We sat well out of the way observing the bustling activity. I felt at peace, optimistic even. Coils of rope lay on the ground, waiting to be used to expand the growing web above. Mahda sat precariously high above in a rope swing, cautiously making her way through the dense growth of mushrooms creating [Stone Shaped] loops to serve as rope anchors in the ceiling.
Kobolds rushed in and out with woven baskets holding at most a single mushroom. I was told it took years for them to grow this large. The only other mana vent in the area (controlled by Vrakon) was harvested early and often. This treasure trove was sure to flood the market and sink the price if they didn't ease the supply in. Each full basket was an easy 1,000 silver. Many were harvested, and hundreds more still waited.
Hope could be felt in the air -- good times were coming for the Ozo clan. This much wealth would bring plenty of food and warmth for many winters to come. New, better gear to arm the troops, and a multitude of mercenaries to double the numbers for the war.
Estra wouldn't stop fingering the cane tucked into our belt, hidden from sight under the leather vest. I wasn't worried that we carelessly showed it in our possession before - nothing could bring down my cheerful mood.
"We have better mana regen than she does," Estra complained, interrupting my happy thoughts. Out of Essence and mana, (as always) I studied two available t5 upgrades for Shield Proficiency.
[1,600 Essence] [t5] Weightless, 100% weight reduction; double mass.
[1,600 Essence] [t5] Toughened, Double shield durability; 120 mana / 10 minute
I patted our fat belly making it wobble. "I already told why it's a bad idea."
I looked up and surveyed their progress. At their rate, they'd still be working well through the night to finish the harvest. Whereas we'll cut out early and get plenty of sleep. Tomorrow morning we'd head to the market. Half the clan was gearing up to guard the convoy.
"We were supposed to have learned how to soul swap from Arthur." Estra whispered. "And not this stupid spell tome that we didn't even get to use. How does this help us?"
I would have preferred learning the spell too, but the work that Mahda was doing high above required someone a lot lighter than a Volkswagen Beetle. Also, she had wings, which I would have thought she'd use to fly and fetch the mushrooms, but apparently they were more for looks, or at least a controlled fall.
"We should hit the dungeon again. We need more Essence," I said. The shield weight [t5] upgrade had me brimming with ideas. It almost seemed like a violation of laws of physics, but who was I to argue in this world of magic.
"Are you even listening to me?" she said in a berating tone.
I looked over to her and our eyes met. "Yeah?"
"Forget it." She sighed. "You spent all of our mana again."
"I did. And we should upgrade [Infuse Substance] to lower the mana cost. That way, we could turn more iron into steel," I whispered to Estra. I had converted the 2kg of iron Zoey given us and handed the finished product back.
"How did you get that spell?"
I shrugged my shoulder. "I'd guess the previous occupants had them." I hooked a thumb to our chest. "Whatever happened to them, do you know? Did they get transfered out to another body, or just ... you know, dead?"
"Are you suggesting I killed them?" She barked back in outrage.
I scoffed. "I ... maybe?"
"No! ... I had nothing to do with that." She waved her hand at me.
"So what happened to them?"
"I don't know," she snapped at me, then looked away.
"Your new fireball could work against the bats." I needed to modify my bowl helmet to include ear protection.
She shook her head. "I don't know if I could lob it that high."
Zoey appeared beside us. She had a fat coin purse in one hand and a bar of iron in her other. "127 silver. That's after my take of 63." She smiled mischievously. "And 48 for the iron."
"Mmmm," I slowly exhaled with pleasure. Estra licked her lips as I cupped the fat purse in my hand - as big as a plump woman's tit, and equally gratifying.
"What could we buy with this much? Some boots? What do we need?"
"Clean underwear," Estra suggested, and I rolled my eyes at her.
I had friends now: Estra, Zoey, Mahda, even Globba. Nothing brought people closer than mutual risk and danger - as long as they didn't die during the ... I brushed the thought aside. Bob would have been happy, thrilled even. Mahda was grateful for the spell tome and the harvest. She rewarded us with an 'artifact,' or so she said -- it didn't look anything of the sort.
[Old Tarnished Spectacles]
Minus the few scratches, the flat lenses didn't affect my vision. I was ready to vent my disappointment, but it turns out they had a puzzle to them - while worn, a long list of numbers would be added to the [Inspect] output:
Mahda had no idea what it meant - perhaps she thought we could figure it out. And I didn't disappoint.
We never made it to the market.
It explained why the war felt so tepid to me. Why harvest the mushrooms yourself, when you can let the poor saps do all the work, and then swoop in to grab it? Vrakon merely nudged us along and then waited to pounce.
That following morning, we had marched out with half the clan - about two-hundred strong, armed with their best, leaving the young, the old and the infirm. A wagon filled with mana mushrooms was positioned in the middle of the convoy -- the rest hidden away in secret stashes throughout the Ozo territory. The locations known only to the clan leadership, which included us, because we could move heavy loads. Lacking beasts of burden, we helped pull the wagon protected under heavy guard.
I felt an oppressing unease as the wagon entered a vast open space of a four way intersection. Big enough to have dozens of supporting columns made of polished stone spaced evenly about, and as tall as five story building. If I was going to attack the convoy this would be the time and place.
The wagon rumbled into the center. I glanced over my shoulder peering down the other two directions, but only seeing darkness. I nudged my shield closer on the wagon. Estra seemed to read my mood, she glanced about the area as if expecting an attack.
[Essence gained: +7,952]
I looked for Zoey - the only other party member besides Globba, but she was nowhere to be seen. Zoey's health took a tumble.
"Ahh shit." I grabbed the shield and held it forward just in time to feel the thuds of thrown projectiles. Estra flung up another [Ball of Light.]
Like a fog rolling in, a wall of black-clad attackers glided toward us without a sound. At the front was a face I wouldn't forget. Our body trembled with energy. Shouts rang out down the convoy. We were being attacked at the front and rear too. Globba lowered to a ready squat, club swaying, growling at our side.
Estra hurled a cluster fireball straight into the wall. They dispersed to avoid it. The cluster split mid-flight sending down an extensive barrage of fireballs on top of the slower ones. Their formation took a turn for the worse.
With a wide grin I shield charged to meet the fiend, but he simply vanished, leaving several [t3] devlings to meet the brunt of our shield attack. We broke through the initial line and found lower tier enemies waiting. We may have gotten ahead of ourselves. They moved in to attack and surround us.
Estra summoned up another cluster and flung it high up over us.
I only had time to charge in the same direction I was facing - deeper into the enemy lines. The gusts of hot air propelled us forward, the booms deafened my already bad hearing. Like running through a barbed wire fence, our legs, our sides, our arms, all took a slicing. Globba shoved and pummeled her way through after us, sending attackers away with the wide arc swings of her club.
[Essence gained: +2,387]
Estra had another cluster to go once we got through. She hurled it straight back over and past Globba.
[Essence gained: +2,439]
[Essence gained: +2,130]
[Essence gained: +2,235]
More fireworks followed. I shielded us from the shrapnel and an occasional body part while we steadily backed away.
[Essence gained: +2,342]
[Essence gained: +2,288]
[Essence gained: +2,546]
[Essence gained: +2,172]
[Essence gained: +2,238]
[Essence gained: +2,893]
A stabbing pain in our left arm made me turn. Noctear yanked his blade out from our flesh with an unsettling smile. Before I could react, he sliced through the bottom of our bicep. Our left arm went limp like a dead fish - Estra couldn't bring it up to cast a spell.
I stepped back, swung the shield around to hit him. He rolled effortlessly in the same direction around us. Knives glinted as they flew from his hand into our unprotected side.
Globba tried to intervene, but she was as clumsy as a drunken toddler in contrast to him. Enraged, she swung around not hitting anything. I feared she'd hit us instead.
He stood proudly with the same smile, as if admiring his work. Two long daggers came out. We charged forward. He stepped to the side and vanished.
We stopped and scanned from side to side for him. Globba growled and stomped her foot. The din of battle overwhelmed my hearing. Our left side was on fire, and coated slick with blood. Sweat stung my eyes. I swung my shield in a wide arcs anticipating his attack. I didn't have to check our health to know how deep we were in. Our left hand glowed green bringing minor relief.
A great weight plunged onto our back, sending us forward. Estra screamed in pain. We came down hard on our knees, the shield flopped over to the side.
Globba knocked him off our back. He flew through the air and landed on his feet, his daggers coated in blood. I clambered back up, lightheaded from all the lost blood. I struggled to keep the shield upright in my trembling arm.
Zoey appeared at our side, and his vile smile turned sour.
He flicked his daggers, spraying blood off the blades. "You left me for this?!"
Zoey pointed in the direction of the wagon. "You got what you wanted!"
"Oh, I'm not done yet." He shook his head and took a step forward, raising his daggers. "I'm gonna cut their heads off. All of them!"
Zoey flicked her fingers in his direction. A tiny ball flew at him and the air around him puffed out into a thick cloud.
"Let's go." She grabbed our hand and pulled.
"What about ...?" I pointed back at the direction of the convoy and realized that the din of battle had vanished. It was deathly silent.
"They're dead, okay? We have to go. Now!" Zoey pulled harder. I followed after.
A distance away, I glanced over my shoulder to see him emerge from the cloud, rubbing his eyes and screaming promises of a gruesome death. Estra un-summoned the balls of light, and we picked up pace.