Chapter 58 - The Fatal Forest

Cloudhawk was one of the unfortunate ones to breath in the spores. The initial reaction was a pungent and burning sensation that ran all along his throat and into his lungs. It felt like breathing in burning coal dust.

It only lasted four or five seconds and then things began to change. Sensations Cloudhawk didn’t expect emerged.

A sense of elation welled up in him, a joy that went beyond anything reasonable. It started in his brain and spread out to every part of his body until he felt like he was floating among the clouds. He no longer felt the pain from his wounds, or even remembered they were there.

These spores stopped pain?

Cloudhawk began to notice other changes. His heart began to beat faster and images flitted out of the corners of his eyes. His head felt heavy and muddled like he was in a dream world which only increased this enigmatic happy mood he found himself in.

These spores had to be some sort of neurotoxin, a natural hallucinogenic. Victims felt joyous and filled with contentment, but also hallucinated and were numbed to the outside world. However it was also intensely addictive. The moment Cloudhawk breathed it in he couldn’t stop, he wanted more. Like a drunk man he swayed unsteadily, fighting a bone-deep itch and a stuffy ringing in his head. He had to have more, he needed to keep this high going.

What to do? Why, the cadaver-strewn cluster of mushrooms had plenty more spores!

Enticing as the thought was, Cloudhawk recognized the danger. He sharply bit his tongue in an attempt to clear his head. He covered his mouth and nose with a cloth used to keep out wind and sand.

The Bloodsoaked Queen had also started to sway and her eyes were glassy. Cloudhawk lurched toward her and covered the mouth hole of her mask with his hand. He loudly called to her. “Don’t breathe it. Don’t breathe! The spores are poisonous!”

She was a willful and tenacious woman, and when Cloudhawk called to her she quickly recovered her senses. Angry and ashamed, she growled at him through her mask. “Touch me again and I’ll cut your hand off.”

Clearly the Queen wasn’t being negatively affected by the dust anymore. Cloudhawk sighed in relief and removed his hand.

Seemingly the effects of the neurotoxin were quickly expelled, but just as quick were the withdrawal symptoms. Cloudhawk felt like there were a hundred ants crawling along his bones, a sensation that was maddening.

Luckily he and the Queen had only inhaled a small amount. A few of their companions were not so fortunate and were subjected to a much larger dose. The resulting hallucinations broke their minds.

Ah! Ah! Aaaaaahhhhhh!!”

A few of them were red from head to toe like they’d been boiled, their mouths working like fish out of water. There were not enough spores in the air to feed their addiction so desperate eyes fixed on the mushroom cluster.

Cloudhawk shouted. “Quick, grab ‘em!”

His words fell on deaf ears. Most of the fighters had taken in the spores and were battling its effects themselves. How could they stop these three crazed addicts when they could hardly handle it themselves?

Cloudhawk could only watch as these three poor bastards stumbled into the mushroom forest. They barked and howled, pulled off their clothes, and dug dirty nails into their skin to reach itches they’ll never scratch.

Pop! Sllluuurp.

They ripped off strips of their own skin and cast them to the ground with wet slaps. Insane, they ran from invisible foes and inflicted terrible wounds on themselves in their all-consuming hysteria.

In a blink they were fonts of blood. They wandered through the mushroom forest nourishing the earth with their vital fluid, sowing the earth with their own flesh like attentive farmers in their fields. The gruesome, gory display continued for ten minutes until – no longer able to hold up their mangled bodies – the men collapsed in the center of the mushroom patch.

More flesh and blood were scattered over the field than was left on their bones. Cloudhawk tried not to think about what he’d just witnessed.

Fuck, that’s how these evil mushrooms have grown so well. It also explains all these twisted bones! Watching these killers wander to their own death, turn themselves into fertilizer… if I didn’t see it with my own eyes I’d hardly believe it.

Eventually the others snapped out of it, and when they saw the grisly fate that had befallen their companions everyone was eager to leave. They fled as quick as they could, but were exhausted from the trying journey and were still suffering the after-effects of the mushroom spores. They found what they hoped was a relatively safe place to rest and recover.

“Hey Leonine, how much farther to the Greenland Outpost?” Cloudhawk was throwing bits of rabbit jerky into his mouth and chewed on them to regain some strength. “Can we get there today?” He asked.

“It aint far,” he replied. “But it aint a question of gettin’ there – it’s about gettin’ there ‘fore night falls.” Leonine swept his eyes around their dimming surroundings with visible concern. “If we get caught here over night, not half this crew will see the next sunrise!”

Hunters preferred to stalk their prey in the dark.

The wasteland was vast and sparsely populated by both beasts and foliage. This, of course, came with its own risks. The situation they found themselves in here within the oasis was different, for though it was small it had a hundred times the number of fiends hidden inside. During the day predators stayed in their lairs, but when the cloak of night descended the forest was a thousand times more dangerous.

Cloudhawk was dispirited but also curious. “Leonine, I can tell you know the oasis well. You’ve gotta be from the Greenland Outpost, am I right?”

“Nope.”

“So why are you headed there?”

Before being brought to this damn oasis Cloudhawk wouldn’t have even thought to ask the question. After all the dangers he and the Queen had been subjected to he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Leonine’s response, that he wasn’t from the oasis, took him by surprise. If that were true then what was the whole point of this escapade? Traveling through the oasis, the ruins, and the wasteland was nothing but a parade of personal risk.

Leonine lifted his head and stared at Cloudhawk. “My business is my own, you don’t need to understand. Just like I’m not askin’ you any questions about what y’all are up to.”

Cloudhawk furrowed his brows at the answer. There was something off about this old man!

He believed that there was always a reason for everything someone did. There had to be some purpose for Leonine to risk his life again and again in the oasis, even if that reason was he was looking to die. But if he wasn’t going to fess up, what could Cloudhawk do about it?

Besides, the wasteland was covered in sweepers that would kill him without a second thought. Any situation was better than where he had been.

Leonine used his saber to help push him to his feet. “We’re movin’.”

As the oasis got darker some of the soldiers fashioned makeshift torches, and the group used the light of these fires to grope along. As the light of day slipped away they could see less and less of their surroundings, while the creatures that hunted through the night could move through it like fish to water.

The Queen trudged along beside them until suddenly she came to a stop. She called out with a harsh whisper. “I hear something!”

Cloudhawk stopped and focused, holding his breath so he could pay closer attention. From the depths of the trees he could indeed hear something, like the wings of insects. As the buzz grew louder he could tell there were a bunch of them, and they were getting closer.

Cloudhawk carefully listened for the precise location of the sound. Then, drawing his exorcist staff, he swung around and struck! His weapon connected with a hard shell and something hit the ground. It was like a locust from the old days, only huge and writhing frantically on the ground. It was about the size of a pigeon from the history books but with a hideous head and eight long, black talons. Most frightening was its scorpion-like tail, which he knew at a glance was filled with poison.

“Scorpion Locusts.” Leonine could hear the sound closing in around them, too. “Douse those torches, we gotta get outta here!”

The makeshift torches were hastily thrown to the ground and put out. Leonine wasted no time taking the lead and guiding them away.

As they wandered through the darkness Cloudhawk could see and hear all manner of hideous bugs flitting around. Suddenly the forest was full of them, no less than a hundred pairs of wings buzzing by their ears, and aggressive. Once they spotted the humans they gave chase.

“Ah!”

One of the locusts rushed at a fighter and latched onto his face with its sharp claws. Blood poured as the black talons dug into flesh. Although several of its companions were coming to join the fray, the scorpion locust whipped its hideous tail and jabbed it right in its victim’s cheek. In a matter of seconds he swelled up like a balloon. The fighter couldn’t scream, couldn’t flee, he just collapsed to the ground foaming white froth at the mouth.

Ten more swarmed him. He managed to struggle, but only for a few short moments before he became dinner for these carnivorous insects.

Cloudhawk stared in horror. Its poison was that potent?

He screwed his focus to its limit, determined not to let any of these monstrosities get close. Luckily he was still close to the Queen so if any of them got past his stick she could deal with them. If not for her Cloudhawk was sure he wouldn’t survive the night even if he had ten lives.

Another pained cry rang out. Their crew lost another one.

Leonine hadn’t planned on running into creatures like this, either. They were coming in from every direction. The most frightening thing about this threat was that one tiny scratch was enough to seal one’s fate.

There was no choice. They had to do whatever they could to survive!

Leonine took off and the others followed him into a host of cobwebs. The locusts gave chase but were predictably caught by the sticky tendrils that thickly covered the trees. Struggled as they might they couldn’t break free.

The humans didn’t have a chance to catch their breath.

Scores of enormous spiders leapt from their nests in the trees. Each one was a meter or two long, too numerous to count. The oasis had gone from a cloud of insects to a maze of spiders and spider webs. Quicker than they thought possible, the spiders’ prey were wrapped up like mummies and left to dangle in the wind, hanging like ghastly fruit from the trees.

Thud!

One of the spiders spat a glob of sticky spider web, striking one of the fleeing humans. He was immediately stuck, but more terrifying was the quality of the spider silk. It was coated in some sort of corrosive fluid, and the skin it touched first turned red then a necrotic black, sizzling all the while.

Spiders chittered closer, more than the travelers could believe.

Cloudhawk couldn’t help it, he shouted through the night. “Leonine, what kind of fucking hell did you lead us into!”

“It’s a shortcut!” He didn’t mention that it was a shortcut he hadn’t wanted to take, but if they hadn’t taken this risk they surely would have died. More of the locusts were fighting through the webs and the spiders went after them. Natural enemies, the two sides continued to take each other out. 

“The outpost is straight ahead!”

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RWX's Thoughts

Next chapter coming shortly!  Was a bit slow on the editing and review since I'm travelling.