The first thing that occurred was relatively innocuous, but it made the squad leader’s skin crawl. Abruptly, they found themselves back where they started, with a no trespassing sign standing between them and the cabin. Below that sign, there was a smaller sign that said beware of dog.
“Illusions, as we thought.” His watch chirped. “And the drones are seeing the same thing you do; it looks like the Skill doesn’t work on you individually, but on the world itself. Troublesome. But they can’t bend space. You must have moved forward. Continue with the operation.”
So they pushed forward, passing the no trespassing sign. Then a mist sprung up from the ground, making it almost impossible to proceed. But the watch rang out “proceed” so the squad leader gritted his teeth and continued forward. The rest of the squad continued with him, arrayed around him in formation.
The next obstacle they encountered was a wall of interconnected roots and vines that blocked their path and extended up a dozen meters into the air. Looking up, it was almost impossible to imagine a way over such a barrier. In his heart, the squad leader felt a sense of foreboding and considered leading his squad backward.
Unfortunately, one of his technical soldiers spoke up.
“Ares Leader, I have a Skill called true eye that has been shooting up like crazy in this mist. It’s all been an illusion. I’ve gotten almost 12 Levels on it, and a headache to boot. But this… this is real. I can’t see through it at all.”
The squad leader paused. “… you could see through this shit the entire time and you didn’t say anything?”
The soldier in question awkwardly coughed into his hand. The squad leader sighed.
“Fine then, if its real, it will burn. Everybody get out your plasma rifles. Fire on my mark.”
There was the soft shuffling of fatigues as all of the squad members got into position.
The bolts of plasma buzzed forward indiscriminately. The squad leader supposed they could have arranged for a more thorough strike, but he was still pretty suspicious of this wall of plant life that had appeared out of nowhere. This was not a natural thing. But he had a job to do, so he was going to bulldoze his way forward, anyway he needed to.
However, as the plasma sizzled through the air, the wall moved.
Where the bolts of plasma were heading, it simply opened up, the vines moving and stretching. The projectiles harmlessly passed through it, with only a smell of burned greenery to show for it. Slowly, the squad leader lowered his rifle and solemnly regarded the wall.
“Everyone, take a step back.” The squad leader said, producing a plasma grenade. But as he reached for the pin, there was a hissing, and the thorny vines drew themselves into the ground, leaving only the mist once more.
This was even more ominous, but at least it meant a problem was out of the way. The squad leader pocketed the grenade and walked several steps forward, but he was stopped by a question.
“Ares Leader, what are you doing?” The soldier with the hidden Skill asked, his voice puzzled.
The squad leader’s mouth formed into a tight, thin line. He glanced contemptuously back over his shoulder and then turned back forward. “What does it look like I’m-”
Then he froze. There it was, the 10 meters tall wall of thorny vegetation, right in front of him, as if it had never moved. Which it probably hadn’t. In front of him, several exceedingly sharp thorns gleamed maliciously, almost amused by the squad leader’s attempts to circumvent the obstruction.
An illusion then.
“Private, get that fucking Skill of yours operating at full efficiency.” The squad leader said darkly. “Come stand with me. Point out everything you see.”
Behind him, from one of the other soldiers, the squad leader heard someone mutter “this operation is so fucked.” Inwardly, the squad leader agreed. But he couldn’t let that show. So the team continued on, burning through the wall of vines and tromping forward. If he was being honest with himself, he squad leader enjoyed it more than a little. This strange wall of plant life that had appeared suddenly was likely just a Skill, but it had still caught him by surprise. Venting that frustration is cathartic.
Although their source of true vision was unreliable, it was at least something to go on. It would give them valuable points of data so they could determine their next step. But the squad leader didn’t like how it had come. It was all luck. That was the thing about this System, it all seemed to end up being about damnable luck. If your luck was good, you could get a Skill or a Path that could earn you a fancy Class.
If you weren’t… you just became stuck playing long odds in the most dangerous borderlands humanity had ever face.
It took a half hour, but soon they found themselves at the small prairie where the cabin was located. The cooking fire was there, still burning, the pot swinging slowly back and forth. There was no one in the surrounding area. The squad leader paused. Had the target fled?
“Negative,” came the response from the watch. “Proceed, Squad Leader.”
Sighing, they continued. The prairie around them was still. Too still. It was completely silent. There wasn’t a single gust of wind or buzzing insect to interrupt the heavy sound of silence. It blanketed them all, and everyone seemed to shrink a little in its presence. They took smaller, more gentle steps, so the deafening sound of their feet crushing grass was just a bit more palatable.
“Ares Leader, shouldn’t we-” The lucky Skill soldier began, but the squad leader’s eyes flashed and he grabbed the private’s arm. He couldn’t remember the man’s name, but he should at least have the good sense to adhere to military discipline when speaking, especially in such a hostile zone.
“Radio silence during the approach,” he hissed, feeling like his words blew through the prairie like a freight train full of jostled porcelain. Eyes as wide as dinner plates looked back at him, green and clear. The man nodded solemnly, regret clear in his expression.
Above, a low rumble of thunder set them all to jumping. They looked up. A soft rain had begun to fall on them. It felt cool and blessedly real on their skin, tiny pinpricks of ice cold liquid on skin feverish on tight nerves. Sure, they were all veterans of the borderlands, but the mental games that some of these monsters played were something else entirely. This was not supposed to go like this.
And it also made the squad leader extremely dubious of the prospect of ever achieving any kind of peace with these people, the people from the other Zone. How could they be trusted when any of them could manipulate illusions at will?
“Sarge,” The private began. “The rain-”
“I know it is not fucking real, you little shit-” The squad leader began, but then he paused. Slowly, his face turned solemn, and he took a few steps to the right, slowly drawing his laser pistol.
This was a veteran squad of the borderlands, who had traveled together multiple times into the dangerous areas in order to scout and secure valuable raw materials.
How the fuck could there be someone in the squad who he didn’t know by name?
A pair of green eyes regarded him in confusion, but then it seemed like the man in front of him realized something. His mouth split into a toothy grin. “Really? You don’t bat an eyelash at me calling you Ares Leader, but Sarge sets you off? You military types are truly hard to predict. Well, it was fun-”
The plasma bolt took the stranger in the chin, staggering him. Within a second, the superheated material melted the man’s flesh away and revealed wine body. Blood sizzled, and the rotten stench of carbonized flesh filled the air. But the man straightened, as if he was none the worse for wear, with half of his jaw melted away.
The mild green eyes were growing brighter and brighter now, becoming emerald lamps that spilled out liquid light that the squad leader seemed to be suspended in. He couldn’t tear his gaze away.
“You should not have come here,” The man whispered, his voice strange. “If you shoot first, we will fire back.”
“Aw, fuck this,” Another man broke in, shooting three more bolts of plasma into the strange creature’s torso. It stumbled but didn’t fall, simply straightening as the boiling skin on his body evaporated, leaving charred muscle. It shambled forward as a fleck of plasma ate into its foot, a thin line of smoke spiraling upwards. It was grinning, or trying to, and looked like the cheeriest zombie that the squad leader could imagine.
The squad leader raised his watch to his mouth. “We are in position. Just bring the rain.”
Although it was considered a failure, it was within his authority to call in the air strike. There were problems with the drones being shot down en route, so they had left the machine with its payload only a half mile away. Besides, theirs was a private outfit. Officially, there wouldn’t be any political fallout from him burning this piece of hell to the ground.
The squad leader knew that it was possible that they were completely off the mark and might be standing in the middle of nowhere. In addition, he might have just ordered the deaths of all of his men. But there was something about watching a man’s flesh melt that just…
Raising his pistol, the squad leader fired again, and the zombie staggered and fell, its entire chest cavity finally collapsing as its bones became brittle from being baked. Overhead, there was the soft hum of the drones engines as it arrived and shot the missile in a straight arc towards the cabin.
The squad leader looked at the prairie and its strangely assembled house of vines and roots with a bit of nostalgia in his heart. It reminded him of his childhood, and of innocence. To lose the elixirs was a great thing, and he would be blamed for it. But coming here, the squad leader abruptly understood something that the political elite probably hadn’t realized yet.
Zone 1 would be destroyed by these people. There was nothing they could do.
The missile hit the hut. They were close enough that prior to the System, the squad leader would have probably died. But now, he just felt his ribs and left arm break as he was sent flying. It took several seconds for him to recover from a stunned state and climb to his feet.
Just as the squad leader felt a flush for relief and thought it was over, they had won, something moved.
The hut was still there, completely unaffected by the grassland filled with fire around it. Whoever had made this had-
The house moved.
Slowly at first, but then with increasing surety, it opened itself up, the roof lifting to form long tentacles. The walls separated, the floors spread out and rose. With surprising delicacy, the squad leader watched the vines place furniture and people to the side, behind its protection. Then it reared higher, swelling to an almost 30 meter high mass above them.
And still, it unraveled, more coming up from the ground. The squad leader faintly saw a strange tree with burning leaves at its core, before his eyes were inevitably drawn upwards towards the center of the mass.
There, the squad leader saw a mass of black rot and ugly pink flesh the size of a minivan. It seemed to peer down at him for a very long time. Then it opened its mouth, showed its hundreds of rows of teeth, and exhaled foul air in the squad leader’s direction. Although it seemed like an aggressive move, it came out sounding more like a sigh. And the squad leader instantly understood what it meant.
You should not have shot first.