Chapter 29 – Inside the Jungle
“LEAVE LAST! THE ENEMY APPROACHES.”
Luck didn’t blame the crowd as mutterings went through them like a wave. Some of the alchemists were more curious than they should be, but a few acted solidly, explaining it was best to report to Ardun before they all get wiped out. There was general unhappiness at the ashes not far from the front of the caravan, representing the extinguished infected, but no voices for revenge or retribution. A curious reaction to say the least. Perhaps it was just a consequence of the dangers the environment around Ardun naturally posed – death was everywhere.
The remaining guards were anxious. They, after all, were hardened adventurers from the Guild. Luck didn’t look down at them at all, in fact, he respected their profession as it was one littered with dangers much like his life. In this case though, their fears were unfounded.
Luck’s eyes lazily scanned the treeline, watching for the threat the Spectre warned them of.
The alien clicking came again. This time it was clear and reverberant, obviously emanating from the Spectre in front of them. It swiveled its head, gaping mouth and all, too far than should’ve been possible on anything with a conventional bone structure. It stood in eerie peace, looking like a deadly modern sculpture.
There was a faint noise in the distance. Then, with the crunch of soil and squelching of mud, the Spectre’s form was already disappearing, becoming mottled in the treeline, making nowhere as much noise as one would’ve feasibly expected. A gust of air and sudden absence of presence the only indicator of its movement.
“We need to leave.” It was a rougher man, clearly in his late 30s. From Luck’s memory, he was the head guardsman of the expedition. He, along with the alchemists and general consensus, would decide and judge the level of danger, risk, and reward associated with the mission. “Snake’s Way is infected with an unknown, lethal, and highly infectious fungus. Ardun’s Soldier’s Guard must be notified. The Adventurer’s Guild priority is the city it is stationed. Turn the caravan!”
“Soldier’s Guard?” Tate whispered. Luck got a look at the mask adorning her face. Tight fitting, it wrapped around the face and seemed to stick there by metal grippers. It was smooth, more rounded than he expected equipment of the sort to look, and much less bulky. A dense filter covered the relevant areas, the whole thing was a dull grey, as if disconnecting from the rest of the omnitanium had some effect.
Maxworth replied this time, having been standing silently with daggers aloft. “Ardun’s peacekeeping. They are a highly trained group that operates within and without the city of Ardun. Major threats both internal and external are often addressed by them.” The metallic man said, his voice a smooth quicksilver. “They’ll likely be informed of the presence of these Spectres.”
The group watched the rustling jungle where the Spectre had gone. Blackish yellow fungus lined every tree in the vicinity, a veritable growth that while not seemingly unhealthy to the plant life, just seemed
He’d have to go in there.
Erok’s voice by all accounts was a rough, rumbling contrast. “You are searching for family correct, Druid?” He looked to Maxworth, who nodded. “For the Rhoride Hammers and most Roken, bonds forged in combat are the most important, through struggle are the knots most strong tightened.” He spoke, his glacial true ice greathammer in hand. “We would not abandon your quest facing this. You have helped me and Max more than you know. Mayhaps we may tell you once we have a break to talk.”
“He is saying you have both my daggers and his hammer.” Maxworth interjected. “I do not think the infection will be particularly dangerous to me.”
He watched as drivers and able men turned the various wagons, sometimes lifting the empty ones altogether. The lizards pulling the things had to be held by the reins. Though Luck could tell the large lizards weren’t at all thinking about leaving. His attention shifted to the two.
Luck rose an eyebrow at Maxworth, his eyes coming back from idle observation. “A few weeks seems a short amount of time for such a bond.” He stated. He wasn’t one to miss out on Ace’s interested glance at Maxworth and Erok either. “You owe me nothing. Nothing holds us to each other since arriving at the city.”
“Perhaps. But nonetheless.” Maxworth replied for both of them.
Luck gave him a sideways glance, not for the first time wondering what drives the metallic man.
There was a quiet pause. The group of them weren’t idle standing on the edge of the caravan – that being what was once the front and now currently turning into the back. As it was, they were among the chunk of guards simply staring at the fungus, daring something to come at them. It was burned to a crisp outward from their location, a purge of fire that the Spectre brought upon the area before darting off.
New Quest: Fungal Venom!
(Prerequisites: True Druid)
An infectious fungus ravages Snake’s Way, when not immediately lethal to victims they enter a state of mind-altering aggressiveness and pack mentality. These infected threaten to consume Snake’s Way and parts of Krukon’s Forest which will cripple a vast selection of Ardun’s natural resources. Find and eliminate the source of the fungus.
Rewards: Information, Greater Item, Unknown.
Luck blinked at the window, he didn’t have any active Quests except for The Mystery of Ethodthem, though that particular one seemed out of his reach for now.
“Looks like its already spread.” Ace spoke up. He rubbed his chin, breath icy cold from his magic. The gift from Rever was already doing him favors.
Luck nodded, he was already inclined to do this anyway. “We’re still not sure how the infection spreads.” He pointed out.
“And neither do the rest.” Erok hefted his greathammer at the ready, its chill frost resembled Ace’s breath. He, along with Maxworth and Nayah were observing the crowd, looking inward rather than outward. “They are nervous even of the corpses.”
The people of the caravan were arguing, trying to get around the wreckage of the short-lived battle that took place which wrecked one of the wagons. They could maneuver around it easily enough but they’d be taken close to the gigantic infected serpent carcass that lay in the wreckage. And given no one knew the infectivity of the fungus none of them seemed to be liking that idea.
“I got it.” Luck took a breath, his foot firmly on the ground. With an effort of will, the ground below the serpent undulated like a wave, carrying the body out and around the concentration of people to just outside the treeline to rest in the grass.
The people looked around, wondering who moved it before generally attributing it to their group. Ace waved a friendly hello, shamelessly taking the credit. Luck smirked at that. The mercenary actually received a few waves back despite the stress of the situation.
Luck’s mouth curved downward as he looked at the caravan. Simply taking into account the lack of guards on their flank meant that without Luck’s group the procession was not as sufficiently protected as was likely safe.
And yet, Luck had to go into Snake’s Way. It wasn’t an option.
“Perhaps it would be wise for those of us unsusceptible to the fungus to continue, and for the rest to return with the caravan,” Maxworth suggested, much more meaning to the statement than initially apparent.
He had noticed Luck’s predicament, no matter the fact it barely showed on his face, a consequence of the matter pertaining to the livelihood of his family.
In another life, Luck would’ve become suspicious, at least initially, instead, he rose an eyebrow. “You would risk your life in search of a stranger’s family?” He said, staring at the metallic man.
For his part, Maxworth peered into the treeline, over the burnt edges of the forest. His voice was melodic, akin to the time as they entered the Frozen Zones, when he sang that beautiful song. “Not a stranger’s family. The Gentleman do not often meet people they could call friends, sir.”
He stared at the gentleman for a long moment. When he spoke it was with audible amusement. “We have already been friends for quite a while, Maxworth. But I wouldn’t ask you to do this for me.”
“I assume your regeneration plays a part in buffeting the fungus.” He said in lieu of an answer. “I am immune for obvious reasons and therefore of the few that can help you here. Unless I am missing someone?” Maxworth said as much without any doubt, he ended the sentence in an inviting tone for anyone to step up. He looked out of place in the jungle, and yet his movements denied that very logic. The man seemed comfortable traversing the terrain so far.
“I don’t think anyone has a way other than through Tate’s mask.” Nayah said, her eyes were genuinely worried, Luck could tell that much from her honest posture.
“I could keep the masks working, but even now it’s a drain.” Tate offered. She caught Luck’s eyes. “I’m coming with you, Luck. No questions asked.” He wasn’t really one to argue against her. He trusted Tate with his life, both of them.
Tric chirped, something more like the crackle of electricity, and Luck’s eyes were drawn to Ace, upon whom she perched. “Hand me a mask and I could make do. But Tric, I’m not sure if I’d risk her.”
“I could handle
mask,” Tate replied, the metal she possessed glimmered across her neck and face. It looked of quicksilver and sleekness as it protected her, ever-shifting.
“We could keep Tric with Saga, they’d be safe.” Luck hinted at Ace.
Ace nodded. “That’ll do.”
And Tric mounted Saga, only for the shar to bound in the boughs of the jungle canopy. They disappeared into a dimensional portal the second they were lost from Nayah, Erok and Maxworth’s view.
“A few of us must stay behind though. These good people do not deserve to make the journey back unprotected.” Erok nodded, his stone features were set. “I will stay behind to escort them back. They did not go on this expedition expecting to be abandoned halfway through.”
Then, eyes went to Nayah, and Erok looked at her meaningfully. “Then I’m with Erok too then. Better to have a mage against the snakes in numbers anyway. That at least I can do.”
“Two for protecting such a large section of the caravan?” Luck asked doubtfully. “You think they would be okay with that?”
Erok assuaged his worries. “Fear not, Druid. Nayah is more than capable. Many of the guards had seen her work her magic. They will entrust a large section to herself and I. I am confident.”
Curious. In truth, outside of smaller magics, as she did with Mind and Illusion, he had only seen her Fire magic against Guard. Though according to Spirit the Iluse were highly magical beings, it would make sense for her to have some competency in magic. Had Luck been underestimating her this entire time for her naivety? He liked to think he was past underestimating people, but magic threw a wrench in his normal judgments of people. Even a child could cast magic.
And, with a few purposeful looks, Tate handed Ace an omnitanium mask, and they were off.
What was immediately apparent, were the large swaths of jungle ruined by what could only be described as a battle between hulking giants. Where trees once stood now featured broken wood, rotting from the ground up. Areas of the jungle also had burnt corpses, and more importantly, less and less snakes bothered the further they ventured away from Ardun’s bastion walls.
“Eerie” Tate noted. She held her guns low, her shins were covered with the same metal as to ward off stray bites from hidden serpents. “It’s too silent for any of this to have gone unnoticed.” Her footsteps in the brush were a welcome break from the constant sound of buzzing humid insects and the occasional hissing.
“No, these battles have been fought weeks before,” Maxworth explained, not shy to bend down to inspect the growths of the fungal infection. “There is already new life, though infected, coming from the rotting trees. Maggots and worms.”
Luck queried Spirit. His peripheral lit up in blue data, lines of writing springing up from the infected jungle around him. He steered clear of the infected trees as he wasn’t sure whether or not he fancied taking the risk, even knowing he would most likely survive it. It was a clear risk, but he didn’t think he needed a mask, a fact that Tate only let up on when Ace waved her down, shaking his head.
Now, the data was much more dense from the visual cues, and to some extent, even the corpses of infected snakes that littered their path every so often.
All gathered data suggests no chance of infection. Fungal type is still unknown. Long exposure to minimal spores raises infectivity rate. Symptoms include swollen muscles and a type of mind-altering state. These only increase in severity, other effects are thus far unknown.
Spirit spoke as what looked like bloated snakes were highlighted in his view, some even died in the act of biting themselves. The Mk3’s voice was smooth and analytical.
Luck observed the masks both Tate and Ace were wearing. Spirit had something to say about those as well, without Luck’s prompting.
The spores of the fungus, though rarely airborne further than the mushrooms itself, do not seem to be penetrating those masks. An efficient breather for this climate.
“Looks like those masks are working wonders.” Luck confirmed, in English.
“What makes you say that?” Tate blinked, though she was focused forward and alert, much like Ace and Luck were.
“Just a computer in my head.” Luck shrugged, to which Tate half turned around to.
“What?” She replied.
“You heard him Tate.” Ace shrugged. “But chill out with the English.” He spoke the last part in Common. “It’s not fair to Max.”
The Gentleman was quietly trekking forward, demonstrating again how agile and adaptable he was even in unknown terrain. “I do not mind. I am used to those around me speaking their languages. It is of no bother to me. Though I am curious, only occasionally do I hear you speak in that tongue. Why?” To Luck, that strongly spoke of an outcast, but he didn’t comment. “Is that a native human language?”
“Our one, yes. We don’t speak it often for respect, mostly. Any more and it would seem like we were keeping secrets.” Luck instantly replied. “Maybe we are a little, to be honest, but nothing concerning anyone’s safety.”
Maxworth hummed something more like a whirring gear. “Then I will not pry into your conversations, but if I may ask? Who are we searching for?”
It wasn’t that large of an epiphany of a thought. But it was a half second where Luck kind of… just regarded Maxworth. Under no logic was Maxworth bound to help them. The Gentleman simply told them he would travel with them… and here they were. Realistically, Luck understood why. The Gentleman was an outcast, they were his friends. But acts of kindness were truly rare in a past life, and ones this severe, even more so. Unsettled wasn’t the correct word for what Luck was feeling, it was something more like a pleasant wariness, despite his better judgment.
Tate was the one to reply, apparently not finding anything particularly worth keeping secret. “Our mom or dad. One of them is out here, so far as we can tell. And we’ve been split apart for far too long.”
“In Snake’s Way?” Maxworth paused in surprise. “Why?”
“Good question.” Luck shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. It’s already been a few weeks since we got split, they should’ve found their way to a city or something.”
“Maybe to study snakes?” Ace offered, kicking at a small corpse. “Lot of cadavers around.”
Luck chuckled, shaking his head.
It wasn’t long before they were truly being tested. In retrospect, Luck chided himself for allowing himself to become lax. He
alert, but the level of attentiveness was nowhere near what he should have been applying.
That was why, currently, a sizeable snake was sunk into his arm. He grimaced, prying the snake’s fangs from his arm. He could feel the venom pulsing up his arm, such was the pain.
“More on the left.” Ace warned. Lightning was a common phenomenon around him. Seemingly to spark aggressively and around him.
Warmness flooded the venom out his arm, and he watched his blood gush out of his wound, pushing clear liquid out of him. His arm tensed as he gripped the earthen swords he pulled from the rich soil of the jungle. Spirit did wonders with the help of his Exceptional Regeneration and Troll’s Blood.
He caught Tate’s concerned look, but answered by slicing a particularly vibrant snake in half. Maxworth, nearby, was doing the same. He nodded to Luck just as he felt the ground vibrate with a severity he hadn’t experienced.
“Something big!” Luck warned, as he had been doing for the past hour or two. It wasn’t long before he was deemed to be the best at forewarning of enemies, no doubt due to his magic. “And closing!”
And then Maxworth was flying. Blasted against the nearest tree, but the Gentleman somehow managed to agilely absorb the impact and slide down on the far side of the tree, terrible grooves marked his passage.
A serpent on legs. Short legs, relative to the being’s body, were still tall compared to a human. It slithered around trees as if they were mere toys, regarding them as if they were toys.
Immediately, Luck shot earthen darts at it, high speed. They impacted with a dull thud that sounded painful and nothing more.
Luck dived as it lunged forward toward him the way a snake does.
Gunshots, lightning and screeching.
He rolled back up in the next instant. It smelled of ozone, woodchips flew around freely. Its neck was long, armored in thick scales, and only compromised where the fungal infection grew in yellow bruises.
Earthen spikes, by Luck’s will, pierced these spots, the aid of Spirit helping immensely. With unerring precision, multiple spots were found impaled by polished spikes of earth and soil. A flash of blinding lightning took advantage of the beasts vulnerable state, blowing a chunk of flesh and scale clean off its shoulder.
Ace stood, laser-focused, another ball of lightning in his hand growing in size.
Tate aimed her shots for the thing’s eyes, but quickly found the infected areas of its scaly hide were where it felt them the most. Maxworth, like a surgeon, cut the infested snakes from the underbrush that approached either Tate or Ace.
Luck felt a moment where the giant serpent, hissing in pain and desperation, broke the spikes inside of itself. With a twist, it turned around and sped forward as if it was swimming through water.
It lunged. Going for Tate’s throat of all things. A small target. But the shine of its fangs left no doubt in Luck’s mind. His heart sped for a moment, before he pulled his own metaphorical trigger.
When time resumed the serpent choked on a spiked hand that both gripped its neck and impaled it. Luck’s face twisted, he squeezed and the serpent barely made a noise as it extinguished. A cloud of spores puffed from its body, but the group was unaffected. Luck groaned.
He fell to a knee, his head aching. “Damn.” His mind throbbed lightly, but off the battle high it was enough to knock him unsteady. Mana fatigue. “Too much, too fast.” His hand rested on the ground.
Ace jogged over, breathing a sigh of relief. “Pushed yourself too hard?”
Luck responded as the rest approached. Maxworth still sliced away at runaway snakes. Tate ran forward concern on her face. “Yeah, that headache is something, damn. How’d you handle this before, Ace? Gods and goddesses.” Funnily, it was the first time he cursed like that and it felt strangely fitting.
“Power through you sap.” Ace shot with a grin. Despite his attitude, the accelerated rate of his breathing didn’t escape Luck’s notice. Crackles of static traveled up and down his arms.
He probably didn’t look too hot himself. Covered in dirt and soil, he could feel his muscles straining against no real physical force. Despite his regeneration, he felt the strain on his body was something more. The short breath and weakness was more likely an effect of being low on mana than anything else. A physical effect rather than magical, but nonetheless.
And then there was another one.
A screeching hiss. Blurring scales. Along the lines of a busted industrial pipe. A diamond-headed shape ripped through the trees.
Then, Luck looked up. Ace’s body blurred. His body curved left as the snake impacted. Soil from below tried to soften the impact, and flowing metal rushed to cover his vitals. A resounding thud, mixed with the clang of scraped metal, fangs harder than anything impacting a harder metal.
Ace’s coughed up the air in his lungs before he disappeared into the jungle trees.
The body of the snake disappeared, rushing through the grass with Ace still in its jaws. Everyone moved at once. Maxworth found his footing immediately, the wet squelch of his movement evident. Tate rushed, drawing her pistols.
He looked up, groaning. Luck got his foot under him and dizziness took over. “Too soon.” His fist planted into the soil. “Fuck.”
A flash of lightning pierced through the trees. Luck stumbled backward. Maxworth and Tate slowed to a halt.
Ace stepped out of the thick brush, parts of his torso covered in slapdash omnitanium armor. He smoked, the humidity of the jungle burning right off of him, smelling strongly like lightning.
“I believe we might need to take this more seriously.” And, no matter how hard he looked, Luck couldn’t sense a hint of sarcasm.
They relaxed, letting out nervous chuckles. No-one asked what happened to the snake.
When Luck finally got his feet under him, and his head in order. He took one look at Tate and Ace. With that, their entire mood changed. It was easy to forget, even for them, what real danger was and demanded. In parts of their life, taking it easy with light-hearted humor and antics, were welcomed and sometimes even necessary to ease the burden. But every so often, there comes a time where it need be discarded.
Blood. That was often a sufficient wake-up call. He was numb to the idea, but it was still the life of someone. That’s what Ace had across his arms, not from the fangs or anything deadly, just from the impact with the overgrowth. Blood.
And so, they took things more seriously.
The group broke rest near instantly, Maxworth pausing at the change in work ethic, but adapting on the fly just as quick. Luck took point, Ace was in the back with Tate, and Maxworth found his own spot easily enough, noticing their change in formation.
Others, in similar situations, might’ve been grim. But even that was unnecessary. The three otherworlders held simple, analytical, neutral faces. A fact that, given what someone might normally expect, was all the more chilling.
They weren’t flawless. No one was. But they were smooth. Suspicious areas where branches hung low and vines hung lower were circumvented. Snakes on the ground were mostly subverted by Luck’s efforts. Tate’s contributions were surprisingly… mundane. Aside from shooting snakes from range, though they all agreed to reduce noise, she simply chopped down the overgrowth that slogged their path. Maxworth’s daggers were sufficient but she could create efficient tools.
Maxworth sliced wet vines down. “What changed between you all?” A metallic tone, filled with curiosity.
Ace held a hand tucked into his hip. He had, for the most part, intimidated the larger serpents with legs. They were the ones that had intelligence to go with their fangs. The crackling of electricity was enough for them to hesitate, and the following bolt of lightning enough to stop them dead.
“A switch flipped, Max.” Ace replied, his tone nearly as metallic as Maxworth’s. Compliments of the breathing mask he wore.
“And the snakes got bigger.” Luck grimaced. They had left a few large corpses behind, or, rather,
Tate called out threats ahead before they could elaborate, her voice slightly modulated by the metal device she breathed through.. “Something moving ahead of us. Covered in the fungus too. Keep your mask on Ace.”
Maxworth’s focus geared forward. “This one is different. Brace yourselves.”
With Luck’s enhanced senses he could tell the same thing.
Snippets of its movement came like strobe through the jungle trees. The rustling of leaves around them, and the sound of its body gliding across the soil. It was as if the sound came from all around them.
The surroundings got darker. The canopy, closer. The fungus spores around them seemed to get thicker, more prominent. Had they hit some patch of shade? Enroached upon some unmarked territory?
Maxworth’s posture slightly changed, his hips getting lower. Before Luck could even guess why, some instinct kicked in, some vague danger-sense that he had developed over the years. Vague but sharp, immediate. He pulled hard on Saga’s aspect. Claws, teeth, hearing, eyesight, reactions, everything sharpened. His body coated itself in armor.
He ducked, pivoting on his foot and bringing himself immediately to the ground, rolling onto his side. His chest thumped the floor harder than his heart.
Maxworth wasn’t so lucky. With a metal clang he collided with a scaly writhing mass a meter thick.
Immediately, Luck’s hand dipped into the earth, pulling out a solid stone sword. He strained his bicep, swinging the sword at an angle to pierce into the snake’s neck. It was the easiest method to dispatch them, using their own momentum to open them up he found. But this one was tougher than the rest, his sword only scratched, dinging off the metal. Superficial damage probably not at all felt by the thing.
Maxworth slid backward, twin short-swords emitting frost into the snake’s maw. His arms were outspread up and down, swords clashing against venom-dripped fangs. Nicks in the snake’s jaw were frostbitten by the enchanted weapons. Wounds of frost Maxworth found as his swords traveled up to lock the beast’s jaw.
Luck tried stabbing the hide, even if the head was meters away from him, the sizeable body was still in front of him. His earthen sword was useless however as it sent a ringing up his arm. “Gods, that stings.”
The beast hissed. Luck heard another distant, similar hiss.
And Ace yelled. “There’s more than one!” The former mercenary dodged his own problem, diving to the side like he was avoiding a spray of bullets. His own problem was a snake of shorter length. It reared its head, dripping wet. Wetter than it should be. A detail he noticed immediately.
Glowing blue words sprouted from the beasts, showing them attributed to the elements. The lines of data superimposed themselves in Luck’s vision, labeling the enemies neatly.
Water. A terrible match. It shrieked in a seizure when Ace got a hand on it. Muscles Luck wouldn’t expect existed tensed and spasmed across its length.
A gout of flame exploded from Tate’s position. “Alright, back off!” She held a shield against another serpent shrouded in shadows. Fire exploded against its hide and it screamed in pain, slithering into the jungle, burns on its body and the ground around it. A metal tube Tate held across her arm, licked the air in a forked tongue of fire, as if mocking the serpents themselves.
Despite the sunlight, the snake nearly disappeared as if it was swimming into water. Darkness enroached upon it like an old friend, covering its escape. Shadow.
“Ace!” Luck yelled.
The mercenary had already finished his own foe, but had been readying a hand full of lightning anyways.
A powerful blast of concentrated electricity exploded after the snake’s form. Pieces of trunk flew as if flash froze in haunting light, illuminating the speedy twenty-meter form in all its scaly glory. It hissed, blinded, and headbutted a tree. The entire form went limp and the shadows retreated from it.
Meanwhile, Luck was conjuring as much defense for Maxworth as he dared, covering his retreat to Tate. The snake was slower, thicker. But Luck could see the scales on the thing, the sheer layers disrupted by unwanted growths of fungus uprooting the patterns. Steel, he thought. Metal.
And damn, did it have some inertia.
As Maxworth had found, despite the resultant flying soil and gravel of Luck’s failed walls, the beast’s mouth was not so impervious. A bolt of lightning gave it only small pause, and Luck wondered at that, before a gout of flame made the thing hiss. Ace and Tate were hesitant to near it, Maxworth had no such qualms.
A column of stone erupted into the path of its heavy tail as Tate covered herself in her armor, chunks of solid stone raining down on her like hail. “Damn it, Tate, I can’t afford this drain right now!” Luck shouted, feeling a headache assaulting him already.
Both distractions were enough for Maxworth to pierce the thing’s brain, having been dueling the head of the snake for the last minute.
The snake fell limp without ceremony, a dull thud to mark its death. It planted in the ground slightly due to the force of its weight.
Mawworth’s chilled sword slid out of the snake’s maw with a wet squelch.
Something about that casual blood drew Luck’s attention. Breathing, all around. An unplaceable silence settling between the sounds of the jungle. Palpable and odd deference in the lack of sound. It was like the jungle finally took stock of them, having tested them truly. And, likewise, it was they that looked outward to the jungle shade, sunlight beating down on them. It was misleading, that the sun could be out, and that such dangers existed under the canopy.
Danger in Aerae was at all times. In the city, you could either see it coming, or it came at night. A mistake on everyone but Maxworth’s part. And, quietly, silently, he could tell from the little looks from both Tate and Ace that they thought the same.
He was the first to speak, breathing hard despite his belying traits. “We can’t keep- ”
A roar exploded from the distance, hitting them like a physical wave. Part animalistic rage, confusion, and despair. A rich call that screamed for pain, that
pain. It sounded as if the very roar that resonated destroyed the throat that it came from. It was full of emotion, desperation. Need, want, hunger. It was all of those things.
Luck swayed on his feet, feeling everything. There was a connection in him that ringed with vibrancy and urgency at the sound. As if a close friend of his was suffering. It was his One with Nature trait, he knew. And at this moment, he hated it. Emotions flooded him, some harsh controlling part of his ego, the one that dealt with the absolute darkest times moments in the underground, clamped down and cooled his mind. And Luck still grit his teeth, his face flashed with anger.
“That sounds larger than the Ice Drake,” Maxworth noted, wiping the bloodied swords against the boughs of low-hanging leaves. His features were calm, but his head was high and alert as if the fact he slew a snake nearly ten times his length was no big ordeal. “We best avoid that particular creature, sir.” He said, turning to where the sound came from.
Logical, yes. But Luck wasn’t ever entirely rational, despite the cool calculative side of him, he could often times be driven by emotion. And now, he remembered anger and injustice.
Amber eyes regarded Maxworth. “No creature should have to suffer that pain.” He said simply, his headache was slowly dissipating, his features returning from catlike to human. “The fungus has it, but I can feel it fighting still. If there’s something I can do, then you can bet I’m doing it.”
“What?” Tate and Maxworth said. They looked at each other.
“A Quest, a Druid one.” Luck smirked. “I’m not here just for Mom or Dad, but to eradicate the fungus if I can help it. The jungle is my friend, a tool from the impartations, Tate. ”
“Luck, you have to be kidding,” Tate said, incredulous. “That has to be suicide. Doesn’t matter if it was a tool or not Luck. It’s a big risk. Besides, Luck it’s always family first.”
Luck rolled his eyes, he of all people knew that. His family and friends were his highest priority, but he had thought of that.
“I’ve done things more dangerous before. Really? The family card? We know Mom and Dad, you know where they’ll be? Right smack dab in the middle of the deepest shit around. Just watch.” And Luck wasn’t joking, their parents had a tendency to rightfully involve themselves and become a power all their own. “And if that roar wasn’t the definition of trouble, I don’t know what is. Even the System allocated a Quest to it.”
“You’ve got to be-…. damn it, you’re right.” Tate stumbled before sighing. “Let’s hope to god not. ”
“Well, we’ll get back to Luck’s crazy druidic, tree-hugging ritual at another time. You need to check this out.” Ace waved, he was crouch squatting near patches of mud. “If we can save the damn screaming thing that’s likely the size of a mountain, I say we go for it. For now, we’re searching for your parents.”
They walked over. Luck brushing off jungle dirt and soil, Maxworth and Tate doing similar maintenance.
“That’s a modern shoeprint.” was Luck’s first thought vocalized. It was the sole of a familiar brand, a high-end one. “That’s Costen leather, I’d bet my soul on it.” He whispered, understanding the significance.
“Rick’s favorite brand if I’m not mistaken.” Ace whistled, his knees cracking as he got up.
“Looks like Dad’s been here.” Tate said. She glanced around the area, eyeing details the same way Luck was trained.
“He didn’t get away without a fight either.” Ace frowned. He noticed the markings only after Spirit pointed them out to Luck. “On the bark. Low on the trees, you see those scrapes and marks? I bet one of those snakes,” He nodded to the carcasses. “could probably rub up against the trees enough to take some wood off. Though this one seems a
thicker.” Ace’s sarcasm was palpable.
Maxworth rounded the thick copse of trees. He wasn’t nearly halfway around before Luck could hear his footsteps pause, quiet as they were. “Everyone, come here.” He called.
And when they rounded the corner, pushing low hanging branches away from their faces, they saw it.
It was a snake. Once. Its width was definitely the correct size that marked the trees only a short distance away. Ridges lined its scales like an edged blade, many sections of the thing were covered in blood that was quite clearly another creature’s. Its maw and head was sharper, an umbrella of a mushroom sprouting out of its eye and side of its head.
But, the rest of it. The rest of it
covered in blood. Portions were just… missing. Cauterized in places, rotting in others, bruised and mangled. It was easily, despite missing an unknown portion of its length, nearly twice the size of any of the serpents that attacked them.
It was a grisly scene that smelled of iron where it didn’t smell like the jungle. Red and brown, fresh and dried blood, pooled and painted the jungle floor. Everyone grimaced as they took stock of the picture. Despite all the gore, amber eyes locked onto a single detail, a mundane one that stood out.
The shoeprints by the serpents fallen head.
“Okay, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Those were the words that bubbled up from within. “I thought at least he’d be pressed. Maybe caught up in the action, not contributing to it.”
Tate smiled though. “Well we know he’s safe at least, far as we can tell.”
“We are assuming this your father then?” Maxworth finally spoke after standing still for a long moment. “What type of man is he?” He said slowly. “No normal individual could pull this off alone.”
The three otherworlders shared a look that conveyed many things, before regarding Maxworth as one. It was a look that questioned their old ways of thinking. That argued for something other than the caution and consequence of their actions. Tate had the smallest say and the largest doubts, not at all for the metallic man being a Gentleman, but for the fact he was a stranger. But for Luck and Ace, time moved fast, and they had traveled with the man for nearly a month. And here he was, scouring an infested and dangerous jungle teeming with snakes for no small reason than the fact they were friends. The decision was made.
“We… aren’t your pure type of people, Max.” Ace started, he was staring into the jungle, whether he saw memories or infested bark would’ve been anyone’s guess. “We’ve had rough lives, harder than most of the people that lived around us.” He walked among the mutilated carcass of serpent, emotionless at squelch of gore.
“Rough, violent, harsh. In an environment ruled by connections, threats, deals, money, and violence, we were some of the best.” Amber eyes blinked, awareness burying slithering snakes surrounding them, should they interrupt him. The group was moving again, into the jungle, deeper. “We had the most connections, respect with everyone around us. Earned it. Fought for it. We had the most money. The most feared threats, and the most violent when it came to.”
“The strongest warriors.” Maxworth nodded, his voice soft but overpowering the increasing noise of the habitat denizes. “You were they with the most power. It is not something the Gentlemen think about, as we are all equal, but Erok speaks of it often. A hierarchy. A pyramid, with your family at the top.” His silvery, geared eyes fixed on them. “The kind of people that oppress the Gentlemen for our unbreakable words, those that oppress the wrongs we have done, no matter the rights we commit.” More emotion than he had ever heard come from the man tinted his words with color other than silver. But it was no directed to them, Luck felt.
“We hated it.” Tate drew Maxworth’s eyes like a dog on a chain, gripping her pistols white. Luck and Ace’s mouths were lines, their eyes focused on their task of spotting dangers. “We were the ones who wanted change. We were the ones that wanted things to be different. We were the ones that wanted the crimes to cease. We were the ones that allowed them to continue.” She growled it nearly, anger in her voice.
“There is little you can do atop a mountain despite the fact you stand above all.” Luck quoted. “Dad said it all the time. His hands were probably the most tied. But hell if his weren’t the most bruised and raw from struggling.”
“You already know my story, Max.” Ace said simply. “But I left it all for a second chance. We just all got split up along the way.”
“And when you find your family?” Maxworth asked Luck, slashing cleanly through hanging vines and moss. “What then?”
“Then we figure out what we want to do. Aerae is a big place after all.” Luck smirked, an expression he felt was not as rich without his parents to observe it. They, after all, knew the entirety of its nuance and meaning. All the emotion Luck could put in the expression was perhaps known best by his immediate family, Mr. Ark, and to some extent Ace.
The noise of jungle, the chirping of exotic birds Luck had yet to see, the hissing of small snakes, the rustling of leaves and branches swaying in the wind, all of these noises blended together in pointless noise, enveloping the four for long moments. Sunlight pierced the canopy in beams in some places where previously the canopy’s coverage was absolute. There was warmth on their backs, the sun illuminating the trees around them.
Luck could’ve swore he saw it then. What the jungle used to be. Unridden by spores and fungal growths, but teeming and loud with vitality. The pulse of life running through its bark, than bleeding out of it. It was beautiful, enchanting in the isolation, and sad in the realization.
“It’s a good plan.” Maxworth finally said. “Perhaps when I am done with my own goals I can rest like you three.” He said softly. “The Gentlemen’s life the past century was not easy. We are feared for our precision and deadliness, outcast for our looks, hesitance towards our word. That is why I seek power with Erok, why I became a System-Seeker, Erok himself has different reasons. But for me, power comes respect. And that is what we need.”
Luck chuckled softly breaking the silence. “Well, I respect you. You basically parried two enormous snake fangs. If that doesn’t deserve respect then the only other thing I know that does is the fact you came out here to help us.”
Both Ace and Tate scoffed, still alert towards the jungle, and then agreed with Luck’s words. Aside from the sounds of their boots and shoes on alternating mud and soil, there was a gentle whirring underlying it all. Whatever man or machine that created the beings of perpetual motion known as the Gentlemen, had outdone itself. Despite the metal of which Maxworth was made of, Luck could easily see the large appreciation in the gentleman that went into the small smile on his face.
“I have fought larger before.” Maxworth laughed, no real bragging to his voice, as his hands rested against his sword hilts.
Tate’s voice was light, but a seriousness came from it that snapped everyone back to reality as she called out a warning. The canopy had blanketed the sun out of view. A detail that was in no small part accentuated by the fungus around them that now started to glow softly, pulsing with dull light. The yellow hue was sickly, and everyone proceeded with caution.
Hours passed. The occasional snake was now much less occasional. The had fought less and less what Luck had taken to calling ‘baby’ snakes. Now, the snakes were always as large as what Luck assumed was large for back home. In this forest, though? These things were probably the smallest of the medium spectrum. They would come in ones and twos, sprouting mushrooms and hissing mindlessly, erupting in clouds of spore when one of them eventually dispatched them. This was often delegated to either Maxworth or Tate, as the effort for them to do so was the least required. A gunshot or slash through the neck. Luck and Ace would have to do exert some level of mana that wouldn’t do to help the small ache in their heads.
Snakes on par with or as large as the elementally attuned ones, as Luck had explained to the group, were nowhere to be seen. And he wondered why, as those seemed to be the strongest so far. It was tough going. The snakes would come from the trees to drop down, some Luck noted were venomous, or poisonous, or latched onto them. Their instincts as ambush predators were still rooted in their mindless task to infect Luck, Ace and the rest but it seemed that rather than being coordinated to attack them, as Luck would’ve assumed given the amount they had witnessed, it was just that they were walking into their territory.
It came to a point that they simply stared the group down, hanging limply on branches to simulate vines. Or they were mottled and camouflaged on bark perfectly. Hidden a few inches underground, ready to sink fangs into ankles. There wouldn’t be a ten-second walk before they would run into one of them, heavily infected.
“Where are they?” Ace squinted. “Are we missing something? We couldn’t even stretch without having a finger snapped at before.”
“Maybe they’ve left us alone?” Tate shrugged, cautious.
“I think we must have run into one of the larger snake territories.” Maxworth tighted his hand on his swords, half-drawing them. “But I see nothing.” It was a relatively open space, for the cramped copse of trees they had previously been in, meaning it was still cramped, but nonetheless large for a snake of some caliber.
Luck scanned the surroundings, making sure to check behind him with his earth sense. His eyes picked up nothing, even in the canopy and in the shaded areas behind the trees. Empty. “Maybe this is a territory of one of the ones we killed? Or the larger one we found dead earlier?”
But then they heard it. In the distance, something large, a battle going on. Screeching, loud yelps and shouts, hissing and… staccato.
“We should probably avoid that.” Tate said, having turned her head towards the noise.
Luck was looking at the pendant, having pulled it out of his shirt, all the lights were shining brightly towards the battle.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Ace groaned.
“No use in waiting around.” Luck grimaced. “Let’s go.”
Maxworth nodded and Tate looked worried. They hadn’t talked about the fact the fungus infected and influenced the mind of the host, and the fact they had no idea if their mom or dad was suited to the task of defending against it.
It was then of course. When the serpent erupted from below.
And subsequently like the trigger of his favorite pistol, when Luck froze time.
It was only the second time he had to do so in the last five hours. More than enough time to recover from it, given the other magic he had been casting.
Shards of rock and soil exploded everywhere, jaws opened wide from below, moving through the debris right below Ace and Tate. That was the first hint to why Luck had sensed nothing. This particular serpent looked like a rock in and of itself.
Ace’s face was locked in a snarl rather than surprise, his palm frozen in the action of charging lightning opening to face downward. Like him, Luck could already see Tate dropping her center of mass to roll sideways, her guns minutely turning to face the threat. Too slow, the both of them.
He marked everything down, everything he needed to do in the scope of fewer than five seconds.
Luck released his hold of time. His intent shot into the ground faster than light, sharp and desperate. Columns of stone came up at curved to slam against each other right between the rock serpents jaws. Two more lengths of softer soil snaked at unprecedented speed to grab the two by their collars, yanking them urgently to the side. The reinforced pillars Luck sent into the snake’s maw barely held long enough. Ace and Tate rolled through dirt and mud before getting up to their feet.
It was at the same time they got up that Luck realized the snake wasn’t made of rock but simply coated in it. What followed was the imploding of the snake. Luck pulverized its body in half an instant. Everyone relaxed.
“Too close.” Luck huffed simply. No one could know the true length of their foe. But now that Luck knew it wasn’t just rock, he could tell anyone easily. This one was only slightly smaller than the large carcass they had found earlier. Only its head, looking bashed in poked out of the ground, dead.
“Way too close.” Ace said, breathing heavy. He visibly relaxed himself though. But he and Tate looked around warily.
Luck sighed, looking forward. He couldn’t risk their lives for this. This was too much to ask, he could always go about it alone. Once he met up with his mom or dad, he’d be safer too. And if, gods and goddesses forbid, they were somehow infected, Luck was the best equipped to deal with it.
He was about to turn around and tell them to turn back when he saw the group casually start moving again. Leaving Luck twiddling his thumbs for a few seconds. No hesitance, no second glances. Tate and Ace were the ones to lead even, Maxworth on their heel.
Luck smirked and followed them. That was their answer, he supposed.