The sky above them was typical of a binary star system’s. There was no true night, for it was instead replaced by periods of brief twilight before the sister star’s dawn. Most of the time it was full sunlight, and hot. A normal person likely wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in this place before dying of dehydration.
As the travelers looked around, they noticed the broiling suns above. The largest was four times the size of their moon and burned with a pale blue light.  It was beautiful, and was encased with a blinding and alluring halo. The smaller one was about the size of a pea, and only barely visible.
Surprised couldn’t begin to describe Hellflower’s reaction. She stood there with her mouth literally agape. Yet the surprises didn’t stop, for in front of them stretched a huge and ancient forest. Instead of large, thick trees they might expect, it was instead composed of towering spindly things with enormous mushroom-shaped canopies.
Wait, not mushroom-shaped. Actual mushrooms!
Those were absolutely gigantic mushrooms! Hundreds, maybe even thousands of them stretched as far as they could see.
The largest of them was about a hundred meters tall or more, and the smaller variety were the size of a thumb. They were easily crushed beneath their feet as the two wandered closer. They came in all different colors as well, and were tightly packed together like a sea of fungus. Spores hung in the air lending to an even more powerful impression they’d stumbled into some surreal dreamscape.
Then there were the creatures, strange things that fluttered through the air. They darted around, eating the spores that floated around.
Magical, fantastical, incredible!
Hellflower would never have believed such a thing if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes.
Flora, fauna, environment... everything was completely divorced from the reality they came from. Her attention was snapped backed to her side when a gas mask was shoved into her face. Cloudhawk’s hoarse voice was warning her, “We can’t be sure these spores aren’t poisonous. Wear this.”
“The closer we get, the more I like you.” Hellflower gave Cloudhawk a coy smirk as she slipped on the mask. Her eyes glimmered as she continued to look around. “It looks like this place has been abandoned, except for these small critters. Where should we start looking?”
“That’s where Oddball comes in. It’s been doing nothing but eating and sitting around in the Vale for days like a fuckin’ pig – time for some exercise.”
Oddball chirped at him, peeved at the insult. How could his master say such things? Oddball had been a good companion, training diligently! The pudgy bird lifted off his shoulder and quickly began to swell. Where Oddball was typically about the size of a fist, suddenly it weighed some fifty or sixty pounds and was considerably larger.
This took Cloudhawk by surprise. “Shit, you’ve packed on those pounds! I should start calling you Oddbulge!” 
The little thing’s volume had doubled at least, and he kept the same adorable rotund figure. The golden feathers remains, soft and shining, and its round owl-like head was still half swallowed by the portly form. It was still a ridiculous thing to look at with its round body, big eyes and stubby wings.
Hellflower’s scientific standpoint was confounded by what she saw. Physics dictated that a creature that fat with so little lift shouldn’t have been able to fly at all. As she watched Oddball let out a shrill chirp, and started to glow with golden energy.
Like a fiery arrow it shot into the distance, then stopped in mid-air. It turned its head back toward the two and chirped as though bragging at how much faster it had become.
Cloudhawk shouted after it impatiently. “Stop wasting time! Go find what we’re looking for.”
Oddball’s portly body was incredible agile, and its field of vision had expanded considerably from before. What’s more, its eyes functioned like x-ray vision capable of peering through the mushroom caps below. Before long, it spied the remnants of an ancient city nestled in the forest.
They’d come here to find any relics that may have been discarded. An abandoned city was as good a place as any to start their search.
Cloudhawk and Hellflower set off after Oddball.
Aside from the spores, they noted that there wasn’t any other sort of plant life around. Oddly enough, even though the ground was barren these mushrooms still managed to sprout and grow humongous – just out of nowhere, springing up from the sandy dirt. There was no indication that they should have grown so large with so little nutrition.
Strange was the only way to describe this place and its wildlife. Strange and inexplicable.
“It seems this world is in direct sunlight at all times. The earth is parched. I can’t see a drop of water anywhere. It appears this has forced the wildlife to adapt in strange ways – if I had to guess, the fungal surfaces are efficient solar energy collectors. See the wrinkles on the underside?”
Cloudhawk lifted his head to look at what Hellflower was talking about.
Where the exterior was smooth, the inner wrinkles beneath the mushroom caps undulated gently as though it were breathing. Like an animal.
“Its respiration rate is rather quick, suitable for gathering any moisture left in the air. In the same way our breathing works it is constantly exchanging oxygen for waste material. It is a natural energy reactor. You can almost feel the energy within it. Whatever it left in the soil it gathers up, and through some complicated chemical process converts it into the nutrients it needs to flourish.”
Hellflower was almost muttering to herself while she examined the alien flora.
She felt like she’d wandered into a treasure trove of secret information. Cloudhawk, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. He was more concerned about the hidden dangers he knew had to exist. Seeing as this was a completely foreign ecosystem, who knew what sort of things existed here humans weren’t equipped to guard against.
Hellflower thoughtlessly wandered around, trying to look at everything at once.
“These spores have incredible research value. If they can grow in this environment, what’s to stop them from growing in the wastelands? The barren environment is similar.” Hellflower quickly gathered several dozen mushroom samples and a large amount of spores. “Excellent. I’ll bring them back for experimentation.”
Cloudhawk was getting better after his ordeals, but still wasn’t completely healed yet. Getting around was a slow and laborious process most of the time. Between his injuries and Hellflower stopping every few steps to gather samples, it was slow going. Eventually, however, they arrived at the ruins of whatever ancient civilization had abandoned this place.
Although it was clear these remains were very old, the dry air kept them largely intact. In fact, many of the buildings were still standing, which revealed that they were very similar in architecture to Skycloud.
Where did these ruins come from? What kind of culture had this been?
Perhaps more importantly, what happened that caused them to disappear? What terrible power swept through? Was there really nothing left in this sun-scorched planet? Question after question worked its way through their minds.
Out of the corner of his eye Cloudhawk spotted a large group of creatures huddling in the ruins. They were odd and oblong, sort of like jellyfish. Tentacles slithered out from elongated bodies and crackled with electricity. One of the creatures slowly extended an appendage, and a streak ofl ightning blasted forth!
The outsiders were sprinkled with dirt and a crater appeared inches before their feet.
Cloudhawk’s face fell. “Damn, that looks like it’d hurt. Get rid of them!”
Hellflower’s guns appeared in her hands in a flash. Shots rang out as she emptied her clips in the direction of their attackers. Gaping holes appeared in the jellyfish-like creatures’ bodies. They stopped their attack, but only so that they could begin to amalgamate together to form a monstrous thing a dozen meters tall.
What a freakish monster!
Hellflower was frozen in surprise. In the interim Oddball dashed toward it, piercing it through. Oddball moved so fast it was just a streak of golden light that sliced right through the jellyfish’s soft exterior. It came around for a second pass, diving head first into the creature.
The jellyfish rapidly began to shrivel up like it was being sucked up from the inside. Its outer membrane cracked, and after a few seconds it broke apart to waft away on the breeze like snow.
Cloudhawk watched, eyes narrowed. “It was made from mental power.”
Hellflower had never seen anything like it. “What do you mean?”
The expression on his face was strange as he struggled to explain. “I’m not exactly sure how to describe it. It’s not like anything we’ve seen. It was like it was some kind of spirit entity. Both physical and… not. Obviously we were able to kill it.”
Strange… what was a creature like that doing here?
As the two of them pondered the question, more of the strange creatures were gathering around. Many were the jellyfish sort, but others were even stranger and harder to describe. Where they were all similar was that they floated through the air like gravity didn’t affect them. They were translucent, and looked mostly incorporeal. They were like the spirits of the lost civilization, haunting the ruins.
Although Hellflower was curious about the unknown entities, now was not the time for experimentation. Without a second of hesitation her guns were spitting bullets once more, blasting through whatever tried to get near.
“There are too many of them.” Hellflower’s face was grave. “We can’t stay long.”
Cloudhawk knew they had to make the most of every second. Since stepping into the ruins he was able to pick out several signatures of nearby relics, but one area was particularly dense. He sent Oddball to go take a look.
The pudgy bird obliged, and upon reaching the area discovered a sizable basin. More like a crater, actually, where something very big had detonated. He didn’t have a lot of experience with them, but it looked like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. It wasn’t hard to imagine that it was an ancient war that had spelled this civilization’s downfall. Oddball also spotted several of the spirit creatures hovering near the crater.
The creatures did not fear physical attacks, and could only be destroyed by a large onslaught of energy. Luckily they seemed to be particularly weak against divine beasts like Oddball. The little bird gobbled up the energy they were made of and left them with nothing.
Oddball flapped its stunted wings, causing grit and dust to be pushed out in all directions.
From what they could see this was what remained of a battle from long ago. Demonhunters probably crawled all over this place in the fight, as evinced by the many relics Cloudhawk could sense. Whatever terrible attack took place, and countless years in this harsh environment, had destroyed most of them. Those had no more anima to speak of and didn’t even resonate any longer.
But there were others. Cloudhawk sensed seven or eight without having to search very hard. Oddball picked up what it could with its beak and flew them back to its master.
Three were gathered in this fashion. But the strange spirit creatures kept coming, and eventually they would be overrun. In order to avoid having to fight off an infinite number of enemies, they were forced to travel back to their own dimension.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter