I don't know how much time had passed before I regain consciousness. The light slowly returns to my eyes and sensation to my limbs.
Deep inside my thorax (the middle bit) a hot, boiling feeling is slowly fading away, drawing in a dense ball of heat. Probably my new core.
Groggily I get my legs underneath me and start slowly moving through the tunnel again. No matter how weak I feel, I cannot stay here to rest, pursuers could be dropping down the shaft to investigate even now. I have to move.
Gradually my muddled thoughts begin to straighten themselves and my coordination slowly returns. As I navigate my way across the rocky tunnel I check my status.
Level: 1 (core)
Skills: Digging level 4; Improved Acid Shot Level 1; Grip Level 4; Bite Level 4; Advanced Stealth Level 1;
Mutations: Eyes +4, Antennae +2, Acid +3, Legs +1
Species: Hatchling Ant Worker (Formica)
Skill points: 1
Holy mother of downgrades? Why am I level one Gandalf?! My hard work, my accumulated experience, all the ridiculous good luck I've had? It hasn't been easy to survive to this point you know?! Where is my justice?!
Bitter feelings are rising in my heart as I survey my new status, but when I notice that my MP has gone from zero to ten it raises my spirit a bit. Looks like my hunch was correct and the monster core is the vital ingredient to mastering magic for me and my fellow creatures down here. This could explain why so many monsters were drawn to the pool in the first cavern I was in. By drinking the water which was somehow suffused with mana they were able to absorb it and hasten the formation of their core.
When I think about though, I've sacrificed a significant upgrade to my stats in order to condense the core which has given me, in effect, only ten MP that I can't use. Was this really the correct decision?
I have to advance now into what is likely more dangerous territory than I have experienced already, those increased stats would have been super handy!
I can't help but worry I've made the wrong choice, the prospect of being able to use mana was just too tantalising in my eyes.
Returning to level one may not be that bad, doesn't it mean that I'll be able to level back up to five and evolve again? Which also means I'll be able to gain more of the precious skill points as I do so?
Perhaps this is actually better. I'll have a second opportunity to amass skill points as an unevolved creature which could allow me to gain more levels and skill points at a faster pace than evolving would have.
I have one skill point available right now but I don't want to spend it yet. I have several skills at level four which will need to be advanced once they reach level five. I won't even look at the skills menu in case mana shaping or spell chanting has appeared in the list. I may not be able to resist the temptation! Be disciplined Anthony! Don't let your precious skills waste away!
Gradually I've regained full control of my body and shaken the dust off my mind as I reach the end of the tunnel. Beyond here lies the vast underground space I glimpsed earlier.
Taking a deep breath I walk out into the open air once again.
Really this place is so huge.
The roof is sixty, maybe even seventy meters high, so high I absolutely refuse to climb on it. One slip and I would certainly plummet to my own death. To my left and right the walls curve away into the distance to a place I cannot see, my eyesight isn't good enough, even at plus four, to be able to see the ends of the walls.
This is something I've been thinking more on. As an insect, I don't have regular eyes like a human, but compound eyes. This means a few things, firstly, my eyes don't need to be wet, so I don't have to blink, more to the point I can't since I have no eyelids. Secondly, my eyes don't have one point of focus, unlike a human who can see the one place they are directly looking at in great detail, my eyes are able to look in many directions at once, but the detail is poor.
This explains why I've been so frustrated by the blurry nature of my vision, especially over a distance. It probably also explains why I've been able to avoid having anything sneak up on me, since I'm essentially watching every direction at once.
I still believe upgrading my eyes has been the correct choice for me and they'll probably be the first body part I mutate to +5. Since skills can evolve at +5 I'm very excited to see what will happen when a mutation reaches that level. Will I be able to advance my mutations into some crazy new thing?
Any clues Gandalf?
Ah well. I shouldn't be surprised at this state. For all his immense wisdom the grey one has been very taciturn, or perhaps he's just shy?
A little extra advice would surely be helpful though…
Enough stalling. There isn't anything left for me to do but move into this new territory.
Moving slowly I more down the slope, leaving the shelter of the small tunnel and exposing myself to the open air of this incredible cavern.
Cavern isn't even a large enough word to describe this place, it feels like a fully enclosed world, like a biome or terrarium.
As I descend, picking my way through the rocks I strain my eyes to see as far into the distance as I can. Strange twisted trees, huge oversized mushrooms and a carpet of plant-life underneath face me everywhere I turn. The whole … forest … pulses with the now familiar ambient blue glow.
These scene is just so alien, for the first time I really think to myself, this is absolutely another world.
I nervously poke the grasses and plants with my front claw, snipping at them to see if they react. When they don't respond I move toward a giant mushroom. These things are easily twice the height of an adult person.
After a moments' hesitation I use my claw to prod it. After there isn't any reaction tentatively give it a chomp with my mandibles. What is this thing?
The stalk of the mushroom is soft and fibrous, giving way after my bite. The second my mandibles tear a tiny gap they immediately flare with pain and I pull back swiftly. What the hell was that?!
Where I've torn the mushroom a purple sap is slowly starting to ooze out. Is this some sort of acidic sap? Checking my HP it appears as if I've taken minor damage. Phew. Although it may seem silly to lose HP chomping on a mushroom, every piece of information I can gain about this place makes me feel a little more comfortable.
So the mushrooms have acid ooze inside them, do not bite.
Feeling strangely encouraged by having my face burnt by a mushroom I begin following the wall around to the right, scouting the edge of the forest. I need to move away from the shaft in case the humans use it but I want to stay close to the rocky wall so I can dig myself a hiding place further around.
I won't feel truly comfortable unless there is a place I retreat to if I get into trouble.
After ten minutes or so I'm beginning to wonder just how many creatures there are down here, since I haven't seen a single one!
Is everyone asleep?
Well there is my answer!
A piercing cry blasts out and echoes off the walls. Like lightning I stuff myself between some rocks, trying to get as much cover as possible. A few seconds later I get sight of the source of that terrifying cry.
First one, then another and another blurry shape peels off the ceiling and unfolds massive wings before plunging down in the forest. In the distance I can see each of the creatures has a wide fanged maw and reaching, grasping claws on the ends of their feet. Seven of them in total have dropped down like comets and from all the scuffling and roaring they are clearly battling against something down there.
After a few minutes the flying monsters can be seen lifting up above the trees once more, but they seem to be struggling with something. Moments later their still struggling prey becomes visible as the flying monsters drag it into the air.
It's a massive centipede, easily twice the size of those I saw in the tunnels above. Its body is covered in savage claw wounds and it can do little more than thrash weakly as the triumphant hunters ascend with it in their claws, back to their hidden nest in the ceiling above.