A strong wind blew, sand striking my face. The others donned sunglasses, shielding their eyes from the blazing sun. Tess peered up at the bright blue sky, no clouds in sight. I sighed, unzipping my hoodie because of the stifling heat.
“Tess, where’s the closest town or city?” Zhuyu asked, rolling his shirt sleeves up.
“There should be a transit station straight ahead,” Tess replied, unfolding a map from her back pocket.
“Let’s get going. Tomo, I want you to take the front with me,” he commanded.
I couldn’t discern his intentions. Whatever, it’s not as if he was sadistic as Kyoi, but he was trained by her. Highly probable any upcoming plans involved me.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked, walking up to him.
“Keep an eye out for any enemies ahead. Listen for any odd noises and look out for strange markings in the sand,” Zhuyu explained.
“Got it. What kind of enemies are around here?” I asked, surveying the area ahead.
“Bandits or scorpions. Maybe a flame salamander, but that’s rare. There are occasional dragons too,” Zhuyu listed off enemies casually.
“That seems really dangerous. Can we even beat a dragon?” I asked.
“I’m sure Shigetzu and Darryl can handle it. Tess is always reliable. You’re decent enough to do some damage too,” he answered, brushing off sand from his face.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’ll be support for the most part. Count on me to have your back,” Zhuyu replied.
Yeah, very inspiring. I would witness what kind of leader he was once we entered combat. After ten minutes, I spotted broken pieces of cactus and brush scattered around. I alerted Zhuyu and he bent down, inspecting the pieces of foliage.
“Awesome. I didn’t want to deal with this yet, but looks like we’ll have to….,” Zhuyu said, shaking his head in irritation.
The wind intensified and multiple swirling sand tornadoes moved toward us. Peach colored figures rode on top, armed with weapons.
“Enemies?” I questioned, sword in hand.
“Bandits and there’s a flame salamander nearby too. Don’t fight. Stall for time until the flame salamander gets here. Let the beast take care of them,” Zhuyu ordered, running backwards.
I followed him, hearing a whizzing sound. Turning around, I blocked a projectile. Why? Four other people in the vicinity posed a greater threat than me!
“Shigetzu, back her up! Darryl, come over here with me,” Zhuyu shouted, rolling away from a spear which missed him by half a foot.
Shan motioned to me. I conjured fireballs in my hand, hurling them upward. The peach creatures leaped downward, charging towards us.
“Tomo, create an ice wall!” Zhuyu yelled, confronting a peach creature.
I took a closer look at the enemy. They resembled frogs and their leaps covered a large distance. Zhuyu dashed left and the peach frog followed. Blades pierced its legs upon the creature landing.
“Long, I see it!” Shan pointed at the horizon.
“Okay! Everyone move out! We’ll head toward the covering over there!” Zhuyu directed, running immediately.
A dragon-like creature stomped toward us. I felt myself dragged forward by the nearby sand tornadoes. Shan extended his hand out and within seconds, all the sand tornadoes disintegrated. A portal appeared near us and everyone jumped in, arriving at the covering Zhuyu mentioned.
“What now?” I asked, watching the flame salamander romp toward the frogs.
“Let it deal with everything. We’ll continue after it’s done,” Zhuyu replied.
The earth, red flame salamander was half the length of a football field, menacing flames covering its body. The creature’s massive claws glinted in the bright sunlight. Embers burst out from its mouth. All the peach frogs attempted an escape. One swipe of its massive claw cleared away half of the bandits. When others hopped away, the flame salamander reared its head and roared. A large flame stream burst out of its mouth, burning the remaining frogs. It roared once more, plodding away.
“Alright, it’s safe to move again,” Zhuyu declared, once the flame salamander left our sight.
“Do we have to fight that thing?” I asked.
“We could, but it’s a hassle. Tess could track it down for us if you really want,” Zhuyu answered.
“Uh, no thanks,” I shook my head.
We soon arrived at a transit station. It had seen better days, sand covering the seats. Only one man was present. He wore a duster and matching beige cowboy hat.
“Well, well, what a rare surprise. Can’t say we get many visitors here,” the man chuckled.
“Seems like it. I have a question if you don’t mind,” Zhuyu said.
“Go ahead, no other guests to entertain. Your badges, investigators, huh? What are you doing out here?” the man waved his hands in the air with a carefree attitude.
“We’re looking for someone, here’s a picture,” Zhuyu answered, pulling out a photo of Ace.
The man took the photo, glancing at it for a long time. He turned around, searching for something within his small office, finally returning with a disc.
“I thought I might have seen her around. She’s in this footage,” the man said, pointing at the disc.
“You actually still record things? There’s really nothing here anyone can steal,” I said.
“Can’t argue with you there, but rules are rules. We keep all surveillance footage for up to six months before it gets transferred over to the main server back in the city,” the man agreed with my assessment.
“Can you show us the video?” Zhuyu requested.
The man nodded, inserting the disc into his computer. Everyone gathered around, watching the footage. Sure enough, Ace appeared. A buff feline beast man, a sword strapped to his belt, accompanied her. He wore a cape and a menacing scar ran across its left eye. Tess nodded at the video and jotted something down in her notebook.
“Thanks for your help. We appreciate it. By the way, the tracks here are broken, right?” Zhuyu asked, pointing at the rusty tracks.
“Yeah, they’re planning to tear down this place down in a month. I’ll have to find some job in the city,” the man nodded.
We departed, discussing our next steps near the sand covered seats. If the tracks were a no-go, then that meant more walking. Yay, I loved walking so much.
“Tess, do you recognize Ace’s companion?” Zhuyu asked.
“I have a few suspicions, but can’t confirm them at the moment. It’ll be an hour of walking,” Tess replied.
“No ride, huh?” Ichaival remarked.
“Nope. Even if we wanted to, the tracks have been damaged by monsters. Whoever is in charge doesn’t care,” Zhuyu confirmed, looking around the transit station.
“You see something?” Shan asked.
“I wonder…. Tess, you think Ace left us a present?” Zhuyu asked, glancing over at the Gatekeeper.
“It’s a possibility. I doubt it will be something useful,” Tess agreed.
“Tomo and Darryl, check around the station. Tess, Shigetzu, and I will inspect the surrounding tracks,” Zhuyu decided, hopping downward.
Ichaival nodded and I followed him. I checked pillars, supporting the roof of the waiting area, but saw nothing of interest. Ichaival peeked underneath the seats, finding nothing.
“Ichaival, I’ve been wondering, how long have you known Zhuyu?” I asked, checking the signs.
“Uh, for a few years now. Since sophomore year of high school,” Ichaival replied, staring at a map pasted onto a billboard.
“Is he strong as a hero? I haven’t really seen him fight with his true powers,” I questioned.
“I think he’s pretty strong, even without his sword. You worried about him or something?” Ichaival asked, peeking behind the billboard.
“No, just wondering how well he can lead us. I shouldn’t worry about it though,” I said.
“Yeah. He’s good enough. Still can’t find anything,” Ichaival supported his friend.
“So, what’s the deal between you and Felicity?” I asked another question, brushing off the sand from my clothes.
“There’s nothing going on between us. Did they tell you something?” Ichaival denied, shaking his head.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine,” I said, glancing upward at the ceiling.
“It’s just a movie. Felicity invites other people to hang out with her all the time,” Ichaival said, resting in a nearby seat.
“You think? I don’t know. She seems a lot more friendlier to you than the others. Though, that’s understandable, considering Shan’s personality. And Zhuyu, well, he did fail at helping her several times,” I said.
“I don’t think so. She treats everyone the same way,” Ichaival said.
“Man, I wish I had water. It’s so hot here,” I complained, leaning back on a seat.
“You have Lau’s water powers, right? Can’t you drink that?” Ichaival suggested.
He made a good point. I generated a small ball of water, letting a tiny trickle drop into my mouth. Tasted okay, should be fine to drink the rest. That settled my thirst at least.
Zhuyu, Tess, and Shan returned five minutes later. The Gatekeeper held a lantern in her hand. Their clothes were covered in sand.
“How was your alone time with Tomo?” Shan asked, grinning at Ichaival.
“We spent our entire time searching for the damn thing. What do you think?” Ichaival retorted.
“This lantern won’t do us much good. But, it confirms Ace knows we’re after her. We can grab supplies in the city,” Zhuyu decided.
Eventually, a large arch loomed in the distance. Neon light bulbs encircled the outer curve, lighting it up during the night time. Inside, we arrived at another transit station. This one appeared in great condition, more modern than the debilitated one out in the middle of nowhere. Zhuyu and Tess walked up to a booth, showing him their ID badges. His eyebrows raised a bit when inspecting them, glancing over at the rest of us.
“Is it really a big deal that we’re helping out the SIU?” I whispered, looking down at my ID badge.
“Probably just logistics,” Shan answered.
“Why does it feel like I got tricked into some big mess?” I hissed at the gravity manipulator.
“This is part of training, Tomo. Haven’t you ever played games like that before?” Shan joked, smiling.
“How often does what’s happening right now ever happen to you?” I shot back in response.
“It actually happens quite a lot more than you think. Training isn’t all about killing monsters,” Shan replied, shrugging his shoulders.
Zhuyu and Tess returned with tickets in their hands. They handed one to each of us and everyone passed through the turnstiles. Tess inspected a digital map on a display while Zhuyu updated us on the situation.
“There’s a threat in the eastern region. We’ll head over and investigate,” Zhuyu explained.
“How’s it all connect back to the Crossroads?” I asked.
“That threat, it’s related to a portal acting up. Besides, we’re gathering some information on Ace while getting you experience. Don’t have to worry about any civilians either. They’ve all evacuated. No one wanted to keep living in an area constantly experiencing unnatural earthquakes or sudden storms,” Zhuyu answered.
“And the city, they’re not doing anything about it?” I asked, wondering about the lack of support from the authorities.
“Whenever an area becomes dangerous, they just create large barriers, which buffer anyone who tries entering. Keeps anything inside from escaping, not exactly a bad idea. You tell me if they’re in any hurry,” Zhuyu responded.
Tess finally returned, directing us to the correct train. After riding it for ten minutes, we arrived at the entrance of a large shopping center. She grabbed a map once inside, searching for stores carrying items we required.
“This place is huge. Should we split up, Tess?” Zhuyu asked, looking over at the map.
“That’s up to you, leader. I’ll write down a list of the required items,” Tess replied, deferring the decision over to him.
Zhuyu glanced at us. Please don’t stick me with Shan. I wasn’t in the mood for his antics. He uncapped his pen, writing something down. I noticed his name engraved on it, so fancy. Was it a present or something he splurged on? Looking at Zhuyu, he didn’t seem that type of person, so a gift seemed like the best bet.
“Okay. We’ll split up just because I think it’ll be fun. Tess, you can handle the major purchases. Shigetzu will come with me to pick up any miscellaneous items. Tomo and Darryl go purchase any food related stuff,” Zhuyu decided.
Ichaival again, huh? Better than Shan or even Tess. This was a nice change of pace. I would have been interested in going with Zhuyu to learn more about Kyoi’s relationship with him.
“Here’s what I want everyone to get. Make substitutions if needed,” Tess finished her list, tearing it into three pieces.
She handed each piece to the respective groups and headed off. Wait, what about money? It was such a crucial question, but one I neglected to bring up. I attempted to grab Tess, but Zhuyu caught my hand as I almost fell.
“Tomo, you have to be more careful,” he warned.
“Thanks. Um, what about money? How will we pay for everything?” I asked.
“You already have all the money you ever need. Show it to the cashier and they’ll know,” Zhuyu answered, releasing my hand and headed off with Shan.