Chapter 66:

Volume 3, Chapter 12: The Hot Desert

Heroes of the Past

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.Bookmark here

“Tess, where’s the closest town or city?” Zhuyu asked, rolling his shirt sleeves up.Bookmark here

“There should be a transit station straight ahead,” Tess replied, unfolding a map from her back pocket.Bookmark here

“Let’s get going. Tomo, I want you to take the front with me,” he commanded.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“What do you want me to do?” I asked, walking up to him.Bookmark here

“Keep an eye out for any enemies ahead. Listen for any odd noises and look out for strange markings in the sand,” Zhuyu explained.Bookmark here

“Got it. What kind of enemies are around here?” I asked, surveying the area ahead.Bookmark here

“Bandits or scorpions. Maybe a flame salamander, but that’s rare. There are occasional dragons too,” Zhuyu listed off enemies casually.Bookmark here

“That seems really dangerous. Can we even beat a dragon?” I asked.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“What about you?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I’ll be support for the most part. Count on me to have your back,” Zhuyu replied.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Awesome. I didn’t want to deal with this yet, but looks like we’ll have to….,” Zhuyu said, shaking his head in irritation.Bookmark here

The wind intensified and multiple swirling sand tornadoes moved toward us. Peach colored figures rode on top, armed with weapons.Bookmark here

“Enemies?” I questioned, sword in hand.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

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!Bookmark here

“Shigetzu, back her up! Darryl, come over here with me,” Zhuyu shouted, rolling away from a spear which missed him by half a foot.Bookmark here

Shan motioned to me. I conjured fireballs in my hand, hurling them upward. The peach creatures leaped downward, charging towards us.Bookmark here

“Tomo, create an ice wall!” Zhuyu yelled, confronting a peach creature.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Long, I see it!” Shan pointed at the horizon.Bookmark here

“Okay! Everyone move out! We’ll head toward the covering over there!” Zhuyu directed, running immediately.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“What now?” I asked, watching the flame salamander romp toward the frogs.Bookmark here

“Let it deal with everything. We’ll continue after it’s done,” Zhuyu replied.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Alright, it’s safe to move again,” Zhuyu declared, once the flame salamander left our sight.Bookmark here

“Do we have to fight that thing?” I asked.Bookmark here

“We could, but it’s a hassle. Tess could track it down for us if you really want,” Zhuyu answered.Bookmark here

“Uh, no thanks,” I shook my head.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Well, well, what a rare surprise. Can’t say we get many visitors here,” the man chuckled.Bookmark here

“Seems like it. I have a question if you don’t mind,” Zhuyu said.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“We’re looking for someone, here’s a picture,” Zhuyu answered, pulling out a photo of Ace.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“I thought I might have seen her around. She’s in this footage,” the man said, pointing at the disc.Bookmark here

“You actually still record things? There’s really nothing here anyone can steal,” I said.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“Can you show us the video?” Zhuyu requested.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Thanks for your help. We appreciate it. By the way, the tracks here are broken, right?” Zhuyu asked, pointing at the rusty tracks.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Tess, do you recognize Ace’s companion?” Zhuyu asked.Bookmark here

“I have a few suspicions, but can’t confirm them at the moment. It’ll be an hour of walking,” Tess replied.Bookmark here

“No ride, huh?” Ichaival remarked.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“You see something?” Shan asked.Bookmark here

“I wonder…. Tess, you think Ace left us a present?” Zhuyu asked, glancing over at the Gatekeeper.Bookmark here

“It’s a possibility. I doubt it will be something useful,” Tess agreed.Bookmark here

“Tomo and Darryl, check around the station. Tess, Shigetzu, and I will inspect the surrounding tracks,” Zhuyu decided, hopping downward.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Ichaival, I’ve been wondering, how long have you known Zhuyu?” I asked, checking the signs.Bookmark here

“Uh, for a few years now. Since sophomore year of high school,” Ichaival replied, staring at a map pasted onto a billboard.Bookmark here

“Is he strong as a hero? I haven’t really seen him fight with his true powers,” I questioned.Bookmark here

“I think he’s pretty strong, even without his sword. You worried about him or something?” Ichaival asked, peeking behind the billboard.Bookmark here

“No, just wondering how well he can lead us. I shouldn’t worry about it though,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yeah. He’s good enough. Still can’t find anything,” Ichaival supported his friend.Bookmark here

“So, what’s the deal between you and Felicity?” I asked another question, brushing off the sand from my clothes.Bookmark here

“There’s nothing going on between us. Did they tell you something?” Ichaival denied, shaking his head.Bookmark here

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine,” I said, glancing upward at the ceiling.Bookmark here

“It’s just a movie. Felicity invites other people to hang out with her all the time,” Ichaival said, resting in a nearby seat.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“I don’t think so. She treats everyone the same way,” Ichaival said.Bookmark here

“Man, I wish I had water. It’s so hot here,” I complained, leaning back on a seat.Bookmark here

“You have Lau’s water powers, right? Can’t you drink that?” Ichaival suggested.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Zhuyu, Tess, and Shan returned five minutes later. The Gatekeeper held a lantern in her hand. Their clothes were covered in sand.Bookmark here

“How was your alone time with Tomo?” Shan asked, grinning at Ichaival.Bookmark here

“We spent our entire time searching for the damn thing. What do you think?” Ichaival retorted.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Is it really a big deal that we’re helping out the SIU?” I whispered, looking down at my ID badge.Bookmark here

“Probably just logistics,” Shan answered.Bookmark here

“Why does it feel like I got tricked into some big mess?” I hissed at the gravity manipulator.Bookmark here

“This is part of training, Tomo. Haven’t you ever played games like that before?” Shan joked, smiling.Bookmark here

“How often does what’s happening right now ever happen to you?” I shot back in response.Bookmark here

“It actually happens quite a lot more than you think. Training isn’t all about killing monsters,” Shan replied, shrugging his shoulders.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“There’s a threat in the eastern region. We’ll head over and investigate,” Zhuyu explained.Bookmark here

“How’s it all connect back to the Crossroads?” I asked.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“And the city, they’re not doing anything about it?” I asked, wondering about the lack of support from the authorities.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“This place is huge. Should we split up, Tess?” Zhuyu asked, looking over at the map.Bookmark here

“That’s up to you, leader. I’ll write down a list of the required items,” Tess replied, deferring the decision over to him.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Here’s what I want everyone to get. Make substitutions if needed,” Tess finished her list, tearing it into three pieces.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Tomo, you have to be more careful,” he warned.Bookmark here

“Thanks. Um, what about money? How will we pay for everything?” I asked.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“Hey, don’t think about it too much, Tomo. Let’s just go get the things,” Ichaival decided.Bookmark here

I followed behind him, uncertainty lingering about the whole ID badge. We went up three escalators and crossed two sky bridges before arriving at the food block.Bookmark here

“What the hell is up with all these bridges? This can’t be called a shopping center anymore,” I complained, looking back at the one we just passed.Bookmark here

“You know, since you can make water, shouldn’t we just get some empty jugs and fill them up with your power?” Ichaival suggested.Bookmark here

“I guess, but since we have these, it’s not like we have to worry about money,” I countered.Bookmark here

“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s just grab some over there then,” Ichaival agreed with me.Bookmark here

The cashie inside looked at our badges with a suspicious look, but accepted them. He tapped it on a scanner near the cash register and bagged the bottles of water for us.Bookmark here

“Not too big of a difference. Guess there’s no danger,” I remarked, tasting the newly acquired water.Bookmark here

“Let’s see…. snacks are next. Just pick whatever you think we’ll like,” Ichaival read off.Bookmark here

“Food everyone likes? I don’t know anything about that, so that’s all you,” I decided.Bookmark here

“There’s like five different stores right in front of us,” Ichaival wondered.Bookmark here

“I don’t think it matters. Not like we’re finding fresh produce or vegetables,” I said, walking ahead.Bookmark here

“Yeah, you’re right,” Ichaival agreed, following behind me.Bookmark here

I grabbed a shopping basket inside. Was there any difference between food here and our world? If there was, the difference better not be too drastic.Bookmark here

“This might have too much sugar. I don’t know if I can eat it,” Ichaival muttered, checking the label.Bookmark here

“Didn’t think you were the type to care about that kind of stuff,” I remarked.Bookmark here

“Really? I have to look out for my weight and maintain it. Gotta worry about that type of stuff,” he explained, picking up another item.Bookmark here

“I was talking to Shan and he mentioned you played tennis. Were you any good?” I recalled.Bookmark here

“Uh, I’m decent. Shigetzu’s a lot better. He was our ace and the captain,” Ichaival answered.Bookmark here

“I see. Can’t imagine you having a weight problem if you played tennis,” I commented.Bookmark here

“I was pretty different back then. Well, I think everyone’s fine with pretty much anything. I don’t really want to get candy since it’ll make us thirsty. Maybe some trail mix or energy bars,” Ichaival said, inspecting the aisle.Bookmark here

We were stuck with the worst assignment, inadequate at it. Zhuyu no doubt did this on purpose. Then again, food should be food everywhere.Bookmark here

“Yeah, let’s just get some energy bars. We’ll be walking most of the time anyways,” Ichaival decided, nodding his head.Bookmark here

We spent five minutes wandering around, before locating energy bars. Ichaival bought an entire box, too much in my opinion. Then again, there were five of us, so it maybe not a bad idea after all. I grabbed a few more miscellaneous items such as jerky and crackers before checking out.Bookmark here

“Looks like we have everything,” I confirmed.Bookmark here

I handed my ID badge over and the cashier showed no particular reaction. Why did the other one react so much? Ichaival and I carried our bags out, realizing we had no idea where the others were. I didn’t even think we arranged a meeting place.Bookmark here

“Tomo, let’s just sit down. It’ll probably take awhile for us to find them. Man, I wish Long told us about what to do before he left. Oh well, Tess can find us no matter where we are,” Ichaival suggested, pointing at a nearby bench.Bookmark here

I sat down, placing the bags down on the ground. Hold on, Tess knew our whereabouts anytime?Bookmark here

“Ichaival, tell me more,” I requested.Bookmark here

“The tracking thingy?” he asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah, that. She knows where we are even in our world?” I asked for confirmation.Bookmark here

“She only ever uses it if we’re separated or something like that,” Ichaival nodded.Bookmark here

“That’s kind of troubling. You’re probably right, I doubt she ever uses it to do something bad,” I admitted, staring down at the floor in thought.Bookmark here

“Nah, Tess is a pretty cool person. I think she does what’s best for us. So you don’t have to worry about it,” Ichaival assured me.Bookmark here

“Right. I much prefer Tess have that power than anyone else. It makes me shudder if someone else had it,” I agreed.Bookmark here

“Yep, like that bastard, Shigetzu. I’m sure I would hate him every day,” Ichaival said, shaking his head.Bookmark here

“Don’t you already do though?” I asked in surprise.Bookmark here

“No, Shigetzu is alright. There are times when he’s just a piece of s**t. Go tell him I said that. He’ll probably just laugh,” Ichaival urged.Bookmark here

“I’ll pass. Shan seems to be the type of person I rather avoid, than get to know better,” I declined.Bookmark here

“Ah, I’ve located you. Long and Shigetzu are waiting in the front with everything else. We’re heading out,” Tess said, passing by us.Bookmark here

After crossing two bridges and numerous escalators, we arrived back at the front. Zhuyu and Shan inspected hiking backpacks, snapping the buckles and pulling on straps.Bookmark here

“Hey, you guys are back. Tess, the equipment seems good. We have nothing to worry about,” Zhuyu reported.Bookmark here

“Good. We can proceed. I hope it does not come to the point where we stay the night. I prefer we neutralize the threat as fast as possible,” Tess said.Bookmark here

“Wait, all this looks like we’re hiking. Is the area we’re going to that bad?” I questioned, looking at all the gear.Bookmark here

“Yes. The area has been overgrown with rather interesting flora. We must prepare accordingly,” Tess responded.Bookmark here

Moving to a less crowded area, we packed all our equipment. Tess bought prune blades, manual weed whackers, safety goggles, axes, mini-saws, and canisters of fuel.Bookmark here

“Can’t we just hack our way through with swords? Or burn down the entire place?” I adjusted my backpack.Bookmark here

“Unfortunately magical powers are weakened at our destination. Recall how I said the people here are strong magicians? They’ve placed a binding spell there and won’t lift it for us. They rather preserve their safety than endanger it. We’ll have to do it the old fashioned way,” Tess explained.Bookmark here

“Damn, can’t use any of the powers I copied,” I realized.Bookmark here

Tess checked everyone’s pack, making sure nothing was too heavy. Confirming everything was fine, we headed back out to the train station. Time for the actual part of the mission.Bookmark here

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