Simply because I was the least useful or rather that everyone else had a position more advantageous I was the one who acted as bait.
That wasn't to say I wasn't expecting it. Being the wild card in the group meant our reliable hitters needed to stay in positions that they could reliably fill. In my case, the bait could be filled with anyone with legs, and so that fell to me.
I peeked over the snowy ridge I found myself prone behind.
The mouth of the cave was set into a steep slope although with the heavy snow it looked like I could comfortable slide down from my position. The stone that formed the cave was a simple rough grey and the people milling about its entrance were likewise the same. Two of those drow were on active lookout while a number were set further back in the mouth, sitting around a campfire. That did little to represent their actual numbers though since, from my angle, I saw the cave go ever deeper.
I've gotten as close as I could.
I muttered under my breath. "[Buff Roll], [Weapon Roll], [Armor Roll]."
Buff: [Grasp of Roots]
Your attacks become imbued with nature, causing roots to erupt from the ground and entangle foes you target. These roots are entirely dependent on the life already present within the earth.
Weapon: [Paintball Gun]
A paintball marker, also known as a paintball gun, paint gun, or marker, is the main piece of paintball equipment in the sport of paintball. Markers use an expanding gas, such as carbon dioxide or compressed air, to propel paintballs through the barrel and quickly strike a target.
Armor: [Protective Goggles]
A set of protective eyewear designed to shield the eyes from heavy debris. These heavy-duty goggles enclose the area surrounding the eye in order to prevent particulates, water or chemicals from striking the eyes.
My jaw nearly dropped as green light coalesced into my arms. A fucking [Paintball Gun]? I hesitated to even call it a weapon, but I had played exactly one game of paintball in my life, and these things did fucking hurt. I noticed the immediate uselessness of the [Protective Goggles] and even if it did match the weapon that wasn't where my attention lay.
Neither of those would've been particularly useful if it weren't for [Grasp of Roots].
I leveled the gun and hoped it wasn't as terribly calibrated as the one I had rented. My finger hovered over the trigger and I opted to aim for the chest. A shot to the head would hurt like a motherfucker but it wouldn't kill, and besides, I only wanted to mark them.
I popped the lid and checked the color. Bright orange would stand out nicely.
Taking aim, I realized no one ever lines up their shots in paintball. That was why play areas were covered in paint. You didn't pull the trigger.
You held it down. Well, as much as you could, before having to release it to reset the mechanism.
The cave exploded with orange. The kick of the [Paintball Gun] against my chest along with the subsequent thumping of high-velocity paintballs launching from the barrel was a pleasure. The lookout drow were immediately peppered with paintballs, splattered orange and instantly bruised. The gun shot exactly where I aimed, and with enough adjustment, I was able to get the arc correct. The pain wasn't lethal, not by any means, but it certainly was enough to incapacitate, as evidenced by the drow writhing on the floor. I wasn't merciful and kept them down.
I saw eyes trying desperately to trace their arc, but the swiftly moving orange balls were relatively small and moving fast. The fact they were flying straight for them too was also distracting not to mention the explosions of orange color all around them or the ones that actually found their painful mark. My cloak kept my head hidden among the background and the barrel of the gun was a plain black. The [Protective Goggles] kept the light snowfall from disturbing my eyes. They wouldn't find me.
My paintballs swept the cave entrance, finding their way deeper and striking the drow amongst the campfire before they made their way outside. By then their velocity had drastically decreased and the pain inflicted was less. Unlike my previous rented paintballs, these orange balls exploded on impact as designed, much easier than what I had previously experienced, however, the cold still did its work and some landed with more painful thuds, frozen.
Gnarled roots, as if alive, snaked their way from the cave entrance reaching down to the writhing drow, still in pain, and squeezing them tightly enough for them to yelp. Grey muscles struggled against the roots, clearly displaying the strength they had to bare. Deeper within the cave, more roots found their way through softer dirt and tied up anything living and painted orange.
Perhaps the fact I had so much time spraying orange paintballs before I saw the first flash of violet light spoke for the surprise of the group. John was the first to follow up, planting perfectly aimed arrows into the immobile drow, sprouting like delicate violet flowers among the gnarled roots. Garth had moved closer, his invisible strikes finding their way deep into the cavern, knocking out the struggling drow tied up by the campfire. Kevin, Hale, and Timothy also came closer to the cave upon witnessing the relative safety.
Aiming my [Paintball Gun], suddenly I had become the ranged support. When John strode up beside me, bow in hand, my own weapon disappeared, shattering into motes of green light.
"Well, I wasn't expecting that." He said to me. "Paint?"
"You wouldn't be the first." I said, heart racing. Some of the drow down there had real weapons, sharp and pointy. I could have been at the end of those. I was prepared to take that risk either way, but in the end, it wasn't necessary. "Must be my [LUK]." I shrugged weakly.
Neither John or I wanted to unpack that discussion here. The stakes were too high right now. That talk of what exactly [Attributes] did was something we had before, but never in great detail. All that mattered was that it worked.
"Come on, Vak." John shook his head. "Let's get down there."
We slid our way down, the cave being down the slope. Stopping ourselves with a rush of white powder, we arrived in a small flurry of snow.
"Christ, that's some [Power]." Garth exclaimed once we walked up. "How'd you manage paintballs? And the roots?"
"Dumb luck, mostly." But I grinned, the rush of betting on something useful as I acted as bait made my heart flutter below my cloak. Only my smile must've shown under the hood.
"It was a chance-based [Power] you said?" Hale hummed. "It must be some risk using it with any reliability."
That was why I mitigated the risk, as much as I loved it, unnecessary risks were plain stupid. Unless I had needed to, I had been keeping away from a fight, or having a backup plan in the form of John's sword. What kind of satisfying risk comes from choosing the stakes yourself? None, that's what.
"I've gotten lucky a few times." I said. "The crystals, for one."
"Ah." Kevin said, making a connection.
"Well, I'd take my fists over a dice roll any day." Garth huffed. "Why would you spend your [Points] on that? Seems a little..." He trailed off, unable to put it into words.
I noticed the question got John's attention too.
"I liked the idea." I smiled, tightening my cloak. "The risk excites me."
I'm sure in the future people might have stranger [Powers]. I doubted I was an outlier. The fact that we all had purchased our [Powers] at our discretion means they might give insights into the type of person that bought them. I wouldn't put it past this crowd to have already gathered as much.
Garth shook his head. "Crazy kids." He sounded genuinely confused at the youth. "Risk anything for a biscuit, huh?"
"It's a good biscuit." I shrugged. Garth scoffed.
Hale held up his hand and gestured to Timothy. "Anything Tim?"
"They're down there." He said, eyes closed. No doubt using [Sense of Life]. "We've eliminated a startlingly large portion of their number." He said slowly perhaps tinged with guilt. "There's only a few left, actually."
Hale nodded. "You all, behind me. I'll try my best to keep my field off of you, my control is still slippery." He said, stepping around the rooted drow.
Some were unconscious as we passed, most were dead, others bruised and moaning. The roots that wrapped around them were a dark brown to match the tree trunks but laced with white lines. Frost emanated from them and I felt at the [Skillbook] I kept still in my jacket pouch. The drow, though resistant, seemed to freeze on contact with them.
Everyone but John and Hale grimaced as Kevin ended them.
My stomach felt sick, my mind hadn't caught up with the past days' events to fully process anything yet. I pushed forward, unhealthily shoving the thoughts to the back of my mind until everything was over and I could take a breath. We stared into the cave beyond us. The light of the fire the drow had previously tended was bright and roaring, giving us enough light to enter. There were torches, nothing more than sticks wrapped with cloth, that Timothy grabbed.
Hale said something to Timothy, the context obvious.
Timothy replied, gesturing.
Suddenly the air became heavy as it always did when Hale used his [Gravity Field]. Then, the oppressive air eased, and slid off of us, moving forward. There was a clatter of fallen weapons and Kevin and Garth moved simultaneously as if they had done something similar many times.
The cave became alive with noise, shouts and warnings. The drow were calling, their voices echoing backward, until a sudden choking noise cut off both voices. Grunts, filled with blood, replaced the noise. Somehow, the cave became quieter. Kevin and Garth had finished them in a way all too familiar to me, at the neck. The light of the campfire seemed to die down then. Timothy's torch seemed to flicker.
I stared at the grey bodies and pictured it blue, laying in the snow.
Hale walked forward his step and Timothy's informative voice taking the forefront of my mind.
I gripped my sword, compliments of John. Seeing my tension, he handed me a shield as well. Knowing these implements to be the most reliable, I opted out of using my [Weapon Roll].
Buff: [Vague Hivemind]
Your presence calms insectile lifeforms. Smaller bugs and insects are mildly attuned to your state of mind. With effort, your thoughts can direct smaller and less willful bugs.
Armor: [Rothur Horns]
A helmet adorned with the horns of a rothur. These swirling horns form both barricade and weapon upon your head. Kinetic resistant padding within the helmet facilitates withstanding blows against the horns.
John stared at me and all I could do was feel at the large helmet on my head. I adjusted the helmet swiftly, not wanting my vision to be obstructed. The [Rothur Horns] had fit themselves right over my hood.
"Hale watch out!" Timothy pulled him aside. Hale grunted in surprise and then pain as Timothy yanked him, causing shadows to play against the walls.
A glinting arrow found itself lodged shallow in Hale's back. His chainshirt bled most of the arrow of its stopping power. "We're under attack!"
I followed Timothy's gaze. "They're above!" I yelled, looking at John. The torch barely lit up the ceiling where they hid.
I felt an arrow shatter on my helmet, knocking my entire head to the side. John formed a similar armor of violet while I held my shield up. His face frowned with exertion, but I could see both [Perfect Imagery] and [Fortress Mind] influence him. Darting for cover, he swiveled upward shooting arrows quickly before moving out of the way.
"They're wedged up there! They're out of Hale's range!" Timothy shouted, ducking for any cover. "Garth, Kevin!" He yelled desperately.
"Garth!" Kevin said through the chaos, throwing slivers of sharp water upward. He succeeded in causing them to take cover and relieved the onslaught but nothing else. "Can you-"
"They're out of my range, Kev!" Garth swung upwards. "I can't reach that!" A falling arrow suddenly diverted to the side. Garth grimaced. "I can try knocking them out of the air, that's all I got."
"Get to cover!" Timothy yelled.
The cave had a high ceiling that wasn't immediately noticeable in the darkness. That was where we made the mistake. Luckily, there were sections carved right out of the cave wall, small divots that allowed us shelter. More arrows shattered on my helmet and striking my shield as I threw my arm up in protection.
I scrambled for cover behind John as the rest found safety in the hail of arrows.
"Kevin doesn't have the stopping power for this!" I shouted over the sound of clattering arrows. "Can you take those shots?" I asked him.
John grimaced. "You'll be down a shield and sword." He said, thinking. "I can try."
"Do it." I said. "I'll try to come up with something."
He peeked out and immediately pulled his head back as an arrow shot off the floor. He held his bow and arrow ready, nocking his weapon, then pulled out quickly to release the arrow. A yelp sounded above, but it sounded more angry than in pain.
Timothy, taking cover somewhere else, echoed out to us. "I think they're the only ones left! Is everyone okay?"
"I'm fine! Right under them with Kevin!" Garth called out, his voice further away. The flickering light of Timothy's torch did little for us while separated.
"John and I are fine!" I called out.
John spoke out next. "How's Hale?" He called, his hand cupped to his mouth.
His question echoed once and Hale replied painfully. "I'm fine! Nothing vital. Right in the meat of my shoulder." He groaned.
Arrows punctuated every communication.
"Do we see a way up to them?" I called out. "They must have got up there somewhere!"
I spotted a large bug hidden against the rock wall. I thought I might as well try and direct any small crawlies upwards to the drow. Mentally, I firmly stated the intention and reached out to the best of my ability. Hopefully, [Vague Hivemind] would allow me some control, and that those bugs would at least hinder these enemies. The large bug began to crawl away.
On cue, my [Powers] dissipated. I noticed the bug didn't stop moving, and kept crawling. I traced its path.
"There!" I called out. "There's a path by Garth and Kevin!" There was a small walkway leading upward, hidden in shadow.
"I can cover you for a moment!" John called out. The arrows had stopped, their ammo probably having fallen short. "You could try to run for it, take some attention off the rest of us!"
I peeked out and caught a glimpse. "I see four watching us." I said into the cave. "They're saving their arrows."
"Vak, see what you get." John said.
Weapon: [Element Staff]
A staff imbued with the most basic elements. Spells or magics channeled or cast through the [Element Staff] come more efficiently, the magic shaped through the focus. This staff supports the basic elements in spellcasting.
I frowned, immediately shaking my head to John's answer. Instead, I threw the staff across the cave, making sure to relax the weapon mentally. I wasn't yet sure what happened if I didn't specifically focus on relaxing that soulbound property. "Here, Kevin! Should work well with your water magic! It's temporary though, two minutes tops!"
"What?" Came the reply, but he caught it as evidenced by the sound of the staff's sudden stop against the stone. "Woah." I heard.
"Go!" John yelled, he peeked and shot an arrow quickly.
Then the cave was chaos again, John did the unthinkable and ran out in the open, drawing fire away, but darting to where Kevin and Garth had been. The cave was small enough the risk was negligible combined with the surprise.
Garth and Kevin managed to run through and make it to the path. I hadn't even noticed them myself, too distracted with what John was doing, which funnily, was drawing attention to himself. By the rain of arrows coming down, I doubted they noticed Kevin and Garth coming up.
I yelled too. "Over here!" I threw an arm out, and pulled it back attracting an arrow or two. I managed to make eye contact with a pair of eyes above and another arrow flew for my position.
Suddenly there were screams, but they weren't human. Grunts of pain rained from above and I saw John aim an arrow upward only to lower it to the sounds of the commotion above. He kept his arrow nocked.
"Take this fucker!" Garth's voice was unmistakable. "Not so much trouble up close are you?" Meaty thuds followed his sentence and something fell screaming all the way before landing in front of me with an excruciating crunch. A drow, right up until it hit the ground and became a corpse. "And stay down!"
The sloshing of water was the only indicator of Kevin's participation. "We got them all up here." Kevin said into the silence. "Timothy, is that all of them?"
The voice came quickly. "Should be. I'm not sure what my range is. There could be more still up there and I wouldn't know."
"Is it safe?" I called, unsure. I hesitated to come out, knowing an arrow might find me.
I saw John scan around, but wait for confimation.
"All clear! We can see most of the cave from up here. There's no one left in here." Garth called down.