The tree was not tall, but its surface was like onyx ice beneath his fingers—cool, black, and slippery. Up he went, hand over foot, arms bracing around the trunk and branches to avoid sliding down and away.
The higher he went, the thinner the branches became, yet they demonstrated the same rugged strength as the trunk had shown in its resistance to the serpent. Twigs half a finger wide proved as sturdy as the rungs of a ladder—albeit far more slippery.
The leaf was close now, close enough to smell, but not touch. It was heady and aromatic, smoke and spice and winter—the smell of dust and icy leaves. It seemed white from a distance—even in the moonlight—but the closer he looked, the more it appeared filled with mist. The leaf was shaped like a bay laurel—two curving sides that thickened at the center before curving back—and as he pushed up toward it, he reached out for it—with his left hand of course, Sid might try to eat it, although he didn’t seem so interested.
A halo of power surrounded the leaf, a static field that set his fingers a-tingling. His hand closed around it and he pulled. The leaf didn’t budge.
He yanked at it again and almost slipped off the branch he was perched on. He repositioned himself and grabbed it with both hands, then lunged backward. The leaf held fast. However, a single drop of the tree’s golden sap oozed out of the branch and slipped inside of the leaf where it began to glow.
It must have been bigger on the inside than on the outside, because on the next tug, another drop entered, but did not expand the collecting golden liquid by as much as Chris expected.
The next wrench drew a loud snap from the leaf and branch. The branch connecting to the leaf jerked like a firehose as sap flooded through it. The leaf’s reservoir filled with gold, and the tree began to wither beneath him. The leaf’s capacity seemed near limitless, because when the influx finally stopped, the tree was shrunken and disheveled beneath him, like a dried root harvested by a gigantic shaman.
The previous cool glossiness of the surface had become cracked and split and broken. Chris tugged one more time, and the leaf finally came free in his hand as easily as plucking a daisy. It was too unexpected; he slipped backward, the leaf grasped firmly in his hand.
He landed on the branch, and it shattered beneath him like brittle charcoal. He fell through more and more branches, black chunks of the ruined tree cascading down around him. Then he hit the ground and the air rushed out of him.
There was a Chris-shaped path of destruction carved through the branches of the tree. As he gasped in a few breaths—more in surprise than pain—the black tree creaked in front of him. It was a high-pitched, mouseish sound, like two bricks of coal being rubbed together. Then the entire thing collapsed into black rubble.
Chris blinked and glanced at the golden leaf in his hand, it was no longer misty white, instead golden with curling veins of illumination within it, like bright smoke within water. It gave off a tangible sense of potency, like holding a thunderbolt in a bottle. He slipped it into his pocket and the pressure faded.
He turned to the corpse of the snake, still lying where it had fallen. Drips of slicked dust had dried against its reddish-black scales as the rainfall from earlier evaporated into the atmosphere. His hammer lay near to the hole that Sid had carved into it and the two halves of his ruined shield lay farther away. He walked forward and ran his right arm over the snake’s scales. Sid didn’t seem to ping up the presence of a Soul Gem inside. Disappointing, but not every monster could be a jackpot.
The scales were as hard as ever when he gave them a light rap with his knuckles. He moved around to the monster’s maw and examined its teeth. They were intact and still releasing a slow but steady drip of venom.
He manifested his Beast Soul Weapon and with a few quick cuts removed the fangs along with a significant portion of skull. He had hoped to get the venom glands intact, but they were deeper in the serpent’s skull than he had first thought—by the back of the head, rather than next to the fangs themselves. More venom leaked out from the ducts connecting the glands and the fangs, but, after a few more cuts, Chris had freed those as well and tied them closed.
He brought his weapon quickly along Xys’ body, then vanished his blade. Leveraging his enhanced Strength, he pulled the parted scales away from raw flesh, skinning a large curl of scales the length of the snake’s body free. There were several holes and rents in snakeskin, but for the most part, it was intact.
He rolled it up like a carpet and then hefted it. It was heavy, but with his Strength he could manage its weight and more—so he stuffed some of the blackened tree rubble inside, as well as slices of snake meat. He didn’t plan on consuming it himself—it might burn his throat—but Sid had no issues with eating it for him by proxy. And, who knows, it might even be useful to feed to the Slimes from the Spawning Vat. The meat had to have some value, there was a reason the System shops bought monster corpses, even if Chris didn’t know what it was yet.
The mist was gone by the time Chris retrieved his hammer and lumped it in with the rest of the snakeskin bundle. He pulled up a window and indicated that the Area alteration could begin. He could almost feel the mana pulse in the air around him, then go still. Nothing happened, so he kept on running back to Kingscastle, his keep.
Just as he approached it, he heard another rumble and felt another pulse of mana—stronger this time. He jogged up to the gates, and they swung open to greet him. He deposited his burden inside and then turned to see what was the source of the commotion.
He’d seen a lot since the System had dropped him here, but this was beyond what he had expected. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see mountains rising, lakes forming, even the odd hill going for a little stroll.
That wasn’t what he saw. With surprising quiet, trees wilted and the earth cracked in random patterns, hot vapors rising up from below. That wasn’t the surprising part, though. Chris’ jaw practically hit the floor as huge waterfalls of green slime fell from the night sky, filling the steaming chasms that had opened up all throughout the forest.
He’d known that becoming the Area Guardian would increase the spawning of Slimes…
He hadn’t expected it to do it like this.
Then he heard footsteps nearby, and a familiar voice.
Chris turned, seeing Philip standing nearby, alone. He was part of the group that believed he was an NPC, and the one who had sent Bruce to him afterward in the time honored tradition of sharing the trolling love. He felt sort of bad about some of his actions—but more the accidental endangerment of people part, rather than the actual trolling—and certainly not enough to stop him from trying to repeat the experience.
“Ah, Sir Philip. I fear the Princess has left Kingscastle in humiliation.” Chris gestured to the keep behind him, then to the deluge of green jelly from the sky. “Pray, you must excuse the weather, the acid rain can be a bit hungry this time of year. I must also beseech your forgiveness for the castle being in its current diminutive state, we’ve had to downsize.”
“Budget cuts, awfully inconvenient.”