You totally set me up for this, Jason thought at Lumi, snorting with faint embarrassment at the knowing grins of his companions.
He wasn’t actually indignant, not really, because Kera leaning back against him as if asleep was far from unpleasant. After all, she was soft, currently rather fluffy, and highly attractive. No, it was the knowledge that he was enjoying himself, and that everyone else,including Kera, totally knew it that was making him feel… well, he wasn’t sure what exactly. It was complicated and pleasant and embarrassing all together though.
And it was absolutely Lumi’s fault. Somehow, when the other girl had suggested she pilot the punt while he resupplied some of their simpler potions, she must have known this would happen. He’d been wary of the sly grin she’d had at the time, and now he knew why: unlike Jason, she hadn’t forgotten that Kera had a preference to just go limp and wholly focus on her pets when sharing senses. And, well, her relatively newfound enjoyment of teasing him, too. Which had led to his current predicament. Namely, Kera having purposefully leaned herself back against his chest while she wrapped one of his arms around her waist before activating her spells, leaving him with only one arm to try and craft potions with.
It had taken a bit of extra effort, but he’d managed, thanks to all the pre-processing he’d done back home. Now he was just sitting there, feeling lightly embarrassed over how much he was enjoying having Kera snuggled up against him, wondering how his life had managed to turn so strange. Only a month ago he’d been a college student just coasting his way through life. Now he was… some kind of super-rich, magical scientist-engineer, wearing hand-crafted armor right out of a scifi movie, making his way through a monster-filled swamp while holding a serenely happy-looking fox-girl in his arms.
Talk about reinventing yourself, he mused.
Eventually, Kera stirred under his arm and shifted slightly, but made no move to disentangle herself from him, instead shifting so her head leaned more comfortably against his armor. Her eyes opened, but she stared blankly off into the distance, unseeing. Jason assumed she was still viewing through her spider’s eyes.
“OK, so good-news-bad-news,” she announced as Lumi called a brief halt. “The good news is there’s no more patrols between here and the next room. Looks like that was the only one. Bad news… the next room is big. Not village-big, but several large, new structures, lots of murklings, several of them variants we haven’t seen. And there’s a cluster of three of what my lore skill is calling ‘Corrupted Spawning Pools’, which is some kind of befouled version of the pools murklings and frogoids breed in. They’re gross, with scummy water and glowing eggs and stuff. But more good news, kinda? They have a bunch of chests sitting in the middle on a tiny mound of earth, if we want to clear them.”
“I’d bet money that’s a Challenge Room then,” Aldin called out. “There’ll be something nasty in the pools, possibly a number of somethings, and if we trigger the event before clearing everything else, we’ll have a real nasty fight on our hands.”
“How many is ‘lots’?” Lumi asked.
“Ummm, maybe a couple dozen?” Kera replied, “The few groups outside are moving around lots, so its hard to count, but there’s bound to be more indoors. It’ll take me time to get my spider into the buildings to get a real count, though.”
Lumi considered the information for a moment. “Your opinion on the danger level?”
“It looks OK to me,” Kera replied. “We fought much worse defending the town, to be honest. None of these weird breeds look all that dangerous, and nothing is setting off any alarm bells for my lore skill.”
Kera shifted again, sitting up slightly and tilting her head to one side in thought while biting her lip. “I…. don’t usually get the chance to get close enough, but since its mostly vision based, I could see if I can use my spider to use Analyze on what I can….?”
“Can you do that?” Lumi asked in surprise.
“It’s based on me examining something up close so… maybe? At worst my summons get dispelled.”
“Alright, go ahead,” Lumi said. “In the meantime, let’s keep moving.” She began poling their punt forwards once more.
Kera leaned her head back against Jason, and began mumbling quietly to herself. “OK… let’s try this. Open window… oops, almost got… Ah, there’s a regular one who’s distracted. Landing behind it… yep! Worked. Now to find….”
A few additional minutes of Kera’s mumbling past, when she jerked upright with a sudden squawk. She overbalanced, and Jason quickly threw his other arm around her for a moment to before she went over the edge. Once she had regained her balance, he released her.
Kera shivered for a second, wrapping her arms around herself. “Ew. That was…unpleasant. Got snapped up by a frogoid I didn’t see. I’m gonna have nightmares about getting crunched now.”
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then looked pensive for a moment before turning towards the other boat.
“Hey Ravs…? Do dungeons usually um, need specialized buildings or rooms before they can make new kinds of monsters, or like… upgrade old versions? Or they need certain structures before their minions can take certain classes…?”
Ravs looked like she was carefully considering her answer, but Jason was surprised when Sylvia spoke up first instead.
“I don’t think it’s been covered in your course just yet,” the woman began, her long ears twitching in amusement, “as normally we wouldn’t have had the practical until a few months from now. There’s a few nuances to the full answer, and the why of it is debatable, but the ultimate answer is yes.”
“OK, I thought that’s what I was seeing,” Kera replied. She turned back to Lumi. “Anyway… enemy forces. There’s a fair number of ordinary murklings, which we knew. There’s also three new… variants? …species? I dunno what to call them. Anyway, we’ve got bladefins, which are pretty much what you’d expect. Weaponized fins on their arms and legs, plus a ground speed to use them well.”
“Then there’s several ‘inkgills’. They’re… very minor spellcasters of some sort. I couldn’t get a good read on them though. My skill is only rank one, and it partially failed against the one I was able to sneak up on, so I didn’t get more than they have minor spells. They still use the spears though, so I’d hazard they’re a bit like a spellblade?”
Lumi grimaced at that, but didn’t interrupt, so Kera continued on.
“Last, there’s two ‘Murkling Lashers’, which I think are a classed version of the basic ones. They’re like… beastmaster types. They’ve got these uh… I think they’re called nine-tailed whips? And they had bigger, meaner-looking frogoids with them, but I think they were still normal frogs, just higher level ones.”
After Kera seemed to be finish, Lumi spoke up once more. “Alright then, that doesn’t sound too bad. Good work on the scouting. I think we’ll definitely avoid the pools for now, at least until we’ve cleared the area and had a chance to examine them in more detail, preferably from a distance.”
Lumi hummed thoughtfully to herself for a minute before continuing.
“OK, here’s the plan. We’re going to do this one a bit different, both because of the numbers involved and because our last encounter showed us a pretty major flaw in our stealth strategy. Besides, before we actually tackle the core or any bosses, it will be good to have a least a live test of our more defensive tactics that we’ve worked on at practice.”
“Instead of spreading out and going for shock and awe, I want us in close formation this time. Kera… you, Echo and Ceri will be on point as our main fighters. I’ll be positioned just behind you, running defensive shielding as needed while funneling the mobs to the central point. Aldin, you’ll be on full support behind me; buffs and heals only for you. Jason, I want you—”
She trailed off thoughtfully for a moment, turning to him.
“…Actually, I forgot to ask, hows your ammo situation looking after that display earlier?”
Jason grimaced and tried to rub the back of his head, before realizing he had a helmet on. “Ehhh…. I may have gone a bit overboard there. I mean, it was a bit of an emergency, really, but I didn’t have the time to prepare enough rounds that I can spend them with impunity, and I can’t just whip up more on the fly without slowing us down enough to jeopardize our finding the entrance first. I won’t run dry anytime soon, but…”
Lumi held up a hand to stop him. “I understand, its fine. In that case, I’d rather you conserve your main firepower for potential boss fights. So for this room, I want you and Shard with Aldin, on overwatch. Take shots as needed to cover people, protect Aldin from rear attacks, but otherwise stick to one of your temporary wands. Or run spot healer.”
“Last of all,” Lumi said, “now that we finally have some more open ground… Ravs, I want you doing what you do best. Circle around behind them, use your stealth and illusions to take out any casters that are holding back, or any other soft targets you can get your knives into, but make sure you don’t get separated so far you can’t get back to me if we encounter any problems.”
“We’ve got this.”
Jason had Shard in his shoulder-mount configuration, and as they burst free of the fog line, he opened fire on the beach with a handful of fire-shard rounds. The handful of murklings loitering on the shoreline panicked as great gouts of flame and mud erupted all around them, and they fled towards the closest mud-huts, away from the oncoming punts.
Kera, Ceri and Echo then burst up out of the water, dashing onto dry land, where both Kera’s mistwolf and frost beetle took shape as well, creating a wedge formation.
The moment Jason’s punt ground against the muddy ground, Lumi was leaping into ankle-deep water, her golden aura enveloping them even as her feet splashed down.
Jason himself stumbled slightly as he jumped out, unused to being so off-balance due to Shard’s weight, but he caught himself and sprinted through the shallows after Lumi. As he ran, he lined up his arm with one of the fleeing murklings. He’d already swapped out his steel shards, which had thankfully survived the previous fight, and with a sharp twist of the dial to disable the power magnification in order to preserve the shard, Jason activated his projection enchantment. A lance of fire shot towards it, striking it in the back.
Aldin jumped into the shallows besides him, with Sylvia once again nowhere to be seen, and together they quickly took up position behind Lumi, slightly to either side on the inside of Kera’s wedge. The young shaman called out a short incantation, and the fell to one knee, slamming his mace into the ground. A fleeting swirling blast of leaves sprang from nowhere and surrounded them before dissipating, leaving Jason with a strange sensation of stability and enhanced strength. Aldin stood, and second spell from him called forth balls of lightning that spun into existence, rapidly orbiting around Ceri, Echo, and Kera.
By the time the murklings rallied and began to organize themselves, Lumi’s [Sunlight Shields] had flashed into existence along the group’s flanks, essentially forcing the murklings to attack head-on. The first several to close the distance were knocked aside by Aldin’s lightning shield, twitching violently as they were hurled away from Kera and her pets. Others were mauled by claws, or seized in jaws and flung aside as a flood of the fish creatures charged their position.
The evolved murklings showed their value to the dungeon quickly, however. Unlike the maddened swarmers they’d seen during the Battle of Arnvale, these new variants were comparatively intelligent, capable of tactical assessments. The inkgills, easily identified by the jet-black veins that ran across their bodies like tattoos, had held back, seemingly content to observe the battle from a slight distance. Suddenly, one of them barked an order and leveled its trident in Echo’s direction, launching a bolt of shadow-stuff which temporarily blinded the rockhound. Immediately, a trio of bladefins, far quicker than their ordinary brethren, attempted to dart past her to leap at Jason. However, Jason had been waiting for just such an attempt to be made. A command to Shard took the first one right out of the air, and he batted the second aside with his flameshield, eliciting a painful shriek from the creature. The third tried to cut away at Jason’s legs with a finned arm as it dashed past him, but his armor was more than up to the task. Instead of laying Jason open as it has expected, it was bowled over sideways by a swift kick, putting it well within reach of Kera’s frost beetle, which spewed freezing slush all over it, adhering it to the ground.
Unfortunately, the momentary distraction on Jason’s part to confirm the bladefins were finished lasted long enough such that he missed the inkgill lining up a second spell, this time aimed at him.
Just as Jason turned back to face the front, he was engulfed in a cloying, clinging shadow that dampened sound and sucked his breath away. Panic caused him to fall to his knees and scrabble at his throat as his felt his lungs fill with a sensation of terrible cold. Jason shook as he attempted to cough out the foul-tasting substance, splashing the inside of his helmet with a dark fluid.
His sight began to dim further, and he felt his thoughts growing sluggish and confused, but suddenly a green warmth filled his mind, washing it all away like a heavy wind through fog. Sound returned, and with a second wracking cough filled his lungs with air once more. He found himself being hauled to his feet and steadied by Aldin, who shouted something he didn’t understand, but which brought his mind back to the battle at hand.
In the distance, he saw Ravs, surrounded by dispersing mist and cutting down the two inkgills. He shook his head to clear the last of the confusion, took a shot at a murkling that was trying to dodge past Ceri, and soldiered on.
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Bio: I’m a disabled, semi-experienced amateur writer who’s decided to finally get off his bum and make use of all the wonderful self-publishing tools out there. I’ve joined the RoyalRoadL community with an eye to finally get my work out there in the world, hoping that feedback and criticism from real people will lead to people enjoying my work as it evolves, which will help motivate me to try and achieve my dream of becoming a professional writer.