Covered in sweat under a mound of lizards, I awoke to the brutal sound of distant fighting, the metal on metal clang, the yelling. Trouble started early, as it always did for me and Bob. The old nightmare was back. I shook off the lizards and grabbed my shield.

“What do we do?” Estra asked. I plopped a helmet on Estra’s head - she didn’t object.

“I have a plan,” I said, and Bob would have reminded me: ‘plans are useless, but planning is essential.’

I stayed up half the night agonizing and planning, but couldn’t come up with anything solid - I didn’t know what we were up against, or what they’d do. Safe bet was a strong, defensible position with an escape route, or two. This narrowed it down to a certain part of the tunnel containing the stream - perfectly narrow for our ogrely figure. I’d put the shield up front, and wouldn’t have to worry much about our sides and rear. Estra would lay down some [Fireball] explosions, which in a confined space, would become amplified. Sure, we'd be in the same narrow space, but at least the [Fireballs] would be exploding over their heads a good distance from us. Nothing came without risk.

A sound like a kicked dog focused my attention to a kobold in black, slaughtering juveniles off to the side of the chamber. Several black-clad kobolds appeared out of thin air and joined in. I hadn’t planned for this.

“Estra.” I pointed at the closest kobold, and charged, shield at the fore. `No plan survives the first shot,’ Bob would have said. All the open space in the main chamber could get us surrounded, and [Fireball’s] explosive potential couldn’t be focused.

I heard the crunch of bones as I slammed the distracted kobold against the wall, stepped back and stomped on his head. With another crunch, the contents of his head spewed out around the strewn bodies of his young victims. Estra squealed, my shield hand trembled.

[Essence gained: +3,181]
[New skill learned: Shield Proficiency ]

Other black-clad hostiles took note, turned and did exactly what I feared they’d do: they moved to surround us. I wasn’t going to wait and let them do it. We charged at the closest one, but he was ready. Nibble as a mongoose, he sprung out of the way with ease.

The juveniles were in disarray, most were fleeing out the tunnels, but a few older, braver ones remained. I made eye contact with one and gestured with my head. He and his pal slinked away. I waited a moment, then shield charged the same kobold again, he lunged to dodge but something held his tail, long enough for me to correct course and smash into him. The follow-up foot stomp crushed his ribcage.

[Essence gained: +2,908]
[New skill learned: Shield Charge]

The remaining hostiles turned and vanished, leaving the injured, bleeding, dead and dying strewn around the perimeter.

"You have to heal them," I told Estra. At 300 mana a pop we'd get to heal three, and then watch the rest bleed out and die. She nodded, but instead of healing she stared forward, her eyes moving as if reading.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

A tingling sensation grew into an itch in my chest that slowly faded. "What was that? What just happened?" I asked.

A blue window popped up in my view:

[Heal] [t3] 180 mana; 12 second cast; Heal for 2x [Int] amount.

Purchased upgrades:
[t2] Increased heal amount +20%
[t4] Reduced mana cost, -40%
[Enabled][t5] Blood for Blood - half the mana cost is taken from caster's HP when healing others.

Available upgrades:
[800 Essence] [t3] Increased heal amount +10%
[200 Essence] [t1] Reduced cast time, -10%

Estra scanned the room warily. I barely had time to read and wonder how Blood for Blood worked, when her hand glowed green with streaks of dark red. The mixed light migrated to the body of an injured juvenile the same moment that a cramping pain gripped our chest with a thousand needles, lasting an eternity. Or perhaps twelve standard seconds.

"What the hell?!" I bellowed in agony, gasping.

"Aww ... you can't take a little ... bit of pain?" She spoke between panting breaths.

"Maybe upgrade the cast speed on that?" The status screen showed 2,554 essence remaining.

She had an evil look in her eyes again. "No need. We have better uses for essence."

Sounds of anguish filled the chamber as we hurried about healing the worst and paying for it with blood. A single heal was enough to stop the worst of bleeding and bring even the most seriously injured to a stable condition. The few minutes of healing was endless and excruciating.

Exhausted, we collapsed. Dragons and demons swam in circles above. Out of mana and down by nearly a thousand HPs, my jaw ached from clenching my teeth. The magical damage showed no outward signs, but as if hit by a truck, every raspy breath produced torture.

I was angry at Mahda, I was angry at Lan, I was angry at myself. Why did they leave them so undefended? I did what I could; it would have been worse without us. We healed eleven.

Lan arrived in haste, checked the dead and wounded, examined the squashed hostiles and then left without a word. The sounds of fighting had ended, the moans of the injured only started. A dozen were carried through and out to the infirmary. Mahda followed suit.

I closed my eyes and felt the world wobble. The new notifications were still visible, as if projected on the back of my eyelids.

Learned: [t1] Shield Proficiency
Available Upgrades:
[100 Essence][t1] Shield weight reduction -10%
[100 Essence][t1] Shield magic resistance +10%
[100 Essence][t1] Shield durability +10%

Learned: [t1] Shield Charge
Available Upgrades:
[100 Essence][t1] Charge speed +10%
[100 Essence][t1] Stun chance +10%
[100 Essence][t1] Knockback chance +10%
[100 Essence][t1] Shield Charge damage +10%

Footsteps approached with a familiar shuffle. "You can you heal?" a desperate voice said.

Estra groaned. "No."

I opened my eyes, Mahda stood over us. "And what about you?" She looked at me with a pained stare.

"No, we ..." I sighed, and rolled up to a sitting position with a grunt. Estra had a grim look on her face. They already knew, or would find out soon enough from the juveniles we healed.

"We're out of mana." And the will to continue, even if we had any.

Mahda rummaged in a satchel and produced a small ceramic vial. "It's fresh, I just made it yesterday." She offered it to us. I desperately hoped it wasn't a mana potion - I couldn't take any more of Estra's healing.

"What is it?" I asked, but knew the answer.

She glanced from side to side and said in a low voice, "It's a mana regeneration potion."

Estra perked up, licked her lips. I cursed, but accepted the gift.

[Mana Regeneration Potion, Good quality, Small.]

"So, just drink the whole thing at once?" I asked.

Mahda nodded. "But quickly."

I unstoppered the vial, downed the meager contents, and gagged. It coated my mouth and reminded me of the time I siphoned gasoline using a hose. Spicy steamed carrots, with a lingering metallic aftertaste - moonshine tasted better in comparison. I exhaled and the fumes ravaged my nasal cavity to a tear-jerking result. I hate this world.

Estra had mischief in her eyes, that faded as the effects took hold. A warm soothing sensation spread down to our toes. Estra's eyes mellowed out into a stupor. I felt drowsy as the pain melted away. I could get used to this. "Got more?" I raised the vial to Mahda.

Mahda's brows furrowed. "You can't drink more than one a day."


"It'll kill you, or at best, you'd wish you died."

"Ahh." I nodded. I was familiar with that feeling. "Alright, thanks. We'll uhh ... we'll ..." We slumped back to the ground and I was out in a wink.


About the author

Lord Zaika

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