War And Peace
Plains of the Dead
A week and a half on the road had Alyssa wondering just how upset the Astral Authority would get if she tried to portal directly to Owlcroft. Or at least Illuna.
The terrain varied quite a bit over the journey. From the green plains and forested hilltops to a fairly winding path through some canyons. For the past three days, they had been in a fairly arid and incredibly flat area. There weren’t any tall trees, mountains, hills, or anything to break up the scenery. The only things living around the area were drought-resistant plants, insects, and small creatures. Without much in the way of covering vegetation, the black rocky ground stood out. If she remembered correctly from the one geology class she had taken, the rock was volcanic in nature. Basalt, if she had to put a word to it. Given how flat the entire area was, it had to be a lava flow plain rather than what she typically thought of when the topic of volcanoes popped up.
Brakkt had called the land the Plains of the Dead. Despite the ominous name, there weren’t ghosts or monsters or really much of anything anywhere.
It was dead because the area got such little rainwater and there were no nearby rivers, lakes, or reservoirs. Without water, only hardy lizards and sparse plants could survive.
Alyssa found herself reminiscing of long road trips through the American mid-west on the way to her grandmother’s house. As that particular grandmother had died when she was still fairly young, she couldn’t remember exactly where such a place had been on the route. Only that she remembered staring out windows at terrain that looked exactly like this.
Between this place, the northern desert, and the entire country where the First City had been, Alyssa had to wonder just how much of the planet was even habitable. Then again, she didn’t know how much of Earth was habitable, so perhaps the line of thinking was entirely frivolous.
Except, this trip was a bit different from visits to relatives. Instead of staring out from the windows of a minivan, basking in the cool breeze from the air conditioner, she was seated on Izsha’s saddle, wondering why whatever it was that increased the power of spells like Annihilator, up to the point of destroying hilltops, didn’t also overpower Chill. It probably had something to do with the rank of the spell. All the lower-ranked spells that she had cast did exactly what they said they would do. It was really only when she got to the fifth and sixth ranks that things started to get crazy.
“Hey. Irulon,” Alyssa said. It was the first anyone had spoken since leaving camp earlier in the morning. Even Oz and Raugis seemed drained by the trip through the desolation. Their endless banter had fallen to only a few quips and comments over the past few days. “What would it take to turn Chill into a Rank Six spell? I don’t think this Rank Zero version is even doing anything.”
Musca’s rider didn’t look bothered by the heat in the slightest. Either she had a more effective version of Chill—which Alyssa doubted because she had heard Irulon cast the spell—or she was simply more accustomed to being out under the hot sun.
“Chill is a very simply spell. Technically, it doesn’t actually create cold. Rather, it removes heat from your body faster than should be normal. But that heat has to go somewhere. Namely, into the surrounding environment. That gives the feeling of a chill across your body, but has a significant drawback in that it works far less effectively the hotter it is. So, ironically enough, Chill works best in cold environments where one doesn’t generally want to use it in the first place. As such, a Rank Six version would likely not help that much in a situation like this.”
“Shouldn’t we at least be traveling at nights like we did through the northern desert?”
Irulon opened her mouth, but it was Brakkt, riding only a short distance ahead, who responded first. “The Plains of the Dead are one of the more dangerous locations we’ll pass through on our journey. Maintaining an outpost is nearly impossible, yet brigands tend to ambush weary travelers for loot, people, supplies, or whatever else might be carried through. Such attacks are especially common at night when visibility is limited.”
“That might be true for other people, but we have Night Vision. And are probably better armed than ten caravans combined.”
Brakkt dipped his head, acknowledging the point, but otherwise didn’t offer any reasons for their daylight travel. A bit of sweat rolled down his face with the motion. He didn’t seem like he was handling the heat much better than Alyssa was.
If Alyssa was being perfectly honest, she almost wished someone would try attacking them. First of all, she could use a laugh. Just imagining the faces of a surprised group of bandits who hadn’t realized just what they were ambushing was enough to put a smile on her face. Seeing the actual thing would surely have her at least chuckling.
Secondly, she could use getting off Izsha’s back for a little activity.
The two week walk from Teneville to Lyria hadn’t been that bad. Alyssa liked to walk. It felt good and got her exercise. She had gone at her own pace. Sometimes, she had rushed a bit, but most of the walk was fairly lackadaisical. If she wanted to stop and rest or eat, she did so. Plus there were several villages between the city and Teneville, so plenty of different places to stop.
Izsha was a comfortable ride, all things considered. Better than a horse, that was for certain. Alyssa had swapped with her mother—much to Izsha’s disappointment—for one day before deciding that she absolutely did not want to ride horses everywhere. They were wider than draken—most draken, anyway. Ensou was quite large, forcing Alyssa to sit with her legs completely bowed out.
On Izsha, Alyssa had started riding sidesaddle. The saddles were clearly not designed for it, but she managed. She just needed to switch positions.
If she could, she probably would have jumped off and walked alongside their little party. But they were moving at a pace where Alyssa would have to maintain a fairly brisk jog just to keep up. And that was later in the day when exhaustion had settled in. Both the horses and the draken were significantly more energetic in the mornings after a long rest.
Aside from not being able to keep up without using her one Accelero card, running in the desert just screamed bad idea.
Alyssa closed her eyes and started fanning herself with her deck of cards. If magic wasn’t going to fix her temperature issues, she was going to at least use the cards. How did the draken stand it anyway? It wasn’t like they had sweat glands to help cool themselves down. Then again, Oz had said that they were native to hotter areas when she very first met him. They were probably used to something like this.
With her eyes still closed, Alyssa noticed something. “You said this place was dead because nothing really lives here, right?” she said loud enough for Brakkt to hear. “Are there any exceptions to that?”
“Not that I am aware of. Just the occasional groups of brigands. Maybe a maximum of ten men. But they don’t tend to live here. Rather, they’ll stalk their targets, ambush them, then leave to wherever their hideouts are.”
Ten was too small for this group that Alyssa could see with her soul-sight. Not only that, but she was mostly sure that they weren’t human. Monster souls were just slightly different from human souls in most cases. These were definitely different. “Are there large groups of ants out this way?” They lived in the northern desert. It made sense that they would be able to thrive here. Though this would have been a smaller colony. There were not one million of them off in the distance.
“I’m not sure.”
“My brother knows hardly anything of monsters unless they have scales.”
Alyssa felt like that was a bit disingenuous, but… “Kasita? Fela?”
“Never been around these parts,” the mimic said as she materialized onto Alyssa’s back. Fela just shook her head from side to side while Kasita spoke. “But I might still know. What do you see?”
“Maybe twenty monsters. Can’t answer more than that. The soul-sight doesn’t exactly give me a readout of their races or intentions.” Cupping her hands to her mouth, she called out. “Hey, Oz!”
A red mane of hair flipped over his shoulder as Oz looked back. Alyssa waved a hand, beckoning him. It took a moment of fandangling with the horse’s reins, but he managed to slow down enough to get within easy talking distance. The hoses still didn’t like being too close to the draken, even if they seemed to understand that they weren’t really in any danger. Even Musca hadn’t so much as snapped at them.
“What’s going on with you lovely people?” he said with a smile.
“You know a lot about monsters, right?”
“Do I know a lot about monsters? You’re looking at one of only five people who have memorized the guild’s monster repository.”
“Then you’ll know what kind of monsters live in these parts, right?”
“Hmm? There shouldn’t be any monsters in these parts. Not that there aren’t any that couldn’t live or thrive out here, but this area is close enough to be watched by Illuna’s guard. If anyone noticed any monsters trying to settle in, reports would have made it to the city. They would send out teams to exterminate them. Or hire people like us to do it.”
“They don’t seem to watch brigands,” Alyssa said with a glance toward Brakkt.
“Ah,” Oz said, holding up a finger, “but brigands and highwaymen wouldn’t live here. They might even live in the city, only venturing through these parts when they spot prey they want to attack. It’s much harder to clear them out when they can blend in with the population. It would take survivors to point them out. So they don’t often leave any. An ambushed caravan could have been attacked months ago before anyone would realize it was missing.”
“Alright. So what is a group of twenty monsters doing out here?” Alyssa said, vaguely pointing off to the south. “They don’t look like they’re passing through. Then again, they might just be waiting out the heat of the day like sensible people.”
“You’re not going to let that drop, are you,” Irulon said in a grumbling tone.
Ignoring her, Oz put a hand to his chin, humming. “Twenty is quite a small population for most social monsters. But a bit large for those that are individualistic or pack-based. It could be remnants of a group fleeing after being attacked. It could also be that a portion of their group is away at the moment, whether scouting or hunting or something else entirely. They could even be a caravan of sorts. Despite humanity’s best efforts, some monsters do manage to set up thriving communities. They have to skirt around and remain hidden or risk being discovered, but I wouldn’t put it past these communities to have trade with one another.”
“You’re really not narrowing it down much, are you.”
“Perhaps we should take a look,” he said with a shrug. “They can’t be too dangerous. Not this far north of Pandora. Even outnumbered, we shouldn’t have a difficult time snuffing them out.”
Alyssa immediately put on a scowl. She could feel discontent from both Izsha and Kasita as well. It was a mild thing. A subtle thing. A tightening of muscles under Izsha’s scales and a slightly firmer grip from Kasita. Brakkt and Irulon probably noticed as well if their draken were similar at all in temperament.
“Why don’t we find out what they’re doing before we start collecting ears for paltry pay.” If they were geared up to attack travelers or even the city, that was one thing. But Oz just gave a dozen scenarios where they were not doing that. If they had been fleeing or were just trying to live their lives… “I’ll go. You just stay here and keep your sword sheathed. Your job is to protect the noblewoman anyway, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” Oz sounded distinctly unenthused with her idea. “You’re… Just don’t bring anything dangerous back to stalk us.”
“Don’t worry. I learned my lesson with the fairy. While I agree that we need to make sure we aren’t attacked after setting up camp tonight, that’s no reason to just go stab them all if they’re minding their own business.”
Oz looked at her for a moment before slowly shaking his head. “You’ve gotten lucky in the past,” he said, eyes flicking to Fela momentarily. “I’m just worried that your luck will run out and drag us all down with it.”
“I can handle myself.”
“And I will be going with her,” Brakkt said. “As will—”
“Pass.” Irulon dismissively waved a hand for a moment before having to lunge to grab a book that almost fell from her makeshift desk. She barely caught it by the edge of the cover, leaning far off Musca’s saddle. “I have better things to do,” she said as if she wasn’t about to fall off. With only a little effort, she managed to right herself. “If they start attacking, do let me know.”
Brakkt nodded slowly before turning to glance back at Fela. The hellhound, much like the draken and Irulon, didn’t seem visibly perturbed by the heat. But then, Alyssa wasn’t sure what to expect from a monster only half covered in fur but with literal fire flowing from the corners of her eyes.
“I’ll go if you want,” she said, grinning wide enough to show off a few teeth. “I like meeting new people when they aren’t trying to kill me.” Pausing, Fela tilted her head slightly. “And if they do try to kill me…”
“Hopefully it won’t come to that. We’ll be back soon. I’ll send a Message if something bad happens.”
As Oz headed back to the others, alerting them to the possibility of trouble, Alyssa, Brakkt, and Fela—riding on Izsha, Ensou, and Dasca respectively—broke away from the rest of the group. The group of monsters she had spotted were at least a mile away. Possibly more like three or four. Draken, going at a moderate speed so as to not wear themselves down, traveled at about thirty miles an hour. That was a completely rough estimate. It wasn’t like they had speedometers attached to their heads. She could be off either direction.
The ride was nice, at least. With Izsha moving faster, it almost felt like a cool breeze across Alyssa’s skin.
In the end, it took about fifteen minutes to reach the rough edges of where she spotted the monsters. It was still well within the Plains of the Dead. But it wasn’t quite as flat around here. A lone mountain jutted up from plains. Not a high mountain. Just a little nub on the terrain. It even had some vegetation growing on it. Nothing significant. It wasn’t like they were growing crops or anything. But there was slightly more green here than anywhere else. Even with as little moisture as this place got, the ground was probably most fertile here.
It was almost certainly the dormant or extinct volcano that had created these plains in the first place.
And the monsters were inside.
Lava tubes? Perhaps just regular caves.
“They’re inside the mountain and partially underground. I don’t see any lookouts. No souls near the surface, that is.”
Fela, tilting her head upward, sniffed the air a few times. “I think I smell them,” she said. “Don’t know what they are, but I smell them.”
“Think you can find an entrance?”
Standing, Fela vaulted off Dasca’s back, landing on the rocky terrain on all fours. Without even getting back on two feet, she started prowling around, smelling the air all the while. Izsha, Alyssa couldn’t help but notice, also started making a bit more noise as it breathed. It wasn’t long before both of them took off at once, running around the nub of a mountain. Brakkt, Ensou, and Dasca all followed just a few lengths behind.
Despite having caught the scent just a few seconds sooner, Fela quickly fell behind Izsha as the draken sprinted forward. The side of the mountain quickly approached, looking a fair bit larger up close than it had from the outskirts. Eventually, Izsha slowed to a stop with Fela stopping to the side.
Some of the desert shrubs had clearly been moved. From far away, it probably wouldn’t have been notable. Here, standing right in front of an obvious cave, it was obvious.
“A bit of a tight squeeze for the draken,” Alyssa noted aloud as she slid down from Izsha’s back. Izsha might have been able to fit inside. Ensou definitely couldn’t.
“The draken will wait outside. Find someplace you can lie low while still watching the entrance. If anything comes in behind us…” Brakkt trailed off, frowning.
“I’ll stay as well,” Kasita said, not sounding too happy, but still smiling. “Then I can warn you all if something happens out here.” Just like that, she had deduced the problem and provided a solution. If Irulon had come, she could have sat outside with her books.
But honestly, Alyssa was perfectly happy with Kasita watching their backs. “Thank you,” she said.
“Fela, Alyssa, and I will head inside then. Try to avoid large scale destructive spells. We don’t need the mountain coming down on us.”
Alyssa started to glare at him for thinking she would be so foolish, only to stop when she noticed the corners of his lips. He had on a faint smile. “Alright. Enough teasing. Let’s go see what we’re dealing with.”
“Keep an eye open for traps,” he said, voice serious without a hint of that smile. “Night vision would be prudent here.”
“Already on it,” Alyssa said, drawing a pistol and her spell cards.
The dark of the cave wasn’t dark at all under the effects of magic. A quick scan of the area showed nothing dangerous. Nothing immediately, at least. No tripwires or spots that looked like they might have been pressure plates. That probably meant that the monsters weren’t elves.
Brakkt, sword drawn, moved alongside Alyssa. Fela was right behind them, smelling the air as they went.
It was a good thing that she could fit inside. The cave split off into three directions almost immediately. Fela pointed down the centermost entrance, a wider passage that led down a gentle slope. There were faint lights set inside the stone walls. Just little tiny blue lights. It didn’t look like potions or candles. Some kind of bioluminescent fungus? Although there was a slight stagnant smell to the air, the temperature was most welcome.
It was cool. Almost cold. Much like the air of a basement except more… natural.
Alyssa basked in it.
Fela led them past another three forks in the road. The entire time, Alyssa could tell that they were getting closer. In fact, if they had broken through the walls at various points, she was sure that some of the monsters would have been on the other side.
But they didn’t. They kept going until the tunnel opened wide into a large cavern.
Large might have been an understatement. The ceiling was a good two stories overhead. More glowing mossy fungus clung to it, making it look almost like a particularly dazzling night sky. The path from the tunnel led down into a large circular basin. Water filled much of the center, but around it, the walls of rock that made up the cavern sides had doors and even windows in them. Some were set higher up with little ladders to reach them, others were right down at the water level. Brighter blue light shined out of the openings, though there didn’t seem to be any glass in the windows.
There were definitely monsters down there. A variety of kinds. Two had animal ears and paws, much like Fela, though they lacked the flames from the eyes that would have identified them as hellhounds. One, fetching a bucket of water from the lake, looked to be mostly covered in a green chitin. A long blade extended out like scythes from each wrist. One had bright white fur covering a long tail, much like that of a snake. It clicked in Alyssa’s mind just what that last one was. Tzheitza had mentioned a furred snake-human monster that went by the name of bunyip. It glided through the water on its back, swimming in total relaxation.
At least, it had been relaxed. On its back, it was staring upward.
Although Alyssa, Brakkt, and Fela were all only partially out of the tunnel, taking cover to avoid being noticed, it clearly saw them.
And immediately let out a cry of alarm.