Garth lunged to his feet, his makeshift spear held in front of him in a death grip, breath ragged. What the hell just happened? The fluttering of wings was the only sound in the quiet forest. There were no birdcalls, though. He looked up, and saw the sky was dotted with maybe half a dozen small shapes with wings. They didn’t seem like bird wings, more like tiny men with bat wings.
“What the hell?” he said, craning his neck to watch the winged men pass by overhead. Were they with the ghouls, the ‘Kipling’ as the people in his dream had called them? Garth moved beneath the tree, trying to keep out of sight, but the trees without their summer foliage gave him little cover.
The fluttering of wings sounded again, closer this time, sending Garth’s heart into high gear, singing in his ears. Garth put his back to the tree and held the drill bit spear in front of him, searching the sky. He didn’t know what was coming, but he wasn’t going to let it swoop on his back.
The silence held, the only thing Garth could hear was himself trying to keep his breathing as quiet as possible, and the occasional gust of wind turning over a dead leaf.
The fluttering came back, and an ugly, green thing with wings landed on the forest floor in front of him. It had the shape of a man, with a wide frog face and stubby limbs, the round case in its hand nearly too big for its fingers to grasp.
The little thing hopped forward and studied Garth with a curious gaze before holding the round case in front of it, offering it to him. Garth was inches away from skewering the little monster, but he stopped himself. Would something trying to eat him really offer him a case of some sort, rather than calling its friends and devouring him like some kind of sky-piranha?
His right hand still holding the spear on the little man, Garth reached forward with his left, taking the case out of the gremlin’s hand. The case was tough, waterproof brown leather, with a lid on a strap. Without taking his eyes of the creature that seemed to stand back respectfully, Garth tugged the lid off, hoping it wasn’t full of snakes or flesh eating scarabs.
I’ve got too much imagination, Garth thought as the lid came loose, revealing a rolled scroll inside. Glancing back and forth between the vellum and the creature, Garth began to read.
Good morning fellow soldier, please read the entirety of this missive, included is information that will aid in your struggle to survive. – General Karas Intermon.
Hello. If you’re reading this, you’ve earned the right to join the fight against the Kipling. Through whatever means, fair or foul, you have survived the first night and your body has begun to acclimatize to the physics of The Sphere, what we call the coalition of realities that stand against the universe devouring Kipling, a scourge that exists to consume all sentient life in the infinite spectrum of realities.
Our reality is the only one where the laws of physics force the Kipling to have a body; to be mortal. Without us, you would not have known what was happening until you drew your last breath. It is our dearest hope that you will join the battle against them that your world might know peace.
Now that your body has begun to acclimatize to our physics, it has become malleable to some extent. As a reward to all survivors on their second day, The Sphere offers a boon. A free specialization in the attribute of your choice. Once this has been chosen, your body will place excess energy into the chosen field without the need for specialized Heartstones.
This will allow it to increase much faster and further than unspecialized attributes.
Please place a drop of blood on the attribute you would like to specialize in. You may choose not to specialize in any, but there is no benefit to this. If you miss this chance, you may register a specialization or change your specialization by filling out a 10-Z-1998A-2 form at your nearest Sphere Recruiting station in the Inner Spheres. Do not smear the drop of blood or mark multiple attributes, or your request will be denied.
The laws of our reality are such that you are no longer flesh and blood, but a product of will and energy. Every living creature houses this energy in a gemstone beside their hearts. The Kipling are limitless, but we can use this power against them. From now on soldier, if you wish to grow in puissance, look for the gemstone beside a slain foe’s heart. Consume it to enhance your attributes.
When you have finished, return the scroll to the Homunculus and wait one to three Earth days for processing.
Garth looked over the scroll, and checked the back. “They’re not shitting me, are they?” he asked the homunculus.
The frog-like man stood there silently, regarding him with a cocked head. Garth sighed at the lack of response. He had half-hoped it would be able to carry a little conversation. He’d been away from electricity and other people for one day, and he was afraid he’d start naming beach balls.
“Why would they be shitting me?” Garth glanced at the scroll. He couldn’t see any benefit in it for them. If it was a lie, they’d have promised him the world, not bureaucratic bullshit. So now he needed to choose which option to take.
The answer was pretty obvious to Garth. He pulled out one of the smaller knives from his bag and pricked his left thumb, carefully squeezing out a drop of blood onto ‘Intelligence’, the blood sat there for a moment before sinking into the ink and dying the word red.
In any situation where getting smarter was a choice, getting smarter was the smartest choice. There were a few exceptions, but that was Garth’s general rule of thumb.
As Garth was rerolling the scroll, and about to hand the case to the Homunculus, another froglike man landed in front of him, with another case, catching Garth’s attention. Like the first, it offered him the leather-bound scroll case.
“Let’s see what’s up.” He said, opening the scroll.
Garth Daniels, ranked 35216th on your planet for contributions to the war effort against the Kipling, you have received the patronage of Beladia, goddess of hearth, nature, love and fertility. Below, for your convenience, we have included a description of your abilities and blessings.
|Garth Daniels||Human||Blessings of Beladia|
|Speed||11||Empowered Plant Magic|
“Pheremones and Hyper-fertility?” Garth asked, re-reading the table. That sounded ominous. “What, do I jerk off and there’s a kid there in the morning?” It might be better not to try, actually. He’d have to find out if there was a deeper meaning. And pheromones. Was that what the goddess was talking about when she promised love? Just smelling nice wasn’t going to find love.
It reminded him of those sleazy advertisements for pheromones on late night TV and poorly funded websites. Well, it didn’t matter, the first three blessings were better as a package deal than empowered fire magic he may or may not ever get. Was photosynthesis and temperature resistance the reason why she promised he’d never want for food or shelter?
Wait, photosynthesis? Garth looked at his skin and nearly dropped the scroll. He was purple! The sky was just barely brightening, so he hadn’t noticed right away. Between the homunculus scaring him awake, and the contents of the scrolls, he’d been distracted from his appearance.
“What the hell?” Garth shouted, looking over his skin. It was like he’d become part plant. Another thing…Garth breathed out, his breath clouding in the early morning air. He shrugged off one side of his robe, exposing his arm to the cold air. He couldn’t feel it, like the cold didn’t matter so much to him anymore.
It said Temperature Resistance, not Cold resistance. If he were to guess, Garth would think that Beladia had given him the ability to withstand any temperature a plant could.
“Never want for food or shelter,” Garth said, still inspecting his skin. When he pinched it, it still felt pain, and it was no stronger than normal. The texture was the same as before, maybe a little softer. Seems like she made good on her promise, just not in the way I was expecting. Ah well, it helps. The only problem he could see would be having to run around mostly naked all the time to allow his skin to create sugars.
Garth was curious as to whether the photosynthesis could completely offset the need to eat. The mammalian body consumed energy like a mother fucker, so Garth predicted it was more of a supplement than a replacement, but who knew in this brave new world? Would it diffuse oxygen into his bloodstream? Did he even need oxygen anymore?
Garth didn’t have the means to test these, aside from starving himself and holding his breath, and he had better things to do than deliberately weaken himself right now. He turned his gaze back to the scroll, picking up where he left off.
As a significant contributor to the war effort, you killed fifteen first stage Kipling and a Mother, earning the lowest rank of One Star Iron Soldier. With this elevation in status, you will be afforded a stipend of twenty Sphere Credits a week, with a bonus of eighteen for the kiplings you have destroyed.
What was a Mother? Something that spawned them perhaps? He hadn’t seen anything like that in the apartment building, but he’d seen the fire spreading before he left. Whatever the Mother was, it was unlikely it could move very quickly, as evidenced by it being caught up in the fire. It was something he could worry about later.
Garth had a rank now? the lowest one, sure, but he was under the impression that very few other people had even gotten that far.
Garth’s gaze returned to the scroll.
Your pay has been deposited in your name with the Sphere Universal Bank. You may spend your wages at any store in the Core Worlds and various outposts on earth. The Sphere believes that no one should have to fight without proper remuneration.
Garth read and re-read the last paragraphs several times. They gave him pay but not the ability to spend it? The letter didn’t even tell him where to find an outpost. What good was thirty-eight credits if he didn’t have anything to do with it?
He turned the scroll over and checked the back, looking for any extra information, but the back was blank.
“Guess the Sphere Universal Bank doesn’t have to pay its debts that often.” It was basically valueless to Garth at the moment. He was far more likely to die than he was to find one of these outposts.
That outposts existed was good news in and of itself, though. It gave him a goal. The word outpost implied military force. If he could find one, he could find safety and shelter, organization. Someone to ask some pointed questions.
Who knew how much thirty-eight credits would buy him, maybe it was less than the price of a beer, maybe each credit was like an ounce of gold, and he was actually quite wealthy, in either case, that wasn’t what he was interested in. An outpost would be a safe zone. Those were hard to come by.
“Where do I find an outpost?” Garth said, looking at the homunculus, which stared back at him blankly, holding out its clawed hand to receive the tube back. “Agh, fine.” Garth picked up the tube again, aiming to put the scroll back in it, when he felt a slight rattle.
He peered into the leather case, and spotted a slight glimmer. Tilting the tube up, the object tumbled into his hand, revealing a polished wooden idol of Beladia, her nudity almost concealed by carved wooden leaves, blowing a kiss. The figure was only about two inches tall, but it had such intricate detail that Garth knew it had come from her.
A leather strap and a tiny note also fell into Garth’s palm.
Kipling will take many forms, they will change and grow, use them to fuel your own growth, my champion.
Garth took in the words, then looked back at the idol. With a chuckle, Garth slipped the leather strap through a small hole in the idol and hung it over his neck. Garth thought of the dream-rendezvous with the goddess as he touched the wooden figurine.
“She probably ruined me for life.” Garth said. He didn’t think anything would ever compare again. Maybe if he took ecstasy, but that was looking unlikely in the near future.
Garth handed the scroll case back, and the second homunculus flew away, fluttering into the sky, joining the dozens of others in the sky. It seemed like everyone got the welcome letter with the offer of an upgrade, but only a hundred thousand got the follow up letter and a blessing.
How good was thirty-five thousandth anyway? Garth knelt down and scratched seven and nine zeros before a thought occurred to him. They said they split humanity in half, so Garth was ranked out of three point five billion. He erased the seven and replaced it before writing thirty five thousand beneath it, counting the decimal places difference.
Garth’s eyebrows climbed. He was one out of one hundred thousand, approximately, and the people chosen for the god’s blessing were the top three performers out of every hundred thousand. Garth could understand how unusual it was to kill fifteen of those pasty ghouls, but it couldn’t be that unusual, could it? Especially when there were so many kooks with AK47’s and thousands of rounds for them.
Maybe the Mother was a factor.
Garth stood up and reviewed his priorities. He needed to find an outpost, and he needed a group to get there without being mobbed by Kipling or shot by looters. Assuming guns still worked.
He also needed a group for human camoflauge. He was willing to bet people were strung tight enough to shoot anyone on sight with an unnatural skin color right about now. If he had someone walking next to him, demonstrating that he wasn’t a monster, he’d be far less likely to get shot.
Plus he could always hide behind the other people in his group.
Garth pulled his knife out and made himself a nice kilt out of his bathrobe, cinching it around his waist with duct tape. He tapped his wounded foot on the forest floor, and didn’t feel any pain. It must’ve healed overnight. Praise Beladia.
“Welp,” Garth said, setting his spear in front of him like a walking stick while he hefted the tool bag, looking like a wild man. “Time to head out.”
The first thing Garth did was find a stream. If the ghouls were afraid of water, there was nothing more reassuring to have beside him than an impassable obstacle for the monsters.
Once he found a stream, Garth followed it downhill for miles, checking the position of the sun to head roughly back the way he had come. It was dangerous, but he wanted to find people as early as possible.
About three hours into his hike, Garth heard crashing from the woods to his left. Immediately, he ran into the stream and began to wade to the other side.
Moments later, a lankey young girl with short red hair, jeans and a tee shirt, who looked about thirteen crashed through the woods, her eyes wide with panic. Not far behind her, Garth could make out pale shapes running between the trees.
“Come across the river!” Garth shouted, waving to her with his makeshift spear.
The girl spotted Garth and raised a shiny oversized handgun, aimed directly at him.