It was a bit of a shame to crush the pretty white flowers in the process of making the tea, but one did what one must.
“So what should I expect?” Garth asked, blowing on the hot steam coming out of his cup.
“Expectations are rarely helpful. Just focus on staying relaxed and enjoying yourself.” Hurk said, still flipping through Garth’s grimoire.
“I still can’t believe you’re a tier two.” Maren said, watching him with narrowed eyes.
“Tiers are bullshit.” Garth said taking a deep drink. The tea had a half dozen other ingredients that combined to make a green slurry that tasted like industrial runoff, in addition to a couple extra ingredients Garth had designed to suppress his super-liver. Garth finished the entire cup and slammed it down before grinning at Maren.
The young shinta’s wound weren’t incapacitating, so Garth had decided to let him live with the bruises. Alicia had some wounds that seems like they might get infected, so he’d patched her up, and she was currently studying the parts of Hurk’s book that had to do with the weather of the Great Swamp while convalescing
Garth had kinda skimmed over them, but Alicia seemed pretty interested in making poison clouds. Wonder if Gorn would be cool with that.
“So, how long does this stuff take to hit?” Garth asked.
“Five, four three..” Garth’s eyebrows went up.
“Kidding,” Hurk said. “It’s like any other edible, it’ll take half an hour or more to hit.”
“Guess that makes sense.”
“Why am I not taking my share?” Maren asked, the prince eyeing the empty teapot coated with scum.
“Because,” Hurk said, flipping the page. “We don’t want more than one drugged-out-of-their-mind cultivator at once. It’s best to have plenty of hands on deck for each breakthrough.”
“Wizard.” Garth said, suppressing a weird chemical-flavored burp.
Garth sat back and returned to his thoughts, relaxing while he waited for the drugs to work their magic. They sat like that for a while before he started chatting with whoever was listening.
“I wonder if I could ever get a crack at designing a class. If I could really figure out what the guts of those imprinters look like I might be able to make something a lot better. A real wizard class. None of this archmage stuff.”
“The Golba still have a few left from when the Spheres came.”
“Nah,” Garth said, waving it off. “I wouldn’t wanna break one of your Imprinters.”
“That was not on offer.” Hurk said, eyeing him over the book. “I just want to be clear about that.”
“Anyway, Class imprints have been a subject of fascination for a while,” Garth said. “I mean, the gods can do them. is the Imprinter a machine that imprints classes on its own, or is it like an automagical voice-mail system for the gods to stamp people with prefabs?”
“You’re getting hard to understand,” Hurk said, “I think it might be kicking in.”
“Nah,” Garth said, squinting at Hurk as his chair slowly slid backwards in the gently swaying house.
“And another thing. Divine mana. What’s up with that? The gods having their own personal bundle of mana that they can loan out, and it’s completely immune to Lanterns and manipulation? How does that work? As far as I know, Mana is in the environment, right? and you draw it in, shape it, then use it. But a god has to like, have a reservoir of mana that’s…bound to them…or maybe it is them?”
Garth blinked, glancing down at the floor.
There was a knot in the floor, a simple piece of the wood that had popped out at some point during the lifetime of the little cabin they were sheltering in. It was a pitch black hole in the floor.
Garth stopped wiggling in place and really stared at the hole. It seemed to be getting bigger.
“Are you guys seeing this?” Garth asked. No one worth mentioning responded.
The hole kept widening, bigger and bigger, until it engulfed everything that Garth could see, and everything around him was pitch black.
“Whoah,” Garth said, looking around. It was a lot like the black space where gods offered patronage, but no chairs, no tables, or nothin’.
In the sides of his vision, he caught little snippets of movement, like other people moving around him, but not quite visible enough to make out. Every time he tried to turn his head, he just missed them.
As a matter of fact, I can’t turn my head! Garth tried, but his head was locked in place, and the flickers on either side of him started coming faster and faster.
Am I moving?
Garth’s suspicions were confirmed when a dot of light in front of him began rapidly expanding. He was on some kind of roller coaster, his shoulders strapped in for the ride!
“Is that normal?” Alicia asked as Garth lowered himself onto a knothole in the floor, groaning incoherently while peering into it.
Hurk looked away from experimenting with a bit of kudzu in his hand, glancing at the prostrate purple man gently pawing at the rough wood of the floor.
The tiny dot of light slowly grew, revealing white clouds and blue sky, until he exploded out of the black tunnel into a strange townscape. Garth wouldn’t call it a city-scape, as it was the small town he’d lived in prior to the end of the world.
Mostly. There were a few differences here and there.
The pizza hut was shining with a beatific light, and the entire building was…crispy?
The roads were shittier. They’d gotten a new pave just the day before the invasion, so that wasn’t how Garth remembered them.
Waste of tax dollars. Should have known the end of the world was coming.
Garth reached down and unfastened the harness over his shoulders and stepped out of the roller coaster, which vanished behind him.
“This is what, a week before the Kipling?” Garth muttered to himself.
He glanced around. “I thought my internal space would be zanier, full of odd non-sequitars, and definitely more filled with repressed sexual desires. Cuz I got plenty of those.”
The sky above him began to warp, turning an ugly red, feeling like it was about to snap.
“But this is fine.” Garth said, holding up a hand and trying to calm whoever was watching. Himself, maybe? Expectations were what shaped this reality, and Garth had decided to expect things to be simple.
Even though they usually aren’t
The world wobbled again for a dangerous instant, and Garth took a deep, calming breath.
Garth cleared his throat and looked around. People he vaguely remembered were going about their business, fading in and out of his muddy awareness, and he couldn’t read a damn thing, all the signs on the walls and dime store buildings kept shifting and changing under scrutiny.
“A dream then. Not actually back in time. Probably.”
Garth shrugged. Only one way to be sure.
Whistling, Garth headed down the street, joining the sparse foot traffic as a huge blimp shaped like Sandi flew overhead, her nudity mostly covered by an advertisement for raisin-bran.
Garth hoofed it to a phone on the side of the drab town police building. He fished out a small handful of skeeball tokens and jammed them into the coin slot until he got a dial tone.
Garth glanced at the number pad whose numbers seemed to shift and rearrange under his scrutiny.
“Pathetic.” Garth grumbled as he jammed the keypad through muscle memory, not even bothering to look at the numbers. He knew who he was calling, and it wasn’t a series of numbers, it was a feeling…an intent.
The phone rang a couple times, then there was a half-heard click, followed by a woman’s voice.
“Hey Nat,” Garth said.
“Yeah, It’s me. You still have that grandpa with the veritable armory and the cabin out in the middle of nowhere?”
“Yeah, what are you…”
“Well, you better get there quick, because if I get to you first, I’m going to cut your fucking head off. I know where you live, you bitch.”
Garth slammed the phone down.
“Well, that’s my good deed for this particular acid trip,” Garth said, stepping out onto the street comprised of wiggling eels. If Natalie was over at her geriatric, gun-hoarding grandfather’s during the apocalypse, her chances are vastly improved…probably.
Garth wanted to avoid the stupid movie-cliché where he desperately tried to convince her the end was coming, and she ignored him. Easier and more effective to threaten her life.
“Hmm…” Garth said, inspecting the brown things wiggling under his feet. “I shouldn’t take any more detours. This..whatever the hell it is, is getting weirder.”
The phone behind him rang.
Garth didn’t exactly have a plan for getting in touch with his soul, so answering a ringing phone was as good a choice as any. Garth walked back up to it and lifted the receiver up to his ear.
“Hello again Garth, have you ever heard of the term Soul-Death?” Garth felt cold air roll off the phone, dripping down onto his shoulder.
“Oh hey, it’s the shadowy cunt who puppeted my brother for most of a millennia. Do me a favor and off yourself in the most humiliating way possible. Save me a trip. Thanks, pumpkin.”
“Sorry. Can’t. The Hildaven in your system is used for the third tier breakthrough because it weakens the barriers between the soul and the mind, which leaves room for-“
Garth hung up. The eels were starting to encroach, and whoever was on the other end was buying time. The longer he chatted with the asshole, the worse his chances of getting out alive.
“Time to find my center!” Garth said, sprinting out onto the road, too fast for the eels to get a hold of him.
Garth was laying on his side, his legs twitching like a sleeping dog’s. He was drooling onto the floor as he dreamt about running.
To something, or away from something? Alicia thought, eying the ancient phytomage. Every once in a while she had a sudden feeling of dread when she looked at him, reinforced by a lifetime of stories that described him as pure, treacherous, evil. The source of humanity’s sins.
But seeing him twitching on the ground, Alicia had to suppress a giggle. There was no way that was anything more than a man blundering his way through life. A powerful man, maybe, but just a man.
Garth let out a groan and started humping the air.
“I didn’t want to see that,” Maren said, rolling his eyes and turning away.
“Here,” Alicia said, rolling Garth onto his belly and putting a pillow under him. Garth swiftly began ravishing the pillow in a way that made Alicia tingle…just a little bit. She could identify with the pillow, that was for sure.
“s’ a trick,” Garth groaned “Yer na her!”
“Is humping inanimate objects normal?” Alicia asked.
“Depends on the person, but…Yep.” Hurk said, seemingly bored.
“Tell me where it is or I’ll pull out, trickster!” Garth shouted, strangely clearly. His arm raised and came down on the floor in a clear spank.
“Is he…” Maren said.
“Fucking an answer out of his spirit guide?” Hurk said, turning the page. “Yep.”
“I’m not sure I want to take the Hildaven now.” Maren said, frowning.
“What? It’s an afternoon of behaving like an idiot in exchange for skipping a lifetime of meditation. What’s the problem?” Hurk asked.
“The problem is –“
The entire house rocked, making wooden cups clatter against each other, dried herbs rustle, and the floor squeak. Their gaze flicked down to the phytomagus on the floor, who seemed to be back to running, his arms and legs twitching.
“’s comin, ‘s comin, ‘s comin!”
The entire house rocked again, shuddering more violently this time.
“That wasn’t him,” Hurk said, standing, his eyes wide with alarm. The wide green man put his palm on the floor and Alicia saw him channel a pulse of mana through the floor.
“It’s an eruption of Meltoks, right beneath us.” Hurk said, his jaw dropping.
“What the hell are Meltoks-“
“No time, Grab your master and get clear!” Hurk said, picking up the two books and running out the door.
Maren was right behind him, the princeling free of any unconscious bodied.
“Damn,” Alicia muttered, hoisting Garth over her shoulder and sprinting for the exit.
The floor swelled up beneath her before the boards between her and the door exploded outward, followed by a flood of gnashing teeth.
***848 years ago***
Natalie lurched out of bed, gasping.
“Huh?” Garth grunted turning his head to face her in the soft blue of the night-light.
“I just had a dream.” Natalie jabbed him in the ribs. “You threatened to cut my head off if I didn’t go over to my grandpa’s house.”
“That’s fuckin’ weird.” Garth said, rolling over and going back to sleep.