This cover was illustrated by the author.
☆This is an Original Sketchbook Story.
The inside of the cavern, surprisingly, smelled quite a bit better than the outside. Maybe it was the swamp above and it’s bubbling gaseous pools of stagnant water, or maybe it was the cave’s glowing curtains of fungal frills. Either the awful smell was to blame, or the floral one. Or maybe even both smells made the difference so noticeable that they were equally to blame.
Either way, I’d never walked into a cave which smelled of nectar and honey and fruit before. Especially a cave in which a dozen people had died in a month’s time. Typically those caves had a distinct decay scent. Death and rot, that sort of thing.
I prodded the fungal curtains and their vibrant—nearly luminescent—red frills with my saber. A soft dust fluttered from their edges. I took a light whiff.
The scent was indeed strong, and came directly from the fungus. Like shaking a blanket of dust or mud, the fungus spores rattled free with my touch.
My eyes watered. My lips moistened. My nostrils flared.
The spores caused irritation. The sensations, not unlike eating too much of a spicy meal, increased steadily the more I breathed in. My eyelashes flared up. Each time I opened my eyes it felt as though my eyelids were fighting through the air.
Could sorcery oppose this reaction? The fungus was poison, that was for sure. The powers from which my sorcery was based had multiple types rooted in categorizing physical matter. Essence engulfed most of this—Root being flora, Tear being water, Flame fire, and so on and so forth. But those were simply major categories. Everything which existed could have its own “Essence,” from which my sorcery could be derived. I merely had to study the source.
Perhaps I could use sorcery to try and block the release of these spores.
Before I gave that a go. . .
I pivoted out of the way. A massive black and red head pounced through the dark of the cave’s crimson curtains with open maw. The fungus curtains were shredded, sending even more of the spores into the already-saturated air.
Saber already drawn, I slid beneath the beast’s head and slashed at his thick neck.
His underbelly skin was tough as stone. I left a small scratch against his under-scales. He screeched and slithered back into the dark several meters, raising his head above me.
Four blazing red eyes, a wide maw fanged in four, frills of black stems which grew the red fungus, and blaring nostrils pumped the poison air into his lungs.
So this beast lived symbiotically from the fungus?
Or perhaps the fungus grew from the creature itself? Like a tarantula to her webbed burrow, this entire cave had become a feeding trap to this alien beast.
Porbiyo would have loved it.
But he wasn’t there, and this animal had slaughtered a dozen civilians in the next town.
Despite its fascinating biology, it was a danger to countless people. Unsure if I could move it or wrangle it to a new location—and completely unsure as to if that would help or not—I’d have to kill the predator myself.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the beast, backing its neck into the dark and preparing to strike.
The spice in the air tickled my eyes again. In the moment between the beast’s charged retreat and her strike, I Channeled the Essence of the fungal spores into my Aura. Just as I used physics for Force, and plant matter to Channel Root, I used my Aura to engulf the sensations and properties of the spores as they entered my gut and airway.
When I was young, this used to be difficult, as a meadow mouse playing with acorns and seedpods and wheatgrass stalks. But I’d spent years mastering these techniques. Years, over many worlds, playing with a variety of sources. Now, performing this task was second nature.
I coughed and choked, and wiped my eyes. Inhaling the fungus ground at my windpipe.
The beast pounced.
I dropped my blade and shot my hands forward, imagining my paws pushing the beast back. A great crimson luminescence enhanced the cave’s already-red light. My eyes burned green—then red—with Root sorcery, my palms gleamed, too.
From my fingers unleashed a flower of the fungus in the shape of two giant paws. The structure erupted forth and smacked the beast’s face during his lunge. My sorcery formed a wall between me and the rest of the cave. I ended the sorcery—whose wall remained after my finishing—and began charging a round of stonefire in my gut.
The scorching cold sensation of stonefire grizzled at my Aura and organs.
The creature sliced at the wall, ultimately breaking through.
As it broke through the wall, I unleashed my stonefire. The molten liquid sorcery smothered the red light in blue and orange streaks. As my sorcery solidified, the creature was as well—the sheer change from scalding hot to chilling cold turned her flesh to concrete beneath a veil of molten magic.
Behind the creature, most of the cave behind the fungal curtains remained untouched. I dove into the depths, searching for the remains of the murdered townsfolk. With each step I found myself in more admiration of this being and its incredible fungal creations. On the walk down, I practiced blooming more of the red fungus from my palms. I tucked a smash staff of the blooms in my Boundless Bag as an Essence reserve.
Keeping sources of Essence was a handy way to keep a strong sense of what any given sorcery could feel like. Without a gauge, sometimes old sorceries could go quite wrong. You create the wrong structures or misinterpret the biological makeup of a given attempt.
With a box of samples, that was unlikely. And over time, this red fungus would become another instinctive sorcery in my arsenal.
The cave was deep, labyrinthian, and unforgiving. If I were a human, the task of crawling into its depth would have been near impossible without equipment. Luckily I’m not human. I was built to crawl and jump.
Finally the red fungus came to a tapered end, with the blue walls of the cavern glowing beside an even brighter blue fungus. The blue stalks extended over the walls of an oval chamber, in which sitting water stirred from the trickling of dew from a small crack in the ground above. The cave was alight by the reflection of this thin sunlight stream. Everything was quiet.
Except, it wasn’t quiet.
Along with the humming of the water’s drops came the drowning stagnant sound of actual humming. And on a small island, in the midst of the cave, I saw eggs. Large shells as tall as my forearm is long.
The eggs sang to each other. A faint sound, I’ll admit. But they sang nonetheless. A calling, of sorts, from kin to kin. They would hatch soon.
I stepped down into the blue section. In the reflection of the water, I saw the bodies. Perfectly preserved in the pool lie the dozen killed by the adult creature. I knew that behavior. They were food for it’s children. Preserved and ready so that when they hatched, they could feed for weeks without ever having to leave the nest.
Despite its killing people, I sensed a tinge of pain and guilt for killing the adult. I grew up on the forest floor, amongst animals and beasts. Nature was a cruel law. I’d been born into that law. Despite us mice having powerful minds gifted to us by sorcerers, we still built our civilization in the wilderness. We still witnessed nature in all her vicious light.
I’d robbed these babies of their mother. No matter what the mother killed, it did not target sapient creatures specifically. These woods were colonized by humanoids and harvested for cropland. The herd animals that once populated these lands were long gone.
To feed its children, the predator had to kill people.
There was nothing right or wrong there. Simply, law.
A part of me couldn’t leave those eggs alone. But something felt so wrong about allowing them to gestate fully then eat those corpses. Disrespectful, in a way. I’d come to return those bodies to their families. I would do that. But I would save these babies, too.
I just needed a little help.
I’d meditated half a day. Eyes closed, breathing steady, mind focused. To call upon another Agglomerate rarely took this long. Porbiyo and I were quite synchronized. When one needed the other, our souls pulled us together. Threshold and I were nearing this stage of connection as well. Bigklau and Yizzimis, even, could come with enough of a focus.
But this particular little friend would be. . . harder.
I opened my eyes, ready to give up. Porbiyo was with me, calling all the same, though he was reluctant at first.
“But you can’t help them,” I said to him, hours earlier. “You copy souls, you don’t capture them.”
“Well, I could,” he shook his head, “but that could complicate things.” Then, he reluctantly sat beside me, closed his eyes, and starting calling upon the one Agglomerate who dealt with unhatched embryos.
When I finally opened my eyes after all that time, I looked around the cave and found six baby creatures all huddled in the middle of the pond. Sitting between them was a single, wrinkly, elderly-faced egg person.
She waved stubby arms and was plopped on her little legs.
I waved, confused on how she’d gestated the nest so quickly without my or Porbiyo’s noticing. I nudged Porbiyo. He woke up—because, yes, he’d fallen asleep—and hopped to his feet.
“How long have you been here?” He asked, “We had no clue you’d come!”
Hummarie said nothing. She groaned in an attempt at what appeared to be her best at actual, legitimate language.
“We’ve been sitting here for hours with our eyes closed,” Porb growled. “You could have tapped us so we didn’t sit here like fools, you little freak.”
“She came, that’s all that matters,” I punched Porbiyo and bowed to Hum-Dum, “Thank you, Hummarie. I appreciate this.”
She burped. The head-sized egg-shaped person then rolled onto her back and slept.
“It’s unnatural,” Porb said, “she’s a foul creature. She’ll send little clones all over the place, now.”
“What?” I eyed Porb as the tiny creatures all chirped and called. They seemed to be hungry.
“Hum-Dum doesn’t gestate eggs for her own maternal pleasure,” Porb sighed, “she has a genetic coding of those animals and will end up laying her own eggs in the future. Next world, she’ll release six of these creatures into the wild.”
“I see why you don’t like that.”
“It’s unnatural! Placing creatures from different worlds across the Garden. . . it’s wrong.” Porb groaned, “And she looks like she’s made of cheese. Really, she’s off-white and wrinkly like curds. It’s disgusting.”
“Leave her alone. She helped us.” I went for the knife, “She helped the creatures.”
“True,” he said with earnest guilt for his rudeness.
As we left, the baby creatures found a bunch of meat in the water. Not people—but harvested meat from wild game. And lots of little hopping amphibians to keep them hunting. The blue fungus of the cave was almost perfect.
We left Hum-Dum in the cave and walked through the caverns to the opening. The world opened up to a vast forest full of life, untouched by civilization. No swamp or swampy smell like the old cave. The nearest town was a hundred kilometers away. They’d be able to live, and hunt, and thrive here, without being hurt or hurting anybody.
I took those corpses back to their families, where funerals would be held soon. I’d attend as an honored guest.
“Good job,” I said, motioning back to the cave. Porbiyo had painted the entire cave, top to bottom, as a replica of the original nest. Their mother remained in that old nest, dead in stonefire. That cave was well over one hundred kilometers south of the new one.
“Good job to you. That fungus was right on,” Porb said. After Porbiyo created the new cave, I filled it with my fungus sorcery. I tried my best to replicate the mother’s exact structures, and luckily Porb’s images helped me to build precisely.
Porbiyo gathered meat by letting his predators hunt game. Then he released some frog creatures into the standing water of the nest, too. His passion for animals defended them only from people. He believed strongly in the natural cycles. And given the chance to let babies grow into the food chain—after my interference could have stopped it—he jumped in to help.
Now the babies could grow up in a new nest which mimicked their mother’s intentions, and they’d be far away from danger.
The creatures could stay behind their curtains, in their cave, and be safe, fed, and hunt happily with fungus nests someday.
We sat at the edge of the cave, quietly taking in the looming evergreens. After awhile, Hummarie came outside. The egg-person waddling between us and plopped into the dirt. She sighed and burped again.
“You aren’t so bad, you strange little egg woman,” Porb said to her. His voice strained in physical pain from saying such a thing. Then he looked to me, and said, “I have seen that it is possibly, maybe, perhaps, not the right thing to kill people for keeping animals captive. Perhaps, I could simply free the animals and punish those people in less severe ways.” He looked down a moment, mask empty of emotion, but voice grasping a thousand at once. His empty eyeholes met my eyes. He said, voice straining from a different kind of pain, “You could have called upon me to relocate the mother, before killing that beast. Perhaps I am not the only one who needs to reassess my methods, eh?”