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Lola was responsible for the escape, obviously she was responsible, but for some reason no one wanted to talk about it, and worse, no one wanted Mizuki to talk about it. The dungeon escape was a part of some wretched scheme, one whose purpose wasn’t entirely clear yet. The worst part, by far, was that it was entirely possible that Lola had done this before, maybe even a few times. Maybe on undone days, Lola had released some horrible beast into the woods and watched to see what would happen, and that this was happening now was because she knew what would happen fit in with her plans for Alfric, which seemed to be … well, unclear, but probably meant that he would be the father of her children and go back to be with his old adventuring party.

Mizuki was useless in the whole hunting expedition, which she’d known she would be from the start. There was less in the way of ambient magic outside a dungeon, since the dungeon itself leeched off quite a bit of ‘excess’, and even if she’d been able to spot one of the creatures before Isra, actually hitting small things from a distance wasn’t really what she was good at. Still, their little party stayed together, minus Hannah, with Isra tracking ‘the big one’ and the rest of them doing what they could. The biggest problem was that seeing the creatures wasn’t trivial: they seemed to absorb or bite at the plant life, which surrounded their more normal bodies, but when they weren’t moving, it provided them with a kind of camouflage. More than once, Mizuki had come across a clump of grass that she slowly realized was leaking from a hole that Isra had put in it.

Strictly speaking, the bodies didn’t need to be collected, they could just be left to rot in the woods, but they were still making an effort to at least leave obvious piles, which would help for clean up later, if that was deemed necessary.

<They’re starting to find some of them that have killed animals,> said Hannah over the party channel. <A dead deer, or what was left.>

<We’re not far behind the mother,> said Isra. They had been steadily making their way through the forest, following a path that was at times obvious even to Mizuki. It was a big creature, which they might have guessed by the eggs, each of which was at least as large as a pint glass.

<We’re away from the rest of the group now,> said Alfric. <But it’s going to be important to kill the creature that’s laying these eggs if we’re to keep this thing contained.>

<In the plant form they’re relatively docile,> said Isra. <That work should be easy.>

<It seems to be,> said Hannah. <The numbers are down, only about fifty of them left. We’re crediting fast action. Based on what Partridge says their location is, it looks like she might need to go into the field to direct efforts and get the more hidden ones.>

<How many eggs can this thing possibly have?> asked Mizuki. It seemed to have spat out hundreds, maybe more if the beastmaster’s numbers could be trusted.

“Wait,” said Isra. She’d stopped in place and was looking at a rock, one of the big ones that were common in the area, large enough to serve as a park bench, if not perhaps a dining table. Her hand went down to the rock. “This spot here, where there’s no moss or lichen.” There was a depression there, almost like a dent, if rocks got dents.

“Is that a problem?” asked Alfric. “Something to worry about?” He seemed a bit antsy to keep moving. They hadn’t seen many of the little plant ones, just the occasional clutch of eggs, which they’d destroyed, and they were going to be fighting the big one soon, not that it was necessarily going to be all that difficult.

Isra’s fingers lingered on the depression. “I think some of the rock might be stripped away.”

“Meaning?” asked Alfric. “That it’s got a third phase?”

“I don’t know,” said Isra. “Possibly.” She stooped down to look at the tracks. “Heavy, even for something this size.”

“What would a transition from plants to flesh to stone mean?” asked Verity.

“It would mean it’s more dangerous, if it has a shell of stone,” said Alfric. “Perhaps a lot more dangerous.” His frown deepened. <Hannah, report that the final form or end stage of the lifecycle is consumption of stone, which will make it extremely difficult to kill. I suggest retreat if people see one. Our group could probably kill one, specifically Mizuki, and Vertex could handle it too, but the townsfolk would mostly be outclassed.> Mizuki was pleased to hear something good said about her, but less pleased that she was the first line of defense against this creature.

<I’ll pass it on,> said Hannah. <We’re already getting the first of the injured, from the flesh ones. They’re the size of wolves, people say. Must be a lot of animals dying in the forest for there to be as many as there seem to be. Sometimes feathers, sometimes fur. Keep your eyes out, let me know when you’ve put the big one down.>

<Will do,> said Alfric. “Isra, we’re good to go?”

“Yes,” said Isra, getting to her feet. “I’m worried about what we’ll find.”

Mizuki hadn’t felt very nervous about it, not until that point. Alfric had said that she should start going for runs to build up her stamina, and she hadn’t done that, but now she was wishing that she had. Her job, as she saw it, was to lob as big of a fireball as possible at the thing as soon as they saw it, then run away so she’d be out of the fight.

They moved along with Isra at the lead, doing the tracking, but maybe because the creature was slowing down, or maybe because Mizuki had seen enough of its destruction, it felt like any idiot could track the thing. There were bites taken out of rocks, sometimes large ones, broken branches, trampled bushes, and small trees that had been pushed over. It was clearly big, and they weren’t coming along clutches of eggs anymore. The further they went, the more stone they found half-eaten.

“They grow fast,” said Isra. Her voice was soft. “The magic is strong. Hatchling to the size of a raccoon in a few hours. To the size of a wolf in a few hours after that.”

“More dangerous than you would naturally expect a dungeon escape,” said Alfric. “Not a nuisance, an actual threat to the region without either fast, competent response, outside intervention, or reversal.”

Mizuki wondered whether he was coming around to the Lola theory, and was about to ask when Isra said, <There.>

It wasn’t the largest monster that Mizuki had ever seen, but it was big, bigger than them, and bigger than even the lizzos that pulled the carts. It was in a part of the forest where the oaks had grown tall, leaving nothing but thin grass and moss beneath the canopy, and for just a moment, Mizuki thought that it was a rock, nothing more, but no, it was moving, swaying from side to side.

<Mizuki?> asked Alfric. <You’re up, do your best to get it in one shot. No telling how thick that stone shell around it is.>

The problem was the aether. It wasn’t like in town, where there was incidental magic used all the time, cartiers leaving a bit of a wake, clerics doing their house repairs or occasional healing, and the scant amounts that came from hundreds of ectads and built up over time. Out in the forest, in a part of the hex that had never been cleared and settled, the aether had very little, just the cast-offs of a few magical creatures and plants. The nameless monster that had somehow escaped from the dungeon had a miasma around it, which was the most prominent ‘flavor’ in the aether, but it was a creature who consumed and converted matter, or seemed to, based on the magical stink it was giving off. Those weren’t the kinds of things you could use to do offensive magic. Turning lead into gold was a neat trick, a useful trick, but not insofar as killing things went.

<It has the dungeon madness,> said Isra.

<Mizuki?> asked Alfric.

<Not sure what I can muster up here,> said Mizuki. She frowned at the creature.

<Better something weak than nothing at all,> said Alfric. <Isra, get ready to zip in.>

<From my perspective it’s more of a sedate walk,> said Isra. She glanced at Alfric. <Understood.>

<When do I start singing?> asked Verity.

<Now,> said Alfric.

Verity started up, using the party channel, but with her fingers on the strings of her lute, ready to start playing in full. Mizuki took in a deep breath, trying to steady herself, and began drawing on the aether, trying to cobble something together. It was better with Verity playing, and Verity was obviously lending power, not just from the song itself, but by multiplying Mizuki’s reach … but what she had to work with felt like so little.

Mizuki went with a fireball, the old reliable kind, but the texture and flavor of the aether wasn’t suited to it. It hit the creature, which was always a small victory given that there was some aiming involved, but when it exploded, it blew a chunk of rock off but didn’t seem to leave the kind of bloody wet mess that Mizuki had been hoping for. The creature turned on them at once, and ran directly for them, clipping trees with its bulk. It had rocky mandibles at the front, which served to protect small, sharp teeth, and its eyes were covered by brows made of more rock, beady black eyes that reminded Mizuki of how people looked in a full helm, barely visible behind the armor.

Isra let her arrow loose and zipped toward the creature even as it was building up steam. She was, all at once, standing in front of the creature but turned to face away from it, and there were two arrows stuck in one of its eyes. But just as Isra was about to fire her arrow again, the creature moved with surprising speed, and it seemed to have come within inches of hitting her. When she reappeared beside them, it was clear that something had happened, because she was moving funny, not quite limping but certainly not at her full speed.

The rock beast had two arrows in its left eye and none in its right. It was screeching at them and still moving fast, and the thought occurred to Mizuki just before Alfric said it.

<Full retreat,> he said. <Run. Warp if you need to.>

The phrase ‘poking a bear’ went through Mizuki’s mind. She ran, back the way they came, where there was at least a bit of a path, or at least the path they’d made while following the creature. The creature screeched again, louder this time, and it felt like the ground was shaking beneath Mizuki’s feet. She wished that she’d spent some time practicing the spell for the warp so she could do it in a flash, but she knew she was slow and clumsy with it, sometimes taking a try or two. It wasn’t the kind of thing you used more than once or twice a day, if that.

She had lost everyone else almost immediately, and she hoped that was because they’d scattered rather than because they’d been crushed. Running full-tilt through the forest wasn’t easy, and it especially wasn’t easy when wearing armor, going along something that wasn’t quite a path. Her heart was hammering in her chest, and she glanced back only once, which nearly sent her headfirst into the ground, after which she didn’t look back at all.

<Took Verity to the temple, Mizuki, Isra, are you okay?> Alfric was using his dungeon voice, firm and clear.

<Running,> said Mizuki.

<What was that?> asked Isra.

<Are you okay?> asked Alfric.

<I’m using the bow,> said Isra. <Walking away. Ankle isn’t quite right. Might use the warp, no sign of the beast.>

<Come find me and I’ll have healin’ for you,> said Hannah. <Last you said, you were east of the command?>

<Still running,> said Mizuki. She stopped for a moment and turned back. <I can’t see or hear it. I have no idea where I am though.> Using the warp was seeming like a better and better idea, if she wasn’t moments away from being crushed and could get it out with shaky hands.

<Go in the opposite direction to the sun,> said Alfric. <We’re heading back to command, we’ll meet you there, save your breath for moving quickly.>

Mizuki ran some more. The initial excitement of running seemed to fade quite quickly, and now that she wasn’t sure whether the creature was following her, it was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as she could. She couldn’t really remember the last time she’d run for any real distance, and she found herself hating it.

<Mizuki?> asked Alfric.

<Still running!> she called back. <Still keeping the sun behind me, but I think I lost it.>

<Hannah, I think I might have broken my arm,> said Alfric. <Just a heads up.>

<Isra’s here,> said Hannah, <Already healed.>

<I’ll go find Mizuki,> said Isra.

<I have no idea where I am,> said Mizuki. The party channel was getting too confusing, and she was hoping that Alfric was keeping track of where everyone was.

It only took about two minutes for Isra to find Mizuki, as apparently Mizuki had wandered quite close to the rally point. Alfric was already there, standing next to Hannah, but Verity was nowhere to be seen.

“I ran ahead with the stride boots,” said Alfric, who was still breathing hard. He must have been booking it. “Verity is back at the temple, by mutual agreement. We’ll have to call out what we want to her, but going through the woods with a lute is really not something that a bard should be doing in the first place, not if we’re facing that thing down again.” He was sweating slightly. “Hannah, any deaths?”

“No,” said Hannah. “The injuries are rollin’ in though, and I’ve been earnin’ my keep.”

“Anything serious?” asked Alfric. “Anything that people will be stuck with?”

“Not so far,” said Hannah. “Almost more injuries from people bein’ careless than from the beasts, but the ones with fur and feathers are a bit aggressive when they’re hunted.”

“We’re going to need to go after the big one, and I don’t know how we’re going to manage it,” said Alfric. “Even if Isra fully blinded it, we have nothing that penetrates the stone enough to actually kill it, if Mizuki can’t do it.”

“I’d need a lot of magic around,” said Mizuki. “And we didn’t have Hannah, and Verity wasn’t really playing, and the creature itself is the wrong kind of magic, so I don’t know what you expected of me.” She had the feeling that she was talking too much.

“It wasn’t criticism,” said Alfric. “I didn’t mean for it to sound like it was. But we can’t go up against it again if it’s just going to be the same result.”

“I got too close,” said Isra. “Otherwise I would have been able to put another arrow in its eye.” She was no longer moving funny, her injury having been wiped away by the gathered clerics. “I was lucky that it only grazed me.” She didn’t have to say that getting clipped by something that big was still enough to seriously hurt a person.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to be the one to say it,” said Hannah. “But it seems as though we might need Vertex.”

Alfric nodded. “It does seem like that’s what needs to be done.” He hesitated for a moment, then walked over to their cleric, Mardin, who wasn’t too far away. Mizuki followed, feeling useless.

“Alfric,” said Mardin with a nod.

“We tracked down the mother,” said Alfric. “We tried to fight it, but didn’t have the firepower for it. Hannah’s probably kept you and the rest informed, but it’s got a shell of rock. Between Josen, Lola, and Marsh, I think you won’t have a problem punching through.”

“You’re proposing we team up?” asked Mardin.

“Yes,” nodded Alfric. “We’re weaker in terms of firepower, there’s no question about that, but Isra will be able to find it again, and we can offer support.”

“Things are getting rough out there,” said Mardin. “Those things are killing animals and tearing down trees. He hesitated. “But you’re right that the presumed mother will need to be taken care of.” He sighed. “You know it’s not my call, right? We need to talk about it as a team, maybe temporarily split up if there’s dissent.”

“I know,” said Alfric. It wasn’t crazy to think that this was the outcome that Lola was hoping for. “The sooner the better. We know where it was ten minutes ago, but every minute that passes is another minute for it to get farther away. It seemed like it was done laying eggs, but there’s no way to know for certain.”

“I’ll relay the request,” said Mardin with a nod. “And then we’ll go off together.”

“I’ll be comin’ with,” said Hannah. “Seems like things got hot out there, and bein’ able to heal someone on the spot would do us well. I’ll check in with Pann and Partridge, make sure they know where we’re goin’ and that it sits well with them.” She went off without waiting for confirmation from anyone and began an animated conversation with the cleric and beastmaster.

“Seems like what Lola wanted,” said Mizuki. “Seems like she planned all this.”

“There’s too much variance,” said Alfric. “There’s no way she could plan this, even if this was her third time through the day. I’ll grant it’s possible she grabbed a creature from inside a dungeon, but she would only know what it did by releasing it, and getting something like this would take a considerable amount of time and effort. Lola is … well, lazy might be the wrong word, but when I knew her, she wouldn’t have gone through the time and effort to take creatures out of the dungeon in secret and test them to see what would make the best distraction or whatever this is.”

“So you’re saying that it might just be coincidence,” said Mizuki.

“Yes,” nodded Alfric. He glanced at Mardin, who was keeping a respectful distance and talking to his party. “Or it might not, but we should treat it like it is.”

“She wants you back with your old party,” said Mizuki. “So she’s trying to get you to team up with them.”

“Maybe,” said Alfric. “I don’t know if that’s really what she wants. She might just be bored, which would be dangerous for us.”

“You’ll undo the day, if something happens?” asked Isra.

“Yes,” said Alfric. “That’s why I asked Hannah whether there had been any deaths. Temporary wounds wouldn’t necessitate a reset, but permanent maiming probably would. So long as we’re on track to keep the day … well, better that we treat it as a day we keep.”

“They’re coming,” said Mardin, who came over to stand with them at around the same time Hannah finished up with Pann and Partridge. “Do you really think Lola might have done this?”

“Absolutely,” said Mizuki.

“Maybe,” said Alfric. “It’s the kind of thing I think she might do on an undone day, but for her to keep something like this … I don’t think she would.”

“So this might be a day she’s intending to not keep,” said Mardin.

“Maybe,” said Alfric. “It’s somewhat unlikely to be kept as it is, given the costs involved, but it depends on what kind of report gets sent back to the province about what went on here. Self-containment is preferred, especially if they don’t know where or how the escape happened. They like to keep a timeline that’s ‘good enough’, especially since it helps keep people on their toes and gives them some practical experience. I don’t know where Plenarch decides the balance of things is.”

“They’re a minute out,” said Mardin. “And then we’ll be moving as a group.”

“Okay,” nodded Alfric. <Verity, you’re standing by for music on my cue?>

<Yes, I am,> said Verity. <You’ll have to call out instructions to me, but I’ll be giving generic benefits. Keep off the party channel as much as possible, playing over someone talking directly in your ear is more difficult. Since I’m somewhere I have peace and quiet, I might be trying something more difficult, a party boost.>

<Don’t strain yourself too much,> said Alfric. <And thank you.>

“Is she okay?” asked Isra.

“She tripped when we were scrambling away,” said Alfric. “I think if I hadn’t noticed, she might have died. I was able to lift her up and use the warp to get us away as it was bearing down on us.”

“Thank you,” said Isra, breathing out a sigh of relief.

“You made it through the woods fine?” asked Alfric. “Seemed like it managed to hit you.”

“It was a painful trip,” said Isra. “But with the bow there was never a chance that it could catch me, not once I was far enough. I got too close to it when I was aiming for the eyes.”

“It’s half-blind,” said Alfric. “That’s good. It would be better for it to be fully blind, but we can accomplish that in round two. When we’re on the return trip, be on the lookout for eggs.”

Isra nodded. Again, Mizuki felt a bit useless. She wished that she had some kind of special power, beyond just being a sorc, something that would make her indispensable. But with Vertex joining them, and a lot more magic on the table, well … she was hoping that she’d have a bit more to work with.

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Alexander Wales

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