Chapter 23 - Safari
After a long ride with nothing but an amazingly bland instrumental song to break the silence, the elevator doors opened, revealing the jungle at the bottom of the basin: a vast, humid, and extremely hot-looking jungle. Most of the stream energy hovered around the treetops; while there was a heavy mist on the forest floor, it was safe to breath. Just the sight of the murky ground-level cloud made me start sweating, however.
Fortunately, Neeko had warned me as much, so on the trip down I had reluctantly changed back into the adventurer gear the Lady Jeane had given me back in Brigsonstrat.
Despite its unorthodox appearance, the adventurer outfit proved to be quite comfortable for the jungle. The material was designed not to cause chafing (a condition that would hinder the hardiest of adventurers), and breathed well in the humid environment. For the first time, I was glad to be wearing it, though when the mosquitoes started swarming, my happiness abated somewhat.
“Ah, I was afraid of that.” Neeko muttered after hitting a small control pad of some kind against the gloved palm of her hand. “Tracker’s sputtering with all the stream input. I’m getting a rough direction, though; just be on the lookout for any stream vents. The zelestra should be attracted to them.”
Jenna seemed puzzled by this. “Why is that anyway?”
“Because it’s a magical life form. Anything that absorbs enough lifestream will gain a life of its own. I guess you could say they eat the stream energy to augment their own power … not unlike core units, now that I think about it.”
Jenna blushed. “We’re machines. Granted, we evolve, but we were designed and programmed-”
“-and powered by a crystallic heartstone. Haven’t you ever questioned why you have a soul?”
“Well, of course. All Cores have at one time or another, but like One told Core Desygan-”
A voice from my pack recited, “If you ask yourself whether you have a soul, and you’re really worried about the answer, then of course you have a soul.”
As I pulled One out of my pocket, he finished, “Otherwise, why would you care?”
“By the Creator!” Neeko murmured, staring.
I grinned, and held One up, saying, “This is Narrator Number One.”
One held out his hand, smiling. “Nice to meet you, Miss …?”
“Neeko.” She took his tiny hand and shook it gently. From her tone, I could tell she was both amused and intrigued. “How are you able to inhabit that doll?”
“Spellshaper magic. Nice work, don’t you think?” One did a back-flip, stumbling only a little before standing straight and holding out his arms expectantly. I noticed he had a little butterfly net in one hand, barely big enough to catch the zelestra. It didn’t look special, but then again, Dreamer tools rarely do.
Neeko chuckled. “Very nice. Still, how do I know you are the real One, and not someone claiming to be him?”
One considered this. “Actually, Jimmy and I have been having problems with that recently.”
“Speaking of which, had any luck?” I asked him.
“Luck’s checking for me. She’s better at shaking down the other Dreamers. I thought I’d come and give you a hand for a change.” He glanced around. “Awfully foggy around here, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, we’re in a large basin beneath Erris.” I said.
“Still haven’t caught the ball thing yet then, eh? Well good. That means I’m just in time to assist.”
I raised Glint to start cutting branches, but One stopped me, “I got it.”
He put a hand on the ground. Instantly, the plants and trees started moving away from the area directly ahead of us. He plopped back down on my shoulder and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Even with the plant life conveniently moving out of the way, it was slow going. The humidity was so thick that I always felt out of breath. Even though my clothing didn’t restrict air-flow, I was covered in sweat within moments. When I was standing still, I felt like I was being slowly cooked. When we moved, or when a breeze blew past us, I felt like I was freezing.
Jenna and Neeko didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. Neither did One, as a matter of fact, but he was just a doll after all.
Just as I was starting to feel that I couldn’t go another step, the trees ahead parted to reveal a beautiful lake. I longed to jump in and swim around, but before I could take two steps forward, One said, “Bad idea, Jimmy.”
“One, I’m …” But exactly what I was slipped out of my mind as the inuit slithered out of the water.
It’s likely that most people reading this book have never seen an inuit, seeing as they supposedly died out thousands of years before the Glyche arrived. All I can say is that you aren’t missing much: four massive legs, the torso of a Sumo wrestler, and most importantly, three mouths brimming with sharp teeth. Their hunger was as legendary as their aggressiveness toward intruders in their territory.
I slowly stepped back, hoping the beast hadn’t seen me. I needn’t have bothered; it gave us a lazy look before snorting its three noses and sliding its slimy body back into the lake.
“I thought they were extinct!” I whispered as we walked quietly away.
“For the most part they are,” Neeko said, “but this place has been relatively isolated for millennia. Even the Glyche never came here. We’ve spotted over thirteen supposedly extinct species, as well as a few creatures we’re pretty sure have never been discovered before.
“Really? Like what?” I asked.
Something thumped very loudly behind us. We slowly turned around. At first, all I could see was a pair of giant orange trees. They looked strangely out of place, but I didn’t really think much of it until I heard a very large intake of breath from above. Slowly, all three of us looked up from the orange trees to see an incredible mass of feathers topped with an enormous beak and two beady eyes as big as my head.
“Kameyhamehya Chicken …” Neeko whispered.
“BAGAWK!” It wasn’t the sound as much as the force of the cry that sent my mind reeling; it was as though thousands of chickens had bagawked at the exact same moment.
She and Jenna took off like shots. Only I stood where I was, trying desperately to wrap my mind around what I was seeing.
“That’s just not possible.” I whispered.
One tugged at my ear. “Come on, Jimmy! We gotta run!”
“But … but …” I pointed at the beast, well beyond the point of coherent thought. How could something like that exist? It defied all logic, all possibility … how could a chicken evolve to grow so large?
In actuality, the Kameyhamehya Chicken wasn’t a normal result of evolution. In this particular case, stream energy essentially forced evolution’s hand. Animals exposed to great amounts of lifestream energy tend to exhibit some pretty strange traits over time, and in the case of the Kameyhamehya chicken, that trait was a vastly increased size and an incredible bone density to support it.
The chicken took a step forward, its foot slamming down with enough force to make the ground shake. It stared down at me like I was a piece of corn.
One smacked me in the face. “Snap out of it!”
My brain finally lurched back into motion in time for me to leap aside moments before the chicken’s enormous beak shot toward me with the force of a tactical missile. The beak tore a two-foot deep trench through the ground as it the chicken pulled its head back for another strike.
I took off running. I had faced dangerous creatures before, but I didn’t even have the first clue how to start fighting this thing. There was no chance Glint would cut through the chicken’s leathery legs, and the rest of it was at least five feet out of my reach.
I ducked and dashed through the jungle, moving faster than the trees could get out of my way. The path created by the wildly gesticulating One was too small for the chicken, not that it seemed to bother it too much. It ran after me, its footfalls making the ground shake more and more as smashed through the plantlife of the jungle.
My sprint came to an abrupt halt as I tripped over a raised tree root and fell to the muddy ground. Turning so that I was on my back, I saw the chicken raise its great foot to stomp me from existence. With a quick backwards roll, I fell between its talons … barely. I scrambled to my feet and took off again, narrowly missing another sweep of the giant chicken’s claws.
The forest path suddenly gave way to a sheer precipice. I barely managed to stop my forward momentum by grabbing a passing tree limb. As the tree it was connected to moved out of the path, the Chicken continued by, not noticing the sudden drop. It fell off the cliff with a surprised “BAGAWK”.
Still holding the branch that had saved my life, I cautiously approached the precipice and peered over the edge. Far below me, the chicken was splashing about in another lake, struggling to get out. It made a few leaps at me, its giant wings flapping madly, but it was fortunately too heavy to fly. Finally, with a baleful glance up at me, it turned away and stalked away through the jungle.
I let go of the branch and collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath; all that exertion on the jungle had left me winded.
Neeko appeared from the trees a few minutes later. She had a little mud on her clothes, but seemed no worse for wear. If I had any strength left, I would’ve been startled by her sudden appearance.
“Creator’s grace!” She said when she saw me, “Are you all right, Jimmy?”
“I … hate … this country.” I managed to say between breaths.
Jenna wasn’t too far behind Neeko. “Ah, excellent! You’re okay! Terra would have given me an earful if I let you get eaten.”
“Hate you … too.”
Jenna looked alarmed, but Neeko caught the joking tone in my voice, and chuckled. “Well, if you can make with the funny, you can’t be too badly off. Can you stand?”
I could, and did. After a few minutes of rest, we set off again, keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of the giant chicken. As the trees started closing in on us again, I asked One, “Can you do that thing again? You know, where the trees move out of the …”
My sentence fell short. One was gone!
“By the Creator!” I said, “One must’ve fallen off while I was being chased!”
We walked all the way back to the lake where we had first encountered the giant chicken, but there was no sign of the doll.
“I hope he’s all right.” I said, feeling bad that I had lost the doll.
“Narrator Number One? Ah, I’m sure he’s fine. He’s a Dreamer after all!”
She was right, of course. Still, it was with a heavy heart that I continued down the trail, Neeko leading the way. Not having a Dreamer in this crazy place didn’t do much to soothe the remaining tatters of my nerves.
We trekked through the jungle until the suns fell from the sky, and Everblue loomed over us. I could see the smoke rising from some of the houses in Erris above us.
Neeko and Jenna seemed perfectly capable of continuing on, but I told them, “Let’s stop for the evening.”
“Probably for the best.” Neeko admitted. “Stream activity’s always worse at night.”
We didn’t start a fire. Not only would it have been next to impossible in the dank air, it might attract my feathered admirer and its friends. I had nothing to eat but rations, and believe me, they were starting to stick in my throat. Jerky’s fine as a snack, but when you have to eat it as a meal over a prolonged period of time, it’s not very satisfying.
Jenna and Neeko chatted like old sisters who hadn’t seen each other in ages. Strange, considering one lived in a town kept secret from the rest of Wenapaj and the other was an over two-thousand year survivor of the Cylell Facility.
“When we get back, I’ll have to show you around.” Neeko said. “There are all sorts of things to do in this town, especially if you know where to look. You ever been ice-skating?”
“Ice-skating?” Jenna asked.
“Oh, it’s so much fun! Oh, and Malcom Glanden just set up a holo-novel theater. You can go a story alone, or bring a bunch of friends with you!”
“That I remember.” Jenna said. “Administrator Donosk did something similar to that back at Cylell. He used to come up with the best mystery stories.”
“Ooh, I hope they’re still in there; Donosk’s always looking for new stories. That reminds me; I played through Sera and the Dragon the other day, Jimmy. Did you really get thrown at a dragon?”
“Two dragons.” I said, allowing myself a grin.
She laughed. “And yet you’re still here. I nearly had a heart attack when I reached that part. Say, is Terry Cleftan?”
“I don’t think so.” I said. “I think he’s Galden.”
“I was wondering; I mean, he’s completely covered in armor.”
“All except the mouth.” I told her.
“Ah, okay; definitely not Cleftan then.”
After a brief pause, Jenna said, “I was hoping to ask you about that. The Glyche don’t really have much information on the Cleftan. I’m sorry if this is a rude question, but why do you cover yourselves.”
Jenna’s cheeks turned gold when Neeko didn’t respond.
“I’m sorry.” Jenna said, “I didn’t mean-”
“Oh, no, sorry, I was just trying to think of a good way to explain it.” Jenna tapped a leather-covered finger against the side of her head for a few moments. “I guess it’s really just a modesty thing.”
“A modesty thing?” I said, intruigued.
“Yeah. I guess you could say we’re really modest. I know it’s kinda weird, but seriously, every species has its quirks. The Shorans have their strange bonding rituals, the Rimstakkens have their complicated language and their excessive politeness ... something I can’t help but notice you’ve picked up, Mister Sakamota.”
“Guilty as charged.” I said, “I grew up in Rimstak.”
“Then you get what I mean; we’ve all got our quirks; ours just happens to be more stylish than most.”
I chuckled at this as I rose to my feet. “On that note, I think it’s time I get some rest. Goodnight, Jenna. Neeko.”
“G’night, Jimmy!” Neeko said as Jenna gave him a polite nod.