I didn't know which part was more horrifying, the fact that we killed a sentient creature, or the gruesome manner in which it was done -- I lamented over a cooked plate of purple mushrooms. I hated to admit, while the means were atrocious, the end was delicious and filling. We got enough food to last us a week. Yet, a voice in the back of my head pleaded for caution -- maybe Arthur was right about the mushrooms.
"I hate myself," I said to Estra. We sat with our back against the wall, a clay plate in our hands, using fingers for utensils. We didn't need the warmth from the center of the room, not that we could stay so close anyways - we lacked any semblance of rank in the clan. Technically, we didn't belong to the clan, not that I cared to.
I studied the mosaics around the chamber drawn in caveman quality. They depicted an expanding web of kobold evolution paths, stopped shy of fifth tier, the ceiling included dragons and other demonic monstrosities.
"Eat or be eaten," she replied with a mouth full of shrooms.
It was hard to argue with her logic. They called it 'shrooming' and in this particular case, 'live shrooming.' The more Essence a victim had, the bigger the harvest. It could take a few excruciating hours - hence the gag - to extract every bit. The Purple also grew on corpses, but yielded one-tenth of a live harvest - the reason for Zoey's preference for a live victim.
Sated after a big meal, Estra was out, her tongue stuck out of her maw, drooling, snoring lightly. A cold hand with dull claws touched the side of my arm. At first I thought it was hungry, but it was warmth it sought. A few more arrived, then a dozen, within minutes we sported a coat of chilled juvenile kobolds. Others vied for open space - I had to peel them off my head.
I had evolution on my mind, and not the Darwinian sort. The [Evolve] tag in my status screen expanded to a window of options and opportunity. Each evolve option had stat requirements and a 20k Essence cost. It explained the [t#], or tiers tagged to the 'Race' when using [Inspect]. Adults in the Ozo clan were split between [t1] kobold and [t2] dragonkin, with some [t2] imps. The rare [t3]'s were the chief and the officers.
[t2] Two-headed Troll
[Str: 230, Agi: 210, Con: 240, Spirit: 280]
[Natural Regeneration] - double effect from [Spirit]
[Thick Skin] a layer of natural armor
[Glutton] - immune to poison / toxins
[t2] Two-headed Half Giant
[Str: 270, Agi: 230, Con: 240, Spirit: 220]
[Giant’s Strength] - double effect from from [Strength]
[Fortitude] - 50% increased effect from [Constitution]
[Jaws of steel]
[t2] Two-headed Draconian
[Str: 240, Agi: 240, Con: 240, Spirit: 240]
[Fiery Breath] - can cast Fire Spells from your mouth.
[Scales] - a layer of natural armor
[Spiked Tail] - improves balance, can be used to attack
[t2] Two-headed Lesser Devil
[Str: 220, Agi: 260, Con: 220, Spirit: 260]
[Hoof it!] - increased sprint speed
[Tail] - improves balance
I missed having a calculator at hand. Rough math had our next [Evolve] option at about 70k Essence. We had zero in the bank, and I was skeptical about the benefits.
The three spells I had were upgradable with essence. As the name implied, [Mist cloud] created a cloud of whatever reagent you had on hand, whether it was a powder or a liquid. The other two spells, [Infuse Substance] and [Extract Substance] were likewise channeled spells, and would extract or infuse elements from and into solids. Though eager to test them, they required mana - not something we could afford to waste.
Estra came to with start, shaking off a few scaredy juveniles. She wiped drool off her face. "Aww, they're so adorable." She smiled, scratching one behind its ears like a cat.
"We need essence, lots of essence," I said.
"We need armor. Tough skin or not, it would have prevented many of our injuries, and saved me mana."
I nodded. Estra had used the last of our mana to covertly heal us twice to an uncomfortable 1470 / 2040 - no open wounds or bleeding, yet painfully sore. Thankfully, with a full belly and a 'storage' of food we could concentrate on something beyond immediate survival. The mushrooms were 'stored' fresh on the victim's body for a week before needing to be dried.
We stood and shed our lizardly coat. "Let's go see the smiths," I said.
Their smithy was adjacent to their main chamber. Small and crammed; smoky air blew out of a narrow entrance. We peered in from the outside, and a kobold came out to greet us.
[Race: [t2] Dragonkin; Male]
He looked us over in a glance. "What do you want?" The fat dragonkin sneered at us. "You got coin?" His scaley snout showed age, white and frayed. And if kobolds had hair, he’d have a comb-over. A second chin hung down from his jaw like a pelican.
Estra looked to me for an answer.
"We have mushrooms to trade," I said.
"Unbelievable." He shook his head. "Does this look like the market to you?" He barked, puffing out smoke from his pipe. "Come back when you got coin." He went back inside.
"We don't need him, he was going to cheat us anyways," Estra said.
"You healed fast," a voice rumbled behind us. We turned to face Lan.
"Ogre vitality." Estra lied.
"Chief wants to see you," he said, showing clear distaste on his face. He turned and walked off without waiting.
Estra and I shared a moment of frustration, then followed him. He walked with speed and purpose. He dropped us off and left in a hurry.
Mahda sat on a circular rug, hunched over so low, she might as well have been lying. One hand on the ground to support herself, she looked at us with weary eyes, then straighten her pose.
"Come, sit. Have some tea." Mahda forced a weak smile. We sat on a soft rug across from her. She poured us two cups of tea from a ceramic pot. I brought the cup to my nose, it smelled of jasmine with grassy notes. The brew was clear, slightly sweet with a hint of honey.
The shelves were busy, the small room was crowded with armor, weapons, furniture, pots, hung herbs, a dozen skulls, but mostly rugs.
The chief's quarters said a lot about the occupant - warm, welcoming, pleasant, comforting. Minus the skulls. Something stirred within me. Something long forgotten, unfelt. Home.
"The Izaru declared war." She paused, as if what she said was painful. "Fighting starts tomorrow." Her voice broke off at the end. The gray in her otherwise black fur seemed more pronounced. "I know this is not your fight, but-"
"We'll stay and help if we can, but we're not joining," I said. Bob knew war, he knew that road, knew exactly where it ended. Bob had walked it, lived it - no thank you. Estra didn't object. I would have left, but we had nowhere to go.
She nodded, her cup trembled. "You should see Kuuz about about a weapon to defend yourself. Tell him I sent you." Mahda said.
"Is he the fat smith?" I asked rather harshly.
She was taken aback, but nodded.
"Thank you, but we'll take care of it ourselves." We stood to leave.
She smiled warmly. "Our young are thankful of your warmth."
We turned and left.
"That's how they get you." Estra said, out of earshot. "You accept their charity once, twice, and then they tie a noose around your neck."
I simply didn't want to see that smith's ugly mug again. I hate people.
"Let's go see Zoey, get some wood in the forest and trade it for armor, or a shield." I said.
"I don't trust her. We did all the work with that Pongor, and yet she took half our food."
"I have a pretty good idea already. We'll stay low to the stream."
"We're low on mana," Estra said.
I sighed. "We don't have time to sit around on our ass all day."
We walked toward the stream.
Maybe we should have waited for the mana to regen, said my sixth sense that never disappointed me. Another pair of eyes to watch our back would have been nice too.
We crept through the dim forest, down the stream. Scanning over the banks to catch a glimpse of any downed wood. We kept low and quiet.
"Zoey would have picked clean anything close to the stream," Estra whispered.
"But only those she could carry. Keep looking." There had to be bigger branches she would have left behind. Yet we were farther down the stream than I would have liked and still nothing.
“There’s one.” Estra pointed to a branch the size of young tree, seemingly dry and clear of leaves. Next to it lay a smaller one, but much darker.
I knew it for a mistake as soon as I grabbed the bigger one. The bark was too smooth, the weight too heavy, but most importantly, it shuddered as soon as I touched it.
[Race: [t1] Phasmid]
As fast as a sprung mouse trap, something silently flicked right between our heads, nicking me on the side of the head. I shoved the ‘branch’ and we scrambled back to the stream. After sprinting a distance, I looked back.
The skeleton-like bug with big insect eyes didn’t pursue us. It stood on bony twigs for legs connected to the main trunk, moving sluggishly, as if unperturbed. Two scythe like appendages hung down near its head. Good thing we had all this empty space between our two heads, a single-headed creature would have been dead.
An orange glow coalesced in Estra’s hand, and she hurled a [Fireball] straight at the bug’s head. Her aim was as impressive as it was loud - a multitude of blares answered back.
[Essence gained: +3,265]
“Oh,” Estra said as the smoke cleared, insect’s legs were twitching upside down, its head missing.
“Are you-” I had no time to speak, but dashed to the creature’s position to recover the smaller branch, and the creature’s severed scythe.
A redhead rumbled into view, more followed. Bloody hell.
We rushed up the stream, but they swarmed the area in greater numbers than before. We dove and lay flat half-submerged in the cold stream.
They zipped over and across the stream above us. We crawled forward, inches at a time. A trickle of blood flowed down the side of my head, creating a swirling trail of red in the moving water. I felt the side of my head and found my ear was missing.
The water chilled us to the bone, but the bigger problem was daylight. Every minute, the dim forest grew darker. Maybe we should have gone out in the morning. Maybe Estra shouldn’t have used the damn [Fireball] in such a reckless manner. Just how long was it going to take them to leave? I tried to calm myself and think of a plan.
I chucked river rocks over the side as far as I could with minimal movement. It did nothing. We had a good distance to go and little time left, we had to get up and move, or we’d be caught in the dark.
A distant metallic clunk was followed by more clatter, like a child’s rattle toy. The redheads abandoned the stream and rushed away. Zoey appeared next to us, motioning to follow. We scrambled after her, keeping low and quiet. After a minute the rattling lure stopped, but it gave us plenty of time to sneak away.
We stood outside the entrance to Zoey’s burrow, a short distance from the kobold’s settlement, the entrance as big as a pet door, dug straight into the wall, using mounds of rocky debris for concealment, at the end of a dead-end tunnel.
“Were you trying to get us killed? What the hell were you doing?” I spoke down to Estra with a harsh tone.
“I … I don’t know, I just ..."
“Think before you shoot next time, alright?” I sighed. She looked away.
“You owe me. I’ll take one of those two,” Zoey pointed at what we carried. At least we had something to show for the time spent and flesh paid. I [Inspected] both.
[Ironwood, 3kg] [Phasmid Scythe]
“I don’t know what they’re worth.”
“Just like you don’t know what you’re doing in the woods. You’re too stupid to be alive.”
“There’s gonna be trouble soon, and we need some-” I said.
“And before you two go on whispering how you can’t trust me, or about your little healing secret, I should let you know that I have great hearing.” Zoey wiggled her pointy ears with a sly smirk made ever more foxy on her ratfolk face.
Estra scowled at her. “If you tell any-”
“Relax, Okay? I haven’t told anyone.” Zoey moved her hand dismissively.
“What were you doing out there? Were you spying on us?” Estra asked.
“Spying? Ha. No, Mahda asked me to keep you alive. Okay? But like I said you’re too stupid-”
“Yes, I heard,” I said.
“So, what do you need?” Zoey asked.
“Armor and a large shield.” I placed both items next to her.
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks for the help.”
“Don’t mention it.” Zoey squirreled away the scythe in her burrow, then came out, took the branch and left. We sat down to wait for her to return.
The bleeding stopped, but the pain got worse. Estra looked at the former site of my ear and cringed. “This will heal the cut, but it can't bring back the ear.” She cast two [Heals] and the pain vanished, our health increased to a comfortable 1910 / 2040, but brought us to 106 / 1810 mana. Our mishmash of injuries healed to freshly pink scars. Even the aches disappeared.
“It’s alright, I have another.” I brushed my hand across the side of my head. “How did you get a healing spell?”
“I don't know. How do you have your spells?”
“I told you already, I have no idea.”
“Well … neither do I.” She looked away, shaking her head. "Why did you just give her the items? You don't even know how much they're worth." Estra said derisively.
"She's gonna come back and tell us they're both worthless, and keep the coin for herself."
"Did you have a better idea?"
She grumbled in response.
"At what point are you going to start answering my questions?" I asked. She looked at me with a sour face, then turned away saying nothing.
It didn’t take long for Zoey to return. She brought back items with the help from a large kobold.
For body armor she got us two thick leather aprons sewed together. It covered the front and hung mid-thigh with a cord across the waist to keep it from flapping around. It left our back and shins exposed.
The shield was battered, fashioned with a leather strap and a solid handle, made of thick planks of wood, reinforced with iron, long rusted nails pierced to the outside, formerly a door. If a shield bashing wouldn’t kill you, then tetanus would. Two iron cereal bowls with leather straps completed the set.
“I’m not wearing some stupid pot on my head,” Estra said.
“Suit yourself.” I stacked the second helmet on top and tightened both straps tightly under my chin. I had seen what happens to those without a hard hat, and hoped that Estra’s inevitable demise without head protection wouldn’t affect me badly.
Hefting the shield from side to side, it felt heavy, durable, worthy of an ogre. “This. I like,” I told Zoey. “Thank you. All this for a branch?”
“Yeah. That was ironwood.”
“It’s that valuable?”
Zoey nodded, and handed me a small metal coin with a sly smile. “Stupid, but lucky.”