Eight wagons rolled north of The Grand Plateau crossroads, overstuffed with cargo and eight passengers, including Jim, crammed into the wagon bed of the last vehicle. Not a single guard marched alongside. If an ordinary caravan with such little strength defending it were to take this road, it would be guaranteed to be plundered before reaching the northern border of the zone. Unfortunately for the small group of slavers that had spotted the wagons, Jim’s plan had counted on their being ambushed.
Eighteen cloaked men waited ahead of the wagon train, and seventeen waited behind. Jim tried to keep track of them waiting for… there. One cloaked figure made a series of hand gestures, and the seventeen figures slipped out from behind tree cover. Jim gathered mana to himself and stood. The “stealthy” ambushers hesitated, but a cry from the front of the wagon train forced them to rush forward to close the trap.
Bandit, level 5 Human criminal.
The process of casting fireball required Jim to stand, chant a short phrase, and then cast his non-dominant hand, his left, forward, palm up, outward from his chest. The process felt somewhat clichéd to Jim.
The results were hard to argue with, though. Rather than aiming for one particular bandit, Jim had cast his spell at the ground at the feet of the clustered criminals. Rather than fizzle against the environment as most spells would, Jim’s Fireball triggered Incineration. The fireball struck the ground at a shallow angle and an explosion sprayed chunks of burning earth and groundcover at the approaching bandits. Any shard larger than a golf ball punched an angry, red 1 out of the cloaked men. More importantly, the smouldering flames that now clung to the agonised men broke their stealth.
Jim had dubbed his master plan, that he’d brainstormed while waiting for everyone else to wake the hell up, Operation: No Deaths. He didn’t like the name, but… Jim had only seventeen troops with which to bring down an entire slave ring and to rescue 200 refugees. He’d wasted an hour so, initially, trying to think of a clever way to drop burning trees on his enemies. Discovering that his fireballs made far better IEDs than sawblades had been a happy accident. Now he planned to use them to commit entirely one-sided, entirely ruthless, and entirely budget, mass-murder.
“Sphairapyra! Sphairapyra!” Jim cast five more fireballs and depleted his mana pool. Every bandit at the rear of the caravan lost 10 of their HP and smoked like lit cigars. Then, gripping his spear, Jim lead the charge against the shocked humans, who bunched together in the middle of the road.
The bandits had to choose between putting out the flames on their clothing and brandishing their daggers to fight. Choosing poorly, they picked neither and compromised. The men flailed their hands over their bodies where they felt the burning while waving their daggers in the general direction of Jim and the militiamen. They were entirely too distracted to realise the true ambush that waited behind them.
Vanessa and her nine lizardman hunters broke their camouflage at the rear of the bandit group as one. Then, they drew and released arrows in silent, deadly coordination. The rear-most distracted bandit dropped dead as ten instances of the number 5 burst around him. A short squeal of pain escaped the man before he died. They hadn’t managed to kill him silently, but, then, it hardly mattered when all of the sixteen still-living bandits screeched in burning agony and drowned out his cries.
Jim’s militia charged slowly, Baywatch style, drawing the enemy’s attention while Vanessa’s hunters killed a full half of the remaining bandits. The distance between the militia forces and the leading bandit was twenty metres. Jim spent a leisurely half-minute closing the gap and the poor, burning fools didn’t even notice.
When the number of militiamen equalled the number of bandits, Burke abandoned the ridiculous ploy and yelled.
Burke ran. Ten steps away, Burke began his signature attack. On the last step, Burke planted his left foot into the dirt road and leaped into the air. The rest of the militia repeated, though imperfectly, Burke’s actions a half-step behind him. Eight spears, held in overhand grips, plummeted downward. Bloody numbers in the 25-35 range leaked from the impaled forms of the last eight rear bandits.
Though the whole business made Jim feel ill, he reversed his grip, ripped out his spear, and rammed it back into the body of his fallen foe. The militia stood over a pile of corpses and not one belonged to a friend. None of them were even injured.
“Go, get back to the wagons,” Jim interrupted the sickened elation. He led the others back to the wagons where eighteen bandits had already begun to plunder the “goods”. Samouel had been right. These criminals were reckless and undisciplined. Surely, they must have heard the screams from the back, but rather than check on their fellows, they’d split into smaller groups of looters.
“Another bag o’ rocks!” Jim heard one yell, right before Langdon’s spear ended the man. His two mates died similarly to Burke’s and Martin’s spears. As one, Jim’s militia mopped up six groups of looters. Again, they didn’t receive so much as an injury. After the battle, they recovered the bandits' cloaks and daggers; they wore no other salvageable equipment. Jim decided to leave the corpses to rot, merely recovering the wagon drivers, who had fled into the woods, and continuing on their urgent rescue.
You have received the following from the battle:
Black Cloak 
The militia travelled at the front of the caravan for the rest of the trip to the ore pit. Jim doubted the slavers had any more patrols along the path, but everyone held their weapons tight. Just in case.
As predicted, they reached the edge of the ore pit without incident. What Jim hadn’t predicted was how abandoned the ore pit now was. Rather than the teeming hive of scum and villainy they’d prepared for, a single group of six bandits, like those that had attacked them, slept huddled around a fire. The refugees were also mostly missing. Only twelve lizardmen were staked to the ground by their shackles, asleep in a pile at the edge of the camp. Jim had Vanessa scout the camp thoroughly. There had to be more.
“I can’t find anyone else, honoured elder,” Vanessa reported back to Jim. “Maybe they’re below?”
Vanessa had to be right. No other alternative made sense. Jim gave her another order.
“Kill the sleeping bandits. Then we’ll go investigate the tunnels.” She and her hunters pulled their looted black cloaks tight and moved to carry out the task without question.
The thought of killing men in their sleep irked Jim. He’d been able to accept killing the bandits up until now with the simple mantra that had helped him accept the deaths of his enemies in previous battles. It’s just a game. Even though the game slightly, but meaningfully, reduced the realism of Platinum Online, the bloody numbers that gurgled from the bandits’ throats caused Jim’s bile to rise. He held it back. He hoped Vanessa would be able to do the same.
The daggers he’d given to every member of the militia as sidearms dealt brutal critical hits to unaware foes. When 10 camouflaged hunters worked in unison, a knife thrust each elicited gross overkill. Before long, Jim was able to loot the bandits for additional cloaks and daggers and free the lizardmen.
“Hey, wake up.” Jim had to prod one lizardman with his spear. The scaled woman eventually woke but spoke groggily. Drugged. She still had the presence of mind to flinch back from Jim’s weapon though. “Relax,” he said. “Samouel sent me.”
“Sam…ouel?” She spoke haltingly and shook her head to try and clear her mind. “Thank the gods.”
With untainted food and water from the militia's supplies, Jim was eventually able to coax more information out of the twelve lizardmen. The situation was simultaneously nowhere near as bad, nor as good as Samouel had feared. Of the 200 lizardmen believed captured, about a quarter had managed to run away to the south and east, away from the slaver camp. Unfortunately, the remaining 150 refugees were not all gathered at this mine.
When Boros the Red hadn’t returned to the camp, a large group of the slavers had decided to leave for greener pastures. The ore pit had been a somewhat productive mine in the past for the criminals. However, in recent months, more and more slaves they sent down to gather the ore did not return. Boros’ insistence that valuable rich ore lay in the very depths of the mine had been the only thing keeping them there. Without him, the other five mages had left, taking more than 100 slaves with them. This mine was haunted so the slavers had marched south, presumably to another abandoned mine.
Only Boros’ loyalists, whom Jim had killed, stayed behind. Jim almost respected the criminals for doing so. In the entrance of the mine, spectral green waves of energy swirled and bubbled. The green was identical to the green of the undead forces that had almost killed Jim and all of his friends. Jim would have gladly ignored the eerie mine, but two grim facts kept him here. First, a little over two dozen lizardmen refugees had been sent into the mines and not returned. Second, a prompt appeared before Jim’s eyes.
You have discovered a dungeon: Haunted Iron Mines.
Quest Updated: The Lost People.
You have discovered new information about the whereabouts of the captured refugees: 40 of the refugees were being held captive at the Haunted Iron Mines, as Samouel predicted. However, 50 refugees escaped in two groups: One to the north-east, and the other to the south-east. Finally, 110 refugees have been taken to another mine in the south of The Grand Plateau. You will receive reduced rewards if you do not rescue all three groups.
Rewards: 20000 experience points; Refugees will join your town and will unlock new options for your town.
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My name's Tim and I'm writing Forgotten Man Online, a game-literature light novel web-series that I plan to release here, on Royal Road, and eventually hopefully through Amazon's Kindle platform.
I studied writing at university for three years and then became a high-school English teacher in Australia (6 years in). Hopefully, that means you will find my content to be of a high standard and that you will enjoy it, provided you can stand the British spelling of words :).