at a glance was pretty impressive. What wasn’t impressive was a bunch of people with no abilities trying to threaten the most powerful individuals in Camp Randall. In fact, Liz couldn’t suppress a giggle after hearing Mom’s statement.
“You think this is funny girl?” Bobby said taking a short step forward and slamming his foot in an overly dramatic fashion. “We need those weapons, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be nice a quick about it, or else.”
“Mom, Eddie can repair asphalt now, right?”
“Yes dear, but don’t make too big a hole.” Mom had a pretty good idea about what was going to happen and she put a hand on Mark’s shoulder to prevent him from jumping into the fray.
In a smooth motion Liz pulled an arrow, fully charged it, and pathed it towards the thugs. In less than a second her arrow sped out, chopped the baseball bats being bandied about in half, flew up with a flourish, and then raced downwards into the pavement causing an impressive explosion with its remaining energy. She drew another arrow, non-charged this time. She had never shot at another person before, but she had known this situation was a possibility since day one, and she was sure as hell not going to be cowed by these thugs. She didn’t know if she was prepared to kill someone, but an arrow to the knee seemed like a good way to stop someone. They certainly wouldn’t be adventuring much afterwards.
“Heh, arrow to the knee.” Liz laughed at her own joke while Mark gave her a confused look.
“You know, they used to be bandits until they took an arrow to the knee?” She tried to clarify for Mark.
“Oh! Yeah! I remember that, good one!” He laughed as well remembering the meme.
The would be bandits were decidedly not as amused, and in fact, a growing damp trickle down the leg of the previously blustering Bobby was a good indicator of exactly what they were feeling right now. Their eyes were darting between the large hole in the ground, their shattered weapons, and the arrow now trained on them.
A few people had come over to observe the disturbance, including Dad. The thugs managed to look even more uncomfortable as they realized they were also outnumbered as well as outgunned.
“Uh, we didn’t mean anything by that. We just thought you might have some spare weapons.” a now terrified Foss stuttered out.
“We do not. Not for your type. You will leave now, and if you try this again, or if we ever hear of you threatening others, we will find you and make sure you never have the opportunity to threaten someone again.” Mom said in no uncertain terms.
Dad, seeing an opportunity to drive the point home further, drew a sidearm and four quick shots later all the thugs had their stump of a baseball bat shot out of their hands. Liz didn’t think their eyes could pop out anymore than they had already, but they somehow managed it.
“I trust that my wife doesn’t need to repeat herself.” He concluded.
“But, you just destroyed our weapons, and there’s crazy stuff everywhere!” one of the nameless thugs in the back cried.
“You literally just threatened to beat up and steal the weapons of two teenagers and a five foot tall woman a second ago, and you have the gall to complain now?” A pissed off Liz spat back.
Looking over the ever growing crowd, the thugs finally understood the hornet’s nest they stirred up. Magic arrows, working firearms, and an armed community was way more than they had expected. They turned and ran, not even attempting a parting taunt.
“That’s interesting.” Mom commented.
“What, I wouldn’t expect them to actually try and fight us Mary. I mean, that would be crazy after our little demonstrations.” Dad plainly said.
“No, not that. They obviously have been wandering around for the past four days, and clearly have had some success killing creatures in the area. The longest it took anyone in our community to develop an ability, even post stabilization, was a few hours with guidance and a core. But even people who wandered in the past couple of days all had mana manipulation.”
“Yeah, but everyone has that.”
“No. They didn’t have anything, including Technomancy, which we all assumed was a freebie.”
“Huh, that is interesting.”
“I know, right?” Mom lost herself in thought as she pondered the implications. Liz’s curiosity was also piqued, but she had way too much on her plate already. When Mom figured it out she’d let everyone else know, she was sure, and Liz was happy to leave that particular puzzle to someone else.
Without asking, Eddie walked over to the pothole Liz had created and started applying his power. Soon the rubble reformed and the street was whole. That would have been super useful an ability to have pre-apocalypse. Potholes were so annoying.
“Liz, could you watch where you’re aiming a bit better? Roads are getting to be bad enough without you contributing.” Eddie joked.
“Yeah, sorry, you know me. I tried to hit the broad side of the barn but the street got in the way.” Liz smiled back. With the interlopers chased off the mood had lightened and everyone wandered back to their tasks. She was glad they didn’t have to kill the thugs. As much loss as everyone was carrying, putting murder on their backs didn’t seem like a fun addition. Liz appreciated again how lucky they had been to find such a large group of people willing to come together in a peaceful way. If they had encountered more people like those thugs she wasn’t sure if she’d be willing to trust any newcomers. That thought stopped her in her tracks.
“Mom, what if-”
“Yes love, I think there is more than luck letting us find helpful people. Every community we’ve encountered so far has been far more altruistic than the average group. Even the high school is a highly organized and supportive, if authoritarian, community. I think someone, or something, is rewarding good behavior in a much more meaningful way than we had pre-apocalypse.”
The thought was comforting on one level, but on another, it pointed to a much scarier reality. If the system was created by people, and those people felt that you should behave a certain way, and could enforce it by changing the actual laws of the world, what would happen if they changed their mind about what was good and bad?
“Let's keep this between us for now, until we have more evidence. I don’t want anyone jumping to odd conclusions.”
Liz nodded at her mom. She didn’t know how to feel about this, and it would take her a bit to process it. Who created the system? Why did it reward some people and not others? What was the system supposed to do? She pondered these as she walked back towards the house in the fading twilight. She had so many questions, and the list kept on getting bigger and bigger.