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January 25, 2019, 10:02 am.

As the moonshine slides down my throat, I find the burning sensation oddly comforting. Because it reminds me of Rufka. Which makes me curse the fact I didn't figure out invisibility in time to travel with her into Aethire.

Still, at least I'm properly fortified and the idea of sneaking around a massive dragon no longer leaves me frozen in place. I nod to Beth to let her know I'm ready. It's only as I glance over to her that I remember she can't see me.

Hehe. Oops.

"Ready," I tell her while taking in the Aetherium barracks. The size of it makes me think it's more of a compound than just a place to sleep.

"Okay, turns out team speak doesn't work when invisible. Let the others know to fall back while we circle around. We're just scouting, so keep your eyes open for any possible points of entry." A second later, Beth tugs gently on my sleeve, pulling me forwards.

The compound looms above us as we make our way around. Its walls are made of the same light beige wood as the cabins, just stacked twice as high.

There are two bored K'tharn tossing a small object back and forth in front of the closed gate beneath Asterix. K'tharn engineering must be fairly advanced, considering the size of the dragon casually sprawled on the edge of the roof over that very gate. Even if dragons are light for their size, that has to be a tremendous amount of weight.

Who am I kidding? They probably solved it with magic. There must be a skill related to magic-based engineering though. Maybe I'll ask Rufka or Tipan about it later.

As we get closer to the compound, I'm able to determine the guards aren't tossing, so much as batting an oddly shaped stick back and forth off the back of their hands.

Not exactly paragons of vigilance. Then again, I guess they have a dragon to pick up their slack at the moment. At least in theory.

Reminded of which, I glance up, but 'Mr. angry glare' has settled down, his head out of sight. I guess the others backing around the corner was enough to get him to relax his vigilance.

Beth leads me around the complex, stopping regularly. Even as we move, Beth keeps mostly to cover, not trusting invisibility alone. It'd probably be more effective if she wasn't leading me around by the hand as she does so. After a couple of minutes, I realize she must be watching for something specific, but I don't see anything. It's only once we're on the far side of the complex that I notice a guard patrolling the top of the wall. As we watch the K'tharn walk past, there's a loud roar that shakes the air.

Connecting directly to Tipan through the interface, I ask "Tipan, what's going on?"

"Alexis? I'd love to…." Tipan starts as a loud thrumming sound overwhelms the connection.

Checking the party status, I see Tipan's at half health, Josh is at three-quarters and the others are even worse off, their health near zero.

"Beth. We've got a problem," I inform her.

"Yeah. I heard, let's move."

"It's not just that. Check the party status."

"Fucking, donkey-loving, son of a…" Beth exclaims as she jerks my arm hard enough to do health damage, abandoning any attempt to stay in cover as she sprints back.

We run and stumble the rest of the way around the building, trying to make it to the others as quickly as possible without leaving each other behind. Surprisingly, Asterix is still perched above the gate, his head raised as his chest expands. A second later the roar reaches us. It's like a physical hand wrenches me through the air. I land awkwardly, my elbow jarring against the ground causing me to punch myself in the face.

Glancing back, I see that Asterix isn't leaving the top of the fort. He's just swaying back and forth, snapping at any creature that comes near. Which is when I realize there's more going on than his roaring.

There's quite a bit of chaos. I don't recognize the creatures attacking the K'tharn guards at the gate. There are dozens of swift insectoids that resemble supersized ants with grasshopper legs propelling them around at incredible speeds. They're only the size of a shopping cart, but that's plenty big enough to make them creepy and gross.

Glancing about, I realize Beth and I are still invisible and she's no longer holding my hand. Looks like we're moving separately from here out.

"Kid, you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine," I answer as I push myself to my feet. "What're the rules here again? Pretty sure the 'try to be a decent sapient' allows for self-defence against a bunch of crickets, right?"

"Agreed. Get around the corner. Focus on helping the others. But let me know when you're clear first," Beth responds as one of the K'tharn at the gates fires a glistening black arrow into one of the ant-hoppers as it attempts to snap its mandibles at them. The arrow is enough to end its struggles, but there are a lot more where that one came from.

Doing as she commands; I barely dodge past a nearby ant-hopper as it lands. Even as I'm turning the corner, it kicks up a huge cloud of dirt when it leaps away, obscuring my vision. As I'm going, I can't help but be annoyed at how much these things are obstructing my senses. It's not just the dirt. They're loud too. Each time an ant-hopper leaps, they make a loud thumping that reminds me of that time Sab's dad got us a ride in a helicopter.

Her dad has some pretty cool friends.

As I make it around the corner, I let Beth know I'm clear. Immediately after, the sound of her umbral assault rifle, soft thwips, start ringing out. Or so I assume, since the thumping of the ant-hoppers behind me is replaced by a sudden burst of chittering as Beth lets loose.

While that's happening, I pause time so I can take in the situation unfolding in front of me. Josh is fully armoured, standing over an unconscious Roberts. He's surrounded by a thick thorny cage with several dead ant-hoppers at his feet, but he's being assaulted by several ant-hoppers being ridden by ….. dolls?

The riders resemble little, half-metre tall, cloth, K'tharn dolls with their mouths sewn shut. And they're all carrying sewing needles. And they've torn his defences apart with those needles, large chunks of his protective dome lie scattered about.

If I hadn't fortified myself with moonshine, I know I'd be freaking right now. Creepy dolls are the worst. Even as I'm completing my visual inspection, I analyze one of the riders while preparing my first spell.

“Creature analyzed: Aethop's daughter. Mana-seed 3."

"It was said Aethop was a pu'shaha twisted by the loss of his children to the warrior queen Mephil. Refusing to accept their death, he created new bodies for them. Woven from their own flesh and bones, these new soul-vessels were as twisted as his need. Upon their return, they were subjected to soul wrenching pain, their screams filling his every hour.

Incapable of bringing himself to destroy his children again, yet unable to withstand the constant reminder of their suffering, he sewed their mouths shut. This worked for a time. Eventually though, his daughters found a way to inflict their pain on others, transferring their torment directly to their targets. Now they hunt the warrior queens and their loyal servants, never satisfied. Since the arrival of the System, these creatures have proven remarkably…"

"Sally sees you. It's not nice to peek inside."

I'm not able to read the rest of the notification. It disappears as an alien presence replaces it, forcing its way inside my mind for a fraction of a second.

The doll which wasn't even facing my direction when I first analyzed it, is staring at me, her eyes locked on mine. Even though I'm supposed to be invisible.

As if that weren't surprising enough, it feels as if the alien presence shoves me, ejecting me back into regular time while ripping away over a hundred focus.

I'm so shocked, I slump to the ground. Which saves me from the half dozen sewing needles that soar through the air over my head half a second later.

A tinkling laugh sounds in my head as the doll's mount catapults her away. Somehow, I manage to fire a lightning arrow in her direction on reflex. But then I sit there dazed for a couple of valuable seconds before attempting to activate pause again.

All I get is accelerated time. Well, this sucks.

Still, it's better than nothing.

There are several dolls attempting to surround me, strands of thread dangling between them. Teleporting away to a nearby roof, I turn invisible again, looking down on the others while Smoulder launches herself into the fray.

Ugh, I want to unload with torrents but there are K'tharn civilians mixed in, fighting alongside us. I do unleash several arrows and a disk of cutting wind at the back of a doll harassing Josh. He's been forced away from Roberts, but Tipan's taken his place. For some reason, the dolls are much more interested in Josh, so Tipan only needs to fend off swarming ant-hoppers. Annoying, but after what we've faced, not that threatening.

Of all my spells, only my lightning arrow connects, the rest of my shots easily being dodged by the highly mobile ant-hoppers. The arrow hardly fazes the doll, but it does get its attention.

Even as she's turning towards me Demo catches her with a grenade that explodes in a wave of cold, trapping the doll and her 'bugout' mount inside the grasping claws of ice. With such a clear shot lined up, I send an overcharged fire disk into her back. She's made of cloth, so hopefully, she burns well.

The results don't disappoint, the doll goes up in a nearly explosive blaze, melting the ice that holds her fast as clumps of misshapen cloth stick to the ant-hopper like flaming glue. The ant-hopper panics, jumping straight into a nearby building at full force. Even as I turn my attention to the next target, it's still slamming itself against the building.

Okay. Fire it is then.

Smoulder clearly agrees, becoming a veritable flaming meteor, tearing her way down the road.

As I turn, I discover Tipan working to keep a few of the dolls away from Demo, who's sprawled on the ground, his leg twisted at an unnatural angle. Not that he allows such a 'minor' injury to keep him from contributing, another grenade flying out to trap several ant-hoppers and a doll in place.

Knowing they have that in hand, I teleport into a position that should allow me to hit several dolls at once with a single flamethrower spell. While I'm hoping it lands multiple hits, I don't take the time to aim carefully or confirm its effects. All my practice with the others has drilled in the fact my mobility is incredibly hard to match, even when I'm not flying.

So, I port away, moving to a nearby roof as the flames take hold. I'm glad Glimmering Sands doesn't restrict teleportation. It's already annoying enough not being allowed to fly.

Surveying the scene below, I see Beth moving towards the others, every ant-hopper within her line of sight already growing still.

From up here, I can see that the ant-hoppers spread all the way to the tower. There are K'tharn fighting them back everywhere I look, but there's a niggling feeling that I'm missing something as I unleash several more fire arrows at a doll near my friends below.

Teleporting to the roof across the way, I'm startled when I find a larger doll hidden behind an angled outcropping. This one's not riding an ant-hopper. Instead, this particular grey and black doll is holding itself up with nothing but loose linen threads that extend from their back in a writhing mass, staring at the fight below.

In the moment I'm observing it, I can't help but feel it's familiar, though I'm sure I've never seen it before. I almost analyze it but decide I should lead with fire instead.

As I unleash fire on it, I hear it scream.

Even though it seems distracted, a wave of needles rise from that twisting mass, rocketing towards me before I have time to register them, finding their way into my invisible flesh. The first few manage to reduce my health by three-quarters before I'm able to teleport away, locking on to a nearby wall above an adjacent alley.

I lose another couple points of health from the rough landing, but at least I'm away from the strange half-woven doll. I release the new spell I've been working on under Demo's guidance. It's one of those staples that every decent wizard should know, but I hadn't been able to figure out on my own. Honestly, it's probably not much more useful than my torrent or disk spells, but it's an important staple.

A second later, the fireball blooms brilliantly, a second sun that illuminates the nearby fighting. Hopefully, it's enough to finish off that particular monster.

I dash back out into the street, but things are changing. It's as if my fireball was a signal. The remaining dolls are leaving, abandoning their riderless ant-hoppers.

Well, we can't have that now, can we?

Attempting to pause, I'm delighted to find that I now have a solid four-minutes to wreak havoc. Laughing to myself, I methodically shoot down every target I see.

When pause ends, I turn to the others

"Alexis. Are you okay?" Tipan asks as I walk towards her.

"Yeah. You guys?"

"I'm fine, but Roberts is still unconscious," Tipan replies, glancing at his suddenly frail-seeming form. I move to check on him as Demo hops over, one leg flopping about. On closer inspection, I discover his leg is now made of the same rough grey linen as the dolls. Or at least it seems to have the same consistency. In a way, it reminds me of frostbite. Except, more cloth, less dead skin.

"Yeh'd think that the residents would be a little more prepared for attacks," Demo remarks, leaning on a nearby cabin wall.

"Usually there's more warning. I don't understand where they came from," Tipan shakes her head, though I don't think she's disagreeing with him.

Beth rounds the corner, halting when she sees us.

But only for a second. Then she's scanning the area around us again, searching.

A second later she runs up to me asking, "Where's Josh?"

Looking around, I realize he's nowhere to be seen. And I can't feel him either. Staring at Beth, I realize I didn't know she was coming around the corner until she got here. I can't feel anyone.

I don't know where Josh is.

Looking at my conditions, I find a new one labelled Dampened. Caused by psychic backlash. Apparently, all my senses are slightly muddled and my IFF is completely disabled.

"I don't know. They messed with my ability," I inform her, glancing towards Roberts who's still lying there unconscious.

Then Smoulder comes bursting out of an alley towards the tower, butting up against my hand. It takes me a moment to realize Smoulder wants me to follow her, images of Josh being knocked out, thrown against a wall repeatedly be the dolls filling my head.

"Smoulder saw something," I exclaim, following Smoulder to where she emerged. I run in what I hope is Josh's direction, Beth close behind. When we reach the narrow space between buildings, I'm able to spot Josh's pink bathrobe immediately.

It's lying in a heap at the end of the alley. But despite the fact his robe is lying there, it's empty. There's no way his large, slightly awkward frame would fit in that small lump.

Smoulder dashes straight to the robe, poking her head into it as I search about in frustration.

Beth rushes closer, holding the robe up while inspecting it for clues, causing something to clatter to the ground.

A small wooden figurine?

When she picks it up, I can see Josh's smiling face staring back at us, perfectly etched in the wood.

Beth is flicking her gaze back and forth between the figurine and his robe while I wonder what to do. Roberts is still unconscious, so he's out. Could he even heal being turned into a wooden object?

While I'm still thinking Beth acts. She doesn't say anything, throwing Josh's robe over her shoulder, but she does tap my shoulder before striding out of the alley. Smoulder hops into my arms as I scramble to follow Beth while she approaches Tipan.

"Ideas?" Beth grunts out, thrusting figurine-Josh into Tipan's face.

Tipan, who was inspecting a fallen ant-hopper, tilts back in shock before focusing on the wooden doll in front of her.

"Uhm. You had a doll of Josh made?"

"One of those things turned Josh into this," Beth quietly seethes, her teeth audibly grinding.

"That shouldn't be possible," Tipan exclaims, taking Josh from Beth delicately, inspecting him herself. "They're cloth horrors. Not one of them showed any ability with wood."

"Uhh. Hate to interrupt," Demo interjects from where he's sitting on the ground next to Roberts, "but we have company."

Turning around, I discover K'tharn approaching us from either side, all with their weapons drawn. And amongst them is a familiar face. Ivicka.

Beth pockets figurine-Josh as we all turn to face the dozen K'tharn flanking Ivicka.

Her striking orange and black tiger fur practically shines, standing more than her size, which is impressive considering how much she towers over the surrounding K'tharn.

As I look up at her, I notice there's one big difference compared to the last time we met.

Ivicka isn't grinning this time.

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A note from Draith

Chapter 2/2

Uhh. Yeah. Cake anyone?

Author's blurb 0.03

Spoiler: Spoiler

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About the author

Draith

Bio: I'm a new author doing the best I can. Comments, criticism and feedback are all appreciated.
While I see myself as more of an orc with a veneer of civility, I humbly accept the interpretation that I am, in fact, a pickle cowboy. But I ain't no caterpillar.

It doesn't take a life-changing moment to change your life. © 2020 Draith F Kirtzinger.

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