Having no obvious target, they decided to drive into the western part of the city and do reconnaissance. Westhills was not some small town that could be crossed on foot.
It wasn't long before they found something that led them to abandon that plan and their vehicle. In the middle of the street, a car was being held a foot above the road. Their little of Users exited their car and stood, wearing their masks and taking in the sight.
A blue car had been pierced from below by pale yellow roots as thick as his arms. Pierced was maybe the wrong word. It looked like they had grown right through the car, lifting it up in the air and burst the car as they grew two stories in height. The tops were rounded and covered in white wavy hairlike tentacles; hence their masks.
Derrick repressed a shudder. It seemed it had happened so fast that at least one person had been unable to escape. From a shattered window a moldy arm was still dangling. Another corpse lay below the car, strewn across chunks of torn up asphalt. It was so eaten by black mold that they couldn't tell what sex it had been or how long ago it had happened.
“Poor bastards were close to safety too,” said Blake with rare empathy.
Derrick easily followed his reasoning. It seemed like the car's passengers had been trying to escape the Spore Tyrant zone. Probably hadn't even been Users, just people running from the monsters.
“Well, this looks like 'defences' at work to me,” said Kate as she scanned the surroundings. “Which means there is probably a Node around here somewhere. How do we find it?”
“Food,” said Jenny intensely. “What is around here for them to eat?”
Derrick gave the surroundings a once over. Having been in the city for only a few months, he'd never been to this area and had no idea what monstrous space mold might find tasty. Anything organic presumably.
Car dealership? No.
Furniture warehouse? No.
Wait, furniture was made of wood and wood was organic. Just maybe...
“We all agree it's in the cake factory right?” Blake said, interrupting his thoughts.
Derrick discreetly turned around to join the others in looking at the bakery and packaging plant. The huge industrial building was two stories tall and had a parking lot for hundreds of cars. A giant pink cupcake logo was painted on the side. From here, thousands of cakes had been produced a day, packaged and shipped across the continent. It looked almost normal, if abandoned. The subtle clue being the pale tendrils growing out of its windows, clinging to the side of the building like leafless ivy.
“Of course ,” he replied as the others nodded. “Just wait a second, I want to try something.”
Derrick pointed his hand towards the factory and gave the device on his wrist a mental command. Hopefully his new scouting tool would let him avoid any landmines or other traps this time. The System had said it was useful for finding living things and he imagined everything the Spore Tyrants made qualified as living.
Nothing was happening. He tried again but still nothing happened. He gave his arm a little wave. He frowned, what was that feeling? Hollowness? Was it trying to tell him that the battery was still empty?
“What the hell are you doing?” Jenny asked.
Derrick sighed and dropped his arm. He'd been hoping to prove his competence and instead he just looked like an idiot. Fucking figures.
“I bought a scouting tool and a trait to use it,” he replied and held up his wrist so that the others could see the device strapped there. “Apparently, the trait hasn't kicked in yet so it doesn't work.”
Derrick saw Kate eyeing the entangled car warily. No doubt imagining how fun having one of those try to grow through you would be.
“How long until it starts working do you think?” she asked.
“No idea,” he admitted and shook his wrist. “Could be hours. Even then, I'm not sure how useful it will be. The System is kinda vague about how this stuff works.”
The first thing the System gave Uses should be a fucking manual, not sharp objects.
“We should kill that,” Blake said, interrupting his thoughts while pointing his sword at the stalks impaling the vehicle they had just passed.
“Why,” asked Jenny incredulously.
“Because it's alive.” the blonde sword wielding User replied with narrowed eyes. “That means it's doing something. Something we should stop it from doing.”
“Leave it alone,” said Kate with a roll of her eyes. “You'll get plenty of chances to use your sword later. We should at least try to spot this Node before attacking things, be subtle.”
Derrick felt his eyebrow raise. They were walking towards an alien infected factory in broad daylight without cover, did this really qualify as subtle? The only less subtle plan he could think of would be to drive their car right through the front door and run screaming through the factory.
“So we've all been sprayed by acid before,” Derrick said as he considered the path to the factory. He resisted the urge to take off his mask and scratch at the melted skin on his face. “Let's try to avoid that this time and walk cautiously and lightly. Who knows what sets those stalks off.”
Without wasting any more time, the group moved through the parking lot. They'd agreed a direct line across the asphalt parking lot was probably safer than going the long way around across the lawn.
Derrick took the lead with Blake right behind him, followed by Jenny with Kate at the rear.
There were suspicious cracked mounds all through the parking lot and Derrick was careful to keep at least twenty feet away from them. That caused them to walk a winding path but they safely made it through the parking lot without awakening whatever horrors slumbered below.
The problem came when they came to the front door. It was tiny, but he saw a bump in the paved sidewalk that led into the factories front doors.
He scanned the manicured lawn to both sides of their route and saw nothing out of place. He stepped off the path and tried to bypass the bump. As soon as he stepped off he heard a odd snapping sound and panicking tried to identify it.
The grass he'd stepped on looked fine but was very dead, the sound had been the dry grass falling apart under his feet. That wasn't a good sign.
Immediately two things happened at once, a trio of pale yellow spikes exploded out of the ground towards him and Blake's sword arced down to cut them in half.
Derrick leaped backwards as the ends of the spikes fell to the ground. The bottom's of the spikes didn't stop just because the top were cut off. They warped and swelled, spiralling out towards the group. Slower than before but still faster than a human could hope to avoid, Derrick threw an axe at the base, trimming two of them at ground level before they could reach anyone. With three swings of his sword Blake cut the last apart in mid air.
“Enhanced reflexes, bitches.” said Blake with a smile as the stalks' stumps failed to regrow.
“Congrats, you're a super human weed whacker,” said Kate.
“Thanks,” said Derrick to other male User and then pulled his axe out the ground. He was a little jealous of Blake's reflex trait. Hopefully Auril Heart turned out to be useful in a fight.
The group watched the building for signs of alarm but everything was silent and still.
“Is this a trap?” asked Kate a she peered into the unlit building. “How smart is this fungus supposed to be?”
Derrick could only shrug. None of them had any idea. One one side, it was capable of FTL travel. On the other, it was a fungus. It didn't appear to be very smart so far.
With the way clear, they pushed open the glass doors and entered an empty but normal looking reception. Just a receptionist's desk, a waiting area and two steel doors. Bright pink cake logos covered every surface of the infested building.
Jenny moved ahead of Derrick and peered through one of the small windows built into the door.
“This one leads upstairs. Probably to more offices,” she said. “We should clear those first and get a good look at the factory floor from above.
No one had a better plan, so with Blake now leading the way, they climbed the stairs. In seconds Blake was halfway up and all of them but Kate were on the stairs at the same time.
It was then that tentacles erupted from beneath both ends of the stairs. Sickly yellow spikes bursting from the seams in the stairs faster than anyone but Blake could hope to react.
Derrick couldn't see what was happening behind him but he heard a scream at the exact same moment he felt something drive itself up into his thigh. The force of it would have knocked him down the stairs if it hadn't also impaled him.
He let out a gasp and and a second later a sword cut him free. Eyes bugging out of his head, he pried his fingers into the spike by the cut end and ripped it out.
A blur of limbs and tentacles let him know that Blake at least was mobile and fighting back, so he turned around and stumbled down the stairs.
He fell, but strategically, grabbing onto tentacles as he tumbled. His axe cut into a stalk that had grown up the wall and was threatening to entangle Jenny. Seconds later he dragged another down the stairs with him as he fell past her. Blake should be able to do a better job of cleanup, he just wanted to get out of the way and attract as much attention as possible.
At the bottom he saw Kate pinned to a wall by her shoulder, her blood dripping down a giant pink cake logo. Taking in the scene he felt his stomach drop. She seemed stunned as she held the offending tentacle in what he hoped wasn't a literal death grip.
He felt a very complicated mix of feelings as he swung his axe into the base of the stairs where the tentacles had burst from and ran past without slowing.
Having those stalks inside of you had to be a bad in so many ways. He needed to get them out as fast as possible.
Arriving in front of her. Dropping is axe, he stopped his mad tumble by kicking the concrete wall and grabbed the offending stalk with both hands.
In a bit of adrenaline fuelled heroics, he kicked out against the wall and tore Kate free, the act causing him to fall backwards on his ass with the tentacle in his hands. He panicked for a second as he threw the freed tentacle away from his face and down the hall.
Tyrant Stalk destroyed, unlocking database entry.
After that he was spent and sat dazed on the floor. All his actions had happened in a blur of instinct and he just sat there, breathing heavily. He may of hit his head at some point, he couldn't remember. The somewhat stunned User noticed Kate find her balance and jab a small device into her skin. She offered him his hand and his addled brain almost tried to kiss her as she raised him to his feet with her good hand.
That would have been mortifying. Also, it would have complicated things he'd rather remained simple. Survival was all he really wanted to focus on.
“Use your antidote injector,” Kate commanded him with concern, an emotion he was pretty sure she'd never shown before. That reminded him that he had also been stabbed. He should do something about that. He shuddered as he imagined black mold eating him from the inside, like the corpses they had passed in the street.
He grabbed the injector from where it was stuck to his shirt and as soon as it touched skin, he felt a prick and sudden pressure.
“Are we winning?” Derrick asked seriously.
“Never change you sweet sweet idiot,” Blake replied from behind him. “Me and Jenny avoided unwanted penetration. So I guess the question is how are you two? ”
“I don't think I can use a rifle accurately,” Kate replied with a wince. “I should be able to keep going though. Let's get a good look at this place and decide what to do from there.”
Derrick took a deep breathe before answering, waiting for the stars to leave.
“I'm good,” he said as he stood without issue. “Just a bit dazed.” The spike had been thin when it pierced his thigh and he'd torn it out before a full second could pass. He hoped Curative Blood would keep him going. He already felt his head clearing, which he was going to take for a good sign and not shock setting in.
“Onward then,” replied Blake and led the way back up the stairs, trampling leaking tentacles as he went.
At the top of the stairs was a empty hallway with doors leading into completely average offices. Through small windows they saw desks still covered with knickknacks and a wide variety of ergonomic office chairs. They moved past them down the hall, until they found themselves on a landing that oversaw the factory floor.
They moved onto the metal platform and took in the sights.
Only small windows illuminated the factory floor, so shadows covered most of it. A maze of industrial equipment stretched out before them, silent and dark. One had to look closely to see the tendrils of the Spore Tyrant that infested this place. They ran across all the surfaces and out a few windows, coming from a central point, a giant pillar of fleshy fungus that rose in the centre of the factory from ceiling to floor.
It seemed to have grown from a collection of large steel vats used to make delicious treats before the Scourges arrived. For seemingly having been made from sugar and flour, the thirty foot tall and six foot thick spire of pale flesh was very solid and intimidating.
Idly, Derrick wondered when the next time he would taste cake would be in the post Scourge world.
“Let's not fight that... thing,” Jenny offered.
Privately, Derrick agreed. Who knew what it was capable of?
“How many Sterilization Grenades do we have?” Was what he said despite his reservations. No doubt the slight bulge in the middle of the pillar was 'the node' they were after and he doubted bullets would do much of anything to somethign that big.
“Hit and run?” asked Blake.
“Hit and run,” replied Derrick with complete certainty. Too bad the windows were broken. The building should contain the gas anyway he guessed, it wasn't windy and the windows were tiny.
It turned out they had eight sterilization grenades between them, including his two. It would have to do.
They didn't want to risk separating, so they decided to just throw them all off the landing. The factory area was about three hundred feet across. By throwing all eight grenades at the middle of the room, they should be able to drown the building in sterilization gas and kill the node.
Without its brain pillar, the Spore Tyrant infection should be pretty easy to escape from. Theoretically. Both Jenny and Blake insisted that they had amazing throwing arms, so while Kate and him watched, they sent sterilization grenades arching across the factory floor. All four of them watched as a white mist spread across the ground below them.
“That was easy enough,” said Jenny, sending a spike of primal fear through Derrick. Even Blake flinched at the naked challenge to fate she'd just made.
Fate Answered. Amost immediatley, just on the edge of his hearing, he heard a scuttling sound. He focused in that direction and he saw the shadows stir, moving until they broke apart into dozens of small creatures that ran up the machinery and began to make their way towards them while avoiding the pooling gas.
“That's our cue,” said Kate and she moved back into the offices and away from the leaping things.
They were like asymmetrical spiders the size of soccer balls. Just bumpy spheres with a half dozen tentacles that flung them forward awkwardly but with surprising speed and enthusiasm. Just as Derrick was turning to retreat, he heard something fall from the ceiling above them. A glance over his shoulder showed three of the creepy things had fallen onto the platform from above. His monkey instincts had failed him, why had no one looked up?
One hit the ground and bounced right at him, only to meet the bottom of his foot. Another, he whacked out of the air with a well placed axe strike.
Instead of flying away though, the one he kicked stuck to him. Embarrassingly, he panicked and flailed around in circles until Blake sliced the thing in half. Unluckily that didn't make the rest of it let go. It stopped moving but didn't fall off, leaving large clumps of squishy flesh stuck to him as he tried to run away.
As the others ran ahead, he smeared the thing against the ground until his foot was clean enough that he could catch up with the others.
Tyrant Sporeling destroyed, unlocking database.
He was frankly surprised it didn't explode or something. Perhaps Blake had killed it too soon or it wasn't fully grown.
When Derrick made it through the doorway and back into the office, he slammed the door shut and immediately heard soft thumps from the other side.
He spun in place when he heard shattering glass. It wasn't something coming in though it was Jenny throwing a office chair out the window and leaping after it. A good call, the reception below them would be flooded with those things any second now.
They were only on the second floor, they should be able to make the jump down without injury. Especially since a tree was just outside the window. The only person he was worried about was Kate because of her wounded shoulder. She leaped from the window without hesitation and hit the ground running. Apparently he was worried about nothing. The last of their group in the office, he jump down as well.
Maybe it was because of being a User, but he found the landing easy. Looking up, he saw Blake retracing their path through the parking lot, while from the broken windows of the cake factory, dozens of writhing and bouncing creatures scarpered towards them.
Some quick estimations told him that the writhing things were only slightly faster than them. They tended to move in bursts, throwing themselves forward and then taking a second to position their wriggling tentacles for another burst.
“Fuck,” screamed Blake as he missteped and had to trim a trio of tentacles that broke out of the ground.
That was bad but Blake quickly cut them down and led the way again. They were still clearly going to make it.
Two snapping sounds announced the explosive growth of two more Tyrant Stalks. Not in front of them, but far behind. Normally that would be much better but they had been set off by the sporeling creatures that were chasing them and instead of impaling them, they launched the little fuckers at their fleeing group.
Two chains of them arced through the sky, letting go of each other at the top of the arch and falling around their group like rain.
Jenny managed to snipe three out of the air with her pistol, knocking them away at least but the rest landed and bounced towards them.
Spiky pale stalks shot up from the ground to block their way as the sporelings bounced around. This had gotten very bad, very fast. The way was blocked and easily thirty of the sporeling were coming at them. Who knew what else as well. What could he do?
Lash! Thought Derrick and was surprised when it worked.
The drug kicked in immediately and everything slowed down. It wasn't a huge effect but it did help. He pivoted and hacked, his axe lashing out three times with enhanced speed and accuracy. A second later he cut growing stalks with the same speed as Blake had been. His little area clear, he began to run, not bothering to avoid the stalk traps but cutting through the closest one.
He was gambling that his Lash time wasn't going to end in the next moment, it was hard to keep time when you were taking a mind altering drug for the first time. He won that gamble though, if only barely. Just as he trimmed the spikes that shot at him, he felt his mind and body fall back into normal speed. Confused by the change he stumbled but didn't fall.
Someone shoved him forward and he ran with it, reaching the street right behind Jenny and dashing to their car. He opened the passenger side door and jumped in the back, letting Kate and Blake in just seconds after him. Doors slammed shut and Jenny gunned it, quickly leaving the cake factory behind.