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Coming to Meet
Betsy bolted out of her chair. He couldn't have lost them. "How could you?"
"I'm not a shinobi class."
Qian walked up to Ken. "Tailing doesn't take a shinobi class, noob." She stared down at him.
Ken looked down at the table. "I'm sorry. I don't know why but all of sudden I felt dizzy, kind of disoriented."
Rox rested her hand on Ken's shoulder and glared at Qian. "Give him a break, it was a spell of confusion."
"Whatever, man, if he was experienced, he would've powered through it. That's what I would've done." Qian pointed her thumb at her chest.
"You got that right," Prasuna said. "Besides, wasn't he supposed to be extremely knowledgeable and therefore invaluable to our team."
"Enough," Betsy said and sliced through the air with her hand. She couldn't let this bickering tear the team apart.
"'Enough' isn't good enough anymore," Qian snorted. "You got us into this mess."
"And I'm going to get us out of it," Betsy said.
"Is that right?" Qian said. "Don't tell me your idea is to go south to Shimonoseki. That's going to waste two whole days! That'll take us down to nineteen days."
"That's right," Prasuna said. "The ultimatum said we only have twenty-four days and we already spent two days getting here and another day wasted trying to steal the quantite."
"Or maybe you think we can sprout wings and fly over the Great Abyss?" Qian cackled.
Betsy gritted her teeth. If only Ken hadn't screwed up. No, no, it was her own fault. She should've sent Marge. The stress was getting to her. After all, it wasn't a game anymore.
"I propose a no-confidence motion," Qian said and in turn stared each person in the eyes. "Who's going to second me?"
"Who's going to lead? You?" Greg pointed his chin at Qian.
"Damn right," Qian said and stuck her thumbs into her belt.
"Well, let's hear it. We can't have a no-confidence vote without hearing your idea on how're we going to get our first shard," Greg said.
"We gotta find those thieves and get our quantite back," Qian said.
"Sounds like a plan to me," Stef said and elbowed Gideon in the side.
"Yeah, me too," Gideon said.
Stef and Gideon shuffled closer to Qian and Prasuna.
"They're long gone," Ken said.
"Do a divination," Qian pointed at Greg.
"It's not that easy," Greg said. "We don't have anything of theirs."
"Just do it, dammit," Qian said. "That's an order."
"You can't order me around." Greg glared at her. "Sarge is still—"
"I resign," Betsy said.
"What?" Greg sputtered. "You can't—I won't accept it, right, Ken?"
Ken strode up and stood shoulder to shoulder with Greg. "Marge? Rox?"
Marge and Rox bowed their heads and looked down at the cold, concrete floor.
Staring at Marge and Rox, Greg stretched his upraised palm out towards Qian. "What does she know, anyways? Compared to Sarge, she's no better than a level 1 mob."
"What the hell?" Qian clicked her wakizashi out of its scabbard.
Sarge stepped in between the two groups. "Now wait a sec—"
The hallway resounded with the sound of neighing and the thunder of horses galloping.
"Why are they still here?" Prasuna ran to the door.
"What are they?" Ken asked.
"They're headless horses," Prasuna said and ran to the door. "Poor headless horses, but we freed them. Why do they want to stay here, what used to be their torture chamber?"
"Headless horses?" Ken said.
Prasuna turned the doorknob and the door flew open. Outside stood gigantic horse legs like pillars that rose up to its belly. Its body was wider than two doors. It lowered its headless neck and stuck it through the doorway. Prasuna pet its brown mane with her hand. It nickered.
"I can't believe it, we're saved!" Ken exclaimed.
"What the hell are you yelling about?" Qian said, her arms akimbo.
"They're kubi-kire-uma," Ken said. "They can fly."
❄ ❄ ❄
Betsy stood in a slush-filled field on the leeward side of a massive granite outcropping, her head bent backwards, eyes staring up into the clear night sky, the stars rotating like clockwork. The headland gales whistled over their heads. The howling of ghosts surged through the cracks and crevices of the wall of rock, the ramparts of an ancient fortress staving off the hunger of the Great Abyss.
With their aviator caps and goggles strapped over animal hide balaclava, all nine of them stood next to five mounts. Insulated trench coats wrapped their bodies in a tight embrace. Their arms hung at their sides and ended in gloves as thick as a boxer's. They inhaled as one and exhaled as one, creating a circle of glowing ground fog.
Prasuna walked around hugging and talking to each kubi-kire-uma in turn. The last one was the smallest, a scrawny uma. "Now, don't be scared, Mits. I know you can do it. We gave you only one rider." Prasuna smiled at Rox who tightened up the straps holding the four supply packs onto the back of Mit. "Even though you get extra packs."
She walked up to Betsy. "All ready to rock 'n roll, Sarge."
She patted Prasuna on the shoulder. "We couldn't have done it without you. Your animal husbandry skill was such a life saver."
"I don't know how I got it, but I've always loved animals."
Betsy only smiled. She didn't want to worry everyone. The system knew what their strengths were in real life. Even though they'd all been busted down to level zero, each one of them had a skill that was three levels higher. Betsy's skill was leadership.
Betsy took a deep breath. "Mount up!" After Ken's pronouncement, Betsy had handily defeated the no-confidence vote. Qian's vote had stood alone.
Everyone climbed up rope ladders and settled on the backs of their uma: two per uma, except for Greg, her second in command, and Rox, who was seated on her uma in front of them. They were arranged in a line facing Rox. One by one, starting with Betsy, Rox pointed her stave and began the incantation to bring up an individual shield for each uma and mounted riders. She had to be the last because you couldn't cast through shields. Betsy had arranged it so Rox and their smallest and slowest uma was behind the screen, which faced any potential attack from the road, and within the shelter of the outcropping. The road rather than a ship behind them was the most likely direction of an attack, but by placing their position right behind the outcropping, she'd also protected them against a potential ship-borne attack. She'd feel a lot better when they were actually airborne.
Something caught her eye in one of the picture-in-picture screens in her in-game HUD. As the leader, she could see from every team member's point of view as well as see their stats updated in real-time. She pulled up Stef's view in split-screen mode. His skill was scout and she'd positioned him at the end of the line opposite from herself. Placing her forefinger on the section of the road hidden by a small hill, she said, "zoom." Bare branches stuck out from behind the crest of the hillock.
Out of the corner of her eye, Betsy watched Rox turned her stave on herself to activate her own shield.
She focused back on Stef's view. Those aren't tree branches. "Everyone, fall back to my position!" Dammit, Rox's shield's not up and she's the slowest. "Stef and Gideon protect Rox!"
Stef and Gideon galloped over to Rox. A salvo of arrows flew through the air and bounced off their shields, but one struck Rox in the thigh.
"Run, Mits!" Rox said. It ran as fast as its short legs could carry it.
Betsy checked Rox's stats.
HP = 30 (35)
She's still okay.
Another flight of arrows clattered off the shields. An arrow skewered Rox's neck and she slumped down in her saddle.
Damage: 6 * 5
HP (remaining): 0 (unconscious)
Stef jumped off of his uma and onto Rox's and held Rox upright. Staunching the flow of blood from her neck with his bare hand, they galloped away from the onslaught of arrows.
Once Stef and Rox were on the line, Betsy ordered everyone to follow Greg to the launch point. Hail after hail of arrows rained down on them, but the arrows inflicted only a single point of damage each. Their shields were fifty points each. Betsy sighed in relief. Buying the shield scroll today had been a smart choice. Everyone had been busy preparing for their flight across the Great Abyss and consequently nobody had gotten an ounce of sleep since the failed raid to steal the quantite early this morning.
One after the other, they galloped full speed down the path around the outcropping. Once there they'd launch themselves out into the void. Betsy and Ken on their own umas would be the last ones. After surveying the battlefield with a quick glance, she turned the uma and started down the path.
The rain of arrows stopped.
Not good. I was hoping they were cowards. She twisted around in her saddle.
A huge man with white hair and a white beard stood on the crest of the hill and with both hands shook his tachi in the air. "You can't escape! The Blizzard Berserker King has ordered your execution and it's my job to bring you back!" He wasn't human; he was a tanuki-ningen. Calvin.
Scores of tanuki-ningen soldiers in heavy trench coats and brandishing katanas and naginatas marched up on either side of him. Underneath their bronze helmets glinting in the dull light, dirty balaclava hid their faces. They roared as one roughly spined animal and charged down the slope towards Betsy and Ken.
"Hurry," Ken said. "We can still launch before they catch up to us."
"No, we have injured." This was their first launch. Ken had read the online manual. Because of the lower gravity in abysses, kubi-kire-uma could fly in abysses but not over land. They were lucky he knew the proper name for them. The online manual didn't have a table of contents nor even an index.
How did Calvin find us? At least, he's not a legendary level. With these shields, a mount, and the two of us, we might be able to take him out. It's risky if I let them follow us down to the launch point. Betsy slid her katana and wakizashi out of their scabbards. "All we need to do is take out Calvin."
"Got it," Ken said as he drew his own katana and wakizashi.
He was a good man.
"Charge!" she subvocalized to Branine, her uma, and pointed at Calvin who was in the center of the incoming mob.
Branine rocketed forwards, his hooves tore up the slush and mud and flung globs of it up in the air. Betsy and Ken lurched back and forth.
The shield knocked two soldiers out of the way, but one of the soldiers on their left stood still and let the shield pass around him. Once inside, he slashed at Betsy. She parried it and the soldier's blade struck Branine's side, but it bounced off as though it had hit plate armor.
Armor Class: 75
Ken's wakizashi sliced into the soldier's shoulder and stopped when it hit the collarbone. Ken yanked it out. Blood leaked out around the cut. When the soldier took a step back out of range, another one stepped in through the shield and slashed at Ken with a naginata. Its tip easily penetrated through the trench coat and hide armor and gouged his side. He grimaced. The soldier came in with his naginata again, but Ken parried it.
More soldiers entered the shield, but Calvin stayed outside.
"We're getting swarmed! We have to dismount," Betsy said. "Cover me."
As Betsy slid off, Ken blocked a naginata strike from the right.
Ken jumped off and his boots sunk into the mud up over his ankles. He took two sinking steps and turned himself around. His back touched hers for a moment. Back to back, Betsy hacked right and left clearing a way to Calvin. When she stepped, Ken stepped with her. When he started to step, she followed. They were in a rhythm. Moving in lock-step, he parried and thrust, protecting her rear and their flanks while she moved them closer to Calvin. Adrenalin pumped throughout her body and brain. It was a rush she'd never felt before.
After moving beyond the safety of their shield, she swung her katana at Calvin. He blocked it and shoved her blade aside. Then, the path of his strike made a physically impossible correction and curved in towards her body. She was barely able to move her wakizashi in to block it. Their blades clanged together, but the momentum of Calvin's pushed her own back and his blade cut a deep swath across her abdomen. It sliced through her trench coat and hide armor underneath like they were dried leaves.
Gasping, she stumbled backwards.
"Just give up!" Calvin boomed, his two massive hands wrapped around the hilt of his five-foot tachi. "I won't kill you. I only need to stop Ken."
He's lying, he must know we're all going on the Empress's quest. Wait, I get it, that was a special attack and now he's trying to distract me during in its cooldown phase. "Switch!"
They spun around in place and Ken charged Calvin exactly like a tank should. Moving with him, she deflected strikes from either side. Using his tank combo, he body slammed Calvin, stunning Calvin and then he slashed with his katana, cutting deep into Calvin's chest. Calvin stumbled backwards two steps. Ken moved in for his special attack and thrust his katana straight into Calvin's abdomen. "Switch!" Ken said.
They spun around in-place again.
Calvin's health bar was in the yellow and his hulking body lumbered like a zombie. The front of his trench coat was soaked red.
She grimaced. Each move stretched and tore the gash in her abdomen even wider and blood gushed out. She was dizzy, but she only needed to keep Calvin at bay until Ken recovered his special attack. Having been handed the leader specialty, she didn't have any special combos. She aimed a low sweeping blow at his legs just in case she got lucky and scored a critical hit. She missed.
Calvin's tachi came whistling down on her head. Deflecting it with her wakizashi, it slid off of her blade and sunk deep into her shoulder. She grimaced as blood seeped out through the cut in the her armor and trench coat. Her health bar was in the red and she could feel it. She was more than winded.
"Switch," Ken said.
There were three soldiers attacking them now. As she parried their strikes, two strikes got through. One slashed her arm and another stabbed her in the chest. Ten or twenty soldiers had surrounded Branine and we're hammering away at him. Dumb mobs. They couldn't stray too far away from their boss.
In her other picture-in-picture screens, she saw that everyone had already launched. Good, we don't need to kill Calvin. Then again, the XP would be a big boost and Calvin was already in the red.
Activating his special combo again, Ken charged Calvin. She stumbled after Ken as best she could. She didn't even have to think about it. They were like a single gear with its axis centered in the space between their backs. Sometimes, their backs grazed each other and she felt the straining of his muscles, the power of his will. She felt him thrust his katana into Calvin.
Ken's shoulder bumped into hers as he readied to strike again. Vocal communication had become superfluous. In her HUD, Calvin's health bar was a mere sliver of red. Ken was going to strike the final blow, but Calvin was also readying his final boss combo. What would it be?
Legs as thick as stone pillars slid around her right side. In front of her, the flash of a tachi blade.
As though welded together into a single human gear, Betsy and Ken swiveled around and spun up as their twin blades whirled about in a dervish fervor.
Betsy looked down at her legs. Blood gushed out of the femoral arteries of both her legs. The kisaki tip of a five-foot tachi lay embedded in the brown sludge. Her boots and her legs up to the middle of their thighs flew through the air away from her.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)