The plan was simple. Forge buckets, harvest cave leech milk, and then enjoy it. There was the concern about those in Deta’s village being upset that we were making use of the cave leech’s breeding den, but we discovered that they had not visited it in quite some time as the milk was more of a luxury to them and they did not want to risk any lives while having the threat from the humans and ancients.
We were in the clear to collect as much of the milk as we wanted to. Then, just a few days after that, we had our first harvesting of the milk.
The Obsidian Guard returned with several full buckets that contained far too much milk for us to go through before it went bad, but Lucia and Novla were the only ones with that concern. The rest of us did not even know that food could go bad yet since we always finished everything that there was to eat before it had the opportunity to do so. But the milk? Well…
“My lord!” Corra shouted. “You should be the first to try it!”
Corra held up a small, metal cup that Novla had forged. In it was cave leech milk that she scooped the cup into.
When I looked into the cup, I noticed that it was not exactly an appealing liquid. Perhaps if it was just creamy and white on its own, I would not have had a problem with it, but that was not all there was to it. Upon closer inspection, there were small, yellow chunks floating atop the liquid. These chunks had long strands of what looked like brown slime attached to them as well.
I tried to reach into the cup with a couple of my fingers to pinch and take these chunks out, but they were slimy enough to slip out from between my fingers every time. It was like trying to pinch the yolk of an egg to pull it out from a glass of milk.
“What… is this?” I asked, holding the cup to Lucia.
“Repulsive is what it is,” Lucia answered. “But to give you a more serious answer, it appears to be some kind of… yeast, maybe? I’ve seen similar in some of the hunter-brewed drinks that were not made with the highest levels of sanitization… and they were a lot more careful than we were in bringing this milk back here. It wouldn’t surprise me if some sort of bacteria made its way into the milk and caused this. What surprises me the most is how quickly it cultured.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Novla said.
“The only thing that I can think of that might have caused this… is if one of the spores from that infected tunnel landed in the bucket. It may be possible that it’s having a chemical reaction of sorts.”
To give you a reminder in case you have forgotten, my reader, the tunnel directly to the north of our territory was the one that featured the green growths and slugs. While it was fine to travel through the infected area without trouble, it was still highly recommended by both Lucia and Novla to cover our mouths and noses whenever walking through there.
As for the truth behind the infection, that was something that none of us knew about yet. Lucia was aware of it before she ever came to us, but even she and the other hunters and researchers barely knew anything about it. All we knew was that it seemed to slowly alter anything that stayed around the infected spores for a significant amount of time, and that the green slime produced by the infection was highly explosive.
Now, back to the milk.
“It looks like the other buckets are fine. Whatever got into this one didn’t get into the others,” Lucia said. “If I may… I suggest setting this bucket aside and observing it to see what happens with the liquid. If we’re lucky, whatever that culture is may turn the sugars in the milk into alcohol. If we’re unlucky, and what’s most likely going to happen, then the milk will go rotten and produce a putrid scent before we spill it out.”
I looked back into the cup one more time before spilling it into the bucket that it came from. Now, I may have been a monster who had no previous experience with bad food or anything of the like, but one does not need such experience to tell when something looks disgusting or unhealthy.
Even a rock-turned-core could tell that.
Now, with a pout, Corra took the cup that I used and went to dip it into the bucket with untainted milk before getting stopped by Lucia.
“I wouldn’t,” Lucia said. “You should use a different cup. Since the one you’re using was already in contact with whatever bacteria was in the other milk, traces of that bacteria may get into this batch and contaminate it. Use a different cup if you want to be careful.”
“Do you know anything about this?” I asked Deiti, simply out of curiosity.
“Not a thing,” Deiti answered. “I do, however, understand that she mentioned alcohol. Alcohol is a truly wonderful thing that we should do our best to acquire some of. Therefore, if she believes that the first bucket may lead to alcohol, you must needs follow her guidance and tend to it to ensure that a delightful beverage is produced.”
I barely paid attention to Deiti after her immediate answer. If she said more than that, I would not remember.
Now, - wait. I already started a paragraph with that just a few paragraphs ago. It is such an effective way to begin a paragraph, but I worry that it may be too repetitive. Hmm. I will have to think of an alternative. How about…
No. Neither of those sound as good as “now.” I will have to try and think about this some other time.
For now, let us return to the milk. Again.
Corra took a different cup, seeing as how Novla had forged several of them that we could all use, and brought it up to me. “Here, my lord!” she said after making sure that there was nothing floating around inside of it. Of course, I also checked to confirm that. It was clear.
So, I finally got to drink it.
And I was tempted to spit it out almost right away.
“It’s… I am not sure how to describe this taste,” I said after forcing myself to swallow it, “but it is…”
“Sweet,” Deiti said. “The word you are looking for is ‘sweet.’ Sickeningly sweet. It is… sour as well, and much too think to be a pleasant drink.”
“Sickeningly sweet and sour,” I said. “Novla, did they like to drink this?”
“Some did,” Novla answered, “but most preferred it after it was turned into food.”
“He-hey! I thought you said not to dip that cup into the milk?” Corra shouted. When I looked at who she was shouting at, I saw Lucia holding the first cup dipping it into one of the buckets.
“I said not to dip it into a non-contaminated bucket. I’m dipping this one back into the one that has already been contaminated,” Lucia explained before sniffing the milk. “It smells as bad as I thought it would.”
“You’re not going to drink that, are you?” I asked.
“Science requires sacrifices. If I die, then at least I will die with the last thing I have had being milk. That is an acceptable death as far as I am concerned.”
“That is absolutely ridiculous,” Deiti told me. “Please talk her out of this.”
I nodded and said, “You have made your choice. I respect your determination.”
“That is the opposite of what you were supposed to do!”
“My lord, are you sure that it is alright?” Corra asked me.
“It is,” I answered. “She has made her choice. I will respect it. If you wish to drink it as well, you are allowed to.”
“I think I would rather you slap it away from me if I tried to drink it…”
“Why would I do that?”
“To protect me!”
“It can only hurt you if you choose to let it hurt you. You do not need protection from it.”
“My lord!” Corra whined with a pout, gently smacking her fists against my chest.
I did not understand why she seemed so upset at me allowing her to live her life however she wished to, nor would it be something that I understood anytime soon.
While Corra did that, Lucia finally drank the contaminated milk. “It is much less sweet than what I expect the normal version to taste like, but… that makes the sour taste much more obvious. I can also already tell that this is not as thick as the other. Whatever is making this milk as sweet and as thick as it is may be getting broken down by whatever contaminated it. The question, now, is what it is being broken down into. It does not taste like alcohol, yet, so we will have to wait and see if there are any changes.”
“Do you like the taste?” I asked.
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“No, it is disgusting just as I figured it would be.”
“I see. At least you are not dead.”
“Yet. If it’s poisonous or intends to have a horrible effect on my body, it will probably take a couple of hours before it has any noticeable effect.” Next, Lucia took a taste of the normal milk using the cup that I used. “I was right. This is significantly sweeter and thicker, and that sweetness masks most of the sourness.”
“And the taste?”
“Still repulsive. I can’t imagine this being processed into anything that tastes good.”
“How do we process it?”
“I have no idea. I don’t think that Novla knows, either. Unless you plan on taking somebody else from that village who knows the specifics about how to work with this milk, we’re probably out of luck in that regard.”
“What if we burn it?”
“If we… burn it?”
“Putting meat over fire makes it taste better. What if we put this milk over fire?”
“Well, at the very least, boiling would make it safer to drink. High temperatures will kill any harmful bacteria in it. Really, we should have done that already. However, I am not sure it will affect the taste in any meaningful way.”
“I see. We will try it some time.” After saying that, I took the cup back and scooped it into the milk before handing it to Corra. “Here. Your turn.”
“My – my lord… are you sure you would not like to heat it for me first? So that it is safer?” Corra asked.
“You can heat it with your flames if you want to.”
“But… it would be even safer if you heated it with flames you created! I am sure that anything harmful within the milk would be terrified of your flames!”
I looked at Lucia and asked, “Is there a difference?” Of course, I wanted to believe that there was to stroke my ego, but even that sounded a bit too ridiculous for me.
Lucia shook her head and began to say, “There shouldn’t be any—” but then she came to a sudden stop as she looked in Corra’s direction. When I looked at Corra, she smiled and gave me a gentle wave. Then when I looked back at Lucia, she sighed and said, “It… might be safer if you heat it for her.”
“I see. Then I will have to—”
Violent shaking overwhelmed us.
My first instinct was to wrap my arms around Corra and protect her underneath me until the shaking ended seeing as how it caused rocks in the ceiling of my dungeon to fall onto us. Moving away from any exposed magma pits was important as well since the magma rocked with the shaking and threatened to spill over what held them.
As for the milk, most of the buckets fell over and were spilled all over the floor, but Lucia made sure to grab onto the contaminated one to hold it while Novla mimicked what I was doing and used his larger and stronger body to shield Lucia’s smaller and weaker body.
Then I remember hearing something that truly scared me. For the first time, a sound alone was enough to instill fear into my entire being.
What I heard was the sound of crashing – of a cave-in. The tunnels outside of the dungeon shook even more violently with even more rocks crashing down from above than within the dungeon, and I could tell that there were far larger and heavier rocks falling in the distance.
Perhaps it was because I was once a rock, but I knew how serious and deadly a cave-in could have been.
“This shaking is like an earthquake… but I have never felt an earthquake this strongly before,” Deiti said. “Something is not right.”
“Is it an earthquake, Lucia?” I asked.
“I don’t know!” Lucia shouted. “We’ve recorded quakes in this region before, but I don’t think this is an earthquake!”
And she was right to think that.
What we felt was no earthquake.
Fortunately, after several minutes of shaking, the violent disturbance came to an end and we were all safe.
“Alright… we’re not all dead,” Lucia said. “I was starting to think that the volcano was about to erupt and take us all with it.”
More importantly, I checked on Corra. “Are you alright?” I asked her.
Corra looked too excited to say anything, so I knew that she was alright.
“Do you know what that was, Novla?” I asked.
“I am… not sure, Elder CORE, but that reminded me of burrow shakes,” Novla answered.
He nodded. “The ancients – they can dig through solid rock, but it takes time. Instead of digging an entire tunnel, they’re smart enough to dig in very specific spots to weaken an area before sending in the ancients that can explode to cause a collapse of the tunnels. These open up new paths for them. But the other burrow shakes were small and could only be felt if you were close to them. If we felt one that powerful… then it means they have either created the biggest passage for their kind yet, or it was extremely close.”
I nodded and looked at my Obsidian Guard. “Go search the surrounding tunnels for any new passages. Ahti!” I shouted, looking over at the lazing gnome who was playing with the flame-tail rat the entire time and then protecting it from the shaking. “Check on the north outpost to make sure that they are alright! Novla, check on the west outpost.”
Both Ahti and Novla immediately got to action and went to check on their designated outposts as the Obsidian Guard began their checkup on the surrounding tunnels. If the ancients created a path near us, we needed to find it as quickly as possible if we did not want to be overrun by their numbers.
None of us expected the true outcome of the shaking, and it was far more horrible than we could have known.