Chapter 27 - Shambling Forward


A note from rykov00

Progress on the main story line is going well, and we're on track to finish by the end of the month. May even be able to do a bonus chapter if we can knock out the next bit quickly.

Comments, reviews, and feedback really appreciated, especially now. We're on the home stretch and getting feedback now will help polish up the last bits. Please let us know how you feel about the story so far!

Liz waited until her Dad and Mark rounded the order on the way to the elementary school. She really wasn’t sure about this splitting up stuff but her head knew that it made sense, even if her heart was trying to escape her chest. She took a breath to steel herself and waved over to Bob who was pulling around with the carriage.

“Here we go again.” She patted the gelding on the neck before hopping into the back.

“Who’s coming with?”

Bob and Etta stepped into the driver’s bench while Matt, Elly’s dad, climbed into the carriage with her.

“I’m not letting Bob go by himself, he’s liable to get distracted and eaten by something.” Etta patted Bob affectionately on the arm.

“I’ll give you some close cover in case you need time to take shots. Sam will stay and watch out for the house and Elly.” Matt said as he hopped into the carriage next to her. A small whimper sounded from below.

Alpha leave why?

“Oh sorry girl, I don’t think you can come with us this time. You stay here and rest up. Once you’re all healed we’ll have lots of fun.” Liz looked down gave Moonlight some scritches across her ears. The giant wolf’s head was almost level with her even though she was up on the carriage. Yeah, she totally was big enough to ride once she was healed up.

Liz gave a thumbs up to Bob and with a quick flick of the reigns they were on their way. Bob was driving and Etta and Matt were brandishing hooligan bars, ready to bash the brains out of anything that got close. Liz, for her part, had an arrow knocked and was ready to go.

It could have been the smell of blood, or just bad timing, but within moments of setting out a giant creature emerged from the lagoon across the street. This must be the hipporaffe that she had heard so much about. The tall beast saw the carriage and let loose a cry. It clambered out of the lagoon and began a charge towards them. Bob was trying, with limited success to keep the carriage from rocking, but he could barely keep the horse from panicking. Its struggles caused the carriage to bounce back and forth.

“I got this, everyone stay in the carriage and try to get the horse calm.”

Taking a deep breath, and having learned her lesson on trying to shoot from an unstable platform, Liz quickly hopped down. She had already mostly charged a shot, and without much ado, she loosed an arrow before the Hipporaffe had much of a chance to build up any speed. The Power Shot was perfectly placed, and with a sharp twang was followed by a small cloud of blood behind the head of the Hipporaffe. The large creature didn’t have time to look surprised as it was dead before it knew what was going on.

“That was rather anti-climactic.” She turned her head and shouted. “Mom! New thing to harvest here!”

Mary was leading a small group and they had run out the driveway anticipating battle at the first roar. They seemed a bit surprised at what they actually found. They all paused and looked in awe at the massive monster that was dead in the middle of the road.

“Well, I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that thing any more. It was way too close for comfort. Thanks sweetie.”

“No problem Mom. You know, I think we’ll be okay.”

Liz hopped back on the carriage feeling more confident than ever. She waved to the group who was now pulling the giant carcass back to the house and they waved back. Nothing like killing a twenty foot tall monster in a single headshot to give you confidence you could protect a group of people effectively.

As the carriage rounded the corner they paused for a brief moment at the top of the hill. A bloody stain on the road was all that was left of the beak bear that chased them earlier. Bob, Etta, and Liz all glanced in the direction of where they knew the larger beak bear had run. Even with her new abilities, Liz didn’t really want to encounter that thing again. One twenty foot tall monster a day was plenty.

“Ok. Let’s go. If the giant beak bear comes out, we keep moving and I take out it’s legs.”

Comforted with a plan, they picked up speed down hill and went on their way. Only the sound of branches waving in the wind and the occasional bird call disturbed their passage as they went past the dreaded side street. Letting out a collective sigh of relief when nothing charged out, they continued onwards.

The streets themselves were relatively clear of debris along Garrison. The trees were sprouting up something fierce and the mana storm seemed to have accelerated their development in a major way. She could see the bulges along the sidewalk where roots had outgrown the modern enclosures, pushing against the limits that were previously on them. Liz imagined that after a few more weeks this entire area would be unrecognizable.

She was lost in thought at they made their way northward. A brief stop off at Bob and Etta’s to pick up some stuff was uneventful. Bob and Etta seemed elated at the chance to recover treasured personal items and entered the house with renewed vigor. Liz kept a constant eye on the surroundings but everything was quiet. Whatever happened last night seemed to end with the wolves returning to that giant iceberg or vanishing into thin air. Liz questioned the latter possibility for a bit but she wouldn't be surprised at anything anymore.

As Bob and Etta came back outside and hopped onto the carriage Liz contemplated the next phase of their journey. This was as far north as she had been in this new world, and she wondered what changes she would encounter in the environment. She was interrupted mid thought as her window suddenly popped open with a new notification.

System Notification

User Information Enabled

System Notification

User Interaction Enabled

Liz was starved for more information about what was really going on, and while she didn’t want to admit it, part of her really believed the same as Mark. Maybe she was in some sort of weird video game. Liz blazed through her User Information to see what else she could learn. Every time she tried to open up more info she got annoying error messages, but she did note that she had a level and it was convenient to see all her skills and abilities listed out. Ultimately she was disappointed with the update. Sure, she had a level, some meaningless points, and random numbers behind her abilities, but she knew they would just become another competition point between her and Mark. Also, she totally should be higher level than Mark. She would have to ask him next time she saw him.

Even the notification on pools was somewhat pointless to her. In her long runs she had grown accustomed to her own body enough to know when she was getting tired and how much gas she had left in the tank. Even with mana, it was pretty obvious on how much of it she had remaining just by comparing the feeling between shots. A little experimentation did yield at least one new data point. Abilities all seemed to use the magic pool as well as something from one of the other pools. Skills, however, never seemed to touch mana. She’d compare notes with Mom when she got home but there was probably something useful to be gleaned there.

Conversation was sparse as people poked around their User Information. It turned out that Liz was really high level compared to everyone else. At level six, she was by far the highest level in the group, with Matt being the next highest at level two. She figured some combination of her abilities and the fact she had been running around killing things constantly for a day probably made the difference. She didn’t think much of it though, as it didn’t seem to impact her stats in any way. She had high Stats, but really, she had had high stats before. She just didn’t have a character sheet. Most people in the group had a stat around 4. Liz also stood out here with a whopping big 6 in her mental category. Still, it didn’t feel like anything to get excited about, at least not until she figured out what the number even represented. She refused to believe that some magical system could make her smarter, so she figured it was more just a reflection of who she already was.

As the group continued to poke around the new interface and chat about what it could mean the terrain had taken on a darker and more sinister look. The temperate forest feel had been slowly shifting to deeper shadows and more gnarled trees. At this border zone there seemed to be much more activity. Signs of wolves were everywhere and a nervous Liz scanned the hunched over trees for signs of danger. Her alertness paid off as she picked up some scrabbling sounds and she immediately motioned for the group to halt. She quickly dismounted and quietly made her way towards the sounds.

The trees here were not as tall as they were near her house, but their squat forms had grown broader and were casting eerie shadows. Poking her head from around a trunk she was greeted by a gruesome sight. A murder of crows was busy pecking the corpse of an ice wolf clean. Looking closely, Liz could see a slash vicious gash along the throat of the wolf, implying that something had killed the beast before the crows had gotten there. Liz blinked in realization as the scale of the scene suddenly popped into focus. At first she thought the six crows were just largish specimens of their species, but she then realized that the ice wolf on the ground was an alpha. The relatively small crows were just that, relatively small. Each one was still about three feet tall, and that was really damn big for a bird. Flying creatures meant only one thing to Liz at this point. Time to see if she could get a nice new bird friend.

Pulling her power towards he, she knocked an arrow and focused on a bird that was over to the side waiting for it’s turn to try and get a morsel off of the large corpse. Soon she felt a thread of power form and she extended it to the bird. As it connected, it squawked in alarm, and its compatriots took to wing. Liz wasn’t going to let it go though, and forced her will onto the beast.

“You’re staying here with me,” she projected at full force and the large bird floundered as Liz’s will grounded it. Liz stepped towards it, bow drawn, and charged up a Power Shot for good measure. The creature stooped down in alarm as it perceived the waves of mana now radiating from the arrow Liz had knocked, and began quaking in fear.

“So birdie, how we doing this. You want to be a friend mine, or not?” Liz voiced her thoughts aloud, all the while projecting them to the bird. The bird glanced at Liz, looked at the arrow, and made the smart choice. As it lowered its head in submission Liz felt her thread of connection lock onto the animal and fill a spot in her mind that she didn’t realize existed. A quick examination of that area revealed to her the connections she had to Barry and Moonlight. She felt like this spot was filled though, and unless she figured something else out she knew instinctively that this would be her last animal friend for awhile.

“I have a lot of ideas on stuff we can try.” Liz felt for the connection and strengthened it with her mana. She projected a sense of peace and she saw the raven relax as it lifted its head in a curious manner. The animal looked at her expectantly, wondering what would be happening next. Liz felt a vaguely female mind project curiosity at her.

Ideas are good. The raven thought at her, wondering what would be next.

Liz was somewhat surprised at the clarity of the thoughts. Most of the time she just got feelings and pictures but this bird was practically speaking in full sentences. “Well, I guess we’ll call you, hmm, Alana for now then. Follow me.”

Alana hopped over to Liz and as she exited the copse of trees she gave an all clear to the carriage. The rest of her party had hunkered down, expecting the worst, but all seemed relieved to see Liz emerge unharmed. That quickly changed when Alana suddenly hopped out of the woods.

“Uh, Liz, there’s a giant raven thing behind you, but knowing you, that’s expected, right?”

“Yeah Matt, this is Alana, and she’s my new friend!”

“You seem really good at making friends Liz, but do try and give us more warning. We don’t need heart attacks on top of everything else to make the day exciting you know.” A visibly shaken Bob stated.

“Yeah, sorry, I was just thinking about something I wanted to try with Alana. It should be able to help us out a lot. Can you give me a sec to see if I can figure this out?”

The group nodded, not knowing exactly what Liz was going to do, but trusting her that it would be useful.

Liz picked a nice spot of grass that was still green and not turning brown like so much of the other vegetation in this area, and entered a state of meditation. She pulled a red mana stone out and tried to pull from it. It was much more difficult to get a flow going, and she wasn’t sure if she didn’t already have a connection to her ability that she would have been able to pull anything at all from it. Regardless, she got a trickle, and that’s all she needed. She sent a command to Alana to come over and the raven obediently hopped over to Liz. Liz placed her hand on Alana’s head and attempted to strengthen her link.

Unlike with commands, Liz was trying something different here. She pictured the curious inquisitive eyes of the raven, and sent the threads of mana she pulled from the core to where she knew those eyes were. She shaped her intent and focused her mind further. It was hard, but her taming ability had already created most of the connection she was trying to leverage. This time, instead of just a flow of information and feeling, Liz focused on something more. She felt the connection snap into place and she grinned from ear to ear.

“Fly Alana!”

Alana lept into the air, and Liz gasped in amazement. As the raven soared into the air Liz was able to look through it’s eyes and take in the scenery in all it’s glory. Maybe flying herself would be cooler, but this was pretty damn neat.

“Liz? Did you figure it out?”

“Yeah Matt, I’m looking through Alana’s eyes now. This is awesome, it feels like I’m flying.”

“Ok, good, because your eyes went all white and it’s kinda freaking us out here.”

“Oh my god, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you, but yeah, I guess I only can process vision from one source at a time. That almost makes sense, you know, in a magically using an animal’s vision to see type of sense.”

Liz couldn’t see Matt’s amused smile, but she could imagine it. “Anything interesting out there?”

“Yeah, actually, there’s a couple people holed up in a house close by. We should see if they need help. This is going to make scouting and stuff so much easier.” With that done, Liz pulled her consciousness back into her own body and called Alana back. The giant raven perched awkwardly on the carriage, giving the horse a bit of a scare. Liz pulled out a piece of meat she had been carry around for just this type of occasion and Alana gobbled it down in one go.

Good meats. Thank to Head. If find soaring stones, can have?

At some point Liz would have to chat with all her beasties and see why they all referred to mana cores differently, but for now she was just curious.

Why do you need it? What do soaring stones do?

Soaring stones help Alana grow. Alana grow with Head too. Is the way.

Liz shrugged and held out some of the smaller mana stones she had. Alana pecked at a few and eventually decided to glom one down. The connection strengthened and solidified and Liz knew Alana had grown, she just wasn’t a hundred percent sure how. She added it to her growing list of things to figure out.

“Ok, so I think we need to reach out to folks and let them know about our settlement. We’ll let them pack up for a bit and after we get to Margaret’s we’ll escort them back to our place. Hopefully Mom can figure out more of a housing situation for them. That is, if they want to come.”

“You sure about this Liz? We don’t know these people at all.” A concerned Bob stated. Etta slapped him on his shoulder as he finished.

“Robert, we will not abandon people to this disaster without extending a helping hand. You should be ashamed.”

Bob winced more at the words than the hit, but consented to the plan shortly thereafter. Liz had to admit she had her own worries, but she also realized that when giant roaming packs of monsters was a normal thing, it would be better to band together than try to rough it out alone.

The next portion of the trip ended up taking significantly longer as they ran out to inform the groups of their passing. A weight settled into Liz’s chest as she realized what the survivor rate was really looking like. She had only managed to find another six people. Looking at the rows and rows of empty houses drove home a point she had trying been trying to avoid. If this was representative of the rest of the world, they were looking at a 10% survival rate at best. She knew that the schools and other key locations likely had more people holed up, but it was a faint hope that many more had survived.

Nothing to do for it now, just save who she could. A few of the groups they found were already packed up and readily joined up with the caravan. Liz surrendered her seat on the carriage to some kids who had walked out with their parents and they all looked tired and afraid. The father told a harrowing tale of hiding in the basement while he heard horrible inhuman moaning noises outside and endless howls of wolves.

Liz didn’t like what that could imply but before she could dig into it much they had arrived at Margaret’s. An ornate iron fence surrounded the charming cottage. Scrap metal and lumber were stacked neatly all along the sides of the fence and a teepee housed a blacksmith shop. Liz could see an anvil and other implements of blacksmithing through the fence.

“Marge! Are you in there! Are you okay? It’s Etta! Etta and Bob!”

“I’ll be damned. Look who showed up. That last job I did already wear out and you need some more shoes then?”

A broad shouldered purple haired woman walked out the front door and smiled broadly at the rag tag band that showed up on her doorstep. “Come in y’all, you look tired, and I just put some tea on. You look like you’ve been dealing with the end of the world! Hah!”

Nobody laughed along with Marge’s joke, but her enthusiasm lifted their spirits. The weary band of refugees shuffled into the house and Liz followed in from behind. Etta was bringing Marge up to speed and the powerful looking woman crashed around her living room getting everyone situated with what provisions she had. Liz had to admit she was pretty impressed. Jessie was obviously ready for off the grid living and her wood burning stove was heating up water and finishing up what looked like a loaf of bread. It smelled heavenly, and the group gratefully accepted the hospitality. Along the walls were all manner of ornamental iron work with random swords and weapons sprinkled in. The only consistent theme that Liz could pick out was ‘Metal’, but it worked for the eccentric looking woman.

“Hi, Liz Randall, nice to meet you.” Liz extended her hand.

Marge returned an incredibly firm grip and Liz marveled at the array of tattoos on the woman’s body. She had full sleeves up both arms and they were filled with color and variety. It was somewhat mesmerizing and she tried not to stare.

“Well, Miss Liz, Etta’s been telling me about your digs and it sounds nice, but why should I abandon my home and setup shop with you lot?”

Liz was somewhat taken aback at the blunt question. There wasn’t any hostility in her voice, and Marge’s smile was warm as she asked. She seemed to genuinely want to know what Liz had in mind. Liz took a moment to think about it, but it didn’t take her long to single out the main reason in her mind.

“I can see that you’ve got a lot going for you in terms of being able to live off grid, so I won’t say that you’d be better off with us for that reason. I think you should come down because we’re not just trying to survive. We’re going to find a way to live through this and build back up. Not sure where that will end up, but I do know it will be better than where things are right now.”

Marge’s smile widened as Liz finished. “That sounds like a bang up reason. Let’s get some stuff packed, I’ll take my travel kit, and maybe when we have more time and less tired folks we’ll come back and grab the rest. Looking forward to living with y’all then.”

Liz was amazed at how quickly Marge accepted her answer, but wasn’t going to complain. “Let me do one quick check in the area to make sure nothing is around and I’ll come help pack up.”

A happy grin was on her face as she went out to scout. A blacksmith would be a ton of help. A quick scan cleared the immediate area of threats and with that done, Liz had Matt watch over her as she did a broad areal sweep with Alana. She noticed that she could still access the menus with the ability up and she took the time to look over the information. Her new ability was called Eyes of the Beast, and Mark was going to be super jealous.

Alana soared up and Liz directed her towards a strange structure in the distance. She couldn’t get too far away and maintain the connection, just a couple hundred feet, but Alana’s eyes were sharp and that generally let her get a good idea on what was going on in the area. The strange building had an eerie glow to it and Liz figured it might be another crystal site. As Alana cleared the trees and the structure came into view Liz’s heart sank. Her joy on learning a cool Ability vanished, and the satisfaction of convincing Marge to come along dissipated.

“Everyone! Hurry up! We’re clearing out now!” Liz ran into the house and got everyone up and moving. She rushed out back and helped carry Marge’s travel anvil out and almost wretched her back as they shoved it onto the carriage.

“We have to get moving now, we can come back later if we need, but with more firepower.”

“Liz, I don’t understand, what did you see? Do we have time?” Etta was shaking as she hopped up to the driver’s seat with Bob.

“We have time, they’re moving slowly, but we don’t want to be here.”

“What is moving slowly? Liz? Tell me, please.”

Liz was silent as they got underway. She sent Alana out one more time to confirm what her eyes didn’t want to believe, and then took a deep breath. The strange building that had caught a crystal was in the middle of the largest cemetery in Lakewood. It was constructed primarily from the mausoleum but hundreds of tombstones had been added to its structure. Alana’s keen eyes picked out the things that were grabbing those tombstones and adding them to the growing structure.

“Damn zombies.”

A note from rykov00

I know, we're adding a lot to the monster mix here, but the map provided this very nice landmark to use and I couldn't resist. We'll learn more about them later, but it's just nice to know who your neighbors are.

Any monsters or biomes that people are particularly interested in seeing?

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