Wizardquest 3 Part 18: Little Lab of Horrors


Chapter 49

                >Grand Wizard

                {Okay, great, thank you for the information. Yes we’ll coordinate better as we get closer, just try not to be seen, okay?}

                You break the connection with the sigil and sigh. Leaning your head back against the wagon’s cloth, you look at the heart shaped sigil and wonder once again how you made something so cute. Well, you also made your daughters so it must be Solos’s fault for gifting such talents. A goofy grin splits your face, despite your recent conversation.

                “You’re making that face again.” Rommel says next to you.

                “What face?”

                “The face where you’re thinking something stupid.”

                “My daughters are not stupid you little shit. What the fuck are you even doing?”

                Rommel looks up from the rocks he’s holding in his hands. They’re shaped like females and they wave at you as look at them. One of them blows a kiss to you, to which you merely look down, then to the side, then back to your sigil.

                “Gods, Wizards are strange figures.” Tabitha mutters, eyes half closed.

                “I bet they’re good lays though.” Alice chuckles next to her.

                “Who were you talking to anyway? Selene?” Veronica asks.

                “No, it was Tobias.” You sigh. “Seems they managed to get Loveura under control a little over a day ago. The army just moved in and is getting things back in order before moving north.”

                “Well that’s good news, right?”

                “Yeah, but they ran into a lot of trouble. Harmony got beat up bad, but they killed this Rose bitch and apparently the Queen Alarune’s daughter.”

                Tabitha’s eyes open. She turns to you and asks, “A Princess? There? Good Gods.”

                “They stopped a ploy to use the leyways to bring a mixture of Matango Spores and rageweed to Sanctifrond… already turned a good portion of Loveura into Monsters though.”

                The others exchange looks of concern before looking back to you. Twisting the sigil in your hand, you sigh again and say, “Yeah. Well, all’s well that ends well and such. But it does mean that they can use the leyways far more effectively than we suspected, and they said that communications from Cair are not great. The north is in trouble but there’s been no sign of movement from the Monster Nation.”

                “Is that bad?”

                “No, it’s good. But in a bad way.”

                “Huh?” Alice asks, confused. “I don’t understand?”

                Veronica shakes her head, “Monsters on the periphery of the Nation should be raiding in the chaos. They aren’t, which means there’s something else occupying their attention.”

                “Like what?”

                “Selene, maybe.” You say, clutching your other sigil. Still no word from it. Didn’t you teach the bird how to use it? No wait, you didn’t, but they’re intuitive! You’ve sent word through the device already but got nothing back, which means either she doesn’t have it or it’s through enough layers it can’t make a link.

                Shaking your head, you hold up the sigil. “Either way, we have to focus on our current goal. Harmony is coming up here with Tobias, who has a little of that herbicide. Unfortunately…” You sigh again.

                “This is going to be something stupid, isn’t it?” Tabitha asks.

                “She allowed herself to be repaired by the Illomas. Those dirty fucking rabbits got their mitts on some of MY magitek!”

                “Didn’t you adapt her design off ancient constructs?”

                “Never you mind!” You shout. “Anyway, they’re about to head over here and will meet us as we approach.”

                “So that’s the support we’re getting? An Illusionist and a construct.” Rommel says. “I suppose that’s how it is.”

                “More than what we already have will be hard to sneak into the Cradle. As it stands, Tobias said something about going north, though I’m not certain HOW he’s planning on getting there.” You shake your head. “Well anyway, we’ll coordinate as we get closer so he can avoid the Galmathorians. I’m sure they’ll be busy once they find out their field commander is taken out and the army is marching north.”

                “Which means we can circle around and head to the Cradle again.” Tabitha says. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen anything else yet.”

                “Maya’s patrols at night have been quiet.” Alice says, poking the sleeping Mouse Girl next to her. “We’ll reconvene at camp, but at our current speed we’re maybe three days out from the Cradle.”

                “And Harmony will rendevouz with us before then. For now all we can do is keep moving forward.” You say.

                Which is exactly what you do. With the chaos you caused beforehand, your wagon is able to get you far enough away from the lines of moving Galmathorians, so far as Maya can tell for the next two days. Coordinating with Tobias, they reach you in the middle of the night, where the man tells all of you in detail what happened inside the city. The atmosphere is somber that evening, and by the end you’re determined again to end this damn quest.

                “Really I just wanted to go and see Saya.” He says at the end over a bowl of soup. “But once I heard about what’s going on near Cair and the lack of being able to contact Clarissa, I think it would be best for me to head that way.”

                “You aren’t going to the Cradle?” Alice asks, surprised. “What, are you afraid of some plants?”

                He flashes her a sly smile and she chuckles before drinking her own soup. Bardam frowns and asks, “How are you planning on getting there?”

                “About that.” He says, pointing at Harmony. “I’m told she received a few various upgrades from Ophelia and her Mother.”

                Harmony flexes her new arm, which is a subtle shade of purple different from the rest of her chassis, just to piss you off. It opens up to reveal what you believe to be a miniaturized version of their damn lightning caster. She then opens up her flight unit which bristles with more mana than you’ve seen before.

                “W-what?” You ask, stunned. “What did they do you to you!”

                “A few upgrades.” Harmony says. “They tweaked the mana flow through the core to the flight unit for better weight bearing and speed while modifying a lightning caster salvaged from one of their Blitzer units. I think it’s actually quite nice!”

                “But your aesthetic! YOUR AESTHETIC!”

                “Shhh.” Maya says, putting down her bowl. She stretches and walks over to you, patting your head before heading out for the night without further adieu.

                “See, I wish our short Monster was that polite.” Tobias says, waving after her.

                “So you’re going north then?” Veronica says, considering. “Well, it would be good to have someone see what’s happening there. I am worried about things. But you’re taking Harmony?”

                “She isn’t exactly stealthy anymore.” You grumble. “Her extra power output would make her stand out to anyone with good [Mage Sight].”

                “It’s fine.” She says. “I was just asked to deliver Tobias, especially with the herbicide.”

                “Ah, right.” He says, pulling out a vial. There isn’t much of the black liquid inside, but from what he explains, even with less than half of what’s here, killing the Queen Alarune should be possible.

                “It probably won’t kill the whole Cradle.” He says. “But it will make a mess if you shoot it into someone.”

                “We’ll see who can use it best.” You say, looking it over before frowning. Who could have made this? Franklin? He’s the only other person you know of with such a skill in biomancy to make an herbicide like this… unless the DSS is scarier than you think.

                “We’ll leave in the morning.” Harmony says. “Get some sleep, meatbag.”

                Tobias grumbles at her and the rest of you take the suggestion. Morning comes too quickly however, but you get off your ass and get moving as soon as you can, the two leaving you for the north, sigil ready for communication.

                Based on Maya’s reports, you run into no trouble for the next day. Cresting a hill midday, you stop for a break and look out over the landscape as it rolls downward toward a valley. In the far distance, you see a mass of green that’s taller than the forests around it. Tabitha confirms that despite being over a day away, this is the Cradle.

                “Gods, it’s massive.” You say, shaking your head. “I can’t even imagine how many plants are in there.”

                “Best not to think about it.” Tabitha says. “It’s… going to be difficult.”

                “Use your sight, Wizard.” Veronica asks. Both you and Rommel open your [Mage Sight] and whistle.

                Even at this distance you can feel the magics of a barrier around the cradle. It’s indistinct but the scope of it is insane. How much worse would it have been had you not turned off that nexus hub? How the fuck are you supposed to get through that?

                “Well, it makes me think getting these Gods on our sides wasn’t such a bad thing.” Rommel says. “Doesn’t exactly make it all worth it but… Gods.”

                Maya yawns as she looks out at the Cradle. “I’ll check the area tonight but we’ll have to figure out how we want to get in tomorrow.”

                “Yeah…” You say, looking worried. “But we’ll figure that out when we get there.”

                Which comes sooner than expected. Your wagons encounter no resistance- clearly they think that their barrier is perfect to keep them intact… or they’re waiting for you. Either way, you get close enough to the barrier that Maya is able to scout around the barrier as you camp for the evening. She returns early in the morning to explain that there’s no one around the area, but that nothing gets in or out of that barrier.

                “I tried shooting it, throwing rocks, whatever.” She says. “It all just bounces off. And yes, I was far away from us.” She shakes her head. “No signs of movement though. I think we’ve gotten lucky here. We probably can reach the barrier by the afternoon.”

                “Once the barrier is down though, there’s going to be no turning back.” Veronica says. “Have we decided how we are to do this?”

                “Not yet.” You say, hands folded in your lap. “I’d rather Selene was here but-“

                {Love?}

                You blink in surprise and look down at your pocket. Hurriedly, you pull out the sigil and enter your consciousness into it. {Selene?!}

                {Oh thank Dollora, you can hear me. These things are crazy, you know that?}

                {Selene! Oh thank the Gods you’re okay. You’re okay right? Why haven’t you contacted me?}

                She chuckles over the link. {Because I only just got your sigil. Your delivery girl was unfortunately caught up in my own troubles.}

                {Troubles?}

                {Riots. With the chaos caused by Galmathoria down south, the lusts and urges of the Monster Nation was stoked. They tried to invade, but we stopped them and there’s been… violence. A rival faction is trying to take me down and politics isn’t entirely working.}

                {Dear Gods, is everything okay?}

                {No, it really isn’t. But I’m afraid we can’t help Deleor, or the fight against the Cradle.}

                {Even if I said I miss you?}

                {Even if.} She sends, her mental voice weary. {I miss you so much, love.}

                {I miss you too. I love you so much.}

                She chuckles again. {You’re strong and so are your… our… friends. You can do this. For both our nations, and our world.}

                {Okay, Blake.} You say to her in jest at her grandiose words. {We’ll go on vacation after all of this. Just us and maybe the kids, I don’t know. Whatever. Family things.}

                {Ohhh, well I did love Hudson-}

                {Not there. Anywhere but there.}

                She laughs full hearted this time. You laugh back for a few minutes before sighing and saying, {I should go now. Oh, that idiot son-in-law of ours might be coming up to see you or be in your area. He wants to know if his bird friend is okay.}

                {Ah, Clarissa? Yes, she’s safe. Unfortunately with the riots she couldn’t deliver this to me, but refused to take it out of her bag until she could. She’s a very good messenger, I’ll have to use her services in the future. At least she’s with Sophie for now and they get along well. The poor girl needs a friend her age every now and then. Or a husband.}

                {We’ll discuss that later. I love you.}

                {I love you too.}

                You break the connection and sigh out in relief before telling the others. They have a mix of joy and anxiety, something you didn’t feel as much until now. The Monster Nation is clearly in flux and Galmathoria is running around Cair. While you avoided the issues with that in Loveura, you’re not getting support from up north now. You just hope everyone will be safe.

                “So that puts us back where we started.” Rommel says. “And we know now it’s just us, unless we recall Tobias and Harmony.”

                “We risk being discovered before we enter.” Bardam says. “I don’t know if that’s wise.”

                “Fast and quick, kill the Queen, finish this mess.” Alice says, hand on her sword. “Just get us in and I’ll get cutting.”

                “Well, glorious leader.” Veronica says, smiling at you. “What will we do to guide us in?”

——————————————————————

                Its been decided. With your mind focused on that needs to be done, you gear up to take down the Queen Alarune, and stop Phallia’s madness.

The process reminds you so much of your first adventure, when you readied for the final assault on the Keep of the Forgotten. Everyone was filled with nervous energy, so certain the plan would go the way you anticipated. And yet Tabitha lost her legs while Veronica almost lost her life. If not for Selene and the intervention of an avatar of Solos, it could have been so much worse.

From the look of concentration on their faces, this fact does not escape the others. Rommel reassures Tabitha while Veronica focuses on her armor, whispering prayers and benedictions. The others, who have seen their own share of tragedy, also focus. This is not a crew of idealistic young adventurers. All of you know what is at stake and what very well may happen.

The vial Tobias gave you sits heavy in your pocket. Despite being half-full, you have to wonder how much of a burden it was to the boy- no, the man who held it beforehand. He held the fate of an entire city in the palm of his hands and he chose to use it piecemeal. If you had something like this in Filliothea, would you have used it?

Well, that’s neither here nor there. It’s not nearly enough to destroy the entirety of the Cradle, but it certainly could be used in a pinch. Otherwise, you’ll just have to trust your skills and your instincts.

Damn though, does your arm hurt.

“Alright I think we’re good to go.” Rommel says, adjusting his coat. Tabitha beside him nods as well while the Order members place hands on their weapons.

“Come, let us gather round.” Veronica says, ushering the group together. All of you, including Tabitha and Maya, bow your heads as she begins.

“Solos, great shepherd of humanity and the lord of all, bless this venture. We wish to bring this world to peace that we may all grow and flourish under your light. While we ask that you grant us your blessing, we also ask that you grant pity to your own children, they who have fought amongst themselves and too wish for peace. While bloodshed is inevitable, we do so for a purpose that is greater than our own.”

She makes the sign of the Solos across her chest. “In his light we pray.”

The rest of you mutter these words back, feeling solemn with such words. It was only a short sermon, but it was enough to remind you of everything this means. Your thoughts drift to Sophie, Sylphie, Saya, and her children. The children your friends have and will have, and their children. Yes, you must win. You will win. And you will be around to see it.

Besides, you still have a lot more shitweaving to do!

“Now, I have one last ritual for us.” Veronica says, holding out a hand. You look at her with confusion before putting in your own hand. The others do as well until everyone is standing there, feeling a little foolish. She smiles and says,

“Let’s go do some gardening, okay?”

Everyone smiles and nods, feeling positive despite the earlier worries. Certainly they’re still there, you’d have to be a fool for it not to be there, but it’s overshadowed now by hope. Veronica, perhaps by some metric, the one who has suffered more than all of you, is now your beacon of light. Even though you’re the leader of this party, you’re reminded of the faith people put in her as well.

“Right then.” You say to Rommel. “Let’s get on in there.”

Maya leads the way through the forest around you. Leaving your wagon outside the densely packed trees, you find the landscape becoming more and more forested the closer you get to the barrier. Coming from the south, you expected to find the deciduous growth, but it’s thicker than you’d imagined. In the heat of the summer the place flourishes and, while beautiful, it makes you uneasy. A shame that if you make it out of all of this, you’re going to come away with a disorder about fucking trees.

The raw magical power of the barrier begins to press upon you as you get close. Despite your surveillance spells, you can’t detect anyone watching you, but you can’t be sure. At this point, you’ll just have to assume that you’re being surveilled at all times. Nothing for it but to press onward, hmm?

Rommel mutters to himself as you approach the barrier. His [Mage Sight] is clearly on, same as yours, studying the make-up of the thing. While the two of you argued about the best approach, his won out to at least try before making use of your back-up plan. The said relics sit in your bag, hopefully not being needed for this purpose, for the moment they’re active, Solos’s eye will be drawn to all of you. A last resort for now.

When you reach the barrier, you’re almost overwhelmed by how much mana it emits. It kind of makes your head hurt a little just being nearby, a small squealing noise like nails on a chalkboard as it filters power. You stand before it, unsure exactly if Rommel’s plan is going to be enough to make a hole through it.

“He’s a nerd, but he knows what he’s doing.” Tabitha says, hand on her hip. “Of course, I wouldn’t allow him in front of a spear again.”

“The power of love, darling.” Rommel mutters. “The power of love…”

He holds out a hand toward the barrier and you feel him channeling his will. Taking a deep breath, you follow his example, using the spell he showed you. Both of you focus upon the signature of the barrier, trying to match the ever-shifting configuration. When it clicks, the two of you push with your magic and cast,

[Reverse Polarity]!

The barrier shudders. Like a damn breaking, cracks in the barrier flow mana out to the two of you. Initially you struggle against it, trying not to be swept away as it seeks to repair itself. Had you not taken out that nexus hub, there’s no way you could keep a hole open in this, it would seal itself up far faster than either of you could tear it apart. Even so…

“G-Go!” Rommel says through grit teeth. “GO!”

The others need no further heeding. They run through the opening in the barrier, the rapidly closing opening, that is. Despite struggling against the barrier, you force yourself through it as well, turning back around to Rommel. Your eyes widen as you see him collapse to a knee, magic being cast despite the hole still closing.

“Shit!” Tabitha says, preparing to dash out to get him. Before she can, you stomp onto the ground, casting your worst magic, Geomancy. The ground rumbles and slides toward you, throwing up a storm of leaves, and bringing Rommel toward you. The barrier closes down rapidly as Rommel slides through, barely making it in time. He falls into a pile of leaves and groans while Tabitha moves to him, helping him up.

Though you feel a little woozy as well, your own magic shuddering, you’re able to stagger to him and say, “Well, I guess your insane little plan worked out after all.”

“Fuck you.” He mutters, groaning as he places a hand to his head. “It’s like you weren’t helping at all.”

“Or perhaps you try too hard. Tabitha, does he try too hard?”

“I think his trying is adorable at times.”

“I hope that wasn’t a sex joke.” Rommel mutters as he picks himself up. “But damn, does that sting. It’s almost like I used [Mana Burst] instead.” He shudders, “I don’t know if my magic will be up to par for a little while.”

“Same…” You mutter. Turning around to look inside the overgrowth of forest, you once again see and find nothing of value. And yet… you can’t help but dodge that feeling you’re being watched. That you just walked into someone’s house and they heard the door closing.

“Lead the way.” Veronica says to Maya, who does so, ranging ahead while keeping her sigil in easy reach. Thankfully it works without issue, you were worried it might not but clearly there’s nothing different on the inside. Nothing but a lot of murderous plants and the eye of a Goddess hellsbent on killing you. But yeah, nothing much.

The sounds of a typical woodland fill the area. Despite this being the haven of Plant Monsters, normal animals live here without issue it seems. But while almost every other large forest has animal Monsters within it, the Cradle seems to lack them. In one way it’s a relief as you have a bad history of with forests, but on the other hand its worrying. What kind of world would it be without Monsters stalking you in the trees? Okay yes, it sounds stupid when you say it like that, but it’s just how the world is now. Going back to the way it was would be… unimaginable.

Your surveillance spells also bring you back nothing here, while Maya finds no threats either. Tabitha seems unperturbed by this, having not seen anything on her last visit through here. But it can’t be this simple, they aren’t just going to let you walk into here, right?

“You said beforehand that after this forest we’ll reach the town, right?” You ask Tabitha as you cross over a fallen tree.

“There’s open grassland after the trees but if we move toward the road we’d see the town.” She says. “There’s really nowhere to hide and it’s easiest to make it into the denser woodlands via the road however…”

“We’ll be spotted and attacked easier, yes.” You say. “Not that we won’t be spotted anyway. I do worry about the people in the town but we’ll have to survey going forward and think of what to do.”

“Indeed.” Bardam says. “I hope they’re okay but…” He shakes his head.

“Well, they chose to live here.” Rommel says, hand on his head. “They probably owe fealty to the Queen Alarune regardless.” He grumbles to himself before sighing, “What even lives out in this part of the Cradle anyway?”

“A good question.” Tabitha says. “When I was in the village they didn’t say much of anything out here. In the other areas there’s an abundance of Alarunes, but out here is mostly trees.”

“Trees, huh?” You say, resting against one as you get out your sigil. “I guess that’s all it is, but it seems strange.”

                Activating the sigil, you send to Maya, {Find anything?}

                {Nothing but a deer or two. It’s a normal forest as far as I can tell, though there’s some areas of trees that look like they were uprooted recently.}

                {Uprooted?}

                {The soil is turned. While not exactly fresh, it’s definitely been messed with. I can’t find prints however, just some large dragging in the ground back toward where you were. Probably a tree died and they removed it.}

                {Alright, keep an eye out, we’ll reach you soon.}

                Cocking your head, you turn to Rommel and ask, “Can you cast [Survey]?”

                “Not at the moment, no.” He says. When you explain the situation he shrugs and says, “There’s too much detritus here to really tell anything. But if anyone moved anything recently, it would be over near that tree you’re leaning on.” He points at the ground near the tree you’re leaning on. “The dirt there seems to be fresher.”

                Bardam stares at the ground before looking at the tree. He frowns before his eyes go wide and he says, “Wizard, step away from the tree.”

                “Huh?” You ask, looking up at it. “Why? It’s just a tree.”

                “Are you sure about that?”

                Concerned, you open your [Mage Sight] to now that you’re up close, that it shines not with the dull hum of plant life, but that of something more. In fact, two other trees around you do the same and in the distance perhaps even more now that you’re looking for them.

                Breathing a little heavily, you walk away from the tree when the ground begins to rumble. You stumble as it does so and your eyes widen as the tree behind you shifts and shudders. Upon the bark, a female torso appears, branches moving like large arms while the trunk uproots itself, showing a split like legs. The Monster towers over you as the human-like eyes open to look down upon you while the other two nearby trees do the same.

                She says, her voice soft and slow, “The Queen… has been… expecting you…”

                The ground around you rumbles and groans as the Monsters dredge themselves up from the earth. Their movements are lumbering, but you’re certain that even getting clipped by one of their massive branches would send you flying through the forest and straight into Nerg’s embrace.

                “Ents.” Bardam says, gritting his teeth. “We should have known. They aren’t exactly common, but if they would be anywhere, it would be the Cradle.”

                “The Queen… has asked us to greet you, should you come this way…” The Ent near you says, her boughs shaking leaves as she speaks.

                “Greet us?” You ask, worried smirk on your face. “Well then it is a pleasure to meet you. Perhaps you may bring us to the Queen that we may have a little chat?”

                “She is not… interested in chatting.”

                “I see, she’s not the sort for tea. Well perhaps a little-“

                “Quiet…” One of the other Ents says as she approaches. “You speak too… much.”

                “Well I dare say this is the worst greeting I’ve ever seen.” You say, readying your magic. It’s still a little disrupted from your barrier entry, which worries you. If it comes down to it, you can torch them or something, but Rommel? It’s obvious to see that his Geomancy, which would be a serious boon here, is not available.

                Thankfully the others pick up on this not being a social call. With possibly more Ents awakening in the forest, there’s no time to waste in gathering up their weapons and wits for combat. Veronica begins to glow with holy light while Alice’s Energieschwert plays with its own green enchantment. Not to be left out, Tabitha’s sword as well bursts into flames while Bardam’s eyes shift into a calm focus as he holds Conviction.

                Both you and Rommel look to each other, feeling a little left out without relic weapons and armor of your own, but given your conditions there’s little you can do unless you use the herbicide but that seems such a waste for such small fry, such as they are. You’ll have to rely on what little magic you can muster, and your friend’s strengths.

                “Resistance… is unnecessary.” The third Ent says as it lumbers toward you.

                “Oh? Are you here to lead us to the Queen then? That would certainly save us some time if you did.” You say, already preparing a spell with the feeble mana you have, finding it far more difficult than expected. It- It’s going to be alright. Y-yeah.

                “No.” The first Ent says. “You will… become our fertilizer…”

                “Ah, does that mean you’re going to- HOLY FUCK!”

                You leap out of the way as the Ent swings a mighty branch-arm to slam into the dirt near where you and Alice were just standing. A spray of earth and leaves scatters like shrapnel, forcing you to shield your vision. Something grabs you rough by the collar and throws you away as another force slams into the earth.

                Rubbing your eyes of dirt, you look up to see Rommel standing next to you, a look of anger on his face. You’re both away from the fight as Alice, Veronica, Tabitha, and Bardam face off against the Ents.

                Her sword burning, Tabitha dodges another blow by an Ent and slices, having little effect on the wood but lighting the moss and dry bark alight. The Ent, seemingly unperturbed, smashes the arm into the ground and smothers the flame before sweeping it across at Tabitha in an effort to crush her. She barely clears the arm with a magitek-empowered leap before rejoining the fight.

                Veronica smashes her mace into the leg of one of the Ents, sending a shower of splinters outward, but not appreciably hindering the Monster as it raises its leg to stomp at her. Bardam covers her by smoothly moving her away, his motions calm and thought out, though he doesn’t even try to slash at the Ent- his sword isn’t meant for that.

                Alice, on the other hand, slices her sword into the arm of the Ent who tried to flatten her. Energieschwert bites deep into the bark, the natural armor offering little resistance. That is, until the blade goes so far in that it gets stuck. She stares at the sword, then the Ent, then back to the sword before pulling hard to free her blade. While it’s cutting edge is the strongest in the world, there’s just too much mass to go through!

                The Ent, in a rare show of emotion, smirks and swings her arm, sword still embedded. Alice lets go a moment too late and the resulting momentum still is enough to carry her into another tree which she hits, hard, before gasping out in pain and clutching at her chest, despite her armor.

                “Ah hells.” You say, summoning your vestiges of magic. Rommel eyes you and looks down at his own hands, feeling powerless in the situation. You give her a reassuring look before throwing out your hand and casting [Fireball].

                The ball of blazing flame, smaller than you’re using to casting, sails through the air to burst upon the boughs of the Ent who threw Alice. Where Tabitha’s sword only lit a small part of the arm, you aimed for the top of the Ent, where there’s more branches and leaves. Given the summer heat, the tree catches readily and begins to spread, dripping burning leaves across the Ent’s body.

                The Monster looks more agitated than in pain, but it clearly turns to you, the threat. In retrospect, this was not the best move, and Rommel gives you a look like you’re a fucking idiot. Well. It’s not like you aren’t from time to time anyway. But there’s more important things to worry about at the moment, mainly the large, burning, angry Monster lumbering in your direction.

                “Hold thee!” A booming voice calls from the side as a glowing mace flies through the air to smash the female torso on the tree. The Monster staggers, her face looking aghast as sap dribbles from her abdomen. She groans and turns to Veronica, who looks at the Ent with cold eyes that burn with yellow light. “I said, hold!”

                “Uh, did she just throw her weapon?” Rommel asks.

                “Yep. I bet Bardam told her not too.” You say as you watch the man distract the Ent who was ready to smash Veronica’s back. You would like to throw more fire, but you need a moment for your mana to recharge- you’re already feeling a little woozy from that one spell. Thankfully Veronica bought you said time, so you spend it concentrating as best you can while the others fight.

                Tabitha’s Ent stomps the ground near her, throwing the Monster into the air. Or so it seems as she flips mid-air and lands on one of the Monster’s branch-arms. Before she can be thrown off, Tabitha runs across the arm, lighting the whole of the Monster on fire, just as you did with your fireball. For added injury, however, she grabs one of the branches on the Ent’s body and hangs down, eye to eye with her combatant before thrusting her sword into the chest of the Monster.

                The Ent gasps, her eyes going wide before her body alights, despite the torso seeming soft like human skin. She lets out an all too human scream as she flails, this time actually throwing Tabitha off before crashing down to the earth in a shower of sparks and splinters. The Lizardman lands on her augmented legs, sword brandished before her as she sizes up the rest of the combat.

                “Sometimes I wonder if Blake missed out with Tabitha.” You say, summoning more fire. “You know, it’s fun to have commentary while watching attractive women fight.”

                “Gods you’re annoying sometimes.” Rommel mutters, though he has a smile on his face at his wife’s handiwork.

                The Ent you struck before lumbers to Veronica, but you blast it against with a [Fireball]. The Monster groans as more of her body is consumed. She still makes for Veronica however, making a swing at the woman that drives deep into the earth. While it misses, you don’t notice as she picks up a stone with that attack and hurls it in your direction.

                Your eyes go wide, unable to dodge it in time. Wow, what a shitty way to go. A rock falls and everyone dies, what a fucking cliché.

                The rock’s momentum slows drastically and it stops right before your face. You blink in confusion before turning to Rommel to see him straining, veins in his neck visible as he pushes against it with what little magic he can muster. His eyes stare murder at you until you duck out of the way. Once you’re reasonably out of the way, he cuts off his magic and the rock hits the ground, almost crushing your toes. You’re not sure he’d be perturbed if it did.

                “Uh, thanks.” You say, to which he groans and staggers to one knee, hand on his head.

                “Don’t… mention it.”

                The freshly burning Monster begins to attack with more speed than before, not that it’s much more than before. Even the collected Bardam struggles to fend off two of them. All your fire here seems to have done is enrage her, though eventually it will claim her life if she doesn’t do anything about it. It seems she’s more intent on killing you than putting it out, however.

                The uninjured Ent throws a blow after the injured one that catches Veronica’s shoulder, sending the woman spiraling, despite her protections. Her aura flickers as she tries to push herself off the ground. Unfortunately, Bardam is unable to help her as the flaming Ent raises to stomp down on her body, crushing her.

                It’s up to Tabitha to dash in, leaping into the air to deliver a savage kick to the arm of the Monster. This overbalances the Ent, causing her foot to barely miss Veronica on the ground, though the force of it throws the prone woman across the forest floor. As she rolls past, Alice moves forward, a look of anger on her face as she snatches something from the air.

                Tabitha’s kick was well aimed for more than just to save Veronica, it also dislodged the sword from the Ent’s arm, sending it flying and straight into Alice’s trained hands. Determination in her expression, she runs at the Monster, despite her wounds and climbs upon it as it staggers. Even though the tree is moving and burning, she climbs like a damn squirrel and performs the same action as Tabitha, stabbing her sword into the Monster. Her enchanted blade easily ends the life of the Ent, who topples to the ground in a crash, taking Alice with it.

                The final Ent pauses as she watches her companion fall. You see a look of fear and concern on her face- clearly the Queen’s rule is not absolute here as was the Princess’s in Loveura. This hesitation is enough for Tabitha to leap off the corpse of her companion and deliver another blow to finish her off as well.

                With the trees broken and burning, you help Rommel up to his feet, the man muttering to himself as he’s utterly drained of mana. You know how that feels and to be honest it worries you if you’re attacked again. Too bad you can’t just drink some secretions to get your mana back like Monsters in times like this, though would you really want to?

                “We need to get moving.” Bardam says, sword still in hand as he helps pick up Veronica. The woman shakes her head, hair filled with leaves, but otherwise okay. Thank Solos for her blessings you suppose if getting clipped by an Ent merely leaves her stunned.

                “Hey, I need a hand over here!” Tabitha calls as she hacks apart the burning Ent that Alice killed. Veronica waves away Bardam who sheathes his sword and moves in to help Tabitha. Together they free and pull out a groaning Alice, her sword held tight in her hand. All of you move a little bit away from the burning trees to regroup as the injured get their bearings back.

                {Okay, we’ll regroup with you soon. Watch for more Ents.} You send to Maya, who sends confirmation. Turning back to the others, you look to Alice, who seems a little worse for wear. Though her armor absorbed most of the blow, she still hit the tree hard and the underbrush left some scrapes on her exposed skin/ tore her clothing. She has some blood in her silver-blond hair but seems upset more than anything as she drinks a [Health Potion].

                “Fucking trees. Should burn the whole place down. Can’t fucking trust em any longer.”

                “Well you seem back to normal.” Bardam says. “But really, we can’t afford more fights like this. We’re barely in the cradle and we almost suffered major wounds. Besides, I didn’t see much spell-slinging and Rommel looks like he’s about to pass out.”

                “Because I am, asshat.” Rommel groans as he leans onto you. “I’ll get over it though by the time we reach the Queen.”

                “Speaking of which.” Veronica says, ignoring her own scrapes and wounds as if they weren’t there. “How did they know we were coming? Why didn’t anything try to keep us from getting into the barrier?”

                “She probably deduced it from the nexus hub being closed. It wasn’t exactly subtle what we did. As far as stopping us in here…” You look about to the three Ents, the lumbering sounds of the forest awakening reaching you all around this place. “I’m betting she couldn’t tell exactly where we’d arrive. It would make sense to hide trees in a forest, such as it is.”

                “But if they figured out where we are from this battle then they’ll know we’re coming in toward her. Worse still if they could directly communicate with her.” Veronica says. “We may need to think of our next move more carefully.”

                “Well let’s get out of this forest first, then we can decide that.” Tabitha says, helping Alice up. She nods to you, “Let’s go.”

                Your group makes their way through the trees, a little more wary than before. While unlikely that any more trees are sleeping Ents, you can’t be certain for anything anymore. All you can do is push forward toward your destination.

                Maya meets you soon after, her scouting having shown her likely paths to follow where there aren’t any Ents. She also makes a point of directing you in a more serpentine path, hopefully to throw of your pursuers. The fact that they haven’t homed in on your makes it more likely that you’re not being watched, thankfully. Still, all of you, Maya especially for some reason, seem nervous in the forest.

                With her directions however, you begin to find a light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel. The trees begin to thin out and soon enough you find yourself near the edge of the outer ring of the Cradle. If it weren’t for your mortal peril, you’d take more time to appreciate the vista before you.

                Spreading out before you is a wide swathe of grassland that stretches on for what seems like miles. Heading down a slope you see what appears to be healthy farmlands, with a few buildings dotting the horizon here and there. You believe you can make out the village as well down the main road while in the far distance toward the center of the gentle downward slope is dense woodland that you can’t see anything through.

                You can see somewhat the more tropical looking forest to the east as you stand there, though it’s a little difficult to make out on the edge here. In all it appears that your way forward you’ll have little cover unless you make your way to some of the structures. Of course you’ll run the risk of finding inhabitants there, for better or worse, but you’ll also reach the easier to traverse path to the inner woods of the Cradle.

                “Maya?” You ask the scout, who surveys for threats. “What is your suggestion?”

                “I can move through the taller grass without being found but it might be difficult and slow with the others of you, especially the injured. While a tunnel would be expedient…”

                “It’s not going to happen for some time.” Rommel sighs.

                “We would either need to find somewhere to lay low, or push forward. I don’t recommend staying here as we’re extremely visible and those Ents will find us eventually.”

                “Tch, who knew it might have been useful to have the brat with us.” You mutter.

                “He’s your son-in-law.” Veronica says, chiding you.

                “How did you know I was talking about him?”

                “Please.” She says. That’s really all she needed to say to be fair. But ignoring that…

Chapter 50

                Making a break for it through the grasses seems to be the most sensible plan if you were in a hurry to reach your quarry. Despite the terrain ahead, you could push in and use your magic to your advantage. Hells, you still have the blessings of the Gods to help you out if you need them too. Yes, if you were in a hurry you should do these things.

                Unfortunately, you’re not in a hurry. You’re actually the opposite of that. With Rommel limping along physically and magically and Alice probably dealing with more injuries than she’s letting on, the party already needs a rest. To be fair, you’re not doing so great either.

                Which means you need somewhere to hole up for a little bit to regain said energy. Given that the forest behind you isn’t safe and the plains before you are vast and open, that means…

                “We need to head to the town.” You groan.

                The others look between themselves but nod their heads, understanding the import of you suggesting it. Not even Maya gives a protest, merely shouldering her bag again and heading out to scout further, the rest of you following behind.

                Warm wind passes by, causing ripples through the waist-high grass you find yourselves in. Though it’s difficult, you do your best to search through it for threats with your [Mage Sight]. You’re unable to see much through the grass however. Perhaps if you were in a better shape you could be more discerning, but it’s too tiring, even with your pure [Mage Sight].

                Behind you, birds fly from the forest as you hear rumbling. Bardam motions for everyone to get down, and you do so, hiding within the grasses. You’re unable to see anything but the people around you, making your heart hammer in mild panic. If the Ents decided to come looking for you through the grasses, you’d be in trouble. They aren’t exactly fast, but you’re pretty sure they don’t tire out easily. You also don’t want the Queen learning of you, or drawing too much commotion.

                Maya sends through the sigil that she’s noticed them as well. Thank the Gods you brought a scout, or else you’d be blind. It’s not like you can just create a [UFT] or [NSA] and throw it up into the air. That would immediately give you away, which means all you can rely upon is Maya and the tremors as the Ents near you.

                Despite not being in a hurry to reach the Queen, you are, at least, in a hurry to get out of these fields. Staying put will certainly have you be found, so it’s best that you get moving. With that in mind, you crawl through the grass, lovely with only one arm.

                Rommel pants a little as he crawls while Alice winces. Veronica, Bardam, and Tabitha seem to have no trouble with this, despite their armor. You’d normally be afraid that the clinking and groaning of their weapons and armor would give you away, but the lumbering stomps of the Ents drown out everything but your own hammering heart.

                A rumble sounds nearby, the ground tingling your hands. It gets closer, as if heading directly toward you. Panic begins to well in your chest. One you might be able to handle, but that’s that, you’ll be pursued without recourse. You can’t even poison one with the herbicide, not that you know how you’d manage that successfully, because that would also give you away.

                {Stay put.} Maya sends in a calm, clear voice. You’re about to ask why when the ground next to you thunders and parts, revealing part of a large, wooden foot. All you can do is represses a shout of panic as it stands there, the rest of the Ent having paused, if as searching for something. You don’t dare look up though, you don’t move at all so as not to disturb any of the grass around you. The others do the same, holding their breaths and waiting.

                Eventually the limb rises and you feel the grass rustle above you as the Ent takes a long, lumbering step to cross over you. Thankfully she doesn’t crush you, but damn does it feel close. Heart pounding in your chest, you wait until finally, FINALLY you receive the signal from Maya to continue forward.

                Though the ground continues to rumble as the Ents make their march across the plains, you move through at the pace of a crippled snail, which frankly is a good descriptor of you anyway. The sun begins to move toward the horizon as you crawl, moving for what seems and eternity. You begin to wonder if you should contact Maya to see if she knows how far away from the village you are when Alice slips and falls onto the ground.

                She lets out a gasp of pain as she does so, her armor clattering as she collapses into a heap. To her credit, she pulls herself up fast enough though she’s gritting her teeth and panting. A moment later a look of horror crosses over her face at what she’s done, her eyes drifting upward. She can see nothing but the trickles of the sun and grass around but you know she’s envisioning an Ent looking downward, foot ready to squish her.

                The ground rumbles as an Ent approaches, lured by the noise. This time you know you can’t just stay still, so you reach for your magic when a great rustling is heard ahead of you. The movements stop before going away from Alice and heading toward the source. You’re not certain what’s causing that racket, but Veronica helps Alice up and you continue moving ahead.

                The grass begins to thin as you get closer, though you have yet to hear from Maya. When you try to contact her, you get nothing. Did something happen to her? You’re worried, but at the same time it sounds like the Ents are a great distance from you. This is your chance to reach your destination if you’re quick enough about it.

                Tabitha is the first to peek out through the edge of the grass. She waves to the rest of you to move, and you do so, helping Alice and Rommel as you break the cover and run a short, agonizing distance toward a grain silo nearby. It offers little in the way of protection, but you’re able to hide behind it and search for signs of the Ents.

                You find them off in the distance, clustered together as they chase something in their own, lumbering fashion. Breathing a small sigh of relief, you look about your surroundings better.

                The area around the silo seems overgrown, as if it hasn’t been taken care of for some time. You can see fields which are left unkempt too, though it seems as if they’re growing well. Infact nothing looks withered or dead, just… needs a little tending. Is that how they farm here in the Cradle? It is some of the most fertile soil in the country, so maybe they don’t need to spend much effort to cultivate the food and medicines for themselves.

                “Has anyone seen Maya?” Bardam asks, to which you shake your head. You try to contact her again, but still get nothing. When you tell him of this, Bardam frowns and shakes his head before turning to the silo. “I suppose we can rest in here?”

                “No dice.” Tabitha says, coming back reeking. “The silo is rotten. Someone left this grain in here without any care and it looks like there was a leak. We’d have to be crazy or you to stay in there with that kind of stench, not to mention possible disease.”

                “What about a farmhouse?” You ask, looking about. There’s one close enough, but it looks like it’s seen better days.

                “Without Maya to scout it out, I’d be a little concerned. To be fair, I’m concerned enough as it is. We can’t stay out here, someone is bound to notice us.”

                “Yeah.” Rommel groans. “But we can at least make our way there until I can get us a better shelter underground.” He smirks at Tabitha, “I’m sure Maya will already beat us to the place before we get there anyway.”

                The farmhouse does appear to have seen better days when you reach it. Plant life crawls in and around the building, making it seem like it sprouted from the ground. Given this place, that’s entirely possible. Still the wood appears fragile from everything growing in and around it. Is anyone actually living here?

                Veronica and Tabitha take the point to explore the building. Your [Mage-Sight] can’t detect much but plant life of varying degrees inside. Giving them this information, they open the door and look inside before quickly closing it, looks of shock on their faces. They turn to you and slowly, much slower than before, make their way to where you’re hiding.

                “What’s wrong?” You ask, to which Tabitha gulps for a moment to remember what she wanted to say. It’s incredibly unlike her to be at a loss for words. Eventually she grits her teeth and says, “Something is living in there, but I don’t know what it is.”

                “What does that mean?” You ask, confused.

                “It means,” Veronica begins. “That what is in there is neither plant, Monster, or human. But it’s clearly alive, though it does not appear to be capable of movement.”

                “Then… how is it eating?” You ask, looking at the vines. Do they belong to whatever is in there? So any signature you read would be… the entire creature?  

                “Trouble!” Bardam says, removing the [Farsight Goggles] he had brought with him. “Someone is approaching this building from the village.”

                “Someone?” You ask, still staying low.

                “They look like a human female, that’s all I can tell.” He frowns, “We have no choice but to stay put here, though it’s not ideal, until she’s gone.”

                “Alright.” You say, not knowing what else to do but place an [Audio tap] in a crevice of the building. You’re not going to be able to see whatever is inside, but you can at least hear. As the woman approaches, all you can hear from the inside is the shifting and creaking of the wood along with what might be breathing, you’re not certain.

                When the woman approaches, you hear her humming to herself in a sing-song voice. She enters without any concerns of what might be inside and says, “Well hello my darlings! How are all of you feeling today?”

                A mewling sound comes from multiple places inside. Your blood runs at the sound of it, but you continue to listen, despite yourself.

                “Everyone is looking quite healthy today! So let’s keep it that way! I have food for today, the blessed bounty of the Queen Alarune! Now then, eat up, eat up!”

                A sickening squelching sound is heard as the whatever is inside eats whatever the woman brought. She speaks to whatever is in there as if they were children, laughing despite no returns other than guttural mewlings and sloppy crunching. Your stomach begins to turn when she says,

                “Despite being failures, you did pave the way for us toward the future. Without your sacrifices, we would have a harder time making those such as Chalan and Rose you know. My masterpieces they were, a shame about Chalan, but Rose, oh Rose she was a delight. I myself am even like you now, receiving the Queen’s blessing. Aha, but I’ll be keeping this form, if you don’t mind. Of course, I’ll have to treat you so well despite being rejects. But I’ll need some of your blood, we have a special guest today and I’d like to make certain I have everything to make him feel welcome.”

                The mewling continues as the woman does something inside nearly inaudible. You look to the others and whisper to them what you’re hearing.

                “Damn that sounds horrifying.” Maya says when you finish, shaking her head.

                You about jump when you notice she’s present. The rest blink in surprise also, having been so intent that they didn’t even notice her. She’s not even that small, but damn if she’s not stealthy.

                “Where did you go?” Rommel asks her.

                “Had to lead the Ents on a chase. I think they’ll be looking for some time, but someone is going to find us out here. Though I wouldn’t recommend going in there either, not without having to break something.”

                “I don’t like what that woman is saying, but now’s not the time for that.” You say, turning toward the village. “It’s make or break now, we head for the village or we stay and confront her. Personally I’m for laying low.”

                “Same.” Rommel says. “I wouldn’t want to start a conflict now.”

                “Then I’ll lead the way.” Maya says, moving ahead without an apparent care in the world. Her earlier tension appears to have abated thankfully, despite being in a much harder place to hide. This makes you feel better in turn, and so you make your way toward the town.

                It’s not too far out from the farmhouse, and there’ the large crops that you can hide in while making good time. When not harvested it would appear that the crops do well, making far larger corn or wheat than you’d expect. Little of it appears picked though, making you wonder how long they’ve been out here and why they haven’t rotted on the vine yet. Given the place being the Cradle, it’s best not to think on that though.

                The town is a decent size, fed by a clean river that heads through and around parts of the Cradle as well as a well system you’d suspect. An unkempt road leads into and out of the town toward the heart of the Cradle, passing by buildings made of stone or wood. The plant life growing on and around these seems a little more natural, if still in need of trimming to keep it looking good.

                Maya informs you as she scouts that, while the place has the sounds of life, there’s a building on the outskirts that appears to be an abandoned house. Making sure no one is around to spot you, your band of miscreants makes for the house, successfully getting inside despite a possible close call when a seemingly normal human male looked in your direction.

                The building is fairly average in the Deleorian style, two stories without anything inside. The windows were boarded up at some point and the place has a lot of weeds and must, but it’s perfect for your purpose. Once secured, you hole up for the evening, preparing to get rest before pulling out in the morning. Only Maya looks about, stealthily going through the town to see what’s what as the rest of you rest.

                Once Alice has removed her armor can you tell that she broke a rib. Health potions certainly stem the pain and help, but only rest will mend that in time. It’s something you’re well aware of. Everyone’s other ails you can heal well enough but for Rommel it’ll just take time. At least he’s resting well with Tabitha beside him as the sun dips down.

                Looking out from a crack in one of the boarded windows, you see that no lights appear in the town at night, despite people living here. You’re pretty sure people are still out and about however, so you wonder how they’re getting around. Maybe it’s just custom in the Cradle not to use lights?

                “This place is weird.” Maya says next to you. “The people seem like they’re just going about the motions, as if nothing was wrong at all. There’s no Monsters here save the Alarunes and such either.”

                You do your best to keep from jumping this time. Slowly, you lick your lips and say, “Is that so? What do you think that means?”

                “I think everyone here has something wrong with them. I think that woman, who returned by the way, has something to do with it.”

                “Is that really our concern though?” You muse. “If the place isn’t on lockdown we can just leave, right?”

                “If.” She says. “Except an Ent entered the town, which is apparently uncommon. It’s safe to say that people know we’re in the Cradle and the Queen knows now as well.”

                “So…”

                “So I don’t know what to make of it.” She sighs. “But if they start searching, we’re in trouble.”

                “Rommel won’t be ready until morning at the earliest.” You say, frowning. “I’m worried they might block off the road too.”

                “They haven’t yet, at least. But holing up here may not have been the best idea.”

                “Hmph, well I guess we’ll have to deal with it as-“ You cut off as you feel a spike of magic coming from within the town. You can’t quite tell what it is, but it feels like biomancy and the signature feels… familiar for some reason.

                Maya looks to you with concern until you tell her what you felt. She frowns and asks, “Is that our problem though?”

                “I don’t know…” You mutter, looking toward the magic. “I don’t know.”

                “Hmm?” Rommel says, opening his eyes and turning over to see Erwin stretching. The little fox shakes himself before sauntering over to Maya and jumping on her shoulders. The Mouse Girl shudders for a moment at the uncomfortable feeling but merely pets him a moment later before nodding.

                “I think he wants to explore things.” She says to an amused Rommel.

                “He’s supposed to be MY familiar. How are you so in tune with him?”

                The fox and the Monster look at each other before smiling behind yawns. Of course, comrades in taking naps. You’re certain there’s another reason behind it, that they fought together through thick and thin and have been great exploration buddies or whatever. It’s more amusing to imagine them just being friends because they like to sleep, however.

                “Well.” Rommel says, only a little perturbed. “He does say we should at least look around. Since Maya is an accomplished scout and he’s an unassuming little fox, it would be the best option.” He turns to you, expression concerned,

                “I’m worried about that magical signature too. And I’m rather curious as to how and why the people in this town are acting in such a manner.”

                “Indeed.” Veronica says. “From all the accounts it would appear that these infested people are often used as living weapons or means of infiltration. I find it strange that in the heart of the Cradle there would be normal people living their own lives. Not to mention what I believe Alice and Tabitha saw?”

                The two of them visibly shudder. Alice is the first to speak up, expression twisted with disgust. “We only got a glimpse of course, but it looks like people with disfigured bodies growing into plant-like that was a mix of flesh and plant matter. It reminded me somewhat of what Chalan became near the end but even less… controlled than that.”

                You frown at that, remembering the abomination that attacked you in the Sea Queen’s Palace. It seemed like a juggernaut of flesh and plant life which easily damaged Harmony. While you’re no stranger to creating less than natural things, at least you have some boundaries these days. Could that woman you saw be the one behind all of this? What fell pact must she have made with the Queen Alarune or Phallia to do such a thing?

                “I don’t suppose it would hurt.” Bardam sighs out. “As long as we can keep hidden here until morning it would be fine. I don’t propose we get into any combat if we can help it, however.”

                “Oh please.” You say, waving your hand in dismissal. “How often have we gotten our noses into something that doesn’t involve us or would potentially put our quest at risk?”

                Everyone present looks off to the side, unwilling to answer that question. Well, it’s not like it happens that often, right? Eh… maybe you should be a little more cautious.

                Outfitted with [Mage Sight Goggles], an attached [Audio Tap], and her other gear, Maya waves to the rest of you before heading out, Erwin by her side. You slapped an [Audio Tap] on him as well just to make sure, though Rommel assures you he has this. Well, up until Tabitha pushes him back down onto his bedroll and back to sleep. Once the all-clear is given, Maya and Erwin make sure the coast is clear before leaving from a side entrance, and then off and away to the town proper as the moon comes to loom over the city.

                Even though you can hear around Maya and Rommel has a perfectly good connection to his own familiar, it still makes you sigh as you sit there, crippled and useless. Sure, you were going to rest anyway, but now a knot of anxiety fills your chest. What will they find? That magic really isn’t his, is it? If so then-

                Veronica places her hand on your shoulder and gives you a soft smile. Some of your tension bleed away at your old friend’s look, and you nod to her in thanks. You’re quite glad for her reassuring presence in all of this, stalwart in both body and soul.

                “I’m not as strong as you imagine.” She says, as if understanding what you’re thinking.

                You lose your reply as sounds begin to come to you from your spell. Even in your condition, it’s a fairly easy spell to upkeep, especially if you calm down and focus on each in turn. Closing your eyes, you listen in to the world around Maya as she stalks through the village. While she has her sigil, she’d have to stop to use it effectively, so this is a good compromise.

                “Hey there Stefan, have you heard that Lady Lisette is hosting a guest tonight?”

                “Sure have, Julian, sure have. I believe he was the man who was brought in by the great Lady!”

                “I’m sure he’ll love her. I love her. I love living here with all of my friends and none of those filthy Monsters!”

                The two men Maya was listening in on begin laughing in a manner that makes your skin crawl. The Mouse Girl doesn’t stay long there, however, instead moving on toward where you felt the magic come from. Shifting your attention over to the fox, you listen in on what he’s hearing. Mostly it’s just rustling grass as she slinks through the town, but here and there you hear clips of fairly average townsfolk speech as they go along their evening business. Here and there you hear people talk reverently about this Lady Lisette as well.

                Though a few speak odd, for the most part it seems normal around here. That’s what scares you, because you can tell it’s not normal at all. The people here have to know there’s a barrier about the Cradle, they have to know something is wrong unless they’re in on it, they just don’t care, or…

                “Aww a fox! Come here little fox!”

                A child’s voice plays in your ears as the grass rustles. It would appear that Erwin is being chased by some child in the town. While not exactly dangerous, it is annoying and they appear to not be giving up the chase, ruining your spy workings, at least for now. Switching your focus over to Maya, you hear… air whooshing?

                Ah, she must be climbing a building. Sneaky little mouse. Now that you listen closer you can hear Maya breathing with a little effort, her soft feet scraping against wood as she climbs up a building to get a better view. If you didn’t have a wife and children, you might almost get a little hot and bothered hearing a woman breathing like this in your ear… well, mind. Of course, if you didn’t have a wife and kids at home, you’d probably still be shitweaving on the Communion Matrix at home.

                Once the sounds of movement finish, Maya’s breathing steadies, though you can hear little else from her until she speaks in a whisper, “I’m observing a large building in the direction you pointed me. It’s in the main square of the town and I assume it is the city hall. It is covered in plant life but seems serviceable. There are excessive mana signatures from inside compared to other buildings. Multiple people seem to be gathered outside, as if waiting for something. Mana signatures are somewhat altered from normal humans. No Monsters save for a few Alarunes present at all. Monitoring the situation now.”

                You don’t activate the sigil to speak with her, knowing that she would do so if that’s how she wanted to interact with you. When she stays put based on her sounds, you switch back over to Erwin, who seems to have lost his pursuer somehow. You’re certain if he could speak Deleorian he’d be cursing, but only Rommel and perhaps Sylphie could know such things. He returns to his patrol, and you hear sounds of people milling about, talking excitedly with each other.

                A louder voice comes over the crowd, hushing them. “Citizens of the Cradle, men, women, and plants living under the benevolent rule of the Queen Alarune, lend me your ear!”

                The townsfolk all seem to quite down at once. Erwin places himself inside some nearby grass or bushes or something that rustles as the feminine voice speaks,

                “I’m certain many of you have heard that our mayor, the great Lady Lisette, servant of the Queen Alarune and blessed of Phallia has brought us a guest. An interloper discovered attempting to meddle with the Queen’s great work to bring Phallia’s paradise to us.”

                The people in the crowd begin to boo and give other forms of protest. The person speaking waits for them to settle down before continuing. “You have also seen that the Ents of the forest are on the move. Do not worry, for they are merely cleansing this holy land of any taint that may try to interfere with the Queen’s work. Though they are strong, it may be called upon you to defend your homes and your Queen.”

                Cheers and cries of affirmation and pride come from the crowd. It sickens you how scripted it sounds, as if they’re giving the expected responses at the exact expected time.

                “Soon, our Lady will have taught a lesson to the interloper. But she requires you to be vigilant, to keep her safe from anyone who may disturb her work. Do you believe you can do it?”

                A resounding battle cry comes from the people amassed in the square. They talk excitedly amongst themselves, prepared to do anything, ANYTHING for their Lady.

                The sigil flares in your pocket so you switch your brain gears over to that as Maya sends a message to you.

                {Did you hear that?}

                {I did.}

                {These people are acting at once normally and abnormally. While there are no posted guards around that building, the people are not dispersing either. Whoever is in there is quite important.}

                {They also know we’re somewhere in the Cradle but don’t want to make it obvious. If they’re being completely controlled, it doesn’t make sense not to just send them looking for us also.}

                {Indeed. I’ll continue to monitor the situation.}

                Pulling away from the sigil, you disconnect your focus from your spells and feel your vision waver for a moment. It’s incredibly disconcerting to split your attention like that for long periods of time. Once you’re back to yourself, you explain the situation to your allies.

                “Who could be that important?” Bardam asks. “And from how you’re describing the people, something does sound off.”

                “Indeed. I would like to know for certain if they’re infested or just… loyal.” Veronica says. “Their behavior reminds me of a cult, in a fashion.”

                “Oh joy, a cult. I’m so fond of those.” You mutter.

                “Didn’t you prop up a cult and create an infrastructure for them to take down a regime?” Tabitha asks.

                “I just said I was fond of them, geez.” You say before groaning. “So we’re dealing with citizens who may want to lay down their life for this Lady Lisette who has some interloper of importance she’s going to teach a lesson.”

                “Is this worth investigating further?” Bardam asks. The man looks seriously at you. “I know there’s a penchant for doing strange things in this group, but will trying to penetrate that building be a hindrance to our end goal?”

                You pause before looking down, hand balling into a fist. “If their captive is who I think it is, then even if it wasn’t beneficial to our plan, it would still tear me apart not to intervene.”

                Veronica looks between the resting Rommel and Alice, then back to you. She folds her hands in her lap before closing her eyes and sighing. When she looks back up at you, her eyes are filled with resolve as she asks, “I understand your feelings. To leave someone important to you, behind is difficult. But remember, we fight for the world. Can you look me in the eye and justify what you wish to do?”

                “I-“ You begin before pausing and looking at your arm. This is a reminder that trying to do too much and not thinking things through would have consequences. But you’re running out of time and if you dawdle, you won’t be able to save anyone.

What do you do? What can you do?

                What you should do… is not be paralyzed by inaction. Not to take the easiest way out. Hasn’t that bitten you in the ass enough already? If you let this Lady Lisette do what you fear she is then you could be facing something that could cause untold chaos, even if the Queen is stopped.

                Resolve flaring in your chest, you stand up and look down into Veronica’s eyes. “This is more important than you know. If the prisoner is Franklin then allowing them to do whatever they plan to do could be the gravest mistake we make.”

                Veronica’s eyes narrow at the man’s name. She’d met him once or twice, though the man did his best to make such interactions short. Not because he doesn’t like her, but because Franklin is an old-school Wizard at heart. Also he’d rather be fucking his wife like a modern, progressive Wizard.

                “I see. If it’s truly Franklin then we’d be in trouble indeed.”

                “Franklin?” Bardam asks. “The Wizard from your book?”

                Tabitha sighs, “Has everyone read that book?”

                “Of course, it details the rise of the current Lord Commander.” Bardam says, as if it’s obvious. For some reason this answer hurts you. “If I recall, he was proficient in Biomancy, correct?”

                “Yes, he’s actually one of the Kingdom’s greatest Biomancers and since his wife dragged- I mean, since I decided to work more publicly, he’s done some impressive work. His power and knowledge of all manner of plant life is not to be underestimated.”

                “And he’s got other magic at his beck and call.” Bardam sighs. “So in the end we don’t actually have a choice but to move on this, huh?”

                “I’m afraid not.” Veronica says, beginning to gather her things. “I assume we’ll want to move out immediately then?”

                “Ah, I’ll he-gah!” Alice winces and puts a hand to her ribs as she begins to move. Tabitha puts a hand on her shoulder and pushes her back down.

                “Don’t make matters worse you idiot. They’ll need a smaller team to do this anyway and we’ll need you to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. So get as much rest as you can.” She pauses and turns to her husband. “Same goes for you. Don’t think I didn’t notice you.”

                “Look, a tunnel would be helpful and I think that I can-“

                “No means no, even if it means I have to sit here to keep you in place.” She says, placing her thick tail on his chest. He sighs as if this is not an uncommon thing that happens to win arguments between the two of them.

                “Will you really be okay with just the three of you?” Rommel asks.

                You roll your eyes. “Oh gee will we be okay with the greatest Wizard in the world, the highest Paladin in the Order, and the guy with the magic sword?”

                “Is that all I am to you?” Bardam asks, possibly being serious.

                Rommel just groans and shakes his head. “Well, Erwin will be around too and I’m sure Maya will keep an eye on you too.”

                “Indeed.” You say, looking to Veronica, who seems to be expecting something. “Speaking of which, here’s the info on the building Maya provided.”

                When you finish she merely nods her head, finishing the adjustments on her gear. She also pulls out a large cloak from her travel gear and dons it, covering her face with the hood. You want to give her an odd look but notice that Bardam has done the same. Instead HE looks at you askance.

                “Are you really going out like that?”

                “You sound like my wife.” You mutter, pulling out your own cloak. “It’s dark out there, they won’t see us.”

                “It’s dark and yet they see anyway.” Veronica says. “Hiding our faces would be ideal. We’re just more humans in this town if we get seen.”

                “Stay safe.” Tabitha says, though you’re not certain if it is to any of you in particular. You nod to her anyway and pause, looking to your bag. Thinking it over, you pull out two of the relics you collected and give them to Tabitha to use, keeping only one for yourself, in case you need it, as well as half the remaining [Herbaggedon]. The [Heart of the Crags] pulses softly in your hand as you hold it before stuffing it back in your bag. With this done, you make your way downstairs along with the other two.

Once outside, you explain the situation again to Maya, who confirms via the sigil and will keep overwatch on your group. Thankfully she has the [Mage-Sight Goggles] and can track you in particular while the rest of you…

                Are stuck with only some moonlight to guide you. It’s not much to go off but it’s the best you have beyond your own [Mage Sight] which frankly isn’t the most useful until you get to your target. And thus you fumble in the darkness behind Veronica, who seems a little more accustomed to walking in the dark.

You didn’t mean this as a metaphor but it sounds really cool when you think about it.

Maya keeps you informed about the townsfolk by whispering through your [Audio Tap]. They’re still milling around the square, talking about how they’ll “protect the Cradle” and “allow no harm to come to the Lady.” The way they act, you’d think they were just normal citizens showing false bravado as long as no actual threat materialized. You’d really like to not hurt them if that’s the case but you also tried not to hurt too many people in Filliothea. Look how that turned out.

Erwin appears near your group to help lead you along, his tap not nearly as useful as Maya’s due to his lack of human speech. Again, you wish Sylphie was here to translate for you, but if you had your wish, Rommel would be in fighting shape too. Despite him wanting to kill you once, and patting your daughters, you have grown fond of the man.

The fox leads you toward the city hall, keeping you closer to the outskirts of the town rather than the more populated square. No one approaches or notices you as you move quickly, the fox’s sense of smell and Maya’s overwatch easily taking you past threats. You’re surprised you don’t run into more Plant Monsters here, but you just count it as a blessing.

Eventually you find yourself crouched next to a building adjacent to the square, looking out at the city hall from the side. Scanning with your [Mage Sight], you see what Maya described to you beforehand. A large mana signature is staying still in the back of the second floor, but you can’t detect the more mobile one upstairs. It’s possible it’s being overshadowed by the larger signature, which doesn’t surprise you.

Franklin is a rather powerful Wizard, after all.

You gesture to your allies, and they get the meaning. The three of you wait for the signal from Maya before moving forward. In the time it took for you to reach the city hall it would appear that the group of townsfolk had grown bored, or perhaps overconfident and had begun to spread out somewhat. While they’re still mostly around the square, you see some, mainly children, begin to move toward your destination.

Veronica’s hand tightens as she sees a little boy and girl playing behind the building, directly where you want to go. Where are their parents? Don’t they know how to control their children? Unfortunately if they don’t leave soon, you might not have any choice but to control them yourself. Though you could potentially use magic to distract them, it might not work and end up causing trouble itself. It would be much easier to… to…

Your hand also tightens. Damnit. There’s no way you can do that. They’re just children! Franklin will be okay awhile longer… right?

Erwin looks up at you and cocks his head, as if listening to your internal struggle. He shakes his head before slinking away from where you’re hiding into some grass. He rushes through, catching the attention of the children. They gasp at the sight of him before he leads them on a chase, taking them away from the building.

You’re certain if you could hear him, he’d make some smug remark, but you bless him for his gift. You’ll have to find what his favorite food is after this. He likes heated bread pouches, right? Everyone likes heated bread pouches.

“Alright, go now.” Maya whispers into your [Audio Tap]. “Be quick about it.”

You move forward without further ado. The other two follow after you without anything needed to be said. You run past the back entrance and to the other side of the back from where you feel Franklin. If you just burst into that room without a game plan, you’d get fucked harder than an Oni’s husband. Given the hazy signatures from the bottom floor, you’d also be in for a bad time, or at least take too much time to reach your destination. Which means a different sort of game plan.

Reaching within yourself, you cast, [Build the Wall] to raise the ground beneath you to the second-floor window. Scanning with [Mage-Sight], you’re certain it’s devoid of life. Bardam quickly breaks open the window with as little noise as possible, though your [Privacy Barrier] doesn’t hurt. With the window open, he hops into the room, followed next by Veronica, then yourself. You quickly drop your wall and close the curtains to hide your entrance to the building.

The moment you do, you find yourself in darkness. While there’s no threats here, you also have no idea what’s in the room. While light shines through the cracks through the door at the other end, it doesn’t reveal much, if anything, about the room you’re in. If only you had a way to block light yet still see…

Veronica whispers something and a moment later her mace glows with a soft, yellow light that illuminates the room. You curse in a harsh whisper, but it falls from your mouth as you look at what’s in the room.

It appears to be a workshop of some variety, or a laboratory. Shelves line the room, filled with multiple jars holding a variety of plant life, human organs, and… things you can’t really identify. A desk in the room has organized papers upon it as well as books on Biomancy, including Franklin’s textbook he wrote with some other Biomancers a few years back. It looks well used.

The whole place makes your skin crawl, reminding you of your encounter with the Lich all those years ago. This isn’t even a basement though, it’s an easily accessed room in the city hall. To so brazenly display this research is… distressing, to say the least.

A spike of magic catches your attention, making you look toward your destination. Franklin’s magic is going haywire, though you’re not certain what that means for you beyond blocking out just about any other signature of magic. Cursing, you wave your hand and cast, [Trick of the Light] to hide yourselves from view. Thanks to how this strange little spell of your daughter’s works, you can keep the light on without being seen. Convenient, right? It would be if it didn’t give you a headache.

Keeping in tight, Bardam opens the door and looks around outside the hallway. There appears to be candles on the walls in here, as opposed to the darkness outside. Veronica still keeps her glowing up, which illuminates the area within the bubble, though you don’t need it.

The hallway makes a ring around the building, with stairs leading down to the first floor nearby. It would appear there’s more rooms up here than Maya expected, though she could only tell by the windows. No one else is in the halls, which is a blessing, though vines crawl around and out of various rooms, making it look like veins inside some great creature. Unfortunately, your readings are haywire now that Franklin’s signature is going nuts so you can’t tell where anyone else is. What’s happening to him?

“We need to hurry.” You whisper to Veronica and Bardam, the two nodding as you head toward the door. As you pass the stairs, you give one look downstairs and blanch as you see plant life crawling up the stairs, though only minimal light is downstairs. With no one in sight, you make for the door and are about to cross to it when the door to your destination bursts open, a tentacle of flesh and plant life thrusting just past your face.

A handsome man walks forward, his short, brown hair over one eye. He looks throughout the hallway as his arm reforms, a look of confusion on his face. “I thought… Lady Lisette! Are you certain someone is here?”

“Of course I am you dolt!” A familiar voice says from behind the man. “Unless you can cast Geomancy! Just keep them from interrupting like I asked! I’m this close to breaking his magical barriers!”

“Tch.” The man says, standing in the hallway and looking up and down. He shakes his head and says, “Crazy bitch. I don’t know why she’s so obsessed with that guy, but oh well.” With a flick of his wrist you feel a surge of magic from the man due to his proximity. The vines around you begin to writhe and twist, squirming around to form a barrier between you and him.

You’re forced to step backward to avoid the vines and detection. Well this is a bother indeed. Perhaps you can go around the building from the other side? You can probably brute force through it as well. A good spell or two will break through, but that guy certainly seems different from the rest of the citizens out there and-

Bardam clutches your shoulder and looks behind him as someone comes up the stairs. A woman in a rather revealing red dress crests the top and brushes back her short, black hair. She purses her lips at the wall of vines and sighs. “Such a silly way of doing things. But we do what Lady Lisette asks of us. Now then, let’s find what room our little interlopers are hiding. Heh, if I kill them, will the Queen reward me?”

Before your eyes, her hands extend into claws of bone and bark. She laughs and runs into a nearby room before backing away and running the other way down the hall, clearly searching for you.

Chapter 51

                The wall of writhing vines behind you blocks your path from in front while a sadistic weirdo with plants for fingers blocks your path from behind. Taking on one without confronting the other will risk detection, but you have no choice if you’re going to make it to Franklin in time.

                Pointing toward a nearby room with the door ajar, your two companions and yourself move as quietly as possible, trying not to disturb the vines in the floor. The cackling of the madwoman fills the hall as she darts past, bursting a door open and howling as she searches for you. Well, she’ll get her wish soon enough.

                You settle inside the room, noticing that, despite her reckless behavior, the woman didn’t damage anything in the room she entered. Veronica and Bardam, smart as they are, take up positions in the room on the opposite sides of the door. Sweat dripping down your brow, you prepare for what will come next. There’s no way to keep up [Trick of the Light] and your other spells, so with a one, two, three, you cast [Privacy Barrier] and-

                A shout of joy is followed immediately by the woman in the dress leaping into the room, fingers extended outwards like claws, ready to slice you apart. Your eyes go wide as she reaches out to slice you open. Inches from your face, her hand flies to the side along with the rest of her body as she hits a bookcase, sending the whole thing crashing down in a torrent of titles.

                You barely have time to react before the bookcase is flung at you as she lifts herself up and flies through the air, eyes glowing green. The bookcase misses you as you sidestep, but you can’t get a spell up in time. Thankfully Veronica steps in, her eyes glowing with yellow light as her mace makes for a swing at the woman.

                As the mace connects, you see the woman grasp it and push off, leaping backward despite the confined space of the room. You can’t help but notice as she does that part of her chest seems a little caved in, her dress torn as blood and other fluids leak out. She seems unconcerned however as she leaps off the wall to dive at Veronica, more bark sprouting from her body.

                Bardam moves in, sword making an arc as he lops off one of her limbs. She doesn’t even notice it’s gone until she makes to slash with it, seeming confused as she hops away from Veronica, staring at where her arm used to be.

                “Huh. That’s not supposed to happen.” She says, plants writhing from the wound to close it off. “Lisette said we got the perfected version. I feel like I was lied to. Unless…” Gritting her teeth, she strains, magic radiating from her that you can detect, until the plants explode outward, creating a new arm that swiftly grows bark. It seems stronger and more durable than her normal arm, without sacrificing the sleek curves.

                “Oh yes, this will do.”

                Veronica and Bardam corner the woman, who seems unconcerned now that her former arm of flesh is twitching on the ground nearby. Unlike most, she seems to know exactly what she is and what she can do. She also mentioned Lisette gave her a perfected version? What does that even mean?

                Well, not that it matters that much. With a flick of your wrist, you cast, [Ice], locking her feet to the ground.

                “Eh?” She says as Bardam and Veronica rush in to attack her as she’s immobilized. Though she cannot move completely, she bends her body out of the way of the attacks in quick succession, blocking the blows she can’t dodge with her tree-like arm, laughing the whole time.

                What the fuck is her deal? Most Plant Monsters can’t stand the cold, and even the infested you fought didn’t have this level of combat expertise. Veronica and Bardam aren’t pushovers, but they’re being fought to a standstill by someone who can’t even dodge them!

                No time to focus on that, you need to take her out before the others notice the magic being cast! To that end, you thrust out with more [Ice] to freeze her up to her torso. As the spell goes out, she strains and the ice on her feet explodes outward as her feet show explosive growth into bark-like talons. She dodges out of the way of your spell then, barreling into Bardam.

                The man falls back, as if anticipating the move, his eyes impassive. The move softens the blow that she tried to deliver, allowing him to do something unexpected. He drops his sword and wraps his arms around her, pulling the woman into a tight embrace. Her eyes go wide at gesture, right up until Veronica moves behind her and slams her mace into the woman’s skull.

                Though the woman tried to dodge out of the way, the mace caves in part of her face. Though not dead, the woman gurgles, plants under her skin trying their best to repair the damage. This may have worked had Bardam not pulled out a knife and stabbed it into her eye, driving it all the way into her brain. She spasms in his arms and collapses, dead.

                Dropping the woman, Bardam brushes as much of her juices off him as he dares take the time to do so before cleaning his knife and retrieving his sword. Sighing, he turns to Veronica and says, “Sorry about that.”

                “Sorry about what? It was a good combat maneuver.”

                “Yes it, ah nevermind.” He sighs, turning to the door. “How did she find us to readily?”

                “She came immediately after I cast the spell.” You say, igniting her corpse. “She was a sorcerer.”

                Looking up at the others, you say, “We need to break through that wall, NOW.”

                They nod at you as you dash out the room, hand already glowing with magic. With a flick of the wrist, you toss out a [Fire Bomb]. The wall of vines lights up as the magic casts toward it, though you pull back as a few seconds later a wave of heat blasts past the open door, washing heat and dust into your room.

                The moment it’s clear, you flip through the doorway again, only to be grabbed by tentacle of vines that slams you into the walls, back and forth. Your agony is only stopped when Bardam slices into the arm, forcing it to drop you and retreat to the man at the back of the hallway.

                He flips his hair and sniffs, the front of his clothing scorched, his face singed. He seems no worse for wear however as his arm writhes. “I thought I heard rats. Ah shit I bet Ava is dead though. I’m going to miss her tight ass.”

                Veronica doesn’t bother saying anything as she charges at the man. He shrugs and dodges past her before throwing her into the wall, her armor clattering as she rolls back into position. A knife flicks through the air and embeds itself into the man’s chest before he can attack Veronica, making him blink in surprise but otherwise ignore the weapon. Raising his hands, you feel a tremor of magic from him as the plants, though that survived the explosion, begin to writhe again and leap forward to attack Bardam.

                With too many angles to dodge, he’s wrapped by the vines which begin to pull at his limbs, making him cry out in pain. The man smirks and makes to break Bardam’s arms when he has to block a blow by Veronica, his arm quickly shifting to a mass of plant life that absorbs the attack, though it drives him backward.

                “Geez, I’ve read about this. The Ascendant and the Grand Wizard, huh? Honestly, here I thought you were something special, but you’re just some small-time punks, aren’t you?”

                “You’re small-time!” You shout at the man, throwing a [Fireball] at the man. He doesn’t dodge it however, instead throwing his arm up and blocking the blow. Though it clearly hurts him, he just sheds some of the burnt plant life growing from him, his eyes glowing green.

                What the… why did he block it instead of-? Your eyes dart to the door behind him and you understand. He can’t let anything happen to this Lady Lisette.

                “The door Veronica!”

                The woman nods and barrels into the man, causing him to curse and pull backward. It’s all a feint however as she turns and drives her mace toward the door. Before it can make contact though, she’s jerked backward as a vine wraps around her next, the man pulling at her.

                “Ah, ah, ah!” He says. “Not so fast!”

                “You… idiot.” She wheezes out, light blaring from her body to keep her neck from snapping.

                “What does that mea-AHHHHHH!”

                The man cries out in pain as your [Lightning Bolt] strikes him straight at the dagger embedded into his chest. It courses over and directly into his body, forcing him to go utterly rigid, and losing control of his magic. Unfortunately, it also means that he doesn’t let go of Veronica, who also takes some of the electricity. Thankfully she holds up using her holy magic, faith, and tenacity long enough for Bardam to run in and decapitate the man.

                His head hits the ground, and a moment later Veronica and his corpse follow. She gasps for air as Bardam pulls the vines off her, the plants still trying to eek out an existence with their host killed. The man stands over her and she nods to him, feeling quite weak after the experience.

                You yourself aren’t doing the best either, but you pull it together to make the assault into the room. You’ll have to hurry before the mob outside, or any others like these two, come up from downstairs and attack you. As you hurry to prepare a spell to blow down the door, it suddenly opens up and Lisette steps out.

                In a swift motion, she slaps Veronica, the woman’s head jerking with such force that her eyes go blank and the holy aura around her winks out. Bardam dodges the next blow, but only just, his sword allowing him to clearly process what to do in time.

                Lisette, flowing with magic power, looks at the corpse of her ally before groaning. “Do you have any idea how useful of research assistants they were? They’re also fine specimens of what my genius can make of the gifts we have been given. Where will I find adequate Biomancers like them?” She points at you, “Are you going to take their place? Not willingly I suspect!”

                “The fuck is your problem?!” You shout, worried about Veronica, but unable to check on her. Gods she isn’t dead, is she? “What the fuck have you been doing to these people to Franklin?!”

                She scowls, “You don’t have any right to say what I can and cannot do to Franklin. He has mentored me so much and it’s only just now fair that I give him something grand in return. The culmination of my research, the greatest gift I can give him!”

                From her back, bark-like spines appear, arching outward as her body morphs, her flesh becoming covered by living armor. She chuckles, “It isn’t long now until he joins us and takes his position under Phallia that one of his power was always meant to. Long before then though, I will break you until nothing remains.”

                With Franklin’s magic spiraling out of control as he nears infestation and a juggernaut of magic and muscle bearing down upon you, only you and Bardam can stand against her. This is not looking good for you at all, but when has it?

                Your heart pounds fierce in your chest, each beat sending a wave of pain through your body. Though you haven’t been abusing your magic too hard, the mixture of tiredness, mana drain, and your being slammed into a wall (again) bores down upon you. And this… now this. The Sea Queen was formidable in her own right when infested, but this bitch MADE these things, or so she claims. What hope do the two of you alone have?

                Behind her, you feel that her words regarding Franklin are no mere bluff. The man is probably trying desperately to keep himself from being infested but once his magic runs out, there will be no stopping it. You’re not exactly certain WHAT would happen if a Wizard, especially one like him, was infested, but you’re not keen to find out.

                And yet… what can you do? Lisette stalks toward you, the bark clacking against the wood under her feet. Despite her early chuckling, her expression has become stern, as if she’s taking no chances. A mask of bark appears over her face, hiding all but her eyes from view as she makes to destroy you.

                Bardam, who is closer to her, holds his sword in one hand, and grabs Veronica with the other. In a fluid motion, he yanks the woman back, her armored body clattering against the floor as she slides a few feet like a ragdoll. There’s no time for subtlety if she doesn’t want to get crushed. Given how heavy she must be, it was all he could do, and yet he still did it anyway, even in the face of oncoming danger.

                That doesn’t mean he’s going to stay put and get crushed however. Once Veronica is out of the way, he dances aside the hulking woman, her arm lashing out to catch him. As if predicting the maneuver, he dodges underneath and appears behind her, sword held at the ready.

                She cocks her head as he slowly inches backward. An audible gasp comes from her and she lashes out with her arm, a hail of what appears to be pine needles flying out at Bardam. He dodges these too and they lodge themselves into the door behind him, giving solid thunks as they do while pushing the ajar door open further.

                “Is that all?” Bardam says in a voice clearly calculated to be mocking. Conviction is… a strange relic, but perhaps a clear mind is what you need more than anything else. “Do you intend to let me do this by myself? Stop this madness single handed? Avenge Veronica? I suppose I will if I must.”

                At first you think he’s taunting Lisette, but after a moment you realize he’s taunting you. Son of a bitch is that relic a piece of work… or perhaps Bardam is just that insightful. Either way, it’s enough to make you get your feet underneath you again and ready yourself to fight with whatever you have left… hopefully there will be enough to get all of you out of this as well.

                Snapping your hand to the side, you do a [Fast Scan] on Veronica to find she’s alive, but unconscious and will have one hells of a bruise when she wakes up. While Lisette’s attention is on Bardam, you then cast [Rapid Decomposition] on the nearby corpse of the man who was decapitated.

                Lisette notices your spell since she’s well, looking at it, but it doesn’t matter. It serves to confuse her long enough to turn her head and Bardam to dash forward. He drives his sword into a softer piece of the bark, the point of the sword sliding through to piece her armor as it embeds into flesh underneath.

                Blood trickles from where he slid in the sword, falling to the floor. Did Bardam actually finish this all by himself? What the fuck, is he actually a better swordsman than even Tabitha?

Watching the scene fills you with hope right until Bardam slides the sword out in a quick motion and tries to leap backward. Lisette catches him, despite his clear mind and she slams him into the ground, shattering some of the floorboards. The man’s sword flies out of his grasp while he lets out a cry of pain.

“Damn you!” You shout, thrusting out your hand and gathering feces from your bag and the rotten corpse you created. Ice forms around it and a moment later you fire a massive [Shitsicle] that shatters upon her bark-like armor, staggering her forward. You follow this up with a [Flame Lance] that instantly melts the ice and pieces deep into her altered hide.

She whips her head around to you, eyes glowing a deep green as her body re-knits. Though she’s angry, she’s clearly unharmed in the long run, as the bleeding has stopped, the gap that Bardam found being reinforced. Her eyes narrow as you stagger to one knee, appearing defeated.

“Pathetic.” She says, raising her arm to fire needles at you. “Let’s end this farce.”

“Yes.” You say, looking up with a grin, despite the sweat running down your face. “Let’s.”

With a pulse of magic, you latch onto the filth you covered her with and had seeped into the cracks opened by your [Flame Lance]. Her humours are strange, but your experience with the infested means you know what to look for, and you use [Inoculation] to make sure everything goes to the right place. And now, it’s as good as done.

Lisette stares at you, eyes still glowing a deep green. She doesn’t seem afraid, merely confused by your actions. Or perhaps not confusion, but instead… concentration? 

“No…” You say, eyes widening. “You can’t be serious.”

“Do you take me for an idiot.” She says through grit teeth. You can feel magic oozing off her in waves as she not only combats your plagamancy, but pushes it back. In your weakened state she has little effort and soon her humours as back to normal, or normal for her at least. All you can do is watch on your knees as she repels what should have been a fatal blow. You were too weak to finish the job, and now you’re drained, out of magic and out of time.

You look down at your good hand to find it trembling. Hopeless situations are not new for you, but always something or someone would save you, or you’d find a hidden strength to pull through. This time? No, your allies cannot save you, nor can you pull anything from yourself. You have no reserves, nothing left to cast with and barely enough energy to stay conscious.

Your hand slips into your bag as you reach for the heart-shaped sigil linked to Selene. If this is how it ends, you want to at least say your goodbyes, perhaps prepare her for what’s to come. She’s smart, she’ll figure it out somehow. She’ll find a way to protect your daughters and the world you sought to build for them, intentional or not.

As you reach for the sigil, your fingers brush upon something else. A heated bread pouch? No, no it’s something greater than that. Hardinclouse’s legacy, the greatest heated bread pouch. The poor man, if he’s even still what you can passably call alive, his treasure will go uneaten. A relic of… wait.

Something stirs within you as you think that word. As if possessed, your hand flies over the sigil, past the bread pouch, and locks onto a chunk of precious stone that feels warm under your touch. In front of you, Lisette levels her arm again and prepares to pepper you with pine needles. Before she can, you thrust your hand up out of the bag and shout,

“SVETH, I SUMMON THEE TO GRANT THY BOON!”

Something… rumbles.

You’re not certain where exactly it’s coming from, because it appears to be coming from everywhere at once. The ground doesn’t shake, but your mind, it’s like the earth itself is rolling toward you, slabs of stone the size of countries coming to crush you. It makes you want to cower down, and yet you feel nothing but a serenity before it.

                Vaguely, you wonder why you’re not dead yet, how Lisette hasn’t filled you with holes. But that thought pales in comparison to the literal God standing before you in your mind’s eye.

                “Well? Sveth says. You did not call upon us to break open the barrier, but I will not betray my word. What is it you ask?”

                “The power to defeat her and save my comrades.” You say without hesitation.

                “Power. Men always seek power, but for what cause, is the question. I have taken my measure of you, child of Solos, emissary of Nerg. I find you wanting, and yet in this instance your boon is one I shall grant. I cannot go against father’s wishes in this regard, but he will not notice a temporary boost, so long as my siblings are not called upon for the same. By then, one hopes you will have reached a confrontation with my dear sister.”

                He thrusts out his hand and says, “Feel the fires of the earth course in your veins, your muscles, your heart. Hear the shaking of mountains as it resonates with yourself and bathe yourself in my blessing. But most importantly, child of Solos:”

                “You must live.”

                Like the calm after an earthquake, reality snaps back into place. A hail of needles flies at you, but with a swift motion, you incinerate them as fire appears from relic in your hand. It burns in your hand, but you barely notice as you drop it in your bag, then pull out your staff, holding it toward Lisette.

                “You…” Lisette says, this time genuinely confused. “You can’t… have…” She raises her arm up at you again, “Where did you get all that mana from?”

                “Gods only know.” You say, as fire forms as a white-hot pinprick at the tip of your staff. A moment later a line of pure heat sears your eyes as it pierces through her chest, bark and all, as if there was nothing present.

                Lisette staggers backward, not seriously injured, but certainly frightened that you were able to do this. Perhaps you should feel smug or something, but all you really feel is a pounding in your body, as if a tempo as deep as the earth is pushing you forward. Somehow it reminds you of the Gandharva who hung around Rommel and the music she played. You can say that you like it a lot.

                Magic flares up within Lisette as she reknits herself, despite the burns. Around you the plants growing within the place swell in size, growing a variety of mutations you’re certain she’ll seek to destroy you with. Before she can finish, you channel the power within you to form a [Counter Circle] while reaching out with your own [Vine Whip].

                While the former spell draws from your newfound reserves of magic, the latter fizzles out, as if rejected somehow. It’s as if the magic is only attuned to Geomancy, Pyromancy, and general purpose cantrips. You cannot stop her spell from finishing, to which she unleashes a hell of plant life upon you. No matter, if you’re forced to use Geomancy and Pyromancy then you’ll make the most of it.

                Stomping down on the ground, you summon a massive spear of stone all the way from the first floor to break through the floorboards and crush much of the plant life. Before she can react, you thrust your staff into the center of the stone and it breaks apart into chunks that fly forward into the woman.

                The rocks hit her like meteors, bark shattering into splinters, eliciting cries of pain as the blunt force tears into what flesh is underneath. She staggers before you, bleeding blood and green fluid, her armor rent, eyes confused.

                “HOW?!” She demands. “I am the perfect being! I have the greatest form of the gift! You were defeated, so WHERE DID YOU GET THAT POWER?”

                “I told you already.” You say, feeling your very soul burn like magma.

                “Tch, the Gods…” Lisette says as her armor regenerates, this time thicker and darker in color. “But it matters not, because there’s only one Goddess of any worth, and I can promise you, she’s more interested in me than any of the others are in you.”

                Her arms seem to swell in size, the bark straining as it forms more and more layers of armor. Her breathing grows ragged as the rest of her cracks and morphs, her eyes glowing deep green. Parts of her become jagged and seem like that of the Ents, where the flesh and the bark are no longer separate entities. There’s only one explanation you can think of, she’s tapping into her infestation to the point where she’s becoming one of the abominations.

                “WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?” She says, voice rattling the halls.

                “Tch.” You say, raising your staff as you summon more fire. “I don’t have time for this.”

                “THEN DIE SOONER!”

                She shouts this was dashing toward you. Five [Flame Lances] appear at the end of your staff, which you fire off in succession, each one digging deep into her armor but few actually piercing it. With a snarl, you point at her legs and cast [Rock Solid], forcing the pillar of rock you threw at her before to break apart and attach to her legs as she runs past.

                This slows her down, but not by much. You dodge out of her reach as she passes through, using your magic to slide Veronica into an empty room before she connects. With your concentration on this task, however you don’t see Lisette casting more biomancy and you feel a sharp sting in one of your calves.

                You look down to find your legs impaled by a vine bristling with sharp spines. It writhes as it pins you in place, as if happy with itself until you tear it out forcefully, using a trickle of magic you can access to stop the bleeding. But you find yourself only able to do that much as she turns pulses with magic again.

                Cursing, you raise up the [Counter Circle] and attune it to fizzle out a pulse of biomancy which you know was attuned to you. She’s no plagamancer, but you now have an open wound and likely have plant matter in there. If she can get access to that, you’re in for some shit.

                While you can’t counter her spell, at least you can stop it. You’re not certain how long your boon from Sveth will last, but a pulse of magic from behind reminds you of your other deadline: Franklin.

                Thrusting your staff out directly toward where Franklin is, you summon a [Flame Lance] again. Lisette howls as she realizes what you’re doing, and she lunges toward you. Quickly canceling your magic, you divert your staff to the ground and pull up another column of rock that doesn’t crush her, but instead breaks the floorboards beneath her. With a cry, Lisette falls to the first floor in a heap.

                Taking the opportunity, you limp toward the room, the door open, Franklin’s power surging. You don’t have much time to make this work do you?

                The room looks like some kind of laboratory, with three tables lined by a variety of tools, each equipped with plenty of well-used leather straps. Upon one of them is Franklin, the man bare chested, strapped to the table with straps that dig into his flesh as he strains at them. He cries out as his humours are corrupted, his magic failing to contain the plants trying to worm their way into him.

                You hold your staff over him and prepare to summon whatever power you can to free him when the ground beneath you rumbles. If not for your enhanced Geomancy, you wouldn’t have been able to sense the tremors below to move away in time as the floor explodes upward in a spray of splinters and reinforced bark as Lisette leaps from the floor below and into her workshop.

                “DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH HIM!”

                A surge of magic writes over her body, making her already altered form even more dangerous. Anticipating this, you catch it with your [Counter Circle] and not only do you stop her spell, but instead counter it, causing one of her arms to swell in a manner not unlike your [Cancer] spell.

                She cries out in rage and confusion as she tries to stabilze herself. You don’t give her the chance and cast a rather interesting spell that you devised on the fly. Without access to your other spells, you have to make do with Pyromancy to create the effect you want. And the effect you want is a blinding ball of heat that you’d never be able to make on your own, casting a light that would burn your eyes if you didn’t expect it. Perhaps it’s no [Daylight] but it’s certainly a [Solar Flare].

                Lisette cries out in pain, her enhanced senses blinded by the flames. She flails about in the room, smashing apart her own research as she tries to get to you. But all you do is stand there, continuing to keep that flame going, building more and more into it, compressing the fire until your teeth chatter from the power of a God flowing through your body. It hurts in a way, and yet the tremoring music in your blood drives you onward, a metal that screams in your heart.

                When it reaches a crescendo, you launch the ball into Lisette. She lets out a scream as her body becomes engulfed in flames. Even her empowered defenses add no protection against this spell, this uh… well, [Solar Flare] works for now.

                Though she burns, you know she’s far from dead. And yet using that much power has taken a toll on you, and you can feel Sveth’s power fading from within. Is that the limit of what a God can give or is it just the limit of what your body can take? You have to keep pushing forward to find out, one way or another.

                Pieces of burning bark shed from Lisette’s body, revealing rather pink, bulging flesh underneath. The plants in her body are readily visible as she sheds her armor in a bid not to be cooked alive, though what you see as her cocoon falls off and into the bottom floor is a naked woman with eyes that smolder with rage as hot as your flames and magic in droves.

                You narrow your eyes and summon your magic again, to destroy her now that she’s shed her armor. “I thought you bastards become mindless beasts when you transformed like that.”

                “I am different. I am perfect.” She snarls, her skin already hardening again. “Though you may have fought alone, you will not die alone. I will give you final gift, a perfect death!”

                “Are you certain about that?” You say, pointing behind her.

                Lisette gasps and turns out in time to block two handed swing of Veronica’s mace. It fractures her arm while at the same time Bardam’s sword stabs into her gut. He twists it deep within her while staring at her with narrowed eyes, trying to disembowel her.

                She flings Veronica back with a swipe of her arm before grabbing Conviction. Bardam lets go of it this time, stepping away with a smirk as Lisette looks on, confused.

                “Wait.” She says as she holds onto the sword, it’s magic affecting her. “You two aren’t threats at all.” She spins about, her mind processing everything with distressing clarity. It’s not enough to save her as you thrust a spear of rock up from the bottom floor and through her chest, throwing Conviction aside.

                She coughs a spray of blood as her body seeks to push her off the rock and regenerate the damage. Despite all that, she struggles on. Perhaps she would be unkillable, if you didn’t drop your staff and grab her neck with all the force of Sveth flowing through you.

Snarling, you say, “There’s no such thing as perfection, unless we’re talking about my wife’s ass.”

Searing heat burns from your palm, engulfing her head so rapidly it explodes. The rest of her body catches fire as it flails, attempting to regenerate. Without a head, however, it merely collapses to the ground, and dies.

{You asked for power… and you received it…}

The music in your blood begins to die down, and with it, a wave of exhaustion and pain hits you. Nausea roils up and you vomit up your last meal and maybe a little blood. You’re not certain if this is the accumulated damage you sustained or a side effect of Sveth’s boon for one not attuned to his power, but either way it fucking hurts.

“Wizard!” Veronica says, moving toward you, faint glow over her body as she kneels next to you. “Damnit, you’re in a bad way.”

“Thanks… for noticing.” You say, coughing. “When did you wake-up?”

“Shortly after you went supercharged.” She says. “I felt a flare of my holy power because I think we drew Solos’s attention.”

“What-?” You begin before snapping your attention to the table Franklin is on. His power has subsided, and it makes your blood run cold. He’s stopped thrashing, and seems utterly at peace now, resting comfortably on the bed, sweat drenching his body. You, on the other hand, begin to cold sweat.

“Is that good?” Bardam asks, retrieving his sword.

“Get me over to him, now!”

Veronica knows better than to argue, and she strains to move you toward the bed where you about collapse onto Franklin. Gritting your teeth, you slap a hand onto his bare chest, muttering the ancient Wizard phrase “no homo” before digging deep into the remainder of your power stores. Gods you hope you’re not too late-

A hand rests on yours. Eyes going wide, you gulp as you look up to see Franklin smiling at you through his impressive beard. His eyes glow a soft green as he says, “Hey faggot, long time no see.”

Veronica promptly hits him in the head with her mace- hard. His vision flickers as his head snaps to the side. Veronica shouts, “HURRY!”

You pour your power into him, searching for the root of the infestation. It’s already taken hold, and this one is much stronger than what you’ve encountered before. Gods, if only you were at full strength and could do this deftly, but every piece is a struggle, your last dregs of power fading fast.

“You fucking bitch!” He says, eyes flickering back to green. She makes to hit him again, but he raises a fist and strikes her in the chest. She grunts but grabs his arm, holding it in place.

“Damn you!” He says, flaring with magic. “You’re all going to die here, you know that?”

Bardam lunges for the man and keeps him rooted in place so he can’t dislodge you. As the plants within react, Franklin struggles, trying to tap into this newfound power. He grows stronger and stronger, his attacks upon Veronica and Bardam growing too great until he throws both of them off, the man surging with strength.

You managed to hang on, still trying to finish the procedure. He reaches out and places a hand on your head, pressing deep with his fingers until it feels like your skull is going to snap.

“Tch, you were always thick skulled.”

“AND YOU HAVE SHIT TASTE IN WAIFUS, YOU FAGGOT!” You shout before unleashing the [Irate Frog Song].

Franklin’s grip slackens as you sing the song of your people. You feel something stirring within him, a resonance to your song. He mouths something, as if wishing to join in, but something prevents him from doing so. What’s more pronounced, however, is the effect within him. His humours, which were locked solid by this infestation are loosened, allowing you a way in. Song coursing from your lips, you drive home the last of your magic and destroy the plants infesting him.

Franklin’s eyes roll in the back of his head and he collapses back onto the bed, you following shortly after, whispering, “no homo…”

It’s over then… you’re painful, barely conscious, and out of mana, but you’re alive and so is Franklin. You did what you came here to do, now time to fade to black and wake up so you can recover and-

{Grand Wizard, whatever you did, it attracted a lot of attention. Citizens are growing bold enough to come to the front door, they might enter at any time. Only the fear of disturbing this Lady Lisette keeps them from immediately investigating. If you’re going to leave, you need to do it now.}

Oh right… your escape. You should… think of a way to manage that.

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