Liz took deep breaths and tried to get her bearings. The trip back from the high school had been a mixed bag. Most of the schools had at least a few survivors holed up. Some were well organized, some were not, and some, well, some were painfully empty. Dad hadn't let them in those buildings and he had a dark look when he exited the silent structures.
When the buildings had people in them they exchanged information and promised to help relocate or re-supply them. Liz kept busy marking the locations on their map while Dad and Reggie did most of the talking. Mark seemed largely content to just hang out in the bus and practice his mist stuff while Lance just sat silently looking out the window. Liz wondered if he was thinking about the empty buildings. She did her best not to dwell and the survivors they met helped her with that. Their hope and optimism was a beacon that shined through the dark thoughts of her mind.
The contrast all that light and hope had with the darkness troubled Liz. She read enough post-apocalyptic fiction, a guilty pleasure she would never admit to Dad, to know that this was strange. People don't just lose everything and then magically group hug. However, there was no denying that the people she met were all much more supportive than she would have expected. This made her heart warm, but itched at her brain. Something was going on here, she just didn't know what.
Now wasn't the time to solve that particular mystery, though. Rather than have her thoughts racing around Liz decided she needed to focus and that meant creating a to-do list. First up were short term goals.
- Get a tiny pet for spying
- Figure out something in case I run out of arrows
- Check in with her friends
- Make sure Moonlight is recovering well
That done, she allowed herself the luxury of thinking about some long term goals
- Figure out why everyone is so nice
- What the heck is the system
She added a last bullet to her ‘Make sure I can do cooler stuff than Mark’ list just for good measure.
- Learn how to ride a wolf
The first item on the list seemed out of place but it actually filled a gap she currently had. She loved her pets, but sneaky they were not. Alana was a great scout, but a raven the size of a dog was pretty hard to miss. Likewise, Moonlight was as subtle as a ton of bricks: harry wolf shaped bricks. Barry had some potential, but his bright golden coat and need to be pet by every everyone he met might attract some attention to him. He was a good boy though. Liz grinned imagining his antics. Seriously, not a very good spy dog.
As they got close to home Liz was rearing to get her list done. She wasted no time unlatching from her harness as the bus pulled into the driveway. She spared the time to wave to the rest of the bus crew but barely paused as she called Barry over to her. Liz knew exactly what she wanted for a spy and knew where to look. She walked into the house with Barry behind her and grabbed a medium sized plastic bin. She grabbed Mr. Fluffers and used it to make a few air holes. Nodding at her handiwork, she exited the house and set Barry to tracking, filling his tiny and excitable mind with a particular image. Liz positioned herself in a good ambush spot and got ready to act. It didn't take long, and within moments, a small blackish creature scurried out from a bush that Barry had dashed into. Moving to intercept, Liz plopped the box on the creature and smiled. "Phase one complete!"
She peeked into the box and saw a scared looking mouse gazing up at her. "Sorry little guy, but I think we’ll be able to work this out." After carefully sneaking the lid on top of the container Liz walked over to the barn to look for something a little more durable. She knew that the little mouse would break out in no time if left to its own devices. The things had been hounding Dad forever, and no matter how many measures they took to keep them out of the barn supplies, they had always managed to find a way in. The tough little mouse would make the ideal spy.
Heading into the barn she started rummaging around the assorted junk. It took a little bit, but eventually Liz found a strong wire cage that should keep the mouse in. Liz wasn't exactly sure where it came from, but the barn was a wellspring of random things. Years of hoarding made it an exciting and terrifying place to explore. She carefully transferred the mouse into its temporary home, did a few checks to make sure it was secure, and nodded in satisfaction.
Next step, Liz thought. She felt through her connections and tried to get a handle on how her Animal Taming ability worked. She reached out to Alana and Moonlight and tried to closely observe the connection. The emotions of the beasts swirled around her, and were distinctly different than what she got from Barry. She felt along the connection to her little puppy, and thought she got some understanding of what was the difference. Barry had very basic emotions, but no real thoughts. Liz could impose an image into his little brain but he could reply with vague feelings at best. Moonlight and Alana were different. They had a resistance around them that made it hard for her to dive as deeply into their minds. That was fine though because they could also understand Liz's intent much better with just thoughts and suggestions.
Not knowing what direction to take, Liz focused on trying to get a connection first. She pushed her will into the little mouse, but she was having a really hard time forming a thread. With Alana, the power seemed to manifest immediately, but for whatever reason, she couldn't form that tendril at all. Heck with that, she needed a spy mouse. Liz focused more and poured every thought into creating that first contact. She could feel her mana leaking away as she concentrated but she was determined to get this to work. She kept pushing and pushing until she blinked in surprise as the mana warning popped up. Liz forced herself to stop. She thought she had made some progress, but she wasn't going to knock herself unconscious in order to do this.
"Ok mousey. We'll chat again in the morning." Liz grabbed a handful of wheat from a bag in the barn and placed it in the cage along with a bowl of water. Too much to do and too little time. Liz waved bye to the mouse who just stood there looking at her curiously.
Liz walked out and stretched. A crick in her neck made her realize that she had spent way more time trying to tame the mouse than she realized. Looking around to see what other people were doing confirmed this. The sun was low and dinner was being prepared. The last of the meat from the area was being cooked and a table had been hastily constructed for the entire village. Liz chewed on that word for awhile. Yeah, it pretty much was a village now, and really not that bad a start.
She quickly reviewed her priority list and decided that infinite arrows could wait. Liz walked over to the table and sat down next to Elly who was at the end so Biscuit could stay nearby. Casey and Ellen were also around her. Their fascination with Biscuit was less than Elly’s, but still, chatting with a unicorn was a pretty amazing thing to be able to do.
“What’s up girls?”
“Liz! People were asking about you!” Elly exclaimed as she noticed Liz.
“Uh, I was just in the barn.”
“Well, it’s okay anyways, Biscuit and I figured that out pretty quick. You should probably let people know if you want to go and vanish for a few hours next time. You’re a pretty big deal around here you know. Your dad about freaked when nobody had seen you.”
“Biscuit saw you! Biscuit is good at seeing!”
“That’s great Biscuit.” It was hard not to smile at the excitable unicorn. “Hey, would you be okay if Moonlight came by to sit with us too? I wanted to check on her bandages. Oh, also Alana and Barry.”
“It fine! Biscuit like Liz new friends! They smarter about smells than humans. Humans just smell! Haha! Biscuit make smelly human joke!” Biscuit proceeded to prance around a bit in celebration of his own brilliance.
Liz snorted out poorly contained laugh. She didn’t want to encourage Biscuit, but he was a welcome relief.
“Yeah, he can be a handful, but his heart is in the right place.” Elly said in way of apology.
Looking over to Ellen and Casey, Liz noticed they were looking pretty shell shocked. Casey was twiddling the tail end of her braid and Liz knew that meant she was nervous. Ellen’s tell was also showing. She was pushing imaginary wisps of hair behind her ear non-stop. They had smiles on their faces, but it was apparent to Liz that they were faked.
Liz was about to call Alana and Moonlight over, but she decided to hold off. For now she tried to figure out if she could help her friends a bit.
“Hey, you okay?”
Casey turned to Liz with a tremble in her lips. “I’m glad we made it out of the school Liz, it was pretty unbearable. But I’m really worried about everyone. We were doing so well, you know? I managed to unlock the gymnastic skill, and so did Ellen, and it’s been helping a ton, but almost no one else has developed an ability. Maybe we should go back. They might need our help.”
Liz was touched with how much her friends wanted to do the right thing, but there was no way should would be encouraging anyone to go back into the high school until they knew more about what was really going on there.
“We’re going to drop off more supplies tomorrow. I’m working on a plan with Mark and my dad, and when we figure out more about what’s going on maybe we can help out more, ok?”
Casey and Ellen nodded taking some relief in having a plan.
“So that’s for tomorrow. Let’s eat, I’m starting!”
The hours flew by as people took comfort in food and good company. Liz found some time to sneak away and get some tidbits to her pets and check on Moonlight’s injuries. She was healing well, but still was sensitive in a bunch of places. Details that came through her link let her know that it would be a few more days before Moonlight would be up for running around with them. She really wished the healing potions worked on animals, but apparently, they didn’t seem to affect things with mana cores. She thought about the mana cores that Moonlight ate earlier and had an idea.
Want strength rock?
No. Full. No more. Wait for alpha.
Liz didn’t follow along completely, but she sensed that Moonlight and Alana wouldn’t eat any more mana cores until Liz managed to do unlock something or get stronger. Maybe that was for the best. She felt totally in control for now, but her instincts told her that if her pets got stronger before she did it wouldn’t be a good thing. Best not to rush this. She would figure it out eventually. It just meant she needed to get stronger faster.
Dinner wound down and everyone helped clean up. The efficiency of the operation amazed her. It felt more like the village had been together for years instead of barely a day. The skills and abilities people were displaying were likewise amazing to her. Having wandered around, she saw that buildings, barricades, and bunkers were completed. Wooden frames for new housing had also been set up. At this rate they would have little houses instead of a tent city tomorrow, and things would really start to feel like a village.
The garden that was planted earlier was also a thing of wonder. Liz learned that a few people had developed gardening abilities and things they planted this afternoon were already beginning to sprout. Event the existing vegetables that were coming in from the Randal family garden were turning out larger and more delicious than she remembered. Then again, that could also be due to the fact that she was starving, but Liz thought it was probably more than that.
As night fell, another little aurora formed, this time above the giant crystal towards the lake. The mood shifted immediately. Everyone went quiet as they waited, and those that had weapons got ready for the worst. Liz already had an arrow knocked and waited with everyone else and wondered what would happen next. Waiting wasn’t her dad’s style though, and he started shouting out some proactive measures for people to take.
“All non-combatants into the bunker. We don’t have visuals on enemies yet, but we’re not going to take chances. Liz, Mark, take east and west points. I’ll keep watch on the southern front.”
They didn’t have long to wait, and what happened was actually a relief. The mini-aurora spit out a bunch of shooting stars, but it was almost cute compared to the endless waves of the previous night. Even better, all the stars flew to places away from both the house and the elementary school. It was like they were actively avoiding populated areas. To top off the good feels, the system itself provided some positive news.
Stabilization Crystal at power density level 1
Capacity reduced to 7% (80% current)
"All clear to the south! Nothing moving."
Liz called an all clear as well as the people sounded off. It seemed like tonight wouldn't be as crazed as yesterday. After a few more minutes with nothing much happening Dad called everyone back.
"We're setting a watch, but honestly, it doesn't seem like we need to really beef it up over the norm. It's pretty quiet out there. Mary, you have any ideas on this?"
Mom looked up pensively for a moment before replying. "It seems clear that spawns are directly related to this mana that seems to be bombarding the planet now. Those sky crystals, or stabilization crystals I guess, seem to be some sort of regulation system. Considering the information we have, I'd say it's very likely that they are acting as a method of gathering mana and distributing it away from population centers. If we assume that the system we're all seeing was created by a group that wants to help us in some way, it makes a sense."
"Yeah, but what happens if it just builds up and there's no place for the spawns to go?" Mark asked with concern in his voice.
"Lets not wait around to see if that happens. Tomorrow morning we'll clear out those spawns so there's plenty of room for the things. The wolves must have cleared everything out before, but I don't really want to encourage them to run around the neighborhood."
Liz nodded to Dad as he finished. She would have some hunting to do in the morning.
"For now, first watch is up. Use your whistles in case you see anything concerning, but for now, lets try to get some sleep."
Propane lanterns and candles twinkled into existence as twilight faded to night. A deep dark settled in and Liz took a moment to marvel at the sky. The moon was brilliant and the entire sky carpeted in stars. It reminded her of multi-day hikes that were far from civilization. She went over to grab a few candles. She was going to check on her little friend before calling it a night. Not wanting to repeat the panic from before she called out to Dad.
"Dad, I'm going to the barn again. I found one of those mice that always gets in and I'm trying to tame it."
"If you don't manage to do that, kill it. Those damn things eat more of our grain than we do."
"Dad! No, it's just a mouse!"
Dad sighed deeply. This was an old argument and it seemed like he didn't really feel like rehashing it in front of everyone. "Lets not get into this now. Just be careful with it, and be careful in the barn. There's a ton of stuff in there and you could get hurt."
"Dad, I one shotted a giant hippo giraffe monster. I can handle a building full of junk."
He waved her off and went to help organize the first patrol group.
As she made it into the barn she saw that the mouse had somehow managed to bend a few of the wires to the cage. This caused Liz a bit of concern. There should be no way for the mouse to generate that sort of leverage. She looked more closely at the creature and started to form a theory. The little beastie looked up at Liz and blinked as the light came close down to him. It didn't seem to have much fear of Liz, which seemed odd for a mouse.
"You're an odd one little mousey. Maybe you're more than you seem, too. Also, we're going to need a better cage unless I can figure out this taming thing."
Liz did a quick check on her mana and it was back to full. It didn't really take too long for it to charge, but Liz didn't have a good clock to measure it by. In her general observations It felt close to a quarter of an hour, and maybe a third again of that if she was meditating. That meant she could get a few more attempts to form a link before her candle burned out. She carefully placed the candle down in a vase she used as a makeshift candle holder. Knowing the candle would only burn for about half an hour Liz got to work.
"Ok Mr. Mousey, let’s do this."
The mouse just looked at Liz with a strange look.
"Or maybe Miss Mousey. Honestly, I can't tell. Sorry about that. But here we go."
Liz shook her head and focused on the mouse once more. This time, rather than just trying to create the tendril, she took a different tactic. She pushed mana into the area of her mind that made the tendrils. Maybe she just needed more space in this place before she could form another connection. As Liz emptied her mana stores it took all her concentration and focus to squeeze the last bit in, but she felt a slight pulse in the space. She had no notifications to guide her, but it felt like she was on the right track.
Liz breathed deeply and focused on her meditation. She went through a few more cycles of this as her first candle burned down and she lit the next one before the last of the light faded. She should have grabbed more candles, but maybe she should just sleep. The mouse, for its part, had grown bored of the sitting girl and had resumed it's activities of trying to destroy it's cage. Liz was amazed to see that the mouse had found a rock and a stray metal bolt. It had formed a lever with the crude tools and was effectively deforming the cage. It wasn't making much progress, but that was way more complicated a device than what she was expecting a mouse to make.
"Yeah little guy, we're finding a way to work this out tonight because I don't think you'll be around come morning otherwise."
She thought she saw the mouse shrug, but was pretty sure she imagined it. Regardless, it was time to get back to work.
After two more cycles of pushing and regenerating her mana, Liz felt like her progress was slowing. This wouldn't do. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for what she was going to attempt next. She could feel the walls of her Animal Taming space expand with each push, but she just needed more juice. Mana cores didn't seem to do anything for existing powers, so that left one more option. Liz was going to pull on her mental reserves into this too. This was probably going to suck.
Making sure the candle was nowhere near her in case she fell over, Liz began a new attempt to expand her mind. Literally. She even tried to push the mana into formations against the space, leveraging every bit to push against the spots she had felt shift earlier. As her warnings came, she felt the small progress she noticed before, but instead of stopping, she dug deeper. She ignored the warning and focused her entire being on the space.
Liz's mental pool was significantly higher than her magic pool. This became apparent as the extra force and focus she applied began to rapidly transform the space. It was working incredibly well, and Liz was pretty happy with her experiment. She would be a lot happier if it didn't feel like her brain was trying to crawl out of her skull through her eyeballs, but you can't have everything. She felt the space shifting under the pressure until she felt like cracks were forming inside her brain. She grasped that a pattern was somehow emerging and redoubled her focus on that. With her mental energy, Liz traced along these patterns and reinforced them. She was excited at her progress but now it now felt like her eyeballs were clawing back at her brain. She persisted since she could feel the mental space expanding and when sudden cracking feeling in her skull exploded her head in pain.
"I think I did it." Liz stood in triumph, then turned to the side and proceeded to puke her guts out. Curling up into a ball, she was pretty happy that she managed to not get any vomit on herself or her candle. As soon as her head didn't feel like wasps were crawling around in her brain and stinging it, she would clean up. She really hoped that would be soon.
A painful set of minutes passed as Liz focused on the flickering light of the candle. As her mental and magic pools got a sliver of energy back the worst of the pain subsided and she was able to sit up. She cleaned up things around her as best she could and sat for a moment to recover some more. That really sucked. Liz knew other tasks depleted the mental pool, but apparently when you try to shove that power into whatever the heck pathways existed for mana, the body didn't seem to like it. Liz wasn't sure if she could bring herself to do that very often. Still, it was good to know it was an option.
"Let's see how we did."
Liz pulled up her User Information and saw, to her delight, that her Animal Taming ability had increased by one point.
"Alright! Okay mouse, you and me are going to have a talk."
Liz's head was still throbbing but her excitement overcame her pain. She went to form a Animal Taming tendril and was immediately rewarded as her mana formed the familiar shape. Without hesitation she speared it towards the mouse who stiffened and stopped its escape attempts as it felt the considerable pressure of Liz's intent.
Okay! Sorry! What want? Will stop grain steal!
Liz pondered for a moment. The mind she felt was very different from Barry, and more like Alana or Moonlight. She knew it! There was something else going on with this mouse.
You help me now. We work together.
Will get foods? I likes foods. All the foods.
Foods and funs.
And just like that the little mouse joined Liz's menagerie of creatures. Liz immediately realized that this little mouse was also a girl, and decided to name her appropriately.
"Ready to spy on some school kids, Natasha?"
Liz thought it sounded like fun too.