Mark's mind was jumping around a hundred different places. That was working out okay, because he was also doing the same thing in the real world. He wanted to be sure they had everything they needed and there wasn’t a lot of time to get things together. Like, no time. It was crazy that the other kids in their group had gotten the adults to agree to let them go too. Especially Elly. He figured she got away with it because she had really been practicing hard the past couple days with Biscuit and was totally unicorning it up. He wasn’t sure if that was really a verb. Probably was now. She even was starting to get a little nub of a horn. How crazy was that. Mark wasn't terribly surprised he hadn't noticed though because he was working on the obstacle course the past few days.
Leaving was weird. Everyone wished them luck and stuff even though Jocelyn's power was supposed to be a secret. Apparently she had told a few people, who had told a few more people, and eventually everyone seemed to know what was going on. On the way out the they were followed by shouts of encouragement and well wishes. That was cool.
Everyone had run to do a quick grab and were now forming up in front of the house, trying to stay ahead of the zombie horde. Mike was the only one currently standing there and Mark walked over to him. Mike still hadn't said anything that Mark had ever heard.
Seeing as they were going to be here for at least another few minutes, Mark decided to try again. “Comon, just tell me a little bit about your magic system thingy. You totally stole my idea for paper charms anyway, so you should let me know at least something, right?”
After seeing Mark’s explosive charms Mike had started writing things on paper and infusing it with mana. Apparently it worked well enough and was a heck of a lot more convenient than trying to find specific materials. Mike could do all sorts of weird stuff with sound as long as he had enough time to prepare something. However, Mike just shrugged. He didn’t really know how to explain things to Mark and while he had a lot of stuff prepared, he was pretty sure he was the only one who could use his new spells because the medium of paper was unable to be easily activated unlike some of the other objects he had managed to empower with mana.
Mark shook his head in a bit of confusion as the information from Mike’s shrug translated into his head but he figured it must be some other aspect of his ability. Hopefully they’d have time to really dig into things, because having flexible magic systems for the camp would be really awesome. No time to think about it now though because everyone else in the away team had come out and they were ready to head out.
Liz had Moonlight in tow, but after a quick pause she turned around and patted her wolf on the head. “Moonlight, you stay here, guard Mom and the house. Make sure nothing gets inside, ok? Alana, you too. Run messages between the house and the elementary school if they need it.”
“Aren’t we going to need them too Liz?” Mark said with some hesitation. He didn’t want the house overrun either but Moonlight was fully healed now and Alana was like the best wide area scout ever.
“You get me and my bow. That’s enough for anything we’ve seen plus more. If we can’t take stuff out with that, Moonlight and Alana aren’t going to make a difference, but it could be really important for back here.”
Mark nodded. With that taken care of, it seemed like there was nothing else to do but head out.
“We all good?” Mark asked as everyone did one last check. He saw a chorus of nodding heads. Elly, Liz, Mike, Lance, and Jocelyn had looks of determination on their face. Also, some random guy was also there.
“I’m heading over to the school too, but figured I’d run with you for part of the way.” Random guy with bow said.
Mark didn’t mind it much as eager as he was to take off. “Ok then, let’s go!”
Elly stepped up and whispered something and a glow settled on everyone. Suddenly Mark felt like he was light as air.
“This is part of the Unicorn Friend package. Got a lot of travel helping powers. We’ll be, like, totally lighter as long as I maintain this, so we can run faster with less effort. Also if we need to port out of danger or something I think I can blink us away from most stuff.”
“That is awesome! This is so good! Thanks Elly!” Mark was grateful that everyone would be able to move faster. He probably would have gone crazy waiting for everyone to catch up with him otherwise. Without another word Mark fired up a mana shield and took point and everyone fell in line behind him.
You never really appreciate how much weight impacts the speed at which you can run until you suddenly don’t have to deal with it anymore. It took awhile for the group to hit their stride, literally, but when they did it was a pretty dramatic thing. A few faceplants accompanied their learning curve but it was totally worth it as they started gliding down the street. Not only was it easier to move, but it was a heck of a lot less fatiguing. They were moving close to the speed the bus usually took and making good time until a roar interrupted their trip. A bear-thing, like the one Mark and Liz had encountered on their first day, jumped out from the side of the street and dashed towards the group. Lance tripped up in surprise but quickly rolled to his feet as the monster approached.
Mark jumped over to help Lance deal with a bear thing but by the time he got there it wasn't needed. Lance had been working on his Knife Arts after a bit of practice he could extend his blades with a shadow sword type thing. Mark thought he totally stole that from Natasha, but apparently people had a much easier time learning new abilities when they had a model to base it on. At least, that's what his Mom said, and she was generally right about those sorts of things. Lance quickly turned back and returned to formation, barely missing a beat.
“Sorry about that, I tripped. Lets keep going.” He must really be worried about George.
They resumed their trip and Mark again got caught up on how fast they were going. Between Elly's power to help make people lighter and the overwhelming firepower of the group, nothing in the area really stood a chance. Which was good because they would say ahead of the horde of zombies, but bad because they wouldn’t be able to point that awesome firepower towards the zombies. Mark hoped everyone would be okay, but Mom and Dad were totally kickass and he couldn't imagine them losing to dumb zombies. Wait, weren't they supposed to be escorting someone?
"Where did the hunter guy go?" Mark asked nervously finally realizing that the random party member was missing.
"Seriously Mark? He left like three minutes ago to head to the elementary school. You even waved to him." Liz replied with a little frustration in her voice.
"Oh, yeah, that. Duck!"
“Duck! A duck!” Mark repeated in alarm pointing.
Liz, finally figuring out what he was trying to say, dived down and rolled with an arrow knocked as a mallard duck flew distantly overhead. It turned out she didn’t need the evasive maneuver, as the duck was not attacking them.
“Cool roll sis, but it’s just a duck. Oh, I see how that could have been confusing.”
"Mark. If you do that again I may have to shoot you."
"But my magic armor thingy would totally block it now!"
"Not my point, but seriously, you need to calm down."
"But that's like the first actual duck and not crazy mutated bat duck I've seen in like forever!"
"You know, you're right. Still, please don't shout 'duck' if you see another one. There's enough to worry about without adding that to the list."
Liz sighed and motioned for everyone to circle around her. "Ok. Everyone, let's circle around south of the high school, I don't want to risk running into the sherrif and crew while we're out and about. Mike, do you have any of those silence spells that we can use in case we run into him?"
Mike handed out a few slips of paper.
"And we just slap them against our skin and they active, right?" Clarified Mark.
Mike nodded, but also handed them a piece of seashell. They would need to consume the bit to activate the spell because the medium of paper was only activatable if they had his power. The seashell was able to be a medium for other people to use his power but it turned out it was pretty hard to get seashells in landlocked Colorado so this seemed like a more efficient way of utilizing their resources.
Everyone looked at Mike oddly as they accepted the seashell bits, but let the moment pass since they really didn’t have any time to explore Mike’s odd abilities.
Mark broke up the awkward silence as they got ready to resume their trip. "You holding up okay at this pace Jocelyn?"
"Yeah. I'm okay. Elly's been helping a lot, and so has Biscuit."
"Biscuit is the best! He's the best Unicorn! No unicorn is as good as Biscuit at Housey House!"
"That's right! You're the best!" Elly encouraged him.
"Just what we need, Mark in magical horse form." Liz said under her breath.
"What was that?" Mark asked.
"Mark, keep up the close range scouting as we go out. I'll try to keep eyes out for more distant stuff. I wish we had Moonlight to sniff things out but I still think they house will need her more."
Liz paused to take a deep breath.
"Okay, let's keep moving people. Also, Natasha, you hang out with Jocelyn for now. Keep her safe, ok?"
Natasha squeaked affirmatively and bounded over to Jocelyn's shoulder. Jocelyn staggered a bit under the mouse's weight until she balanced out. It was easy to forget exactly how heavy the little mouse was compared to her size, but that also made he deceptively deadly. The magical mouse could pack quite a punch.
The rest of the trip passed in the same haze that it started in. So much was going on and Mark wasn't great at keeping track of all of it. There was some chatter, but it was all tense and people were not making a very good attempt to keep the conversations going. Thankfully Mark was all over the place and wasn't dragged into any particular topic and everyone was grateful when they finally arrived at the base of Green Mountain. Nothing that appeared lived much more than a few seconds but a lot of the time it would be blasted by a couple people. There was no coordination in what they were doing. They had never really worked together as a team and it showed.
"Ok, this isn't working people." Liz noted as everyone shuffled around uncomfortably. "Let's get organized. Jocelyn and Elly, you're at the rear. If things get too dicey you need to find some distance. Neither of you really has a good attack ability so just stay safe and keep behind me if possible." The two girls nodded and moved to the back of the formation.
"Mark, you're the tank. Your armor is stupidly tough and you can soak up the most damage, so you get to lead. Lance, you back him up since you need to be in close with your ability. Mike, focus on protective and support spells, and I'll keep things off people in general. Let's keep the chatter to a minimum until we get a feel for this. Ready?" The group nodded and they started their way up the mountain.
The hike was strangely familiar, as most of the kids had done the trail multiple times. Those times were very different however. Mark distinctly remembered there was less rainforest jungle on the trail last time. He had to get his katana out just to clear some of the worse parts of the trail as they made their up. Fortunately, it was mostly vines at the bottom of the trail but as they got closer to the top where the crystal had fallen it was a different story.
Mark craned his neck upwards as they rounded a bend, slack jawed in wonder at the massive trees that had sprung into existence the past few days.
“These were not here before.” He noted.
“Ya think?” The transformation was so dramatic that Liz’s powers of sarcasm were taking a hit and the scorn was decided lacking from her response.
As they got close to the summit the pattern of trees suddenly shifted. The spacing became so tightly packed that there wasn’t even space for them to squeeze through. The was a solitary path leading into an opening and Mark rushed forward to try and see inside. The canopy formed a solid roof as the path continued and Mark saw branching paths away from the main road leading in. The way it was configured suddenly gave him a thought.
“It’s a dungeon. It’s totally a dungeon.” He concluded returning to the group.
“Technically, it’s a construct to contain the stabilization crystal designed to bleed off excessive energy and provide minimal interface into updating zone settings.” Jocelyn supplied.
“Yeah, dungeon. Just like I said.”
Liz opened her mouth to disagree on principle, but found herself speechless. Mark nodded smugly. It was totally a dungeon.
“Ok, so I’m really hoping George isn’t in there by himself because this is just crazy.” Mark walked back up to the entrance and started scouting around. The trees parted to give a reasonably large entrance into the structure and it had to be about twenty feet high.
Everyone else walked up behind him to take a look as well.
“Looks confusing. Jocelyn, you have any idea where we’re supposed to go in here?” Liz inquired after looking around. Mark really hoped the answer was yes because the thing looked like it was specifically designed to be a maze.
“Hold on, let me check to see if I have anything from Junior.”
“Who’s Junior?” Mark asked, confused.
“He’s the Junior Admin I’ve been communicating with. He’s been really bad at telling me details, and he never offered his real name and calling him by his handle felt really weird. So I just call him Junior. In anycase, yeah, here, there’s a really bad map drawn in ASCII art and some instructions. He also put a note at the end saying sorry about Pete.”
“Okay, who’s Pete then?” Mark asked a little bit exasperated.
“Junior said he’s the admin who was responsible for designing this support structure, and our region in general. Said he was obsessed with Pirates or something, and that when we got to the admin room we’d understand and that he was sorry. I really don’t know anything else other than that.”
“I don’t see any signs of anyone entering, but I do see a ton of ape tracks. I’m guessing George hasn’t gotten here yet.” Liz noted as she finished her own scan of the area.
“I guess we just hold here until he shows? And if it’s getting close to storm time we head in and hope for the best?” Mark suggested.
Just then a largish golden ape popped it’s head out of one of the side hallways and cocked its head as it studied the group at the entrance. Mark lifted a knife to take the creature out but its eyes widened and it bolted back down the hallway before he could act.
“Maybe we scared it away?”
The sounds of pounding feet and screaming apes started coming from the hallway.
“Or maybe not.” Liz deadpanned.