Garth put a hand underneath him and shoved off the ground, propelling himself up and away from the insect-creature.
Garth tumbled awkwardly through the air, tucking his limbs in as the creature eating Mutton-Chops flinched and snapped at him, hissing in indignation as he flew over its back.
Sailing through the air above them, Garth got his first good look at the creatures in the second before he hit the ground again.
Smooth, flat bodies with a teardrop shape. long, oar shaped legs that folded neatly into the monster’s carapace. They wore camouflage brown and green shells that faded into the forest.
They looked a bit like a kite the size of a horse with legs and razor sharp mandibles.
Then Garth hit the ground and started running.
“Wake up, Yenner swarm! WAKE UP!”
“They got the captain!”
“Shit, Get off me!”
The sound of combat and screams of pain filled the air as Garth ran, and in the chaos, he almost didn’t made out the dark lump of hard shell hurtling toward him from the woods.
One of the creatures leaned way back on it’s long legs and thrust itself forward, like a man throwing a dart. Except in this case the dart was it’s body, several hundred pounds of bludgeoning force, speeding toward him at something like a hundred miles an hour.
Garth heard the sound of air being cut through as it extended barbed forelimbs to skewer him.
Garth threw himself to the side, barely pulling himself out of range of the creature’s talons.
His chains, though. Those got hit.
Garth was yanked up and into the air with neck-breaking force, slamming against the flat side of the remarkably aerodynamic creature as it pulled him along by his chains.
It immediately tried to spin and bite him, so Garth latched onto it’s side and didn’t let go.
Garth used his meager ability to harness mana to create a poisoned wooden shiv and stabbed it into the creature’s carapace, using it as a handhold to pull himself up further onto the creature’s back.
A couple seconds later, the creature stopped moving, the poison cocktail rendering it inert.
Take that, fucker, Garth thought, panting, his left arm slowly swelling from where the force of the impact had shattered it. If the thing had managed to hit him dead on, his chest would have collapsed, and he’d have probably woken up in front of the Garth Tree again.
With a minor effort of will, Garth unlocked the manacles on his wrists and glanced around the battlefield.
There was nobody left alive. In just a few seconds, a swarm of the horse sized monsters…Yenner, he thought they’d called them, had completely annihilated the camp. Everywhere he looked, Yenner were feasting on dead humans, dead horses, and the occasional dead Yenner.
Down the road, Garth could make out where a handful of the camp’s horses had managed to escape, throwing up a dust cloud as they ran.
Time to go.
Garth leapt off the Yenner, weaving light mana around him as he went.
Garth was overlapped with illusion magic, suddenly looking like nothing more than another Yenner, looking for its own scrap of meat.
Garth grabbed his backpack and jumped through the feeding frenzy, towards the horses.
His illusion was rough, and it didn’t have any substance to it, owing to his low mental stats. Its scuttling legs occasionally flickered out of existence and the carapace went through things it wasn’t supposed to. It wouldn’t have fooled a human.
But they were stupid insects. It wasn’t a problem.
Garth leapt out of the encirclement of Yenner, some twenty feet before he sprinted for the horses, his legs a blur beneath him, air rushing through his ears almost painfully.
What am I doing, forty-five miles an hour? What is with my new body?
Garth was starting to appreciate why some people chose for higher physical builds.
He understood it, but it was still stupid.
As the girl in that one commercial said a long ass time ago, ‘why not both?’
Garth caught up to the horses in a couple minutes and leapt onto one, guiding it along the road to Outpost 3502 as he re-fused the bones in his left arm.
“I made this road, you know.” Garth said to his horse as they trotted along the ancient, cracked concrete. They had joined the main concrete path, set down so many years ago, merging with a constant stream of traffic moving east and west. None seemed to take the fork in the road to L.A.
The horse snorted in disbelief.
“Alright, fine, I commissioned it. Geomancers were better suited for the job, anyway. And besides, rich people take credit for things done on their behalf all the time.”
Garth looked up from the horse’s mane and glanced behind them, where the other four horses meekly followed, their herd instinct driving them along. A few travelers gave him curious glances, but nobody tried to stop him.
Off in the distance, Garth made out the ancient stand of trees of Clarkstown, hollowed out and broken without water or magic. The sight drove another sinking lead weight into the pit of his stomach.
It really had been eight hundred years.
An hour later, the sight ahead of him stopped him in his tracks.
Outpost 3502 had gone from a little township dead in the desert to a massive hub of trade bridging the east and west seaboard. Heavy stone walls ringed the city in at least five layers, from the glittering homes of the nobility in the center, in progressively more meager housing the closer to the outside they got.
A little shanty of tents clustered around the outside of the wall, where the poor in homespun wool rested, and the sick waited to die.
The sight of the city itself wasn’t what gave him pause.
It was the fifty foot flags hanging from the walls that depicted Jim’s face, stoic and chiseled, staring nobly out into the desert, like a modern chairman Mao.
The leather of the pommel ripped quietly under Garth’s grip.
I knew this would happen. I just didn’t expect to still be alive for it.
Garth took a deep breath and tried to look at the bright side.
At least the face on the wall was a human.
Garth took a deep breath. Better get this over with. He urged the horse to start moving again, drawing him closer and closer to the giant face on the walls.
If Jim was dead, they were worshipping him, Garth had to burn it to the ground.
If he was still alive, he’d spend the rest of his life as a small woodland creature.
Gotta deliver on your threats.
Paul Tucker surveyed the devastation, his stomach churning at the sight of the slaughter.
Half-eaten carcasses of knights and horses were strewn across the road. The platoon of a hundred riders had died to a man, every corpse accounted for.
The Yenner generally left whole, if gnawed upon, corpses, allowing Paul to identify most of the corpses, and educated guesses on the rest.
Out of all the corpses, there were eight dead Yenner.
The biggest question wasn’t who had been slaughtered here, it was how? Something wasn’t quite adding up.
From their positioning, they were heading back. From their records, he saw that Captain Brady had signed out on a mission to arrest dissidents. Were they coming home empty-handed, or did they have prisoners?
Paul scanned the devastation, narrowing on the undamaged wagon that they had brought to transport their catch.
He sauntered over to the wagon, his lieutenant following behind him.
“Did the kid say anything about any prisoners?” Paul asked.
“He said he caught the tail end of it, and decided to grab the horses for a reward. Never mentioned any prisoners.”
This was all strange.
Their sentries should have been able to keep the fires burning to ward off the Yenner, or raise the alarm if they approached, allowing them to present a united front.
The complete slaughter spoke of an ambush, the men caught with their pants completely down.
Paul stopped in front of the wagon, casting his gaze over it.
The wagon was newly repaired, a broken axle lay beside it. Paul flipped open the wagon and glanced around the dark interior.
“Where are the manacles?” he asked, pulling his head out of the musky wooden container.
His lieutenant glanced around. “There,” he spoke, pointing.
Paul followed the man’s finger, spotting the chain links halfway across the camp, partially draped over a half-eaten Yenner, one of only eight dead.
Paul dodged around the rest of his crew cleaning up the seldom-used road to the forsaken city, heading for the chains.
“What are you doing over here?” he muttered, bending to inspect the chains. All the manacles were popped open. There had been no evidence of any prisoner corpses, so why were the chains outside the wagon?
Unless the prisoners had escaped before the Yenner attack?
But then why would the chains be draped over the dead Yenner rather than under it? Not to mention the link caught in the Yenner’s foreclaw.
A change in the pattern caught Paul’s eye, something that wasn’t supposed to be there.
A tiny bit of wood emerged from the corner of the yenner’s body. Paul frowned and glanced over the monster’s, seeing nothing else but Yenner bites to explain it’s death.
Other dead Yenners had swords sticking out of them, or had been split open by a heroic effort before aforementioned hero had been eaten by another Yenner.
This one had a splinter.
Paul put his hand on the creature’s carapace and seized the bit of wood and pulled. The wooden shiv slid free with a squirt of monster blood.
Not a splinter, a shiv. So one of the prisoners had been making a shiv for his escape? Feels a little heavy. On a whim, Paul took out his belt-knife and ran it along the edge of the wooden blade.
Frowning, Paul pushed harder.
The fine edge of his steel dagger peeled away like wood shavings. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
Not even Ironwood from the Green Hell can do that.
Paul leaned down and cleaned the blood off the blade of the shiv on a corpse’s clothes and tucked it in his belt. That bore further investigation.
“So what do you think?”
“Well, Lieutenant Carlson, I think they were heading back to town with a single prisoner, and somehow all of their sentries fell asleep, their alarms failed, and they got ambushed. Said single prisoner probably dodged a Yenner as he was unlocking his manacles, right there, then escaped the slaughter and…” Paul looked up at the road in the distance, leading toward the main thoroughfare. Stole some horses to get the rest of the way back to town.
The hairs on the back of Paul’s neck stood up.
“We still got that kid who brought the horses back? I wanna ask him some questions.”
“No, sir, we let him go with a couple credits. Why was there only one prisoner?”
“If there had been any more than one, the chances one or more of them would have been killed is huge. There would be some corpses attached to those chains, you can bet your life.”
“Oh, neat. We can look for the kid if you want.”
“Nevermind.” They didn’t pay Paul enough to care about an escaped teenager who hadn’t been alive long enough to do anything truly heinous. The wooden dagger tucked in his belt tickled at something in the back of his mind though, some half-remembered feeling that he had as a child.
“This was obviously a Yenner swarm, our resources are better spent scouring them out of the forest between here and the Green Hell. Make the report.”
“Sir.” Lieutenant Carlson saluted and marched off to make the report.
Paul stood there, lost in his thoughts as he ran his thumb over his new dagger’s handle.
“AHAHAHA!” The shopkeeper and all five customers laughed in Garth’s face. “The kid wants ‘equipment to refine heartstones’!”
The smell of the man’s rotting teeth wafted over Garth, putting a damper on his already sour mood.
“Well, excuse me, milord, I’ll just run in the back and fetch that for you!” He broke into another gale of uproarious laughter.
Garth very deliberately put a ten thousand credit coin on the countertop, the clack of gold on wood silencing them.
“Where’d you steal that.”
“Buried treasure,” Garth said. “No one’s gonna come looking for it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Likely story.” The warehouse manager said, snatching up the coin. “Get lost.”
Garth raised an eyebrow.
“There’s nothing like that here. You’d need to be a nobleman to even buy a refined heartstone, and the equipment for it is under the control of the imperial court.”
Garth sighed. “Of course it is.” He’d have to make his own. Unfortunately Garth’s memory wasn’t perfect anymore, having slipped back into the realm of mortals when his body was resurrected. When he was sleeping, his soul was able to remember every second of his eight hundred years of Afterlife, but when he was awake, his brain fuzzed everything up with its constant thinking.
He needed to consume some memory Heartstones, so that he could remember how to make them. A vicious cycle.
He had some idea of the things he needed, though.
“Where can I buy rare materials? I need adamantium, pure glass, a centrifuge, Ignitite, A porcelain bowl – “
“Like I said,” The balding man said, leaning over the counter, his paunch deforming against the wood. “You’d need to be a noble to even think about purchasing those things, and you’re not. now make like a good boy and get the fuck outta my shop.”
Garth glanced at the ten thousand credit coin in the man’s hand.
“My money?” he asked, already seeing where this was going.
“It’s my money now, nobody’s gonna come looking for it, yeah? Now get out of here before I call the guard on you, you little sneak-thief.”
Garth considered breaking the man’s kneecaps for an instant before dismissing it. while he could take the money back any way he wanted, he didn’t want stories about him to start floating around the city. And a murder investigation was right out. What he needed was the right kind of leverage.
“Alright then,” Garth said, nodding. “Thanks for the information. I’ll expect change, when you’ve got smaller bills.”
The warehouse manager snorted.
Garth stepped outside the shop and looked back at the sign.
‘Johnson’s warehouse’. It was arguably the biggest building that didn’t require a gold-plated badge to get to, and was the latest in a line of failures to secure supplies.
The wild west feel, where anyone could become anything with the right effort, was long since gone. It had been replaced by a strict hierarchy where the keys to power were tightly controlled, and power itself was doled out in tiny spoonfuls to the starving masses.
Garth considered simply eating naturally forming heartstones in the wild> He could farm quite a few, but it wasn’t his first choice. With the exception of certain legendary creatures, the stones all contained trace impurities.
The poison in heartstones was no joke, and the amount that had accrued in his system the first time around had put limits on his development and saddled him with Wilson.
That hadn’t a bad thing, exactly, but he’d been a hair’s breadth from going mad, and physical classes had mutations or wasting sicknesses if they failed to deal with the poison.
Garth intended this time around for his stats to be tightly controlled from step one. If the only way to get what he needed was to be a noble, then Garth was just going to have to engineer a meteoric rise in social status.
No problem. Garth hefted the backpack laden with gold and priceless artifacts and turned back onto the street.
As he was walking down the street, pondering his next move, a grimy hand reached out from an alleyway and pulled him into the darkness, nearly yanking him off his feet. An enhanced body didn’t make him weigh any more, so the big arm nearly made him fly into the confines of the alley, shoes barely scraping the ground.
Garth’s eyes adjusted rapidly, and he found himself standing across from four grinning brutes, one behind him with a knife to his neck, and his arms pinned behind his back.
“You must be the kid carrying that treasure around town.” Their leader said with a grin.
Goddamn, opportunity knocks, Garth thought. The thing he liked most about outlaws was that they were hesitant to tattle on him.