Nathan considered saying something, perhaps saying some action to Thorn to save the lives of these foreign soldiers. Yet he stayed still, simply watching what transpired. When Thorn went through the laborious effort of raising its core out of the ground, Nathan was aware that their fates had already been sealed. But there was still an impulse to act to protect them.
If Tykes were here to hear Nathan’s thoughts, Nathan knew the older man would tease him mercilessly. Tykes always had a sharp comment for how “soft” he deemed Nathan. For a while, Nathan had tried to argue with him, stating that he was a mage while Tykes was a physical fighter. Logic didn’t work with Tykes. When Nathan had inquired to Karlito what his options for addressing the issue were, the man had just winked and said “machismo.”
Luckily, Tykes was sent away on purpose to lure the lurking soldiers into their area of influence. Originally, they had planned to simply let Bruya toy with them. They had even kept the people wandering through the illusions close to their actual position, so they wouldn’t hurt themselves. It came as quite a surprise when they called down a freaking missile strike.
If Thorn hadn’t been here…
But of course, he was, cradling the Arbor sprout and keeping high-Level monsters from attacking those of the group that couldn’t fight. And Thorn had grown fat and strong on the blood of these powerful abominations over the last few months. Even Nathan didn’t know how far its roots spread, underneath them all, thirsty and watchful.
Thorn’s core, that messy sphere of rot and flesh, inflated then deflated. It inflated then deflated again. It was considering, thinking very hard about what it should do now. Everyone knew that the Ghosthound would disapprove of pointless violence. But they had clearly been attacked. Without the Ghosthound’s guidance, it was hesitant to act decisively, especially when there would be no way to take back its actions.
But then the core contracted and stayed contracted. With exaggerated slowness, it moved gingerly forward towards its opponents. The squad was on the ground and even now only two or three had moved. And those moves were exceedingly feeble. These were helpless targets.
‘They are also full of blood,’ Nathan thought to himself, considering Thorn.
Was this what Tykes would do? Standby and let the plant devour these people?
Thorn’s hundreds of vines with razor-sharp thorns moved up and down in the air as if they were buoyed by a soft wind. They seemed to drift casually, like a fog bank. Always onwards, always forwards, so large you couldn’t see the other side while staring at it, soon to engulf them all.
Within a minute, Nathan couldn’t see the soldiers any longer, as they were obscured by Thorn’s amorphous body. It sank lower, condensing itself, and Nathan saw how its appendages twined inwards. For a lover’s embrace, Nathan decided. It was descending to kiss the soldiers.
Those seconds seemed to last forever.
Then something changed. Thorn quivered. But unlike what Nathan was expecting, its limbs did not plunge into feast on the soldiers. On the contrary, Thorn straightened somewhat and half rotated, peering behind towards the horizon. Nathan followed its gaze, puzzled. Thorn was looking back towards their Zone, Zone 32, which he was now told was named Rawlands.
A low rumble emanated out from Thorn, making Nathan’s teeth buzz. Then it blurred into motion, becoming the deadly storm of thorns and violent momentum that it could become when angered. Like a tiger, it pounced back away from the soldiers. As Nathan watched, it sank right into the ground and disappeared from sight, its powerful vines leading the way and digging it a path down into the ground.
There was another rumble, and then Thorn was gone. Nathan frowned, looking over towards the Arbor sapling, which was twisting around nervously. Thorn shouldn’t have left like that. It was supposed to remain here and defend them and Arbor’s sapling. That was what the Ghosthound had said.
...did something happen? If he could just leave too…
The borderlands were honestly a pretty boring place. Besides that one time that the cowboy guy needed his help, Nathan had done very little that wasn’t theoretical with his Class. If he moved somewhere else.
Karlito and Bruya began flirting as they calmly walked over towards the cooking fire as if nothing had happened. Dinesh and Tykes wouldn’t be back for a while, and their final member of the squad was probably still hiding next to the Arbor sapling. Without much anxiety, Nathan walked towards the soldiers.
Most were still unconscious. Of those that seemed to be moving, only the most official of them seemed to notice Nathan’s arrival. The rest were blank-eyed zombies from what they had seen.
“What… was that….?” The man gasped out, his eyes fixed on Nathan.
Nathan smiled and raised a finger to his lips. “You spoke all you were allowed to with that missile. Now just wait for our answer.”
Following that, Nathan fired an Arcane Orb directly into the man’s face. He hadn’t Leveled it much, but his Intelligence was still reasonably high. The man’s head was slammed back into the ground with a crack, and he once more fell unconscious. With a wince, Nathan turned and walked quickly back towards the group.
He truly wasn’t so good with the physical things. If he knew how to knock the man out more softly, he would have.
When he reached the group, Nathan raised his voice. “Bruya, can you put up an illusion.”
The woman didn’t even look up from her plate of stew, and the group was in a tropical rainforest. A multicolored parrot cawed loudly right into Nathan’s ear, causing him to jump a little, but he didn’t let that rob him of any enthusiasm.
“It’s time to move out! Who's up for joining the Ghosthound?”
Karlito and Bruya looked at each other. Bruya mildly scratched her chin. Karlito shrugged. And so it was.
Hank curiously regarded the strange rabbit being that had been his constant companion. JJ, as Hank had named him, had been initially very unhelpful on account of being shot at. But as the memory of that faded, and JJ drew more energy from Hank’s body, very quickly more details regarding his Skill were opened to him. In addition, the population of East End had been invaluable in assisting him to develop a mastery of the new Skill.
The little bugger was rather trembly, but the more Hank worked with him the more reliable he became. He could produce stone spikes from the ground, send seismic tremors to detect enemies, and could raise small stone walls to provide cover for Hank.
Unfortunately, JJ’s Mana pool was based on Hank’s own and was therefore rather meager. Very quickly he would burn through his Mana pool and leave Hank with just a trembly rabbit for assistance. Still, his body was incorporeal and couldn’t really get hurt. And it wouldn’t take long to recover enough Mana to send some seismic tremors, so it was a relatively nice arrangement.
There were drawbacks to the elementals, however. Hank experienced a 15% decrease in Health, Mana, and Stamina regeneration, which apparently was pretty high for such a low Level elemental. Instead of regenerating his own attributes, that regenerated JJ’s. And that split would only grow as time went on. Although Hank was assured that JJ would quickly grow in power, that was still a hard pill to swallow, especially in regards to the Stamina regeneration.
Often, he had Health and Mana to spare, but that Stamina…
...especially with his new Skills…
But Hank felt the natural connection with the damn bugger, and it was hard to be mad at him for too long. Plus, he was told that he would gain a small amount more Health, Mana, and Stamina per Level now that they were connected.
After two days to familiarize themselves and shop around, Hank and company really needed to depart from East End. Apparently, there was plenty of political deadlock in Donnyton, so there was no real rush for the diplomatic meeting. But they couldn’t keep stopping places for Hank to learn new Skills.
They had arrived and spent time shopping in the mall, talking with the people of East End. Although they weren’t as big as any of the other Villages initially, they took in quite a few of the displaced people from the expanding Zone. Plus, several months ago, they had made a concerted effort to support the one Elementalist Class they had. Under her careful care, wild elementals had started appearing near the city. A lot of mages, interested in studying them or attempting to become an Elementalist themselves, had migrated into the city.
A large apartment was being thrown up next to the mall, now that they had run out of room beneath the mall. They hadn’t communicated at all with the leaders of East End, as they were away, but one of them was in constant communication with Donnyton so it didn’t seem necessary. So after he had familiarized himself with having an elemental, and Laurel had time to shop, they were prepared to move on to Donnyton.
Unfortunately, fate wasn’t with them.
As they were about to depart, a voice spoke from the roof of the mall.
“Mr. Ghosthound? Is that you?!?”
Ezekiel stopped, turned around, and looked up. He had been rather bitterly walking in the countryside around East End recently because no elemental had chosen him. At first, Hank had been worried the bastard was hunting people down to eat, but JJ was also excellent at scouting. His investigation had yielded nothing, which was a relief.
When he saw the person who spoke, his eyes widened. “Is that… Sydney Harp?”