Eventually, the activity around the dungeon portal settled down. The three mercenary companies had built a barricade around the portal with only one way in and out of the area. This was so they could control who entered and who left, and also collect their tax from whomever passed through. It was terribly unfair from Zoey's point of view, but this world was ruled by the strong. Those with power made the rules and the weaker ones could only obey or try to get stronger.
"Are the mercenary groups strong?" Zoey asked Athena as they watched the scene unfold.
"The captains of each group are Rank 5, so they aren't pushovers," Athena replied. "There's the Flame Scorpions, the Siren Vultures, and the Sand Sharks. Each of them is trying to get stronger than the other yet at the same time trying to control everyone else not in their companies. Today you can see a rare instance of them working together to claim the dungeon. They will cooperate at first, until some powerful artifact gets found, then it'll be a free-for-all to see who gets to keep it."
Zoey nodded in understanding, "So, where do we fit in to all this? Are you familiar enough with them to get into the dungeon?" She asked Athena.
Athena snorted with a smirk directed at the scene below, "Familiar? You could say that. Those posers have been trying to win me over to their side in every way they could think of since I showed up here. First they tried bribery, then coercion. When that failed they tried blackmail, and finally they tried to force me. Needless to say, none of their attempts went well for them." Athena winked at Zoey, then continued, "Now we have what we call an understanding. They stay out of my way and I stay out of theirs."
Interesting. Zoey now knew that her friend was strong enough to cow three different merc groups that had a Rank 5 leader each. How strong was she really? Zoey could have asked, but she wanted to find out by spending time with Athena. Sure, using her interface would give Zoey an easy way to see how strong somebody was, but she needed to be able to tell with her intuition and instinct. There would be plenty of moments in battle where she would not be able to use her interface to see how strong someone was, and it would be crucial for her to be able to judge for herself at that time.
"Come on, let's go check it out. Oh, you may want to put on your mask hun, we don't want anyone losing their reason when they catch sight of a woman like you!" Athena said with a laugh as she headed down the rise towards the throng of people lined up by the portal.
Zoey followed her advice and put on her featureless black mask and pulling up her poncho hood as she followed Athena down the hill. Viridi was curled around Zoey's neck, peering out curiously under the hood as they went.
The adventurers clustered around the checkpoint were already lined up, and anyone that tried to cut in line was ruthlessly beaten and kicked to the back, unless they were stronger than who they were cutting in front off, in which case they got the spot. At this point the line to the checkpoint was a clear ranking chart of all the non-affiliated adventurers from Sand Pit with all the high profile ones up front where they had commandeered a spot.
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This is where Zoey first saw Athena's reputation at work. It had not been apparent in town, but here Zoey could definitely see the effect Athena had as she sauntered her way up to the mercenary checkpoint. The adventurers in line all had similar looks on their faces as Athena and Zoey walked past. First was anger at whoever dared to cut the line, then realization that it was someone they definitely could not mess with, then anger again, mostly at themselves for being too weak, and finally bitter acceptance that they could do nothing about the situation.
Even at the checkpoint things went the same way. Athena gave the big, burly, up armored mercenary guards a smile that seemed to freeze their blood before they hastily made way for her and Zoey to pass through. The looks on their faces said they did not get paid enough to step into this mess. Only when Athena and Zoey passed the checkpoint did they encounter someone who actually blocked their way.
The person who stopped them was possibly the tallest Vekt Zoey had ever seen. She was used to seeing the skinny, scrawny, insect-like Vekt, but this one was huge and muscled up like a bodybuilder. He had to be over two meters tall and each of his four arms were thicker than Zoey's torso. He wore battle-worn metal armor that had been sloppily painted yellow with a black, flaming scorpion on the chest piece. There were two great swords hanging from his waist, though on him they looked like normal swords due to his size. He blocked their path like a mountain, one pair of hands on his hips and the other pair crossed over his chest. His antenna was waving about and he was glaring angrily at Athena as they approached.
"Athena!" The Vekt bellowed loudly, "Have you finally decided to face me again in battle?! Finally, a worthy opponent! Our battle will be recounted for centuries!"
This guy had a flair for theatrics. Zoey wondered how long he had rehearsed that speech. He had even raised one fist in the air while he yelled it out. Quite the dedication really. This guy obviously was your trademark battle maniac that lived for fighting stronger opponents, and it sounded like him and Athena had gone at this before.
As they approached, Athena responded with a grin, "Doris! ready to get your ass kicked again?"
Zoey almost choked when she heard the big Vekt's name. Doris?! Zoey was almost shaking with suppressed laughter. That name just did not fit!