Book V Chapter 12: First Exposure
The expedition was on the move again, and Gabriel was tiring of the constant travel; nothing sounded better than having a few days to relax and tend to himself, regardless of where that might take place. The soles of his feet ached so thoroughly that he wondered if they might fall off.
Why did Aensdoun have to be such an enormous place?
Nearby, Na'than and his automaton carried on in relative silence, the elf's burly arms folded across his chest as he walked, his blue eyes darting from tree to tree as they traveled the dirt paths.
Abruptly, Gabe stopped in his tracks.
"This forest is silent," he murmured, frowning; Na'than perked his ears and wrinkled his nose as the party paused to glance around. A gentle breeze shook the boughs of the trees above, but no other sound was heard save the rustling of the leaves.
"These trees aren't quite right, either. They're the same species that we've been seeing the whole way through, but... the bark is..."
The Bio Doc ran his fingertips gently over one of the titanic trees; the smooth, glassy bark sloughed away at his touch, crystalline flakes floating slowly down to the ground as they sparkled in the low light. "Something's mutated them. I don't know--"
"I do," Na'than interrupted, reaching to grab Gabe's shoulder as he started down the path once more, waving a hand to urge the rest of the expedition to follow with haste.
"Should I--er, may I ask?"
Na'than nodded, chewing his lip. "The Mirajin has affected this area. These trees are old, and I can smell it in them-- don't ask about that," he added quickly. "We're coming up on the Trior grounds now, which means the modern tribes won't be lurking these areas... but we don't know what is."
The Aeneski rose his voice for all to hear.
"If for any reason some of you aren't already wearing your dreamshards, I suggest you get them on five minutes ago.
We're coming into a high-Mirajin area, and we won't know exactly how much radiation is still here until we're in the middle of it. If you fail to follow orders and begin to mutate, you will be executed immediately. Don't make me do that to any of you, please-- you wouldn't be half as disappointed as me."
As an aside, he glanced to Leo. "Mirometer area detection on, please, Leonardo."
"Scanning area; please stand by." The automaton's eyes flashed and he began to hum softly; Gabe watched him with mild curiosity. "17mi, steady," Leo announced after a few moments of humming.
"Son of a--" Gabe swore, spinning on his heel to stare at Na'than.
"Strike that," the silver-haired elf announced. "Everyone stop and set up camp here; no one takes another step in until you've recieved your S-grade shards and your group assignments."
The Bio Doc swallowed, sitting on a patch of bluish grass and resting his chin on his knees as Na'than instructed the group.
17mi -- miros, the standard measurement of biologically-absorbable mirajin energy-- was two points above the maximum safe exposure level. Chances were no one would become ill here if they were wearing a shard, but even standard-issue SRO dreamshards were only made to absorb 15 miros a day.
If there was still this much residual mirajin energy just within the boundaries of an area that had been untouched for centuries...
Shaking his head, the young scientist hurriedly began to scrawl in his field journal as his peers set up tents and equipment, sorting into teams and discussing their assigned missions among themselves as they played with their unfamilar new dreamshards.
Na'than set one of the crystals between the pages of Gabe's journal."So, tell me some more about this place," he asked, glancing up.
"If the Mirajin was really made here, how do we know we're not going to be marching to our deaths? Laps itself only has a background level of seven miros if you walk up to the gates of the Cathedral, right?"
"It was only so powerful when it was first made, you know," Na'th murmured, scratching his head. "Tiny, too, by comparison-- the Master told me he could hold it in the palm of his hand at first, and even setting it atop his animals' cages was completely harmless. It started to affect more of the area over time, and as it and its power grew, it became more dangerous for creatures to come into contact with it.
"He doesn't know why it never affected all of Aensdoun, but it was roughly as tall as a man when he left, and everything in the village grounds and the surrounding areas had been affected by it. Not killed, but definitely changed."
"Okay. So we're definitely not going to die, but we might all turn into writhing balls of clammy tentacles. Got it." Gabe frowned.
Na'than shrugged lightly. "Eh, it happens. Try not to stress too much about it, alright? Everyone will have to cycle in and out of the grounds to ensure their shards have a break from all of the exposure, but if everything's done properly, we shouldn't have any casualties.
"And hey, after this? Digging around for Elysian artifacts aught to be a cakewalk."
Gabe idly wondered how the elf could stay so cheerful in the face of painful mutation. Perhaps it was a family thing.
As the last group members were assigned, the human was unsurprised to discover he would be in Na'than's group. Grinning, he playfully nudged his new friend in the side. "You're not gonna ask your Master if he'll adopt me too, are you?"
"Why would I do that?" Na'th asked genuinely. "He's already got plans for you."
Na'than finally returned the smile as Gabe's gave way to confusion.
"I'm only kidding, don't look at me like that. Poor thing, you're so tense!"
As the expedition groups went their seperate ways, Na'than's party continued on down the dirt path leading deeper into the forest. As they traveled, eerie birdsong and the rustling of brittle leaves played through their ears.
"And of course, now that we have sound again, I can't pick out a single species," Gabe murmured.
"How much do you want to bet that whatever's living in this area has evolved from whatever was around when the Dreamwaker was here?"
"Why bother with a bet? We're deep in Mirajin country now, no question about it. I--"
Something brittle crunched beneath Na'than's foot; he paused, lifting it slowly to reveal a leupak's skull.
"Well!" Na'th exclaimed. "There you have it. Welcome to the Aen'och Triorlands, Gabe."
Giving the scientist a hearty slap on the back, Na'than continued on his way as Gabriel hurriedly gathered the shattered skull fragments, sweeping them into his bag before following suit.
All around them, the trees seemed to take on an iridescent sheen; in the low light of early evening, the crystalline leaves and branches threw a spectrum of colors through the air.
The group set to work at once, swiftly examining the area, digging carefully through the well-packed earth, taking samples of bark, leaves, flowers, and any remains they could find, all eyes alert for any sign of ancient curiosities or artifacts that may have been abandoned an age ago.
"22mi," Leo droned, his eyes flashing, and Gabriel winced.
"Keep a steady pace," Na'than urged them as they crept forward. "We have a few hours here before nightfall, and then we're back to camp for the evening. The villages must be nearby, and we're going to want plenty of time to search them thoroughly before anyone has a chance to fall ill."
Gabriel's head felt somewhat light; holding his breath for a moment, the sensation passed, and he scooped up a dead squirrel with his forceps. The tiny creature's fur was pale violet, its teeth unnervingly large. Examining it swiftly, he tucked it into the bag with the leupak skull, then made his way down a small dirt path nearby.
"Hey-- Hey! I've found it!" he shouted, turning on his heel at once as the party rose from their tasks to meet him.
Just behind him, the dense forest seemed to recede, leaving a clearing large enough to fit several of Liam's dinosaurs in, nose-to-tail.
And seated just within were hundreds of abandoned wooden homes, worn away and broken by weather and time-- and perhaps more violent forces, as well.
Shattered and pulverized objects lay in the loamy dirt and soft grass, buried under fallen beams and tucked between the ribcages and fingerbones of people long-dead. Shards of ancient pottery, metal tools and glass bottles littered the ground. Tiny, precious scraps of cloth hung from doorways and cracked statues.
Gabriel walked slowly, carefully through the scene, touching nothing. This place had been undisturbed for an inmeasurable length of time-- undoubtedly, the mirajin radiation seeping from the earth was enough to slay anything wandering in unprepared.
Suddenly, he felt as though he had no business being here; this was final the resting place of an entire people.
Could he truly dig through it for valuables and information, take what he liked, and then simply leave after having defiled it?
"Come on, Gabe. Don't break down on us now," Na'than said, noting the human's troubled expression and uneasy gait. "You feeling alright?"
"I'm not so sure this is--"
The village grounds seemed uncomfortably bright, and hot; Gabe squinted his eyes, placing a hand to his head. "...ugh, it's awful here. Does forest crystallization really raise the temperature so much?"
Perhaps that was the cause; perhaps he simply wasn't feeling well.
With a soft groan, Gabriel dropped slowly onto one knee, then fell into the soft grass as his legs buckled beneath him, his vision and thoughts fading away like smoke.
"Medic! We have a man down! Get over here, now!"
The sound of a single keening fiddle filled the plaza with joy, villagers flocking like hungry birds to forget the cares of the fleeting day.
Aeneski danced in pairs and circles around the young musician as he played his song-- a heartfelt tribute to the goddess of the sky and the winds of fortune she carried upon her wings to the allied tribes.
Nearby, an elf clad in a woven kilt and furs lounged beneath a shady tree, smoking from a small pipe and chattering with a small group of young women settled around him.
"He's good with that thing, isn't he? Me and him, we play together all the time. What? What do I play? Anything, for you..." he purred, neatly dodging the question.
The musician began to play his song faster and faster, dancing gracefully in a circle as his audience clapped and stomped and cheered in time. With a dramatic toss of his head, he ended his tune with a final crescendo, raising his bow into the air and amidst applause and pleas for an encore.
But as he dipped his head and instrument to take his bows, the crowd began to quickly disperse, their excitable chatter softening into whispers as people scattered to the four winds, returning to their daily chores or slipping away into their homes, glancing over their shoulders in their haste.
"Aw, come on. Party's over already? That was only three songs... I mean, Aqk would expect more, just saying."
As the musician lifted his head, the cause of his audience's swift departure was revealed.
A small, sleek figure draped in furs and old bones emerged from the woods nearby, intricate patterns painted over its pale, freckled skin, and grey mud caking its webbed toes-- and a massive, bleached alligator's skull completed the feral visage, hiding the wearer's head save for an enormous shock of matted red hair.
Tucking his instrument under one arm, his expression darkened faintly.
"If you're here to cause trouble, just go back into the swamp. We were having a good time out here, and you'll not ruin my mood today."
The little Mod'han came to a stop before the musician, his arms folded neatly across his painted chest, his voice as cold as the green eyes peering from within the skull's white brow.
"If only we could all be so noble and beloved as you, Sheanh Kelan," he spat. "Didn't you see how everyone fled the scene once I arrived?"
Kelan sighed softly; not this again. "Your aura of hostility precedes you."
"Hostility?" The shaman laughed derisively. "No, that's the aura of terror I inherited at birth."
"Gabe? Gabe, come on, buddy. Wake up-- you're freaking us all out, here..."
Gabriel's eyes were sore; blinking rapidly, he slowly lifted his head.
Na'than and Felld were standing over him, expressions of concern upon their faces.
"Are you alright? We were worried we'd lost you; you fainted, but... your eyes remained open as though you were still awake. Twitching."
Carefully opening a canteen, he offered it to the Doc, who drank slowly. Gabe took a moment to gather his thoughts, pressing his free hand to his head in a feeble attempt to ease his pounding headache.
"I... I don't know what just happened," he admitted. "I was awake, and then I was... here, but..."
"But?" Felld urged.
The scientist sighed deeply, lying his head back again and closing his eyes. He'd definitely lost the plot, now-- there was no question of that.
"I think I saw a fragment of the past..."
Next Chapter: Book V Chapter XIII
Category: Book V | Story