Since we unexpectedly crushed the Immortalis Garralosh (immortal Garralosh? Even I can work that one out), progress has been slow.
The density of monsters has been increasing. Not only the Croca beasts in their various forms are more common but also the local wildlife. One of those stupid Hippo Turtles managed to sneak up on us and almost took Tiny's arm off, but he managed to dodge away in time, and I tied the flabby beast down with Gravity bolts until we were able to kill it. Their strength is in their far, but also their weakness.
Other things have also been growing in strength, namely the oppressive aura that fills the expanse, it's so thick now it hangs over us like a fog. Even with a Will as high as mine it intrudes on my thoughts and fills me with a compulsion.
This close, I can sense more clearly what the aura is trying to convey — a combination of fear, and demand for obedience. I'm not sure if a gland creates this aura or if it's some side effect of a sufficiently powerful core, but this oppression is rolling out in waves and suffocating the will from the newborn monsters while also suppressing the instincts of the creatures within the expanse.
Just what kind of creature can cause such an effect? I'm getting a touch nervous since I think we're getting reasonably close to finding out!
["Everyone holding up ok? I know it isn't easy to operate under the effect of this pressure"]
[I am … all right, Master. I will not fail you!]
One the one antenna, I'm touched by her loyal spirit, on the other, I'm concerned about her lack of self-preservation instinct. Crinis is loyal in an almost fanatical way that Tiny never was. I wonder why?
[I'm not worried about you failing at all Crinis, I want to make sure you're fine. If you can't fight properly, then you won't be safe, and we will need to pull back. It's crucial that you be honest here]
[I am touched by your concern Master! I believe I will be all right. If I feel that I am becoming a liability, I will tell you]
[Good girl Crinis] I pat her by bending one antenna back and tapping her on the head a few times where she is resting on my back. Like a cat, she flops down and turns from a tennis ball into a tennis blob. I need to stop indulging her.
[How about you Tiny? Feeling all right buddy?] I ask my faithful Bat-faced gorilla.
[Hmm] he rumbles.
The poor guys face is tight with strain. His mental stats are a bit low, to say the least, the aura must be having the most potent effect on him out of all of us.
[Need fight] he says finally.
I think I get what he's trying to say. With the fear and command pressing into his mind, he wants to fight and have the adrenaline take over. Or perhaps he just feels the need to smash the face in of whatever is making him feel this way. Actually, I'll bet on the second.
"How about you Vibrant? You holding up all right?"
The soldier ant, no longer a small, cheerful hatchling, is more subdued than usual. Even her usually boundless energy and enthusiasm has been dampened by the atmosphere surrounding us.
"I'm fine" she responds, utterly devoid of her usual sparkle.
"It's going to be fine Vibrant, don't worry", I sidle up next to her and give her a friendly thwippity with my antennae, the ant high five.
"Once we find this nasty croc down here and smash him, the colony will be able to use all of the stuff down here, and we won't have to worry about those waves of monsters killing our family. Don't forget; we also get to eat him!"
"True!" Vibrant exclaims, a little energy coming back to her voice.
Encouraged, I keep going.
"Just think about it," I say intently, "how strong must this monster be to create this sort of pressure? Think of the Biomass? It must be so dense with it that every mouthful will give a point. When you take into account how large the monster is, how much Biomass do you think is contained within … why is it raining?"
So intent was I on imagining the glorious harvest of rich Biomass and watching the light begin to shine in Vibrants' eyes, that I didn't notice Tiny walking up behind me and listen in. Before I'd even finished speaking, he was drooling a river all over my precious diamond carapace!
[Dammit, Tiny! Stop dribbling me on me! Yuck!]
[Disgusting! Clean the master immediately to make up for your lack of manners!] Crinis demands, enraged.
[Uh, I don't think that's necessary] I say quickly, but it's too late.
Looking shame-faced after being admonished by his fellow pet, Tiny moves swiftly to make amends. He reaches down with two enormous hands, grabs me around the middle, and flings me into the nearby marsh water.
He put his arm into as well! I feel Crinis latch hold of me desperately as we fly through the air and then crash into the water.
Irritated, I stomp out of the water with a soggy Crinis on my back to find Tiny standing on the shore looking extremely pleased with himself and Vibrant on her back cackling with her legs wiggling in the air.
"Haaa hahahahahaha!" she laughs.
[….] Tiny smiles at me proudly.
["haaaa"] I sigh.
Feeling a little mollified to see them so happy I walk onto the shore and shake myself down. Having a carapace means I don't take on water at least, but judging from the weight on my back, it isn't quite the same for shadow flesh. Luckily the water wasn't too deep; I might have drowned.
In my rear vision, I can see Crinis extend a few tentacles and wrap them around herself before squeezing, wringing herself out like a sponge. A torrent of water pours out of her and runs down my back to puddle at my feet. Nice.
[Please don't throw me into the water next time Tiny] I say.
He looks a little confused but nods readily to my request. What am I going to do with this guy? Seriously. At least this moment has lightened the mood little.
"Haaaaa hahahahaha haaaaa!"
"Stop laughing! It isn't that funny!"
A deep, guttural growl echoed around us so loud that it shook the leaves in the trees and rattled my bones. What the hell was that?!
Suddenly the pressure that had fallen to the back of mind returns will full force, nearly bowling me over. It's close!
My brains kick into overdrive, every sense coming alive. Not going to kick the bucket now. Bring it Croc!