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Milu and I had been grinding away, making black powder for a past couple of days after the dungeon run. Zoey took off to gather information on Mahda, Lan and Kuuz, and to also pick up needed supplies. Whereas Globba, after her 'upgrade', had decided to explore the great outdoors, only coming back at night to avoid the Gloom.

For a change of pace Estra wanted to try out her new Fireball upgrade, and I also wanted to take a break from grinding and mixing barrels worth of black powder. A quick trip to the bat cave to scrounge up dinner and a bit of essence had turned into something a bit more.

"What are you doing? Throw it." I said, anxiously eyeing the expanding cluster with unease.

Instead, Estra counted seconds. "One, two, three, ..." The Fireball cluster pulsed, bulged, crackled with power, turned shades of red to blue then pure white. Milu scrunched up into a defensive ball, completely enveloping itself in layers of metal.

Estra turned to me with a familiar sinister look in her eyes, that I recognized for a promise of pain and misery. "Seven, eight, nine."

Oh no. I gulped and clenched my teeth. She hurled the cluster with all our new strength, then ducked behind the shield - as if it mattered. Like a wood chip against a rolling ocean wave, we were flung back, over and over, and over again until we crashed in a heap. A stream of essence gained messages flew by and continued scrolling.

I groaned, eyes bulging out - I couldn't breathe for an eternity. Vision was all a blur, blood gushed out my nose. The world spun in circles, Estra yelled something, but I couldn't hear a damn thing. Our left hand, charred and numb from the elbow down glowed green.

"What?" I yelled back, or thought I did.

It took several excruciating minutes for my hearing and breathing to return back to normal.

Estra grinned. "Can your stinky powder do that?"

"Yeah ... and ... " I groaned, tasting blood as I spoke. "Without breaking half of our ribs."

We stood up, swaying. Milu unrolled, peeked over the shield, then clapped it's tendrils together. "Again!" Milu chirped enthusiastically. "Again! Again! Do that again!"

"Upgrade?" I asked Estra.

She smiled even as blood trickled down from forehead to chin. A screen for a Fireball upgrade popped up:

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[t5] Fire Blossom. Explodes in 10 seconds or upon impact. Damage increased by 40% every second, consuming 50 mana / second until impact.
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Wonderful, Estra is playing with live grenades. After three more heals half of our mana was used up, but at least we had 20k of essence to show for it. Additional essence gained notifications trickled in as the bats slowly succumbed to the over-pressure injuries.

[Essence gained: +23,846]

Estra shook her hand sloughing off burned flakes to reveal healed skin underneath. "I think that one might have been too close."

"Yeah? You think?!" I nearly shouted at her. "You almost killed us both."

"I'm sorry. I had to try it." She tugged at her braid, visibly upset.

I groaned in frustration, gave her a stern look, shaking my head disapprovingly. I felt partly to blame for what happened - I had told her that explosives tend to work extremely well in enclosed spaces, like a bat cave. I wanted to do exactly what she just done, but with the black powder and the safety of greater distance.

"What's your intelligence at?" I asked, trying to figure out just how much of an explosive power she managed to muster.

She wrinkled her brows, blinking, but after a moment said, "316."

"Oh, wow." So that's probably where she spent her one-third.

Her new upgrades ramped up the Fireball damage from a single dynamite stick to a ... I checked the math to be certain. A whopping THIRTY-FOUR - no wonder the blast was immense. That was indeed close, too close for my taste. The resilience of this ogre body had again surprised me. Mental note: invest in more stamina and luck.

It took a while for all the remaining bats to flee before we limped over to see the damage. Of the thousand or so that were in the cave, we must have killed around a hundred. The stench of burned bats was worse than the carnage of scattered limbs, guts and carcasses that laid smoldering about a large area.

Milu picked out a bat to munch on and stuck it with its feeding tendril, but promptly yanked it out recoiling, shaking from side to side, "YUK."

"That bad?" I asked.

"Disgusting."

"Besides slimes, what else can you eat?"

"I only tried slimes."

"Oh? Well, it's a whole new world of taste for you out here." I chuckled.

"I'm hungry," Milu said.

"Did we leave any slimes alive?" Estra asked.

Milu scrunched up defensively, its single eye wide open in fear. "I can't go back. Please don't take me there."

"No, no. It's okay, don't worry, we won't go there," Estra assured Milu soothingly.

"We could try to get a spider, maybe you'd like that?" I asked.

Milu nodded enthusiastically in response.

"Let's go back and ask Globba, she knows where to find them."


***

Wrapped in a thick blanket, Arthur waved to us. He was boiling water for tea in a pot over a campfire when we returned. Thick sleeping rugs laid rolled up to the side. A cold wind whooshed through the air making the fire shudder.

Milu avoided Arthur, and I couldn't blame it. He had showed up the following morning, acting as if he didn't make Milu out to be some space alien hell-bent on devouring the planet's inhabitants. Nope, he was all cordial and pleasant - mostly. I didn't understand his complete one-eighty on Milu. Instead, he wanted to be friends with it and learn everything about it - it got down right strange and annoying to be honest.

But, he brought presents, so that it made it alright? Maybe? I got the cannon that I wanted, and the instruction how to make gun powder from bat guano. He also brought spices, oil and salt with him.

I gutted and cleaned a bat. Smells of pan fried meat filled the cold air.
I sat the shield down next to the cannon and all the bits of metal work Milu was working on. I had explained to Milu how the cannon works and Milu took it from there. It made many modifications and adjustments, including breach loading of canisters filled with lead balls. In effect, it turned the cannon into a massive shotgun big enough to hunt elephants. I got to work on making more gunpowder, while Milu 3d printed brass canisters and lead balls.

"I'm hungry," Milu reminded us.

"I know," I said. "As soon as Globba returns we'll hunt a spider."

We didn't need daylight to hunt in the caves, it was perpetually dark under the mountain anyways. Light dimmed in the passage heading outside. Globba hasn't returned, and I started to get worried. She hasn't said much the last two days. Both times coming back with cuts and bruises, but with a cheery attitude as if everything was right with the world and nothing could possibly ever change it.

Without a sound, Zoey appeared making our heart jump. She carried a loaded backpack and a look of doom on her face.

"You gotta stop doing that," Estra protested loudly.

Sounds of footsteps followed and the red glare of the campfire illuminated Lan's grim features, lacking his armor and weapons. I waved to him, but he didn't respond. He came to stand next to Zoey by the campfire.

Zoey paid no attention, she slumped to the ground, staring blankly into the flames. "Mahda's dead," she whispered into the fire, sniffling. "They shroomed her alive."

Crackling of burning wood filled the sullen silence. Zoey lips curled back into a grimace. The heavy backpack slid off her shoulders with a thud. She cupped her face with her hands, and wept.

Anger welled up inside, along with guilt and helplessness. We moved and wrapped Zoey's chilled form in a warm embrace. Sharp claws dug into our flesh, as she howled in rage. Relenting, she broke down and hot tears flowed.

"We'll make them pay. I promise you that," Estra said. "We'll make them all pay."

Lan turned his face away.

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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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