When that dark being that was sitting amongst the roiling clouds of ash looked upward, Vye flinched. Her body jolted like she was jabbed with a cattle prod. She couldn’t help it. No matter how many times she met its gaze, the desolate loneliness within its eyes hit her like a physical weight.
And the longer that gaze remained fixed upon her, the heavier that weight became.
But although she swayed, Vye did not fall. Her body was trembling. The muscles of her legs spasmed. There was a line of sweat dripping down the back of her knee. Vye was barely able to stay standing underneath the weight of that consideration but barely was enough to stay on her feet.
Vye’s left hand burned; not with pain, but with gathering energy. It was a maliciously self-righteous thing, savoring the sweet anticipation of release. With its power, Vye could buy herself a few more seconds to move forward. Yet Vye forced the urge to activate Reject back down.
Using it now was a mistake. Even if this was close to her limit, she needed to press up against her limits on her own power. Otherwise, her dream of being able to explore the entire world would be meaningless. A tool would become a crutch, and then she would be crippled for the rest of her life.
Vye herself needed to be strong. She couldn’t rely on the rituals of her crazy grandmother forever.
Time stretched out in this grey nowhere, so that as Vye blinked, she couldn’t help but wonder how much time had passed in that split second of darkness as her eye was completely shut. Was it possible that she had spent days, simply standing here waiting to grow used to this pressure to take another step forward? At least they had proof from Aldo that extended exposure didn’t cause any lingering harm…
But it also didn’t help you progress further.
So Vye gritted her teeth and took another step forward. The twin pits of darkness that were this being’s eyes seemed to expand into two wide tunnels, and Vye’s step carried her down into the inky black depths-
Why was it suddenly smiling-
With a gasp, Vye sat sharply upward. She released too humid breaths. Then her mouth twisted into a grimace as the reality of her situation hit her. “Slimy fucking balls.”
Edith, one of the other participants in the Order Ducis training camp, smiled down at her. After checking Vye’s pulse, Edith brushed off the knees of her jeans and stood. “Now, now, no need to be so upset. If this sort of result is unsatisfactory, you’ll make the rest of us blush. Besides, we have company.”
Blinking rapidly, Vye attempted to refocus her gaze. Then she groaned and leveraged herself to her feet. She swayed and twisted around by relying on a herculean effort. Only to find her standing face to face with Naffur Suite.
“Oh, you’re up? Good. That’s the last of you all. Alright, everyone gather in closer.” Naffur said gesturing lazily for the surrounding people to approach.
Abruptly, Vye became aware that outside of the polite bubble that people had left around her while she was unconscious, almost forty bodies were standing around in the surrounding dozen meters. At Naffur’s gesture, everyone moved closer to listen to the acting leader of the Order Ducis.
Sorry for holding you all up,
Vye thought sourly. It was not a good feeling to picture all of these people just waiting around her unconscious body. But she forced herself to focus on Naffur’s short speech.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, but very soon our training camp will be entering into its second stage. For that… we will begin to travel between the different Zones.” Naffur’s eyes swept through the crowd, weighing each and every individual there. Despite her exhaustion, Vye found herself straightening her spine and raising her chin as his gaze slid over her.
There were modes to Naffur. Everyone in the Order Ducis agreed. Sometimes, he simply seemed like a normal teenager. Then other times…
Naffur seemed to consider for a second, then he continued to address the group. “There are two reasons for the travel. The first is that we have almost reached capacity. Of the fifty applicant slots of our camp, forty-six have been filled. It seems that word has gotten around that were are accepting resumes. So one purpose the movement will serve will be to make it more difficult for these applicants to join up with us. I’m sure you all now understand how much we at the Order Ducis appreciate making things more difficult.”
No one smiled at that small joke. But as Vye looked at Naffur, she couldn’t help but suspect that his own expression was infected with a brief shade of bitterness. But then he continued to talk as he slowly rotated in place to look at the surrounding individuals.
“To that end, the rewards for locating our group will be that much greater. If any one individual finds us and requests to be a part of the training camp, they will get a spot with no questions asked. If we are currently at capacity… then the current individual ranked the lowest within the camp will be ejected. That individual can reapply in a week and kick someone else out… but by then, we may have moved on without notice.”
Naffur offered a shy smile. “To make the possibility of being kicked out of the camp more transparent, we will now maintain a public ranking for the individuals within the camp. These are composite scores from personal, combat, and image evaluations. In addition… to the amount of independent merit you have accumulated through missions. Which will be an option open to you once we are on the move.
“Which brings me to the second reason that we are moving: the borderlands are growing faster than ever.”
That drew a sharp release of breath from the gathering of people who circled up around Naffur. Partly because many of them had fought to save people newly liberated from that strange, frozen time of the borderlands or had been those people themselves. And partly because of what such a change meant.
Valor Rend took a sharp step forward. “Does that mean… all seven Zones…?”
“No,” Naffur’s sharp answer took at least some of the building tension out of the crowd. People loosened their grips on their weapons. Although there were plenty of rumors and half-truths about what would happen when seven Zones connected to New Earth, everyone agreed it wouldn’t be good. “But we have received word that the sixth Zone has connected. Southwest of Zone 1, actually. And it will likely be the first direction we proceed.
“Per the orders of Randidly Ghosthound… the Order Ducis has a new mission; to become the levee that protects the fragile lives of budding humanity. We will be the first defense, softening and easing the transition into the System and new Earth. We will travel to the edges of the world and end the most dangerous threats we find, so the heartlands of our world can flourish. We will do this simply because someone needs to; otherwise, thousands will die.
“We will be a lighthouse, guiding the uninitiated toward civilization. We will be wanderers, treading the lost and warped ways so that we can leave behind maps for those that come after us. That is our Order Ducis. That is why we put you all through hell, so we can find ten individuals who can give their lives to this cause. Ten individuals who can walk into the unknown without fear.”
Despite herself, Vye felt her heart burning as she listened to Naffur’s words. This is exactly what she wanted; the opportunity to see the edges of the world and walk away unscathed. More than ever before, she craved those untouched vistas and the empty wildernesses. If she could go there and fine people freed from the borderlands, all the better.
“…I don’t want to alarm you, but we have a… theory about why the borderlands are expanding so quickly.” Naffur’s mouth was pressed into a thin line. “For reference, the speed of expansion has quadrupled. And reports continue to flood in from all directions that this is a universal phenomenon across the edge of New Earth.
“Most people don’t think about the details, but there has been a distinct pattern to the arrival of Zones to a New Earth. After all, this world of ours is still supposed to be a planet. Yet according to the best estimates, the area that we currently have access to is only about .5 percent of the Earth’s original total surface area.”
Scratching his head, Naffur’s expression turned sad. “Also, keep in mind that Zones connecting have liberated new borderlands for us to explore, but they have never occurred in an area already occupied by borderlands. What then, does it mean that the borderlands expansion accelerated suddenly?”
The crowd was quiet. But Vye drew in a sharp breath. “Because… because the seventh Zone is going to be far away. It’s not just going to be clustered around each other as the previous six have been.”
“Exactly, that’s the most popular theory at this point.” Naffur smiled at Vye, then spread his arms wide. “We don’t know when that will be. But if its arrival reveals 10% of the original surface area of Earth? That is the equivalent of three landmasses the size of Russia. So we need to be out there, now. We need to have the areas that we can control now under control. Because otherwise…”
The silence that followed Naffur’s words was a heavy one. No one needed to understand what would happen if a country that had been frozen for the past two years suddenly reappeared with a healthy infestation of monsters. The Levels of monsters in newly freed up areas started low, but they rapidly skyrocketed to match the already freed areas.
And it had recently been scientifically proved that the farther those monsters were from the ‘origin point’ of New Earth, a spot sitting between Zones 1 and 32, the faster that rise proceeded. A report had emerged from East Providence that stated its research indicated a monster located at the current edge of the borderlands would proceed to grow from Level 1 to Level 50 in twenty-four hours.
A monster could go from a helpless goblin to a lich in a single day. Which was barely enough time for a human, if they chose to rush things, to get a Class and gain their first Level.
There were obviously stronger and weaker groups of monsters that emerged in halos around specific Mana dense areas, but the average of the Levels for those groups was around 50. Very rarely were groups of monsters weaker than Level 30 seen in borderland areas.
Naffur clapped his hands sharply, shaking the crowd from his thoughts. “That’s why you are fighting. That’s why we are pushing you to your limits. All those lives… we will be the ones to save them. We will be the ones pushing outward to prepare for their arrival. So without further ado, back to your training!”
Vye rubbed her hands together. Nearby, she could see Valor clenching his fists while his determined gaze bored a hole into the ground. Then he noticed her glance and looked up. Their eyes met.
“Ah! One more thing.” Naffur said. He pointed over toward the mess hall tent. “For now, a temporary board has been placed near the canteen. We are working on a more permanent solution… but for now, check your rank. Those at the top… the details of your score aren’t listed, but the person at the top received 305 out of a total 500. The median score… is 281. So don’t think you have the space to slacken even for a second.
“As for the people at the bottom… if our stated goals don’t align with your own… leave. Don’t waste our time.”
Then Naffur was gone, and as one, the crowd hurried over toward the canteen area. Vye stood on her tiptoes and looked at the careful list of forty-six names that had been scorched into the wooden board. Her first thought was that it was rather hasty to physically burn the list into the wood when it would likely change frequently.
But then Vye pinched herself and refocused on the contents of the list. Of course, the individual at the top wasn’t a surprise to anyone in the camp.
Vye spared Valor a glance, wondering how he had earned 305 points. Valor was currently suppressing a smirk. Shaking her head, Vye turned back to the board.
What a douche. I wonder what I-
Vye blinked. She actually found her own name quite easily.