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The two pirates left on the upper deck were silent and in shock. Had they just seen their Plant Mage opponent dive into the sea?

"Tch, what a slippery bastard. I didn't even get to properly burn him yet." After a long sigh, the Fire Mage turned to his Guardian. “Ulfar, go and check if he's down for sure."

The Guardian nodded and slowly approached the helm of the ship with his shield up, still wary of being attacked. The Fire Mage also kept his guard up and followed closely behind, trusting his back to his partner while his eyes swept around for potential flanks. Despite their shock and the Fire Mage’s potential insanity, it was clear that they were seasoned veterans when it came to combat. For them, the battle was only over when the opponent was confirmed dead.

Ulfar peered over the edge and saw only the turbulent sea below. The waves below the helm were no longer coloured blue, but white as they crashed against the merchant ship’s hull. If anybody without great physical strength or the powers of a Water Mage jumped into these waters, they would be battered by the waves against the ship's helm until they drowned. The Guardian silently nodded his head towards the Fire Mage - Ulfar was never a man of many words, but he and Ragnor had been working together for so long that simple gestures could convey more meaning than a thousand words.

"Kekeke that Plant Mage made the right choice. A watery death is better than the agony I was about to inflict upon him. Now let’s go back and finish burning the rest of this ship's crew, I want to try lighting this ship on fire after the battle.” All merchant ships had minor fire resistance enchantments imbued into their structure, but the challenge only excited Ragnor even more.

It was at this moment that Ulfar's instincts started screaming with danger. Part of it was due to his class’s skill, Guardian's Instinct, while the rest of it was obtained by having survived through years of dangerous encounters. The Guardian spun around as fast as possible, grabbing Ragnor’s waist and attempting to shove him behind his shield.

The Guardian's instincts were sharp, but they were not at the level of precognition. The Fire Mage screamed as a Pea Shot slammed into his left shoulder, leaving his arm hanging by a fleshy mess. Ian cursed - if the Guardian hadn't pulled the Fire Mage around, then the shot would have made a direct hit with the Fire Mage's chest.

Around twenty seconds earlier, Ian had just jumped off the helm of the ship while hugging Ezra. Fireballs flew above his head as he plummeted towards the water, his back burning with pain from the burns that he had sustained.

Ezra, grab!” Ian’s mental connection with his first Magical Plant quickly conveyed his intent, and Ezra hooked onto the bottom of the railing with several vines. Ian’s shoulders screamed with pain as the rest of his body jerked to a stop, leaving his feet dangling a few inches away from the water. Ian panted and tried to catch his breath as he commanded Ezra to start moving sideways, attempting to swing as quickly as possible without too many jerky movements. He hadn’t fully considered how Ezra would manage to not fall out of its pot when he jumped, but he wasn’t prepared to find out. 

Vines swung across the railings until Ian reach the right side of the ship. It was at this moment that Ezra’s pot started to shatter – Ian saw that in order to keep itself anchored, some of Ezra’s roots had pierced tiny holes in the sides of the pot, destroying its integrity. Ian had no choice but to command Ezra to raise them towards the deck before the pot broke and all the soil fell into the sea.

Ian pulled himself and Ezra over the railing and made eye contact with the Fire Mage. As the Fire Mage started casting Fireball, Ezra had already fired a Pea Shot with superhuman reaction speed, hitting the Fire Mage in the shoulder as the Guardian pulled him away in the nick of time. The combatant’s positions were now switched, with the pirate duo against the helm and Ian closer to the staircase to the lower deck. Ian gasped for breath as he thanked Lenessa that he was still alive – that maneuver had been way too risky for his liking.

The Fire Mage wouldn’t be casting spells anytime soon as he desperately tried to cauterize his shoulder to stop the bleeding, but Ian still faced the same problem as before: the Guardian’s defenses were nearly impossible to penetrate. Ian knew that only time and repetitive attacks could break through his armour, but wouldn’t that be losing sight of the bigger picture? His goal wasn’t to defeat the duo, but to protect the ship from the pirates. He picked Ezra up and ran back down the stairs as the Fire Mage cursed him for his cowardice.

Back on the lower deck, the fight between the sailors and the pirates was going poorly. Blood was everywhere as the sailors desperately fought to stay alive. There were only around fifteen sailors left defending in a corner beneath the stairs while there were well more than twenty pirates surrounding them. Though the situation looked grim, Ian knew that he couldn’t afford to drag the fight out or else he might give the Fire Mage enough time to recover.

“Protect my back!” Ian jumped in front of the sailors, pulled Sartonius out of his Magical Farm and entered the battle. Ian crouched behind his plants as Ezra and Sartonius’s vines became a blur of motion. Now it was the pirates’ turns to scream in fear as they dropped left and right with well-aimed Vine Whips and Pea Shots. Some pirates tried to attack Ian, the Plant Mage they thought was controlling the plants, but the sailors helped by stopping anybody who attempted to flank.  Other pirates tried shooting arrows or throwing daggers, but the speed of Ian’s Magical Plants prevented any weapons from hitting their owner. Although the pirates had higher attacking power and speed compared to the Guardian, their lack of defense made them easy targets that were knocked down by the Magical Plants before they had a chance to attack. These were the types of opponents that Ian would much prefer to face compared to the well-coordinated duo above.

By the time the pirates assessed the situation and retreated out of Ian’s range, around ten of them were lying on the floor either dead or unconscious. Seizing their advantage, the remaining sailors rallied with a war cry and charged the pirates. Throwing Sartonius’ pot over at the pirates, Ian moved to go pick Ezra up and was about to go help finish the pirates off when a vine wrapped around his waist and pulled him to the side.

The Guardian smashed into the spot Ian was just about to walk past, collapsing the deck and sending him and Ezra tumbling to the next floor. Although Ian had escaped a direct hit, splinters and cuts covered his body and his vision spun from when he knocked his head on his way down.  

Ulfar was now only a few feet away from Ian and rapidly approaching. His thudding footsteps shook Ian from his stupor, and he quickly tried to scramble away and create some distance. However, as soon as he stood up he felt a sharp pain coming from his right ankle; on closer inspection, his foot was twisted at a weird angle and could not support any pressure. No matter how slow the Guardian moved, there was no way Ian would be outpacing him in this condition.

Ian had managed to keep his cool in this battle so far, but as his executioner approached him step by step his composure began to slip. His thoughts became panicked as he desperately tried to find a way out to no avail; he’d already tried every trick in his arsenal and none had succeeded. Was there nothing else he could do? As he watched Ezra frantically Vine Whip the approaching Guardian, a thought suddenly occurred to himself.

So far, Ian had only been commanding his plants to use their two skills, Vine Whip and Pea Shot. However, couldn’t his plants do more than just what their skills described? Ian himself only had skills related to farming and taking care of Magical Plants, but that didn’t mean that that was all he could do. In the same fashion, couldn’t his Magical Plants accomplish other things through simply using their powerful vines? He had done something similar when he had used Ezra to save himself after jumping off the ship, but now he realized that this could also be applied in combat. Though his methods have worked so far against weaker opponents, his lack of imagination had made this battle a lot more difficult than it needed to be. Observing the approaching Guardian, Ian mentally conveyed his new plan to Ezra and the Magical Plant sprang into action. Instead of uselessly striking the Guardian’s shield, Ezra’s vines veered sideways and now wrapped around the Guardian, shield and all, binding him and tying his arms to his sides.

The Guardian shook as he tried to break free from the plant’s grip, and his high STR stat was proving to be effective as several vines began to snap. However, the Guardian did not know that he was already too late as vines began to sneak into every crook and cranny of his armor. Ian’s final goal was not to trap the Guardian, but to take advantage of his only weakness. The Guardian’s armor was effective against all types of attacks and completely covered almost every inch of his body except for one area – the mouth. His helmet’s mouth guard contained slits to allow the Guardian to breathe, and small green tendrils were currently forcing their way in.

Ian couldn’t see it, but the Guardian’s eyes widened in panic as he desperately tried to raise his hands to claw at his mouth, but his arms were still bound to his sides. The vines continued on their intended path, forcing open the Guardian’s mouth and tunneling into his throat, relentlessly attacking the Guardian’s insides and choking him to death. Ian watched as the Guardian convulsed on the floor, losing all sense of strategy as he simply fought to breathe. His struggle did not last long. After about a minute, the Guardian’s body went limp and stopped moving. Ian’s entire body sagged with relief.

With the death of the Guardian, Ian’s kill count had just increased by one. How many did that make it now? Ian was unsure as he had already lost count of how many pirates he had defeated. Though Ian had had some time on the ship to process the deaths of Midas’ gang, the Guardian’s death was probably the most gruesome one so far. The image of the Guardian desperately writhing on the floor seemed to replay over and over in Ian’s mind. This was not how Ian had imagined his life as a hero was supposed to be; he had dreamt of saving lives, not taking them in this fashion. As Ian lay on the rubble of the collapsed deck with his body hurting and consciousness slipping, for the first time in his life he wondered if he was truly meant to be the hero that he had always dreamed of becoming.

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