“No, it should be shear. That’s the obvious choice.”
“What? Why? What’s he need that for, Jamus?”
“Come on, Carten, can’t you see how powerful it could be? It says ‘not occluded’. Do you have any idea what that means?”
“’Course I do. Means it goes through stuff. What’s so good about that? It’s still too weak to do anything.”
“Come on, think about it! Once he gets the range up, he could kill things on the other side of a wall for crying out loud!”
“How about just go around the wall, then kill the things? Works fine for me.”
“Carten, not everyone wants to be surrounded by a pack of monsters.”
“I suppose that makes sense coming from you, you twinkly orange beanstalk, but it doesn’t apply to Rain. Why would he pick auras if he didn’t want to be in the middle of things?”
“I’m sure he had a good reason.”
“And what reason would that be?”
“He said he wanted to be useful, you dolt. Weren’t you listening? That ‘mana well’ thing is stupendous! Do you have any idea how big of a deal it is to not have to worry about conserving mana? He’s going to have his pick of any party he wants!”
“Doesn’t do anything for me. Like I’m sayin’, he needs to get the health regen aura.”
“Aaarg! You’re impossible! It doesn’t make sense to pick that right now. We have scrolls! It would take ages for him to get it to the point where he could unlock the direct healing aura. He needs other things right now!”
“Fine, how about one of the defensive ones? Total damage immunity sounds great to me! Plus, he kinda needs it if he doesn’t want to get splattered.”
“It isn’t immunity, you should know that. Nothing is absolute. It takes mana.”
“Yeah, but he’s got mana out the ass. What’s the difference?”
“Carten, do you even know what a third means? It doesn’t even block everything unless he amplifies it, and even then the efficiency would probably go down, just like the mana transfer one.”
“Fuck you, Jamus. I know my numbers. See, this is why nobody likes mages.”
“Fine, fine, sorry, that was a bit out of line, but come on!”
“He could jump off a mountain and not get hurt when he hit the ground. That sounds like fun.”
“We don’t even know if there is one for physical damage. He said he couldn’t afford the next tier to check right now.”
“You know just as well as I do that it’ll exist. You’re just being contrary.”
“Ooh, big word.”
“Listen here, spongecake-”
“GUYS!” Rain yelled, interrupting.
“What?” they both shouted simultaneously, turning to look at him.
“I said we’re leaving. Come on. The others already left. You drove them away.”
“Fine, but first, tell this musclebound idiot that shear is the best choice.”
“Oh no, I’m not getting involved in this again. I regret ever asking you two for advice.”
“What? Why? You were listening to that Ameliah woman,” Carten said.
“Yes, I was. She hasn’t been arguing in circles for the last thirty minutes.”
“Rain, this isn’t a decision to be made lightly,” Jamus said.
“Enough!” Rain shouted. “I’m leaving. You were paying attention when Ameliah explained the plan, right?”
“What plan?” Carten asked.
Rain sighed in exasperation. “Jamus, explain it to him.”
“Um… I might not have been paying attention either.”
“Unbelievable,” Rain shook his head. “One person stays with Tallheart and the cart, two walk ahead, and two stay behind. If you see someone coming, send one person to warn Tallheart to hide. You got that? You’re the rear group.”
“Simple enough,” Jamus said, “Now if you could just tell us- Hey, where are you going?”
“We’re stopping at that big rock. You remember the one I’m talking about. Don’t follow us until we’re out of sight.”
Rain rolled his eyes as he walked towards the road.
“Right, so anyway, we need to convince him to train his offensive auras so he can get shear, then he can-”
“Yer not listenin’ ta’ me! He doesn’t need shear!”
The noise of the two adventurers faded as Rain left them behind. He hurried to catch up with the others, who he could see waiting for him at the road. Had he known how heated the argument about his build would get, he would have never even brought it up.
He’d been telling Ameliah what had happened to him since he’d last seen her, and that had turned into a discussion of how he had ended up in the forest via teleportation. Ameliah had suspected something of the sort, but she had still been shocked to learn that he wasn’t from this world at all. Even though he had only hinted at it with the others, he’d felt comfortable enough around her to come right out and say it directly. However, before he had been able to go into too much detail, Carten had wandered over and started listening in.
The large man was a bit of an unknown quantity, so he steered the conversation back to safer territory by asking him for his opinion on a few of the skills he was considering taking. Eventually, Val and Jamus joined the discussion and it quickly devolved into a heated argument about his class and his skill choices. It seemed that the taboo only applied to direct discussions about someone’s stats or level. Wild theorycrafting was considered perfectly acceptable, but Jamus and Carten had taken it to the extreme and it had started to get on the others’ nerves.
“They’re still going at it, huh?” Val asked as Rain approached the cart.
“Are they coming, or...”
“They know the plan. Come on, let’s go.”
“Who’s scouting ahead?”
“I’d like to walk with Tallheart, if that’s alright,” Ameliah said. “No offense, but I need a little quiet after…that.” She gestured in the direction of their wayward party members.
Rain nodded. “We’ll stop at the rock I told you about. You can’t miss it. We’ll warn you if anyone is coming.”
“Finally,” Val said. “Okay Rain, looks like it’s you and me. Let’s go.”
Rain nodded again and joined Val. They started walking down the road, leaving Ameliah and Tallheart waiting with the cart. They’d follow after giving them a sufficient lead.
“So,” Val said. “What skill are you going to pick?”
Rain growled at him. Val laughed, holding up his hands in a gesture of peace.
“What are those?”
“Keep your voice down, fool. They’ll hear us.”
Chagrined, Rain lapsed back into silence. He and Val were on their stomachs, peering over the peak of a small hill. They were watching a strange group of imp-like creatures milling around the carcass of some large animal. They’d heard strange noises coming from the west of the road and gone to investigate, culminating in their position on top of the hill.
Rain watched as the horde of small creatures tore into the carcass of the animal, screeching and hissing at each other as they fought to jam their gaping mouths full of meat that they tore off with their clawed hands. The small creatures were a brilliant flaming red and looked vaguely humanoid. Their proportions were wrong, though. They had long, spindly arms and legs, attached to a tiny torso. Their heads were massive by comparison, hairless and complete with a wide mouth filled with pointy teeth. From their vantage point, Rain struggled to make out much more detail than that, but he could see enough that he knew he had no interest in getting closer.
“Those are Kin. Fire Kin, specifically.” Val whispered. “You see the color?”
“Yeah, I see it. I also see the teeth. What are they eating?”
“No idea. They’ll eat anything and everything. You see those trees?” Val pointed a finger, directing Rain’s gaze to a small patch of blackened stumps. There were charred branches scattered around and the grass was smoking. “My guess is, they were busy eating the wood until that animal came along to investigate. It must have just happened, otherwise…. Ah, yeah. Look. There it goes.”
Rain turned his gaze back to the disgusting spectacle of the creatures tearing apart the animal to see that the carcass had caught fire. The creatures were still tearing into it, gulping down mouthfuls of meat and burning hair.
“You see that? It’s how they feed. They won’t stop until there’s nothing left but bare dirt. Then, they’ll go right back to eating the trees, then the grass, then whatever else they can find. Look there. You see that trail? They came from the north.”
“Where are they putting it all?” Rain asked, watching as a Kin tore off one of the animal’s hooves. It tried to jam the whole thing into its mouth, despite the fact that the hoof was larger than its head.
“They’re monsters,” Val said, as if that explained it. “They’ll eat and eat, endlessly. Kin are a plague. They have wiped out entire towns overnight. We’re lucky it’s just a small group.”
“A small group? There’s got to be like fifty of those things. It’s hard to count with them climbing all over each other.”
“I’ve heard of groups of kin numbering in the tens of thousands.”
Holy shit, that’s terrifying. Nope. Nope nope nope.
“Come on, Val, let’s go warn the others. We can just leave them be.”
“Nonsense. We’re going to kill them.”
“Dude, no. Do you see those claws? Also, the fire?”
“Kin are only level three or four, usually. It’s the numbers that make them dangerous. We can take them.”
“Let’s at least get the others first.”
“Come on, little mouse,” Val said, imitating Carten’s voice but keeping it to a whisper. “These are perfect for you. They are weak to cold, you know. Just go down there and take em out. I’ll cover you from here.”
“That doesn’t seem like a good plan to me,” Rain said, eyeing the rapidly shrinking pile of gore. “Do we have to deal with them at all? They aren’t going to, like, duplicate or something once they're done eating, are they? Fuck, where is it all going? Do they even have stomachs?”
“No. Come on, questions later. Get down there. If you use that aura of yours, you’ll be fine. Don’t run out of mana. That would be bad. Also, don’t let them get to your face. That would also be bad. They’ll swarm you once they see you. They aren’t smart, though, so they’ll just go for the closest bit they can reach. Your armor should help.”
“Dude, no. I’m not doing it.”
“Shit, I think they saw us.”
Rain looked to where Val was pointing. One of the Kin was looking directly back at him. It started letting out a horrible tea-kettle hissing and ran straight for them. More and more toothy faces turned to look, and soon the entire horde was rushing towards them, some still carrying chunks of meat with them and stuffing their faces as they ran.
Val stood and started blasting flashes of light at the Kin with both hands. Rain heard a ding with each shot that connected, his notification log registering the kills.
“Get down there!” Val shouted, still firing. He cursed as he missed one of the rapidly moving targets.
Rain froze, paralyzed with fear. The lead creatures had gotten down on all fours and were scrambling up the hill, rapidly closing the distance. He forced himself to his feet and grabbed his tree-branch quarterstaff from where it had been lying next to him. “Val, we need to run!”
“No! Just get in there and use your aura!”
“Val, I can’t-”
“If they get to me, I’m done! We can’t outrun them. Go!”
Still, Rain hesitated. He gripped his staff, his knuckles white.
Oh fuck. I can’t believe I’m about to do this.
Rain positioned the sturdy branch in front of himself and started edging towards the howling pack of Kin. Every instinct in his body was screaming at him to turn and run the other way. He could see the beady, black eyes of the lead monster locked onto him over its bloody, howling mouth. A health bar and title had appeared over its head now that it was closer, confirming it as a monster. Val had been wrong; the fucking thing was level six.
Shit! I’m still in range of Val with my aura. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why couldn’t I move!?
Rain screamed and swung at the monster with his staff. The end connected with a satisfying thunk, sending the monster flying. He didn’t have time to celebrate; the other creatures were swarming around him, grasping for his legs with their long claws.
“Use it!” Val shouted as he intercepted one of the lunging Kin with a wall of white light. The air felt hot as the hairless red monsters swarmed over them, clawing and biting. The kill notifications stopped as Val was forced to raise another shield to keep the Kin from getting to him.
“Refrigerate!” Rain screamed, both mentally and verbally. The wave of cold blasted forth, immediately counteracting the fiery presence of the Kin and chilling the air. The Kin screamed in rage, but didn’t relent, biting furiously at his legs and climbing over each other to reach his vulnerable hands and face. He could feel the pressure of their teeth through the padding covering his legs. He screamed and flailed with the staff, trying to keep them away.
“Fuck!” Val yelled as his first shield shattered. He was swarmed by the howling pack of Kin as he attempted to cover his head with his hands as best he could. He didn’t have his staff, having left it in the cart.
Rain screamed at the top of his lungs and amplified his refrigeration aura to the maximum level that he could without using aura focus. He knew that he’d fall to the ground if he lost his senses while covered with howling Kin. The struggles of the monsters trying to eat through his armor slowed, their bright red skin frosting over. Suddenly, the telltale ding of a kill notification pushed its way into Rain’s mind, past his terror. It was followed by a veritable cascade of dings as the Kin besetting them died in droves. Rain canceled the aura a few seconds after the last Kin stopped moving. The frozen corpses of Kin were still latched onto him with their claws and fangs deep in the fabric of his armor.
Eventually, he made it to where Val had fallen, flinging away the frozen Kin to reveal his body. His skin was frosted and ice-cold, frozen blood streaking his face. Rain’s heart leapt in his chest, but Val’s eyes flashed open and he drew a gasping breath. “Scroll...” he croaked weakly through chattering teeth.
Hurriedly, Rain fumbled with the laces holding his pack closed. Before he could get it open to retrieve the healing scroll that he had stashed there, he heard rapid footsteps approaching. He turned to see Ameliah rushing towards him at a ridiculous speed.
“Move aside,” she said, reaching down to lay a hand against Val’s forehead. “Healing word!” There was a flash of light and Val’s breathing eased. He started struggling to free himself from the pile of frozen Kin.
Ameliah turned to Rain. “Are you hurt?”
He shook his head, panting and slumping to the ground in exhaustion and relief.
“Whew! That was a close one! You ok, Rain?” Val said, standing and kicking himself free from the pile of frozen Kin. “Nice work. I owe you two lives now.”
Rain looked up at Val, then down at his knees, saying nothing.
“What happened?” Ameliah asked, looking at Rain with concern in her voice. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“I almost got us killed is what happened,” Rain said, not looking up.
“Fucking Kin spotted us before we could get the jump on them. Rain wiped them out with that cold aura, but I got caught in it too.” Val shivered. “Thanks for healing me. You got anything that can help me warm up?”
“You’ll be fine. Rain, what do you mean you almost got the two of you killed?”
“The kin were eating...something. They didn't see us. Val… Val said I should go down and wipe them out, but I… I couldn’t. I froze.”
“Damn things rushed us. Don’t beat yourself up over it, Rain. It happens,” Val said.
Rain breathed out, then looked up, meeting Val’s eyes. “Why are you being so nice all of a sudden? If I had just done what you said… We could have died, Val, and it was my own stupid fault.”
Val grimaced and walked over to him, crouching down. “Sometimes I forget how new you are at this,” he said. “Look, it happens. You’ve been an adventurer for, what, a month? You’re not used to it yet. This will be my...sixth brush with death. You froze, yes, but we’re still alive. Shit, I’m not even hurt thanks to Ameliah. All you need to do is get back up and get on with it. Next time, you won’t freeze.”
“He’s right, you know,” Ameliah said, pulling Rain back to his feet. He felt stamina flooding into him at her touch, followed by healing, though he didn’t need it. “He might be being a little bit too cavalier, but he has a point. You’re still new at this. Freezing up is understandable.”
Rain looked at Val. “You don’t blame me? Really?”
Val shook his head. “I don’t.”
“There they are!” Carten’s voice boomed as he crested the hill blocking them from the road. “Shit, that’s a lot of Kin.”
“Mmm,” Tallheart rumbled, surveying the scene as he and Jamus followed Carten over the hill.
“Kin? Here?” Jamus said, peering out from behind Tallheart. “Oh, yeah. Those are Kin alright. Rain, did you do this? They look frozen...”
“Jamus… what? Where did you all come from?” Rain asked.
“We got bored,” Carten said. “Didn’t see anyone on the road for hours and it was starting to get dark, so we figured we’d catch up. Looks like we still missed all the action.”
“You were yelling pretty loudly. We had just reached the cart when we heard the screaming. Ameliah took off, and we followed.”
“Damn you can run,” Carten laughed, moving to clap Ameliah on the shoulder, but missing as she dodged.
“Does anyone know what rank this area is?” she asked.
Carten shrugged and Val shook his head. Jamus wasn’t paying attention, bending over to poke at the pile of thawing Kin. Seeing that nobody else was going to answer, Rain replied to her question. “Zero, I think. At least, that’s what Jamus said last time we were out this way.”
Ameliah looked confused. “What? What was that first word, sorry, I didn’t catch it.”
“He means that this area is rankless,” Tallheart clarified.
“That ain’t what he said,” Carten commented. “Seer-o. What’s that mean, eh?”
“I’ll explain later. Sorry, could you guys just give me a minute? I don’t feel so great.”
“What, didn’t she heal you?” Carten asked, peering at Rain’s face. “You look fine to me.”
Ameliah shook her head. “That’s not it, Carten. Take Val and go get the horse; we’ll camp here tonight. Nobody goes off alone until we know if there are more Kin out there.”
“Carten,” Jamus said, having returned from inspecting the bodies. “Do it. If there’s Kin here, there could be worse lurking. It shouldn’t be possible, yet...”
“Fine. We’ll make up the time tomorrow,” Carten said, stomping off towards the road. Val moved to follow.
“Rain,” Jamus said, “Think you can do something about this?” He indicated the pile of Kin corpses. “I know you’re tired, but I really don’t fancy spending the night near a pile of monster corpses, once they all start thawing out.”
“It’s ok, I’ve got it,” Ameliah said. Jamus raised an eyebrow as waves of purification started rolling off of her. From the way the light flowed out across the hilltop, it was clear that she, not Rain, was the source.
“What, you too?” he asked.
She tilted her head as she looked over at him, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re an aura user?” he asked.
“I’ve just got the one.”
“Why just one?” Rain asked, looking at her.
Ameliah smiled, but didn’t answer. She canceled the aura as the last remains of the Kin melted away, leaving a faint glimmering of Tel scattered across the hilltop. She held out her hand, palm up. “Attract.”
Rain started as a sudden wind rushed across the hilltop. The scattered Tel were swept up and deposited in a pile in her open palm, which she held out to him.
“Here,” she said, taking his hand and transferring the small pile to him.
“Handy,” Jamus said.
Rain looked down at the pile of Tel in wonder. A glint of red in the pile caught his eye, and he sifted through it, pulling out a slightly larger red crystal from the pile of white Tel. “What’s this?”
“Fire Cryst,” Tallheart rumbled, holding out his hand. “May I?”
Rain handed it to him. “Is it valuable?”
“Not very,” Ameliah shrugged. “Worth a couple Tel if you can find a crafter to buy it.”
“Can you use it, Tallheart?” Rain asked.
The antlered man nodded slowly, examining the crystal. “It is intact. Yes, I can use it.”
“Keep it,” Rain said. “I’ve got no use for it. I don’t think a few Tel is going to make much difference in the end.”
“Right, time for soup!” Jamus said.
“Just don’t let Val help you, whatever you do,” Rain said, smiling softly. He felt a bit better. The comforting presence of his companions was helping. He closed his hand, grasping the small pile of Tel.