For the next thirty minutes, Aldrich and his undead traveled through tunnels that grew smaller and narrower. Here, oversized ants the size of dogs crawled about en masse. The tunnels were a tight enough fit that it the group had to travel in a single file line, making it impossible for everyone to fight at once.
Aldrich created an easy formation to get around this issue. He placed Fler'Gan ahead of him and Stella at the back. Those two had the strongest area of effect abilities, and so Fler'Gan just had to torch his way forward and Stella could blast whatever ants tried to swarm from behind.
Meanwhile, Aldrich and Valera leisurely walked between them, letting the two barbecue any threats that came their way.
"Rockjaw ants," explained Dynamite Girl as she finger flicked a small cloud of sparkles out - her sublimated blood - and detonated it, annihilating a group of cluster of ten ants. "So called because their mandibles can shatter rock. They eat the minerals or somethin' inside of them."
"Do they have a queen?" said Aldrich. Information about ant variants was widespread enough that it was relatively well known that they largely tended to reproduce asexually, creating egg clusters on their abdomens after absorbing enough nutrients.
However, in rare cases and under circumstances that were as of yet not researched too well, ants could form a large colony under a queen that took over the reproductive process completely. These colonies became incredibly dangerous extremely quickly for in short generations, they could create ants with a variety of alter powers.
Information about this was so prevalent because fifteen years ago, there had been a massive, unchecked ant colony in South Korea that killed over a hundred thousand people. The disaster had required the intervention of the country's two S-ranked heroes to eliminate.
A similar incident had struck the west coast of the United States as well, and that had taken a team of fifteen top A-class heroes to deal with.
"Nah. They're rogue ants. Look at their behavior. Zero coordination. And if there was a queen, we'd be fightin' soldiers with powers by now."
"Good." Aldrich knew that if this was a proper colony, he was ill equipped to deal with it unless it had formed very recently. But since these were just rogue, nearly mindless ants, he and his undead breezed through the ant infested tunnels.
Over thirty minutes, Dynamite Girl and Fler'Gan had killed over a hundred ants, easily giving Aldrich enough EXP to level up.
[ 140 Rockjaw Ants defeated!]
[EXP Bar: 1500/1600 ] 2200/1600]
[EXP Bar: 600/1800]
[Level 12 ] 13]
[+5 stat points available to distribute]
Aldrich invested 5 points into agility.
[Agility: 10 ] 15]
He then looked ahead as Fler'Gan casually used his [Flamethrower] spell to annihilate ants before they could even get within twenty meters of the group.
Because Fler'Gan retained his boss stats, his mana pool was incredibly large and in addition, he knew spells that he did not use back in the game. In particular, he had a useful spell called [Clarity] that restored 10% of the caster and any friendly units' maximum mana.
Fler'Gan used this whenever he could, topping up not only his mana pool, but Aldrich's as well.
[Mana: 99/183 ] 183/183]
The only issue with [Clarity] was that it had a long one-minute cooldown, but that was long only in terms of the game. In the real world, one minute was nothing.
As a boss, Fler'Gan only had a pre-programmed moveset, but as a real life being, he knew spells he should have known as a studied scholar who had knowledge of many magical fields.
"How much more magic do you know other than fire magic?" said Aldrich.
"I have dabbled in Arcanism," said Fler'Gan.
Arcanism was the magical field where utility spells like clairvoyance, divination, status checking and meta-magic fell in. [Clarity] fell in this field too.
"But I am a mere amateur in the field. I only studied enough to enhance my fire magic," said Fler'Gan. "I was always more of a researcher, you see. I preferred the comfort of my study and a laboratory over the thrill of weaving magic circles and manifesting grand, instant effects.
Thus, I am most versed in alchemy. I have earned recognition in all both sub fields of Potionology and Metamorphics. Alas, I fear my knowledge utterly useless now in this strange new world. With no magic and mana in the air, none of the flora, fauna, and ores I am familiar working with are present."
"I assume that's why you are so interested in researching whether you can teach magic to the Geist," said Aldrich. "If you can get magic to work here, then you won't be lacking in raw materials for your alchemy anymore."
"You think correctly, O Elder." Fler'Gan's mouth tendrils quivered in anticipation. "An old scholar friend of mine, before I was cast out of the Order, was an accomplished artificer and enchanter. I requested a spell tome from him with the [Construct Base] spell imbued within it.
I further tailored that spell so that it could conjure a small copy of a working alchemical laboratory. Yet without raw materials, that laboratory is nothing but a study desk. I require raw materials or living creatures with magic imbued within them for my experimentations."
Aldrich knew that in the game's lore, mages could technically learn multiple magical fields. However, due to the constraints of game mechanics, a mage could only specialize in up to three different sub fields of magic. For Necromancers, they were even more limited to just practicing the dark arts.
"Is it possible for you to create spell tomes for me?" said Aldrich.
"Certainly," said Fler'Gan. "But to create a tome, I again require the appropriate materials. Enchanted vellum. A binding fashioned from some magical creature. Ink with the essence of mana crystals imbued within it. All of these, I am thoroughly lacking."
"Hmm." Aldrich put a hand to his chin, thinking. "Maybe you're not thinking wide enough. There's a chance that your alchemy still works. If you can create a laboratory, then you should still try to process materials from this world and see whether they can be used."
"You are correct, O Elder. And that was most certainly my attention," said Fler'Gan. "I simply require a more…permanent location to set up this laboratory of mine, for I possess only two charges of [Create Base] to utilize.
That forest is too open an area to construct my laboratory within. I would like a space more private and defensible."
"In time, I'll see to it that we settle down somewhere outside of that forest," said Aldrich.
"Settling down with master, oh, how wonderful that does sound," said Valera.
Fler'Gan stopped channeling [Flamethrower], and his three eyes narrowed down to slits.
"What is it?" said Aldrich.
"There are no more ants," said Fler'Gan. "Or rather, they have fled. This is quite the ominous development."
"Yeah." Aldrich immediately put a finger to his temple, checking in on his Grave Ward. He could not look simultaneously through every single undead he had at once. At best, he could multi-task and look through two, maybe three different pairs of eyes.
However, he placed specific triggers on his undead to link his sight to them such as if they encountered an Alter human or if they faced significant danger.
Thus, while Aldrich was distracted talking with Fler'Gan, he was not linked with the Grave Ward.
However, he was confident the Grave Ward would notify him if anything was out of the ordinary, and yet, when Aldrich checked in now, he could see that his Grave Ward was in fact dead.
It had not died long ago. It had fallen literally the second before Aldrich checked in on it.
[Units Controlled: 20/22 ] 19/22]
Whatever had killed it had done so very recently, and most likely, it was coming for Aldrich and his group now. That was when Aldrich saw the tunnel around him start to shift. The entire place started to quake as the rocky ceiling and floor undulated like waves on water.
"What is this phenomenon?" said Fler'Gan. "It appears similar to a teleportation spell, and yet the the exact amplitude of spatial distortion that I observe does not align with any form of magic I know."
"Master, with me!" Valera stood right beside Aldrich, her shield ready to protect him.
"I don't know," confessed Aldrich. "This isn't magical, to be sure. This is Alter based warping."
"Sh*t. I can't believe it…" began Stella as she looked around with quick, alert head motions.
"What is it?" said Aldrich. Out of everyone here, Stella had the most knowledge of Variants, and if she was worried, Aldrich was worried too.
"Everyone, stick together! Grab a hold of each other!" shouted Stella. Her voice was urgent enough that Aldrich did not question her, he just followed her.
Everyone grabbed each other, and at that moment, the tunnel surroundings rapidly warped away.