For a change, a hint of hope and excitement overshadowed the chaotic past few days. The two spells were key to create a place for me in this crazy world. I'd get us nice and rich so we wouldn't have to worry about food, shelter, or an occasional war.

We walked about the settlement looking for Zoey. Besides the usual bustle of the miners coming in with ore and coming out when warmed up, a solemn mood hung in the air.

"Do you think something bad happened to Zoey?" I asked.

"You spent all of our mana," Estra patted our aching ribs that made breathing a pain. The [Heals] had mended the fractures, yet the bruises and aches remained.

"I turned iron into steel using 500 mana," I whispered to her. It actually cost 800 mana, and in the future I'd have the rust removed the traditional way. Still, the testing of both spells was immensely successful, but I had no idea of the new dagger's worth, only that it should be more. "Our food supply runs out in a few days. And we need someone who knows how to hunt a mammoth."

"You said we'd be rich," Estra said.

"And for that we need a way to sell and buy discreetly. We need someone we can trust and who also knows the market."

"But her? I don't know."

"That's the other reason we need to see her." To me, we had a few good reasons to trust her: that time with a Pongor that's still feeding us, and our encounter with the Phasmid. Though she did keep half the loot both times.

"Her kind can't be trusted."

"Mahda trusts her."

Estra grumbled and shook her head, but didn't respond.

Zoey wasn't at her burrow, but we found her at the chief's quarters, talking with Mahda. Their conversation ended and Zoey got up to leave when we arrived.

"... keep me abreast," Mahda said.

I glared at Zoey. "You got some explaining to do."

She eyed the exit behind us. "Okay, I'm sorry. I couldn't do anything to stop it, not by myself. And it would have been worse if I did."

"Worse how? we barely got out live," I was nearly shouting.

"But you did get out, thanks to-"

"You could have warned us," Estra said in a sharp tone.

"But you're fine, Okay?" She looked around and spoke quietly. "Besides, you can just heal, unlike everyone else."

I pointed to the right side of my head. "Does this look fine to you?"

"It matches the other side." She grinned briefly, and took a step back. "You'll get it back when you Evolve. Both of them, okay?"

"Who was the fiend, the one in charge?"

"Noctear. He can be cruel, but he does have principles."

Estra scoffed. "Yeah, an upstanding citizen that one."

"How are you involved with him?" I leaned in closer to Zoey. Killing the two blackclad devils came back to bite us much quicker than I anticipated, despite being done in the midst of a war. I had naively expected the market area to be neutral ground, and the trader's pass to protect us.

"It's ... it's knotty," Zoey said taking another step back, looking uncomfortable.

"Yeah? I'm all ears," I said, and mentally chuckled.

"You got something you need to sell?" she asked, smiling nervously.

"We still have a few injured, if you have time," Mahda said in a calm voice.

I sighed, handed the dagger to Zoey, and took a seat on the rugs. I needed to be mindful in the future - Zoey had more than just excellent hearing. "You got any more mana potions?" A nice blissful nap would do me wonders.

Mahda shook her head. "Not until after the harvest, if we can manage it."

Zoey inspected the dagger. "Fifty, maybe sixty bits, and I'll take our usual cut, okay?"

"No, not okay," I said. "You get a quarter of the profit. One fourth."

"Sell it yourself." She handed the dagger back to me.

I didn't want to sell the exact iron dagger in a steel form - the buyers may notice it and start asking questions. Better to use a trader who knew the market, or better still turn unmarked iron bars into steel bars and sell them that way. Either way, I felt staying low-key was important to stay out of trouble.

"Maybe I will, maybe I'll sell them straight back to Kuuz, or find another-" I bluffed.

"At the market?" Zoey smirked. "And Kuuz has a big mouth."

"But I'll get all the coin," I said, smiling.


"Fine." I handed the dagger back, and she tucked it away.

"You are full of surprises," Mahda said.

"I get your mushrooms harvested, and you supply me with mana potions?" I felt like I was on a MMO quest chain, do this to solve that, to do the next part, so I could finally get that nice prize in the end. I hated those quests. And why the bloody hell couldn't they solve their own damn problems?

"Hmm, I'll provide Estra with the ingredients," Mahda said.

Estra's eyes lit up. "We'll do it."

I turned to Zoey. "How do we bag us a mammoth?"

Zoey shook her head with a skeptical look. "The one time I did, it was already, sort of, mostly ... dead? Okay? They're way up high on the tree trunks, big as a Phasmid. It has wings, claws, sharp pincers." Zoey raised her arms and spread her fingers out, as if pretending to strike. "No, not a good idea. They're more dangerous than a redhead."

I scratched my chin. "Alright, any other beast we could kill instead?"

The perfectly chiseled black tunnels of the long gone civilization gave way to naturally formed caverns of limestone. Much like after a night of freezing rain, caramel-like icicles hung precariously above. We skirted around slick jagged formations and columns, stepping lightly as if through a cave-sized gaping mouth of a toothy deep sea fish - the whole thing waiting to snap shut like an iron maiden.

"When you said safe, did you mean like that trip to the market?" I held a borrowed spear in hand, shield hanging on our back, enough mana for a single fireball. It took us an hour to get to our destination.

"Shhh," Zoey hissed with an annoyed look on her face.

"Wouldn't the light alert them?" Estra whispered down to Zoey, and pointed to the [Ball of Light] floating gently behind us.

Zoey shook her head. "They're blind, but have great hearing." She articulated the last word with great emphasis and irritation.

A chorus of high-pitched squeaks and chirps grew louder as we moved closer at a stealthy crawl, using flowing stone formations as cover, keeping our eyes fixed to the ceiling. I could smell the stench of ammonia well before spotting any movement. Zoey motioned for the ball of light to be moved ahead, and it illuminated a vast cavern with hills of dung and a colony of a thousand upside down hanging vermin. Each one as big as her.

We set up behind a sizable cover in a subway sized tunnel with our backs toward outdoors, a short distance away. The bats flew out to hunt every night, and according to Estra, the Gloom only affected the space a few meters above ground, leaving creatures up in the trees or in the air safe from its deathly aura.

"Stay low and watch," Zoey whispered.

We waited. Evening light entered the tunnel from behind us. A few bats dropped, spread their wings and flew over us to exit out. One vanished with a loud pop to appear outside with an equally loud racket, startling the hell out of me and Estra.

[Race: [t1] Thunder Bat]

An unsuspecting bat glided toward us. Stubby legs, clawed leathery wings, and a vicious looking mug as wrinkled as a French bulldog. Using its momentum against it, Zoey peeked up and jutted her spear upward at an angle piercing it through the head - it looked easy. The bat dropped quietly to the ground. A few minutes later, she bagged another.

[Essence gained: +261] [Essence gained: +233]

My turn - I missed. I nicked it in the wing and it careened to the ground shrieking, rolling around as if set on fire. In alarm, every bat dropped down and thunderous explosions set off like a lit stockpile of fireworks. We cowed to the ground. Within moments, all I could hear was a whining microphone feedback piercing my skull.

Bats blinked in and out as they flashed past us in a flurry heading outside. The downed bat managed to stand, then vanished in a blink leaving a glowering Zoey mouthing angry words in my direction.

The chamber emptied out, the ringing in my ears remained. Globba came charging in - I was certain she was napping when we left. She growled and huffed, looking about the empty chamber to pick a fight.

After the thunderous shakeup, a hazey cloud of vaporized dung and dust dispersed in all directions. It got into my eyes and lungs causing a coughing fit. I covered my mouth and ran outside with Zoey and Globba in tow.

Outside in fresh air, about an hour of evening light remained until dusk. A cold winter wind picked up the dust cloud exiting the cave, mixing it with falling snow, lashing it against the mountain side.

Estra coughed trying to get the foul dust out of her mouth and nose. We sat down in the snow, trying to breath normally. I put out of my mind the sorts of bacteria and viruses we might have inhaled. Would they even be the same as on Earth? Do they even have them? I should build me a microscope - that should impress the locals - if only making clear glass was so simple. My hearing gradually returned.

Zoey sneezed. "Do you even have the spear skill?"

I sighed. Mad at myself, I ignored her question. Spearfishing bats out of the air wasn't something taught or practiced by OSHA inspectors. Zoey didn't mention the fallout if I missed. Both the piles of bat guano and the high concentration of bats in a tight area gave me ideas.

"Two bats is enough for the next part," I said.

Something stirred at the tree line down slope, Zoey sprang to her feet, peering forward. Several 'rats' emerged, much like from the sewers, but larger. They must have heard the ruckus.

"Run!" Zoey dashed back into the hazy cave opening and we promptly followed after.


About the author

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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