Chapter 30 – Source
They call it the Whimsy. Its name, like its nature, was as elusive as the wind. It was incomprehensible to those who saw it, mages and scholars who devoted their lives to catalog and understand the unknown, to categorize such in their own measures and devices, were baffled. To think about the Whimsy, was folly. Even as I write this I do not so much as plan my words, but
them. It is ancient magic that does as it pleases, much like the ancient Druidic Groves, the Sanctuaries of Beasts, the Whimsy was cast long ago. It defies reason and is largely unhelpful, but those that understand the magic, who
it, can find themselves traveling across continents with ease. It was a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a chance that I beheld it.
-Qua, Legendary Practitioner of Wild Magic and Chance Magic.
Auth, God of Power clashed with it.
rippled in rage, their battle spanning the oceans. Tidal waves, small riptides to Auth in his current form, were sure to decimate whichever shore they crashed upon. It was Deep Water Kraken God, a name too long for Auth’s taste. The Lesser Gods of the Oceans and Seas were subpar in their naming sense. To them, he conceded, watching them ride the waves and assault the creature with small surges of power, perhaps the kraken was indeed a god.
To him, it was a threat to Aerae. Annoying.
His forearm collided with a coiled mass of tentacles erupting from the ocean. Shockwaves again were sent right into his feet and into the ocean floor. His power flared but the kraken only keened, squeezing his arm and challenging his strength. Auth flexed his bicep, ripping its writhing limbs that curled too hard.
He did not attain power without skill. Application was as key as power itself. He stepped forward, his foot slamming down upon one of the larger, thicker appendages it used to traverse and push on the ocean floor. His other arm, unfettered, pierced into the creature’s core and using the leverage from his foot, Auth ripped the kraken in half. It’s body diluted itself into the ocean, disgusting. It’s brackish blue blood instantly polluted an entire portion of the ocean. Smaller creatures emerged from its blood, coagulating in the water. Not worth his time, the mortals could deal with them.
This was the first time Auth was called to deal with a threat created by Ethodthem. He grimaced, knowing fully that there were only a few gods who could combat something of that level.
That was roughly 15% of Auth’s capabilities. Things did not bode well if the other Gods continued to report beasts of this caliber. Manifesting in the mortal realm was always a tricky endeavor. He was the size of two mountains, amounting to a fraction of his power manifested physically. He was fortunate Aerae was limitless in size, he would hate to deal with any mortals to have found him. As it happened, the kraken that appeared did so in an isolated ocean.
He wondered, truly, if the new Gods were up to the task.
The God of All Things Small had a name. But the name was such that even the tiniest ears could not hear it. Because he, or she – The God of All Things Small was too small to tell – was identified in not only the sound of said name but most importantly by its volume as well.
The God of All Things Small, or simply Gats, as the big Gods tended to call the God, fought things on a level no other God, save for perhaps The God of Understanding could understand.
To these tiny yet malicious foes, fleas were the size of Auth’s physical manifestation in the mortal realms. Such was their magnitude of tinyness. They encompassed a space too little to fathom for all except Gats, and of course, the implied God which fathomed things as a rule.
Gats’ presided over All Things Small, and Gats was the smallest of small. But there were many small things and thus Gats was indeed a powerful God, though none would ever guess. Auth, it seemed, during the most recent attendance in the Court Of Gods, had recognized the power he possessed if the small amount of surprise he exhibited said anything, which of course Gats had picked up on, naturally. That strange God of Variance had also taken interest in Gats, but that was likely because Gats was never actually in attendance, and if Gats was, he almost never appeared as big as he did, which was to say quite large for the God, it allowed him to attend without issue or notice.
Gats was powerful. Power concentrated into the speck of a speck of a speck that was the God of All Things Small. So it was only Gats that sensed the small things that threatened Aerae with a level of danger on par with the big things that the big Gods combatted. Some of the threats that fell within the domain of All Things Small could be left to the mercy of the other Gods. This included vermin and pests and even disease and bacteria and other such examples. Gats knew there were much of those threats.
What Gats was stuck dealing with, on nearly as large a scale as Gats was tiny, were miniscule invaders. If Gats were to bring them up, Gats doubted anyone would believe it. Gats observed their procession on a relatively isolated herd of animals. Within weeks there was nothing left, and not only that, no trace to whatever occurred, no magic signature, electrical, magnetic, thermal, anything. A danger none could detect but Gats.
But Gats saw. That had been months before. Now, should the God of All Things Small sense their presence anywhere they did not live long enough before Gats crushed them into pieces smaller than they were.
Gats was the smallest of Gods. And Gats was to be feared. For should any other God attempt the magnitude of the task that Gats did without so much as a complaint, they would find themselves not up to the task.
Jerxos sighed. It wasn’t that giving the recent rebirthees their deserved power drained him per se, it was the fact they had demolished his tried and true tests that made him
“Advanced Learning, Time Magic, Lightning Magic, Soul Companion, an Evolving Base for God’s Sake. A damn dimensional room of things!” He muttered to himself. “I had to even part with a whole God’s damned cubic meter of omnitanium! And God’s beside me, the tiered magic and knowledge I shelled out!”
He was admiring his wife’s playing cards, they were truly beautiful things once he had the sense to truly look at them. Not to mention, in times as trying as these his wife’s works usually calmed him down. He was looking into incorporating some of her creations into his impartations. Though he was hesitant after the last card game he played. The very same card game that necessitated a meeting with the God of Time.
The talk with Ortik went surprisingly well despite his current mood. The God of Time it seemed had predicted such happenings. Of course, that then brought Jerxos to question the God on the future of Aerae, but Ortik simply shook his head. The future was too everchanging in his eyes to be reliable. Jerxos had originally approached him on the matter of informing the God of a new wielder of Time, only Ortik simply shrugged saying he needed all the help he could get. In what fashion he received it was any God’s guess.
Jerxos wore a tight suit, which on a God’s body almost always looked sharp, something he couldn’t recall he ever had need to do in all his centuries. The Goddess of Fun had said he cut a nice figure too. It was a recent hobby of his. He had truly been embarrassed when he became self-aware of his dressings. Apparently, everyone had just written him off as slightly peculiar.
He closed his eyes, feeling the new souls in the streams around him. Waiting to be reborn in different planes and worlds. With a pluck of his fingers, he could bring them here to Aerae. It wasn’t any soul that could survive such tampering, their mortal lives would’ve had to either have been many or long-lived. His sense of them was vague, but Jerxos had had centuries deciphering the feel, he knew the best fits to Aerae at the time – what would help most.
He smiled, sighing knowing he had work to do. There were a few worthy candidates.
“Perhaps I’ll find something more strange than before.” Jerxos grinned excitedly, it was the the Goddess of Fun loved him, he was among the few Gods who genuinely enjoyed their role – who had
doing it. And among the few that did? He had the most.
His vision was augmented with blue. He saw and gathered data at an unprecedented speed, though to him, it seemed rather normal. He ignored the slight sweat between his shoulders, the drain on his mana from his sparse use of the aspect of the heatblind, he ignored the bodies for they weren’t as important, the twisted minds of the infected animals.
The infection on the trees was noticeably worse. While they were immune to the fungi’s method of infection, it was by far the worst possible one. Airborne transmission. Currently, this mattered not to the group, Luck’s Traits were enough to combat the infection itself, according to Spirit he had already created antibodies, and the rest – thanks to Tate – had the equipment necessary to operate in the environment.
None of that stopped Luck from wincing at the bruised bark of the jungle trees. The foliage was thick enough that he sincerely doubted that any of the participants in the ensuing fight before them would see them.
“You’re sure?” Ace said, he balanced on a thick branch ridden with fungus, much the same way Luck, Tate and Maxworth had been doing. He was asking about the fungus.
“I’m sure.” Data, especially with so many cadavers, live specimens, and sample hosts they had crossed, came abundantly. That wasn’t to mention Luck’s own intake of the spores which his body combatted automatically.
The fungus only spread through the air. It took root in the lungs and branched out through the host’s airways. Any other area it latched onto would not take. The trees, unfortunately, were assaulted in the leaves, bringing the infection into the trunks and roots.
Tate shrugged. “We’ve gotten this far.” She checked herself, her shimmering metal flowing over herself. “I don’t
Ace rolled his eyes. “That’s what they all say.”
“Look, trust me. There’s enough data for me to pick up on. I’ve already broken down the component parts of the infectious spores. They plant in the lungs. Just… make sure you keep those breathing masks on.” Luck wasn’t shy to lean on the fungus-ridden trunk. It wasn’t as if it was sticky or slimy. They were just mushrooms, just highly infectious. Cold and soft, sure but nonetheless.
Maxworth’s analysis cut through their banter. “There. That is another Spectre. Different from the ones we have so far encountered. Multiple are darting through the trees.”
Sure enough, Luck saw it. A mottled blur through the tree line. Multiple snakes hung from its body like clothing. It wasn’t the last one either, he saw more. Maybe three, four total. Writhing snakes covered them, visibly squeezing hardened cold metal limbs to no avail. A deep staccato clicking followed their movements, bouncing off each other.
We approach the Source. It has inflicted severe injuries to multiple Spectres.
We cannot afford to expend ourselves on a single foe. Last Light – Ardun, must stand.
It’s clicking, which would otherwise echo across an expanse of space, was muffled near instantly among the trees.
Careful Spectres, it screams again.
He heard it a few seconds after the Spectres disappeared from sight. A deafening roar of pain. Emotion. Luck wobbled on his feet, feeling the connection. He tried to take a knee. Only to tip off the edge of the branch. His enhanced sense of balance kicked in-
Maxworth gripped Luck’s forearm. “Careful, sir.” He said, eyeing Luck. A moment’s pause. His head turned to the commotion ahead of them, he nodded forward. “You are a druid. Can you tell us anything?” Ace and Tate breathed a sigh of relief as Maxworth caught him. The way down was not a long one, but it would be a painful one.
Luck shook it off. “Thanks.” He dusted himself, breathing the mental pain away.
He tried to focus on the feeling. Whatever it was, was large. The sensory input, the strength of its mind and capacity for pain told Luck that much. More than that, he felt its age, as wise and tried as the oldest of the trees themselves. As if it had lived longer than a mountain.
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.
Eliminate the source of the fungus. He didn’t have to kill if he could help it.
So Luck summed it up. “It’s big, old, and Gods above, it’s fighting with everyone its got.” He hopped to the next branch, they had been traveling like so for a while, such was the thickness of the jungle. “There is another problem though.” He pulled the pendant from his shirt. “Looks like Dad’s the same way.”
Tate sighed. “So what are we trying to do. You can’t seriously think you can help cure it?”
“He’s done something similar before. Saved my life.” Ace said slowly. “Don’t underestimate your brother, Tater Tot. He’s more capable than you know.”
“You have a Quest, correct sir?” Maxworth asked. “Can I assume it has something to do with this creature?”
“Yeah, assuming the creature is the source of the infection, which I’m convinced is true.” Luck said quietly. There was no need to alert anything around them as they moved forward.
“I propose we find your father or family member and go from there. He may be in more dire straits than we realize. The Quest shall be second to that.” Maxworth spoke, gears whirring gently.
“Something I had already planned on doing, alas my friend and sister think I’m an idiot.” Luck snarked, weak venom in his voice.
Howls and hooting rang out. Such noise had been coming more frequently, accompanying, of all things, the twang of a bow, although the latter was much fuller and deeper than he figured it should be. Following that, the noise of the Spectres, and then loud hissing, until finally, another pained, shaking roar shut up the entire jungle. He wanted to believe the sound of a bow was his father, but the distance made it too hard to tell. If it was, they weren’t slowing down.
They could move swiftly among the branches, hidden in the foliage, due to how thick and gnarled the jungle trees were. That wasn’t to say they were particularly high up at all times, in fact, they were sometimes brought low enough for jungle grass to swipe at their feet.
Tate leaned on her leg, looking at a dipping branch path. It hovered over a mud pool. Thick and viscous. Maxworth glanced at her before stepping down wordlessly, cautiously inching his way.
The back of Luck’s neck itched. He immersed himself in the moment, scanning for dangers below the mud or past the treeline. It was Tate who gave a low whistle, a sign of uneasiness. But it was Luck that noticed the absence of some of the more minuscule organisms, the flies, the worms, the mini bats he had always felt but never saw, disappear. Their presence, ignorant of the infection, was decidedly
around. Luck hesitated, how long had it been that he hadn’t been sensing the snakes too?
He looked towards Maxworth, the gentleman having sensed something and slowly looking up. The buzzing silence was replaced with the gentle whirring of gears.
It wasn’t a snake though. Mud sloughed off of toned, monstrous muscle. It was an ape, and it would’ve been taller than the trees if it wasn’t resting on its knuckles, breathing hot air onto Maxworth. Its brown muddied fur did neither distract from its glinting fangs, nor the crown of the mind-altering mushrooms upon its head. Idly, Luck realized it was a he.
Many things happened at once. Or rather, many things exploded at once.
Luck tugged at the inexpressable threads that connected the beast to everything else. It’s hammering arms slowed noticeably, but it made no difference than allow Maxworth to escape.
The branch where Maxworth had been standing, exploded. Splinters and shards everywhere. The pool of mud, exploded as the ape leaped into the air slightly slowed, intent on coming down on Maxworth, who was in all likelihood running into the jungle for his life. Lightning. Exploding outward in branches smaller and sharper than the jungle.
Then, the Spectre’s came out from their stealth. Two of them, just outside of Luck’s perception. They were outlines, rough ones, but their arms were pointed upward, to the airborne ape. Then a small shockwave of force permeated the area as pieces of meat rained down from the sky.
Infected from the other cardinal directions. Krukon’s Apes.
Threat: Krukon. Query, is he still alive?
Negative, focus on current task. Teams are receiving crippling injuries. The Source requires all our efforts.
Coming in, reports of unknown force eliminating infected.
They dissipated again, leaving like ghosts.
It happened too fast. That was the largest infected they had so far seen. They were quick to get their bearings though, no matter how dumbstruck they had been. Luck had felt so small, something about that allowed him to cement himself in that moment of time and help slow down the ape.
“Holy hell.” Ace whispered. Luck followed him as he sprinted down the branch. “Max?” He yelled, cupping his hand to his breather.
“I am here, Sir Ace.” A smooth voice responded quietly.
Luck turned left, careful not to slip on the muddy branch. He had a small headache. “Gods Maxworth! How’d you end up down there?” The gentleman was clinging down the branch with his daggers.
“I got him.” Tate’s metal extended downward, grabbing both Maxworth and his dagger and pulling him up.
“That was not a snake.” The gentleman said, wiping mud from his silver body. “I believe we are close to the separation between the zones.”
“No, that was one of Krukon’s apes. The Spectres were talking too. It looks like they’re leaving us alone.” Luck voiced, explaining what he had heard from the Spectres and why the ape was in pieces.
“An unknown force?” Tate questioned.
“That can’t be Rick, can it?” Ace replied, he led the group up and into the trees once more.
“Hard to say.” Luck pondered. “We have no idea why’d he even be in this deep either.”
Rick Lockyer wasn’t the type to risk himself needlessly. He was a good man, but practical, something Luck aspired to be but could admit to himself, that occasionally, his emotions took the reins no matter how coolheaded he thought he was. He rested a hand on the nearby tree, unconcerned with the fungus. The tree was clueless to its infection.
Why was his father here?
After his makeshift tree shelter exploded into pieces, Rick had been having a bad few days.
The large creature was not only ridden by the large humanoid apes, it along with its riders was ridden with fungus. By whatever stroke of luck, it was something he dealt with in his impartation. Although, calling that lucky was somewhat incorrect.
He immediately covered his mouth and stopped breathing.
Paint, the chameleon-man he had encountered, had reappeared after the commotion, aiming to strike from above. Rick, having jumped higher, latching onto a nearby tree, forcefully held the cloaked chameleon back. He had seen first-hand the danger the fungus posed.
The creatures rode off. Crashing through the jungle. The silence in their wake was palpable. They did not sleep that night, instead waiting for morning.
Did this mean the city they were going to was infected? How close were they? If he recalled correctly, there was indeed a more formal name, but it had been referred to as a type of Hijack Shroom. A parasite that entrenched itself into an ecosystem, not altogether harmful for the ecosystem itself, but for its surroundings. And that collateral damage was horrifying, especially once it got into smarter sentients.
Paint’s colors flashed as Rick himself witnessed the screen. The System.
Quest: Fungal Venom!
(Prerequisites: Prior Knowledge of Hijack Shroom)
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.
That had been a day or two ago.
While curious about the rewards, he was concerned with eliminating the Source, doing what he had to do in one of his trials. His resolve was immediate, if it was too dangerous he would turn back. Paint as evidenced by their impromptu communication had decided to pursue the Quest, given now that he knew what berries to harvest for food.
was a relative term for a Lockyer.
“Leave these ones.” Rick whispered, standing on a branch high above their prospective foes. His bow in hand was strained with a taut string. He held two large knives outward as well, his hands having practiced holding all three weapons at once.
Below them, a concentration of the babboons were hollering. Large snakes slithered around them, frantically biting at the elusive figures slaughtering the crowd.
Crouched on a nearby branch, taller than Rick if he were in the same position, was Paint. His scales flashed a lighter shade of green and turquoise. Somehow, Rick attributed that to agreement and uneasiness. Telescoping eyes, zoomed in and out at the barely visible creatures to Paint.
These metal, hulking beasts had appeared. Sharp, jagged, and relentless. Their clicking hinted to communication which made Rick uneasy. By all accounts, they should have been spotted. It wasn’t until yesterday that Rick realized Paint had been covering their presence, if not for the close calls when they had been trying to be particularly stealthy.
“Hmm, this way is still towards the city, right?” A flash of green. “Is it riskier for us though? We’ve had to move back and forth multiple times for the concentration of baboons and snakes. And not only that, those metal things have been spooking me.” He said. “But the forest backward isn’t any easier. The tribes are more of a problem, and much more concentrated and coordinated if we head that way.”
It was the reason they were even traversing this infected path of jungle. He notched the trees with his knife, leaving details he could make out. His mark. It would help them get their bearings if they crossed upon it.
They doubled back. The apes had a tendency to erratically jump to the canopy. It wasn’t worth risking one of them spotting them, then having to deal with all the infected. Even if the metal spiky things managed to stave them off. They were still contagious after all, so were the trees for that matter.
It was a good thing Rick had learned some things about the Hijack Shroom. Certain subspecies of the shroom had particular umbrella-shaped heads. The shroom head itself latched onto things if it could, not that it ever naturally did. It was a breathable flap of material, that when turned inside out, could latch and stick to anything.
As long as one was careful they could effectively negate the infectious air by doing what Rick and Paint had done. They had off yellow umbrella mushrooms covering their mouths, naturally grasping their face, and easily breathable. This fungus was apparently ancient though, he doubted anyone would know to do something like this.
His foot landed firmly, arresting his momentum as he, not for the time paused at the enormous roar that shook the leaves of the tree. As high in the canopy as he was, to avoid most baboons, he could visibly make out the ripple across the treetop.
“The Source, unfortunately.” Rick grimaced at his guess. He rubbed at his beard for a moment in pause. His form was hunched, as to hide most effectively from stray eyes. “All we have to do is eliminate that, the rest of the fungus will dissipate soon after.”
Paint moved differently from Rick, where Rick traversed the branches with his legs and arms, the chameleon man clung to the trunks moving like he was defying gravity. Some grip strength, Rick mused, or rather that Paint was very light and his appendages were just suited to the task.
They continued similarly until things began to change.
Instantly, Rick’s hand jerked left and stabbed into the trunk of the tree. Instead of the expected thunk of wood, the sound was squelching flesh, knife on scale. His eyes darted about. Surrounded. He dropped down a branch and hopped backward, pulling his bow up to his cheek.
Paint swung adeptly, hanging from the branch above Rick upside down. His hands glowed with that strange energy that Rick had seen little of. Silent bolts of colored energy flew out, striking tree trunks. Limp snakes fell, becoming bright flashes of colors, targets for Rick.
He pinned them to the fungus-ridden trees. They hung like towels.
Something bit his neck. Fluid pumped into him. He reached up and ripped the tiny colored snake away.
“Shit.” He gasped. His bow and knives fell out of his grip.
All he saw was Paint’s elongated, muscular tongue shooting out to wrap around him as he fell. The world around him blackened. A faint roar pierced into his unconscious mind. And all he could think about was how close it sounded.
Luck ripped forward, earth rippling forward with his motion. His sword slipped between the scales of the rising serpent before it could pull back and lunge at him. The rest were pushed back, bruised chests.
The baboons were new, but Luck only growled. His features were feline, sharper. Getting into their reach, he hamstrung a pair, before turning on a dime and beheading them both. His earthen sword was sharpened carefully. This was nothing compared to what Jayeke brought upon him. The fruitlessly aimed for his head and arms, looking to batter him with thier reach.
The battle highlighted itself in Luck’s personal overlay. Bright blues, greens, and little red painted his vision. Possible routes to take, dodging maneuvers, magical offensives, and threats. He was precise and ruthless. They did not stand a chance, Luck could keep this up indefinitely.
This was another large concentration of infected. A combination of snakes and these new apes. Nothing like what Luck thought a baboon might look like, but Maxworth had spoken. These things had small fangs, lanky and muscular arms. And if not for the infectious fungus, he thought he could make out the gleam of intelligence in their eye, if not a sprouting mushroom. They stood higher than Luck when slouching over.
It had become clear now. Whatever poor beast was screaming in pain, roaring over the whole jungle – was heading right for them. Killing the infected brought its attention to them.
Luck saw Maxworth give some attention to the roar before he refocused on two larger snakes nearing him.
Luck spilled the guts of a snake rearing its head, passing Ace in his advance. “Much closer now.” Luck remarked.
Ace chopped an arm off of an ape, using a sword Luck gave him. His other arm blasted two away with a fork of lightning. “That settles it then. It’s coming for us.”
“What about Dad?” Tate said, moving closer. Her omnitanium branched into swords sprouting from her shoulders, moving independently of her. It covered her in living armor.
“He should be here. It’s where the pendant – what is
” Luck’s mouth opened slightly as his head turned.
It was a man swinging from branch to branch on a rope. Wait no, Luck gave it a second glance. The rope was pink. The man was limp. Something invisible moved above the swinging body. Luck’s enhanced vision could barely make out the form, its camouflage was better than the denizens of Snake’s Way. Why did that look like-
“What the hell?” Ace voiced over the battle. He apparently had gotten a look.
“Shit, that’s Dad.” They turned to Luck who was holding his pendant. The glow of it was following the swinging body. “Tate, Max, follow that thing! Let’s go!” His hands swept out as he fought a mild headache. A low wall of dirt pushed outward like a wave, stalling the enemies as they ran into the jungle.
They took to the high ground immediately, clambering up the trees.
They were running from branch to branch, swatting away the vines that got in their way, smashing the snakes that did so too. An infected baboon would appear only to be shot by lightning. They were making fast time, now that their goal was so close to them. But still, whatever it was that had Rick was fast.
A bolt of energy struck Luck in the arm. His whole arm went numb, spazzing out, but then warmth flooded back. He looked down to find his arm discolored. Not in the way of bruising or injury, literally discolored. It was blue. He leapt and scrambled, years of running across rooftops of slick uneven footing coming into play. His Trait, allowing him to traverse the jungle as if it were his home like his feet knew every gnarl of wood.
His friends were not far behind him, as evidenced by the bolt of lightning that shot forward. Gunshots rang out, and there was a flash of color up ahead.
Then, he caught sight of his dad, in almost perfect slow motion. His current aspect of the shar allowed him sharp clarity, and his S.I. allowed his brain to process it. His body was swinging between branches. Gruff beard, strong muscles clear. The jungle floor blurred below him. His limp leg was… healed? Luck stared at his face, his complexion. Pale… but hale. Poison?
The tongue around Rick’s upper torso, wrapped around his throat and arms, tightened.
Then he was swinging away again.
But Luck was faster. He jumped down. His feet caught a pillar of dirt, meeting him halfway and absorbing his momentum. His knees bent.
Then he launched straight for that blurred figure. His elbow came up, making sliding contact with something. His knee was held down, weakly, but enough. More points of contact Luck couldn’t make out. But he could feel the scrambling things body. He slammed against a tree. Spores coughed up from the mushrooms. Something held down his left arm, but his right was free to swing away, pounding with enhanced strength and agility. His other leg found something to hit too.
“Luck I can’t get a clear shot!” Ace yelled. He smelled ozone.
His foe flashed dizzying colors that made Luck flinch hard. Then it was gone. He shook his head and bruised body, already healing. His eyesight came back fast.
Tate was on the ground. Rick lay there. Luck slipped off the branch but pillars of earth came to gently let him down. He slid to his knee beside Rick.
“Move Tate.” He said. He cut open his palm, letting his blood dribble into his father’s mouth.
Spirit, how’s that antidote for snake venom?
He had something plastered to his face. It was a mushroom. Luck kept it there tentatively, he didn’t seem infected.
The S.I. responded.
100% completion. Troll’s Blood and Exceptional Regeneration created antibodies naturally.
Two red dots shown in Luck’s view, right above his father’s shoulder. He dribbled his blood there too. The entry wound, he knew. His father was gruff, dirty. How long had he been here?
Blue information sprang from Rick. Luck’s hands moved where his mind didn’t observing the data, making conclusions. Lacerations on the arms and upper body, likely from traversing the branched treetops. Some were deeper, Luck attributed that to baboon nails and fangs. Old scars, some Luck never really got to see. He couldn’t tell, but a lot of the wounds were much older, they were definitely from another time. Bullet wounds.
Lines sprung from Rick’s person haphazardly and Luck waved them away. Muscle mass ratio, impressive. Functionality, high. His limbs were in top shape. But his leg. It was fixed. And it drove it home. He was looking at his dad. He calmed his wave of emotions expertly, staring at the bearded face he had loved.
“Your dad is ripped.” Ace put simply.
“Well equipped too. That is high-quality wear.” Maxworth nodded to his equipment. Rick wore cargo pants, camo. His quality leather footwear matched the markings they found earlier. He had no doubt his dad would’ve removed his tracks if he thought it mattered to anyone.
“Dad!” Tate yelled, her hands grabbing his shoulders.
Rick coughed, blood coming up that wasn’t his. He jumped from lying down, grabbing Tate and trying to pin her. She was faster and reversed his grip, getting her leg on his arm.
An eternity in a moment. He paused, looking at Tate, then Ace and finally Luck. “Kids?” His deep brown eyes emanated warmth. It was a man who had found water after thirsting in a desert.
“Hey- ” Then they widened. He threw Tate sideways and dived, ramming Luck in the stomach, knocking the air out of him as something exploded from their left.
Dizzied, his vision came slowly. The entire swath of forest to their left had been decimated. Wooden chips were still falling, raining debris. A gash down through the dirt, a gigantic boulder, roots and dirt clinging to it stared at them at the end of the wound in the earth itself. Destruction, mayhem.
Then they turned around and Luck remembered that this world was nothing like their own. A beast like nothing he had ever witnessed or imagined, roared. Spittle flew, some as large as his head. The ground splattered with it. It was partly covered by trees, but that only spoke to its monstrosity.
It stood two trees high. On its knuckles. An ape that’s chest looked like a bulletproof wall of muscle. Whose arms shook the very air when they flexed. Whose meaty legs were only triple the size of a thick tree trunk. Luck’s view of the surrounding ground sharpened with every movement of the beast. Shockwaves were felt all around, at its slightest movement.
It stared at them like ants. As if they were nothing but nuisances, ants in an antfarm. Something invisible pressed on them all, and Luck fell on his ass. Only Maxworth was able to stand through it. Its jaw was low and wide, in all likeliness to accommodate the large tusks that stuck upwards from its underbite. Deep eyebrow ridges hinted at deep-seated anguish and despair. And sunk into those ridges, hateful eyes. Promising death.
It moved in a yellow haze, huffing, standing there as its hot breath spread over the trees. Yellow sickly spores, large stalks sprouting up from its black-furred body. Its hide looked like it put up a fight, but the shrooms found their way through. Prickly black fur covered the thing.
It had just thrown what amounted to a small pebble to its relative size and had knocked a small portion of trees down.
Then he noticed a bright glow from his Dad’s hands. Particles of light, differing in hues coalesced into solid matter. Luck’s eyes went wide. Rick’s brow sweat, but Luck recognized a modern weapon when he saw it.
“You’re kidding.” Luck said plainly. He looked back. It was starting to move. The earth itself shook.
“No, son. No, I am not.” Rick grinned. “It’s good to see you kids.”
He knelt on one knee, bracing himself. When he fired, the area behind him erupted into smoke and fire. A trail of white smoke accompanied a searing, ripping noise as the missile cut through the air.
Luck, dumbfounded, looked at everyone. “Run!” He yelled.
They never looked back. Even as an explosion rang out behind them. Even as the shockwave slammed powerfully into their backs. Even as something roared loudly and angrily. Even as something in pain screamed for death.
Staccato. Screaming. Silence.
“There get to that cave!” Luck pointed.
“We won’t make it through there, son!” Rick ran, the first time Luck had ever seen him do so.
Luck stepped forward, and the hole between the boulders opened wider. Ace darted inside, followed by Maxworth, Tate, and then father and son. Immediately, Spirit helped guide Luck through reinforcing the cave. Narrow slits allowed sunlight and breathing, the boulders outside appeared to meld and become one. The entrance, hidden. The rocks sunken lower, reinforcing the bases sturdiness. Small viewing holes. Everything smoothed out. From the outside, it was as if nothing had passed.
Everyone watched in quiet awe.
“Impressive, sir.” Maxworth noted, sitting on a bench in the dim natural light. Vibrations rang throughout the cave.
“Friend of yours?” Rick nodded to Maxworth not uncomfortable with taking a heavy seat beside the metal man. “How did you three find me?” His eyes smiled at them but his face was too worn and tired for the accompanying expression. Maxworth observed Rick carefully.
“Here.” The pendant arced and Rick snatched it out of the air. “Points to family.” Luck sat down himself, his arm came to rest as a slab of stone shot out to catch his elbow comfortably. Ace leaned nearby.
“He found me that way too.” Tate added. “We came for you.”
“I was trying to head to the city. The God said it was my best chance to find you all.” Rick’s voice was gruff, tired, and altogether curt. “I never thought you’d be the ones to find me. Those damn Asaguy.” Anger, relief. Warmth in his words as he looked at them. “And your mother?” He asked.
“The pendant, dad.” Luck reminded him.
The older man looked down, following the light. “She’s towards the city then?” He said.
Luck blinked. The lights did indeed change. He could have sworn the majority were pointing to here. He stopped solidifying their position. The dirt and rocks around them outside stopped moving to pack and fill in gaps. “So it is. It’s moved.”
“Yeah, they’ve changed. Hell.” Tate spoke up. “Did we cross past her without noticing?”
“There’s no way.” Ace shook his head. “We would’ve seen her with all three of us. And Luck’s magic too.”
There was a small silence. “This is your father? What is that on his face?” Maxworth asked suddenly. Rick rubbed his beard, looking left at the stranger. The mushroom cap stretched across Rick’s face. The rest looked at Maxworth.
Luck let out a small chuckle. “Yeah, Maxworth. It’s him.” His face rested into a familiar smirk.
Rick caught the smirk like a disease, so did Ace, so did Tate, until they were all laughing lightly. The laughter soon died down, but the moment did not.
“It’s to stave off the spores.” Rick answered Maxworth’s question. “Seeing as you all have masks save for Luck I’ll assume you’re fine in the environment.”
Luck smiled. “Yeah, we’ve made it this far without problems. I, along with Maxworth there, are special cases.”
“So I see you kids have finally gotten too old for your dad. Running around the forest without supervision and all. Damn, I’m getting old.” He smiled jokingly, seeming younger than he ever had.
“It’s not like you could’ve kept up with the limp you used to have, Rick.” Ace chimed in, his arms were folded and eyebrows up as he leaned nearby.
“Although you did have three legs with that cane.” Luck grinned.
Rick sighed slightly. “It never is fair when you two gang up on me. Your mother isn’t even here to support me. Tate? How about- ”
She was crying.
Tears streamed down her face. Wracking, quiet sobs. But despite it all, a smile on her face. She looked up at Luck and her father, glistening blue pools. “I’m glad you’re okay, Dad.” She said quietly. Rick got up quietly, walked over to her, and held her in his arms. “Welcome home, Dad.”
“I’m home sweetie. We’re back.” He said, consoling her. “We’ll find Mom, don’t you worry. She might even find us.”
Luck closed his eyes through the whole thing, leaning his head back. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He was never the best at this type of thing. He could sense Tate’s uneasiness miles away, but dealing with it? He was as lost a fish trying to climb a tree. He wanted to help her, he just didn’t know how past joking and acting nonchalant. He was relieved his dad was finally here, that someone could provide her the support she needed. It was never his place to.
His sister was more fragile than she seemed. She sobbed. Rick comforted her. That was that. Luck couldn’t do it. That’s what his parents were for. There were some things only they could do. They wouldn’t be truly okay until they were all together.
Luck thought of the infection through the forest as everyone got some rest. Ace rested his eyes and Luck noticed his breath become deeper and pattern. Maxworth simply sat stock still, eyes closed.
His thoughts wandered to the cluelessness of the trees. They spoke as if nothing was wrong. So far as to say that their lives have never been more interesting with all the wandering creatures. They didn’t sense anything inherently wrong with the parasitic mushroom.
Luck did. He felt its antiquity, its misplacement in the forest – in time itself. It did not belong. And it disrupted the ecosystem, especially those around it. Ardun would suffer as well, and that was why the Spectres got involved.
The Quest had told him to eliminate the Source of the fungus.
Spirit give me what you have. Anything on the spores and mushrooms we sampled?
The S.I. quickly picked up on Luck’s meaning.
The genetic makeup of observed samples paints the picture of a hive-like organism. The parasitic mushrooms possess a hierarchy encoded within their DNA. Infected hosts display specimens that have dormant traits, which when activated may trigger the production of different pheremones and magical signatures. Additionally, the spores produced by these hosts are fleeting. The Source Host, however, can indefinitely keep a large group of creatures hosted and infected. Eliminating said Source will eventually kill off the infection in the ecosystem.
Are there any signs for a cure?
Surgical removal is possible. That, provided with the necessary antibodies may be able to revert a host back to homeostasis, should they survive both procedures and come out unscathed in mind. The willingness of the host throughout said procedure is unlikely.
Then possible, but a struggle.
Luck grimaced, he would not have had the time to save everyone. The fact that the Spectres had outright burned the infected to a crisp was a tactically sound decision given that Luck suspected the hosts kept some remnant of their intelligence.
He thought of the infected. “That giant ape we just witnessed. You think it was the source of everything? Did anyone notice anything off about it?” He asked, breaking the silence in the cave.
Maxworth spoke. “I observed large mushroom heads all along its shoulders and back. Conspicuously more than any other creature we have so far encountered, and of a much larger variety. I think it is likely.”
“That was definitely the Source.” Rick’s voice came strong. “I’ve fought similar in the impartation. Same way I knew to use the mushroom caps as a filter for the spores.”
“You have?” Luck said. That magic he saw… “What was that magic you did? A damn rocket launcher?”
“He gave me Creation Magic,” Rick explained, having the mind to speak in English. “And knowledge of the inner workings of weaponry. With it, I could create that.” Of course, Luck assumed, that was not all his father receieved. He didn’t even know Ace and Tate’s full pallet.
And then his dad did something he would love him for forever. Particles of light filled the cave as he spoke. “I stayed away from using these before. Too loud in a place where everything that heard you would want to kill you. I figure with so much of us we’re bound to make noise anyway.” He held them out handle first, three of them towards Tate, Ace and Luck. “Here, take em”
Guns. Sleek pistols that looked more efficient and perfect than any he had seen before. Either his father knew his tastes or the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
He took it, feeling it hum with something as he tucked it into his waistline as both Tate and Ace did. “Why is it humming?”
“It’s magitech. I won’t be able to make anything like that, anything at all really, for a few days. But I figured you three could use it.” He sat heavily, his body looked worn. He looked tired. “That’s the most efficient one I could make. Take’s your mana, pumps it to create ammo, shoots a bullet. Damn powerful too. That’s the best bullet to mana ratio I can make, but don’t go shooting automatic on me, they’ll drain you fast.”
“Magitech?” Maxworth said quietly. “That is an interesting weapon.” The gentleman observed with reserved patience. His eyes regarded the weapons with interest. Ultimately, his hands rested firmly on his daggers.
Luck recited what Spirit fed him. “The wedding of both magic and mechanical theories into new broad technologies.” The actual definition was longer and more impressive. “Should be worth something too. The material that go into these things varies from diamonds to magicite, just for the most basic of these techs. Apparently… even some bits of omnitanium are necessary for the most advanced technologies.”
“Could we kill the Source with these things?” Tate questioned immediately. Her metal moved about her fluidly, but Rick didn’t question it.
“Probably.” He said. “In my trials, something similar was enough. This creature is different and much… larger than what I had to deal with.”
“Is it even our place to deal with this?” Tate said, bringing up a good point.
For Luck, he felt he had a duty here. He was at home here in this jungle, even now wedged in their makeshift boulder base. With the fungal infection spread throughout it, tinting everything in puffs of yellow, it felt twisted to him. He wanted to help the ecosystem revert back to normal.
“Just because we have a Quest doesn’t mean we should be doing it.” Ace argued. He was understandably hesitant. He, of everyone, was the most prone to taking risks and showboating, but past a certain point, he became pragmatic. “That… thing was bigger than anything I’ve ever seen. How are we even supposed to begin going about taking it down?”
He felt something move. The conversation tuned itself out as he focused on the vibrations of the floor. Spirit helped him visualize his senses. A vague outline in red appeared. It was invisible. Hiding in the dim sections of their cave, moving stealthily.
Time froze. Luck reached down and pulled a dagger from the rocky floor. He unfroze time and suddenly – to the rest, that is – he was pressing the intruder up against the wall, a knife to its throat. “Who are you?” He said, calmly. Even as the thing flashed white and pink.
“What the- ” Ace jerked. Tate had a similar reaction, both had pointed their new guns instantly.
The thing struggled, four visible arms straining against Luck. It was nowhere near strong enough to fight him off. Luck’s enhanced body was enough to keep it pinned.
“Luck, he’s a friend!” Rick’s voice cut through. “A friend.”
Luck stepped back instantly, releasing the… person. It was another species, that much was certain. Eyes zoomed in and out, protruding from its skull. Scales flicked back and forth changing colors before his eyes. Four arms. Two legs. It undulated in colors that reminded Luck of Diversi’s Pools. Enchanting, for the few seconds he let it distract him. It was thin and lanky and rather than looking malnourished or starved it seemed that was the way its body was meant to be. It was an oddly aesthetic creature.
“What is he?” Luck said slowly, his eyes tracing the colors on its chest. His hand refrained from reaching for his pistol, as his dad had already said he was a friend. “Some type of chameleon?”
“Chameleon?” Maxworth tilted his head. “He is a color mime. I think they are called the Colohue, a play on color and hue. They speak in picture.” He said, surprisingly succinct. He met their glances. “Erok has met one before.”
Ace blinked. “Huh. He speaks in picture? What does that mean? Like, talking with color?”
Rick spoke next. “I’ve gathered that much.” He said, before turning to Paint. “I remember him reaching for me, then waking up to all of you. What happened?”
“We thought something was taking you after having tracked you down.” Tate answered. “Luck shot forward and tackled him until he let go of you.”
“Then lucky none of you injured each other. We’re on the same team out here.” Rick responded, rubbing his neck where the snake bit him. “It’s not safe to be alone out here. Paint, you’re uninjured?”
Colors flashed along its body, bright red. Instantly, Luck understood the meaning, he was indicating his injuries. Luck could point out exactly which ones he inflicted too. He doubted the colohue would accept his blood to help heal so he didn’t bother offering.
“And you Luck?” Rick asked turning to him.
“Nothing I won’t recover from.” Luck replied. “I’m glad we got this out of the way but I think I should ask the question on everyone’s mind.” He paused as everyone looked up, including the chameleon man. “Are we staying to clear the infection or not?”
Everyone looked to each other. Ace ran his fingers through his hair, still leaning on the wall he pursed his lips, tapping his new gun. Tate was sitting, leaning forward and holding the magitech limp, her omnitanium flowed around her idly. Maxworth might as well have been a monk the way he sat so still, as if his answer was already obvious or merely dependant on everyone else’s. Rick cracked his knuckles the noise permeating the room and Paint showed no real signs of decisiveness either.
Luck crossed his arms, looking at everyone, and smirked.