Hank measured the man in front of him. Everyone who he had run into in Donnyton had a certain… something. It was purpose, Hank eventually decided, but the part of him that had been raised by Rick refused to let it lie at that. There was a certain surety about them, but it was more than that.
They were decisive and believed in what they were doing. However, that was tempered by the knowledge of their own weakness. It was a delicate balance and one that so many of them seemed to easily adapt to.
The man, a teenager really, in front of him was an average looking fellow. It was hard to believe that the Chieftain of Donnyton was so young a man. But he had been there since the beginning, and his shoulders had grown to fit the mantle of a responsibility that he wasn’t prepared for, and he didn’t want. But in his eyes, there was a certainty that said he had risen to the challenge, against all odds.
“My name’s Donny. It’s good to meet you,” Donny said, shaking Hank’s hand. His grip was firm. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting, but Tera was a dear friend of mine. I hope you understand.”
“Of course,” Hank said, meaning it. “The System ain’t made it easy for us. The monsters seem to grow stronger and smarter every day.”
Donny’s smile was sharp. “They really do. Will you be acting as the diplomat of your Zone.”
Chuckling ruefully, Hank shook his head. Partly it was because neither Alan nor Ghost trusted him, but the other part was that Hank had been doing his best to give off the air of an irresponsible leader during their lazy journey down to Star Crossing, where they teleported to Donnyton. Due to that, Laurel had become the spokesperson for Zone 1’s leadership.
She was only military adjacent, but she was trusted by enough important high ranking individuals that she would suffice. Plus, Hank had no doubt they had Ghost run dozens of simulations and seen her betray them or defect in none of the scenarios.
She was also a much better choice than the other options, Ezekiel and Affina.
“I’m more… the rough and tumble type. Here for safety. Hank’s the name. Besides, while I’m here, I’d love to learn more about your training methods. I had my teeth kicked in by fellows going by the name of Paolo and Kayle on the way down.”
Donny laughed. “I don’t doubt it! The two of them are both notoriously difficult to fight. I’m not totally confident myself in beating them in a straight duel. And feel free to look around. The training sessions generally cost some of our currency, but while your here, consider it on the house. Just no starting trouble, alright?”
Hank gave his toothiest smile. “I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
Laurel rolled her eyes.
Generally, Laurel’s instincts were very accurate. It was partially the result of her impressive intellect, but Hank consoled himself these days with the fact that her Class also pushed her in the correct direction. Still, Hank was extremely surprised himself that it only took 17 minutes before he got into trouble.
“Why would you bother with bows?” Hank repeated. “They are cumbersome, slow guns. A good pistol, on the other hand…”
The attractive woman he was facing smiled even wider. She waved away his words and just said. “I get it. You are slow. And I’m sure your toys there are very precious. But this training ground is for adults. Maybe take a step back?”
Normally, Hank wouldn’t have talked trash so quickly. But as soon as he arrived at the training area, he had witnessed about a half-dozen burly men tripping over themselves to make way for this petite, pretty thing. They even had the gall to act like she was god’s gift to archery when she was fiddling around with two pathetic small bows the size of her hand.
It was what Hank assumed was the sad comparison to a pistol, and he couldn’t help but laugh. She looked at him sharply, seemingly insulted. That only goaded him on further. He had come to Donnyton, excited to meet competent and powerful individuals. To find this woman teaching here, toying around with her worthless little bows…
It was something of a letdown. And Hank wasn’t a man to let such a disappointment slide.
“Girlie,” Hank announced. “The day I take a step back is the day I eat my boot. Now, run along before you get hurt.”
There was a strange surrealness to the air. Hank could feel it as he spoke, as if these words weren’t all him, but were something… more. A natural outpouring of his Soul Skill. But honestly, he didn’t mind. There was a recklessness to it, a challenge to anything that purported to be something that it was not, that he admired. It was a part of him that would chase truth and beauty to the end of the world.
“Delightful. You are new, and you seem at least halfway decent. Do you already have a Class? Splendid, then this won’t be bullying.” She said with a sweet smile. “My name’s Annie. You are just a treasure, aren’tcha? How about this: an old-fashioned duel to first blood. I’m short on time, so I’m going to start without waiting for an answer. But you don’t mind, right?”
With a great deal more ease than she had previously, she spun the tiny bows across her fingers.
Hank’s expression became serious. There was something in her expression all of a sudden…
She had it too. That surety of the strong of Donnyton. And strangely, as soon as it had come, that impulse from his Soul Skill was gone, leaving satisfaction. It had apparently seen all it needed to. She had passed its test.
But Hank’s grin just spread wider. In a duel, he might not be the best, but he was more than enough to put up a good showing. Having an opportunity to fight against someone who gave him the chills like this lovely girl wouldn’t happen often, so-
She already spun the bows, holding them steady with her pointer and middle finger. Her pinky and ring finger reached into small quiver tied to her wrists, and she flipped it up to the bow. With her thumb, she drew the string of the bow backward. Within a split second, a tiny needle streaked towards Hank.
His eyebrows rose. So, she wasn’t just a pretty face.
Hank Dodge Rolled to the side, and straightened, reaching for his repeater. But then Hank froze. Because his guns weren’t at his sides, they were laying on the ground back from where he was just standing. His eyes scanned them, and he held back a gasp.
Something had expertly cut through his belt at the point he was about to go into the roll, so he didn’t notice the difference in weight at all.
Annie spun the bows again, laughing. “What are you looking at? The duel is to first blood. I seem to have missed your skin completely. Let’s keep going then. Maybe I’ll get lucky if I keep trying.”
Gritting his teeth, Hank rushed her. But no matter how fast he thought he was, or how well he planned and predicted her moves, she seemed to be able to disappear like a ghost at will and appear behind him. In terms of speed, he was nowhere near her match.
After 20 minutes, Hank was completely sleeveless.
After an hour, he was panting with the continued exertion as he attacked her over and over again. After his pistols were taken from him, he made no move to pick them back up. It was a point of pride. The only weapons he would use were his fists. But he couldn’t for the life of him close the distance enough to use them.
His torso was completely bare.
Sighing, Annie stopped abruptly around the two hours and ten-minute mark. So much so that Hank looked up, surprised. He hadn’t come close to catching her, but his Dodge Roll and Dueling Skills were rising so quickly he couldn’t believe it. Had she finally given up?
“Honey, can you take care of this man? He’s surprisingly resilient.” Annie complained, flipping her hands. “He just won’t admit he lost this duel. It truly surprises me that he can claim with a straight face that he is a man.”
The individual that Annie was speaking to smiled. Hank would call him a man, but that would be woefully inadequate in describing truly who she was speaking to. It was a man like the hulk was a man. But where the hulk had a physique without an ounce of fat, this man just seemed solid. Not that he was particularly fat, but he did have something of a belly and there wasn’t much definition to his arms. But where he stood out was pure size.
His shoulders were the size of basketballs, and his hands were large enough to wrap around a person’s head. He was probably fully two meters tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. At least.
The man cracked his knuckles. “It looks like he just wants to box, Annie. But look, since you seem uninterested, how about I handle it?”
Annie tittered. “You would do that for me?”