Chapter 215: The Surge
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Maren’s fist plowed through a chitinous face, coving the cultivator to the elbow in gore.

“Heaven’s falling Strike!” he shouted, pulling a quick flip and crashing his heel down on another beetle, ending its life as his foot went through its central nervous system.

“Did he just scream out the name of his attack?” Garth muttered as he fixed himself a juicy, caffeine-laced fruit for breakfast, squeezing it into a mug as he blinked the sand out of his eyes. Followed by a bit of magically generated pop-rocks, and Garth had a somewhat fizzy drink to wake up.

He knocked the delicious brew back while the twelve bodyguards leapt into action, destroying the overwhelming numbers of beetles with relative ease.

In some misguided attempt to compete with Maren, Alicia started naming her attacks.

“Sky’s fury!” she shouted, casting a regular old Lightning Bolt on one of the bugs.

I need to teach her Recursive spell techniques so she can cast chain lighting, Garth made a mental note, reaching into his pocket and hitting her clicker right on the red X.

No apprentice of mine is gonna shout out fancy names while they attack.

Alicia gasped as she was hit by a sudden wave of anxiety that was gone as quickly as it came. Her brain looked around for a reason, and settled on embarrassment. She blushed and went back to fighting, thankfully without trying to impress her rival with cool names.

The fighting style of the native population was largely physical, dispatching the creatures with fists, feet, hammers and blades. There was even a second tier archer who used condensed mana for arrows, just a hop skip and a jump away from being a wizard.

Garth took another drink, watching his apprentice work.

Alicia’s skill has grown tangibly in the last couple days just from having a rival. I had thought Caitlyn and Alicia could be each other’s foils, but the girls are just interested in different things.

What would a rival for Caitlyn look like? Me, maybe?

Garth did share a certain taste for building things and a lack of respect for people’s privacy. Only problem was it would take her years to catch up.

Maybe not, after she got to third tier.

“You’re doing great,” Garth said, giving Alicia a thumbs-up as he sipped on his lumpy, bubbling breakfast.

Did I leave my pants under the covers or did they slide off into the mud? Garth thought as he inspected the ground around his slippered feet.

One of the beetles slid between Woody’s fists, smashed through the queen-sized bed behind him and latched its slicing mandibles onto Garth’s neck.

“Ack!” Garth was suddenly lifted off his feet, feeling the creature’s razor sharp mouth-bits slide through his toughened skin and scrape against his strengthened bone. The bio-armored veins and windpipe squished out of the way. All in all, Garth only sustaining minor damage to the meat of his neck.

Now that I think of it, how much does Alicia know about me being immortal…ish? It was just Caitlyn who’d seen the tree in action, right?

The bug thrashed him violently from side to side before it slammed him down to the ground in a rough sideways plow, trying ineffectively to bite off his head.

Garth almost spilled his drink.

“Garth!” tremendous a bolt of lightning vaporized the creature’s face, forcing it to let go of him as it died.

Alicia landed beside him in a panic, turning Garth’s limp body over on its back.

“Garth! Oh, Kolath!” she recoiled from the massive cuts on either side of his neck, and the blood slowly oozing out of the wounds. On a normal human, a double neck wound that deep was pretty lethal.

“Alicia,” Garth rasped.

“Yes?”

“My last request…”

“No, you’re not gonna die. I’ll get the Rod of Love. You’re gonna be okay.”

“It’s too late for that now,” Garth said, stopping her hand as she reached for his Status Band. “You’ve gotta promise me something.”

“What?”

“Promise me!”

“Anything!” She said, tears forming in her eyes.

“Sit on my face.”

****

“You promised to sit on my face, not burn it off.”

“I can do both,” Alicia said with a shrug as Garth peeled away carbonized skin from his face. His teeth were cracked, so he’d have to pull them to make room for new ones, and it might take all day for his lips to come back with all the cauterized flesh around.

Some people just couldn’t handle practical jokes.

“Gimme some sugar baby.” Garth said, clacking his charred teeth together as flesh slowly regrew on his skull. That Gorn mana must give it some serious anti-regeneration abilities.

“Garth, why didn’t you – holy Hajiira!” Maren said as he came face to face with a skull with blackened flesh and two perfectly good eyeballs staring at him.

“What?” Garth asked, his words slightly messed up from lack of lips.

“Umm…the Surge has begun. The Hildaven flower should be blooming for the next twenty-four hours. We’re going to leave camp here and begin searching the swamp in earnest. We don’t have time to pack up. We’ll meet back here in about twenty hours then make a dash for the city with everyone who’s left.”

“Right. Apprentice.” Garth turned to Alicia.

“Yeah?”

She didn’t need a reason to compete, but it would be fun.

“If you get more Hildaven flowers than Maren, I’ll teach you how to make lightning that makes little babies that seek out their own targets. If you fail, I’ll punish you with A.P. Lit.”

Without waiting for any further input, Alicia paled and dashed away, leaving them behind in the forest alive with spawning monsters.

Garth cleared his throat. “A.P. Lit it is.” He turned to face Maren. “What does the Hildaven flower look like and where does it grow?” Learn to ask questions, padawan.

“It’s a white flower with yellow and brown streaks, about the size of my palm.” Maren said, holding out his palm. “It creates a shimmering gold field with its pollen that keeps out everything except for its Guardian beast.”

“That sounds important.”

“Every Hildaven flower comes with a Guardian beast to protect it.”

“That sounds contrived.” Garth said.

“It wasn’t like that eight hundred years ago, I hear.” Maren said with a shrug. “Guardian beasts just started showing up. Only a few at first, but then more and more. The death toll from gathering Hildaven slowly rose, until today.”

That’s weird. Did the Dan-Ui put the Guardians in place to prevent over-picking or what? Everything about that screams artificial…

“Thanks, I’ll see you guys in twenty hours.”

“I know you’re strong, Garth, but are you sure you want you and your apprentice to be out there by yourselves? It’s dangerous out there, and the Hildaven flowers are treacherous.”

“Adversity builds character.”

Garth lifted himself into the air and took off, heading west south west, cruising through the swamp at full speed, landscape teeming with writhing beetles sliding by underneath him.

After about three hours of straight flight, Garth came across a strange depression of land, where the swamp water poured down like a miniature Niagra falls. No matter how long Garth watched it, the water level in the depression didn’t seem to rise, leaving the solitary island in the center dry.

It was then he noticed the faint golden shimmer of pollen on the air.

This seems like a trap, Garth thought to himself as he flew toward the island.

You don’t find flowers on the center of an island perfectly situated in some kind of fountain, you find them growing on the side of a random stand of trees, half-hidden from the road by a leaning log.

As Garth approached, he spotted a Hildaven flower growing from a brown vine wrapped around a stump in the center of the island.

Like a goddamn sword in the stone. There was obviously some kind of intelligence behind the placement.

Garth landed next to it, eyeing the flower. It kinda looked like a Lily, with big petals that curled away from the central style.

“Okaay, you’ve lured me into your trap. Let’s do this thing.” Garth called out, looking around.

A fifty-foot ugly brown snake burst out of the murky water, glaring down at him from above.

“Hello there,” Garth said, hands in his pockets. “I don’t suppose I could talk to whoever built this obvious deathtrap?”

It hissed at him, drawing in red mana and mixing it with the harsh sound on the way out.

Wait, red means –

Before Garth could finish his thought, his mind was overwhelmed by sheer panic, an emotion he hadn’t tasted in the better part of eight hundred years.

I’ve never seen something that big, I need to get out of here right now! Garth thought, turning on his heel and running for the water, making a spectacular jump before landing in the waist-deep water, which began to eat away at his legs.

Red means mind control.

Garth’s heart slammed twice in his chest before it began to slow. He did a quick scan of his mind, and didn’t find any staples or constructs messing with his head.

The red mana wasn’t establishing any sort of long term control, it was just reaching directly into his amygdala to instill temporary panic, enough to make him…

Garth looked down at his legs bubbling under the acid concentrated by the waterfall.

Do something really stupid.

The snake was already coming for him. Its gigantic coils made the entire circle of water ripple, causing Garth to stumble as one of the creature’s coils he was standing on moved from under his feet.

Seems like a good time to fly away and re-consider stepping into an obvious trap.

Garth slipped the fly spell around himself and shot out of the acid, hurtling into the air.

I think I’ll come back later and rain a wooden missile salvo down on the big bastard. That’ll teach him.

Mana condensed around the Lily atop the stump before bursting forward and shredding Garth’s Fly spell to shreds. One second he was hurtling up, in a controlled ascent. The next, Garth’s limbs were flailing as he drew a perfect arc through the air, toward the giant snake’s open maw.

Huh, it’s got esophageal teeth, Garth’s brain had a stray thought as he fell toward the ravenous maw.

Garth formed a Lantern in his left hand, snapping into place as a sphere of muted color around him. The vine’s attempt to disrupt his casting was torn apart and added to the shining golf-ball in his left hand.

Garth wrapped himself in another Fly, pulling away from the teeth, but not before leaving a little present.

Fusilade.

Garth created a wooden missile with enough oomph to blow the snake’s head clean off, aiming it straight at the creature’s open mouth.

A nearly nonsensical gust of haphazard-looking space mana erupted from the vine, warping space in a wave that intersected with the simple firework.

Garth blinked twice as he saw the snake distort around the missile as space folded, making a straight line meaningless. The missile veered off and blew up a distant tree with a concussive detonation.

I gotta get my Lantern in range of that fuckin’ flower.

As soon as he had that thought, the snake charged, aiming to force him away from its ward.

“I don’t suppose – Garth grunted as the snake slammed into his wooden shield, nearly gagging on the piece of ironwood.

“You’d be willing to talk this out,” Garth said, prompting spikes to grow from the shield.

The snake threw its head to the side, dislodging the shield before it could do any damage.

“I just want to eat your unborn children.”

Wow, it sounds kinda evil when I say it like that.

“Nothing?” Garth asked as the snake glared at him. It hissed again, the red mana torn apart and added to his Lantern

There’s a bit of a problem using just enough force to kill the snake, without damaging the flower…and how the fuck does it know how to counterspell?

A fraction of a second later, a giant tail swept down from behind him, cracking Garth on the crown of his skull and sending his body hurtling down into the concentrated acid.

Garth’s Lantern popped out of existence like a bulb burning out when he hit the water hard enough to create a crater around himself. His skin began to bubble violently as the acid flooded back in.

Before Garth could get his feet under him or recreate his Lantern, his whole body was wrapped in a wall of muscle and forced to the bottom of the water.

Dick move.

Then Garth Felt a Lantern wash over him, sucking away all the mana around him.

Okay, that’s it.

Garth let out a furious bubble of effort as he shifted his arm up to his shoulder and tapped his badge.

The doodle was muffled by the water, but he heard it.

Beam me up, Bel!

Captain, with you in such close proximity with a living creature, it’s hard to lock on to your signal. If we try now, we may experience a catastrophic transporter accident, resulting in your death.

I told you to say that for dramatic effect in case I was ever wrestling a lizard creature, but seriously, teleport me now, this thing’s squeezing the purple outta me!

Fiiine.

Garth made a desperate bid to regain control of the mana around himself, trying to wrestle it away from whatever had him in a magic-free zone. He felt the tiniest shift in the air as electricity began to sizzle around him.

The battery inside the badge discharged, hauling Garth into space.

Along with his snake.

Did the flower or whoever was responsible, add the snake to my teleport?

Concentrated acid spilled out of the transporters, sending smoke rising from every surface as it began eating away at the platform.

The snake that had stubbornly followed Garth through space continued mindlessly tightening around him.

He took the opportunity to grab some mana from the environment and created poisonous thorns that erupted out from the spores across his skin.

The snake hissed and released him, it’s mind-altering sound sending the spectators running in fear, all except for Garth.

“Not so tough without your cockamamie flower, are ya?” Garth said, funneling mana inward.

Fusillade

A hundred arrows the size of full grown bamboo leapt forward under their own power, filling the transporter room with even more smoke as they perforating the giant snake, pinning it to the wall.

The giant snake struggled weakly for a moment before it died.

Garth panted as he eyed the monstrosity, then cast his gaze around the room.

Acid had etched the transporter pad, which was fine, because it was a decorative layer over the actual guts of the transporter. The neatly trimmed grass around the transporter had been blackened by acid, and smoke clouded the air.

Bell was at the transport station, her eyes wide, hand held over the button, frozen in terror. The people of the tribe who’d been in the room were standing at the exit, peering in.

Halo gave him a ‘okay’ emoji.

Garth cleared his throat and glanced at the giant snake oozing blood onto the grass, then the deep pits in the teleporter’s façade, and finally the burned grass. “I expect this all to be cleaned up by the time I get back.”

Bel shook herself out of her stupor. “Boo!” she threw an acorn at him.

“Teleport me back a hundred feet above..

Wait, poison mist. Goddamn.

“Scratch that, teleport me back twenty feet above where you got me, and a hundred feet to the south.”

Should be plenty to avoid whoever’s Lantern was fucking with me.

“You bring nothing but trouble.” Bell said with a sigh.

“I gave you life!” Garth shouted, pointing at Bell before she gave him a mischievous grin and hit the button.

Garth reappeared in midair in an unfamiliar part of the swamp.

He caught himself with Fly, then cast his gaze around until he relocated the shallow depression hosting his flower.

“Alright,” Garth said, creating a Lantern in his left fist. “Let’s see what you got, flower.”

Geez, I sure hope Alicia’s still alive.

Garth approached the flower and was shocked to discover a light at the center of the bulb, where the all the mana in the shallow depression was gathering.

That plant made a Lantern.

That plant made a Lantern.

I don’t know if I should congratulate it, or brew it into a tea.

It wasn’t a great lantern, as Garth flew in close, his began gobbling up the flower’s with minimal ground lightning, which would be present if the struggle was intense.

Garth landed and leaned in close and studied the flower that was even then trying to mass mana toward itself. Garth had made plants with magical effects, but Garth always assumed creating a Lantern required a thinking being.

There was a time when people thought building a car required a thinking being, then came the first fully automated factories.

Or the flower might just be a thinking creature.

It had counterspelled him, twice.

“Hello?” Garth said, giving the flower a nudge, noting the tiny cloud of golden spores that rose from it at his touch. He squatted low and began studying the thing.

“Are you alive?” Garth whispered before tilting his head, putting his eyeball less than an inch away from the pale petals, watching for some kind of sign.

“Can you understand me?”

“It cannot, but we can.” Came a deep voice from behind him. Garth peered over his shoulder and saw that the depression he knelt in was surrounded by little green men.

Not goblin little green… more like rhino. They were much wider than they were long, with a single horn jutting out above their nose. Three feet tall linebackers with rhino horns. They were wearing a strange combination of leather and chiton, their exposed skin was covered in scars, and all their staves seemed to be made of living wood.

“Huh.” Garth stood and examined the creatures.

“Are you the ones responsible for all of this?” Garth motioned at the flower and the swamp in general.

“We are,” one of the ones with the fanciest wooden staff said, eyeing Garth with a murderous scowl.

“I know it makes me sound like an entitled jackass,” Garth said, “But how much do I have to pay you for three blooms and to teach me your tricks?”

Enjoy!

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