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A silence hung in the chamber, interrupted by the scratching of claws on stone as the lizards vied for warmer areas. A caricature of a demonic dragon loomed above me in the center of the ceiling, entwined around the chimney opening. It had an Eastern quality to it, more of a serpent than a giant featherless chicken.

It took math to tell the passage of time in this timeless setting without the light of day, or the moon's gleam, but only the constant warm glow from the central fire amplified by our [Darksight.] The floor was cleared of the injured and the dead. Three daggers, black cloth armor stained in blood, and two leather belts lay neatly stacked next to us.

I missed coffee, I missed my morning Internet binge, I missed my dog - annoying as he was in the morning. But at least I didn't have to worry about politics, the mortgage, bills and my mundane job. Tired of waiting, I sat up and her head wobbled forward and side to side, like a rag doll. She awoke with a snort, looking surly.

"I am not healing any longer. I'm not," Estra said.

I checked our mana, [Mana: 503/1810] and noticed a new effect: [Mana Regeneration: 84 / hour; 8.9 hours remaining.] Three hours had passed, but now we had enough to cast five heals - something I'd like to avoid myself.

"Alright. Let's go tell the chief, I'm sure she expected us to heal a few more."

"No, I am not going." She stared at the ground, shaking her head from side to side. "No." She started sobbing into her hand, then the dam broke loose.

I reached with my hand to pat her side of the shoulder, but felt 'our' shoulder, as if I was patting myself on the back, like 'good job' Kevin. I chuckled mentally. I could never get it right - I was no good at comforting others.

My Aunt still hasn’t forgiven me for what I had said at her husband’s funeral. Everyone at the table stared daggers. Only Bob had a good excuse not to laugh - I met him about the time when his mom passed, 'Welcome to my hell,' he said. Poor guy, his whole life was a string of misery, like a black pearl choker of funerals.

The wailing continued, making me miserable, and I couldn't run away from it either, not without taking her along with me. Shaking, she rocked us back and forth, staring blankly ahead, her hand over her mouth. The juveniles fled to warmer pastures.

I didn't understand what happened. Everything was going fine, and then this? Well, except for turning into a two-headed ogre, almost dying a few times, and living under the mountain with kobolds. Was it having a penis that ruined her mood? It didn't bother me. She hasn't mentioned it before, and that's gonna be a pleasant conversation.

"I'm not going anywhere," I said, trying to calm her down. "You're not alone. We'll get through this together. Alright?" The miserable minutes stretched out to eternity.

Mahda came to the rescue with a large mug of tea, but Estra would have none of it. Fortunately, it didn’t matter, because I gulped it down and it helped immensely. My mood got better, I felt more alert and clear-headed. I bet the tea wasn't DEA approved, something about the buzz felt familiar.

 


An hour later, and in her better mood, a short walk brought us to a noxious, fume-filled chief's quarters. Mahda practiced Alchemy, while I tried not to inhale too deeply. Where was the bloody venting?

"We don't work for free and we need mana ourselves," I said.

Mahda nodded.

"I would like to see the mana vent," Estra said. "You must have one, right?" Estra said with a spark in her eyes, and an eager smile - she must have forgotten about the penis.

Mahda's head jerked back, but she quickly subdued her shock. "A mana vent?" She fainted ignorance as badly as my dog after chewing up a shoe.

"Yes, you said you brewed that potion just yesterday, so you must have one close by," Estra said.

"Ahh, I did. I did." Mahda chuckled. "I didn't realize you'd be familiar with Alchemy. I suppose it's too late to hide it now. They already know."

"The ones that attacked? Izaru something?" I asked.

Mahda nodded. "We hoped we could fully harvest it, but now it's too late."

"Harvest a mana vent? It's like a stream or something? How do you harvest that?"

"No, no. Not the mana vent, but all the mana mushrooms around it."

"Ahh. And what's so hard about that? just pick them, right?"

She got up to her feet. "Hmm, let me show you."

But first she took us to the infirmary. A scent of herbs and burning incense wafted in the air. Fourteen [t1] kobolds wore bloodied bandages and some had missing limbs. Everyone slept, only raspy breathing could be heard.

"You guys don't have healing potions? Aren't you an Alchemist?" I asked.

"Hum," Mahda shook her head. "I can only brew lesser regeneration potions, and only a few at that. It doesn't compare to your heals." She looked at us with a warm hopeful smile.

Everyone and their agendas. "What do we get in return?" I asked.

Mahda's nose wrinkled up, she rubbed her chin. "Would you like a seat at the tribe's council?"

I scoffed. "That's just more work and responsiblity. No thank-"

"I'll take it," Estra said smiling.

I blinked at her. "What? You can't just accept with-" I clenched my teeth as a familiar agonizing pain tore through our center. I groaned, rubbing our sore chest. "Damn it! Warn me next time!"

Two agonizing minutes of Estra's healing had me wishing for the welcoming embrace of death and darkness.

"Wonderful." I struggled to speak. "Now we're low on health. How about healing us for a change?" I checked my status screen for 'internal bleeding' effects, but found none.

Estra smirked with bloodshot eyes, sweat dripping down her face. "We are out of mana."

"You also spent all our Essence."

"And you would have let them die?"

"Maybe ... okay no, but that's not the point. You should have asked, that's all."

Mahda watched us with a wide grin, listening intently. We healed the worst of the injured, exited the infirmary and followed after her.

"You do not ask me when you just walk us wherever you want," Estra flung her hand.

I stopped. "Alright, where do you want to go?"

"I ... " Estra tilted her head, looking up. "I would like to see the mana vent."

I pointed ahead to Mahda. "We're going there already."

"We are, but you did not ask me."

"Oh, shut up." I sighed, while Estra chuckled in glee.

Winded and sore, we trudged after Mahda down roughly shaped tunnels that meandered as if the miners lacked clear direction. At every juncture and open space, armed kobolds stood on guard.

After a short walk, we arrived at a thick door with bulky guards. They stepped aside to let Mahda unlock the door. Cold, humid air rushed out from beyond with a stench of rotten eggs. We entered a vast blue-lit cavern.

The ceiling was carpeted in mushrooms, hanging upside down like bats, as big as a bar stool, shaped like jellyfish, blown from crystal blue glass, they hummed an irradiated glow. I hoped it wasn’t Cherenkov radiation. Illuminated from above by mushrooms, connected pools of water huddled around an underground pond the size of a soccer field.

"Oh. I see now." The mushrooms were concentrated in a patch right above the pond, as high as a junkie on a payday, or a five-story building. "That's gonna be tough."

Centered in the middle of the pond, rising out of the water, stood a base of a platform. Under its shadow, a bubbly current of water gushed up from the deep. Like gasoline on water, an iridescent film floated on top. Wisps of blue vapor streamed up from the film, around the base and to the awaiting mushrooms above. A crew of kobold workers worked energetically, assembling the next level.

"So instead of protecting your young, you had everyone guarding these mushrooms?"

"They weren't supposed to attack the young. It's against the rules," Mahda said.

I chuckled. "Rules? Like some Geneva Conventions?"

"Vrakon's rules. The young and the wounded are not to be harmed during war."

"But they attacked. You saw the bodies," Estra grimaced, brows furrowed.

"I believed you would help, and you did. You have our thanks," Mahda rubbed her forehead. "It will be brought up at the next gathering," she said in a low tone.

I could tell the results of that: nothing. It'll be her word against theirs. They'll say it's just some cunning ploy, that we killed our own young to make it look like they did it.

"Did you guys just start working on this?" I pointed at the platform." Why is it taking so long?"

"We found it a week ago."

"And how did they find out about it?"

Mahda shook her head, shrugged. "Spies? Traitors?"

"Argh, bastards," Estra said.

"When do you expect their next attack?"

"Soon," Mahda said.

"Soon like what? How much time do you have? If we're going to help you, then you need to be upfront with us." I realized I spoke with a harsh tone, as I often did when my patience ran out. Why did I even care? Why was I so agitated? None of this was my problem.

"Within a few days, it's difficult to say," Mahda said.

"And how long will it take to complete this?" I pointed at the platform.

Mahda shrugged. "A couple of weeks."

"That is not good." Estra said.

"Why can't you just throw something to knock them down? or maybe use a very long stick?" I asked.

"They are difficult to harvest, and it needs to be done with care so they could regrow."

"You got levitate or some flying magic?" I asked Estra.

"I would be thrilled if I did ... Oh! what about-" She glanced at Mahda, then whispered to me "-Arthur?"

That's true, he conjured up an entire stone wall, maybe he could build a whole platform here.

"We'd need a delicious present." I turned to Mahda. "Do you have any cheese or beer?"

"Could buy a barrel at the market, but I'm not familiar with cheese."

"Cows? You guys gotta have cows, right?"

"A what?" Estra asked.

"You know, two horns, udders, produces milk?" I asked, but neither knew what I was talking about. "How about an animal with delicious meat? Fat and juicy?"

"A mammoth?" Mahda asked.

"You have ... wow, mammoth? Where?"

"In the forest. Up top in the trees."

I scoffed. "Not the sort of mammoth I had in mind. But they can be hunted and killed?"

"Zoey killed one before."

"Great. That's a start." I chewed on my thumb, or tried - Estra didn't appreciate the feeling. "Let's go and have us a beer tasting."


You must be wondering what I said at the funeral? I only said, ‘He died doing what he loved.’ I laughed to myself; it wasn’t my Aunt that he loved.

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Lord Zaika

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Bio: Sonny, I've got a whooooole theme park full of red delights for you.

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