The train stopped, coming to a standstill. Zhuyu walked to the front car and returned a few minutes later.
“There’s a plant in the way. We’ll have to go by foot,” he revealed, breaking the glass covering the emergency evacuation button.
“Hold on, can’t the conductor just open the doors for us?” I asked.
“The conductor’s been gone for awhile now. No one likes to go here, so it’s not a surprise whoever drove bailed. I checked the messages on the control board,” he explained, jumping off the train.
“What kind of….? This sucks,” I muttered.
Walking along the tracks, our obstruction became clear. A large plant bulb spewed purple slime. I glanced at it, feeling great disgust.
“Tomo, burn it,” Zhuyu ordered.
“Tess said magic isn’t effective here!” I countered.
“We’re not in the proximity of the seal yet. Any magic used here will still work,” Zhuyu revealed, glancing over at Tess.
“Yes, Long is correct,” Tess confirmed.
I conjured up one fireball after another, hurling it at the plant bulb. More purple slime surrounded it, eventually coating its body. The flames dissipated immediately once it came in contact with the slime covered surface.
“Ugh, looks like flames won’t work,” I said, stopping my assault.
“Shigetzu, can you lift up the plant?” Zhuyu requested.
“Yeah,” Shan nodded.
He looked at the plant and then paused. Shaking his head, he glanced over at the tracks. What was wrong?
“We’re not close enough,” Shan revealed.
“You have a range limit on your powers?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah. Um, looking at the tracks, we’ll have to be about five or six more train car widths closer,” Shan estimated.
“Wait, that’s really close. We don’t know dangerous that purple slime is,” I protested.
“We’ll take that risk. If we cut off its roots from the ground, it’ll give us a better chance at taking it out,” Zhuyu said, walking forward.
Shan stopped once in range. He stared at the plant bulb and a loud crack opened up in the ground. The plant roots wiggled around as they were torn from underneath the ground. I hurled fireballs at the exposed roots. The plant bulb vibrated as the flames burnt its roots and then purple slime burst out everywhere once its roots were destroyed. I hopped away from the slime, but some landed on my pants.
“Darryl!” Zhuyu shouted.
The false archer nodded and portals surrounded the plant bulb in the air. Knives flew at the enemy and Zhuyu turned his attention to me.
“Tomo, imbue Darryl’s weapon with the ice element,” he directed.
A white light surrounded Ichaival’s blades. Ice encased the creature’s body once the projectiles pierced into the plant bulb. I threw another fireball at the enemy, hoping for a finishing blow. The plant bulb exploded, chunks of ice flying everywhere. A large pool of purple slime covered the tracks where it previously rested.
“We can’t even use the train anymore,” Zhuyu commented.
“Of course this would happen,” I sighed, already expecting we would have to walk again.
I felt like throwing up when passing by the purple slime. It gave off a rancid smell, comparable to paint blended with rotten food. Tess knelt down, taking a sample of the slime. She capped a vial and with care placed it into her backpack. Knowing Tess, it probably meant some kind of research.
“How nice of them to place a lock on the entrance. Tess, can you break it?” Zhuyu questioned.
“There’s no one inside, right?” I asked.
“If there is anyone, they would have a hard time. This place should no longer be inhabitable,” Zhuyu replied.
Tess swung her key in the air and then the gates creaked open. Any buildings still standing were covered in an ugly moss with vines wrapping around it. The hell? This was a forest now.
“Guess they weren’t lying,” Zhuyu muttered.
“So what do…?” Ichaival asked, before slashing at something with his blade.
A mushroom like creature spat out spores. Ichaival dodged, driving his blade through the enemy, but spores landed on his shirt. He brushed them off, grimacing once his fingers made contact. Blood dripped out from his fingertips.
“Freaking…. I didn’t know they were like that,” Ichaival remarked.
“Everyone, get to work,” Tess said, swinging her weed whacker.
We hacked away at the green obstruction with our tools. Zhuyu sawed off branches with his pruner blade. Shan and Ichaival worked on clearing the thick moss covering the road, while I assisted Tess. An hour later, we cleared a path. Taking a short break, we all sat down, eating energy bars. There was no way we would get through the area with just these tools.
“This is crazy. There’s no way we can clear this in a few hours,” I complained.
“All we need is a little clearing and we’ve caused enough of a disturbance to get us through,” Zhuyu revealed, standing up.
A low buzzing filled the air and flies, the size of tennis balls, appeared. Oh come on! Zhuyu threw on his pack, running. Wait, we weren’t fighting? Everyone else followed suit. Vines and trees around us snapped as the flies pursued us. So that was his plan. It was nice and all, but it involved us sprinting. Did I have enough stamina to make it?
“Hey… how long is this… take?” I gasped for breath.
“Don’t know,” Zhuyu shouted, hopping over logs on the ground.
“This is perfect. Darryl, how are you?” Shan asked.
“Pretty good, but not as great as Tess. Look at her,” Ichaival responded.
Tess led the way, overtaking Zhuyu within a matter of seconds, after the chase started. The tools in my backpack clattered against each other, creating an unpleasant sound. The Gatekeeper raised her hand in the air upon reaching a huge crevice. No way we could jump over.
Zhuyu glared at the flies and they plummeted down. Ichaival’s knives pelted the flies, pinning them to the ground. I hacked at the creatures with my sword, eliminating them.
“Okay, looks like we got past that part without any issues,” Zhuyu evaluated, throwing off his backpack.
“The hell…. that was too much running,” I said, out of breath.
“Sorry to put you through that. But, we needed those flies to take care of the obstacles. Now we’re close,” Zhuyu apologized, catching his breath as well.
Tess stared down the deep crevice and then across it. I didn’t see a bridge or an alternative path around.
“Tomo, have you ever walked across chains?” Tess inquired.
“What?” I asked, confused about her question.
“I’ll create a bridge with my chains. Don’t worry, it’s safe,” Tess revealed.
“Can’t Shan just change the gravity?” I asked.
“The distance is too far. Shigetzu can apply it on himself, but he’ll be out of range to assist us,” Tess explained.
After seven minutes, the chain bridge was completed. Would it support our weight? Tess did know her physics though, so I would trust her. Zhuyu took the first step and I expected swaying, but it was solid.
“You know, Ichaival could just transport us over with his portals,” I realized.
“He needs to preserve his powers for an upcoming battle. Under ideal conditions, I would allow it,” Tess refuted my suggestion.
“I understand,” I nodded.
I crossed the bridge without any issues. So glad I didn’t look down at all. Tess was the last to cross, dashing across her chain bridge without fear.
“Okay, let’s go find the core. Tess, do you know where it is?” Zhuyu asked, stretching out his arms.
“Yes, it’s close by. I’ll lead the way,” Tess nodded, taking out her key.
We followed behind Tess, arriving at a dead end. Zhuyu glanced up at the sky, while Tess walked around the area with her key. It finally pointed downward at a spot.
After some digging, we uncovered a set of stairs. Walking down, I expected something to leap out at us, but nothing occurred. Once at the bottom, there was a pedestal. A stone tablet rested on top, glowing with an eerie light.
“This is the cause?” I asked.
“Possibly,” Tess answered, approaching the tablet with caution.
My necklace vibrated. Could it be this tablet was related to the one that killed Ichizen? Tess paused, glancing back at me.
“Tomo, you should check the tablet,” Tess decided.
I picked up the stone tablet, glancing at it. My necklace stopped shaking and Tess shouted out a warning. The stone tablet split in half and someone materialized from the shadows.
“No, it can’t be…,” I shook my head.
Ichizen, but he was dead. I froze, unsure what to do. Zhuyu reacted first, snatching Ichaival’s blade, swinging it downward at Ichizen. It never landed and the knife flew out of his hand, clattering to the ground.
“Everyone is still so weak. I did not come here for a fight. This is merely a warning, words from Ace herself. Go find your ultimate weapons and see if you can beat me,” the false Ichizen announced.
“The Traveler. Why are you taking his image?” Tess asked, chains wrapped around her fists.
“By Ace’s orders, she wants to provoke her. Until next time. Of course, I leave a little gift for you, so don’t expect to leave too fast,” the Traveler replied, vanishing.
We headed back up to the surface. Everything was wilted and an intense heat struck us. The sky was now a bright blue, no longer gray and overcast.