The days were getting noticeably shorter, which was good because that meant winter was coming and they would be able to rest and recover from the season’s work. The Fungi weren’t fools, true they worked their captives to the bone, but they knew that sick or injured workers did nothing. Just as they knew that punishing those who were sick and injured didn’t help boost morale.
Sure they worked them hard during the Growing season and allowed them to rest and live normally during the winter, letting nature weed out the weak from the strong.
Rudbeckia stood and stretched his aching back, occasionally flicking his hand to wave away whatever it was that was buzzing around his face. He reflected on the four Growing seasons he had spent as a guest of the Fungi. He wasn’t technically a prisoner since he could leave anytime he wanted, but considering this was his home and that he was out numbered by something like ten thousand to one, he had no choice but to stay and try to find a way to reclaim Scythia from the invaders. Others stayed for varying reasons. Lack of hope and other options being among the most common.
Not that there was much left to reclaim. After all this time the land that he had known as a sapling had been changed by the influence and activities of the Fungi. No one actually knew what the invaders were planning or why they had chosen to stay. Normally they would use up whatever resources brought them benefit and move on, leaving the land essentially barren and unable to support all but the most stubborn of flora and fauna.
He waved again at the thing that had been buzzing around his head. It had been pestering him for some time so he began tracking it with his eyes, trying to anticipate where it might land. As he tracked it he began to notice that something about it was familiar. At first it was just a feeling in the back of his mind but the longer he watched it the more convinced he became that he knew what it was.
On a whim he extended his right hand out in front of him. After a few seconds the thing stopped buzzing around and hovered over his open palm. As he got a better look at it his eyes widened in shock. He did know what this was but had never expected to see another, much less one after all this time.
The creature landed and turned to look at Rudbeckia.
“Impossible.” he whispered to himself.
He smiled as he realized that he was holding in his palm a Homing Gnat. He had bred and trained them when he was younger, growing up on his grandfather’s farm. They were used by the military to deliver messages between the front lines and the command center, but he hadn’t seen one in almost six Growing seasons.
With a shaking hand, he reached out to check the legs of the Gnat, knowing there was little chance there would actually be a note but hoping anyway.
He gasped when his fingers found the tiny metal cylinder on the back legs. He carefully held his enthusiasm in check, knowing there was also a chance this particular Gnat was carrying an old message that had never made it to him all those years ago. He carefully removed the cylinder and placed the Gnat on the table beside him, smiling as he did so. Regardless of the message in the tube, assuming there actually was one, the little creature had done its job. It had brought him a little glimmer of happiness.
He slowly removed the paper within and unrolled it carefully. He read the message that had been written there:
Rb, The morning of the first frost, be ready. -Q
He read it again three more times before he allowed himself to consider the possibilities it presented.
Rudbeckia didn’t know what to make of the message. The note was both obviously new and meant for him. Was it possible that others had survived he wondered. He paced, trying to work out what it all meant.
As he walked back to his room he decided that whatever it meant, he would be ready and began to prepare himself for the possibility that his time among the Fungi might soon be coming to an end. He contemplated whether he should alert the other residents of his dorm to be ready to leave and decided that presented too much risk since he himself wasn’t really sure if anything would happen. Finally he settled on the idea of informing a few close friends he had made in his time here.
The frost came three days later.
Just before sunrise he was standing outside the dorms watching the sky when he heard the signal. It was an old call that he had used during his time in the Scythian Army to alert his fellow recruits to the arrival of an officer. Carefully he made his way toward the edge of the compound, watching in the half-dark for anyone or anything to appear. He looked to his left and right to make sure those that had chosen to come with him had heard and followed.
After passing into the tree line he encountered several others all wearing what looked like a Scythian military uniform. They quietly beckoned him to follow as they began walking away from the compound.
The extraction from the Fungi controlled lands was relatively uneventful. They encountered a patrol once but everyone simply nodded and passed by without incident. Mostly it reminded Rudbeckia of hikes he had taken through the Garden Forest.
After walking in silence most of the day they eventually stepped in out of the overgrowth and onto a wide expanse of open field. All around he saw tents and equipment in various conditions and states of repair.
Several pieces of equipment he recognized, others were completely new to him. Among the vehicles he didn’t recognize there were a few bearing the insignia of Scythia.
“How long have you been here?” Rudbeckia asked one of those that had guided him to the plains.
“And the Fungi haven’t found you?”
“As you know, we are a good day’s walk from the Scythian borders. Their patrols do not extend this far that often.”
“What about when they do?” Rudbeckia continued asking as they passed more tents. He could see the colored banners and uniforms of various Kingdoms and Realms assembled on the field, from the purple of the Irisian Army to the Green of the WinterHazel clans.
“The perimeter is protected with Kudzu and Mycota bombs.”
“I know Kudzu bombs, but I’ve never heard of Mycota. What are they?”
“They react to spores, so only the Fungi set them off. They release spores of their own that attach to any Fungi passing near. They affect the nervous system, drive them insane. Our friends aren’t too keen on having them around.”
“Everything will be explained to you. Please step inside,” the soldier said holding back the flap of a tent, “I believe an old acquaintance is waiting to say hello.”
Rudbeckia looked at the soldier for moment, then stepped inside. He figured with the Gnat message and the army surrounding them that stepping into a tent without knowing who was inside was the least of his concerns.
“Captain! So glad to see you!”
“General Quercus? You’re alive?”
“Yes my boy. Sorry it took so long to get you out of there, it took a while to find you. We have given you up for dead.”
“No worries. The Fungi didn’t mistreat anyone.”
“Good, good. Now, I’m sorry to make this short and sweet but are you ready to help take Scythia back from the Fungi invaders?” asked the General.
“Yes sir I am.”, replied Rudbeckia.
“Excellent. I knew I could count on you son.” Quercus said, stepping around the large table in the middle of the tent and grasping Rudbeckia’s hand, giving it a firm shake.
”We have a lot to prepare for. We should get started.” came a voice from the shadows.
“Captain, allow me to introduce to you our ally, Overseer Amanita.”
Amanita stepped out of the shadows slowly and stopped at the edge of the table. He stood taller than either Rudbeckia or the General and was dressed in deep red battle armor speckled with white. His wide brimmed hat matched the rest of his uniform. Rudbeckia turned to look at the General with doubt in his eyes.
“I know what you’re thinking. You just spent several seasons as a guest of the Fungi, you aren’t inclined to have one as an ally. Well, trust me when I tell you that Overseer Amanita is no happier than you are, but we have a common enemy. The group that took over Scythia is considered by the rest of the Fungi to be rogues. They’ve killed several of their own kind and are wanted by the High Elders. Things are apparently not what they seem. Amanita says there is something else going on but he isn’t completely sure what it might be. Somehow the renegade Fungi have been able to modify the genetic code of their Hivemind. To what end no one knows.”
“Will you help us?” asked Amanita?
Rudbeckia paused for a moment and looked from Quercus to Amanita and back again, “I will,” he said coming to full attention, “for Scythia!”