The light from the evening sun dispersed down the passage a distance away. We had set up near the bats, both as a place to hide out and to have source of food nearby. I feared what the night may bring here without the safety of kobold guards. I missed my new home.
I turned over the bat on a stick, or more like a turkey on a branch. Juices drizzled into the fire, sizzling, sending up flames. Smoke trailed up and out, guided by a draft. Globba didn't care for subtleties of safe cooking, she preferred her meal with a pulse.
Zoey returned hours later. She breathed loudly, nostrils flaring. "I have some good news, and some bad news."
I tensed up. "Is she alive?"
Zoey shook her head dejectedly, sighing. "Vrakon has her."
I slumped back against the cold hard stone. Estra winced, we had used up all our mana to heal, only leaving aches and pains. I felt relieved that she was alive, but at the same time angry and tortured with guilt, I didn't want to listen to my own excuses for fleeing. Hopelessness and despair seeped into my thoughts. Our enemies were numerous and insurmountable. We got beaten yet again, and this time completely.
Zoey sat down across from us and chucked a waterskin over the campfire. I caught it and drank it all down.
"How bad is it?" Estra asked.
"It could have been worse," Zoey said. "Many are dead, the rest were captured."
"What is he going to do to her?" I asked.
"I'm not really sure." Zoey sighed. "He's a ... he's sort of soft? I would have killed her if I was in his shoes." Zoey said in a nonchalant tone.
"What?!" I barked.
"Huh? Oh, I don't mean I'd like to kill her myself. I do like her, okay? It just doesn't make sense for him to keep her alive. None at all."
"Why?" I asked.
She rubbed her furry chin. "So ... okay. Every winter they have the same problem. It's like that every time. You'd think they'd learn?" She shook her head. "Nope. They breed and they breed, through the spring, summer, and fall and then they run out of food in the winter." She laughed. "Stupid right? I told her, just eat the young." She flung up her arms like what she said was the most obvious thing. "But no. I don't understand her."
Both Estra and I looked at each other with 'am I hearing this right?' look on our faces.
"What does that have to do-" I said.
"Listen, okay?" Zoey continued. "So, Vrakon came up with this great plan. It really is. I even told her, just do what your son says, and you'll get through-"
Estra's eyes grew wide. "Her son!?"
"Well, yeah. Mahda is his mother, okay?"
No sane person would kill their own mother, not even kobolds, right? I re-adjusted the old spectacles on my nose that hung on on the stubs of my former ears. "Alright."
"And I love this, he said, 'Shroom the old and the weak, feed the strong,' Great idea right? It solves two problems at once." Zoey had a satisfied smile on her face.
I considered myself a cold pragmatist, but even I couldn't stomach that. I didn't like this new side of Zoey. "That's horrible."
Zoey looked at me with a puzzled expression. "What is?"
I sighed. "So, why would he consider killing her?"
"Oh right. She's got all these other clan chiefs riled up against Vrakon's great plan. Kill her, and maybe they wouldn't be so ... convinced, okay? Smart." She wagged a finger in the air. "I did warn her."
Smart? Zoey was starting to scare me. "But he's not going to kill his own mother, is he?"
Zoey shrugged. "They never saw eye to eye."
"Sure, but still." I stared at Zoey with repugnance. "It's his mother."
"What about the others?" Estra asked.
"Just as I told you they would. They also rounded up everyone back at the settlement, found the hidden stashes, and put guards on the mana vent."
Globba didn't react to any of the news, either she didn't care, or she didn't understand the situation - she merrily continued playing with her food.
"What are they going to do with them?" Estra asked.
Zoey shrugged. "Probably sell them on the market."
"Hmm, that's a lot to sell at once," Estra said.
"Yeah, and he already has a bunch."
"Ooh, can we get some too?" Estra nodded enthusiastically. I scrunched up my brows at Estra's question.
Zoey scratched her ear. "They're not cheap, okay?"
"Yeah, but we have over a hundred silver." Estra smiled, and looked eagerly to me for a reaction. I shook my head, not understanding where she was going with this.
"What are you going to do with them here?" Zoey asked.
"Make potions, of course." Estra stated it as a matter of fact.
"Hrm, didn't realize you could use them for that." Zoey scratched the back of her head. "But okay, how many do you want?"
Estra's eye's lit up. "We could afford more than one?"
"Depends on the size. Could probably afford a single large one, or a few little ones."
Estra shrugged. "Only the weight matters."
"Ahh. Well, if it's by weight, then I'd suggest you pick the little ones."
I had to ask to be sure. "Are you talking about mushrooms or the prisoners?"
"Mushrooms." Estra said at the same time that Zoey said, "Slaves."
Estra's enthusiasm turned sour. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.
"Oh, you thought." Zoey chuckled. "No, mana mushrooms are a lot more expensive than that I'm afraid. And here's the good news. Okay?" Zoey rubbed her hands together. "They missed one." Her eyes beamed, and her mouth gaped open in anticipation for our acknowledgement.
"Who?" I asked eagerly. I hoped she meant Lan, he'd be useful.
Zoey frowned. "No. A stash! They missed a stash. Can you believe it? The bad news is that it's close to the mana vent, and they got that whole place under heavy guard."
"That was ... That's the bad news you had?" I asked.
Zoey nodded. "But, I know how we can grab it. Okay?" She smiled wide. "We'll be rich."
"That's great and all. But we should focus on the rescue first," I said.
Zoey snorted. "What rescue? You want to get yourself killed? If you think Noctear is deadly, wait til you see Vrakon." Zoey waved her dismissively.
"They'll kill you before you got close, okay?"
I shook my head, feeling betrayed. She just wanted to take advantage of the situation to loot and fill her own pockets.
Zoey sliced off a piece of cooked meat, letting it cool on the tip of her dagger. "We have plenty of time, maybe we'll think of something. There's no reason to hurry, okay?"
"No reason to hurry!?" We lurched up on our feet, glaring down at Zoey.
Zoey casually nibbled at the piece. "Yeah. It'd take several winters to eat through all of them."
"Oh, thank goodness for that," I said sarcastically, but Zoey nodded sincerely. I didn't understand how she could be so callous. "I thought that keeping Mahda alive stopped him from shrooming the old?"
"Well ... killing her would have been more persuasive, but he still went ahead with his great plan," Zoey said.
"We have to do something. And could you please stop calling it 'great'?" Estra asked in an irritated tone.
Zoey gobbled up the whole piece greedily. "Can't do much right now since they're swarming the place, looting it to the ground. It'll take them a week to clear it out. Should wait until they're done, okay?"
"Let's get that stash, and use it to buy all the prisoners back."
Zoey sliced off another chunk with an elegant stroke. "You can do whatever you want with your half."
"Don't you care what happens to them?" I barked harshly at Zoey.
Zoey shrugged. "He won't let Mahda go so easily, not for any gold. They put the juveniles at the barracks, to bolster their numbers. So, they should be safe. And as for the old, I'm not sure we should do anything about them. They outlived their usefulness, okay? The least they could do is to feed the next generation."
I scoffed, shaking my head. "Wow."
Estra mouth hung open, speechless.
"We'll secure the stash, and then hitch up with another clan. That's the best we can do, okay?"
A surge of anger welled up from deep within me. I tightened my hand into a fist. "No, I will not sit idly by. Nobody messes with my home and gets away with it." To hell with this damned primitive world, and that vile Vrakon and his fiends.
I turned to Estra. "We are gonna burn them all to hell."
Estra looked back with concern written on her face.
"Let's go see Arthur," I said. They made their mistake, and they will pay for it all.
As if he hasn't eaten for days, Arthur voraciously feasted on the meal we brought him. The long walk to Arthur's cavern had cooled my head after talking with Zoey. It seemed I had misjudged her loyalties and motivations.
"What happened? Where did everyone go?" Arthur spoke with a mouth full of bat meat.
I sighed. "Vrakon happened. Many died, the rest were captured. Haven't you noticed?"
Arthur swallowed. "I noticed the pantries were empty. You must bring them back."
I scoffed. "Absolutely. That's why we're here." His self-centered enthusiasm didn't surprise me one bit. At least his hunger can be motivating - and useful for us. Without the clan around he couldn't steal any food. Though, I didn't understand why he couldn't simply hunt the same bats like we did.
Arthur looked up from his meal. "So, what do you want?"
I walked over to the pile of equipment. "That." I pointed to a metal tube, buried under a pile of equipment. "That's a cannon."
"So it is." He smiled with a full mouth.
I squatted down to pull it out, then hesitated. I seen what artillery can do to somebody. I ran my hand down the length of the cold black iron, and a chill ran down my neck. Gruesome images flashed at the back of my head.
"How do you wield this club? It's missing a handle," Estra said in an uncertain tone.
I grinned, steeling my nerves I rolled the one meter cannon out of the pile, it must have weighed a hundred kilos. "I need it."
Arthur walked over to us, gnawing on a bat leg. "It's useless by itself. You'd also need ammo, and gunpowder."
I stood and faced him. "I would."
Arthur looked down at the cannon, with his hands on his hips, shaking his head. "I don't have any on hand, but you can you make plenty yourself."
"How?" Black gunpowder hasn't been used for ages. How to make it may have been mentioned in a chemistry class back in the day, but I didn't remember any details.
Arthur waved the bat bone around. "Bat shit," he announced proudly with a smile.
I blinked at him. "Excuse me?"
He flung the cleaned bone aside. "Bat guano." He articulated the two words with a mocking grandeur. "That's what you make gunpowder from it. That and also ..." He wiped his fingers on a handkerchief as he walked to his desk and rummaged through the drawers.
"Charcoal, and ... what was the last one." He eyed the ceiling while scratching his head. "Sulfur! That's it."
"How much?" I asked.
"I don't need coin. I need you to destroy the slime dungeon core for me."
"Why do you need it destroyed?" Estra asked.
"Mind your business. I have my reasons!" His voice boomed through the chamber. We took a step back. He relaxed, smoothing his ruffled apparel. "Do you want it or not?"