Avians. Jim saw feathered monsters, not a separate intelligent race. He couldn’t imagine wanting to transform into that. When he’d selected the Reptile bloodline after first being stranded in Platinum Online without any rights, Jim had contemplated becoming a Birdman. Now, he was glad he didn’t. There was almost no man to be seen. The winged monstrosities were a metre and a half long and sheathed entirely in blood-mottled feathers. Instead of having arms and hands, sharp talons tipped their middle wing joints. Beaks incapable of speech ripped at raw flesh. How could this be a playable character race?
Fortunately for the militia, the carrioneaters fought for scraps of food, flared their wings and pecked at one another rather than keeping an eye on their surroundings. Langdon silently ordered the militia to surround the clearing and Jim used the time to equip the Flamecaster's Robes and plan an ambush. The veterans of Langdon's soldiers followed orders with an efficiency that a professional army could appreciate. The new recruits, however, quickly showed their green skills.
Two spearmen attempting to get past one another collided. The clack of their spear shafts smacking together alerted the avians. As one, 26 heads rotated sickeningly, many snapping a full 180 degrees, to glare at the two spearmen. The new hunter recruit launched an arrow in panic, loosing the arrow into the pack of birds. Rather than aiming at a particular enemy, he’d shot for the centre of the group: The empty centre of the group. The arrow literally ruffled a few feathers but did no damage.
A screeching caw split the forest. The avian menace flocked to the source of the arrow and the lizardmen recruits there were entirely unprepared.
The birds funnelled into the tree line and their talons ripped through the brush in swathes. Gashes in leather armour and scaled skin leaked sanguine 6s and 7s. Flailing and flapping wings created gales of feathers, flesh, and blood. The health of the spearmen recruits dropped precipitously. 43. 37. 31. 24. 18. 11. The dense trees at the edge of the clearing saved the three hapless men. The whirlwind of raking talons had been limited by the number of birds that could attack the militia. Only three birds could engage each of the undertrained men.
The militia reacted quickly and filtered in around their beleaguered comrades. Weapons and bodies blocked the narrow spaces between the trees in a fanged wall of spears, daggers, and arrows. Behind the screaming, lizardman victims, Jim’s earth mages touched one hand to the ground and supported their wounded comrades with their other hand. Even infuriated, the avians could only inflict pain until the healers’ mana depleted. A talon slash would expose white ribs and a spurt of blood. The militia recruit would grow pale. The earth’s vitality would flow into him. The wound would be healed. A talon slash would expose bone... The cycle repeated.
Vanessa’s hunters sniped through gaps in the branches, their arrows piercing the wings and limbs of the enemy in flashes of glinting, silver 13s, 14s and 15s. Any bird that stuck its beak out died in a gale of double, aimed shots. The rest of the militia lowered their spears and filtered into any gaps not filled by the arrow storm. More damage double-digits joined the arrows and the avians began to caw in panic.
Burke, having been the furthest around the clearing, split through the bloodied patch of empty ground and closed off the retreat of the avians. The four remaining veteran militia stood by his left and right, two apiece. With his enemies boxed in, and his allies clearing the line of fire, Jim acted.
“Sphairapyra!” One after another, Jim unloaded fiery 38s into the enemy. Branches caught for, feathers caught fire, limbs caught fire. The panicked cries of their enemy infused with burning adrenaline. Frantic wingbeats sheared the superheated air in percussive blasts. The smell of roast fowl invaded and tantalised Jim’s nose. He became uncomfortable at the hunger that arose, but he drained his mana casting fireballs anyway. A rising updraft of embers and heat encouraged some avians to take to the sky. Arrows and thrown spears struck down all escapees. The raw recruits’ blunder had soured their initial strategy but had become a much more brutal and efficient method of killing their monstrous foe in a stroke of sheer luck.
That luck only stretched as far as the earth mages’ mana for those three initial blood bags, however. When the last of the mages dropped back, depleted, the avians broke from the encirclement. Like chickens, half flying, half scrabbling, the carrioneaters barged through. The receding flames fanned the fires of the birdmen’s fury and rather than escaping, they attacked the nearest targets.
The magically enhanced lizardmen may as well have been the trees that had absorbed so many of their strikes at the battle’s onset. The power of their earth magic and their shields blocked all but the most awkward of strikes. Vanessa’s hunters became the next target of the blindly enraged avians. With short leaps and wingbeats, the remaining dozen birds flocked on the lightly armed component of the militia. They achieved nothing.
Vanessa, the brilliant huntress, lead her equally brilliant veterans in a fighting retreat. As the enemy group closed on one hunter, synchronised blasts of aimed, double-shots struck down the three leading carrioneaters. The avians behind could only stumble over their limp wingmen while the hunter they’d swooped on vaulted away.
Vanessa led the hunters to repeat the process and formed a triangle trap with two groups. As the mindlessly enraged birdmen closed on one group, that group would move away in parallel, while the other group would pivot on the spot and rapid-fire arrows. If the avians changed target, Vanessa would signal the newly pursued group to move, maintaining a perfect triangle with their prey.
Langdon could only lead the militia in slow pursuit. The dextrous hunters and huntresses moved through the forest in shadows and blurs rather than the footsteps the rest of the militia had to use. When the militia finally caught up to the warring groups, their only role was to Sherpa the corpses back to the clearing to be burned.
Rewards: 580 experience points; 241 Aerodynamic Feathers; 3 silver, 20 copper.
Burke led the militia in arranging and searching the bodies of both the dead lizardmen and the dead avians. He handed Jim the spoils of war: Each person, and Jim had to accept that these birdmen were, to some extent, people, had been carried around 10 copper each. The lizardmen escapees had similar amounts of money in their coin purses and pockets. Additionally, a few less than 10 each, striking white tailfeathers pulled away from the corpses of the avian carrioneaters.
As he held the bundles of feathers in his hands, Jim felt sickened by the bloodied trophies. Emotions raged through Jim in a torrent. Throughout the battle, digital adrenaline pushed Jim into a tempest of fire, flame, and fury. He had shouted his voice raw casting spells. Brutal balls of fire had burned sentient living creatures and he’d had fun doing it. Early in the day, Jim had enjoyed wallowing in his grief without realising that the cool blue oppression that System had imposed on him also suppressed his base instincts for carnage and blood.
It’s just a game.
Burke clapped Jim on the shoulder. He shook himself out of the emotions that had flooded him. Platinum Online was startling and realistic, but it was a game. He only needed to look at the numbers and the system prompts to shatter the immersion and look at the battlefield more objectively. These feathers were rare materials. He could sell them, or craft with them, or do any other number of things to obtain money and power. The items and the dead, computerised birds were tools that he would use to reconnect with his daughter. He would not feel guilty for killing monsters in a game.
The three dead lizardmen from the militia did make Jim feel guilty, though. He couldn’t easily shake that emotion. He felt far less traumatised than he had the first time he’d lost the young huntress in the rotten sawmill, but he still felt traumatised. Jim fell into the ritual he’d established since the militia’s brush with undeath and worked into the evening to bury the bodies. While Jim worked, the militia made camp and the hunters prepared a meal. The others grieved, too, in their computerised way. The five earth mages used their magic to push aside mounds of earth. Jim gently laid their fallen friends into the graves and delivered funeral rites. Everyone stopped and listened to his words and threw a handful of dirt over the bodies before the earth mages magically sealed the tombs of the fallen.
When the work of the militia was done, the clearing held only brown dirt, healed men and women, and a blazing cookfire. The blood and bone had been sealed under a flat tile of enchanted rock. They sat on freshly cut logs around the campfire. Martin doled out bowls of soup as Vanessa handed them to him. The militia ate companionably and tried to recapture the memories of the slain. The new recruits told stories about the three dead and made their ordinary lives seem heroic.
A young lizardman militiaman had been in the middle of a bawdy tale of the dead hunter, when a sharp call ended all discussion. A huntress on sentry duty raised an alarm and every person grabbed their weapon from beside or behind them.
“Movement in the forest,” the sentry reported.
“Form up!” Langdon shouted, and Burke echoed his orders. The militia formed a circle around the campfire. Spearmen on the outside, interspersed with earth mages, and hunters on the inside.
Dark shadows fumbled through the trees and into the clearing. The militia tensed… then relaxed. Haggard and dirty lizardmen and lizardwomen practically threw themselves at the feet of the militia.
“Oh, thank the gods!”
Around 50 escaped lizardmen had seen the smoke and fire from the battle, and a little over half of them decided to turn back and investigate.
“There were more of you? Where are they?” Jim quizzed one man.
“Yes, but the others didn’t want to come back to the forest. They fled down the river and didn’t stop. They’re probably still running.”
If the other escapees were still running, even the hunters wouldn’t find them in the moonless evening. All that Jim could do was invite the 23 wayward souls to join the militia in eating. Vanessa had hunted more than enough animals in order to feed Jim’s midnight skinning habit. Butchering another few to stretch the meal was no hardship, so the hunters did so willingly.
Jim talked with the de-facto lead escapee into the evening. At the mention of Samouel’s name, the escapee immediately agreed to return to Andrew’s refugee camp and cursed themselves for ignoring the cookfires the previous day. They had, as Vanessa suspected, thought the refugee camp to be the slavers’ base.
After the meal, the hunters took turn posting sentries in the obviously dangerous woods while Jim skinned animal corpses by the dying firelight. At daybreak, Jim sent the newest refugees west to camp and asked Vanessa to range ahead and locate the track of the remaining refugees. She did so in short order and the militia set out.
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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 :).