Only The Strongest Learn

11 minutes read


A calm wind blows through the treetops, and the shaking of the branches vibrates down the tree until they reach the ropes. A slight sway made the bodies rock from side to side as all the hung men and women danced in the moonlight, suspended a mere meter above the ground by the neck. Below stood a single man staring up at a still-twitching body as another approached from behind.

“Ash, we have another; his tank has smashed, though. His fluid will be gone in minutes.”

Additional men dragged a crazed individual with a large canister on his back, the glass smashed and residing within a shining liquid that spilled as he was roughed around.

“Please, man, I need a new tank.” He looked up at his fallen brethren.

“Give me one of theirs; come on, man, I need this shit to live.”

Ash turned to the individual, outstretching his nightmare arm; he grabbed the individual’s throat and raised him to eye level. Smiling, Ash spoke.

“You know what? I think you are right; you can’t survive without your drugs, can you, Runner?”

“Yeah, man, you got me. I am fucked without my tank; now give me theirs. I fucking need it.”

Ash extended his arm fully, jolting the individual as his arm reached full extension shaking more liquid from the large tank. Dropping him, Ash watched as the individual went hysterical.

“Na man, na, you don’t understand. If I don’t do the delivery, the Potion man will fucking ruin me; he won’t give me my dose. I am nearly out I got seconds.”

“I count on that.”

Everyone surrounded the individual and watched as his tank drained of the final drops of liquid; the man throwing his tank to the ground leaped for those strung up in the tree. Each time he jumped, his efforts became less. Finally, his skin started to turn white, and his veins prominent. A dry wretch lurched his body forward; nothing but a white foam left his mouth. His eyes widened, revealing the road map of veins that stretched across the whites of his eyes. Those around him watched as he slowly became more immobile until Ash kicked him onto his back, leaving his foot on the man’s chest.

“You runners are a hindrance on my business usually, but today you bring us new toys to sell.”

The man lay choking on the fine white foam as he struggled against Ash’s boot.

“To those who act fastest, there is a nice supply of drugs and tech here; feel free to scavenge.”

Those surrounding Ash and Elper ran in and started tearing the gear from those strung up in the large willow tree. From clothing and tech all the way to organs.

“Ash, we are not far from the Western shore. Only one or two more days till we can make the venture to Triskya Svelt. There are supposed to be a few hunter’s encampments between us and them; they may be a good pitstop point for this journey.”

Ash looked out towards the shore, his eyes peering into the darkness, hoping to make a purchase on a light. To great avail, he noticed a small light being hastily swung through the night’s air.

“There.” Ash pointed to guide Elper’s eyes. “We get that individual first.”

Elper took his rifle in hand and started off through the soft soil.

“Scavenge later, we got a mark. Let’s move out.”

Those taking from the since departed packed away what they had managed to scrounge. They all loaded their various mounts and vehicles before following Elper on foot. Ash stayed behind with a small collection of others, waiting for those who left to return.

“No one moves!” A short, plump man with large magnifying goggles was crouched with his arms out wide.

“We are in a death fungus field.”

Ash looked around his feet and saw nothing but muddy soil; his eyes turning closer to the large willow tree, he started to see small mushrooms getting larger the closer they got to the tree.

“Don’t worry, just stay away from the tree. You may want to bottle a few Io, could be useful to someone like you.”

Everyone looked around and noticed the mushrooms were only growing next to the tree also. A sigh of relief escaped more than one of their lips as the tension of death lowered to a normal level once again. Io, however, ran back to his motorcycle and started to gather small jars and a plain gas mask.

“Basic cover guys; at your distance, it should be fine. But let’s be safe; get those cloth shields up.”

Everyone in the area applied bandanas, shirts, and various other cloth material to their noses. Io stared around, waiting for everyone to be prepared before handling the death caps; with each touch, another plume of spores escaped from the holey cap on top of the mushrooms. He dug his fingers deep into the soft soil to gather the whole fungus and not just the fruit. Filling multiple jars, he took his spoils back to his bike.

“Cloths down, guys; we should be good now. Winds are strong; those spores are gone.”

No one budged until Io had removed his mask and taken several deep breaths into the now none infected air before finally lowering their own.

“How in hell did we not step on those earlier? We have been walking all through here.” Ash turned to Io, awaiting a response.

“Well, the Death fungus is a reactive fungus. They are like Venus fly traps; they move when provoked. They stay lightly buried underground until they feel movement, but they are a plant; they take a while to react.”

Ash covered his nose as he used a stick to lightly dig around a hole where a death fungus once resided. Looking around the area, he scouted for any more appearing fungus.

“There is no chance we will encounter more?”

“No, they work by a shared mycelium root system. If one gets triggered, they all do. The only chance of it happening again is if we find another patch.”

Ash stood up and watched as the swinging lantern in the distance started to flash in strobes of three.

“We have our mark; Io makes sure no more of these fucking poison shrooms pop up.”

“Yes sir, I will prod them out.”

Io pulled out a small UV light and started to crawl through the dirt, carefully scanning the soil as he went. Another ten minutes passed before Elper returned with the mark.

“Ash, Mark says his name is Vars. Ran from a hunting camp just to the west from here.”

“Let me guess, right on the shoreline. Was targeted by some big blue fucking apes.”

Vars raised his hands up; he tugged at the chain link that bound his hands together.

“I would appreciate being let go and having my stuff given back. I got to head north to Morided, not that it is your business, but I have better supplies there I need to pick up.”

The traveling merchants all laughed; Elper started to undo vars cuffs.

“Well, you can go there if you want, but I doubt you will find what you are looking for.”

Vars looked around with concern before a shiny set of pistols caught his eye.

“You fuckers burned down the town, didn’t you?”

Elper smiled as he took the cuffs away from Vars.

“No, nightmares got to it. We are traders, and we are saddened that one of our regular stops is gone. In saying that, it was a nice boost to supplies.”

“Ah, you see, I saw the pistols from the guard and assumed they were taken from force.”

The trader handed back his weapons and his warm clothing.

“Well, I am fucked; got room for one more?”

Elper turned to Ash, who was already staring out west. He raised his arm backward and put a bullet in Var’s kneecap. Elper quickly took Var’s weapons from him as Ash turned around.

“You abandoned your post, leaving behind others to die in your place. We don’t have room for holes like you.” Ash turned his eyes back west. “Fires, we need to move now.”

“What about him?”

“Leave him; let the environment take him.”

The traders mounted up and started to head off towards the fires, leaving Var’s wounded in the dirt.

“Fucking self-righteous cunts!” Vars yelled as the traders quickly traversed westwards towards the fires. Their various vehicles and beasts drove hard to reach the shoreline as the flames grew higher into the sky.

“We catch these blue apes here, or they escape for who knows how long, so fucking drive.”

Ash screamed through his headset as he laid his foot heavily into his accelerator. Those following tried their hardest to keep up, but the terrain was too rugged to keep up with his specialized vehicle. Ash carved his way through the terrain, launching over the hills and flying toward the flames of the now-destroyed hunting fort. Using his time, Ash circled around the fort to catch the Aza’Roe loading into their ships. Their war drums drowned out the roar from the now idling engines of Ash’s rover.

Ash stood facing down the hulking chief of the Aza’Roe, his men behind him loading the last supplies into their canoes. Neither man broke eye contact, nor did either of them move from their position. The remaining traders sped into position behind Ash, stopping an equal distance as the remaining Aza’Roe on the shore. A large portion of the Aza’roe had already left the shore and started to disappear into the ocean; those on the shore had an idle drumbeat, level, and calm. Ash using his nightmare arm, ripped his shirt off, revealing a scarred body; he then started to undo all belts and external pockets from himself. With nothing but his pants on, he walked forward towards the chief. The chief answered in kind as they were both watched by both sides, neither one willing to draw weapons and risk a conflict.

Once they stood before each other, Ash stood tall and broad; he held his hands at his side as he displayed his chest. The chief drew back his left fist and planted a cracking blow into the center of Ash’s sternum. Dropped to his knees, he took a moment to recuperate before standing up again; he looked up at the face of the chief and waited for his turn. The chief, in turn, displayed his chest for Ash, to which he struck with his nightmare arm as hard as he could. The chief stayed standing, his chest now with a slight depression from the force of Ash’s strike. Ash returned his arm to his side; the chief smiled and sat with legs crossed.

“I am listening.”

Ash carefully sat down so as to not aggravate his chest injury.

“I am a trader; I trade goods all over Nyil-Vispyr. But land travel is slow; if we could move through waves like you, we could ride currents to reach destinations much faster.”

“You want the power to calm the seas? You are strong for a man of this land, and I don’t mean your nightmarish arm. But you are still too weak to tame the seas.”

The chief stood and started to walk away from Ash, leaving him in the coarse black sand on the shore.

“If you survive the trip back, you can learn to be stronger from us.”

Ash stood and followed, trying not to show his desperation by controlling his pace. He could feel his head being slightly light from the devastating blow he received. Standing before the canoes, he waited for instructions on what to do next, watching as the chief instructed one of his men to leave his oar and sit at the front of the canoe.

“My man suffered injuries; you will take his place as a rower. Learn fast, little man, and be careful. I have shamed my man by removing him from his post, so make sure that you do him honor by completing this task in his name.”

Ash climbed aboard the canoe, and the drums started to build; the Aza’roe gained a blue glow around their arms and started to sing once again. Like before, the churning seas calmed, and they started to row. Ash quickly figured out the technique and rhythm, his image hidden from the other traders as he sat between the hulking Aza’roe.

Elper was approached by a man as they all stared out at the quickly disappearing canoes.

“Are we not to follow?”

“How do you propose that we do that?”

Elper turned around, mounting his beast. “Someone get his things; we will move back to the ruins of Morided. There we will wait for him.”

“What do we do till then?”

“Well, we have an entire town we can play with, so maybe we do something with that.”

With Ash’s equipment and vehicle retrieved, they started their return to Morided, not sure if their founder would return to them or if he simply rowed off to his own death.