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Hellflower began formulating a plan to plant these mushrooms throughout Greenland City for the next phase of her experiments.
Cloudhawk left her to her business. He returned to the fort, eager to continue exploring different dimensions. Thankfully, a scryspire had recently been completed in the city and there was nothing stopping them from taking another excursion.
They’d made a couple trips to the same place already, so they would need to be especially careful about making another. A whole host of strange spirit creatures had been centered around the ancient ruins they found. If they awakened a bunch of them at once, they’d run into the same dangerous situation they fled from last time. He decided to avoid the ruins for now.
“Oddball, you’re up!”
Oddball had become – for lack of a better term – a fat-ass. It fluttered around Cloudhawk before darting off through the alien environment. For kilometers in every direction there was nothing to see but enormous mushrooms. However, these mushrooms were not all uniform. Cloudhawk was confident there were some he could use.
This time, their main focus was a food source.
Cloudhawk had spied a number of small creatures before. If they survived here, it meant they had to be eating something. So, his goal was simple – find the animals, and you’d find where they got their meals. Not so complicated.
Oddball had eyesight ten times better than an eagle. It could spot a tiny critter dashing among the mushrooms from a hundred meters away. Under Oddball’s guidance, Cloudhawk and Hellflower crept toward their objectives, all the while collecting samples and skirting the ruins.
“This place is a treasure trove of alien life. I suspect each one plays an important role in their ecology. You know, the potential for life to adapt is limitless. While introducing outside threats can be destructive to an environment, it also forces native species to become stronger. The more complex and ruthless the ecosystem, the stronger the creatures that inhabit it.
“Is that so?”
“I found some amusing data in the old texts,” Hellflower said as they picked their way along. “Ancient scientists were working on something they called ‘designer venom.’ They took a number of very deadly insects and placed them together in a box without food and buried them in the dirt. Natural instinct caused them to release their toxins. They discovered that those who survived were the strongest.”
“If none survived?” Cloudhawk asked.
“Then they changed the box and started over. They continued the experiment until they got the result they wanted!” Hellflower glanced at Cloudhawk and saw the strange expression on his face. “What are you thinking?”
“Do you ever feel like humans are being groomed, like those insects?”
The question took her by surprise. What would cause Cloudhawk to suddenly come up with that idea?
Cloudhawk looked over the arid, abandoned landscape. “What’s the different here? This planet is just a big jar where all the animals fight and destroy one another. If whatever ‘designer venom’ isn’t achieved, the experimenters would just move on. I don’t know about you, but this place looks like an abandoned experiment jar to me.”
It was an interesting association, one Hellflower hadn’t expected Cloudhawk to make. As a scientist she was trained to see connections like this, and couldn’t help but recognize some similarities between this world and theirs. It was not unthinkable that gods and demons had once inhabited this place as well.
The more she thought about it, the more frightening the prospect became.
“I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Cloudhawk quickly changed the subject. “Why did you agree to help Wolfblade?”
“The basis of your question is flawed. I have never agreed to help anyone with anything. I’m here to help myself.” She offered the words casually. “Do you remember the first time we met? I told you my one aim is to understand our world and the universe we live in – present, past and future. I have always wanted to explore the world as it had been, just as much as I wish to foresee the wastelands’ future. To see the essence of life, to know these mysteries. I have so many questions, and I will follow whoever can help me satisfy my cravings. My association with Wolfblade is based on mutual benefit.”
Cloudhawk glanced her way. “You’re walking a path with no end.”
“Is the end so important?” She smirked. “So long as I have the courage and strength to keep moving forward, then I will. It’s what motivates me. If it wasn’t for my curiosity and thirst for knowledge, my body would have been buried in a shallow ditch somewhere a long time ago.”
Cloudhawk had nothing to say to that. Hellflower was a rare person in the wastes. Someone with her indomitable will was hard to find. Even Skycloud had only a handful of religious types with that sort of zeal. The strength she found to do what she did came from within her, somewhere deep in her soul. A second difference lay in constraint versus ambition. Hellflower wasn’t doing this because of any duty, she did it because it was her passion.
Her efforts were to make humanity strong. But it also made humanity frightening.
“It’s true. Like a flower in hell, my goals are rare and just out reach.” She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “But I chase them all the same.”
Cloudhawk nodded. “You’re really something.”
“From the moment I first met you, I knew you and I were cut from the same cloth,” Hellflower revealed. “I always felt closer to you than Selene or Dawn because of our similarities. The path you are walking is also a long one… don’t you think it would be easier with a partner?”
Cloudhawk coughed weakly. “For some reason, I’m afraid you’ll sell me off or something.”
She wasn’t angry at the implications. Instead, she thoughtfully replied, “Sooner or later you’ll understand.”
Oddball interrupted with a message. Found it! Something sneaking through the forest of mushrooms.
Cloudhawk motioned for Hellflower to follow and the two quickly moved toward their prey. They pushed through the towering fungus to an unassuming section, where they discovered an enormous mushroom that was perhaps sixty or seventy meters tall.
At first glance not a lot stood out about this specimen, except for the threads of cobalt blue that lined its stem. The strange addition made it beautiful to look upon, and strands of mycelium swayed from the edges of its cap like fingers.
This mushroom was a little separate from others of similar size. Instead the floor was blanketed with a carpet of tiny mushrooms they grew close like blades of grass. Some patches grew a little taller, roughly the size of bushes, which had attracted this small animal.
Cloudhawk and Hellflower sneaked closer, observing the creature as it nibbled on the mushrooms. They were overjoyed. These were the ones they were looking for. Of course they would need to be collected and tested before anyone ate them. These were alien fungi, after all, and who knew if they were somehow poisonous to humans. The two prepared to collect samples.
But Hellflower stopped after only a moment when a premonition washed over her. She glanced up. “Look at the big mushroom!”
Cloudhawk followed her eyes and saw that the towering fungus had changed. Small, delicate arcs of electricity had appeared along the threads of blue and were dancing across the mushroom’s length.
The small animal, always vigilant, felt the disturbance immediately. It spun around to try and flee, but the mushroom tree was faster. Tendrils of electricity gathered along its stem, coalescing into thick bolts then lashing out.
The critter couldn’t escape. The lightning struck it and caused it to explode. A shower of blood and gore spattered through the area.
Cloudhawk and Hellflower watched in horror as the small mushrooms drank up the carnage like sponges. Blood, bone, even the creature’s scales were swallowed up in a few short moments. Then everything was calm – like that sudden gruesome scene had never occurred. Even those mushrooms nibbled by the animal regrew in a matter of seconds.
Staring up at the tree, Cloudhawk muttered to himself. “The damn thing can attack.”
“I suspect these small mushrooms are actually part of the large one. It uses its bioelectric stores to attack anything that tries to eat it. A cunning trap. Once it snares a prey, the mushrooms uses the remains to replenish its electric reserves.”
Cloudhawk was interested, but it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary. Even the world he came from had strange and deadly things like this. While he’d never seen an electric mushroom before, he was accustomed to encounter all sorts of weird things. Since the electric blast hadn’t seemed too powerful it didn’t shock him all that much. 
Everywhere had its own unique ecosystem, this wasteland and his own were no different. So long as things lived there were always predators and prey.
Handling a plant like this wasn’t a problem. Cloudhawk extracted an exorcist bow from his dimensional pocket, took aim, and fired. The mushroom was huge, its fibers strong as steel, but after five or six shots it succumbed to his attacks.
In the instant the main body of the mushroom died, its smaller versions began to wither.
Hellflower quickly collected as many spores as she could from the folds beneath the mushroom caps. Once she returned home and grew a couple samples, they’d be able to tell if these mushrooms were indeed edible. Who knows? Perhaps they could also serve as defensive structures. Planting these around Greenland City’s borders might detract invaders.
“It went well this time!” Cloudhawk was well pleased with the results of this outing.
“We shouldn’t be happy with just this,” Hellflower retorted. “Since we’re here, we should try to explore the ruins again. Hopefully we can grab some of those strange spirit creatures and bring them back for study. I must admit, I’m very interested in such strange lifeforms. I anticipate they can teach us something about demonhunters.”
Even if Hellflower didn’t have an interest in those spirits, Cloudhawk himself was also curious about the ruins. He needed more relics for study and as material to practice repairs. Every piece was useful.
“Alright, let’s see what we can find.”
Cloudhawk had Oddball race off once again as their trailblazer. After a little while, it arrived at the scene and reported a large number of spirits milling around. The jellyfish-like things came in all shapes and sizes and floated listlessly among the rubble.
Hellflower referred to them as spirits for a specific reason. In their first encounter it was clear they were not made up of physical material. Rather they were a gathering of energy. Hellflower knew of no real creature that was able to survive without a corporeal body – other than spirits. It caused her researcher’s heart to itch with anticipation.
However, they had to remember that these ‘spirits’ were dangerous. Since Cloudhawk couldn’t fight very well, he had to rely on Oddball’s help. He had his small friend dash among the creatures and disperse as many as it could. Meanwhile, Cloudhawk surreptitiously teleported them into the heart of the ruins. They wasted no time searching for relics.
“This building up ahead looks strange.”
Hellflower pointed at the structure she meant, a large circular building nestled among the others.
Cloudhawk had seen it, too. It had clearly been ravaged by the passage of time, but it wasn’t as dilapidated as the others. Whatever it was made of had to be special in some way. Some unique steel, concrete or semi-precious stone. Something they’d never seen before.
“I know what this is!” Cloudhawk remembered something he saw in Skycloud that was very similar. “It’s a temple!”
Hellflower stared. She’d of course never had a chance to see it with her own eyes, but she had heard stories about Skycloud’s mystical seat of the gods. It was the core of the Elysian realm, the center of their faith, and the source of their power. Skycloud sprang into being only once the Temple was constructed, bequeathing the citizens with its mysteries.
It was incredible that they should find something like it here.
1. In fact, he has indeed encountered deadly mushrooms before. Tipsy sure has a thing against fungus..
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