The afternoon wind under quilted skies chilled Tasha to the bone, a minor hypothermia debuff afflicting her. Why couldn’t this game character be… better? Like Gab and Rowan’s? They were nigh invincible under that stony pale skin, behind those reptilian eyes.
Tasha’s cracked lips pinched as a message lettered out twice over, a few typos corrected.
Tasha NaMuso (To Gabby LeMort): Is there any way I can become a Demon? I’m freezing my ass off here!!!
The reply arrived quickly for once.
Gabby LeMort: Not that I know of, and Demons are like 50% less resistant to cold.
Tasha NaMuso: Seriously?
Gabby LeMort: Yup. Just ask Row. He nearly froze to death like twice now.
That was news to Tasha.
Tasha NaMuso: What about you?
Gabby LeMort: I’ve been mostly safe indoors cooking for everyone! ^_^
Lucky her. Or unlucky. But Gab did love to bake and cook. Tasha supposed nothing was wrong with that arrangement even if Rowan was sometimes domineering over Gab. And apparently not just Gab now.
Tasha looked over her shoulder and said, "So are you really going to be Rowan’s slave?"
Ayla was crouching by an unusually leafy blue plant. She shrugged as though it were not a big deal. "He’s got a wife. It’s not like he’d make me do anything risqué."
The heck? Tasha was nearing a tipping point with that squirrel face. "Is sex all you think about?"
"I was abused when I was younger. It’s natural."
The wind was squeezed from Tasha’s lungs. "Are you seriou—"
"What do you think?" Ayla stood, a cocky smirk showing off overly-white teeth. "You should see the look on your face."
"That’s not funny."
"Not funny? Do you know what your sister did?" That chipped right eyebrow arched. A shallow scar cut about her eye. It hadn’t been there before.
"She, and the great Lord LeMort, promised that Skylar kid, and I quote, a sex slave if he’s a good boy." She chuckled four times. "Best part? I don’t think they were kidding. Don’t believe me? Ask her yourself."
Tasha rebutted too quickly: "They were just being manipulative."
Green eyes flashed dangerously. "It almost sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself that they’re something that they’re not."
The subject was getting too personal. Tasha’s fingers brushed the icy breeze. "As if. You don’t know them. And anywho, we have work to do for them. Let’s hurry. I’m freezing."
Ayla’s face was studious for too long of a moment. Her gaze dipped and bounced off the ground. "Get a cloak. Your dress is pretty revealing."
Tasha put on a mock frown. "But everyone at the shop said it looked nice."
"I wonder why."
This again. Tasha shook her head. "Let’s just go. Are you done with that plant?"
"It’s Mana Thistle, medicinal."
"It’s wild. It’ll releases poison if the root’s disturbed. We need a Forester."
A light bulb went off over Tasha’s head. "Oh! I bought a set of profession tomes." Her hand reached into the pouch at her waist, but her finger only clawed at air when she asked it for a Forester tome… Because she had given them all to Gabrielle!
Ayla’s expression was playful. "You lost them."
"Actually, I gave them to Gab." Tasha sighed. "Let’s go." She walked ahead, followed the path of stumps, nearly slipping on a mossy boulder half buried into the soil. The undergrowth was dense, denser than the canopy on this side of the mountains. Much fewer pine trees pointed skyward, a lot more oaks and yews.
And something musky was in the air—like the smell of ants but more biting and sweeter.
Ayla strutted to catch up, her shoulder higher by five inches. "So… I’ve been thinking."
"Becoming a Demon."
Tasha blinked, nearly slipping again. "I was just talking to Gab about that."
"Oh? She told me she doesn’t know how—"
"Yeah, she said the same, but Demons freeze way quicker. I think I’ll stay as a Human."
Ayla ducked under a low branch. A moth was in her hair. "Didn’t think you were the crafting type."
A couple seconds of silence passed. Ayla huffed lightly. "You didn’t know? Humans can have four basic professions and two advanced. That’s their racial advantage. They’re like the worker race. Demons are fighters."
Amazement weighted down Tasha’s jaw. Thicker musty air collected on her tongue. "Shit. I didn’t know."
"Neither. I would’ve went with my other Fate if I did."
"The Lunar Assassin."
"Wow. That sounds like a legendary." Tasha checked for that ancient manawood tree in both directions—and spotted an enormous tree between overlapping branches. Her head jerked rightward. "Look. Over there."
"Where?" Ayla rose to the tips of her toes. "Ah, I see." She stepped up a rocky ledge, her longer legs doing so with ease.
Tasha helped herself to a prepping breath, then followed with slight difficulty. Her palms muddied on the way up, her moccasins nearly slipping every other step. And, by the time the ground leveled out to a gentle upward slope, her leg muscles pleaded for a break. Her lungs burned, but at least the hypothermia debuff was gone.
Ayla suddenly halted in her length gait.
Tasha’s elbow bumped into a lumpy bone in her wrist. Numb vibrations coursed up and down her funny bone. Maybe this game was a tad too realistic. She frowned. "What is it?"
Ayla merely pointed upward.
Hanging from a branch, a skeleton with weird proportions hung from thick spider webbings, which were everywhere past an invisible line in the ground. That elongated skull had two tusks. A Troll.
Tasha whistled. "I think it’s a warning."
"No shit," Ayla chortled. "Still want to go in?"
Queasiness was still churning in Tasha’s belly. It had to be spiders. But she was doing this for Gab—and her MyTube channel. The prospect of millions of subscribers was enough to beat away any remaining fear clouding Tasha’s judgment. She fixed her posture and nodded. "Certainly. What about you?"
"I’m not afraid. Nothing to lose here."
"Good. Activate your—" Tasha did a double take, glancing at Ayla’s waist. "Where’s your pouch? The Demon tome, remember?"
"Do you think I’m stupid? It’s safe." Her lips shut tight.
"Right. You better have not lost it." Tasha shot a warning look. "Let's go."
Smirking, Ayla grabbed both daggers from her thighs and made a half-circle motion. She whispered inaudibly, and magic roiling with a creeping feel poured out from her blades.
Tasha blinked as a transparent smoky curtain wrapped around them. "How long can you keep this up?"
"As long has you have mana potions."
They were quite expensive—eleven silver coins for two stacks.
But Tasha did not protest, following Ayla’s quick and feisty steps forward. Dusty webs in the breeze lapped at her hair but did not stick, most thankfully. And the breeze was so heavy with spider musk that breathing it made her head swim, her vision throbbing with each bang of her heat. Her skin was tingling, sweating. It was warm here.
Thirty yards into their nest, the first giant spider was doing something with a plant sprout. Its front two hairy limbs pointed at it, feeding green mana. Another was doing similar further up the hill. Forester magic. Most surprising. Tasha did not risk cracking a remark. She passed Ayla a mana potion when she beckoned.
The webbings among the branches and trunks thickened, now coated with a congealed waxy substance, pearly white. Like toothpaste. Tasha couldn’t think of a medieval comparison.
Dozens of worker spiders tended to plants while others worked on the web structure overhead. Not a patch of sky leaked through, and temperature was nearing a sweltering degree. Smothering, viscous magic radiated off the waxy webbed walls. Blobby lamps gave off sun-colored light every dozen or so yards.
This was one giant nest spanning entire acres.
And they were walking straight in without a care in the world.
The chatbox shook as Ayla stopped.
Ayla Wintersbane (Party Chat): I think we’re lost.
Oh, no. Tasha winced, passing another potion.
Tasha NaMuso: I was following you!
Ayla Wintersbane: Haha. My bad. Wasn’t expecting a giant beehive.
A spiderhive, but Tasha wasn’t going to correct her. This is serious bugsiness.
Ayla passed back an empty vial, took a blueberry-scented breath, loudly, and resumed walking. Her strut was more more reserved, her gloved fingers tight around her daggers.
Overhead, lankier spiders rushed by in hollowed-out channels. A few larger ones were stationary as though dead, likely sleeping. Tasha couldn’t get a focus on any through the waxy webs. Her eyes were watering from the acidic musk.
Four or five hundred yards into the nest, the ground was barren of plants, and the trees were more wax than wood. Massive expanses under the webs made for hatcheries—and storage rooms. Hundreds of slimy opaque eggs caused Tasha’s skin to crawl, but the neat arrangement was impressive. Rows of eggs to the left, web-wrapped food to the right. They were omnivorous, but it didn’t seem as though Trolls were part of their diet.
Spiders not larger than lions lounged in rooms built over a river. Tasha gulped and tore her gaze from those glowing eyes.
Eventually, after the seventh hatchery, at the roots of the ancient manawood tree, the number of worker spiders was in the hundreds, swarming around a spider the size of an elephant. That fatty abdomen was gradually beating like a dying heart, and those hairy legs were the sight of horror itself. But those fangs and twelve eyes stabbed needles into Tasha’s neck. She was on the verge of hyperventilating, her entire body numb with tingles.
The queen spider was drawing tendrils of glittering blue magic from the manawood. Her body flushed bright, and an opening at the back of her abdomen widened. She laid an egg, ropes of slime falling onto the ground.
Tasha swallowed stomach acids.
Then the smoky film dissipated.
Ayla jolted and ran. She screwed up!
Instantly the spiders were on them. Sticky web wrapped around Tasha’s arms and legs, pulling her to her knees. Her staff was taken from her back. She squirmed to no avail.
The queen spider spoke, "Intruders." The voice was low and hissy like what a snake’s would be.
Ayla said from afar, "Release us. We’re with the Primrose Order, the Demonic Primrose Order." She was in attorney mode. Tasha let her speak.
The queen spider turned toward her, slowly. "Assassin! I was going to leave your Demon masters alive, but not any longer. Half a moon ago, you slew a score of my children, and now, under the full moon when I am at my strongest, you have come to slay me." She hissed. Those fangs extended. "Tonight, your masters shall die."
Ayla shouted, "Wait! We—"
Those fangs sank into her skull and chest. Acid injected. Her body bubbled and blackened, fuming. Her corpse dissolved into a brown sludge.
Tasha was shaking, paralyzed with fear.
Then from the left, one of those lion-sized spiders sprayed acid. Her face burned for a fraction of a second. Time froze. The world faded to black.
You have died. Respawning at Theidell Graveyard, Misty Highlands, in 59 seconds.
At least the game did something behind the scenes to alleviate emotional shock and trauma on death. She was feeling quite well, in fact. If only resurrection sickness wasn’t a thing.