Dinesh, Captain of the 23rd Squad of Donnyton, folded his arms, a headache already forming between his eyes. Of all the people to be assigned with, why did have to end up with these two…?
Kayle, who was the current leader of Squad II, holding his dual long knives, raised his voice to carry over the battlefield. “We will hit ‘em fast and escape clean, men. We need surgical precision, and a willingness to cut our losses if we get drawn in too deep. They do not tire, and we do-”
“Hmph, foolish and short sighted,” Paolo, Captain of Squad III, snorted, putting his hands on his hips, his Brawler gauntlets clacking. The flashy golden steel alloy synthesized by Sam was impressive, even when it was used in such a petty way. “We possess so much more frontal power than these schmucks. Better crush them from the front, drive them into the dirt, and never relent. That way-”
“That way you end as Captain of Squad III.” Kayle interrupted dismissively, rubbing fondly at the dinosaur leather vest he wore. It was a strange material that was scaly, yet had leathery qualities that the leather workers of Donnyton had managed to make into an absolutely glittering fusion of style and substance. “Better follow my superior tactical-”
“Lucky shot, we will see next time-”
“Kick your ass-”
“Your mouth hole will-”
Dinesh sighed again. He wasn’t worried about the two men’s Squads, they were professionals. They wouldn’t take the talk too seriously, and when they got to their business, they would slaughter the skeleton forces. What Dinesh was really worried about were the 40 or so irregulars that had been assigned to the flank with their three Squads, who seemed profoundly shocked to see the two very exalted individuals like the Captains of the II and III Squads bickering like children.
Donnyton had decided to cap the number of Squads at 50, so everyone beyond that, who wanted to fight, was considered an irregular. They had “Squads” but they were numberless Squads, nothing more than practice groups really. For a lot of these people, this would be some of their first real battlefield conditions combat. The Raid Boss groupings and the higher tiered Squads had done most of the fighting while they were marching from Donnyton.
However, Lyra had suggested an alternative plan. They couldn’t get the Skeleton Knight to commit his forces in a way they could directly smash them, so it was better to stop playing the grinding game, which the Skeleton Knight would win. Instead, they would send a force North, and bribe a Village up here with enough points in terms of resources and treasures to establish a teleportation array.
Then, they could shift their main force and march from the North. It was a happy coincidence, also predicted by Lyra, that the Wild Rider would lose and be captured. Now, as the Skeleton Knight’s forces fought to protect the group that had captured her, they had to stand their ground and take the beating from Donnyton’s Squads.
The Wild Rider was being taken through a narrow valley, and Dozer and Decklan’s Squads were hot on their tails, ripping through the defenders. Soon, if they didn’t want the Squads to catch the Wild Rider, they would be forced to commit some lieutenants to slow their advance, and Donnyton could finally draw some real blood, instead of just harvesting cannon fodder.
Helping Donnyton was the natural geography, in this case. The valley simply wasn’t wide enough to fit all of the Skeleton’s Knight’s forces. They were packed into a thin area.
However, if the skeletons flanked around the side, and started pressing from behind… even Donnyton’s Squads would be hard pressed to win in an extended conflict with the skeletons. They would just tire them out.
Not even the Ghosthound could avoid wariness.
So their group was in charge of watching the left flank, while there was another on the right. In his mind, Dinesh knew that Paolo and Kayle were actually great at working together, and they were just firing up the spirits of their Squads, as everyone was rather disappointed they hadn’t been chosen to join the main force chasing the Wild Rider. But still, did it have to be this…
“Just fuck your-”
“With my knife-”
But then, at the same time, both of them fell silent, turning. Their Squads, on unspoken command, began to check their weapons and armor. The irregulars began muttering to each other, and Dinesh opened his mouth to restore order, but Paolo’s sharp bark cut him off.
“Dinesh! Magelight high and left. As big as you can.”
“Might as well make it two, at 9:45 and 11:00.” Kayle added grimly. “This isn’t something we’ve heard about yet.”
Startled at the seriousness in their tone, Dinesh shot two bundles of Mana high in the air, as directed. When they exploded, they fell apart in streaming flares. It was just past sunset, and vision was starting to decline. This was when the skeletons preferred to attack, so they had been prepared. But as the light illuminated the low slope below them, Dinesh could only let his jaw drop.
Moving like a bullet train, zigzagging back and forth over the terrain, bulldozing over any smaller obstacles, was a huge wurm made of bone, which seemed to just slide forward without any need for it to move. It even left a sleek, shiny surface behind it, as if it was reconstituting the very earth underneath it.
“Irregulars! Any long range mages?” Dinesh asked, his mouth finally remembering what it was supposed to be doing. A few hands were raised, and Dinesh gestured, bringing them to the front.
“Aim for the figures sitting on its back. Although we’ve tried to avoid hurting humans…” Kayle’s voice trailed off, somewhat soft.
Paolo just grunted. And as Dinesh watched, he could clearly see several forms on the monster’s back, looking up at them. In his heart, there was a part of Dinesh that was very hesitant to start acting violently against their fellow man. Although the System had done so much damage to humanity, it had also united them, against the common enemy of monsters.
Dinesh felt his heart sink as he realized that the System, starting with the Champions introduction, was starting to move to divide them. He supposed it was present even before, with the very fine divide between different Villages, but that was more of a rivalry than anything else, which perhaps could go South, should the threat of monster hordes from nearby dungeons ever leave. But this…
“Fire.” He said quietly.
Mana Bolts and Fireballs and Nether Bolts shot forward, heading towards the figures on the back of the bone wurm. Most of them shot towards the figure at the front, a man with dark hair who only cocked his head at the sight of the incoming bolts. Then he waved his hand and the air distorted.
The projectiles crashed against the Mana Shield the man had erected, but they ripped through only after a few of the attacks hit. Dinesh grimaced. Although it was admirable the man had that level of Mana Shield, it wouldn’t be enough.
In his heart, Dinesh said a small prayer for the man.
But then his eyes widened, because there was another Mana Shield underneath the first. Dinesh’s eyebrows rose. Simultaneous casting? But even if he could produce multiple Mana Shields-
The second shield broke, the third shield broke, the fourth shield broke… all the way to the 7th. The 8th shield did not. The figure didn’t even seem angry, he just peered up at them, tapping his chin. He said something to the creature, and it instantly increased in speed, rushing towards them, knocking trees and rocks out of the way on its journey.
“A heavy hitter of our own on the way.” Paolo said, with remarkable cheer. “We just need to keep ‘em here long enough to arrive.”
“Alright boys, Raid Boss contingencies.” Kayle said, his eyes narrowing. “Survival first, damage second. Contain and control-”
But the wurm was already there, rearing up high above them, its mouth open, row upon row of teeth glistening in light from Dinesh’s Magelights. It seemed to be taunting them, hanging high in the sky over them, its mouth wide and infinite, a portal to the deepest pits of hell.
Just as Dinesh was opening his mouth to order the mages gathered around him to fire another salvo, and as he prepped his own Arcane Orb, a figure dropped from the wurm. Light and gentle, the figure landed, resolving itself to be the lead rider on the wurms back. His hair was long and dark as night, his figure lean and muscled to the point of looking like a professional athlete. Although the System changed a lot, it didn’t change people’s willingness to work. You didn’t get to that level of fitness without an unreal level of determination, Stats or no.
But what was most noticeable was his eyes, large and emerald, piercing even in the twilight. The words lodged in Dinesh’s throat.
Because… because he recognized this man.
“Men of Donnyton… who dares bar my way?” The figure said slowly, standing with his arms held casually at his sides. Dinesh trembled and wanted to collapse, relief sweeping through him.
“Fuck…” Paolo said, wiping a tear from his eye.
“There there,” Kayle said, patting his fellow Captain on the back. “Someday, we will learn how to make an entrance like that. Welcome back, Ghosthound.”