Chapter 57 - The Desert Oasis

Walking into the oasis was like entering an entirely different world. Cloudhawk could not believe there could be so much green in one place. He was shocked by how tall the trees were and how many colors of flower were all around. The whole area was rife with natural vigor and simply standing before it filled him with excitement.

The fanciest words Cloudhawk knew couldn’t describe what he was looking at. The oasis was a wonderland that left an impression on his very soul.

The Bloodsoaked Queen also concealed surprise as she gazed upon the lush green landscape. For such a beautiful place to exist in the harsh and perilous wasteland was just as astonishing to her as it was to Cloudhawk.

Anyone witnessing this for the first time was stunned by the view.

“Don’t forget, this is a wasteland oasis. You underestimate it and you’re underestimating the wasteland!” Leonine warned. “I’m tellin’ ya, this place takes more life than anywhere else. It was blood, not water, that fed this place and made it grow so large.”

Leonine pointed ahead to a tree laden with fruit. They were fist-sized and thickly dotted the tree, red as fresh blood. Both sight and scent were delectable. Leonine fished a scrap of dried meat from his pack and threw it toward the base of the foliage. Suddenly a writhing mass of vines whipped out and caught the meat mid-air. The vines wrapped it up and squirmed like hungry serpents, issuing a sound like sloppy chewing sound.

The others stared in shock and horror. The tree was carnivorous!

Leonine waved his hand, a sign for them to go on.

As they traipsed through the jungle Cloudhawk encounter one unbelievable sight after another. He learned that any flowering plant had the potential to kill him and the briefest moment of inattention could spell disaster. Leonine was richly endowed with experience and pointed out the predators hiding in the brush. His keen eyes caught mantises trying to blend in with the deadly flora. Every encounter was heart-pounding, but they were in no danger with him at the helm.

“I thought we found a paradise. Instead this place is more dangerous than the wasteland.” Cloudhawk muttered to the Queen while he watched his feet, carefully picking their way along the path. “Without Leonine’s experience we’d be dead before we knew it.”

“Don’t you find it suspicious?” Her voice was made deep and coarse by her mask. Her physical condition had continued to improve over time. “Judging by his degree of knowledge he’s most likely a mercenary for the Greenland Outpost. He seems to come and go often – but for what purpose?”

When she said it Cloudhawk realized she was right. It was strange.

If Leonine was a mercenary most of the others in his party clearly weren’t. At least two thirds were scoundrels picked out of the desert, so why was he bringing them back? Was it really just for protection? Often smaller groups were safer out in the wastelands.

If he was a merchant or digger he’d be out to make a profit. Merchants sometimes wandered the wastes selling cigarettes and wine, ammunition, machinery… these items were widely sought and could fetch a good price. But Leonine’s crew wasn’t carting anything. It certainly was suspicious.

Wastelanders were sinners by nature. Cloudhawk and the Bloodsoaked Queen had to be on guard!

The Queen was recovering well. She still couldn’t move around too much but she’d kicked the fever. Now she had enough strength to resonate with a relic if needed, so even Leonine wouldn’t be a threat. Throughout their journey she’d made it a point to avoid fighting. Instead she’d focused on regaining strength and hid her power in case she’d need to use it.

Just then one of the fighters exclaimed as he looked at another companion. “Eh? When the hell did you get so skinny?”

The other looked at him, baffled. “The hell are you on about? Whadda ya mean ‘skinny’?”

Cloudhawk sized the man up and indeed he spotted the problem. He’d been a bulky fellow before, even a little fat. Now the fighter looked like that sheen of blubber was entirely gone and his face was pale to boot. His appearance was more than strange.

What was going on? He had to be sick! But what kind of sickness worked so fast?

The fighter realized something wasn’t right. He tenderly lifted up his shirt and suddenly everyone’s face drained of color. His abdomen, waist and back were covered in bulging critters that pulsed as they took in blood and fat.

“What the fuck?!”

“That’s gross as shit!”

The others sucked in breaths of surprise and disgust. They instinctively backed away from the man.

The poor fighter began to panic. When did he get covered by these things? He never felt them. Desperate to get free he began to slap and wipe at where the creatures were attached to him. [1]

They were leeches, albeit monstrous ones mutated by the wasteland. They hid themselves on leaves and twigs, in muddy ground and gravel. When they weren’t feeding they were thin and brown like twigs, making them difficult to spot. When something got close enough the parasites latched on and began to gorge.

They didn’t only drink blood but ate fat beneath the skin as well. Once that was gone the leeches began to consume muscle, continuously releasing a numbing agent to make sure the host wasn’t aware. By the time the victim was weak or started having dizzy spells they were already on death’s doorstep.

“Not your hands!” Leonine cried. “Ya gotta burn ‘em off!” [2]

Everyone else was checking themselves and each other for the nasty hitchhikers. Cloudhawk found several, and though he didn’t know how long they’d been feeding on him they were already round and fat. He was covered in a cold sweat of fear, but thankfully there weren’t many. It could have been much worse.

So far there wasn’t much Cloudhawk liked about this devil jungle.

They quickly fled the leech breeding ground and came upon a place where the sound of trickling water tickled their ears. They found a brook whose sound was pleasing as a jade wind chime. It wasn’t a large stream, but in the parched and baked wasteland where they came from it was deluge worth more than any treasure.

“Stay away from the water.” Leonine spoke in a manner that left no debate. “We go around!”

Enticing as the brook was, Leonine had shown them he knew the dangers of the oasis eight or nine times by now. If he said not to go near it, the others weren’t going to question him.

They started to trek around the banks.

All of a sudden a strange animal call sounded from the trees nearby. Leonine, his face stiffening, lifted his hand. “Stop!”

Everyone froze, still as the trees that closed in around them. What new terror was in store?

As Cloudhawk carefully looked around he found a creature lying on its stomach amidst the foliage. Its skin was a magnificent bluish-green and was covered in a slick fluid that made it glisten. Its cheeks puffed out as an air pouch bulged from its throat. Elaborate patterns were etched on the skin of its dorsum and its underbelly was a plain white. Altogether this new monster was about the size of a wild dog and was the source of that strange cry.

In the old days it was called a frog.

This creature had since been mutated, like everything else. In addition to its size, its moist skin was also covered in scales like armor.

One of the fighters reacted by firing a bolt at it from his crossbow.

Thud.

The arrow tumbled into the forest. The front half dug harmlessly into the ground while the back clattered into the brush, and it was then they noticed that a corrosive fluid was eating away at it. Too fast for them to see, the giant frog had used its tongue to knock the bolt out of midair.

“You fucking jackass! Who told you to shoot?!”

Leonine had to fight the urge to cut the moron apart with his knife. A frog’s dynamic vision was highly attuned and they could pick out targets mid-flight no matter how fast they were moving. However staying still made the frogs effectively blind, and if one was lucky they could avoid detection. Now that this idiot attacked the frog it could guess where they were.

Rrribbit! Rrrrrrribit, ribbit! [3]

The sounds came from all around them like a tide. As many as six or seven frogs appeared, until now perfectly camouflaged in the jungle around them. If they were still and quiet there was practically no way to pick them out of the surroundings.

Move!

Leonine cleaved one of the frogs with his saber and made to retreat. These monsters could leap tremendous distances and used their tongues to attack prey. Not only were their muscular tongues as dangerous and speedy as bullets, they were also coated with a powerful toxin. One hit and its victim went numb and lost consciousness.

Luckily the frogs weren’t interested in humans as meals. So long as offenders left their territory they weren’t known for chasing over distances. Leonine lost three more warriors in the course of their escape, and they were forced to find another way around.

“Eh? What’s that?”

Not long after fleeing the threat of death by frog, the diminishing group came across a grove of trees. Blanketing their roots were red and purple fungi growing from the decayed remains of… something. The largest of them was about as tall as a man, its cap wide as an umbrella. Its particular shade sparkled like a gemstone, beautiful to behold.

What in the world was this growth? Even Leonine had never seen anything like it before.

The oasis was a never-ending parade of strange and fantastical things so coming across something new wasn’t uncommon. What Leonine did know was that these kinds of plants usually grew on the corpses of dead mutant creatures and humans. Fresh and delectable as they looked, did these also feed off of flesh?

Whether they did or not wasn’t important. The fewer mysterious and unknown things they came across, the better.

They didn’t have a choice. Leonine would have to lead them along another detour.

The others didn’t offer a different opinion. Only a fool would look at the bones strewn along the floor and think they were safe to cross. Who would go out looking for trouble? Finding a longer way was better than dying, certainly!

The thirty-some who remained tread along the outer ring of the grove and around. 

Suddenly, a mighty gust swept through and spores from the mushroom forest were rustled up. Like a cloud they spread over a wide area, some on the travelers’ clothes or skin. A few were inhaled deep into unwitting lungs.

Bad. This was bad.

Everyone’s face changed when they realized it. They didn’t know what these spores were, but they knew anything from the mushrooms touching them had to be bad.

1. I went walking through wilds of Shangri-la once with a group of people and my wife. We stopped to take some pictures and I wandered through a bush. When I got out on the other side I noticed something squirming on my calf and realized it was a leech. I’d never felt it grab me but it was quickly getting fat. I had to really pull to get it off while my wife was hysterical. When we got back to the van the driver just said to slap em a few times and they fall off, or failing that take a lighter to their tail. You might be surprised to learn that leeches are used even today in modern hospitals as an effective way to draw out stagnant blood.

2. See.

3. In China they describe a frog’s sound like ‘gua’, which I think is more accurate really.

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