Garth hefted the football sized bag of heartstones he’d saved as a backup for his next body, standing beneath the Garth-fruit. It always felt a little strange seeing his own body through the semi-transparent membrane, curled up like a fetus.
To the side was another set of clothes he’d gotten ready for the next time he got ganked.
With the current political climate, Garth felt he might be needing the next body sooner rather than later. Maybe I can figure out a way to pop more than one fruit at a time, and ship their comatose bodies offsite to wake up in, or bounce my consciousness between them. Something to look into.
Garth knelt and set the bag beside the tree. Garth’s Phylac-tree reminded him a bit of a stubby palm tree, with sundew spines dripping with Garth-babies. It was bright green with seven red spines drooping from the top. The two he’d already come out of were standing up straight, relieved of the weight of his body, forming little nubs at the tip where he assumed another Garth body would gestate.
Garth was going to watch it a little longer to make sure, but he would be relieved to know he wasn’t on some kind of stupid lives limit.
Although if he was killed six more times in a row, he’d have to wait however long it took the fruit to grow. Nine months or fifteen years, he had no idea. The point was moot, because being killed six times in a row implied someone was spawncamping him and he had bigger problems to worry about.
What he really needed were some defences. The Phylac-tree was only guarded by Grass and Ms. Banyan, and Ellanore and her cult were under strict instructions not to talk about it. After Paul had posed as a horny piece of dirt and retrieved his wife from the coast, Garth had a few misgivings about leaving that couple as the only guardians.
Garth pulled a mythic core out of his pocket, frowning. He could use them to build infrastructure and defences inside the base.
He’d reap dividends from a better base no matter how many times he died. Plus people wouldn’t be able to steal it without also being at the center of his power.
Garth looked around, gauging the stone room.
“Not bad. I could put a workbench right there, Plant turrets with poisonous spines on either side of the entryway.”
A few seconds after each thought, plants burst from the ground to fulfil his desires. The workbench formed out of green wood that hardened into a bench with a cork-padded swivel chair and a light, along with several tool pieces waiting for core slices to be added.
In the entrance to the Core room, two plants emerged from the ground, looking disturbingly like piranha plants from Mario.
“No, no, no copyright infringement, look decorative until you shoot.”
The piranha plants melted away, replaced by decorative office plants, whose only sign of being trapped was a thin black line around the base of their branches, where they would be shot outward with violent force.
So, my own personal holodeck, huh? Garth thought, looking around. It kind of made sense, with the way the Phylac-tree seemed to be fused to the dungeon, and he was fused to the tree. A sudden immature thought struck him.
Plants burst out of the ground, their long leaves wrapping around them to create the seamless form of naked women dancing sinuously, arching their backs as they leaned against their poles (stems).
“Safe for work.”
The leaves unraveled, until it was just a wobbling plant.
“Not safe for work.”
In an instant, the dancers were back, rolling their hips invitingly and giving him a ardorous gaze.
“Ehehehehe.” Garth gave a short chuckle before sighing. “Alright, got that outta my system. Safe for work.”
Garth tore his gaze away from the wiggling plants in the center of the room, shaking his head.
“Someday, somebody’s gonna break in and lose all respect for me.”
“Disguised, trapped wall safe.”
Wood that matched the color of the stone wall raised the surface of one side of Garth’s lair. Garth opened the safe by feel and put the three Mythic cores inside, closing it and studying it closely.
Without knowing about it, it was almost impossible to find. The living wood even did an excellent job breaking the mana sight. There was a bit more mana pooling on that side of the cave, but it was hard to notice.
“I’ll deal with that when I get back from the field trip.” Ugh, just saying that sentence makes me wanna shoot myself. As long as no rogues slipped into his fortress with their idiot savant skill at locating and disabling traps and safes, he should be fine.
“Dear god, I’m becoming a D&D villain, complete with treasure.”
“Well, time to get back to my master plan of conquering humanity.” Garth winced at how close to home he was hitting with his own humor.
Garth turned and was about to leave, casting a glance back at the Phylac-tree over his shoulder. He would come back and make sure the defences were perfect when he got back, but for now…
A realistic cave wall grew from the floor, cutting off sight of the Garth-tree, but still allowing air to get to it. Out of sight, out of mind. Hopefully.
Garth left the dungeon and walked through the burgeoning city. In a large practice yard, older, more experienced Garthspawn were teaching others how to use their powers. Mrs. Banyan was even taking part in the more mundane lessons, one of her clones each learning how to use a knife, scale a wall, differentiate between poisons, and even cook the dishes of the future.
It was a little weird watching women sending their Sandi’s out like pokemon and having them fight each other. Not Sandi, their Lure.
Garth spotted Sheath, the Bergstrom Garthspawn who’d almost killed him twice demonstrating her trick, when she would throw a blade past someone, manifest her Lure to catch it and finish them from behind.
It was a nasty move.
Beyond the practice yards were the open-air classes, where Mrs. Banyan was teaching reading and writing to the various Garthspawn, including Ellanore’s group.
The dozen or so young men who’d been with the cult looked a little out of place, outnumbered a hundred to one by the purple women pressing in from every direction as they diligently memorized their letters and numbers.
“I gotta get more dudes in here.” Garth muttered to himself as he passed the study session. Stupid guys might appreciate the totally off kilter ratio, but from a sociological standpoint, things always got weird when one gender was in the extreme minority.
“Dark Father!” A woman cried in the distance.
“Ugh…” Garth turned and saw Ellanore running to catch up with him, her breasts jostling around inside her shirt in a way that spoke of heft. Dr. Daniels got a lot of follow-up back pain clients, Garth thought idly as she approached.
“Dark Father,” She panted, resting a hand on her knees as she caught her breath.
“You need to stop calling me that, and more exercise,” Garth said. “Maybe take up a sport?”
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.” She said, lowering her head.
“Really, it’s not me.” Garth said. “Everything is being organized by your great aunt and uncle…who are married…” Garth frowned. That’s where the metaphor gets weird.
“Maybe, but it all stems from you and your generosity. You are nothing like the Devourer of Chicago that we’ve been told stories of to scare us as children.”
“I told you, different guy. I’m the one blessed by the goddess of fertility. Devouring cities isn’t really on her agenda.”
“I understand, D-“ She paused. “Garth. I’ll share your words with the others.”
“Hold up,” Garth said, stopping her before she turned away.
“Yes, D – Garth?”
Garth suppressed the impulse to roll his eyes.
“What do you know about when Chicago was devoured? The history books are a little vague about that. Plus it happened on the other side of the country.”
“The country?” Ellanore asked, puzzlement written on her face.
“My family is descended from a tribe who served The Dark Father and his daughters. From the stories, it’s believed that he was destroyed there, and his progeny scattered to the wind.”
That made no sense. Dr. Daniels was practically The Thing. Almost impossible to destroy, especially since the first thing he would have done was leave backup bodies here and there in case things went wrong.
“If he was destroyed there, why didn’t you try to rez him there?”
“We did, but after further research, we discovered record of your tomb in the ruins of L.A. We thought maybe the history was wrong and you fled to L.A. after Chicago, so we tried to resurrect you at the crater where it was said you died. That didn’t work either. It was only by sheerest luck we stumbled across the…place.”
She cocked her head and frowned. “The strangest thing was, the further we went west, the more the stories about Garth Daniels changed, from being a mass of flesh and corruption who could change people to their core at the snap of his fingers, to a walking force of nature, who made trees fly through the air and explode.”
“Two. Different. People.” Garth said.
“I’m starting to think so, myself. But then, why do you claim to be the father of the three Prime Evils?”
“You call your gramma a prime evil again,” Garth said, preparing an exaggerated backhand. “Because he must have stolen my kids after I died. Nominally to protect them, but how messed up they must have been, raised by a guy whose favorite snack is freakin’ human flesh. Damnit.”
Garth felt a lead weight settle in his stomach. “Well this really livened up my day, Ellie, I’m gonna go sulk for awhile.” Garth turned to leave.
“The stories say he was lured to Chicago to protect his fourth daughter, who was born human, but had demon blood in her veins. Her name has long been lost. Was she yours too?”
Garth froze, remembering the pale, sharp-toothed Leanne that had been standing next to Dr. Daniels when they’d first met. Could the stories be referring to her? She was only mostly human looking.
“Not mine, but I probably knew her.” Garth took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was good to know that Dr. Daniels had been willing to risk himself for another person. It spoke volumes about how he might have treated his nieces.
However it turned out for their descendants, hopefully Lucy, Betty and Ma’ta had good lives.
Garth set the musing aside and patted Ellanore on the head. “I gotta head back to town, field trip in the morning. Keep up the good work here.”
“Of course, and thank you again.”
“Just shut up and accept my help, fueled by the guilt of not being around for my children.” Garth patted her head again.
Ellanore gave him an odd look, then ran back to her knot of friends.
“Eh, call it like it is.” Garth said, turning away.
The next day, the school took a trip out to the desert, out into the sweltering heat and scrub-brush, marching through the shimmering air, choking on the dust swirling on the hot air.
“Probably wasn’t a good idea to wear black.” Garth said to Alicia.
“No, really?” she asked.
“I mean, you can really tell the difference between the people with experience in the desert and the city kids,” Garth said, scanning the train of students.
About two thirds of the students were dressed in bright white, with nice hats, carrying large sacks of water on their back, their families operating at least partially in the desert.
The rest were mostly stumbling along, their shirts wrapped around their heads, Alicia being one of them.
“How are you not dying?” She snapped at Garth, who was wearing a vest and long sleeve undershirt.
“I’ve got cactus blood.” Garth said, scrunching his nose and wiggling his fingers. Plants could withstand the desert, so Garth could too. Temperature resistance coming in handy again.
Alicia scoffed. “You are a prickly bastard.”
Garth pulled a notepad out of his backpack. “That reminds me, what’s your endurance?”
“Why do you want to know?” she asked, squinting at him against the glaring sunlight and dust.
“This would be an excellent study of the effect of Endurance against sunburn.” Garth glanced at her uncovered shoulders. “Think you’ll get a tan?”
“You know it’s rude to ask a noble about their attribute values, right?” she asked, glancing at him.
“I did not know that.” Garth admitted. “Why?”
“Aside from being a bit personal, if you know someone’s attributes, you know their weaknesses. Endurance in particular can give you the information you need to dose them correctly with poisons.
“Huh,” Garth said. Maybe he could make a simple machine to check someone’s Endurance physically.
He could rig a needle to a spring, and see how much pressure it took to puncture a universally thin portion of their skin, say under the eye or the bottom of the wrist.
No way to get a baseline, though. No one on the trip was normal human levels of toughness.
“So what is your Endurance?” Garth asked.
Alicia ignored him.
Garth shrugged and changed topics, getting his lesson in local history out of the way.
After another hour of marching, they were assembled into a formation while a grey haired man addressed them. He had a long grey beard that had been burnt off in places, and wiry muscles. He wore white-painted leather armor and on his head rested a white mask with tiny eye-slits, ready to pull down like a welder’s mask.
“Alright kids, this is the briefing. Listen up, because I’m not taking questions. Tonight you’re going to learn a little about the way the Williams make their living.”
He pointed at the scrub-brush and cactus covered hill behind him. “On the other side of this hill is a nesting ground of Wiretap Weavers. Desert Chars use the area as a thoroughfare, and the Wiretaps prey on them. And anything else that wanders in, you get me? They’re stationary ambush predators, so they won’t cross the hill for us. It’s safe to rest here until we stage our hunt tonight.”
“Last time, I heard you chose your own groups, but that’s not going to fly this time. Williams, front and center!”
Dozens of young men and women from the age of fifteen to twenty five, covered in scars and sunburns, came to stand in front of the group of teens.
Ah, the chaperones were all Williams. Makes sense.
Garth recognized Tad Williams, with the gaping jaw and thin mustache.
“Each of you is going to have one of my kids leading your group, because without it, you wouldn’t make it back, and I’ll catch an earful if I lose more than a dozen or so of you.”
“Some of you are probably gonna die. Not much we can do about that now, but there are a few things you can do to improve your odds: Do exactly what your guide says. This is our playground. Never relax, and always think in worst case scenarios. There’s probably more maneating spiders just around the corners.”
“Oh, and…” he pulled the brilliantly white half-mask down over his eyes. “Always guard your eyes. Williams, pick your teams.”
The Williams Patriarch stepped down from his soap-box and their chaperones started picking teams.
“Ooh, ooh,” Garth said, waving his and Alicia’s hands when Tad was looking for team-mates. “Pick us!”
Tad rolled his eyes and singled them out. When he got over to the teen, the boy grabbed him by the collar. “You’re going to take this seriously, right Ed? I’d hate to have to ditch you in the middle of the Weaver nest to be slowly baked. It’s not a fun way to die.”
“I like living as much as the next guy,” Garth said, nodding.
“Just do what I say and for god’s sake don’t wander away from the group for any reason, ‘less you like being food.” Tad said.
“I do not like being food, no.”
“Okay,” Tad glanced over at the remaining students and saw that the tough ones were already snapped up. “Damn,” he said, letting go of Garth and rushing back into the fray. Of team-choosing.
“Why didn’t he give you a talking to?” Garth asked Alicia.
A minute later Tad came back with a defeated look to him, leading a willowy redheaded girl with long hair peeking out from under her shirt-turban. She had a toolbelt slung low on her hips, and her shoulders were already beet red. Low Endurance?
“Caitlyn Mcdonnell,” She said, offering Garth her hand. Garth eyed the freckles that stood out under the desert sun as she gave a grin.
“Alicia Denton.” Alicia said, shaking her hand as well.
“Great,” Tad sighed, burying his face in his hands, the only one wearing desert-appropriate apparel. “I got three complete amateurs.”