Victor of Tucson

Book 7: Chapter 20: Ivid
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Book 7: Chapter 20: Ivid

Victor, Valla, and Lesh stood on one of the copper discs inside the World Hall, each holding a token of travel theyd purchased from a counter near the entrance. More accurately, Erd Van had purchased them, along with some tokens of recall. Victor had been a little surprised at the ease with which theyd claimed the tokens; either the travel attendant was very trusting, or shed had some way to determine they were who they claimed to be. Whatever the case, they had their tokens, they stood on one of the portal platforms, and now they simply had to activate them. Were ready? he asked, looking from Valla to Lesh.

Valla shrugged. As ready as I can be. We have thirty different types of poison remedies, a dozen powerful healing draughts, besides whatever we each already had in our possession, and weve got the perfume Erd says will keep the bugs from noticing us.

Can we really call them bugs? I mean, bugs are . . . small. Victor grinned, chuckling at his stupid attempt at humor.

I will smash them just like bugs, should they come near. Lesh lifted Belagog to his shoulder in illustration. Victor had to admit he was glad to have the big guy along.

All right. Lets get this over with. He concentrated on the chalky blue ball in his hand. As he sent some of his inspiration-attuned Energy into it, it crumbled away, swirling on an invisible current of air, spreading into a cloud that shimmered with Energy and flickered like a billion tiny lights. The effect obscured his vision, and when it cleared, he almost fell overhe was in a different world.

The sky was tinted yellow, the air hurt his throat to breathe, and twin suns hung high overheadone blue and brilliant, one red and glowering. He stood atop a hill, and in every direction, all he could see was short, dry, yellow grass. Suddenly, a sparkle of blue lights erupted beside him, and when they faded, Valla stood there. As he reached out to steady her, he heard the crackling pops of Leshs arrival behind him. Great dead gods! the giant dragonkin grumbled as he coughed, slowly turning, taking in the sights.

The airs terrible! Valla said, choking out a sympathetic cough.

Victor nodded. Yeah, its not great. Honestly smells like cat piss. I can feel it sort of making my throat raw.

It does! Valla replied. Ive smelled that lingering stench after seeing Uvu relieve himself!

Its the hive, Lesh said.

Where? Victor turned in a slow circle again, but when he faced Lesh, the dragonkin was grinning a toothy smile at him. Are your eyes that good? I cant see anything all the way to the horizon.

Look closer, titan.

At his words, Victor looked down at the dry yellow grass under his feet, noting the fine white sand among its roots rather than dirt. This hill?

Aye. I have a sense for this sort of thing, and I can tell you this mound is largely hollow. I can feel it in my bones. Theres an entrance just below the surface this way. He started walking down the slope, and when Victor looked at Valla, she just shrugged again and began following the big warrior.

You have a sense for these things? Victor hurried his steps to catch up.

Yes. Perhaps one of my ancestors dwelled beneath the soil for too long, but I have an uncanny knack for finding caves and navigating beneath the surface.

Still trying to acclimate to the harsh air, Valla coughed and spat, then, wiping her mouth, smiled at the two men. Looks like we picked the right companion to explore a giant insect hive.

I led an army against the Kothids on my homeworld, so, aye, you did.

Valla shot Victor a glance, eyebrow raised, and he shrugged. He really hadnt had the chance to get to know the guy. Most of the time theyd spent together had been sparring, and Lesh wasnt exactly talkative. Taking Vallas cue, though, he said, Lesh, man, I know you feel like youre doing the right thing following me around, but are you sure you shouldve left all that behind? Dont get me wrong . . .

I might have doubted myself once, but when you climbed the volcano, awash with the power of a mountain, my conviction grew resolute. Theres much I can learn from you, and much we will uncover together. Already, we seek an artifact that may grant us an audience with a being more powerful than any to walk the craggy slopes of Ashenshoal.

In a blatant attempt to steer the conversation away from boosting Victors ego, Valla asked, Tell us about the Kothids.

Kothids. Lesh spat in the grass, and it sizzled and smoked. Serpentine insects. Some were the size of my arm, others the size of twenty dragonkin laid out end to end. They crawl through tunnels on hundreds of legs, bear an acidic bite, and have shells as hard as stone. Belagog and I earned the title Kothid Bane during the war. My breath Core awoke during those long years fighting through their tunnels, pushing them back to their warrens beyond the Rukspagh Mountains.

Valla sniffed, rubbing at her watering eyes, clearly still struggling with the vapors in the air. Sounds awful.

Awful and glorious. I gained nine levels in that war and earned a fruit of evolution. Not as potent as a heart, but good. I gained many scales. He stopped, looking around and sniffing. They were about two-thirds of the way down the slope, and Victor couldnt tell anything different about dead grass and sand under their feet. Here. Its not deep. He lifted Belagog off his shoulder and up over his head.

Victor frowned, watching him, and, before he could stop himself, asked, Is Belagog a he or a she?

Belagog? He doesnt speak much, but hes no lady. With that, he brought the massive, jagged, pole-like cudgel down onto the sandy hillside. It impacted the ground with a dull thud that rippled through the sand and dry grass, even five feet up the hill where Victor stood, making him take a step to keep his balance. Lesh didnt strike again but took a few more steps down the hill and stared at the spot hed struck. Valla moved next to him, also watching.

Victor frowned, wondering if hed missed something. What are we watching for?

If this was a Kothid nest, one of them would investigate . . . Lesh stopped speaking as something began to happen. The sandy depression where the cudgel had struck seemed to be growing deeper. It reminded Victor of sand draining out of an hourglass. Seeping down through some kind of opening, the depression growing ever larger.

Did you break through? he asked, stepping further back, wondering how big the hole would become. It was already several feet across and probably three feet deep at the center.

Perhaps . . . This time, when he stopped speaking, it was because he jumped back, lifting his cudgel high. Victor could see whylong, dark brown, chitinous, prodding limbs had pushed through the sand at the center of the hole hed made.

Ware! Valla cried, snapping her wings wide and jerking Midnight from her scabbard. Victor didnt need the heads up; hed already pulled Lifedrinker from her harness and was channeling rage into his pathways, getting ready to cast Iron Berserk. The ivid, if thats what the thing was, didnt plan to wait around for them to react. In a shower of stinging, flying sand and yellow, burning gas, it erupted from the hole, launching itself at Lesh. Victor stumbled back, blinded by the shower of sand and gas, but he didnt wait for his vision to clear. He cast Iron Berserk and released his aura, letting it fall around him as he summoned his Banner of the Championhe wasnt going to take half-measures until he had an idea what they were up against.

Stolen content alert: this content belongs on Royal Road. Report any occurrences.

Victor had only seen a glimpse of the carapace-covered monstrosity, but one thing was sure: Either Erd Van was a liar, or hed been woefully misinformedthe thing was closer to the size of an SUV than a person. Suddenly, a gust of hot wind blew the stinging gas and sand away, and Victor could feel something of Valla in that wind; shed summoned it. Lesh was struggling with the ivid. Belagog was caught between a pair of massive pincers, and he was fending off another set of pincers with his free hand. Meanwhile, the giant insect pushed him down the hill, driving with its four other legs. Victor stomped forward, skirting the much larger hole, and, without further ado, hacked Lifedrinker through one of those legs.

Hot, yellow fluid geysered from the hewn appendage, and where it hit Victor, it sizzled and burned, almost like acid. His Iron Berserk and titanic constitution handled the burn, making it only a painful annoyance, but he shuddered to imagine Valla getting doused with the stuff. His attack had sent the insect into a frenzy, and it whirled, letting go of Lesh to see what had harmed it. One of its shovel-sized, pincer-like claws snapped out at him, but Victor was fast when he was Berserk, too fast for that claw. He dodged aside, hacking Lifedrinker down, splitting the claws chitin and producing another spray of caustic yellow blood.

His distraction was just what Lesh neededhe lifted his enormous cudgel and brought it down with a terrible crack on the ivids bulbous abdomen, splitting the hard shell and sending fragments to fall to the sandy ground amid a shower of hot, acidic guts and blood. The insect went wild, mortally wounded but not nearly ready to quit. It leaped at Victor, but Lifedrinker was ready, and he was too damn big to be pushed around by a bug, even one that size. He snatched its pincer-bearing arm with his left hand and brought Lifedrinker down with the force of a falling anvil, right at the center of its head, between half a dozen eyestalks. She cracked the shell and buried herself to the haft, and Victor felt her throbbing and vibrating, digging for the veins of Energy within the creature.

The ivids legs writhed, spreading and contracting as it died, but Victor held it still, one hand gripping the intact pincer, the other still holding Lifedrinkers haft. Lesh, ensuring the thing would truly die, pounded it three more times, nearly deshelling the monstrous insect as he broke its carapace apart. While it died and Lifedrinker took her due, Valla landed with a gentle flutter of her wings.

I was going to call lightning down, but you two had it in hand. This thing is much larger than Erd Van indicated.

Quiet! Lesh growled, and Victor felt his prideful anger bristle. He almost told the guy off, but when he turned to him, scowling, he saw Lesh leaning down, one ear cocked at the ground. Something comes. Troll shit! Many things come! We must fly! With that, he turned and began charging down the hill. Victor yanked Lifedrinker from the insects head, flinging the corpse aside. Then he looked at the hole and contemplated fighting; he was Quinametzin, and the thought of fleeing from bugs rankled.

He felt wind against his neck and turned to see Valla taking flight. Summon Guapo! she cried, then flapped her wings and dove toward Lesh, following him away from the hill. Victor growled, watching the two of them grow distant.

Just you and me, beautiful? Now, he could feel the shaking of the earth, and he began to wonder if he was being stupid. Well, maybe I should follow them, you know, just to be sure they get away okay. I mean, if I get busy killing a swarm, what if they get caught up in it? Lifedrinker hummed lazily; she was content with her meal. All right. Victor concentrated and, using glory-attuned Energy, summoned a titan-sized Guapo from a pool of sparkling golden light. Hed just swung onto his back when something burst out of the sandy tunnel opening. Guapo began running, leaping down the hill in a single bound, and Victor looked over his shoulder to see not one, not ten, but dozens and dozens of the massive, clawed, ivid bursting out of the tunnel in a stream of black, hissing and clicking chitin.

Guapo devoured the distance between himself and Lesh, and when they drew near, Victor leaned over to take the dragonkins arm, pulling him up behind him on the giant Mustangs back. Lesh was a big, heavy man, but in his Berserk state, Victor pulled him up like he was a child. Watch them! he yelled over his shoulder.

They yet pursue us! A dark swarm that streams forth from the tunnel. Hundreds. After a few more seconds of running, Lesh amended, Thousands!

Get that pinch spray! Victor urged Guapo to stop; they were a few miles ahead of the swarm by then. Valla! he yelled. Come here!

I have it! Lesh said, holding up one of the containers of liquid Erd Van had given them. It was in a quart-sized bottle with a bulbous pump spray attached, and Lesh began dousing himself and Victor with it. He pumped out a dozen spurts, basically clouding Guapo and his passengers in the thick, oily substance. It smelled terriblepungent and eye-watering. It reminded Victor of urine and mothballs, and he wanted to gag but stoically refused. With a woosh and a gust of refreshing air, Valla landed, and Lesh turned the nozzle of the spray bottle on her.

Victor watched the dark line of insects approaching. They were fast but not alarmingly so; he could easily leave them behind on Guapo. They were still coming out of the mound, and he figured there had to be thousands of them out on the sandy, grass-covered plains, as Lesh had speculated. I think theyre slowing.

Lesh looked up, having finished dousing Valla in the awful stuff. Aye, they slow. Victor turned Guapo so he could watch the insects more comfortably.

This stuff is terrible, Valla said, and Victor could see she was fighting back a gag.

Dont spit, Lesh said. They may smell it.

Valla groaned, swallowing noisily and coughing into her elbow. From there?

Aye. Theyve slowed because they lost our scent thanks to this concoction. He held the jar aloft. Something gives them an uncanny ability to smell intruders. Likely a natural ability boosted by the Energy they harvest.

You think they cultivate Energy?

Lesh shook his head, grimacing as he swallowed, clearly as disgusted by the oily spray as Victor and Valla. No. Theyre more like animals, passively gathering it, evolving and advancing. Did the man who hired you say how long it had been since his last attempt at this artifact?

Valla shook her head. No.

Perhaps theyve advanced as a species. Hives are . . . amazing and terrible in an Energy-rich world. If their queen has made a breakthrough, her children will reflect it. Lesh pointed with Belagog. Look, they turn back.

Victor nodded, watching the ivid slowly file back into the wide tunnel from which theyd emerged. How much of that stuff do you have left?

I used a third to douse us. Lesh looked from Valla to Victor. You each have a bottle, yes?

Right, Valla said. So, we must stay covered in it, or well be in trouble.

Victor nodded. Yeah, but Erd said some of the insects will be hostile if they even see us. Do you think those were their warriors? Or do you think worse things are waiting for us in there?

Those were warriors. Lesh nodded. There will be worse things, however. If theyre anything like the Kothids, theyll have more dangerous castes deeper in the hive.

Well, if we meet em, well have to kill them quickly. I think as long as we stay covered in this shit, we shouldnt get swarmed. He frowned, thinking, then said, You know, if things get really bad, I can probably get out alive. I have some cards I can play, but it wouldnt exactly be safe for you guys to be around. Victor was thinking of his new Volcanic Fury and Wake the Earth abilities. Maybe you should, like, keep watch out here?

No. Valla laughed, shaking her head. If things get that bad, I wont argue if you want to distract the creatures long enough for Lesh and me to use our recall tokens, but we should go in with you. Its better if we try to succeed without you trying to take on an entire hive with thousands . . .

Lesh shook his head and interjected, Millions.

Vallas eyes widened. Millions! No, Victor! We must do this without you trying to do battle with the entire hive! Her voice was strained and almost pleading, and Victor had to take a second, trying to understand why she thought hed be so hard to convince. He wasnt an idiot; he knew he could kill a thousand or more of those things, but there was no way his Energy would last long enough to take on even ten times that many, let alone millions of them.

Yeah. All right. Only a last resort, then, to buy you guys time to use those tokens. The tokens Erd had purchased for them were single-use and would transport them back to Sojourns World Hall. According to him, they cost nearly twice as much as their travel tokens, which Victor could only assume was at least as much as what the System had charged them to travel from Fanwath. Lets hope Erd was right, and these tokens will work in the hive.

Valla looked at him and frowned. He said the magic keeping people from teleporting into the hive only guarded against entry . . .

Yeah, but how much does that dude even know? He said these damn bugs were only your size. Victor looked at Lesh. Hop down, hermano. Im going to cancel my rage, and Guapos going to shrink. Might as well try to sneak in there at first. Victor looked back at the retreating horde of insects as Lesh dismounted. This job wouldnt be easy, but hopefully, it would be worth it. Hopefully, theyd earn some levels . . . Hey, why didnt we get Energy for that big damn bug?

Lesh followed Victors gaze and said, Perhaps the System is waiting for those hostile combatants to leave the field. It can be cruel, but it usually wont interfere with the affairs of the people and creatures it governs. It might consider sending Energy streaming toward us, exposing us to that horde, as interference.

I hope thats true, Valla said, moving to a patch of short yellow grass and sitting down. Those things are returning more slowly than they emerged.

Victor canceled his spells, and as Guapo shrank, he hopped down. Yep. Lets chill here for a little while, then well try a sneaky, stinky approach.

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