5-2 Biomes Part 1 (Not of 1)
“Is everyone alright!?” The Captain’s booming voice filled the silent room.
As the words called Lotus back to reality, she took stock of her body. The only issue anywhere was the faint scrape running along her forearm. It barely qualified as an injury, but it still stung like the ground was taking revenge against her for treading on it.
After pushing herself up, she rubbed her arm and called out, “We’re fine!”
Then she looked down at the Newbie beneath her. He should be fine, since he’d been letting out a soft groan this whole time. However, just to be sure, she gave him a light slap on the cheek.
Receiving the blow, the Newbie jerked up and frantically assessed his environment. When he caught sight of the large, iron gate resting inches from his black boobs, his whole body gave a shudder. Internally, Lotus also shuddered. The thought of coming so close to being cut in half set her stomach in loops. However, she wasn’t so childish as to let that show on her face.
Completely standing up, Lotus turned away from the Newbie and stepped up to the room’s new divider. Directly on the other side, Champ was standing and staring back at her. “You alright?” She asked when their eyes met.
“I should be asking you that,” Champ answered with a grin. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen someone action roll under a closing gate before.”
“There was no rolling,” Lotus corrected flatly.
“Close enough,” Champ dismissed with a wave of his hand.
If Lotus thought about it, what she did was pretty heroic. Her body had acted on its own, but she couldn’t deny that the Newbie was alive because of her. She looked back at the benefactor of her heroism thoughtfully. He hardly looked grateful. He had the same expression as always. Half confused, half terrified. That kind of dampened her feeling of accomplishment.
“Has anyone seen anything that could be the mechanism for this?” The Captain’s voice interrupted Lotus’s thoughts. “A switch, a lever, anything?”
“There’s nothing in here. It’s just an empty room,” Cauliflower responded quickly.
“It was probably activated by a pressure plate under the floor. Anything with too much weight sets it off,” Lotus volunteered. “I’ve heard about that happening in dwarven ruins.”
“So we’re trapped?” Edge’s bitter voice called Lotus’s attention towards him. He’d given up on trying to force the gate blocking their exit of its tracks. Now he was patrolling the boundary of his and the Captain’s quarter of the room. His expression was anxious, yet somehow also grumpy. Like being confined in an iron cage had woken him up from a nice dream. Looking at his face was… distracting.
Louts quickly turned back to the Captain. He was busy scowling at nothing in particular. That was how he always got when he felt helpless. Kind of angry at himself.
Lotus could understand that. However, she hadn’t been overtaken by the feeling yet. She looked back at the door behind her, which led further into the ruins. They weren’t trapped. Not yet, at least.
“We can crawl through the fountain!” Cauliflower suggested excitedly. Looking towards her, she was curiously poking her face between two of the stone bowls of the fountain in the middle of the room.
She was onto something. The iron cage that had fallen had a tiered hole in the middle, formed precisely so as not to crush the fountain. However, the prospects of that weren’t great.
“Even if we can move between segments, the exit’s still blocked,” Champ observed, following Cauliflower’s example and sticking his head in the fountain.
“Yeah, but we can be together then,” Cauliflower rebutted, trying to look at Champ through the fountain’s openings. “That’s something.”
“I can’t fit,” Knot declared from behind where Cauliflower’s ass was sticking out of the stone fountain.
“I don’t think anyone can fit,” Edge observed, following Champ and Cauliflower’s examples.
Lotus narrowed her eyes. She’d been waiting for the Newbie to take up their share of this investigation, but he didn’t show any signs of moving. Giving up, Lotus headed towards the fountain. The separation between the middle two tiers seemed widest, so she crouched down and stuck her head inside. Then she slammed her chin into the stone below her. Then the crown of her skull into the rock above. Then she withdrew her head.
Lotus was the slimmest member of the team, but even she wasn’t going to make it through. Even if she did, the scrapes and bruises weren’t worth getting her alone into another pie. Especially considering what a disaster it would be to leave the Newbie on his own. They still had no idea whether there’d be any monsters further inside the ruins.
“It’s too small,” Lotus declared, stepping back and brushing the dust from her shirt.
“I can fit,” Cauliflower responded stubbornly.
Lotus watched Cauliflower’s hips twitch and her legs flail in the air as she let of a series of loud grunts. After about a minute, she stopped moving and said, “You know, I don’t think it’d be great to leave Knot alone…”
“Just pull her out of there,” Edge ordered, shaking his head at her display.
Knot stepped forward and placed his hands on Cauliflower’s hips. Then he diligently pulled. Cauliflower offered some complaints as parts of her got caught within the stone architecture. In spite of her protests, within a minute, she was free. Her entire upper half was covered in brown and black splotches. Her hands and arms had visible scratches, but she was in one piece.
“What do we do now?” Cauliflower asked as she tried fruitlessly to wipe the filth from her face.
“We can only go deeper,” The Captain answered, looking at only opened door in his section. “There are six doors in here and five of them are open. One of them should lead us to something we can use to escape.”
“We have no guarantee of that,” Knot countered.
“It’s our best bet,” the Captain answered resolutely.
The rest of the team could only nod in response.
Then the Captain continued, “We’ll each go through what we can and see what we can find. When you come to a dead end, move back here. When we’ve exhausted all our options, we’ll have another discussion.”
The rest of the team affirmed their orders and turned towards their respective doors. Before everyone could head out, the Captain added in a softer voice, “You’re gonna be alone in there. No reinforcements. Take it carefully and slowly.”
Then the Captain turned towards Champ and said, “Champ, you’re alone. No need to go if you think it’s too dangerous. You can wait here and see what we find first.”
Champ looked to the door behind him and thought for a while. Then he gave a resolute nod to himself and declared, “I’ll pull my weight. I know enough by now to not get myself killed.”
Lotus looked back at Champ. He looked determined and he was a competent merc by now, but… She could still remember how it was when she’d first joined. He’d tried to be all cocksure back then, but he was about as useful as the Newbie. Just as like to fall on his face as to shoot something in a fight. That was a long time ago, but she couldn’t get the image out of her head. The thought of that boy, whom she’d had to teach to track monsters, going off into unknown ruins gave her a thousand worries.
Turning away from Champ, Lotus caught sight of the new worry she had to deal with. The Newbie looked back at her with nervous, yet hopeful eyes. Seeing them made Lotus’s heart even heavier. She wondered if she’d be able to get him through this alone.
As her thoughts turned dark, Lotus pulled the rifle from behind her back. She looked over it and then closer her eyes. She tried to remember how much oil she’d used in cleaning it last night. How much dirt she’d managed to scrub out of it. How many bullets she had on her. How much each one weighed.
After about a minute, Lotus opened her eyes. Her heart as pristine as a placid lake, she pushed forward, further into the ruins. She was ready for anything.
Anything. That definitely included a square room, full of useless crap. Somehow disappointing, though. That weird kind of disappointing where you’re relieved, but also frustrated that you worried for nothing. She’d just expected something more after being trapped in a ruin by giant iron cages.
The room was much smaller and less interesting than the plaza she was in before. As soon as she had scanned the area for anything moving, she shifted her gaze to the ceiling. After a few minutes of intense searching, she concluded that it was all grey stone brick. Nothing was going to drop down to seal her in or cut her in half. Somewhat confident in her safety, Lotus stepped in to search the room. The Newbie trailed close behind.
Looking over the room itself, it was filled with rubble. Much more than the plaza. A dozen, knee-high piles of stone and detritus lined the walls to their left and right. The piles were evenly spaced, about two feet apart. The regularity of that was strange. Looking at the long sections of flat stone atop some of the piles, she wondered if they were once desks. Maybe this was once an office or a workshop.
Lotus looked at the nearest rubble pile. Then she looked at the door opposite to where they entered. Then she looked back at the pile. “There’s no way there’s anything in there,” she muttered to herself.
“What was that?” The Newbie asked, leaning in to hear her better.
“Nothing,” Lotus answered with a shake of her head. “Let’s search these quick. Rummage through a bit and move on. You take the right wall, I’ll take the left.”
The Newbie nodded at her proposition and they went to work. Kneeling in front of the nearest pile of rubble, Lotus looked it over. Now that she was close to it, she noticed a few shiny glints of reflection along its surface. Gingerly, she reached out towards one. She felt something cold and smooth. Then her hand returned, gripping a jagged shard of glass between two fingers. Lotus’s skin crawled at the thought of shoving her hand in and gathering a fistful of these.
“Newbie,” she called out, turning to hold up the glass for him to see. “Don’t get cut.”
Seeing the brittle weapon, the Newbie shuddered and said, “Yes. Thanks.”
Then they both turned back to the task at hand. For a while, they carefully shifted stones around in silence. Only the scraping and clacking of rocks to punctuate their movements. Then, around the time Lotus was moving to her second pile, the Newbie spoke up. “What is up with the dwarves?”
“What is up?” Lotus repeated to herself with a quizzical frown. Still furrowing her brow, she raised her head and asked, “What do you know about them?”
“Nothing,” The Newbie answered earnestly. “They weren’t mention at all in the books I’ve read… three books I’ve read. No one’s said anything about them either.”
A wave of understanding washed over Lotus and she nodded to herself as she answered, “That’s probably because no one’s seen one in a thousand years.”
“Why not?” the Newbie asked, stopping his hands as he focused on her answer.
“Because they’re all dead,” Lotus answered, slamming down the rock she was holding in hopes the noise would get the Newbie working again. After a few seconds of reflection, she added, “Probably.”
“Probably?” The Newbie asked, immediately stopping his work again. Then he caught sight of Lotus’s unamused expression and picked up another stone shard.
“Probably,” Lotus answered with a satisfied shrug as she watched him Newbie get to work. Turning back to her own pile she continued. “No one can be sure, but it’s hard to think they wouldn’t be.” Setting her eyes on a particularly large slab, Lotus dug her fingers in and shifted onto her knees to get leverage.
“I don’t understand.” The Newbie declared after half a minute of silence.
Wrenching her back and waist at the same time, Lotus was able to lift up one side of the slab. Then she let if fall down to the left with a crash and looked at what was underneath. Of course, it was nothing.
In breathless disappointment, she said, “I was getting to it. A thousand years ago, there was some kind of plague.” She stood up and moved to her third pile before continuing. “Apparently it more than decimated the human population. It destroyed whole cities and countries with no sign of end. The details on it are cloudy now. A lot of folk stories, but none of them sound very convincing.”
Taking a look at the Newbie’s progress, Lotus found him carefully sifting through the fine sand and dust under his second pile. Shaking her head, she said, “You’re more than done with that one now. Move on.”
“umm… ok!” the Newbie responded, hurriedly standing and moving to the pile behind Lotus.
Lotus shook her head again and continued as the sound of the Newbie’s rummaging rang out behind her. “The point is, the disease was deadly and virulent. The elves didn’t care about it. The patriarchs and matriarchs of the time had a non-intervention policy. They didn’t care if a few million humans died off. The dwarves, on the other hand, cared a lot.”
Searching through an area she’d just cleared, Lotus saw a yellow glimmer amidst the detritus. Cautiously, she reached out for it and found it to be coming from a small, metallic disk. She was barely able to identify it as a coin. The surface was so dirty and corroded, she couldn’t tell what was supposed to be marked on it. Still, it could be worth something. She pocketed it and moved on.
“It’s hard to think of such a race actually existing, but it was said the dwarves were almost completely made up of artisans and engineers.” For not the first time, Lotus tried to imagine how such a society could function at all. “They were on good terms with most countries because individual dwarves had a habit of giving away their crafts to those they found worthy of the item. Put that together with their military might and it was better to be friends than enemies.”
Rubbing some dust from her nose, Lotus realized she’d gotten a little sidetracked and cleared her throat. “Anyway, the dwarves soon discovered that they were just as susceptible to the plague as humans. Since they mostly lived in dense populations, confined underground, their leaders decided the plague posed a threat to their entire species. Thus, they built the vault city of Calis Tha’Um. Then they sealed themselves inside and set all their automata to guard the entrance. They ordered them to only open the vault when the threat of the plague had passed. That was the last anyone had heard of them.”
“What happened?” The Newbie stopped his hands and turned to give Lotus a look of sublime curiosity.
Lotus turned and narrowed her eyes to glare at the Newbie.
“I mean, what do people think happened,” the Newbie amended as he turned back to his work.
“They all died,” Lotus answered simply. Then she added. “Probably. I mean, there’s no plague and they still haven’t come out. Not a lot of explanations for that. Their city wasn’t as self-sustaining as they thought, or someone infected got in by mistake. Something like that.”
“Maybe they decided they liked it better underground,” the Newbie suggested hopefully as they both stood to move to their next piles.
“And stayed there for a thousand years without trade or anything?” Lotus asked, raising her eyebrows at him.
“I guess not…” the Newbie responded, sounding a little disappointed.
“In the end, the only ones who know for sure are the automata,” Lotus declared with a shrug. “And they are tight lipped about it… not that they have lips. Not exactly, anyway.”
With that, the conversation died down and they focused on their work. After finishing their search, their only profit was the one coin. Other than that, they shards of glass and fragments of stone. If they were lucky, they’d uncover a piece of corroded something.
Once the Newbie finished searching his final pile, Lotus made sure he was safely behind her. Then she exited through the door they hadn’t entered through. Once again she sure to increase her tension was she moved forward, unsure as to what she would find. Once again, that tension was betrayed.
“It’s the same.” Lotus declared, slumping her shoulders in disappointment.
“It looks like there’s a little bit more debris,” The Newbie chimed in helpfully from behind. For some reason under the impression that would make her feel better.
Lotus merely turned to give him a cold stare.
“Right, I guess that’s not a good thing,” the Newbie responded, reflecting on his own words.
“C’mon, Newbie. Let’s get to work.”
This time, their searching was much more slapdash. They shuffled through the rocks and dust as fast as they could. The only thing that slowed Lotus down was the threatening land mines, in the form of glass shards.
Once they were on their fifth debris pile in the room, Lotus was sure this would be another bust. That was when the Newbie spoke up. “Umm… I think I found something.”
“You think?” Lotus asked, standing to go look over his shoulder.
Before she could, The Newbie turned and presented something for inspection. It was paper, or maybe parchment. Lotus wasn’t well versed in telling the difference. One thing was clear, though. It was old. The surface was yellowed beyond anything Lotus had been able to read before and it looked alternatively stiff enough to sure up a leaky ship and so delicate it might crumble from her breath.
Lotus gently took the wide paper form the Newbie and poured over it. The majority of the sheet was covered in an extremely detailed drawing of what looked to be a human stitched together from boulders. The entire drawing was covered in little leading lines that pointed out what seemed to be dimensions. It was hard to make out the specifics, but the identity of the thing itself was clear.
“Looks like a schematic,” Lotus muttered thoughtfully.
“Of what?” the Newbie asked, crowding in from the side.
Squinting at the paper, Lotus ran her finger along the series of runes at the top of the page. They were made up of strange angles and swoops and circles. Definitely not the common tongue Lotus was used to reading, but… “Says something about corruption… break… something.”
“You can read that!?” the Newbie almost shouted into her ear in surprise.
Lotus pulled back from his sudden noise. Then she was filled with a warm glow of pride in his admiration. Affording herself a half smile, she said, “It’s said that the Arimeri tribes of the south-east based most of their language on dwarven.” Scowling at her own memories, Lotus added, “It’s important to learn. The Arimeri have a habit of editing their contracts at the last minute without saying anything. Then they’ll only uphold the part that’s in their own language…”
Looking to her right, Lotus saw the Newbie’s eyes, glowing with admiration. “You know so much!” He praised happily.
Lotus gave a small cough and said, “This much is natural for a…” Stopping herself in mid-sentence, Lotus stood frozen for a few seconds. Then she shook her head violently and said, “Anyway, put this away in your pack. It’s certainly valuable, though not useful.”
That was dangerous. The kid was so stupidly earnest that it made her forget herself for a moment. She almost gave away something important.
“Yeah, it’s a picture of a statue,” the Newbie said, apparently not paying attention to her slip. “I didn’t think it’d help get us out of here.”
“There’s that too,” Lotus responded, looking over at him cautiously. She still expected him to suddenly start asking unpleasant questions. “But I meant useless for anyone. Though, it’d sell well to the right collector.”
The Newbie took the paper she was offering back to him. Then he poured over it curiously as he asked, “Useless? People still use dwarven artifacts today, right? I thought the method to build one would be incredibly useful.”
Lotus closed her eyes and shook her head at his fundamental ignorance. “The reason why people don’t make dwarven artifacts isn’t because they don’t know how. It’s because they can’t.”
“Why can’t they?” The Newbie asked, carefully tucking away the paper before turning back to Lotus.
“Because we aren’t dwarves,” Lotus answered, turning away from the Newbie and trying to finish up the last few debris piles. “They couldn’t use magic freely like the elves, but they could weave it into what they made. Their creation process for any type of tool or weapon is completely out of the capabilities of the elves. Let alone us humans.”
“I see…” the Newbie responded slowly.
“You don’t sound like you do,” Lotus observed snidely. After about thirty seconds of silence from the Newbie, she asked, “What’re you thinking about?”
“I don’t understand all this stuff,” the Newbie responded, letting his shoulders droop. “I don’t understand why you say you can’t use magic. I mean, you shoot lasers from a normal rifle. How is that not magic.”
“I guess you could call it magic. Kind of,” Lotus responded, turning her eyes up in hopes that staring into her own brain would help her to find a clear answer. “But it also isn’t. It’s uses magic energy, but you can only do very specific things with it. So it doesn’t really count.”
“But what if you-?”
“You can’t,” Lotus ruthlessly terminated his question.
“You didn’t let me finish.”
“I didn’t need to,” Lotus said, reaching up to push a stubborn hair from her face. “It’s all been tried before. Nothing works. Humans can’t use magic. If you kill a monster and eat its meat, you gain a little magic power, but you can only channel it in a very specific way. If you eat more, you can gain more energy and even discover more artes, but even if you have ten artes, you can only do those ten things. Nothing more. When you discover your affinity, you’ll understand.”
“I see…” The Newbie responded quietly. Then silence fell.
Speaking about all this made Lotus remember when she was a child and had stupid dreams. Just remembering a fraction of her “experiments” made her want to crawl into herself from embarrassment.
“Lotus…” the Newbie’s uncertain voice cut through Lotus’s desperate anti-reverie. “Are you sure I have an affinity?”
“Yes,” Lotus answered without wasting time to think.
“How can you be sure?”
“Because you do.”
“Edge took me to a few weapon shops.” The Newbie declared. His voice became progressively doleful. The clacking and grinding from his search stopped entirely. “We didn’t find anything that felt special. Nothing at all. I tried out so many things.”
Lotus froze and stared straight ahead of her. She had no idea what to do about this. The kid sounded on the verge of tears. How did she head that off? She was still confident of her previous declaration. Everyone had an affinity if they did the right stuff. How did she convince him of that, though?
Lotus used every mental trick her parents had taught her to keep her voice even and confident as she slowly answered, “That just means your affinity is something exotic. It’ll just take us a while to find it. That’s all.”
“Really?” the Newbie asked, his voice perking up a bit as he begged for reassurance.
“Oh, yeah,” Lotus answered, her hands moving again now that she found herself on solid ground. “I mean, exotic affinities aren’t generally great, but you definitely have one.”
“Is that so…?” the Newbie responded hollowly, his mood audibly falling.
Shit, Lotus thought as all her muscles locked up again. Just cause she was relieved she accidentally tried to teach again. This wasn’t the time for that. Desperately, she thought of something to turn this around again. When she grasped hold of something, she immediately spoke without thought.
“It’s not that bad. I mean, even Edge was kicked out of his first team when he discovered he had an affinity with knives. Look at him now. He’s fine, because it isn’t as much about what your affinity is as how you use it.”
“Really?” the Newbie asked, his voice turning from glum to curious in seconds.
As she reviewed over her own words, Lotus wondered whether or not it was something she was supposed to say. It wasn’t a secret from anyone on the team. Still, it wasn’t a great think to talk about behind his back.
“Don’t bring it up unless he does first,” Lotus quickly cautioned before continuing. “But, yeah. Melee affinities aren’t popular now. They can’t compete with firearms affinities in either firepower or safety. No one wants to try and stab a dragon if a gun is available.”
“That makes sense, but…”
“He doesn’t really let it slow him down,” Lotus answered. Her chest filled with a different kind of pride than before and she soon realized there was a smile spreading on her face. Quickly wiping it off, she continued, “It’s all about how you use what you have. He spent a lot of time and effort learning his artes so he could use them in different ways. You can do that too. Once we figure out your affinity we’ll help you come up with some creative things.”
“You will?” the Newbie asked. Lotus refused to turn back and look at him, but she could hear his smile in his voice.
“You’re a part of the team now. Of course we will.” As the words came out of her mouth, Lotus started to feel a little itchy, so she added, “After all, if your incompetence gets someone killed, we can’t guarantee it’ll be you.”
The Newbie seemed to pay no attention to her last words as he happily hummed through the final few debris piles.
The rest of the room was searched without incident, good or bad. With no more than potential auction pieces to show for their time, Lotus and the Newbie faced the door leading further into the ruins. Looking into the dark rectangle, Lotus prepared herself to find more of the same. Stepping forward, she traversed a narrow hallway, no wider than the door she’d entered. After less than a minute of that, Lotus entered a new world.
Aside from those behind her, she couldn’t see any walls. Everything else was green. Large, lush plants covered her entire sight. The ceiling was covered in thousands of small crystals that gave off a pale light. It was dim, but enough to see by.
Standing in the midst of what looked to be a jungle, she took a few deep breaths to help her process the information. As she did so, her nose filled with the smell damp sod of dead plants, so far past decaying that they aren’t revolting anymore. Even feeling the spike in humidity, Lotus could only call this a new world. Completely divorced from the ruin they were in.
Then, a thought hit her and chilled her blood. She immediately turned around and rushed back. She paid no attention to whatever the Newbie was asking as she sped through the hallway. Once she exited it, she found herself again in the small room full of debris. That sight made her heave a sight of relief. However, she wasn’t done.
Turning around, she carefully scanned the doorway, the floor, the wall. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but she would know it when she found it. She’d heard tales of that. Teleportation circles and the like that could transport you to faraway places. She didn’t know anyone who’d seen them or if they even existed. However, the danger of being teleported to some unknown jungle was far worse than being trapped underground.
After around five minutes searching for anything glowy or circleish, she found nothing. Thinking about it, the dwarves were confident that they could lock themselves underground for years. She’d always assumed they’d had some way of regulating their environment. She’d just hadn’t expected it to be that stark.
Moving to enter the hallway for a third time, Lotus found the Newbie blocking her path. “What’s going on?” He asked, nervously.
Now that she thought about it, she could vaguely remember his voice trying to impede her focus earlier. She’d been too distracted to respond, which she couldn’t help. It wasn’t every day she encountered something completely new. It was almost no days.
Lotus opened her mouth to answer the boy’s question. Then she thought about what such an answer would entail. Telling her junior that she’d just had a panic attack over a fairy tale gave her another sort of attack. Lotus closed her mouth and thought for a second. Not coming up with anything, she merely brushed past him saying, “Nothing important. Let’s continue.”
Passing through the hallway again, Cauliflower paid closer attention to her senses. It was hard to tell exactly, but as she walked the air definitely got hotter and more humid. Then, when she passed into the jungle again, the change was completed suddenly.
Lotus once again spent a few seconds marveling at the environment before the Newbie asked, “Are all dwarven ruins like this?”
“No,” Lotus responded, coming back to the reality of the situation. They weren’t exploring leisurely, they were currently trapped. She changed her view of the foliage from awe to suspicion. “I’ve gone through a few, but I’ve seen nothing like this.”
“It’s amazing,” the Newbie declared ecstatically.
“It is,” Lotus answered, taking a last look at their surroundings. As before, her entire view was eclipsed by lush greenery she couldn’t see past. “Let’s get moving. There may be more rooms further in.”
“How did they do this?” The Newbie asked, following Lotus as she slid between the wet leaves.
“I don’t know,” Lotus answered, trying not to pay attention to him. “Be quiet for now.”
The further she distanced herself from her curiosity, the more this place made her nervous. It might just be paranoia or association, but plants meant life. Life meant monsters. Something along those lines.
Moving forward, the Newbie listened to her order and silence fell between them. The only sound that could be heard was the incessant noise of rustling leaves as they pushed forward between the trees. Lotus was sure that was the only sound, but she also couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t. She felt like she could just barely hear something moving out of her range of perception.
After about five minutes of careful treading, Lotus started to smell something. Not just a fresher set or rotting leaves. Something more foul. The further she progressed, the stronger it got. Until she found the source.
Behind a tall tree on her right, sat an impressive pile of something she wouldn’t want to describe. Shit. In both meanings. As weird as the world could get, there were some things she was confident of. One of those was: plants don’t poop. The jungle wasn’t uninhabited.
Holding his nose, the Newbie stepped forward to try and ask something. Before he could, Lotus forced her hand over his mouth. Leaning in to his ear, she whispered, “We’re going to start moving faster now.”
She waited for the Newbie to nod. Then she released him and started pressing forward at something close to a jog. She still had to avoid the thicker sections of jungle and keep from making too much noise. However, she moved as quickly as she could considering that.
This isn’t good. Lotus’s face kept her usually calm demeanor, but that thought was all that ran through her head. She was a sniper. With enough distance and focus, she could take down anything. Almost anything. However, being assaulted from unknown directions, by unknown assailants, in a dense jungle didn’t afford her either of those.
The shit could’ve been left by a normal herbivore. A pig or something. She couldn’t afford to bet on that.
This isn’t good, she thought again.
As Lotus dwelt on that pessimistic feeling, she suddenly heard a cry. It was a high-pitched, warbling screech, but it didn’t sound angry or pained. It sounded like a call. To allies. The screech could’ve come from half a dozen different things. However, of the ones that came to Lotus’s mind, none of them were good.
This is really bad.
Impulsively, Lotus reached back to grab the Newbie’s hand and then took off in a sprint. She didn’t care about noise anymore. It didn’t matter. She just needed to reach somewhere open. Somewhere she could see things coming. A clearing, another hallway, anything.
As Lotus ran, her ears were dominated by the sounds of the leaves shifting from her momentum. Her face was incessantly pelted by vines and branches. Her cheeks stung and she was sure they were ruddy. With those distractions she had no way of knowing if anything approached. That thought forced her legs to pump faster.
As her muscles lost all their spare energy and her gate was maintained only by force of will, everything changed. Lotus burst out from the vegetation and was filled with a strange feeling of rebirth. It’d been thirty minutes at most since she’d entered the jungle. However, being the open again felt both alien and refreshing.
Lotus embraced that feeling for half a second. Then she pressed forward. As she moved further into the clearing, she heard a splashing with every step and her feet became cold. Looking down, Lotus found herself standing in water. This clearing wasn’t a clearing at all. It was a shallow pool of clear water, about 100 feet in diameter.
Lotus acknowledged that fact, but didn’t pay attention to it as she kept moving. When she reached the middle of the pool, the water was up to her shins and bitingly cold. That didn’t really matter, though.
Lotus turned to the Newbie and was about to give him orders. Then she remembered who he was and thought better of it. “Just stay behind me and don’t panic,” She instructed simply.
“R-right,” the Newbie answered quickly. As always, he looked a little out of the loop, but perceptive enough to not make a fuss.
After the Newbie shuffled to her rear, Lotus crouched down into the water, further freezing her legs and ass. Then she gripped her rifle in both hands and pivoted to monitor the clearing’s edges.
With the rustling of the leaves gone and her heartrate slowing, Lotus could hear again. Every few seconds, a shrill cry would come from the depths of the jungle. The depths of the jungle in different directions. Whatever was out there, there was more than one of it.
While her face remained calm and determined, Lotus’s mind searched through all her knowledge to find what monsters could possibly be out there. For all her effort, she drew a blank. No, the opposite of a blank. She came up with hundreds of names and gnarled faces that could appear in this situation. Hundreds was just as helpful as zero. She couldn’t make any strategies.
Lotus wasn’t let wondering for long. A few minutes after they’d entered the pool, the flora around them started to rustle again. Then, one by one, figures started to appear on the edge of the clearing.
Birds. Undeniably, that’s what they were. Though, they lacked the dignified grace that characterized most of their cousins. Their bodies were stout and heavy. Supported by long, sturdy legs and massive four-toed feet. Their beaks looked jagged and sharp and were supported by cunning, almost snakelike, heads. The bulk of their body was covered in distinctive silvery-grey feathers that Lotus immediately recognized.
Try as she might, Lotus couldn’t remember the monster’s name. Though, she could perfectly recall their encyclopedia entry. They were incredibly rare. Few had ever seen one, including her. They were best suited to hunting through wide forests or open plains, but they also needed a ready source of iron ore. That was the only way to grow their impressive, metallic feathers. All the iron made it impossible for them to run, but they could still run damn fast. Plus, their hard, interlaced feathers and their supple muscle made it hard to penetrate them with weak bullets.
After the whole flock had assembled, they merely stood on the edge of the pool and stared. Lotus carefully counted them all and tried to come up with a plan. There were seven birds in total. She had one bullet in the chamber and six in the magazine. Once it started, she wouldn’t be able to reload. That meant no missing. It would be tight.
“What are they doing?” the Newbie whispered nervously, watching the vicious birds standing absolutely still.
“They’re waiting for us to come out,” Lotus answered without looking away from the flock. “They’d rather not get wet.”
That was one relief. Feathers, no metal or not, were made from one spine with fine fibers growing from it. High surface area, low volume. Good for flight, but also good for corrosion. Rust could be deadly to the birds, whose main selling point was their high defense and speed. That gave her time to think.
Not that she could think of much. The only real solution here was to shoot the things. She figured she could kill two of them before they started to move. Then it was all just going with the flow. Of course, everything would be ruined if they decided to disappear into the jungle after her first shot. They could wait her out without fear.
She was 80% sure that wouldn’t happen, however. Monsters are greedier than normal animals. Even if they formed packs, sharing didn’t come easy. If one of them chose to flee and the other stayed to get the kill; then the odd man out would go without dinner. None of them would risk the others getting the jump on them.
After thinking that far, Lotus had nothing else she could consider. It was time. She reaffirmed her grip on her rifle and turned towards two of the birds that were close together. Then she took a deep breath in. then breathed out. In. Then out. Lotus imagined her body dissolving into mist and spreading out into the air. She became everything and nothing. The stinging on her face, the complaints of hypothermia from her feet. All of it faded away. Lotus became a machine.
Forcing herself down the scope of her rifle, Lotus focused on the first target. Once it was firmly in her crosshairs, she pulled the trigger. Hit by the bullet, the iron bird’s head jerked back so violently, it looked like it’d snap off entirely. Its heavy body countered that force, however, and when it collapsed it fell straight down.
The bird’s comrade to the left turned to investigate the disturbance. Before it could lay eyes on its friend’s corpse, its head overlapped with Lotus’s scope. She pulled the trigger again and the bird spasmed once before falling to the ground.
With two of their flock taken out, the birds started to move. They each picked a direction and started circling. In seconds, they reached their top speed; passing each other silently and waiting to see what would happen next. They thought simply running was enough to avoid attack. They were wrong.
As one of the metallic flock passed in front of her, Lotus trailed it with her rifle. She moved the crosshair half a tick in front of it. Then she pulled the trigger. Even after firing, she kept rotating her torso in line with the bird. Then, half a heartbeat later, the bird had collapsed and stopped moving.
Lotus moved onto her next target as another bird passed in front of her vision. Following it as before, Lotus found her timing and took the shot. However, whether by instinct or luck, the bird dug its foot into the dirt and changed direction at the last minute. The bullet trailed harmlessly behind the back of the bird’s head. Then the bird started moving again without injury.
Shit! Lotus shouted in her mind. She immediately turned to follow her target and let off another shot. In her rush to catch up, Lotus had moved a micron too far. The bullet passed in front of the bird’s face and again did nothing.
On impulse, Lotus tried to pull the trigger again. However, before she could, she stopped herself. She took a deep breath. Then relaxed her finger. Missing didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. She was nothing and cared about nothing. Lotus refocused herself down her scope and waited for the bird to pass again. When it did, she tracked it and killed it with one bullet.
With the fall of the fourth bird, the remaining three decided waiting wasn’t worth it. With the determination of a gambler who was already 5000 in the hole, they went all in. All three of them stopped in unison as if it was a predetermined plan. Then they turned towards Lotus and started to run at her.
As the birds moved, they twisted to move in a serpentine pattern. On top of that, the water further slowed their progress. That gave her a little time.
But only one bullet
Lotus bit her lip and put all her focus in her eyes until they felt like they’d start bleeding. Three in one. Three in one. It wasn’t possible. Their patterns didn’t match up. Resigning herself to that, Lotus turned towards the closest of the tree. Then she followed it with her barrel as it moved.
Eventually, the bird’s silhouette overlapped with another. Then she pulled the trigger. The bullet roared forth from her gun and descended on the bird’s silver breast. The sniper rifle’s round easily pierced through the protective feathers and bit into the bird’s flesh.
After terrorizing the bird’s organs, the bullet exited the fowl, its course completely altered. However, the intervening hand of god descended on that piece of lead. The bullet, on its downward path to the ground, intersected with the knee of the next bird. A hole was opened on the monster’s leg, so large it might as well have been amputated.
With that one attack, the two birds collapsed. Their blood dying the clear pool a murky red.
Before birds had even started to fall, Lotus released both her hands. As her rifle fell from her grasp, she moved to grasp at her thigh. The handgun wouldn’t be enough, but it was the best she could do.
She tried to draw the gun from its holster, but her hands immediately froze when they entered the clammy water. She couldn’t get them to move perfectly and they fumbled. It only delayed her a few seconds, but seconds was enough. The bird was on her. Its jagged beak opened wide to reveal the vibrantly red and glistening flesh of its throat.
Then, a chorus of booms rang out above her head. Lotus’s heart stopped. Another enemy? Even as her hands continued to draw the handgun, she turned her vision up. There, she saw a black rifle extended in the default standing fire position. Behind it, the Newbie’s eyes were a bit red and shone with a desperate light.
Turning her gaze back down, Lotus saw the bird that had been poised to bite at her throat. It was bleeding from one of its wings and had a nasty gash on its long neck. After staggering from the damage, the bird swung its head around to survey its situation. Seeing its own injuries and its flock annihilated, it gave one loud squawk. Then it fled.
After seeing of the retreat of the glittering feathers, Lotus breathed a sigh of relief. Then the frigid water started to get to her and she quickly stood. She looked at the carnage around her then she looked at the Newbie. He was still holding his rifle up and he was twitching slightly from the adrenaline. However, his eyes looked fine.
“You did a good job,” Lotus declared, putting a hand on the Newbie’s rifle to slowly lower it.
The Newbie turned and looked into Lotus’s face. “I… did I?” He asked weakly.
Lotus gave a faint smile and nodded. Then the Newbie’s face exploded into an ecstatic grin. Looking over that face, Lotus felt a faint satisfaction swelling up in her chest. She wondered if this was what it felt like to have a son. It wasn’t bad.
After absorbing that feeling, she remembered what had just happened. Then she drew back her arm and sent it flying into the Newbie, giving him a full strength slap. The Newbie stumbled backwards a few steps. Then he looked at Lotus with the teary eyes of a kicked puppy.
Ignoring his painful appearance, Lotus sternly said, “Don’t fire above people’s heads without telling them. It’s stupid and dangerous.
“I. Um. But. Ummm. I’m sorry!” the Newbie terminated his statement with a full bodied bow.
Lotus smiled and gave a shrug. “Go collect feathers they should be worth something. Get as many as you can comfortably carry.”
As the Newbie nodded and started plucking metallic feathers, Lotus replaced her rifle’s magazine. Then she reloaded the empty mag with loose bullets from her pack.
When they both finished, they continued their trek through the jungle. Lotus had no idea what to expect from this point, but she and the kid weren’t dead yet. That was at least something.