“Oh God, it wasn’t mud in my hair, it wasn’t mud!”
The yelped words came from Dosina Banning. Having graduated from Crossroads almost six years earlier, the dark-skinned girl had very likely not picked up a weapon since that time. Never having been much focused on or interested in her actual training even while a student, Dosina was good with a certain kind of archival magic, spells focused on sorting and categorizing things. Such magic was quite good for administrative work, but not so much on the front lines of a fight. Which was fine, in most cases. There was very much a place for such work in the offices of the Crossroads Heretical administration. An army wouldn’t be worth much if everyone was a frontline soldier, after all. Dosina might not have been much of a fighter, but her work was still needed and appreciated in the proper place.
Unfortunately, this… was not the proper place. In many ways, actually. Only a minute earlier, Dosina had been having dinner at Crossroads Academy with her little sister, Summer and the rest of Summer’s team. She was one of three adults at the table, along with the boy Eiji’s uncle named Banri, and the father of Shiloh, another of Summer’s teammates. The three adults had been eating with their student relatives, and the other three team members: Russell, Freya, and Harper.
The key word was had. They had been having dinner. A feast, actually. But now… now something had happened. The last thing Dosina knew, a few of the kids around them had been complaining about not feeling well. Then there was a twisting sensation, and she had abruptly found herself… elsewhere. A dark elsewhere. A dark, muddy, and wet elsewhere. It was a swamp of some kind, one filled with nasty smells and creepy, crawly things. Dosina had already kicked a couple of entirely-too-large centipedes off her shoes before looking around. It was too dark to see further than ten feet or so. Those ten feet basically showed her muddy water, spots of land like where she was standing that weren’t exactly dry but at least made the water only rise to her ankles, twisted trees, and shapes that could have been logs or… or worse.
She had just taken a step back from one probably-not-a-log in particular when a glop of what she had thought was mud had fallen into her hair. The discovery that it was, in fact, something worse than mud had prompted her outburst. Now, she shook her hand off desperately, raising her voice. “Hello? Is anyone else out there? I said, hel–”
A hand covered her mouth. Dosina instantly focused on one of her powers. She wasn’t a frontline fighter, but nor was she a Bystander. Her teeth instantly turned to metal and became sharp enough to bite through steel, as she went to chomp down on the hand keeping her silent.
The hand released her at the last second, a hand turning her around. Dosina saw scraggly brown hair, mismatched blue and brown eyes, and a lined face. Then she recognized the man there, his face illuminated by a magical or ability-fueled light floating beside him. Garrison Lexx, Shiloh’s father. He gestured for her to be quiet, then nodded back the way he had apparently come.
Dosina followed him quickly, relieved beyond belief that she wasn’t alone out here in this swamp. Within a few steps, they passed around a large tree, and she saw that half of it was hollowed out and open. Her sister, and the rest of the people who had been at the table, were there. Summer, Russell, Freya, and Shiloh were all lying on the ‘floor’ of the tree’s hollowed out interior. None of them looked very good.
Seeing Summer, Dosina immediately moved to drop to her knees by the girl. Technically, they were what the Bystanders would call ‘half-sisters’ given the fact that they had different mothers. Both of whom were still very involved with their father. But those kind of polyamorous relationships were so common among Heretics that most simply stuck with referring to each other as full siblings unless an actual bloodline was important to the conversation.
“Oh, God, are you okay? Are you…” She touched her sister’s face, wincing at the heat and moisture she felt. “She’s burning up.”
‘They all have a fever,” Eiji’s uncle Banri, an Asian man even taller than his already quite large nephew, announced. “Whatever sent us here, it also made them sick. Most likely we were all poisoned. But we’ve stacked enough regeneration and other protections that it wasn’t enough to even notice. They… weren’t so lucky. All of them except Eiji and Harper there.” He nodded to the pair, who stood nearby, the former wearing his cyberform partner in its backpack form. “Our bloodline is very… resistant to magical poison. That’s why my nephew was unaffected. As for Harper–”
“I wasn’t hungry,” the pink-haired girl put in, sounding somewhat down from her usual incredibly chipper self. She was watching her teammates anxiously while standing quite close to Eiji as if instinctively seeking protection. “I uhh, sorta filled up on cupcakes before dinner.”
“So the spell–whatever brought us here, it was attached to the food?” Dosina frowned. “But if they’ve been poisoned–”
Garrison had already moved to kneel next to his daughter, touching Shiloh’s face. “They’ll be okay, with time. Mostly it’s draining their energy, keeping them too weak to do much. But we need to get out of here. Because if someone went through the trouble of poisoning us and sending us out here, it won’t be the end of it. There’ll be something worse coming. And there’s some kind of anchor spell in the area, keeping us here.”
Banri was frowning worriedly. “Stay here with them,” he instructed Dosina. “If anything happens, let us know. We’ll clear a path and see if anything’s on its way. Do not leave them alone.” He gave her a firm look, making the twenty-six year old feel as though she was back in school again until she nodded. Then he and Garrison moved out slowly and cautiously into the swamp.
“Guys, come here,” Dosina quickly ordered, looking toward Harper and Eiji until the two moved closer. As she started to turn her attention back to the swamp nervously, Summer’s hand found hers. The girl was shivering, face flushed as she murmured, “Dossier, you made it too.”
Ignoring the teasing nickname, Dosina jerked her attention to the girl. “Summer, you’re awake! You– wait.” Leaning back, she gave her little sister a very briefly suspicious look. “This isn’t some prank gone wrong, is it?” It would be just like Summer to think that sending her to a gross swamp would be hilarious. The girl was as attracted to disgusting things as Dosina was repulsed by them. And it also wouldn’t be the first time that a prank had backfired on her.
Summer’s head shook quickly. “N-no, definitely not a … a prank. Don’t be dumb.” She was clearly trying to be indignant, but lacked the energy. “I couldn’t pull all these people here. And I wouldn’t interrupt Family Day. I mean, maybe turning your room into a swamp, sure. But this?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dosina muttered. “I was just hoping for a minute, because then we wouldn’t really be in trouble. But I think–huh?!” Her head jerked upward, focusing on a sudden blur of motion above them.
A creature was there. Dosina barely had time to register its entirely-too-rapid arrival as it fell through her line of sight before the thing suddenly landed nearby.
No, it didn’t land. It splatted. The thing crashed into the ground way too fast, basically exploding into a spray of goo that made her jerk backward with a yelp of surprise, and then one of disgust. “Ohhhh gross! It’s a… spider… thing.” Frowning, she hesitantly kicked the thing with a foot.
“It’s dead.” That was Summer. Still clearly barely able to move, her younger sister was staring at the body. “Or it was, before it fell…” Her voice was soft, whatever poison was affecting her and most of her teammates clearly making her too tired to even adequately react to what was happening.
Eiji was there, taking a knee by the gross, splattered body. The thing was an arachnid the size of a small deer. And now it was just sort of… all over. “The bit where the web comes out,” he murmured, “It… looks like it was… cut?”
“Cut?” Dosina echoed. ‘You mean like it was hanging up there to ambush us and then something else cut its spinneret and made it fall and splatter like that?”
“I guess,” the boy quietly confirmed before turning his head to look back up into the dark trees. “But who… or what would do that? If it’s… a person that wants to help, wouldn’t they announce themselves?”
“I bet they’re just shy,” Harper announced then before cupping her hands to her mouth to call out. She had just taken a breath, a sound starting to leave her lips before Eiji stopped her. “Harper, what are you doing?”
She blinked at him. “I was just gonna say hi and let them know that we want to be friends.
“We’re trying to be quiet, Harper,” Dosina reminded the girl. “As in not attract the attention of all the things out there that really do not want to be our friends.” She was trying very hard not to upchuck at the sight of the splattered spider still visible out of the corner of her eye. Dosina had never been very good with creepy crawly things of the normal variety, let alone big ones. And despite having done her share of fighting while at school, it had been six years since then. Six years where she hadn’t so much as thrown a punch. She’d never liked killing or any of that.
Still, she was the oldest person here with the other two adults gone for the moment. Her sister and several of her teammates were sick. If push came to shove, she would protect them. Even if it was gross spider things that liked to splatter disgusting guts all over the–
Don’t ralph. Do not ralph. Not only would Summer never let her live it down if she did, doing so probably wouldn’t make any of the kids feel any safer. She had to pretend to be in control, pretend that she wasn’t totally freaking out. Pretend that–
A rustling in the bushes nearby made her head jerk that way, even as a ball of fire appeared in her palm. Fire. She could do fire. Burn it. Burn whatever was going to try and hurt her sister. Her eyes focused on that rustling, and she thought there were eyes… malevolent ones… staring at her. The thing out there in the swamp, it was getting ready to lunge. And Dosina, terrified though she might have been, was going to meet it with as much fire as she could hurl in its general direction. But not yet. Wait, she told herself. Wait for it to show itself. Wait for it to lunge.
It was about to come. She sensed it, she could feel it. The thing was ready, and so was she. Any instant. Any instant it would show itself, leaping from the bushes with–
A yelp filled the air. It was short, but very distinct. And it clearly came from that same bush. Dosina thought she caught the briefest glimpse of movement, the bushes giving a single shake. Then there was silence. The malevolent presence was gone. Whatever had been staring at them had… left? Fought something else?
Behind her, she heard Eiji blurt, “Harper?”
Tearing her attention away from the now-silent and apparently empty bush, Dosina looked that way quickly, only to find the girl in question poking her head out from behind the large Asian boy. “Right here!” she chirped. “What’s wrong?”
Eiji blinked. “I thought you–err… never mind. This place is creepy.”
Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly, pink pigtails bouncing. “Really creepy! What about the… the thing out there?” Her trembling hand pointed past Dosina, to the bush. “Should I uhh, throw one of my bombs at it? I mean, I know you said don’t attract attention, but if we’re about to be attacked and–uh, shouldn’t someone be watching it?”
“It’s gone,” Dosina informed her. “Maybe… it left, or… got scared? Or maybe something else–never mind. I don’t know, but it’s not there.”
“Ooh, maybe our new friend killed it,” Harper blurted with a broad, eager smile. “You know, the same one that killed the spider.”
“That’s not necessarily a friend,” Eiji quietly pointed out. “It could just be something or someone who wants us for themselves.”
Before Dosina could respond to that, a shape swept by the tree. It was moving fast, but was also very large… and very long. Despite its speed, she could see the shape continue passing by in the shadows for several long, terrible seconds.
“Um. Was that a snake?” The question came from Freya Sullivan, who was sitting up and staring that way. The red-haired girl looked tired, but she was at least awake. Barely. She only stayed that way for a moment before slumping once more. She, and the others, were drifting in and out.
“Guys, back away from the opening,” Dosina quickly ordered Harper and Eiji. “Just… just keep your eyes open. And stay back. If something’s out there, I can burn it.” To demonstrate, she conjured more flame to her hands, sending a burst of fire out through the opening of the hollow tree to light up the swamp beyond. There was no reaction, but she still sent a couple more bursts of fire that way. With any luck, it’d scare off whatever was lurking out there.
Eiji moved beside her, backpack in one hand. With a grunt, the large boy tossed it on the ground ahead of them. “Raphael?”
The bag responded by growing and shifting, legs sprouting from it. Within a few seconds, the ‘backpack’ had grown into a full-sized rhinoceros. The thing grunted and tossed its head back and forth a couple of times as though checking out its surroundings, before looking toward its owner with a worried huffing sound.
“It’s okay, buddy,” Eiji assured the cyberform rhino, rubbing its back. “You ready to protect the others?” When it gave another huffing sound, this time of agreement, the boy looked to Dosina. “Raphael’s immune to fire. And… well, a lot of other things. So, something comes after us…”
He gave a short, low whistle then. As he did so, the rhino stood up on its hind legs, like a person. It shrank a bit, head shifting down even as its back opened up. After a moment, the thing looked like an anthropomorphic rhino suit. Eiji stepped inside, and the suit closed up after him.
The thing had gone from being a backpack, to being a full-sized rhino, to being humanoid rhino-shaped power armor. And Dosina knew it had a fourth function, though she was pretty sure the thing’s motorcycle form wouldn’t be nearly as useful out here in this swamp.
“We’ll hold it,” Eiji finished his earlier statement. “It comes through, we’ll hold it, you burn it.”
“Err, right.” Dosina straightened. “Harper? Can you–”
“On it!” When the older girl looked that way, she saw Harper crouched by the rest of her teammates, giving her a thumbs up. “If anything sneaks past you, I’ll scream loud enough that you’d think we were all screaming.”
“Good, good.” Trying to suppress her own nervousness still, Dosina focused on that opening. If that… that thing came back again, it was going to get a big surprise. “Eiji, if you see anything come through…”
The boy nodded, the rhino-suit making him look even bigger than he already was. With it on, he was almost eight feet tall. “I can hold it,” he assured her. “And I can take any fire you can dish out. Just focus on pouring on the flames.”
They waited. Dosina and Eiji kept their eyes focused on the tree opening, waiting for the snake to show itself again. She was afraid to look away, worried that if she took her eyes off it for one second, the creature would know and use that to launch itself into the tree. Fear of being responsible for anyone’s death very nearly kept her from even blinking. First spiders, then snakes? She hated swamps. Hated, hated, hated them.
So tense was she, in that moment, that when Garrison and Banri appeared abruptly, she nearly fricasseed them both in a wild spray of fire before catching herself. “Don’t do that!” the girl blurted, before belatedly realizing that both men were staggering a little. Eyes widening, she moved that way to check on them.
“It’s okay,” Eiji’s uncle assured both her and the armored boy himself. “We’ll be fine. Just a lot of things out here like using poison. We dealt with most of it, but there’s a tribe of things I’m pretty sure we don’t want to meet heading this way. Best if we just avoid them completely.”
Garrison nodded. “There’s a clear path north. We’ll see if we can get away from the anchor spell that’s stopping us from teleporting out of here with you kids. Just move fast and stay together. We–Harper?”
The girl blinked that way. “Huh?”
“Are you okay?” The man looked worriedly to the girl. “It’s okay if you’re scared. We’ll get you through this. You… looked like you were spacing out there. What were you muttering? It sounded like… something degrees? Latitude and longitude?”
Harper turned a bit pink to match her hair. “O-oh, no, sir. I was just reciting baking recipes. You know, cooking temperatures. It um, it calms me down.”
Smiling just a little, Banri nodded to her reassuringly. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry, we’re not going to let you get hurt. We do need to get going though. And fast, so… Eiji?”
The boy had already stepped out of his armor, letting Raphael shift back to his rhino form. Together, he and his uncle picked up Summer, Shiloh, Freya, and Russell, draping their barely conscious forms over the large animal’s back so that he could carry them.
Then they set out. Banri and Garrison led the way, with Harper and Eiji walking behind and in front of the lumbering Raphael, respectively. Dosina brought up the rear a bit back from Harper. It scared her more than she would admit, but she did it anyway. A small ball of fire conjured in each hand, she kept her eyes mostly focused behind them, barely paying attention ahead except to keep herself with the group as they moved through the murky, dark, terrifying swamp.
“Would asking where the giant snake went count as jinxing us?” Eidi asked aloud in a hushed tone.
“Giant snake?” Banri echoed. “We saw the body of one about thirty meters or so from the tree. But it was dead.”
“Maybe the same thing that killed the spider killed the snake,” Harper put in cheerfully. “Told you we had a friend.”
“Wait.” Garrison turned back, looking past all of them to Dosina. “I thought that was you.”
Her head shook quickly. “N-no, not me. I didn’t ki–” Her words were interrupted by a loud, sharp yipping sound from off to their right. It sounded like it was coming from far away, but not nearly far enough.
“Company,” Banri muttered. “We’ll talk about that later. Keep moving.”
So, they continued, Dosina trying not to think about what kind of things were probably watching their every movement, just waiting to pick off a straggler. And also trying not to think about the fact that staying at the rear and covering the others made her very much look like one.
A chittering sound to her right made the girl’s head snap that way. She saw what she could have sworn looked like the tip of a spear. Then it was gone. The bushes rustled, and the chittering stopped.
To her left and behind them, right there! It was a snout, appearing from the gloom before a mouth opened in a toothy smile that made Dosina’s heart stop. Her hand snapped up, a cry on her lips, just before the thing’s smile suddenly vanished along with the snout itself. It looked like it was yanked back out of sight, disappearing into the bushes with what she could have sworn was a yelp of surprise.
“Dosina?” The voice came from Garrison, and the girl realized belatedly that they had stopped when she did. Turning back that way, she saw Harper step back from the tree that had briefly hidden her. All of them were looking to Dosina with obvious concern.
“I–it’s okay,” she claimed, though she wasn’t sure it was. “There’s just a lot of… things out here.”
“Yeah,” Banri agreed. “There are. So let’s get away from them.”
She kept watching, kept waiting for another attack. Yet as they kept moving through that swamp, Dosina only saw signs of creatures about to attack and then… changing their mind, or disappearing. Whatever was happening, the things weren’t following through. She had to send a burst of flame here and there to scare a few things off, but for the most part, they seemed to vanish on their own. Maybe something out there had decided that ambushing the would-be ambushers made for a better meal than trying to attack the Heretics.
Whatever it was, Dosina was just going to be glad when they were out of there. She wanted to be in civilization again.
Forty minutes. It took them forty minutes of hiking through that gross swamp, feet constantly slipping in the ankle-to-knee length water, mud (and worse) working its way into their shoes and clothes, bugs flying around their faces, and… bigger things stalking them constantly, before they finally reached somewhat dryer land. Picking their way out of that swamp and up into the heavily forested area beyond, the group gathered together once more.
“Everyone okay?” Garrison asked while helping his daughter down off of Raphael. She and the rest of the team had woken up for good toward the end of their little hike. Now, all of them were looking around.
“Where are we?” Shiloh asked her father.
“I’m not entirely sure,” the man admitted. “But we’re away from the worst of the things in that swamp. And we’re pretty sure we know what’s stopping us from teleporting out. It’s you guys.” Briefly, he explained that whatever they had eaten hadn’t just made them sick and transported them, it was also anchoring them to the spot.
“So uhh, what’re we supposed to do to get rid of it?” Blanching at his own question, Russell guessed, “Throw up?”
“Wouldn’t do much good right now,” Banri thankfully replied with a shake of his head. “It’s settled in. We need a countering agent, which–err… Harper?”
The girl in question blinked up from the little bouquet she was poring over. “Hmm? Oh, uh, it’s just flowers. I like picking up pretty things when I’m, um, nervous. They’re not poisonous or anything, if that’s what you–”
“These.” Banri stepped that way, plucking collection of plants from her with one hand before separating out a few gray and white flowers in particular. “These should do the trick.” Unceremoniously, the man plucked the blossoms. “Everyone chew and swallow a handful.” He began to pass out the petals then, watching as everyone, including Dosina, chewed up the rather nasty tasting flowers and swallowed them.
They may have tasted bad, but the results were immediate. Dosina instantly felt stronger. Not that she had felt that weak to begin with, but the effects were still noticeable. And the others were showing more life too. Russell in particular was holding a hand up in front of his face, peering off into the darkness. “Wow, you guys must’ve been really busy protecting us.”
“Not really,” Garrison replied with a shake of his head. “It was mostly quiet on the way out. Why?”
“Mostly quiet?” Russell echoed. “Uh, you know that power I was telling you about at dinner? The necromancy-vision thing?”
“The one that highlights dead things?” That was Banri, the man nodding. “Yeah, why?”
“Uhh, well…” Shifting from foot to foot, Russell finally just held his hand up. A beam of blue light shone out from it, which he swept back and forth for a few seconds. Every dead thing the light touched, it made glow.
And there were a lot of things glowing. The beam didn’t reach all the way back along their path, only a couple hundred yards through the swamp. Yet even in that distance, several dozen dead bodies could be seen. They glowed brightly after being touched by the blue beam, dozens and dozens of bodies literally covering both sides of their path.
“What… the hell?” Garrison stepped that way, staring at the lit-up bodies. “What killed those things, and why didn’t we see or hear any of it?”
“I think we can address that later,” Banri replied, head shaking as he turned back to the others. “Once these kids are safe. Okay, let’s see if this works this time.” That said, he raised his hand and clearly focused. There was a few flickering sparks in the air, before an actual, genuine portal appeared. Dosina almost fainted in relief.
“Good. Right, let’s go.” Banri waved for the others to go ahead. “This’ll take us back to the school. We can figure out more from there.”
They started through, the kids who had been affected the most going first, while the adults covered them. One by one, they all went through the portal. All, that was, except for…
“Errr, Harper?” Dosina looked at the girl, who was placing a large chocolate muffin on a stump. “What are you doing?”
“Leaving a treat for whoever our nice mister guardian angel was,” Harper replied with a bright smile. “Because if they don’t eat the monsters out there, I bet they’re really hungry after spending all that time protecting us.
“I know I am!”