82 Setting Goals
Over the next few days, Zoey and Athena spent their time searching around Sand Pit for information on the array needed to conceal Zoey's Harmonic Heritage. They had to be extremely careful about who they talked to though, so the progress was slow.
Viridi had been re-introduced to Athena who was dumbstruck by the huge changes Viridi had undergone. The two of them got along fine though, so Zoey had nothing to worry about. Other than that, Zoey told Athena about Nito and that he was supposed to meet her here in Sand Pit. Zoey did not know how long it would take for Nito to show up, but they would keep their eyes open.
Sand Pit was still mostly a ghost town at the moment thanks to the dungeon portal still open nearby, so Zoey and Athena had no issues gathering information without exposing who they were.
Out by the portal, the mercenary companies had finally recovered their dominant positions after the three leaders had emerged from the portal. They had compromised with the freelance adventurers and started a steady stream in and out of the portal as people explored the dungeon. Even though the main portion of the dungeon was not functioning, the cathedral was apparently still full of loot to be found.
To pass the time, Zoey and Athena spent their days hunting Rank 3 creatures out on the savannah so Zoey could rank up. Zoey had set herself a goal to rank up before Nito made it to Sand Pit. They hunted during the day, but in the evening Zoey spent her time planning and designing things with her Aether Engineer talent and messing around with the strange puzzle cube she had gotten from the market. Despite it being similar to puzzle cubes she had seen in the past, this one was very hard to solve. Of course she could have used her interface to find a solution, but she was adamant about taking care of this herself.
A few weeks went idly by in this manner until one afternoon, the dungeon portal outside the town closed. The mercenaries and adventurers that had been sinking all their time into the dungeon came back to Sand Pit, and the town once again was as lively as it had ever been. The economy was booming and travelers were coming from all over the Exile Frontier thanks to the huge amount of artifacts recovered from the cathedral. Zoey actually felt a little regret for leaving the place so soon and not taking more time to look around inside. Who knows what she could have found.
Zoey and Athena had to use a variety of disguises to move around town now that the mercenaries were back. All three of the groups were actively looking for them for various reasons. Through their information gathering, Athena was able to learn that Doris was looking for them just so he could fight Athena and Zoey, Loxon still had a hard on for Athena and was offering a fortune for anyone to capture her for him, and Serena wanted to get her hands on Zoey for some reason or another.
However, nobody seemed to be able to track them down. This was partly thanks to Zoey's ability to create various disguises, and partly because Athena's knowledge of the labyrinthian, underground tunnels that the town of Sand Pit was built into. It was simple for them to elude detection and go about their business.
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To get to Rank 4, Zoey needed to get ten Rank 3 essence stones. In the area around Sand Pit, there were a large variety of Rank 3 creatures to hunt, but there were only two species that Zoey could currently make use of. Because she had elemental affinity with cold and dark elements, along with the still unknown element, she could only safely absorb essence stones that had at least some of those elemental features. By using her interface's inspection menu she was able to determine what essence stones she could use, and store the rest away.
The two creatures they found that had essence stones compatible with Zoey's needs were the Cold Pike and the Moon Spider. The Cold Pike was a freshwater fish monster that lurked in the depths of cool, underground pools. There was an entire network of underground water sources around Sand Pit, so finding them was not a problem, but catching them proved to be difficult. The Cold Pike had an ability to layer it's fins with ice, making itself faster and more dangerous in the water. But, with Athena's spear, they were able to catch four Rank 3 Cold Pike for Zoey to use.
The Moon Spider was easier to find, and easier to hunt. They came out at night when the moon did, and were one of the more dangerous predators on the savannah at night. They spun large, venomous webs that were almost impossible to see in the dark, and poisoned anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with them. Thanks to Zoey's Dark Star Vision, they were able to easily avoid the webs and successfully hunt five Rank 3 Moon Spiders.
Zoey, Viridi, and Athena had managed to collect nine of the Rank 3 stones she needed to rank up less than a week after the dungeon portal had closed. She had been in Sand Pit nearly a month at this point and still had no word from Nito. She could only hope that her friend was OK.
On one dark night, Zoey had gone out to hunt with Viridi. They were struggling to locate the last Rank 3 essence stone she needed to rank up and had to expand their search area further away from Sand Pit as a result. Athena had split from them earlier in the day to take care of some of her own business, so Zoey and Viridi were on their own tonight. In her efforts to find the last stone she needed, Zoey found herself in an area she had never been before somewhere south of Sand Pit.
The area was filled with strange sinkholes and chasms that cut deep into the ground. There were so many holes in the area that Zoey had a hard time making her way through the terrain. When she looked into the chasms and sinkholes around her, Zoey had the strangest feeling something down there was watching her, but all she could see was a deep darkness that even her Dark Star Vision could not penetrate.
Clearly something strange was lurking down there in the depths.