The militia group could only pound muddy dirt as they followed two-dozen-or-so sets of tracks that paralleled the river east. The further into the unexplored lands they ventured, the more untamed and wild the wilderness became. Shadows and eyes followed their course through the reeds and rushes, but nothing ambushed their group. If Jim ever needed some combat practice, the dense, eastern forest would be his first destination.
On the opposite side of the river, to the north, the mountainous ridge that buttressed the town’s northern side continued to climb. The peaks became craggy and jagged. Endless numbers of winged creatures, so large to be visible from kilometres away, flitted into and out of caves and hollows near the mountains’ summits. Jim’s mind went back to the avian monsters that they had fought and the lives they had lost. Better to avoid the northern mountains, for now, he thought.
The journey upstream passed uneventfully but, rather than feeling reassured, the hunters leading the group felt anxious. If the forest were the home to powerful beasts, why would they neglect such a large group of potential prey? Why would the apex predators in the woods ignore the humans that passed just beyond the tree line? What lurked beneath the water? Muttered questions circled through the group as the hunters’ worries seeped into the militia. Individual spearmen whispered of turning back, but Langdon urged the group forward. They had no choice but to follow the tracks of the escaped refugees.
After noon, the unease and tension spiked like the mountains to the north. The river bent to the south and cut into the forest. In the shadow of the trees, the river’s depth became murky and able to conceal dangers. The river banks parted ways and got lost in the swampy brush. The tracks they followed crossed with slithers and oversized prints that backfilled with muddy water. Still, nothing approached the militia.
More clawed prints scratched out the escaped refugees’ tracks. The refugees’ footsteps changed abruptly, and discarded items littered the riverbank. The militia had begun to jog when they’d seen the first beast tracks, but now they broke into a run. The militia spearmen took to the front and unslung their spears. Screams and cries became barely audible over the rushing river. Jim clutched his spellcasting hand to his chest and kept his mind on the short ritual needed to pour forth fire.
The militia bulled through a dense clump of rushes. A bloody gash in the mud showed where a refugee had been dragged down. Just ahead, a group of refugees wailed and watched helplessly as a huge pack of scaled river beasts mauled more of their dead friends. The scaled monstrosities looked like a cross between a crocodile and a hippopotamus, with a size somewhere in between and a diet just as bloody. Enraged at the sight of screaming refugees being eaten alive, the militia charged on Burke’s command.
River Beast, level 6 monster 
“Stop!” Langdon yelled, his voice filled with decisiveness and weight that he had, until now, lacked. Fortunately, the militia stopped. A charge into a heavily armoured foe would have been suicidal, and Langdon assessed the situation immediately. Furthermore, the militia’s stamina was entirely depleted from the run. Burke’s charge had been reckless, and the militia had been right to listen to their sergeant.
“This doesn’t look good,” Langdon spoke to Jim and Vanessa.
“Langdon, honoured elder, I think I may have a plan,” Vanessa said. “If these River Beasts are just unintelligent animals like their behaviour suggests, we ought to treat this like any other hunt.” Jim didn’t have anything to contribute. He’d gained a bit of battle experience with the militia, but as a hunter, he still only had one real experience. Jim’s mind cast back to the boar hunt with Langdon and Martin when he’d first joined Platinum Online and, based on his next suggestion, Langdon’s did too.
“Spears to the front and impale any that get close,” Langdon said. Vanessa agreed but made a few modifications to how the militia would arrange themselves. Just as with the avians, the earth mages formed up behind the strongest militiamen, led by Burke, to pin down the animals. The hunters planted arrows in the muddy ground in a line and calmed their breathing.
Their foe, mindless and bestial, did not even react as the lizardman forces reorganised at the rear; they only fought for scraps of now-silent refugee meat. Beyond the River Beasts, the other escaped refugees had fled further upstream and hid behind bushes and rocks. This group represented the cowards that had fled the fires from the avian fight. Jim didn’t think they could rely on any support from the quivering mob.
While the beasts ate, Langdon laid down a final, basic battle plan: “Start from the edges of their group. Try to lure over a few at a time with your arrows. We’ll surround and overwhelm any that come in smaller groups…” His plan had the advantage of both being simple and having a backup plan. If the battle went to shit and the beasts charged as a pack, Jim would be bait. Jim moved up the river bank and cleared a line of fire.
For the first half-dozen river beasts, Langdon’s plan proceeded smoothly. Vanessa sighted a distant target and loosed arrows from the maximum range. The metal head of the arrow thunked into a lonely, runt of a river beast that had been bullied out of the lunchtime carnage. A sad, grey 6 bounced off its hide. The arrow’s entire shaft stuck out. Vanessa’s arrow barely penetrated the target’s hide. The shot must have hurt, though. The river beast growled and gurgled and charged at Vanessa. Only one other river beast had seen or heard the attack and grudgingly left its mostly-chewed foot in the mud when it followed to help.
The two river beasts, even heavily armoured, did not reach the group. From their most distant range, around 100 metres away, every hunter in the group could land multiple strikes. Even though the croco-potamuses plowed through the muddy river bank far faster than a human could have, they barely made spitting distance. Single digit numbers seemed pathetic in isolation, but with nine focussed and aimed shots every few seconds, the hunters didn’t even need their cunning triangle trap.
The militia hunters repeated this feat twice more, luring two pairs of river beasts to muddy, bloody deaths. On her fourth attempt, Vanessa had begun to run out of good options. Another small group of three river beasts fought over a mostly-intact corpse by the water. They looked like a likely target, but the large pack of the nine largest animals milled about very close by. Rather than taking the risk, Vanessa lured over the medium sized group of six river beasts.
Against such a large force, the hunter group could only wound each approaching animal. Though they easily brought down the first river beast, the following five all reached the militia line with most of their health left. They charged Langdon, Burke, and Martin who held the centre. Including two others, each militiaman planted his spear in the soft ground and prepared to receive one of the beasts.
Langdon and Martin each held as their river beast impaled themselves upon the spear. The two regular militiamen on the wings buckled under the huge weight of the river beasts but also held with help. Their nearby buddies slammed their spears into the animals’ thick hides and added their weight. Behind each spearman, an earth mage braced themselves and the spearman, further supporting the stagnant scrum. Muscles trembled on both sides, but four of the five men on the frontline completely pinned one river beast each.
Burke had terrible luck. Rather than holding his river beast back, Burke’s overworked spear shattered. The river beast chomped down on Burke’s outstretched hands. The splintered half-shaft of a spear that Burke held saved his hands from being severed, but a bloody 39 oozed from the wounds on his forearms. Burke yelled in pain, but rather than pulling back and ruining the line, he lunged forward.
The river beast opened its maw to chomp down on Burke again. Pre-empting the bite, Burke double-uppercut the roof of the animal’s mouth. He left both of his arms inside the animal’s mouth. Burke held the last river beast in line with his bare hands! More bloody numbers seeped from Burke as teeth struck at Burke’s arms, head and shoulders. His health plummeted, and Jim and the earth mages acted.
The earth mages channelled healing mana into Burke to keep him alive. Jim, too impatient and concerned to let Burke struggle unarmed, gave up his role as a backup plan. A ball of fire billowed from his outstretched palm and what followed was an unmitigated clusterfuck.
First of all, Jim succeeded. The 38-damage fireball burned away Burke’s river beast in a white-hot flash, along with Burke’s eyebrows. At the same time, the militia on the wings stabbed the outer two river beasts to death. Things initially looked good for the militia.
Second of all, however, Jim screwed the plan. His fire talent, Incineration, gave Jim’s spells realistic environmental effects: Firestorms, explosions, concussive blasts of air. It also made Jim’s spells obvious, loud and noisy. The kaarummpt of the fireball’s detonation washed over the militia, Jim and then the remaining twelve river beasts. Just as the militia finished off the last two river beasts of the six they’d engaged, the twelve still enjoying their lunch looked up.
Then they charged.
The group of three river beasts Vanessa had been eyeing earlier was closest, and she immediately led the hunters to engage that group in a running fight right by the water’s edge. The enormous force of nine, huge river beasts, charged for the bloodiest, meatiest part of the battlefield. Burke yelled for a new spear as the bulk of the animals aimed directly at him.
“Jim! You’re bait!” Martin called upon seeing the river beasts. Jim didn’t answer except to cast fireball four times.
“Sphairapyra! Sphairapyra! Sphairapyra! Sphairapyra!”
For each fireball, a singed and blackened 38 spun off the hides of the river beasts in eddies of superheated wind. With his fifth fireball of the fight, Jim had only 107 mana remaining: enough for two more casts. Unfortunately, he had four pissed off crocodile-hippopotamus mutant half breeds chasing him through the forest. He weaved through increasingly dense patches of trees and undergrowth while mud sucked at his feet and slowed him down. The river beasts gained on him fast, but the news wasn’t all bad.
Your base Constitution, Strength, and Dexterity have increased by 1.
Jim had given up farming the physical attributes when gravedigging had ceased to yield results. However, the strenuous exercise of running for his life through mud, root, and branch had pushed him over some internal barrier. The increased statistic gave Jim a small burst of speed, but even so, the river beasts edged him out in physical prowess. As Jim reached the drier ground, the river beasts caught up. He would only last for one bite each from the monsters.
The lead beast snapped at Jim’s ankle as he ran and caught the stray limb. Jim tumbled, the red 41 of his wound spinning madly in his peripheral vision. He crashed into a dense bush and the animals chased him skidded to a stop.
Made it, Jim thought, looking at the bush that he’d crashed into.
While Jim hadn’t planned to have his foot nearly bitten off, he had planned to fight the four beasts in this bush. Dying, yellowed, dry strands of brush stabbed at Jim’s exposed skin. He smiled and clutched his left hand, his spellcasting hand, to his chest. The four river beasts rushed into the bush and opened their mouths wide.
Jim’s last two fireballs blazed into the gaping gullets of the nearest two enemies. Infernal 38s ripped their blackened heads apart and dealt massive overkill damage. Only one of the two living animals managed to sink their teeth into him as the brush around them caught fire. Jim lost another 40 HP but the fire that splashed off his two fireballs soon did far more damage.
Multiple white, orange, yellow and red 6s and 7s burned at Jim’s flesh and he screamed. The two river beasts caught in the blaze also began to thrash and squeal. They only lasted two seconds in the bushfire. Jim’s first two fireballs, from when he’d lured the group, had left the two river beasts with only 12 health and they quickly succumbed to the hungry flames. Jim himself nearly perished, too. As it was, he only survived thanks to the fortuitous increase in his constitution. He crawled out of the burning bush with 7/148 HP.
River Beast Corpse
Quest Updated: The Lost People.
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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 :).