The orcs Grog and Burg sat by their anemic fire, trying to ignore the slapping noises and animalistic grunting coming from the other side of the island, behind the tiny bush that had sprung up two hours ago.
“Eight point seven on the Qinsey scale indeed,” Matta, the Corio mercenary said as he sat down cross legged beside them.
“What?” Burg said. He’d never heard of the Qinsey scale. “What does that mean?”
“Some pervert scholar a long time ago wanted to graph how often different species got it on.” Matta said, rustling around in his pack to pull out some dried food and a skin of water.
“I hear,” Grog said, whispering conspiratorily, “That human females don’t even have heat cycles.”
A shriek pierced the air for a second, drawing their attention. The bush had finally stopped shaking.
“Really?” Burg asked directing his gaze back to Grog.
“Yeah, no heat cycles means that they’re always in heat, always ready to go. With a human woman, anytime you feel like it, just tackle them to the ground and take ‘em.”
The purple man stumbled out from behind the bush, fully naked and panting desperately.
“That’s not…” he gasped, snatching the waterskin out of Matta’s hands and draining it over a long, awkward moment.
“Oh god, that’s better…what was I saying?” The purple man’s gaze landed back on them. “Oh, right. That’s not exactly true,” he said, shooting water out of his finger into the waterskin.
“Human women can be rather lusty, but each one of them is also a unique, delicate, tricky puzzle that require a careful, considered approach in order to unlock their hearts.”
“You stripped her in front of everyone and then beat her with a stick.” Burg said.
“True, but I guarantee you that the orcish mating ritual of subduing the female prior to coitus will not work out like you think.”
“Is that not what you were doing?”
“It’s complicated, okay? She wouldn’t let just anyone do that to her. With human women you gotta be on some level their friend.”
Grog’s face crumpled into a mask of deep concentration. “Friend? Like…another man…who you have sex with?”
“That’s gross,” Burg said.
“Yeah, I’ll stick with orc women, thank you.”
“Bah, you guys don’t know what’s good for ya,” The purple man grumbled, creating a tall glass of ice water between his hands as the human female stumbled out from behind the bush. She snatched the water from his hands and drank it in a single session.
“Oh, thank Gorn.”
It was about this time when their boss, Prince Maren of Teldane, crawled out of his tent, casting a critical eye over the assembled bodyguards and mercenaries, lingering on the humans as his expression soured.
“I am going to sleep. For the next eight hours, the first person to make any sound will be executed.”
“Do you know what geosynchronous orbit is?” the purple man asked.
“Just keep it down.” Maren muttered, retreating back into his tent.
“He seemed grumpy,” Alicia said, taking another swig of water.
“Camping affects everyone differently.” Garth inspected his little slice of the tiny island. He didn’t have a whole lot of space.
Garth briefly considered using the badges to warp up to the Fertility for the night and sleep between silk sheets, but…it was the principle of camping to be miserable.
Not that this was a camping trip, exactly. The camping was more in the eye of the beholder in this case. At least Garth got the opportunity to study some offworld plants and build his repertoire.
Time to get the camp ready for bed.
Garth created a semi-permeable barrier around the camp to let air through, because the alternative would fill the dome with smoke and farts.
Summon Nature Spirit
A few men shouted when Woody’s towering body stepped out of the black portal, drawing an irate growl from Maren’s tent.
Woody gingerly stepped over the tent and took a stance on the very edge of the tiny island.
“Alright, Woody, your job is to protect us while we sleep. Sound good?”
The fifteen-foot treant gave him a thumbs-up.
Garth fabricated a comfy bed of cork and cotton with a mosquito net, big enough for two. He was just wrapping up when he felt Alicia’s hands on his shoulder.
“That,” She said, pointing at the treant silently watching them.
“I want to learn how to summon living storms.”
“Well…” Garth glanced up at the treant. “Maybe?” Garth wasn’t sure how a storm would be alive, but he wasn’t ruling anything out at this point. “Tomorrow though, after sparring.”
“Awesome.” Alicia gave a grin of childlike excitement before climbing under the mosquito net and burying herself under the covers, depositing her clothes at her feet.
“You coming?” she called, her form highlighted by the covers. For a moment, Garth almost said fuck it and slipped into bed.
“I want to check out the plants here some more,” he said, glancing around with narrowed eyes. “They’re insolent.” At least the one that’d tried to eat him.
“Boring old fossil.”
Alicia closed her eyes and went to sleep while Garth began investigating. Garth sat down on the bank of the acid swamp and picked a weed, a little scraggly bit of grass.
Garth’s spell rebounded off the grass like it was made of rubber. Magical rubber.
Curious, Garth made a wooden trowel using his own spores. That worked, no problem.
So it’s only native flora, like I thought. Does that extend to fauna as well? After a bit of hunting through the grass like an idiot under the watchful eyes of the bodyguards, Garth was able to find a beetle approximately the size of his thumb.
Garth tried to make it a little bigger, but once again, his mana rebounded as the beetle pushed back against it.
Garth put real effort into changing the beetle, pushing hard. After a minute of concentration, Garth was able to make the beetle a little bigger, after which it reverted to its previous size and shape in a matter of seconds.
Damn. Garth thought, sitting back in the mud, letting the beetle crawl into a nearby pile of sticks.
So what are we looking at here?
A: Creatures evolved magical defenses at some point.
B: Something is different about the planet or it’s people that causes my form of magic to affect it poorly.
C: It could be a planet-wide enchantment by the Dan-Ui clan to prevent asshats from stealing or destroying the habitat of their magic flower.
In any case it wasn’t that big of a problem. Garth carried his spores around with him wherever he went, so despite being unable to mess with the local flora, he was still doing fine.
The fancy bed he’d conjured was a case-in-point.
Speaking of fancy beds…
Garth swooped down into the queen-sized mattress precariously perched at the edge of the swamp while the others looked on in envy, scooting up behind Alicia’s refreshingly soft behind.
“I thought you wanted to play with your plants for the rest of the night.” She said with her eyes closed, a hint of a smile on her face.
“They lost my interest,” Garth said, “This on the other hand, this has my interest.”
He could figure out a test to tease out the exact reason for the local creatures being stubborn tomorrow.
Caitlyn couldn’t sleep. The air was unfamiliar, the pillows were lumpy, the sheets thick with uncomfortable, unnecessary embroidery, the temperature was hot. There were dozens of reasons not to be able to fall asleep, but chief among them was the thought that kept repeating in her mind.
I’m a hostage. Garth knew it too, he almost said as much out loud. Vicious relic.
They did not want her as a technical advisor, that was for sure. King Maren had thrust a fancy gown on her that night, one that necessitated leaving her teleportation badge and Status Band behind.
Now she didn’t know where either was, because they certainly weren’t in her room anymore. The Status band was easier to justify leaving, at her request it should have teleported back to her wrist from wherever it was being kept.
Caitlyn drew in and let out a tiny pulse of Space mana, rippling through the castle like strumming a string. Nothing.
Either they had a special room that could block teleportation, or they had destroyed her priceless artifact. Caitlyn was betting on the second one.
A wave of impotent rage rose inside her stomach at the loss. It had taken her a while, but after sitting and thinking it over for an hour or two, she’d finally pieced it together.
Maren’s son was with a madman, so he took one of the madman’s apprentices as a hostage. As long as the prince came back unharmed, she’d be fine.
Deliberately hobbling her by taking away her things was ominous, but not necessarily a bad plan. There was plausible deniability. Oh, the servants must have stolen them, they’re so untrustworthy. Here, let me execute this thief to calm your rage.
Caitlyn’s gaze turned toward the locked door. Barred from the outside, in case she was unclear about the kind of situation she was in.
Two can play at that game.
She reached up to her earring and pried it open, taking the Aether crystal stud and flipping it around on a hinge, setting it back in the Mythic core frame. The spellwork silently flared to life as the mana circuit was completed.
Suddenly, Caitlyn could see everything.
She may have taken a bit of Halo’s time for more clandestine projects…especially after Garth confiscated her spying tool.
This particular beauty could turn the transparency on every nonliving substance up to ninety percent, along with directional audio amplification, a HUD, recording for later, and a host of other quality of life enhancements she could think of, like making the floor stay opaque within four feet of her. It made it easier not to trip.
On the other side of the ghostly door, Caitlyn saw two orcs standing ramrod straight, leaning on nearly invisible polearms as they guarded her door. Since their clothes were nonliving, she could make out every detail of their green skin.
She had to stifle a giggle as she watched one of them scratch his ass. It was a nice ass.
Caitlyn stood and began scanning the room. Barred door with two guards who felt stronger than her, especially without her Status Band. We’ll call that plan B.
A cabinet full of tea paraphenelia, nothing behind it. A series of cabinets, bookshelves, recliner…nothing.
She continued, slowly scanning the room. Chair, wall, wall, naked midget staring at me.
Caitlyn nearly jumped in place and screamed before she could muscle the instinct down, continuing to pan her gaze across the ephemeral room.
The pale little man wasn’t actually naked, that was just her little spy earing showing her through the man’s clothes. He was staring at her, though, from an observing point on the other side of the wall.
Caitlyn turned and went for the bookshelf, picking a book at random and heading back to the recliner.
She wriggled into a comfortable position, held the book in front of her face, and began changing the settings on her earring, changing the opacity of the book in her hand until she could watch the watcher through it.
She made sure to flip the page every minute or two, while she studied the little man and the hidden door that gave him access to her room.
With some changes in the settings, she was able to locate the mechanism to open the door, a taut rope that was connected to a series of gears. She followed the rope buried in the wall with her eyes, strung all the way to the other side of the room, where it was connected to the chandelier, just out of her standing reach.
I hate being short.
She turned the page.
After around half an hour, the little spy turned away and crept silently over to the door, making Caitlyn’s heart stall in her chest.
Rather than open the secret door, however, he simply turned deeper into the castle’s walls, disappearing down a staircase.
Caitlyn leapt out of the seat, tucked the pillows into a human shape, set the book down beside it, and pulled her hair back into a tight pony-tail.
She created a simple blade of Force and chopped off the excess, tucking the fiery hair into the bed, where it peeked out to lend a bit of authenticity to her decoy.
Caitlyn stood next to the secret door, reached out with the spell and yanked on the distant chandelier.
The door popped open, and Caitlyn caught it to prevent it from squeaking, slipping into the dark tunnel.
Caitlyn’s body disappeared.
She’d originally found the spell sneaking into Garth’s room and snooping through his things, where she’d found a description of Greater Invisibility.
She’d been able to simplify and reverse engineer it a bit, giving her Invisibility, which was an applied illusion that created a small mirage centered around the self, forcing light to twist around. It was delicate, though, and had a tendency to break if the mental construct couldn’t compensate fast enough.
Greater Invisibility didn’t have that problem, but it was too complex for Caitlyn to learn at her current level.
Caitlyn closed the door behind her, raised the light sensitivity on her earing, then started stalking down the staircase as quietly as she could.
She was partway down when she spotted the glow of a candle as another small man ascended the stairs.
There was nowhere to duck off to the side, and the little man was surely going to be walking down the center of the staircase, leaving no room to squeeze by him.
He is short.
Caitlyn put her hands and feet on either side of the narrow staircase and lifted herself up, gluing her back to the ceiling.
The midget turned the corner, spilling light on the empty staircase where she’d been. He carried on without incident, his head inches away from brushing against a low hanging foot.
Once he was past, Caitlyn silently lowered herself to the ground and followed the stairs to the bottom. The room beyond was an empty study, and she crept out into it, smelling aging books.
Find my badge, escape to the Fertility. Find leverage, use that to assure my safety. Find a way out. Use it. If all else fails, return to the room after four hours.
This room she found herself in was the second most likely one to have her badge, as the spies could have simply deposited it in the cabinet or on the bookshelf after stealing it from the room above.
She scanned the room, adjusting transparency to see inside the cabinets and furniture. No such luck. She’d have to explore the castle proper.
Caitlyn reaffirmed her mission statement as she entered the hall a floor lower than her current prison, dialing the transparency up to see where all the people were on this floor.
The floor was relatively quiet. Cailtyn made out a dozen people sleeping, a couple having sex, one reading, one masturbating. In the far corner of the building was a man standing up, talking to the air.
Normally, Caitlyn might take a moment to peer in on these private moments, but she was in a rush.
She looked up, more of the same. Down too.
The servants had all called it a day, and the halls were quiet. All she needed to do now was find her property or find her way out.
Caitlyn turned the opacity up, giving her a better idea of walls and line of sight, while still being able to tell what the people were doing inside their rooms.
She began carefully inspecting the contents of the rooms to see if she could find her purloined teleportation badge. The most likely place was a vault of some kind, but she probably wouldn’t have much luck getting to it.
I need to add a feature that lets me make specific objects glow, Caitlyn thought as she contended with the uniform transparency of the walls, trying to adjust the range and intensity so she could see through the walls, but not through the rooms themselves. She was already running into the limitations of her toy.
After a few minutes she decided to ignore any room someone was sleeping in, as the servant’s quarters didn’t have anything of interest.
The Corio talking to air was in a much bigger room, though, pacing back and forth, his head turning to follow something as he nursed what looked like a glass of wine.
Cailtyn scanned the rest of the floor, and failing to see anything, decided to creep closer. Maybe something interesting was going on that she could capitalize on.
As she came closer, Caitlyn began to be able to see what the corio was talking to: a floating worm with tendrils extending outward.
That’s…What the hell is that? I want to hear what they’re saying.
Her earring began giving her sound captured straight from the air vibrations in the room.
“My lord doesn’t mean to offend,” The placating voice wasn’t from the pacing corio, and must have been from the worm.
Caitlyn frowned and changed the settings to ignore the wall in front of her, but not pierce any further.
“Of course he means to offend,” the corio snapped, his nudity gradually replaced with the blue and white robes of – Caitlyn stifled a gasp. The history books were filled with depictions of blue-horned men in robes exactly like that, coming down from the heavens to offer the scepter of rulership to The Founder.
The Dan Ui, Garth calls them.
The worm, though, was even stranger. As Caitlyn brought the opacity of non-living material back up, a body faded into view, a corio man that Caitlyn recognized as the blustery Kublem fellow with the hooked staff.
“I am the caretaker of this planet, and any notion to the contrary is ridiculous. Tell your lord I’ll see him at once. Better yet, tell me where he is and he’ll see me right now.
“The loss of Culdavera has been a national tragedy, and taken a great toll on its leadership… Perhaps our honored guest could wait until morning?”
The Dan Ui member lashed out and clamped a hand around Kublem’s neck, forcing the little corio off his feet.
“Listen to me, you little shit, Elder Nayeba has divined a being of catastrophic significance has touched down on this planet, and your little mountain is just the start. I’ve got eleven other world leaders to get to today before I’m done, so where. Is. He?”
The choking corio let out a grin and began to melt around the Dan-Ui’s hand.
The man let out a shout and tried to pull his hand away, but it was stuck fast. A fraction of a second later, the clan member coated his palm with a force blade and decisively cut off his own hand, barely avoiding a bloody, gnashing ribcage that aimed to capture him.
“It’s you,” the corio whispered, stemming the bleeding with a white light from his good hand.
“It’s me.” The corio’s chest cavity said as the smiling head tilted back.
I think now is a good time to go, Caitlyn thought, turning to leave with all haste. At this point she’d rather take her chances jumping out the window and disappearing into the city.
The door crashed open, and the Dan Ui member sprinted down the hall at top speed, like a man who hadn’t had his arm chopped off.
Unfortunately, Caitlyn was still invisible, and the Corio crashed into her with a staggering amount of force, toppling to the ground.
The corio was starting to float into the air when a massive…thing dropped down from the ceiling, pinning him to the floor.
“Hel-“ the amorphous thing slapped a pseudopod over the corio’s mouth.
“Shhh,” it said with audible sadistic glee. “People are trying to sleep.”
The Dan-Ui member thrashed, and summoned mana to himself, but it was all torn to shreds by the waves of power rolling off the creature. It’s pseudopod turned into thin tentacles that began to drill their way beneath the Corio’s skin.
“I’ll have to get rid of Kublem, but I think the caretaker of the entire planet is a nice catch, don’t you?”
The creature had a blunt face, almost lizardlike, with a row of saw teeth peeled back in a grin. It had two enormous nostrils that sucked in the air, expanding and contracting as it breathed.
“Speaking of nice catches…” It said, it’s nostrils expanding as it breathed in with a shudder. “I never expected to find my favorite food on this planet. Spying on me.”
Caitlyn looked down. The collision had revealed her.
She tried to get her feet under her, but another creature leapt out of the first one’s back and was on her before she could blink, peering into her eyes.
“Wait,” Caitlyn tried to beg for her life, but it stopped her.
“Shhh, I’m kinda trying to maintain a low profile here,” it said, clapping a bloody hand over her mouth.
she tried to move, to thrash, to summon mana toward her, but she was just as helpless as the twitching corio.
“Wait a minute.” The creature muttered taking a deep sniff of her hair.
“You smell like…”
The creature peered down at her with a golden eye. “Are you Garth’s apprentice? Nod for yes, shake your head for no.”
“Aww, man, I knew it. My favorite food practically delivers itself to me, and it’s got my brother’s name on it. Do you know how hard it is not to raid the fridge? Ah well, according to the unwritten rules of clone etiquette, I’ve gotta let you go…unless you want me to eat you?
Caitlyn shook her head vigorously.
“Fine,” the monster said sulkily, taking its hands off her and prowling back over to the shivering Corio corpse that was beginning to move of its own accord.
“You should avoid parading that delicious meat around me, though,” The monster said as it climbed the wall, disappearing into the darkness of the high ceiling, hauling the Dan Ui member with him.
“I have poor self-control.”
Garth’s eyes snapped open to the shouting of a dozen men and the rumbling of the earth. Outside his mosquito net, Garth saw where the rumbling was coming from: Woody was pulverizing giant carnivorous beetles the size of Volkwagons as they slowly shoved their way through Garth’s warding spell.
“Surge started,” Alicia said as she jumped out the other side of the bed, wielding the wand he’d made for her and wearing a feral grin.
Garth yawned and slipped off the side of the bed, putting his slippers on and wiggling his toes.
He wasn’t in a hurry.