Fifteen yards underground didn’t sound like much to Rowan, but brutal reality soon put a crushing weight on his back. Here at the base of mountain’s jagged cliff, the topsoil was only a yard thin, and beyond that, sedimentary rock stretched likely for miles below, assuming no aquifer flowed near. And fifteen yards was merely the top slivers; the rich vein itself was immense, just under a thousand cubic yards in volume, a vertical cone-like structure over twenty yards in height. Thirty-five yards of depth in total. Thirty-five yards of excavation was no easy task.
Nevertheless, diligent work was underway, minimal small talk under the dying light. While Liluth, Faenin, and Zaine went straight for the sedimentary rock, magicking away chunky sections one at a time, everyone else was clearing a twenty-by-twenty yard section of topsoil and clay. This was going to be a steep multi-layered open-pit mine like those in the real world, an unsightly though tiny blemish on these lands—in Gabrielle’s opinion. Perhaps it could turned into a pond and garden for her. Could goldfish live in this climate? If not, an underground Storeroom was better.
The rest of the evening, three hours, slipped away like viscous honey through Rowan’s fingers. Nightfall swept, and much of the topsoil still remained. The Miners had made less than three-hundred cubic yards worth of progress on the first yard-deep layer. Easy math ran through Rowan’s head: approximately thirty cubes per hour per Miner, a thirty second cooldown to remove a quarter of a cube. A heap of usable stone had piled up; the Miners carried chunks without strain thanks to the profession.
When the sun dipped below the horizon, the half moons were bright among a elliptical band of stars. Rowan called for a halt, his eyes blurry as exhaustion kicked in. “Alright, everyone. Wash up in the stream if you want, then hit the hay.”
“We have no hay,” Liluth said. “The grass is still drying.”
He exhaled. “It’s a Human expression, don’t worry. Just get some sleep. My wife will watch for threats tonight.”
“Huh?” Gabrielle blurted. “Why me?”
“Because you slept for half the day. Do you even have a Sleep Deprivation debuff?”
“Yes.” Her eyes waltzed from corner to corner. “Nah, just kidding. I’ll keep a lookout.”
“Good. Wake us if—”
“What do ya think I am? An incompetent lookout?”
He smirked, holding back a yawn. “I’m just sleep-talking.” He stretched his back and limbs, bones clicking. “Let’s go!”
“Yes, Lord LeMort,” a few said.
Everyone else merely walked like zombies in the general direction of the Bedroom block. Zaine, however, was alert and ready for conflict, flourishing and stabbing his precious iron sword in the air. "Hi-ya! Hi-ya! Hi-ya!" Lots of fun was being had there.
He was only a teenage boy, Rowan reminded himself. "Zaine. How old are you?"
Only fourteen. Incredible. "You’re quite tall for your age. How come you’re not tired? Teenage hormones?"
"What are hormones?"
"It’s just what we call teenage energy." Rowan couldn’t be bothered explaining.
But Gabrielle could: "They’re tiny things in your body makes that make you grow into an adult. It’s in your blood. They’re smaller than ya can see even if ya had like a hundred points in Stamina."
Partial comprehension dawned. "Oh, I think I know what you mean, but it’s not that. I had a nap earlier. Turns out two log units per hour is more like three with these pine trees."
Lucky again. Rowan said, "Good to hear. Why don’t you go on lookout with gab? Unless you want to keep mining?"
Faenin said from afar, "Mines are more dangerous at night, even with what we have dug. His use of Miner magic can react and cause insectoid monsters to spawn."
Oh, right. It was in the patch notes.
Zaine’s brows rose gradually, his face glowing in the moonlight. "That is correct. I think I’ll keep Mi—"
"No." Rowan wasn’t having any of it. "You’re on lookout duty with Gab. We’re not having you fighting insects while everyone sleeps." Tasha had died multiple times to scorpions. Best not to risk it here.
“Fine," Zaine grumbled, but someone blipped across his face. “Can I kiss Gab?”
An earth-shaking choke sent Saliva into Rowan’s nose. Where the fuck did that come from? “Only if you want to be butchered. I need some shoes and a hat.”
“In that case… I will think about it.”
“Seriously, don’t try it, asshole.”
“Hehehehe,” Gabrielle snickered. “Come on, boys, dun’ fight over lil’ ol’ Gabby. She’s not that special.”
Zaine said, “You are a touch crazy, I must say.”
"I am the most normal Demon girl here. Hmph." Her forked tongue poked.
Rowan shot a hard glare. “Viola’s still single, and we do have a population shortage. I hear you’re down to quarter of a million Sun Elves. How about her?”
Something different clouded those Elven eyes. He was about to say something, but instead frowned and shrugged, mumbling, "She is… a bit old for me. Seriously."
And Gabrielle was older. A grunt of agreement lifted Rowan’s chin. "Thought so."
Of course, Zaine was just pulling at loose threads, but this particular thread was attached to a nerve, attached to all his sensitive spots that likely needed some special protection in terms of armor. No one here had any armor or accessories—a big danger.
I need to put Luthias to work on that tomorrow morning. He better not sabotage anything.
Rowan gave the little rascal a final firm look, then strode ahead toward one of the two streams. A couple of days had passed since his last in-game wash, and this tattered linen garb needed another thorough wringing. Some cleaning magic could help here…
* * *
Sleep was a valuable resource, and Rowan didn’t know how long he had when Gabrielle’s yelp waked him from shallow sleep. The room was still dark, and moonlight was falling through the glass window and open door. An owl was hooting in the distance.
He jumped off the bed, mentally slapping himself alert. "What is it?!" he yelled.
"Just a huge rat, sorry," she called from outside.
"God damn," he said under breath. Disgust flipped his stomach as the rat invaded his imagination. "Zaine! Did you kill it?!"
Gabrielle said, "He fell asleep a while ago."
"Whatever. Lazy ass." Exhaling, Rowan climbed back onto the bed, pressing the reeds and grass flat. It was soft enough. He was asleep in seconds.
* * *
Blaring, high-pitched dings woke Rowan from deep sleep, his eyes crusted over.
Gabby LeMort demands your assistance!
"Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spider attack! Get up! Get up! Get up!"
"Shit!" And he was up. His heart banged against his ribcage, skipped a beat. This couldn’t be good. But please be something good!
Moonfyre at the ready, Rowan sprinted outside to the sight of Zaine skewering a giant spider through the head, blue goo splattering. The monstrosity was the size of a donkey. White hairs grew on a fatty ebony body, fatty limbs and a shiny carapace protecting its back. At least couple dozen orbs, two sets of bunch aqua blue eyes glowed.
A freezing shiver rode up Rowan’s back and dulled his inner fiery magic. His own hairs stood straight.
Mutated Huntsman Spider Drone (Level 8)
Only level 8?
His eyes skipped toward many bunches of glowing eyes coming through the forest, all similar levels. With a mental sweep he pinned health bars to the game interface, tracking their locations.
A spider raid. Just great.
"Hi-ya!" Zaine lopped that club-shaped head right off. He laughed, a mad grin on his face. He was enjoying this far too much.
Well that was easy. I guess it was only level eight for a reason, Rowan mused, relaxing.
The second spider crawled through the grass, and an arrow glowing with a jade outline impaled a leg to the ground. It squirmed and thrashed to break free, and when it did, a second magic-infused arrow tore into its eyes. Paralyzed. Skylar wielded that crude longbow Rowan had crafted for Gabrielle.
Blurred speed, Zaine dashed and delivered an uppercut, bifurcating its head, cleanly. Pinkish brains and more blue goop spilled onto the grass—as well as something else from a pierced sack by its mouth. The contents, runny and colorless, ate into the grass and inches of soil, fuming and bubbling.
"Acid!" In an instant Zaine jumped backward. Fortunately, out of all things his sword was okay. He wiped it thrice for extra measure.
Two more spiders came side by side. A third was facing with its rear pointed, and a thick white substance shot out from a hidden opening. A net many yards wide expanded and caught Zaine as he was sidestepping. From the forest, a lankier spider lunged at him.
Emotionless, Rowan let his Demonic magic loose and simply pointed with his index finger. Heat surged down his arm, the familiar ecstasy of his power vibrating in his bones. A narrow jet of hellfire incinerated that head instantaneously. Hairs caught fire. His mana bar was down to eighty percent from just that.
Rolling, Zaine dodged the burning insect corpse. "Help!"
"On it." Gabrielle dashed from behind and cut him loose with the mithril dagger, except she was not his regular Demonic Gabrielle. A gloomy, miasmic black veil hung over her body, and her body was partly transparent, and a line ebony runes now glinted down her left cheek, trailing down her neck into her linen garb.
Shroud of Shadows—the Stamina Path. On a Priest? Why? Rowan frowned as he looked at the burning corpse.
Mutated Baby Huntsman Jumper Spider Corpse (Level 11)
Missing Parts: 15% (Head)
A mouthful for a name, and already spoiled? Well, I wasn’t going to try insect meant anyway.
Another Jumper Spider came flying from the left, screeching. Skylar’s arrow plucked it out the air, but it wasn’t finished. Those long hairy legs collected and propelled its body toward Zaine, who was charging at the incoming Drones.
Rowan kept his breaths steady and cooked that Jumper with a second, stronger hellfire jet. The wide beam incinerated the thing whole, and incinerated his mana by forty damned percent.
One more Jumper swung on a silk line from the canopy.
Rowan yanked Zaine’s thread, pulled him back by force, and briefly noted the others were nearby, ready to run into the fray with makeshift weaponry at any moment. They couldn’t do much here, especially Luthias the scarred.
Then yet another Jumper came from the left at a wide angle at Zaine. Rowan cooked that one before it could do whatever nastiness to his best though somewhat untactful slave, leaving the other one for Skylar, who impaled it onto a tree trunk. Rowan's mana was now spent, regenerating at a pathetic rate. He could feel the void in his heart, a hollow where pure magic could fill. The unnatural feeling coaxed anxiety to creep up on him.
Three Drones finally crawled into melee of the Workshop, ignoring everyone. Their mouths parted, and streams of acid spewed onto the wood. A entire wall quickly dissolved and fumed away, and one of the stoves crumbled in the fallout.
A bizarre turn of events. Just what was happening?
"Nooooo! My Workshop!" Gabrielle cried. She dashed like a ghost in the wind. The Bone Mithril Dagger glinted with a coat of darkness, and she decapitated the first spider with ease. An assassin Demon girl, a devil’s bride, she made quick work of each while they more or less ignored her.
The corpses were disintegrating from where the blade touched.
At the right, Zaine swatted away a Jumper, but the other caught onto his arm—and bit before anyone did anything. An excruciating scream rang into the night. His forearm was gone in seconds. His hand dropped to his ground, bubbling. The acid ate all the way up his humerus and stopped just below the shoulder. "My arm! My arm! Help me! Lord LeMort!"
Luthias bellowed a word. A force flung the spider away, and Skylar finished it with twin arrows.
And that was that. Spiders gone. Zaine’s arm gone. Rowan’s mana—gone. He didn’t know why he was so calm and collected. The Drones suicidally going for the buildings was probably why, farcical even. Ridiculous and weird. What kind of attack was this? A slow trickle.
They couldn’t be very smart.
A column of melancholy magic stamped down on Rowan.
Something foreign enclosed on his senses like a force pushing inward on his skull from all sides. He was sucked from his body, the scene changing with a fuzz. The temperature rose several degrees, and he smelled musk and something he didn’t have a word for, quite biting yet mellow. Not offending.
He was floating before a twisted tree streaked with glittering blues and green. The ancient manawood tree, and among that jumble of roots, a spider at least twenty yards in length crawled from an opening. Its eyes met Rowan’s, and a connection wormed into his brain.
The communication was wordless, the communication concise and threatening. Five pulses.
Their animals to hunt.
Full moons—final day.
In a nauseating spin of the world, Rowan was back in his body. He collapsed to his knees, desperate for air. Figures were around him, panicking voices fighting for his ears.
"Ahhhh! It hurts! Help!"
"Row! Can ya hear me!"
"Rowan! What’s wrong?!"
His head shook. His eyes refocused on Gabrielle’s worried face. "I think an elite spider gave me a vision. It communicated with me. This attack was just a warning. They’re going to attack for real on the full moons. This is their forest. They want the gold. That's what triggered them."
"Where’s my arm?! Where’s my arm?!" Zaine wailed as everyone stared in silence.