We returned to the Kyōshū Region today, using the old ferryboat Black Rat found for us in Renraku City. An'in was interesting, and would be worth another look, but it's good to be back on home ground.
We met with the Professor and Mimi-chan as soon as we got back. Thanks to Rock Pigeon, Tsuchinoko and Iwabi were there too. Between them, we think we know where we need to go.
The Professor wasn't happy about giving us permission to go into two of the most restricted areas in the region, and we're not very happy to be going, either, but we have no choice. We have to go into Sandstar Mountain to find the special crystal we need to power the food machine, and we have to set it up where its original builders intended once we do, or this will all have been for nothing.
I'm just lucky I have such amazing friends. If Tsuchinoko weren't so inquisitive, and didn't have such a good memory, I wouldn't have a clue where to look for another of those special Sandstar crystals. And for Iwabi to be willing to walk away from her busy life as an idol and help us take the machine to a far-off, dangerous place is more than I could ever have asked for. And we'll have Goji-chan to help us.
I'm still processing what she told me this afternoon. On the boat ride back from An'in, she came up to the wheelhouse while Serval was below having a nap, and we talked for an hour or so. I explained, as best I can, about how we live in Japari Park—what the Lucky Beasts do for us, how we (kind of) govern ourselves, the state of our technology (such as it is). And she told me...
I almost feel stupid writing this down, for some reason...
She told me she's from another world. That there are thousands of worlds out there with people on them, and billions of those people are humans. She came to this planet hunting the monster she killed yesterday, and the people she works for didn't know there was anyone here. They thought there were only animals left. I guess if not for the Sandstar, they would have been right.
I'm not sure what we're going to do about that. She'll have to report what she found here to her superiors when she goes back, and what happens after that depends on them. It worries me, because I don't think Japari Park is ready for people from outside to come back.
She showed me a book she found in her room back in the Nutrition Lab, something the people who once ran the Park wrote to tell outsiders about us Friends. I didn't understand all of it, but what I could understand worried me. I can't point to any specific reason why, but I didn't come away feeling like the people who wrote that book really had what was best for their era's Friends at heart.
I'm doing what I'm doing now to preserve what Professor Konoha called the peaceful dream of the Park, and I don't know if that dream could survive the return of people like that.
Serval would say I'm borrowing trouble. Thinking too hard about what could go wrong, like Beaver-chan. Maybe I am. I got a good night's sleep last night, but I'm still tired. I've been going nonstop for more than two months, and I still have a lot of work to do before I can take a break. But that isn't really an excuse. Serval's been right beside me every step of the way, and she's still her usual self.
We're leaving in the morning to get started on the next phase of the expedition—Goji-chan, Iwabi, Tsuchinoko, Serval and me. Bound for Sandstar Mountain by way of the Plains Area. I hope Tsuchinoko can find the cave she saw that crystal in, years ago, and that it's still there.
And after it's all done... then I'll worry about what happens next.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Part V: Sandstar Mountain
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2019 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
The expedition party's first order of business was to put the Mark II prototype someplace secure, where it could be looked after by someone trusted and kept safe until the time came to take it to its final destination. Since the natural jumping-off point for the trek to the food preparation area was the Plains Area, the logical choice for that secure location was Lion's castle—which was how, two days' careful driving later, the five found themselves explaining their mission to the mistress of that grand edifice.
Order: Carnivora | Family: Felidae | Genus: Panthera
Lion sat cross-legged on the floor of her audience chamber and listened to their explanation in silence, her expressionless face half in shadow and golden eyes fixed thoughtfully on Kaban's face. Even having known Lion for as long as she had, Kaban couldn't help but find that look slightly intimidating, and she had to work to keep her voice from reflexively quavering as she laid out the situation.
When she'd finished, Lion gazed silently at her for several seconds, the restless swishing of the black-tufted tip of her tail on the polished wood floor her only movement.
"So," she said, her voice a deep, vaguely menacing half-purr, half-growl. "You want me to keep these boxes here in my castle, guard them around the clock, and make sure nothing... Cerulean... happens to them."
Kaban nodded. "That's right."
Lion frowned. "That sounds like a lot of work."
"I know," Kaban agreed.
"It could even be dangerous, if the Ceruleans do come after them."
"That's true," Kaban acknowledged. "I don't think it's likely that they know, or even would care, what we're doing... but I can't completely rule it out."
"Well. If they do..." Lion smiled, her tongue flicking over the sharp point of one canine tooth, and added with a dark air of satisfaction that sent a shiver of apprehension down the spines of her audience, "Let them come."
Then, stretching until her back cracked, she flopped down on the floor and said in her normal (much higher-pitched, bubbly) voice, "Sounds like fun!" Rolling over, she scratched at the dark wooden beam running across the floor with her fingernails and added, "We haven't been getting a lot of action around here lately. My crew's getting soft!"
"As is mine!" bellowed the tall, burly figure who towered behind her, feet planted belligerently, arms folded. Grinning cheerfully, she added, "A little guard duty is just what my girls need to sharpen them up!"
Order: Artiodactyla | Family: Cervidae | Genus: Alces
"Thank you both," Kaban said, performing a seated bow. "Please try to keep the reason for this as quiet as you can. We don't want the word to get out. The Professor is very concerned that there might be panic."
"Roger that!" Lion agreed. "Not a word out of me. I'll just tell them it's a new game you came up with."
"You can rely on my discretion!" Moose declared, in a voice that Kaban, wincing, fancied could easily have been heard in the Jungle Area.
"Are you sure those two are going to be OK?" Iwabi wondered as the five left the castle and headed back to their expeditionary vehicle.
"It'll be fine," Kaban said, trying to sound reassuring. "General Moose is..."
"Not the sharpest thorn on the bush," Serval supplied.
"... but she's very reliable," Kaban went on. "She made us a promise and she'll keep it."
"Lion's got quite a 'psycho killer' routine," Goji observed as she climbed into the back of the Japari Bus (the only entrance she could easily fit through). "She even had me fooled for a second there. I'm-a have to steal that thing she did with her voice."
They passed a pleasant couple of days making their way southward through the Forest Area, around the lake, and through the bypass tunnel under the Desert Area, camping each night by the side of the road. After the first day out of the northern port, they hadn't discussed their mission in camp; they'd gone over everything that needed to be gone over, and all had tacitly agreed that there was nothing to be gained by dwelling further on the matter before they reached Sandstar Mountain.
Instead, they spent the time before turning in telling Goji stories of Japari Park, continuing the education Kaban had begun on the boat journey over from An'in, or listening to her own tales of the strange otherworld she came from. Kaban, listening to these tales and watching the others' reactions to them, wondered whether they really understood the implications of Goji being not just an unknown kind of Friend, but a creature from another world. After mulling it over, she decided that Tsuchinoko probably did, for all that the cryptid kept her thoughts on the matter mostly to herself, and if Serval and Iwabi didn't, that was mostly a question of perspective.
On day six of what Kaban had mentally dubbed Phase Two of the Food Emergency Expedition, they passed through the Jungle Area. The weather was rainy and unseasonably cool, the canopy overhead shrouded in low-hanging cloud, much to Serval's disappointment.
Standing behind the driver's seat and gazing glumly out through the rain-streaked windshield, she complained into the tour guide's PA mic, "I was looking forward to pointing out all the Friends who live in this area, but there's nobody around. This weather must be keeping them in their dens."
"Mm," Kaban said, a little distractedly, guiding the bus onto a narrow bridge over one of the Jungle Area's many small streams.
"Good thing we decided to use the bigger-model bus," Serval observed. "You'd be getting pretty wet right now if we'd used our old one."
"That's true," Kaban agreed. Then, wincing as a fender scraped the bridge's wooden handrail, she added, "These little bridges wouldn't be quite so tight, though."
"Pretty sure that was the last one, anyway," said Serval.
"I think you're right."
"You guys must know every place in the Park by now, don't you?" Iwabi asked.
"Only here on the island," Kaban said. "We haven't explored anywhere near as much of the other Regions."
Serval pointed. "There's the signpost clearing where we first met Lucky," she said. "The Savannah Area border is just around that bend."
"Let's hope there's no Cerulean blocking the gate this time," Kaban said wryly.
She guided the bus around the corner, and Goji found herself repeating one of the oddest and most interesting experiences she'd had in Japari Park: the unnaturally sharp boundaries between the biomes here on Kyōshū Island. On one side of the tall, archway-like gate spanning the trail ahead of them, it was raining and foggy; but they passed through into bright, hot sunlight, like coming out of a tunnel.
"I'll never get used to that," she mused.
"It's because of the Sandstar," Serval explained. Then, adopting an officious impression of a tour guide, she went on, "Speaking of which, if you'll look out the right side of the Japari Bus, you'll see one of the most amazing sights on offer here in the Park: the Great Sandstar Mountain."
On cue, Kaban halted the bus at the top of the ridge leading down into the Savannah Area proper. There, spread out before them like a giant bowl, the light-brown, grassy lowland stretched off to the horizon, studded here and there with giant trees... and beyond it, a mountain Goji instantly recognized as a volcano. An almost perfectly symmetrical cinder cone, rising from the grassland like a sentinel, it was made all the more dramatic by the fact that it had no foothills to speak of surrounding it—but that was quite overshadowed by what she saw at the top.
"Oh... Spirits," Goji murmured, staring in amazement.
Sprouting from the top of the volcano was a huge, several-branched crystalline structure, like a postmodernist sculpture of a tree made up of various-sized glass cubes. If her eye gauged the size of the mountain anywhere close to correctly, the largest of them must have been the size of houses, if not small office buildings... and all surrounded by a haze of shifting rainbow light. It was the biggest formation of natural Energon crystals she'd ever seen in her life; even this far away from it, she fancied she could feel its power tugging at all the cells of her body, calling to her very genes.
"If I didn't know better," she said at length, "I would swear that mountain came straight out of the Spirit World."
"Maybe it did," Tsuchinoko responded, and then, to the startled glance that remark drew, "You don't think something like that happened naturally in a place like this, do you?" She shook her head. "The owls get really annoyed when I bring this up, but I've always been convinced the Sandstar didn't just happen. Somebody put it there. For what purpose, I don't know. But it's got to be on purpose."
They all considered this in silence as Kaban guided the bus slowly down the ridge. The road had a couple of bends in it that were tricky for the larger-size Japari Bus, and it was with some sense of relief that they reached the watering hole halfway down, where the way smoothed out and widened a bit.
"Why, hello!" called a voice from the pond, and Kaban pulled the bus to a halt, opening the side door on her right.
Standing waist-deep in the pond was a tall, generously proportioned woman in what appeared to be a black diving suit, her red-highlighted black hair somehow maintaining a complex style despite being dripping wet.
Order: Artiodactyla | Family: Hippopotamidae | Genus: Hippopotamus
"Hippo!" cried Serval, leaning into the doorway to wave. "How goes?"
"Oh, you know, not much changes around here," Hippo replied pleasantly. "Where are you off to?"
"Just patrolling the Savannah," Serval said.
"It's been a while since I saw you two in these parts," said Hippo, and then, with a mischievous smile, "In fact, word is you haven't been seen anywhere in the Region for a couple of months now. Some sort of secret mission for the owls, I assume?"
"Uh, well," said Kaban, reddening, and Hippo laughed.
"That's all the confirmation I need," she said, "but don't worry. I'm not the gossiping type, you know. Good luck with whatever you're up to! Stay safe! Word is the Ceruleans are out in force lately, especially near the Mountain."
"OK, thanks for the tip!" Serval called. "Seeya later!"
"Not the gossiping type," Tsuchinoko said with dark amusement as the bus pulled away from the watering hole. "She'll tell the next person who stops by the watering hole all about it. Everybody in the Savannah Area will know something's up by nightfall."
"Well, we knew we couldn't keep the problem secret forever," Kaban said philosophically.
"All the more reason to hurry up and get it fixed," Iwabi declared. "We don't have long before the supplies start running out anyway, and everybody's going to know about it when that happens."
By midafternoon, they were out of the canyons and trundling across the open expanse of the Savannah proper, and for all that she'd been glad of its protection in the Jungle, Kaban was starting to regret the Japari Bus's windshield a bit. The sides of the bus were open in back, but up here, with only the little vents in the dashboard for cooling, it was starting to get a bit stuffy.
She glanced in her rearview mirror to see how her passengers were doing. Serval was up in the roof cupola, taking the opportunity to get her first good long look at her old home turf in quite a while. Tsuchinoko had stretched out on one of the seats with the sunshine falling across her, basking. Goji was at the back, where there'd be room for her tail, still gazing out across the grassland at the Sandstar Mountain. And Iwabi... appeared to be melting, despite having moved to the shadiest corner of the bus.
"It's so hot here," the penguin moaned, fanning herself ineffectually with one flipper-gloved hand. "How do you stand it, Serval?"
Serval ducked down out of the cupola to give her a puzzled look. "Huh? This is a nice day in the Savannah."
"Heck, it's cold by my standards," Tsuchinoko observed languidly. "And it'll get colder once we're down in the caves." She sat up, tucking her bare legs Indian-fashion under her on the seat, and regarded Iwabi's outfit thoughtfully for a moment, then added, "Anyway, have you considered taking off the wetsuit? I'm just putting it out there."
Iwabi blinked, gathering the front of her hoodie protectively in one hand. "What?! I don't have anything else to wear!"
Tsuchinoko sighed and called forward, "Kaban, do that magic human thing and make the poor penguin some cooler clothes."
"I'm... not sure you understand how that works," Kaban replied, a little awkwardly.
In the back, Goji stifled a giggle, reflecting that it was sometimes hard work not laughing out loud at this impromptu comedy troupe when they got going.
"Although, actually..." Kaban said a few moments later, a thoughtful note in her voice. A few moments later, the bus turned off the road and halted.
"Let's stop here for a second," said Kaban, and with a cheerful smile, she opened the bus door and climbed out.
The others got down behind her, to find themselves standing in front of one of the Savannah Area's tiny handful of buildings. Once upon a time, when Japari Park was a going concern, it had been the area's sole waystation for the bus tours, a place for Park visitors to stop off, use a bathroom, and rehydrate, as well as...
"What's a gift shop?" Iwabi wondered, gazing up at the brightly colored sign above the entrance.
"In the old days, it was a place where Park guests could buy stuff to commemorate their visit," Tsuchinoko told her. Serval and Kaban shared a private little smile, which Goji noticed, but didn't have any context for.
"Oh, there's one of those near our stage, up north," Iwabi said. "Emperor found it one day a while back. They had little stuffed versions of all of us before we were Friends."
Tsuchinoko nodded. "This place will probably have the same kind of thing, but for Savannah animals. If it hasn't been looted by now."
"I don't think anybody ever comes here," Serval said. "Most Savannah Friends aren't really interested in buildings. I mean, I never cared about them until I met Kaban."
"This facility's security system is still operational," Lucky announced from Kaban's wrist. "I will unlock the door."
The inside of the low timber building was dark and stuffy, but the former, at least, was quickly dispelled as long-dormant lights flickered on at Lucky's wireless command. The lights revealed a long, narrow room with a counter at one end, its walls lined with dusty shelves full of mysterious objects. With exclamations of surprise and wonder, the Friends fanned out to investigate.
"Drinking cups," Goji mused, wiping the dust from one such object.
"Found the stuffed animals!" Serval declared from one of the shelves at the back.
"What's this thing?" Iwabi wondered, standing before an odd rectangular object on the counter. She poked experimentally at one of the several levers sticking out of its face, and jumped back in surprise as a bell rang and a drawer suddenly sprang out of the bottom of the device.
"Wow!" Tsuchinoko cried, startling her again with the loudest sound she'd ever heard the usually retiring cryptid make. Pushing her way past the bewildered penguin, Tsuchinoko delved into the drawer with both hands and came out clutching a double fistful of little metal discs, a couple of which slipped between her fingers and bounced, clinking, on the counter.
"It's full of Japari Coins!" Tsuchinoko crowed, holding her prize aloft. "I've never seen more than one or two of them at a time. This thing must have forty or fifty in it!" Cackling with glee, she started scooping the coins out and stuffing them into the pouch pocket on the front of her hoodie.
"... OK?" said Iwabi, flummoxed.
"And here I thought tsuchinoko were only greedy for booze," said Goji, amused.
"That's racist?" Tsuchinoko said absently, continuing to plunder the cash register.
"Aha!" Kaban said from somewhere out behind the counter. "Here we are!"
"So much better," Iwabi declared blissfully, lolling on one of the Japari Bus's front seats. Her insulated, full-sleeved swimsuit lay like a discarded skin on the seat beside her, and she sprawled out, luxuriating in the feel of the breeze blowing around inside the baggy T-shirt she'd replaced it with.
"Stylish," Goji remarked, looking down at her own. It was emblazoned across the front with a symbol she'd seen again and again since arriving in Japari Park: a cheerful orange の, the Japanese hiragana character for no, stylized with a pair of little "horns" on top.
"That was fun!" Serval said, modeling hers. "I never knew that place had so much neat stuff in it."
"OK, I was actually kidding about the 'magic human' thing?" Tsuchinoko said, considering the logo on the one she was wearing. "But... wow."
"Never bet against Kaban-chan!" said Serval smugly.
"I was lucky," said Kaban modestly. "Tsuchinoko happened to mention it at just the right time." She nodded toward the sun, dipping orange toward the western horizon, and went on, "We should find a spot to make camp soon. If Hippo was right about Cerulean activity being high near the mountain, I don't want to get too close in the dark."
"So what's the deal with these Ceruleans?" Goji wondered as they all sat around the campfire and ate their evening Japari Buns. "I've been hearing about them since I got here, but I've never seen one. What are they? And why is everyone so worried about them?"
"Nobody really knows what they are," Iwabi said. "They're just... things. Usually just big colored blobs with an eye on the front. They've been plaguing the Park for as long as anyone can remember, but we don't know where they come from or why."
"The first ones were blue," Serval explained, "and people assumed they all were. That's why they're called Ceruleans. Turns out they come in all colors, though. We even saw a giant black one once. That was a bad day." She shivered reflexively at the memory; Kaban took her hand with a reassuring smile, receiving a grateful one in return.
"What do they do?" asked Goji.
"By themselves, nothing, as far as we know," Kaban said. "They just float around. But if they see a Friend, they always attack."
Iwabi nodded. "They chase their victims, corner them, and then engulf them."
"I think they want the Sandstar we all carry inside us," said Tsuchinoko. "Friends are born from Sandstar, you know? We use it when we tap our wild natures." She concentrated for a moment, opening her mouth. With a shimmer of rainbow sparks, her eyes glowed cyan and a pair of long, wickedly curved fangs extruded from her upper jaw. A drop of venom fell from one of them, sizzling faintly as it hit the ground; then she relaxed, her fangs retracting and eyes returning to normal.
"It recharges naturally," she went on, "but if a Cerulean 'eats' one of us, it can... sort of rip all her Sandstar out."
Goji blinked. "... That doesn't sound good."
"You don't die from it," said Iwabi. "Not exactly. But if a Cerulean takes all your Sandstar, so that there's no... no seed left for it to grow back from... you stop being a Friend."
"You lose your human side and turn back into just a regular animal," Serval confirmed, looking and sounding as solemn as Goji had ever seen her. "And forget."
Goji arched an eyebrow. "Forget what?" she asked, fairly certain she already knew.
Serval bowed her head, a tear slipping down her cheek. "Everything," she whispered, then turned and hugged Kaban tight. Kaban put her arms around Serval in turn, murmuring quiet reassurance.
Her eyes glinting in the firelight, Tsuchinoko said, "I can't speak for anyone but myself, but that's close enough to dying for me."
The others nodded silent agreement.
After an uncomfortable few seconds' silence, Goji said hesitantly, "Right. OK. Important safety tip." Hanging her head, she added, "Sorry, guys. I didn't mean to bring everybody down."
Kaban shook her head. "No, it's important you know what the stakes are."
Tsuchinoko nodded. "Kaban here is the only one ever to get eaten by a Cerulean and come away able to tell the tale. 'Cause she's human anyway, right? So she just turned back into... herself."
This time both of Goji's eyebrows went up. "Wow."
"I was just lucky," Kaban said. "Serval-chan and everybody else did everything to get me back and destroy the Cerulean. I was no help at all," she added ruefully.
"It was your plan," Serval pointed out, still clinging to her.
"We'd never have figured out what to do about it on our own," Iwabi agreed.
"And Lucky wouldn't have helped us if not for you," Tsuchinoko added.
"Anyway, the important thing to know if you have to fight a Cerulean is to look for the stone," Iwabi said. "There's always one somewhere on them. Like a gem. Break that, and they sort of... pop."
"Good to know," Goji said, filing the information away with a nod.
The conversation petered out after that, and before long, everyone unpacked their bedrolls and sacked out. Goji sat awake for a while longer, carefully banking the coals of the campfire and thinking. Then she rose, dusting reflexively at her knees, and considered the sleeping Friends.
They even sleep like the animals they were, she thought, a little smile flickering across her face. Tsuchinoko was rolled into a ball, as close as a lifeform with a humanoid shape could get to sleeping in a coil. Iwabi was stretched out flat on her belly, her face tucked into the crook of her elbow. And Serval, well, Goji had seen enough cats and cat spirits in her life to recognize the This Is My Human position readily enough.
Moving silently despite her great size, she slipped away from the camp, around the parked Japari Bus, and away out of earshot, then keyed her com implant.
"Nakajima to Steelhaven," she said quietly.
"Go ahead, Shingoji," her mission officer's voice immediately replied. She wondered idly when he slept. Never on the firm's time, presumably.
"Just want to warn you, I'm heading into a potential CA tomorrow. Area infested with a hostile... let's go with 'lifeform', though at this point I'm not sure that's what it is. You might see some, uh... energy spikes."
"Do you need backup?"
"Hopefully not. They've accepted the reality of me, but I don't think they're ready for the implications of you yet. If I get in over my head, though, you'll be the first to know."
"Roger that. Good luck."
That task taken care of, she went back around the bus, then pulled up short as she saw Tsuchinoko's glowing eyes regarding her from the shadows.
Did she hear that? Goji wondered. A moment later, without a sound, one of the cyan points went dark, then glowed again, and then they both went out.
Goji stood looking at the cryptid's dark, motionless shape for a few long moments, then found a spot to lie down, rested her head on her tail, and dropped off into an uneasy sleep.
The cave Tsuchinoko was taking them to was at the end of a canyon, one of several dry riverbeds that radiated from the base of Sandstar Mountain. The next morning, Kaban drove the bus as far into that canyon as she dared, then turned it around while there was still room to do so and parked it facing back the way they came—ready for a quick getaway, if one proved necessary.
They walked the rest of the way, reaching the mouth of the cave before midday. As they approached, Goji had the thought that there was something odd about it, although she wasn't able to put her finger on it until just before they entered. The end of the canyon was choked with debris from rockslides that had come down the flanks of the mountain in earlier times, including some quite substantial boulders, but the cave entrance was clear and readily accessible.
She paused, regarding one of the boulders where it lay to the side of the path with a thoughtful frown.
"Goji-chan? What's wrong?" Kaban asked.
"This rock didn't get here naturally," Goji said. "See these gouges? Tool marks. It's been moved." She straightened up, hands on hips, and took a panoramic look around the site. "Yeah. The actual tracks on the ground have eroded away, but somebody was in here with heavy equipment a long time ago, clearing the way into this cave."
"You can tell that just from looking at the rocks? That's like something Kaban would do," Iwabi said, sounding impressed.
Kaban shook her head. "I thought there was something odd about this place, but I wouldn't have been able to tell what it was. I wouldn't have known what to look for."
"So that's why this place felt so strange when I was here before," Tsuchinoko mused. "I didn't realize what I was looking at either. The humans were all long gone by the time I came along." She touched the machinery scars on one of the rocks and went on, "I wonder why they wanted to get in here so bad."
"Well, there's only one way to find out," said Serval practically, and the five entered the cave.
Inside, the signs of artificial modification were too obvious for any of them to miss, even with the Friends' limited knowledge of such things. It quickly became apparent that the cave wasn't a cave at all. The tunnel they were walking in was too regular, its shape too consistent to have been carved out by nature. All this was easy to see, even for those of the party whose vision wasn't adapted to the dark, because the tunnel was illuminated from within; its walls were studded with outcrops of Sandstar, and its glow provided ample light to navigate by.
"What were they doing here?" Goji wondered aloud, running her fingers along the wall. "Mining? What for? Apart from the food machine, I haven't seen anything in the Park that could use Energon for fuel."
"They were probably studying it," Kaban said. "Remember the book you showed me? They knew Sandstar is what makes Friends. They were probably trying to figure out how."
"That fits with what little I know about the Ancients," Tsuchinoko agreed. "I've always believed they didn't really know what was happening when the first generation of us appeared."
That topic exhausted, the group moved deeper into the cave in a wary silence, all of them on the lookout for any sign that they weren't alone down here. Presently the tunnels started branching, the network taking on something of the aspect of a maze. Tsuchinoko took point, both because she knew where they were trying to go (at least in theory) and because, with her viper-like pit organ, she could sense Ceruleans through the walls, if any were skulking in other passages nearby.
As they delved deeper into the mine, the concentration of Sandstar in the walls increased. From scattered outcroppings, it increased in density until it made up more of the tunnel walls than ordinary rock.
"It feels weird being this close to so much Sandstar," Serval observed. "I feel like my fur is standing up straight, and I don't even have most of it any more."
"Your tail is looking pretty bushy right now," Iwabi confirmed, sounding amused. "And—oh wow, Goji, those things on your back are glowing."
Goji nodded. "I know. It's because there's so much free energy seeping out of these crystals. My body absorbs radiation."
"Isn't radiation... dangerous?" Iwabi asked nervously, but Goji shook her head.
"It's not that kind of radiation. Not ionizing. You guys should be fine."
Iwabi didn't look entirely convinced, but a moment later they rounded a bend and entered a space that put the whole matter straight out of her head. It was a more-or-less-round chamber with a high domed ceiling, and it was big enough to contain the entire amphitheatre up north where PPP was headquartered. However, it did not contain an amphitheatre. Instead, it contained three things in roughly equal abundance:
"Uh-oh," said Serval, a trifle inadequately.
Uncertain what to do, the five crowded in behind a rocky outcrop near the tunnel entrance, then peeked over and around it. The mob of Ceruleans in the cavern didn't seem to have noticed the intrusion; they carried on milling aimlessly around, with no evident purpose or destination.
"I was just about to say something like 'it's weird, Hippo said the Ceruleans were thick around the mountain and we haven't seen a single one,'" Tsuchinoko observed in a low voice. "But, uh, here they all are, havin' a big old Cerulean party."
"Maybe they have a band that's putting on a concert," said Serval.
Iwabi snickered in spite of herself. "I can't imagine the Ceruleans Performance Project would be any good."
"Tsuchinoko, can you see the crystal you saw before?" asked Kaban.
"I can't see anything but Ceruleans," Tsuchinoko replied. "And whatever that black stuff is, that wasn't here before."
"It's... the Ancients called it 'Sandstar Rho'," Kaban whispered—
—And to her horror, Lucky picked up the thread, announcing in a normal tone of voice that reverberated off the cavern walls, "Sandstar Rho is a dangerous form of Sandstar, believed to be the active substance in the manifestation of Ceruleans."
The nearest Ceruleans paused in their apparently random movements and turned, their large, staring single eyes swiveling to fix on the Friends' increasingly-inadequate-feeling hiding place.
"Lucky!" Kaban hissed, clamping a hand over the device on her wrist. "Be quiet!"
"Alert: High concentrations of Sandstar Rho detected in this area," Lucky went on, if anything in a louder voice, as befit the urgency of the situation. "Recommend immediate withdrawal."
"I mean it's not his worst idea," Tsuchinoko offered as every Cerulean in the place turned and started heading toward their position.
Goji considered the oncoming mob for a moment, then smiled, her triangular teeth gleaming in the glow of the nearest Sandstar nodule.
"No," she said, "this is perfect."
Then, straightening to her full height, she put a hand on top of the rock and vaulted it, springing over to confront the Cerulean horde head-on.
"I'll keep them busy," she said. "You guys find that tesseract and get out of here. I'll be right behind you."
"Goji-chan!" Kaban cried, but Goji glanced back over her shoulder with a grin.
"Trust me," she said, then faced front again, cracking her knuckles. "I do this for a living."
The rest was... not silence.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Friends Like These: From the Chronicles of Japari Park
Part V: Sandstar Mountain
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious aid of
The EPU Usual Suspects
(in order of appearance)
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
A whole lot of Ceruleans
Based on Kemono Friends created by
Kaban created by
Shingoji Nakajima inspired by
Shin Gojira (by Toho), by way of
the fan comic Shingoji-chan by Kishida Shiki
E P U (colour) 2019