MultiPets: the Chimera Knight

Katrina Arden wants to become a Chimera Knight, a hero in a world where animals and humans live and work together as one. With the help of a Wearwolf, a canine that transforms into armor, her wish may very well be granted.

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Chapter 3, Part 1: Orion

“I’m upset, Katrina,” Rion said.
“Yeah, I know,” Katrina said. “Those Dryad piss me off, too. We save their asses from mind-controlling brain slugs, and their idea of a reward is not killing us? Some gratitude.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Rion said, moving up in front of Katrina and facing her, causing her, Wearwolf, and Jaime to come to a stop. They were all covered from head to toe with the violet effluvia of the pendulum Terrasite Katrina had just slain. Katrina was the only one not completely covered, just on her biceps, thighs, midsection, and face, the only parts not covered by Wearwolf’s armor form when the Terrasite exploded. “Tradition allows you to have an escort during the final trial of the Rite of Initiation. You promised to take me with you, and then you went alone! What the Hell, Katrina? What the Hell?”

“Oh, yeah, that,” Katrina said a little sheepishly. She glanced away and scratched her head. “Look, first of all, I didn’t promise anything. All I said was if I had to take someone, it’d be you, and that I’d consider it. When I thought about it later, it just didn’t seem like a good idea. I’m capable of taking care of myself in a forest, probably better than you can, and the only reason you wanted to come with me was because of that stupid old wife’s tale.”
“It’s not just some old wife’s tale,” Rion protested pointedly. “When two people share in the Rite of Initiation, their fates become intrinsically sealed. Look at Roger and Becky!”
The scowl Katrina wore was more than enough to make Rion regret the analogy. She walked around him in a huff. He hopped in front of her again, walking backwards in step with her as the other two followed.
“Okay, bad choice of words,” Rion said. “But you have to admit it’s the perfect example. He just happened to run into her during his Rite, and now, just two years later, they’re married! How can you say it’s just an old wife’s tale?”
“Especially when you’re the superstitious one?” Jaime added.
“I am not superstitious,” Katrina protested. “Just as many couples have walked in together and came out no more romantically linked than before. Some even become bitter enemies. Including twins, might I ad, Rion and Jaime.”
“They’re the exceptions that prove the rule,” Rion explained.
“Exceptions disprove rules, right Jaime?” Katrina countered. Not waiting for her say anything, she continued, “Fate is fate. It’s not changed or even strengthened by completing the Rite of Initiation with someone else, no matter how much you love them. If they fall deeper in love during the final trial, its because they’re the kind of people who fall deeply in love in that kind of situation. Destiny is not some story written in a book eons ago by a man with a long, white beard that can be revised or rewritten later. Its all cause and effect. Their fates were intrinsically entwined long before they entered that forest.”
“Okay, so if you didn’t believe in it, what would you have had to lose from taking him with you?” Jaime inquired. “Besides your freedom?”
Katrina stopped and sighed. “Fine. So maybe I was a little afraid that taking Rion would ultimately keep me from becoming a Chimera Knight. It’s not exactly something you can study for in your spare time over the internet while taking care of a baby. But what I really didn’t want was for Rion to get hurt. You guys heard what happened, right?”
“You did only come back just last night,” Jaime replied. “But it spread around pretty fast, so we got the gist of it.”
“Something about a gang of bandits that tried to rape you or something,” Rion added.
“Uh, yeah,” Katrina said uncertainly. “That sounds about right.”
“That is very much an exaggeration,” Wearwolf said. “There was just the one man. And he most certainly did not try to rape you.”
“Anyway,” Katrina continued, “That was a very dangerous situation. Rion could’ve gotten hurt or killed. Wearwolf and I were lucky to have survived with just a few cuts and bruises.”
“I could’ve protected you,” Rion argued. “And I so would’ve taken care of that baby!”
“I couldn’t let you raise a child on your own!” Katrina insisted. “And that baby would need a… Why am I having this discussion? Look, Rion, the point is, I care about you too much to let you get hurt over me, and I’m not ready to share something that personal and profound with you. Maybe I will one day, but not today, and definitely not yesterday.”
“Fine,” Rion said with a sigh. “But don’t expect me to stop. I’ll find a chink in that armor of yours yet.”
“Pantheon, you remind me of me,” Katrina said in an exasperated tone. “Okay, I’ll make it up to you. I’ll escort you on your Rite, and I’ll prove you wrong by not falling madly in love with you.”
“That sounds like a wager to me,” Rion said with a smirk. He held out his hand. “I’ll take that action.”
“It’s on, then,” Katrina said, accepting the hand and shaking it. “When we come back from it, I’ll be no more in love with you than I am with Jaime.”
“Whoa, hey, if you’re going to go around tempting fate, leave me out of it,” Jaime said. “I’m going on that Rite too, you know.”
“You should’ve taken your time being born, then,” Katrina quipped. She attempted to let go of Rion’s hand, only to find them glued together. “Ugh, god dammit.”
“Ha! It’s an omen!” Rion declared, tightening his grip. “You’re stuck with me!”
“You wish,” Katrina said. “Now start pulling.”
* * *
Rion lay on his bed, his eyes open, his hand resting on the alarm clock. The ringing it made for less than a second had been stopped. He reached for the lamp and turned it on so he could see his dream journal. For a moment, he pondered what was reality and what was fiction. He had long since achieved the ability to dream lucidly, thanks to his diligent work in recording them into the journal. He could recall his dreams every bit as well as any real memory, but it still paid to write them down while they were still fresh in his mind.
The Dryad Sanctuary… The pendulum parasite queen… The mandrake… That all happened, right? Was it all a dream, or maybe a vision? No, it was real. A lucid dream was whatever he wanted, and he wanted more than what happened yesterday. So he dreamed it, also. He was more dashing and courageous the second time around. Defeated the pendulum all by himself, too. Katrina was quite appreciative, as well. Rion was almost embarrassed to write it down in his journal.
“Good dream?” Jaime asked from her bed across the loft.
“Pretty good,” Rion answered as he wrote. “But I think there’s room for improvement.”
“Rion, do you think two people who have the same dream can meet each other there?” Jaime asked.
“About as likely as twins reading each other’s minds,” Rion replied. A moment later, he said, “I heard that.”
Jaime stuck out her tongue at him playfully. She got up, straightened out her nightshirt, and sat at her nearby desk. After rummaging around a bit, she got out a pad and pencil and started drawing.
“You’re not using your computer?” Rion inquired.
“I wanted to get this down before I forgot about it,” Jaime said. She scrutinized the drawing for a moment before erasing part of it and redrawing. “I wish I was a little better at this…”
“What is it?” Rion asked. He got up and looked over her shoulder. “A spider?”
“A mechanical spider,” Jaime corrected. “It came to me in a dream. This is going to be my MultiPet partner.”
“So you’re actually going to try and build one?” Rion noted. “Where are you going to get the parts?”
“I dunno, the internet or something,” Jaime said. “I’ll figure something out.”
“I doubt you’ll be able to finish it before our Rite,” Rion said.
“I’ll figure something out,” Jaime repeated.
“Best of luck to ya,” Rion said.
Rion put his journal away and started down the rigging into the living room. It was about time their mother called them down to do chores, anyway. He hadn’t intended to be stealthy, but the sound of hushed voices urged him to make as little noise as possible. His parent’s bedroom door was open a crack, and they were still inside it. A little odd for them at this hour, as their mother always woke them up well before dawn to keep their ship-shaped house in ship-shape. He hung from the rigging like a monkey, straining to hear what they were talking about.
“So, this be it, then?” he heard his father say. “We be doin’ this fer sure?”
“Aye, I think it finally be time, Robert,” his mother, Jessica replied. She sounded quite resolute, but it took her a moment to say it.
“Do ye think, or do ye know?” Robert asked warily. There was silence for a moment, then he continued, “There must be no hesitation, Captain. If ye have any doubts…”
“Yar, I know, I know,” Jessica interrupted. “I jus’ wish there be more time, is all. ‘Tis been nearly sixteen years, and we ain’t gettin’ no younger. I can nay wait much longer, but…”
“Aye,” Robert agreed. “The wee ones, but they be wee no longer. They be adults soon, and will be on their own anyway before ye know it.”
“But they still be our children,” Jessica said sadly. “No matter how old they get they’ll still be my babies. I still want to be there for them. I want to see me grandchildren.”
“Raising them has made us soft, Captain,” Robert said. “If we go, we must abandon all sentiment and think like true pirates. If we stay, we must abandon the sea forever and give no thought to what happened before we came here.”
“I can never forget what happened before,” Jessica said firmly. “Not while he still lives. Not while they both still live. My soul and my shame remain there, but my heart remains here.”
Robert sighed, “Ultimately, the decision be yours to make, Captain. Whatever we decide, we may always wonder what would’ve been. There is still much time. I will await your orders.”
Rion scrambled up the rigging and Robert opened the door. He threw himself on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. Mentally, he debated whether or not he should write down what he had heard so he could try to make sense of it later. Did he hear what he thought he heard? Was this really happening? Could this be a dream and he just didn’t realize it?
“Rion?” Jaime started, but Rion held up a hand to silence her. In the quiet, they could hear footsteps from down below. Jaime sat on his bed and whispered, “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Rion replied. He didn’t want to trouble her with what he just heard. He needed time to come to grips with it himself first. He was worried enough for the both of them. Telling Jaime could overwhelm the both of them, and he didn’t want to let on that he was eavesdropping.
Downstairs, Jessica and Robert stared up at the loft.
“They usually be down by now,” Jessica noted quietly.
“Should we call them down?” Robert asked.
“Nay,” Jessica answered. “Let’s let them sleep in a while. I’m feeling particularly soft and sentimental today.”

Friday, December 08, 2006

Chapter 2, Part 6: Sanctuary Epilogue

It was early evening when Katrina and Wearwolf arrived at home, still sticky with the blood and guts of the otherworldly creature they fought at the Dryad Sanctuary. Her shoes squelched sickeningly as they walked across the living room floor. The violet goop had since dried and became a purple gunk that made Wearwolf‘s fur stick together in clumps.

“Welcome home, dear,” her mother said, sitting in an easy chair with her Mysticat on her lap and a cup of chamomile tea in her hands. Without looking directly at her, she asked, “Have a good time?”

“Yeah, totally,” Katrina replied, picking at the gunk in her ponytail. “Especially the part where the monster exploded and sprayed its guts everywhere. I don’t think I’ll be eating jelly again any time soon. Of course, the worst part is when you walk home in it and it dries all over you.”

At least most of you is still clean,” Wearwolf complained. You would be dripping with this substance yourself if you were not wearing me. I am covered from head to tail.”

“Is your fur dry-clean only?” Katrina asked jokingly.

I am afraid I do not grasp your meaning,” Wearwolf said, his head tilted curiously to the side.

“Nevermind,” Katrina said.

“I bought doggy shampoo for Wearwolf,” mother said, smirking amusedly to herself. She took a sip of her tea. “But I’m afraid it’ll take something a little stronger to remove Terrasite gel once its dried. I’ve left some turpentine next to the shower for you.”

“Thanks Mom,” Katrina replied with a smile. “I’d kiss ya, but I don’t want to get you all sticky.”

“Much appreciated,” mother said.

“Wait, Terrasite?” Katrina noted. “Is that what the thing we fought was called?”

“I’m afraid so,” mother replied, taking another sip of her tea. “I’d keep that name under your hat for now. It’s going to cause some commotion in the near future.”

“Mind-controlling parasites?” Katrina commented as she and Wearwolf walked to the bathroom. “I can’t see that not causing a commotion. I can see the headlines now: ‘Invasion of the Body-Jackers!’ I‘m telling you, we‘re going to have to find these things and take them out before they get out of hand.”

“Nothing to worry about for now, my dear,” mother said calmly. “They won’t be a real threat for quite some time and official investigations are already underway. The Chimera Knights are going to make this a top priority.”

“Really? Cool,” Katrina remarked before closing the bathroom behind her.

Deciding Wearwolf’s took precedence, Katrina spent over an hour in the shower with him discovering that normal shampoo was more or less totally ineffective against the remains of the Terrasite. She was making good headway with the turpentine when her mother walked in with the cordless phone.

“It’s for you,” mother said.

“Oh, thanks,” Katrina replied, turning off the shower and putting the phone to her ear. “Hel-”

The phone immediately rang, causing Katrina to cringe and nearly drop the phone. She glared at her mother, who was already walking away, laughing. She growled slightly and pressed the talk button. “Hello?”

“Did she do that trick where she…?” Jaime’s voice from the other end began.

“Yeah,” Katrina replied. “I keep falling for that stupid joke every time.”

“That’s so cool,” Jaime said. “Though you really should make sure there’s an actual call on the line before you try to answer it.”

“She only does it when she knows I’ll fall for it,” Katrina said, sitting down on the edge of the tub. “One of the hazards of living with an oracle, I guess. So, what’s so important that you had to interrupt my shower?”

“You’re still cleaning that stuff off?” Jaime asked. “I went straight for the paint thinner.”

“Whatever,” Katrina said. She held the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she took a turpentine-filled rag to Wearwolf’s fur. “What’s up?”

“I analyzed the sample I took of the creature,” Jaime said. Katrina could hear the clacking of computer keys over the line. “Something definitely created it, and fairly recently. Its virobot count is way too high for it to have evolved naturally, even on our world.”

“So it’s man-made?” Katrina inquired. “A genetic experiment gone awry?”

“Humans are the most likely,” Jaime said. “I don’t want to rule out Nymphs - indigenous s entient beings like the Dryad or the Nereid, hyper-intelligent MultiPets, renegade AI, or intergalactic aliens.”

“The usual suspects,” Katrina joked. “Do Nymphs even have that level of technology?”

“Who knows,” Jaime replied. “All available data on them are just speculation and hearsay. They could have hyper-dimensional cities hidden in the trees for all we know.”

“When you say ‘fairly recently,’ what do you mean?” Katrina asked. “A week? A month?”

“Hard to determine with what I’ve got,” Jaime answered. “But I think we’re looking at six months to a year. Maybe more.”

“Six months!?” Katrina exclaimed, straightening up. Noting the phone still stuck to her ear, she added, “Ew…”

“What?” Jaime asked.

“I think I’m going to need to clean this phone off now,” Katrina replied. She ignored it for the moment as she went on. “But six months? Do you realize how much damage body-jacking parasites could do in six months?”

“I only said it was created that long ago,” Jaime explained. “It could’ve been locked up in a lab or something until maybe a week ago. Who knows. The Dryads were probably just the first phase or test or something. I searched the news sites and didn‘t see anything about mind-control parasites like we saw. Not from any reputable sources at least.” Jaime sighed. “I’ll know more when I finish my analysis, but that could take a long time. These virobots aren’t exactly open-source, and my facilities are extremely limited. I’m going to send a sample and my findings to the relevant agencies when I get a chance.”

“Mom says there’s already a government investigation,” Katrina said. “Maybe you should check the government websites.”

“I’ll try,” Jaime said. “I don’t suppose she gave you any other search terms I could use?”

“Terrasites,” Katrina said. “But don’t let that get around. It could be classified.”

“Yeah, we don’t want to escape the wrath of Dryads just to disappear into a black van,” Jaime said. “How do you spell ‘Terrasites‘? Is that like ‘Parasites‘ with a ‘T,’ or does it start like ‘Terror‘?”

“How should I know?” Katrina replied. “You want me to ask?”

“Nah, I’m sure I’ll figure it out,” Jaime said. “I’ll call you back as soon as I find something.”

“Thanks,” Katrina said. She forcibly removed the phone from her goop-covered ear and pressed the hang-up button. She put the phone on the counter and went back to cleaning Wearwolf.

That sounded like a productive conversation,” Wearwolf said.

“Yeah,” Katrina said, scrubbing behind Wearwolf’s ear. “So I guess tomorrow we should find another sanctuary and get rid of the Terrasites there, too.”

That may not be necessary,” Wearwolf said. The Dryad are not without their resources. They should be able to handle the Terrasites on their own.”

“If you say so,” Katrina said. “But I’d really like to know for sure.”

As would I,” Wearwolf said. But I have enough faith in them not to risk your life on an investigation.”

“I know,” Katrina said. “But what I want to know is, do the Terrasites just want the Dryads, or will the come after us next?”

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Chapter 2, Part 5: We Will Be Greeted as Liberators! Destroy the Parasite Pendulum!

Looking back at Katrina was her own face, reflected back at her in a huge, glistening eye set into a churning, violet mass. It was one of many, arranged like a ball atop a giant, upside-down horn like a ice cream cone, the closest of which were trained directly at her. The rest darted about with paranoid twitching motions. The bizarre creature hung from the sanctuary ceiling from a twisting, sinewy, violet cord as thick as a tree that pulsed with viscous juices that Katrina cared not to think about.

“Guys,” Katrina said, backing away slowly, “I think we found mama.”

“I don’t suppose we can reason with it?” Jaime inquired.

The bizarre creature swung back on its cord until it creaked with tension. Then, pivoting its horn towards the trio, swung at them at full force. The three of them scattered as it blew past.

“I think it’s safe to assume we can’t,” Rion replied.

The creature swung upwards until its cord went slack. It then turned its horn downward and cut through the air as it descended. Its trajectory sent it straight towards Katrina, who turned and ran from it. It swung around again, yet again angling towards Katrina. She fled again, only to find it swinging after her.

“Amazing,” Jaime said, adjusting her glasses. “This parasite attacks like some sort of pendulum, but with perfect control over its swing trajectory. Furthermore, not only can it use its horn to impale Katrina, but its also using it cut down on wind resistance in order to…”

“Just shut up and shoot it already!” Katrina cried out as she ran past her. She had dropped to all fours to take advantage of Wearwolf’s leg muscles and run faster.

“Whoops, right,” Jaime replied, shielding her skirt from the gust as the pendulum parasite swung by her. She brought up her Reagan and twisted the dial. “I think this is a good time for the ‘Kill’ setting.”

“No, you might hit something else, like Katrina,” Rion said, trying aim at Katrina’s pursuer. “Keep it on Stun until you actually hit it, then kill it while its stunned.”

Jaime dialed her Regan back and took aim at the pendulum. However, Katrina’s running back and forth made it difficult to land a hit without shooting something else.

“Can’t you run in a more predictable pattern?” Jaime demanded. “Like a big circle or something? It’s hard to line up a shot with it moving at random like this!”

“Maybe you’d like me to get it to hold still?” Katrina snapped. “Maybe it’ll even pose for you!”

Katrina swerved to the side, with the pendulum quickly following, and ran around in as wide a circle as she could. Rion and Jaime stood alongside her path and aimed where they expected the pendulum to go. Snaps of thunder sounded as the creature swung past them, the echoes of the Reagans discharging energy. The pendulum parasite broke off its pursuit of Katrina and swung for Rion and Jaime instead.

“I think we only made it mad!” Rion exclaimed as they leapt out of the way.

Katrina, if we sever the cord that binds it to the ceiling, we may render it immobile,” Wearwolf suggested.

“That means we have to touch it, right?” Katrina asked apprehensively.

I am afraid so,” Wearwolf replied.

“Ew,” Katrina said with a shudder. “But it’s so… eyebally…”

Nonetheless, Katrina dashed towards the pendulum parasite as it swung towards Jaime. She leapt onto it, grabbing the cord with one hand and groaning in disgust as her feet touched its eyeballs. She tore into the cord with the claws of her free hand, eliciting painful squeals from the creature. The pendulum parasite quickly retracted up to the ceiling, forcing Katrina to jump off before it reached the top.

“That’s definitely a weak spot,” Rion noted.

“Okay, I’ve got an idea,” Jaime said, fiddling with her Reagan again. “If we set our weapons to maximum, we can incinerate the monster in one shot. Of course, we’ll only get one shot, since this’ll use up all the Reagan’s energy.”

That is madness!” Wearwolf exclaimed.

“I know,” Katrina replied. “Jaime, we can’t do that. That thing’s web is stretched all across the sanctuary. A shot that strong will not only burn up the webbing, but everything attached to it will catch fire and the resulting inferno will probably kill everyone in here, including us! And there’s no telling how far the forest fire will spread!”

“Well, we gotta do something, right?” Jaime argued. “We’re pretty much trapped in here now, and those zombie brain parasites aren’t going to be restricted to the sanctuary for very long. That pendulum monstrosity could be regenerating up there or just simply biding its time until we have our guard down…”

“Like right now!” Rion cried out. “Duck!”

Rion and Jaime managed to leap out of the way, but Katrina was blindsided. The pendulum parasite knocked her off her feet and sent her rolling across the sanctuary floor. She was dazed for a moment, but when she opened her eyes again the pendulum parasite was poised to run her through like a giant scorpion. She found herself frozen, transfixed by the giant spear before her.

Then she heard something under her moan. She had landed on her back, right on top of the mandrake she was carrying. The dryad child was rapidly approaching reality, and it wasn’t going to be very happy when it woke up. Katrina didn’t know which would be a worse fate: Being speared by a giant parasite or having her head exploded by a screaming mandrake. It was quite likely she would experience both.

“Oh, Hell,” Katrina exclaimed. She could feel the mandrake shifting uncomfortably under her. The parasite may have come to the same conclusion she had, as it was now beginning to pull back. “Guys… You might want to cover your ears.”

She could hear the mandrake gasp as it finally opened it’s eyes and saw what was all around them. At the same time, the parasite lashed out, barreling towards them. Katrina covered her ears, closed her eyes, and braced for the inevitable conclusion.

Katrina could feel the scream more than she heard it. It started as a high-pitched squeal and quickly left audible range. Sound waves pulsed through everything unhindered. When Katrina didn’t feel her brains oozing out of her ears, she opened her eyes.

The parasite was seemingly frozen in place, vibrating rapidly. Its eyes rolled about in their sockets and began to bulge like over-inflated balloons. The cord that held it and living walls all around them were twitching and convulsing like mad. Similarly, the dryads were wailing, doubled over in pain, clutching their ears as the pitch increased.

The creature is immobilized,” Wearwolf noted urgently. We must slay it before it can recover.”

“Right!” Katrina confirmed, climbing to her feet. Using her claws, she quickly climbed up the wall and, when she decided she was at a suitable height, dove claws-first into the parasite. “I’m calling this one… MANDRAKE’S SCREAMING CLAW!”

Katrina landed on the parasite, her arm plunging elbow-deep into the creature’s eye. The mandrake gave one last burst of air, and the rest of the pendulum parasite’s eyes exploded like watermelons, spraying violet gook everywhere in vicious geysers. The rest of the head exploded immediately there after, showering even more gooey bits over everyone and causing the horn to land heavily on the ground with a dull thud. Soon, the cord was like an out of control fire hose, violently expelling a steady stream of violet viscera that knocked Rion and Jaime off their feet and painting them with gelatinous entrails.

This went on for about half a minute until the spray died down to a trickle. Then, just when everyone thought it was finally through, the ceiling exploded into its own viscous deluge. This was followed by the walls, cascading into violet waterfalls, and even the floor erupted into the air. Katrina put her arms up, vainly defending herself from wave after wave of pasty slime. The explosions spread out to the rest of the sanctuary, detonating each and every strand and undulating mass within it. Similarly, all the horns stuck to the dryads’ heads flew off in a violet spray.

As the gelatinous downpour died down, Katrina found herself lying on her back, coated in the parasite’s former innards, and staring up at a sparkling, blue sky. Everything else was indecipherably buried beneath dripping layers grotesque gristle. As the sunlight glistened off every inch of the greasy, grimy parasite guts, Katrina was heard to say, “I think I’m going to hurl.”

“I think I already did,” Rion said, spitting repeatedly in disgust as he got up. “Either that, or I got some of it in my mouth.”

“That was fascinating,” Jaime remarked, getting up and flicking the goop off of her hands. “Can we go home now?”

Rion and Jaime helped Katrina up. Wearwolf popped off her, returning to his normal canine form and leaving clean spots on her clothes. She wiped some of the violet gunk out of her eyes and commented, “This stuff feels so gross.”

Try cleaning it off with your tongue,” Wearwolf replied. That is not an experience I am looking forward to.”

“What happened to the dryad?” Jaime asked.

Katrina looked around. All the dryad that were surrounding them earlier had disappeared. Even the mandrake that Katrina was carrying on her back had vanished. All that was left of them were dryad-shaped impressions in the gunk where they had fallen down. There were no foot prints, hand prints, or even disturbances in the impressions to indicate any sort of path or movement.

“That’s weird,” Rion said as he attempted to brush some of the gunk off him. Jaime, meanwhile, had knelt down and was scooping some of the gunk into a small plastic bag.

“So much for being greeted as liberators,” Katrina said. “What are you doing?”

“Taking a sample,” Jaime explained. “Maybe I can analyze this stuff when I get home, maybe figure out who made that thing.”

It would appear that we have company,” Wearwolf said.

“Uh, Jaime,” Katrina said. “Don’t look now, but…”

Jaime looked up. Not inches in front of her was the mandrake they had brought, similarly covered in slime as they were. Startled by the site, Jaime fell back onto her butt.

“wE wanT tO thanK yoU,” the mandrake said. Her voice was oddly stressed, as if it were being played back backwards. “weaRwolF, yoU aRe weLcoMe bacK heRe anYtiMe.”

I am honored,” Wearwolf said.

“That’s cool,” Rion remarked.

“youR hUmaN friendS wilL bE aLloweD tO leaVe witH theiR liveS,” the mandrake continued. “buT iF theY rEturN, theY wilL bE killeD oN sighT.”

“What?” Katrina exclaimed. “We nearly kill ourselves trying to save your people, and we don’t get so much as a thank you?”

“dO noT miSuNdeRstanD,” the mandrake explained. “iF wE weRe noT graTefuL, yoU woulD bE deaD bY noW. buT wE stilL wilL noT aLloW hUmaN treSpasSerS. wE wilL noT maKe eXcePtionS jusT bEcauSe wE liKe yoU.”

The mandrake looked around, then leaned forward, gesturing (albeit somehow backward) for them to lean in closer.

“coNfiDeNtiaLlY,” she said, “I woulD noT minD seEinG yoU alL aGaiN. I aM suRe yoU caN coMe bacK; yoU jusT caNnoT coMe iN.”

“That’s a little inexplicable,” Jaime said. “But thank you, creepy, backwards-talking dryad girl.”

The mandrake smiled and said, “yoU aRe weLcoMe creEpY, bacKwardS-talKinG hUmanS.” With that, she turned and ran off, disappearing into the trees.

We talk backwards?” Katrina noted.

“Eye of the beholder, I guess,” Rion shrugged. “Or, in this case, ear.”

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Chapter 2, Part 4: The Corrupted Sanctuary

In contrast to the terrifying mystery of the woods on a stormy night, the day time hike through the dewy groves of Dionysus Forest was like a stroll through a svelte paradise. The sunlight glittered off the wet foliage in a sparkling haze as Katrina’s feet sloshed through the mud. As the hike wore on, the dew dried off and the trees conspired to darken the non-existent paths. She was feeling good as Wearwolf led her, Rion and Jaime towards the Dryad sanctuary, at least at first. She could feel Wearwolf’s unease as they drew closer. It wasn’t just that Wearwolf had been told not to enter the sanctuary, or even that the Dryad would no doubt treat them like hostile invaders. Something felt wrong.

“Wearwolf, what’s up?” Katrina asked.

This place feels different than I remember,” Wearwolf replied. A Dryad sanctuary is supposed to be calm and peaceful, yet the closer we get the greater the sense of dread and foreboding. Something has changed, most likely for the worse.”

“You’re right, it’s too quiet,” Katrina said.

“Now that you mention it, I think it’s been a couple clicks since I’ve heard the birds sing,” Rion said, shifting the Dryad child in his arms. She dozed against his chest like a newborn baby. “The insects are gone, too.”

“Maybe we should turn back, after all,” Jaime said. “This place is getting really creepy.”

“Are you sure we’re going to right way?” Katrina asked.

I have no doubts as to where I am leading you,” Wearwolf said. The Dryad sanctuary is definitely in this direction. It is the atmosphere the concerns me. It tells me trouble is ahead.”

“My gut’s telling me we’re not going to like what we find,” Katrina said.

“I always figured the forest would get more ethereal-looking the closer we got to the sanctuary,” Rion said. “Instead, it just seems more… decrepit.”

“Yeah, I feel like we’re heading into a murky swamp or something,” Jaime added.

It should be just past those trees,” Wearwolf said. Are you sure you wish to continue? It is not too late to turn back.”

“Not really,” Katrina admitted. “But I’m not about to back down just because I’m scared. Never have, never will. If I’m going to be a Chimera Knight, I must be able venture into the fray without hesitation.”

“Of course, there’s something to be said about common sense,” Jaime muttered.

The difference between the rest of the forest and the sanctuary itself was subtle. The trees and shrubbery merely seemed to huddle together more, as if trying to form into larger plants or walls. Someone with an eye for landscaping or floral arrangement or even mathematics might be able to discern the purposeful aesthetic that goes right down to the shape of the moss instead of what appears to be a naturally random pattern of growth. However, what was readily apparent made the creepiness value skyrocket. It was as if a giant, diseased spider had taken up residence in the grove. Gooey, violet strands stretched between each and every tree, rock, and bush, and where the strands met anything was a bulbous, undulating mass. It was far more alien than they expected, the kind of alien that hides in air ducts and lays eggs in your stomach. As they tenuously stepped around them, Katrina half-expected to be dragged off into the darkness by a monstrous tentacle. Decidedly not something she was looking forward to.

Laying about the forest floor like toys abandoned by a child were the Dryad. They were like the mandrake Rion was carrying, only larger and of all shapes and sizes; Bark-like skin, green plumage for hair, and, perhaps coincidentally, unconscious. As Wearwolf approached one of them, he could see yet another difference. In the middle of the Dryad’s forehead was small, white horn.

“I think it’s safe to say coming here was a bad idea,” Jaime said.

“That’s for the historians to decide,” Katrina said, kneeling down next to Wearwolf. “This isn’t right, is it?”

It is decidedly wrong,” Wearwolf replied. I cannot even begin to speculate as to what has transpired here, aside from what used to be a beautiful sanctuary has been transformed into… this. It is far from natural.”

“Are they dead?” Rion asked.

“No, they’re still breathing,” Jaime reported. “But what’s with the horns? No account has ever described them has having those.”

They are not part of their natural physiology,” Wearwolf said.

“And they’re on the trees, too,” Katrina noted. “Maybe they’re some sort of insect?”

I am not familiar with this form of invertebrate,” Wearwolf said. Perhaps they are from another region.”

Jaime reached down to touch the horn. Just short of making contact, the Dryad suddenly snapped open its amber-colored eyes. The eyes moved slowly and directly to view each of the faces before them, yet they lacked any glimmer of awareness. Slowly, it sat up as if rising from its grave. Everyone quickly backed away.

“Uh, hello, good morning, or evening, or something,” Katrina said. She took the mandrake from Rion’s arms and held her up for Dryad to see. The others appeared to be waking up as well. “We brought your kid back. See? So, if you want, we’ll just set the kid down, slowly back out, and never return again. Okay?”

The Dryad were slowly rising to their feet, their expressionless faces unchanging. Dragging their feet, they began to shuffle towards the humans. Even more started shambling out from the trees.

I fear handing over the child is not in our best interests,” Wearwolf said.

“They’re like zombies,” Jaime stated.

“I think it’s time to go,” Rion said. His Reagan whined to life as he armed it. Jaime got out her gun too and switched the safety off.

We cannot leave yet,” Wearwolf said. There is a strong scent similar to the horns in the center of the sanctuary. We must investigate.”

“What!?” Katrina exclaimed, tucking still-sleeping the mandrake under her arm. “That’s crazy!”

“What’s he want?” Rion asked. There was a loud snap as an electric beam struck out from his gun and knocked a Dryad down.

“He says there’s something deeper in he wants to see,” Katrina said.

“This isn’t exactly the best time for sight-seeing,” Jaime said, shooting down another Dryad. It slowly stood back up. “Dammit!”

“What now?” Katrina asked.

“We’re going to have to be more careful shooting them,” Jaime replied. “They keep getting back up.”

“So just knock them back down,” Katrina said.

“It’s not that easy, especially if we‘re trying not to hurt them,” Rion said. “In order to get back up from a stun blast like that so soon takes an enormous amount of strain on the body. If we just shoot them again, the shock could kill them.”

“No living creature could push itself like that,” Jaime said. “I think something else is doing the pushing for them.”

“Like a mind control parasite or something?” Katrina asked. “With a mother brain controlling them all?”

“Yeah, but it’s just a theory,” Jaime said. “If we could take out the central consciousness governing the parasites, it might take them all out in one shot.”

“Otherwise, we could be shooting at these guys long after their dead,” Rion added. “Assuming we’ve got enough energy for that.”

“Mother brain it is,” Katrina said. “But how’ll we get through the mob?”

We can use Chimeric Fusion, like when we fought Rossiter,” Wearwolf said. Then we can fight our way through.”

“But we’re still pretty banged up from last night,” Katrina said. “You sure you wanna try that?”

I see no other alternatives,” Wearwolf said. We must free them.”

“Then I guess it’s time for some Chimeric Fusion,” Katrina said, setting the Mandrake down. “How did we do that, again?”

Just follow my lead,” Wearwolf said.

Katrina braced herself as Wearwolf began to glow. He shattered into several spheres of energy that gathered around Katrina’s body. They coalesced over her arms and legs, becoming clawed, fur-tufted gloves and boots. They merged over her torso, becoming furry shorts and vest. They settled over hear head, becoming a wolf-like hood. Wearwolf opened his eyes to a look of determination.

Chimeric Fusion complete,” Wearwolf reported.

“Awesome,” Katrina said. She took the blankets wrapped around the mandrake and used it to strap her to her back. “You guys cover me. I’m going in.”

“Wait!” Rion called out. “Don’t just take her with… Oh, never mind…”

Rion and Jaime turned and fired into the crowd ahead of Katrina, attempting to make her progress as easy as possible as the twins followed her. Katrina was soon in the thick of it, knocking Dryad down and throwing them into each other.

It is imperative that we do not harm them,” Wearwolf said. They are not acting of their own accord.”

“I’m sure they’d understand,” Katrina said, flipping over one Dryad and tripping another. “It’s not like they’re leaving us much choice.”

Katrina slammed a shoulder into one of the Dryad and immediately regretted it. The pain from her injury forced her back off and cradle her shoulder. She probably would’ve been overwhelmed if it weren’t for some well-placed shots by Rion and Jaime.

As Katrina cursed to herself, she heard a quiet murmuring from the mandrake on her back. Half-asleep, the Dryad child gently placed a hand on Katrina’s shoulder and yawned. The pain in Katrina’s shoulder was soon replaced with a warm, tingling feeling.

The Dryad have fantastic healing abilities,” Wearwolf said as the mandrake went limp and continued to snooze. But it wears them out. We shouldn‘t rely on that too much.”

“But why use it now?” Katrina asked as she slammed a fist into the gut of another Dryad. “If she was awake enough to use it, why me?”

Mandrake tend to be empathic,” Wearwolf explained. She may have sensed the pain of the others and healed us because we were closer.

Katrina and her friends continued to force their way to the center of the sanctuary. The violet gunk had become far more abundant and pulsated with an unsettling synchronicity. It contracted and rippled underfoot in organic, peristaltic waves. Katrina felt like it was trying to swallow her, digest her, absorb her.

“It’s here, isn’t it?” Katrina asked.

Yes, the scent is strongest here,” Wearwolf replied.

“Something better be here,” Jaime said. “I don’t think we can go much farther.”

“Hey, I don’t think we’re being followed anymore,” Rion said.

Katrina looked around. Somehow she hadn’t noticed until just now, but the Dryad were now giving them a wide amount of space. In fact, they were gathered at all the visible exit points, staring at humans blankly.

“Okay,” Katrina said. “This is either really, really good, or really, really bad.”

“I vote bad,” Rion said.

“Bad,” Jaime agreed.

This is indeed cause for concern,” Wearwolf said.

“That makes it unanimous,” Katrina said. “Whatever’s in has to be a lot more dangerous than a horde of Dryad-zombies. The question is: Where is it?”

“Katrina…” Rion warned, aiming his Reagan past her. Jaime had hers aimed at something behind Katrina. Katrina heard it before Rion had said anything. Stretching and gurgling and throbbing. There was an acrid, meaty smell as well, which she realized she had been sensing through Wearwolf’s nose. She turned slowly, knowing she wasn’t going to like what she was going to find.

Looking back at Katrina was her own face, a reflection in a huge, glistening eye set into a churning, violet mass. It was one of many, arranged like a ball atop a giant, upside-down horn like a ice cream cone, the closest of which were trained directly at her. The rest darted about with paranoid twitching motions. It hung from the sun-blocking web hanging atop the sanctuary from a twisting, sinewy, violet cord as thick as a tree that pulsed with viscous juices that Katrina cared not to think about.

“Guys,” Katrina said, backing away slowly, “I think we found mama.”