The group was grim as they readied themselves to depart for the borderlands. As it happened, the new area that Ghost sensed, and the place from which the other energy was emerging was to the Northeast. They couldn’t get quite as close as Alan wanted them to be, but Hank couldn’t do anything about that. He could take his new bike and likely make it there in record time, but he supposed that Ezekiel and Affina were made of more sensitive stuff.
As they were departing, however, they were stopped by a vaguely familiar young woman with a shock of orange hair.
“Have you seen my brother?” She asked. “I know he’s been coming here a lot since you saved him, Sheriff, but he hasn’t come home in a day, and I’m a bit…”
Hank’s eyes widened. Holy shit, that little punk had a right pretty sister.
When the punk had disappeared, Hank hadn’t noticed. And if he was being honest, he was quite pleased to have one less fly buzzing around his shit. As he cast his mind back, he tried to remember anything particular that the kid had said that would have tipped a listener off that the punk had something planned… but he had largely been ignored, by the entire squad.
Hank felt a flash of guilt. There wasn’t much trouble the kid could get up to around here, and that was the problem; no trouble meant no profit. With the kid’s type, he was out to make a mark on the world, to impress upon other people that he was important. No doubt the fool dreamed of the day that he could raise himself from Tier 1 Citizenry.
His face grim, Hank informed the girl that he hadn’t seen him, but the group would be heading North along the outer rail circle. They would ask, and if the kid had gone there, they would find out. Because the real threat, and Hank’s real worry, was that the kid would hear that his group was going into the newly opened borderlands, and get the dumb idea into his head that the Mana Discharge Skill and a plasma pistol meant he could be a hero.
Thirty people dead.
Alan hadn’t bothered to mention the wounded.
The kid wouldn’t last a second.
After bidding the girl goodbye, the group headed for the train. Hank halfheartedly asked at the station, but they hadn’t seen him. Discretely, he sent messages to some acquaintances farther afield, closer to the borders, asking them to keep an eye out. But there was very little to be done: in terms of the grand scales, helping address this huge outside threat was more important than a willful child.
On the train, some of the soberness passed, and Ezekiel left his reflection to return to reality and make some quips. Most of them were forced, and sarcastic to the point of being acidic, but it eased the mood somewhat. Everyone had felt the weight of the abrupt casualties. Although it hadn’t been peaceful in their Zone 1, they had forgotten how dreadful their true adversary was.
It was only an hour on the train, and then a half hour of jogging to a military waystation, where a harried corporal waved them inside. There, they obtained several weeks rations, as well as tents and fire starters. To Hank’s surprise, everyone seemed to have good instincts in regards to what to bring, and he was silent for most of the packing, concerned with storing his own gear in his interspatial watch.
“Don’t underestimate them,” Laurel said quietly to Hank, as the duo headed over to grab bed padding. “They each feel… dangerous. They are bright knives in the dark. Even you are only their peer… I doubt you could overpower any of them easily. You would need to shoot to kill.”
That surprised Hank somewhat, and his eyebrows rose. “Even the blind girl?”
Laurel flashed him a smile. “Especially that one. The Jade Prince might look like a youthful man, but he is old and wily. This girl will be something special to catch his eye.”
Then she turned and walked away, heading towards Affina, who was standing at the canned proteins. Hank scratched his head.
“You didn’t grab a bedroll, Laurel,” Hank called.
She didn’t disappoint, simply turning and giving him a slow wink. To the side, Ezekiel mimed gagging, while Katie chuckled.
From there, two more hours of jogging, to the Northeast corner of the Zone, before the edges opened up 6 months ago. Once they were on the edges, it became a bit slower, as they had to hike across overgrow countryside. Again, his team impressed Hank; they hardly moved slower than he, although they crunched through the underbrush with all of the subtlety of a rhinoceros. All of them, aside from Laurel, of course.
Once again, their attitudes took a nose dive as they passed what was clearly a triage station, filled with wounded soldiers and broken exosuits. They passed without stopping by. It wasn’t clear to what military command these soldiers were attached, but they were not elites, just the average units. And the borderlands had chewed them up and spit them out.
It was immediately apparent when they passed an invisible line that let them into the borderlands. Not from the front, but as soon as Hank took that step, a certain white background noise ceased. The air smelled of blood and stale sweat. His eyes narrowed.
Behind him was Ezekiel, and he immediately stiffened. Then he swore quietly. “I guess it was too much to hope for that the Expedition fools just improperly stored energy cells for exosuits, and the deaths were their own fault.
“No such luck,” Hank rumbled, squatting to the ground. He picked up a pinch of dirt and rubbed it between his fingers. It stuck together easily, like clay. After rounding the bit into a ball, he took it and threw it as hard as he could at a tree. The small clay ball bounced harmlessly off. Grunting, Hank stood.
Things were…stronger here. Not just monsters, but everything. It had been enriched by the ambient energy in the air. Aether, Ghost called it, although he couldn’t explain where that term came from. It was the base energy of the System, however, Ghost was very sure. It affected their world in strange ways, one of them giving AI a chance to exist, but another was to alter matter on a subsonic level. Cellular bonds grew stronger, the energy they stored more volatile and explosive.
“Something’s watching us,” Affina said quietly, moving next to Hank and Ezekiel. Katie and Laurel’s faces were grim. Hank’s hands tightened into fists before he forced them to relax. They had only just now crossed into this place, but even he could sense the dripping saliva of a predator.
“There is a field over yonder,” Hank said, nodding to their East. He did his best to make all his movements smooth and relaxed. “If we make it there, we at least have some sight lines on what is coming at us.”
“And we give its friends more space to surround us,” Ezekiel grumbled, but the group moved together towards the field. When he saw the actual field in its entirety, Hank winced somewhat. Its slow was gradual at the top, but it quickly increased in angle as it went downwards, before arriving at a bank above a small river.
It was not good fighting land. But this was the wilderness, and they hadn’t much choice.
When they entered the field, the monster was waiting for them, almost as if it had guided them to this spot. It was a large purple ram, its curling horns heavy and golden. Above its head floated a truly oppressive message.
Golden Horned Ram Lvl 59
Hank pressed his lips together. It was widely agreed that difficulty in leveling increased by a fair amount every 5 Levels, and a huge amount every 10 Levels. Therefore, their Level 59 threat was a fair bit weaker than the Level 65 that the first expedition had run into. However, they had over 100 combat ready veterans, which included three Tier 5 citizens.
Inwardly, Hank immediately cursed himself. If he was going to give others a hard time for it, he needed to stop defaulting to sorting people based on their Tier. His eyes flashed as he flexed his fingers and considered their opponent. It stood waiting, a mild expression on its almost regal face. Hank knew himself to be strong, in comparison to the people of his Zone. His companions were strong too.
But seeing this bold creature, he wondered if that strength that he believed in had ever been truly tested. In the beginning, sure, he had grown strong fast, but at some point had his strength grow flabby and impure? The monster in front of them was a pure expression of the System’s malice, and Hank would receive it as such. But it was also a tribulation, one that would strength and refine him, forcing out his potential.
Even as he considered these options, Hank’s heart began to pound.
“Do we run?” Ezekiel asked slowly.
Hank smiled. “Let’s at least wait long enough to see if its friends surround us. We need to be polite to the locals.”