I found myself crouched over the corpse of what was once someone’s pet the next morning.
The pet in question was splayed on its side, eyes sunken as water pooled in the sockets. The rancid odor of decay attracted a number of flies that buzzed around it relentlessly, their young no doubt relishing the putrefied innards by the hundreds just beneath the surface and out of sight.
“Elsa, we’ve found another one,” I called.
The Mountain Spirit came over and, without hesitation, drove her fibrous digits into the corpse. They pierced the outer hide with deceptive ease and invaded the lifeless husk, unbothered by the flies as the unnatural motions of the corpse were accompanied by a sloshing noise. She rummaged around the putrefied viscera and inner organs for a few moments before the digits severed themselves and she let out a huff.
“Just like the others.” The roughness in her granular voice was more frustrated than anything as she regrew the digits, leaving the soiled ones wedged in the corpse. “The egg inside wasn’t able to survive long enough to hatch after the death of its host, but I crushed it to be safe.”
“This is worse than we expected,” I noted, repressing the urge to vomit from the scent of death and decay. “Even if the monstrous species is only a minor threat directly, this sort of influence can lead to illness spreading rampantly if any of them carry an infectious disease.”
The only reason it probably escaped notice to this point was because of the horde of mosquitos present. I knew they were always a problem in the rainy season, since it meant that the soil was damp enough for mosquitos to lay eggs and the water level tended to rise. But no one would be foolish enough to venture beyond the expanding perimeter of the horde and try to reach this point.
Not only were the mosquitoes larger than normal, but they had grown in numbers at an alarming rate. So much so that they had expanded outwards to the nearest districts to gather more blood, leaving the residents suffering enough that Elsa had hastened their plans to intervene. That was why we were here now, to get rid of the source of the infestation.
Mister Rieth was helping the other victims. He had been concerned the boys were just the first to show the final signs of infection, so it was best that he treated and inspected them. Since he had the remainder of the medicine from last night, he could deal with any infected individuals by the time we were done.
Hopefully we would be able to resolve the matter before I was due home. It wouldn’t do to anger Mother by being tardy once more. She had accepted my excuse from Miss Taun once before, but her leniency would only stretch so far.
Elsa had the ground swallow the corpse. There it would be turned to compost and foster new life, while the owner of the puppy remained blissfully unaware that their pet would never return. “The Bloudfly’s presence is exaggerating their need to feed and propagate so it’ll have more to command. Even the roots of some of the flora have been devoured, so it’s safe to assume that not only bloodsucking insects have fallen under its thrall.”
She then reached out to brush against my skin with her newly grown limb. “Sweetie, the ointment is wearing off. Put on another layer before we go further in. And wear your mask too. I don’t want you breathing in the insecticide.”
I took out a small jar that Elsa had given me. It was filled with an ointment she had made that imbued my skin with the properties of soapstone. That made it tough enough so that the pests couldn’t bite through it, but I had to reapply it hourly so I could come this deep into the woods.
Once the ointment was reapplied and a leather mask with a beak-like protrusion filled with aromatic herbs was affixed to my face, we pressed on our search through the woodlands. The corpses and pests were more numerous the closer we got, until we reached the slope of one of the smaller brooks that cut through the woodlands. The babbling water that washed down towards the lake was clogged with more decayed corpses and rotting plants since there were no scavengers to prey on them aside from the pests.
“Can you feel anything in the air?” I asked the sylphid nestled within my cowl, keeping close to me to remain warm. She shook her head. “Then most likely it will be in the lake. All the decay and rot will have tainted the water and killed the fish, giving it a sufficient breeding ground.”
We kept moving until we arrived and found the state of the lake to be even deplorable than I could have imagined. Pristine gray waters were instead left a slurry of dark shades, thousands of dotting pests above it. Bloated corpses of fish and smaller animals floated over the surface, polluting the waters and leaving it inhospitable for most life as a low, incessant sound eclipsed the buzzing of the various flying pests.
Not to mention I was quickly swarmed by the biting insects drawn to my body heat and scent. They couldn’t get past my skin due to the ointment, but it was still unsettling as they started searching for whatever orifice they could to get at the blood flowing beneath my harder exterior. Thankfully, Aeria scattered them before they began crawling under my mask and clothes as Elsa moved to the edge of the lake.
“Get ready,” she ordered while pointing her arms towards the water. There was a spot that seemed to ripple unnaturally, acting as a target for the fibrous digits as they shot forth and drove into themselves beneath the surface with a splash. Elsa then struggled for a moment before she pried the Bloudfly from the shelter of the murky waters.
It was larger than it had any right to be at roughly the size of my head, its blood-filled abdomen swollen to the size of an apple. Since there was no way the children wouldn’t have noticed something that big when they were implanted with its eggs, it had grown drastically in a short timeframe. Trapped and desperate to get free, the monstrous insect released a sharp, shrieking sound from wings.
All the flying pests that loitered about grew agitated and their buzzing intensified to the point of being deafening. It was using its wings to send out soundwaves as a catalyst for its magic, reaching out and controlling the swarm as far as the sound could be heard. Now the horde had been stirred into a violent frenzy and moved to overrun us. “Aeria—”
“I know!” Aeria covered me in a veil of churning winds to keep me safe, shredding any that dared to try and breach it. Considering their numbers were so great that we would have been buried beneath them entirely, it was better to be safe than sorry.
“The insecticide!” Elsa called out, trying to keep hold of the Bloudfly while its thralls gnawed away at her gown and fibrous digits at a frantic pace. Their numbers meant they would’ve chewed through the limbs she’d crafted for herself in seconds, if not for new roots sprouting from Elsa’s shoulders overtaking the ones that had been gnawed away. But she had her limits as well. “Focus on this one!”
I pulled out the bottle of liquid insecticide, popped the top, and added a catalyst that caused it to vaporize when in contact with the air. The bottle immediately jumped in my grasp as a noxious, thick plume of violet smoke came surging out. It mixed into the churning wind around me and became a swirling, poisonous twister until Aeria directed it over to Elsa’s elongated arms. The horde gnawing at her began to die off as the poison did its work.
The Bloudfly was hardier than the normal pests but it didn’t last much longer once Elsa wove her limbs around the monstrous insect. Caging it within a basket of interweaving roots as Aeria pooled as much of the poison as she could around it, the two smothered it until the struggling and ear-grating buzzing finally stopped. A quick and efficient death that left the corpse intact for future use.
“That resolves the main threat, but there’s still the matter of all the corpses and waste about,” I said as Aeria began spreading the remainder of the insecticide. It should kill most of the lingering pests and prevent any new ones from settling in for a time. But they’d return if we didn’t clean up this mess.
“You have to get back earlier today, right?” I nodded. “Then leave it to me. I can handle burying the corpses and purifying the lake on my own without any problems.”
Since that was well within her ability, I asked that she give our regards to Mister Rieth and assured her I’d return the mask on our next visit to their home before parting ways from Elsa. Without our presence to hinder her work, I suspected she would have at least a decent portion of the woodlands and defiled lake somewhat pristine once more by the end of the day. It was with her domain after all and she knew the terrain better than anyone else.
“Can we go find the gate-thingy now?” Aeria asked as she landed onto the beak of the mask in the middle of our trek back. “You promised we’d look for it when we were done the day before yesterday?”
“…I suppose it couldn’t hurt to take a short look while we’re out here.” Leaving aside the fact that I had promised her, it wasn’t likely we’d run into anyone else considering the circumstances. There should be enough time to at least do a quick check before we had to return home. “But remember, we are not going through the gate even if we find it today. Understood?”
“Yay!” Enthusiastic at the prospect of finding the entrance to where she was born, Aeria began to fly off ahead of me. “Come on, it’s this way I think!”
I trudged after her at a more reasonable pace, not wanting to end up slipping over the wet ground or stepping into anything else that had begun to decay. Skaroa’s mark was supposed to act as a locator of sorts according to the magister, so even if we didn’t know the exact location it would point us in the right direction once we were close. That meant our best option was to get to the general area where we encountered one another and see if there was a reaction.
Sure enough, my arm began to prickle with a tepid heat as I followed after Aeria. It wasn’t burning me or anything, but it felt as though a living flame was still squirming beneath my skin of stone. Eventually the squirming heat became a stinging ache, as if something was yearning to get free.
Aeria darted back over to me, hovering over my arm as I pulled back my sleeve to take a look at it. Lowering herself and pressing her head against the spot where it was hottest for a moment, she then nodded to herself and looked up to me. “It wants to come out.”
“Can you elaborate exactly what it is?” I asked, more than a bit concerned that whatever it was that the spirit had done when she marked me was sentient.
“It’s that thing that led us to the first gateway,” she explained, taking flight once more while crossing her arms. “You have to push it out because it’s part of you… sort of like me, but not really… I think?”
I could only presume that she was speaking of the dragonfly construct that we followed that night. But from how she was explaining it, there was a level of awareness to it. And what did she mean by it being like her but not exactly the same? I had more questions now and there was only one way I was getting answers.
I took a stab in the dark and held my arm out, tensing it as I tried to envision it coming out. A puff of golden flame shot out of my arm, pulling something out of me in the process. It then molded itself into the same kind of creature that led us to the first gateway and fluttered ahead, scattering golden embers for us to follow.
Eventually, it led us to what looked to be a small grove. It was utterly unremarkable, with the exception being a flat stone on the ground and covered in overgrowth that seemed desperate to obscure it. The moment the dragonfly landed in the center, ancient writing appeared over the perimeter of stone.
“I can feel that it’s starting to collect mana from the air,” Aeria said as she fluttered over the center of the stone next to the dragonfly. It must not be an ordinary stone if the composition allowed for it to be able to store mana with assistance from the construct. “I think it will open once it’s done, but it’ll take a long time at this rate.”
So, we’d found our door to the other side and the construct was the key, but we still needed to enough mana to create the bridge leading to the sanctuary. “Without knowing the absorption rate and the threshold to open the gate, there’s no telling when we can pass through it. And it’s not like we can just stay here and wait for it to happen either.”
“We still have that jar that Alice gave us!” Aeria exclaimed as she darted over to me and flew around my head. “If we dump it on the stone, then it might be enough to open it!”
Before I could concede she had a point, I felt something winding around my legs. On reflex I tried to pull away, only to find that they were pinned by countless blades of grass weaving themselves together. To my knowledge there was only one entity that was nearby and could do such a thing.
Things began to click into place as Elsa’s petrous body emerged from the ground next me. Her porphyritic lips were pulled back into a frown and the sporophytes of her dress were standing on end. It seemed she was relatively upset.
“You really are too much like Theo for your own good.”