A note from Gilgilad7

Hi, I'm back!  I come bearing a 11.7k word chapter. Thanks for your patience.

Nathan’s mind raced as fast as his Quick Step enhanced legs could carry him to the North barricade.  He focused on the most likely reasons for the croc-frogs' untimely arrival.

If it was a hit and run raid, the croc-frogs could inflict a few casualties and sow confusion before the boss arrived, leaving the humans screwed.  That scenario created a troubling question: with the aliens' presence at their camp, would two boss monsters be generated instead of one?  Maybe the aliens were planning to train both bosses onto the humans?  That would be pure evil if they could manage it.  Though why not wait to spring their raid until after the bosses had spawned? 

If this wasn’t a simple raid, the other likely scenario suggested this might be a full scale invasion.  They might be trying to wipe the humans out entirely and then steal their already prepared fortifications to fight off the boss.  But why wait until only ten minutes before the boss arrived to strike?  They could’ve attacked earlier for the same effect and left themselves more breathing room to prepare for the boss.

Neither scenario made much sense in the way it was being executed.  Either the croc-frogs had something else in mind he hadn’t considered, or their tactics weren’t going to plan thanks to his own set of surprises he’d prepared for them.  He smiled at that possibility.

Nathan spotted the barricade as he rounded a slight bend in the trail, then Zhang, the player currently assigned to watch duty.  The Chinese man was lying on the ground, gripping his hip and moaning in pain.  There was eerily no sign of the enemy.

Nathan slowed down despite his desire to aid the injured player.  Worry gnawed at him.  He scanned the foliage on either side of the trail.  Nothing appeared amiss.  The very thought of the invisible green frogs prowling through their camp unseen was beyond unsettling.  He’d have preferred to face an entire charge of the bigger brown ones than having to keep watch over his own shadow against assassins.

“Stealth frogs!” he shouted back over his shoulder to anyone who was following him.  “Keep your eyes open for any weird shimmers in the air!”

He searched the foliage around him frantically.  Where were these freaking frogs?  Why ruin their element of surprise by only wounding one sentry?  Surely they could’ve struck a harder blow with their initial attack.

A low distressed croaking could be heard over Zhang’s moaning, originating left of the barricade.  Nathan’s eyes swiveled to the carefully laid branches and large leaves they’d placed which were now conspicuously missing.  He breathed a sigh of relief as understanding flooded him.  They caught one.

A sudden crash of branches to the right of the barricade redirected his attention.  He glimpsed a green shimmer being swallowed up by the ground.  The accompanying splat and pained croak brought a smile to Nathan’s lips.  Make that two.

He’d been mulling over the puzzle ever since they met the alien players.  How do you prevent an invisible enemy from sneaking up on you?  His solution had been inspired by the outhouse building of all things.  You stop them by having a crap ton of traps.  Outhouse generated pitfalls to be exact.

Lilly’s discovery that buildings could be moved had been the key.  Her creation of the outhouse had excavated a sizable hole underneath it.  When moved with the interface function, the building converted back to a blue projection until a new location was selected.  Then for a second EP payment, it was reconstructed via the lasers outputted by the player’s collar.  The interesting side effect of this process was the aforementioned waste pit left behind.  For 40 EPs and thirty or so minutes of Lilly’s time, she had a mobile pit generator.  

Lining the bottom of the holes with the tips of broken goblin spears created a nasty surprise for any invisible scouts hoping to catch their camp unaware.

Nathan moved forward cautiously, a dozen other human players now filling the space behind him.  As he reached the barricade, Emma rushed forward and knelt next to Zhang, turning him over so she could view his wound.

“C’est horrible,” Emma said after a cursory inspection of the bloody spear puncture above his hip.  “Probably serious injury classification.”  She shook her head in pity.  “Poor man was just healed too.  Asahi, Maya, if you would please.”

“On it.”  Maya reached around the French woman and activated First Aid on the injured man and gave him a 3x natural recovery buff.

Asahi acted likewise, using his Injury Stabilize skill to give Zhang time to be healed up otherwise.  While Emma’s Advanced Healing skill was more potent, she only had enough EPs to use it once.  She would be saving it for a moderate classification injury she could instantly heal.  That way she could potentially return a player to fighting shape mid-battle and make the most of her skill instead of only applying a 6x natural recovery buff to Zhang.

“Help me carry him to the medical tent,” Emma asked the nearest gawkers.  

Emma was their main support player, with Matias acting as her assistant.  The French woman had used her healing skill on the traumatized man earlier and it improved his mental health slightly, though not enough to make him fully functional again.  But it had restored enough of his cognitive ability for him to finally unlock Equipment Fusion.  Learning the crafting Mental skill repaired his mind even further which held encouraging implications for the Mental stat.  But to say he was fully well again would be an overstatement.  His psychological scars ran deep.  He flat out refused to help fight, and the only way he’d agreed to participate in the current battle was by assisting Emma inside the medical tent.

As Zhang was hauled through the crowd of players, Nathan peered over the edge of the rightmost pit trap, placed to the side of the barricade to catch anyone hoping to sneak around it.  A green croc-frog sat impaled on a bed of jagged and broken spears at the bottom of the seven foot deep hole.  It was still alive, as evidenced by its round body squirming disturbingly, but the alien player was unable to free itself from the blood slicked spears.

Nathan stabbed his ranseur at the trapped creature, the distance making it difficult to inflict a killing blow.  Instead, he pricked the frog player with the weapon’s side prongs to inflict the banewolf poison debuff.  The slowing effect would prevent the wounded enemy from going anywhere.

The left pitfall trap held the other would-be assassin.  This croc-frog had somehow managed to wound Zhang before it fell, but was now similarly helpless.  Asahi emulated Nathan’s tactics by debuffing it with his ranseur too.

Harrison jeered at the helpless aliens.  “We’ll be frying up some frog legs tonight.”

Maya wrinkled her nose.  “Eww, that’s sick.  Eating monster bear meat is one thing, but sentient players?”

“I bet ya a fiver they taste just like chicken,” the man stated confidently.  He barked a raucous laugh at Maya’s disapproving stare.  “Ya should look at your faces.  Hell, I’m just joking for those who can’t take a hint.”  He made a show of looking straight at Nathan as he made his point.

Nathan flinched at the implied jab, but realized he needed to not rise to the bait.  Instead, he broke into a smile as he accepted the joke at face value.  At least Harrison was ensuring his dark sense of humor wasn’t taken seriously for once.  Nathan said, “I’ve actually had frog legs before, can’t say they did much for me.  A lot of work for not much meat.  Now bear steak, yes please.”

“Bear meat?  Oh God yes,” Iliya said from within the group of players.  When she glanced over at Nathan, he averted his gaze by reflex, then mentally berated himself for doing so.  They had been cordial ever since their earlier incident at the creek, but it had been awkward to say the least.  Pretending it never happened seemed to be where they stood, though it would take some time before it became normal again. 

“Eww, I’ll stick to no meat at all,” Maya said, shaking her head in mock dismay.  Then she smiled as she rubbed her stomach, “Though I’m hungry enough to be tempted.”

Nathan chuckled along with the others though he continued to scan the trail and foliage around them.  “I doubt these two frogs were alone.  If I had a camo ability and was raiding a hostile camp, I’d sneak in first and strategically wait for my main force to arrive before I acted.”

As if he summoned the enemy with his words, movement on the far side of the barricade elicited cries of alarm from the players.  A dozen brown croc-frogs were charging down the trail towards their barricade.  Due to their wide bodies, the alien players could only travel two abreast on the trail.

It seemed the main enemy force had arrived.  

Maya held her fused spear in the air like a scepter.  “Archer team, fire once then take positions on the sides.  Spear team, move up after.”

Jackson, Angelo, and Ava raced forward, lining up behind the four foot tall barricade.  The three Water Primes each held a wooden shortbow, arrows already nocked.  The weapons vendor had benefited their ranged players the most, though at a steep price.  The unenhanced bows cost 30 NPs each and that didn’t even include the arrows at an extra 6 NPs per dozen.  They could only afford to buy two dozen arrows and those were split three ways between the archer team.  And the weapons vendor didn’t even sell quivers, those had to be purchased from the gear vendor whenever they could get around to building it.

Despite the costs, seeing the croc-frog reactions to their arrow barrage would be totally worth it.

With the help of the Ranged Weapons skill, the three aimed at the charging croc-frogs and drew back their bowstrings.  Blue energy emanated from Angelo’s arrow, his Sap Energy II skill activating.  If it hit a target, assuming zero Water resistance, it would reduce an enemy’s EP pool by 50%.

Beside him, spiraling silver energy surrounded Jackson’s arrow, forming wicked saw teeth down its shaft.  His Metal skill, Serrated Strike I, would inflict 10% extra physical damage and ignore 10% of physical defense.  While not as damaging as other skills, what made it devious was its third effect; 100% boost to the inflicted pain.  For some enemies, this would make it an effective crowd control.  Though tougher creatures like the mutant bears wouldn’t give a flip about the extra pain.

With three rapid thwaps, the arrows released.  Ava’s vanilla arrow struck the front left croc-frog in its bulging frog-like throat while Angelo’s blue glowing arrow embedded in its shoulder, coating its reptilian skin with a watery substance that robbed it of half its EPs.  In response, a yellow defensive glow surrounded the croc-frog, an Earth aligned skill offering some measure of protection.  Despite its defenses, the alien player dropped its wooden club and collapsed forward.  Its allies parted around it as they continued their charge. 

At the same time, Jackson’s silvery sawtooth arrow took the right-most lead croc-frog in the eye.  In their brief practice with the bows, the Haitian boy had shown the most natural talent with the ranged weapon as illustrated by his critical hit.  A yellow defensive flash emanated from his target in response, but Nathan couldn’t determine what it did.  The enemy player croaked loudly and clutched desperately at the arrow sticking out of its eye socket.  The croc-frog never lost its footing though, and moved to the side of the trail allowing its ten remaining brothers to pass by.

The defensive Earth skills displayed by the two lead croc-frogs didn’t surprise Nathan.  It made sense the enemy charge would be led by their strongest defenders.  If losing their front two players had any demoralizing effect on the other croc-frogs, he couldn’t read it on their alien visages.  With two of the stealth enemies captured in the pits, the frogs were committed to the attack or else they would need to abandon their trapped friends.

“Archers to the sides.  Spears forward!” Maya shouted, moving to the middle position behind the barricade with her fused spear.

The three archers shuffled out of the way into the cleared areas behind the pits on either side of the barricade.  Ava and Angelo took the left side while Jackson set up on the right.  The pit creation process had the side effect of clearing all the vegetation in an eight by eight foot square around the holes, which incidentally gave the archers a clear line of sight of the front of the barricade.

Nathan, Asahi, and Gabriel moved to join Maya, each holding their fused pole weapons.  They lined up behind the fortification, spears and ranseurs pointed over the top towards the enemy.  There were more players on the trail than there was room to fight, so they’d assigned teams based on combat roles to keep from tripping over one another in the heat of battle.

Once in position, Nathan shouted, “Melee team, watch our backs and flanks for more of those stealthed ones!”  

The melee team was led by Harrison with his club and consisted of Johanna with a gladius, Iliya wielding her scimitar, and Lilly using her one handed mace along with a homemade shield.  She’d made the shield by purchasing a small hatchet from the weapons vendor and using it to fashion a round wooden circle from a fallen log which she then attached to one of Nathan’s vine bindings.  Nathan had even gotten a fusion recipe, basic wooden buckler, when he reassembled her work when she asked him to inspect it.  Unfortunately, he hadn’t the time or EPs to spare to strengthen it with his fusion skill yet.

A heartbeat later, the two currently leading brown croc-frogs split to either side of the trail away from the spears aimed towards them, and angled for the pits.  Their powerful leg muscles bunched, and they incredibly leapt in the air over the holes towards the surprised archers positioned on the human side.  

“There’s a stealther!” he heard Harrison cry from behind him, adding to the chaos of the battle.

Nathan had only a moment to see Jackson release a silvery sawtoothed arrow into the chest of one of the leaping croc-frogs before his own attention was drawn back to the next row of frogs assaulting the barricade directly.  He had to trust the melee team would be able to take care of the jumpers and stealthers.

Nathan braced his ranseur for the initial impact of the enemy charge.  But the two frogs that now led the main assault halted abruptly as they threw their goblin spears at the barricade defenders. 

Nathan and the others ducked instinctively, the seven foot projectiles sailing harmlessly over their heads, but their flinching ceded their position.  The two frogs hit the barricade, an axe wielding frog on the left clawing its way on top while the other readied a second spear from below.  Nathan couldn’t help but recognize the missing eye of the spear wielding frog.  It was the gravity wielding Metal Prime who had escaped from him earlier that day. 

Asahi’s ranseur stabbed upward, catching the climbing frog between the legs.  Nathan winced involuntarily at the strategic location despite there being nothing to indicate it was the same vulnerability as for a human.  Regardless, the now poison debuffed frog fell backward.  The other frogs behind the frontline pulled the wounded creature back into their ranks as another one moved forward to take its place.  If Nathan had to guess by their frantic croaking, he assumed they were shocked at the disaster their raid was becoming.  His old pal One-Eye seemed to be the most vocal as he shouted annoyingly loud croaks at the others.

One-Eye’s spear became surrounded by a familiar silvery glow, and lashed out at Asahi in retribution, catching the soldier in his shoulder.  Asahi gasped at the sudden wound and the gravity skill’s profound effect on his body.  The man collapsed instantly as One-Eye pulled its bloody spear back.  Nathan thrust his own weapon at the creature, red energy releasing from his muscles as his already active Attack Up triggered, adding extra damage to his strike.  One-Eye deftly parried the blow with an upward movement of its spear forcing the attack buff to whiff.  

Nathan shifted his ranseur to his off-hand as he snatched a small stone out of his pocket.  One-Eye was a tricky opponent so needed to be neutralized immediately.  “Snare!” he shouted, infusing the rock with Wood energy as he whipped it at One-Eye.  The rock hit his nemesis in its torso with a green flash, and vines began to wrap around its arms and spear.  13 EPs were deducted from his pool leaving him with 32.

One of the other croc-frogs from the rear of the group stepped forward and touched One-Eye’s shoulder with its clawed hands.  Blue energy pulsed and entered the snared enemy player, and the vines began to unravel.  

Nathan was surprised.  Was that a debuff cleansing skill?  Or some kind of counter-spell?

Maya and Gabriel launched follow up attacks with their pole weapons but came up short as One-Eye retreated out of range of the barricade.

One-Eye croaked loudly at its remaining players, and they began helping their wounded away from the human camp.  A green stealth frog and one of the brown jumpers disengaged from the human side and joined their allies in retreat.  Though Nathan couldn’t understand their language, it was obvious the raid had been called off.  As strong as the croc-frogs were, they hadn’t been prepared for an alerted and fortified enemy.

Nathan scanned the battlefield and made a quick tally.  Of the fifteen frogs they’d seen, it appeared the humans had wounded four, killed one, and captured two.  A sound victory, especially considering the two captured were of the troublesome stealth variety.  Nathan would sleep easier knowing there were two less enemy assassins prowling the forest.

“Finish them!” Harrison cried as he began scrambling over the barricade to give chase.  Gabriel and Lilly both made to follow.

“No!” Nathan and Maya shouted in unison.

“Now’s our chance to wipe them out!” Harrison shouted as he hopped down to the other side of the barricade.

“Did you forget about the boss monster already?” Maya asked with a raised eyebrow.

The statement gave Harrison pause.  The man glanced at Gabriel and Lilly who had already stopped following.  Harrison barked out a laugh in response and gave them all a sheepish grin.  “Hah, yeah, I guess I did.”  He began climbing back over to their side of the barricade, laughing all the while.

Nathan’s annoyance at the man gave way to amusement.  He couldn’t help but chuckle.  The battle had been intense and it was a relief for it to have ended so quickly.  But it had come at a cost.  

Asahi was on the ground clutching at his shoulder.  The soldier activated Injury Stabilize and green energy flowed from his hand into his own wound.  The man then grabbed his weapon and stood up as if nothing had happened to him, despite the sheer amount of blood that drenched his uniform front.

“Asahi, get to the medical tent,” Maya ordered.

“I will be fit for combat for twenty minutes.  Enough time to fight the boss monster before the stabilizing effect runs out.”

“And no telling how much worse you’ll make your wound in the meantime...”

“Maya-san, I can stand so I can still fight.  This is my decision,” Asahi stated firmly.  His tone made it clear he wasn’t going to budge.

“Ugh, fine, but do yourself a favor and join the reserve squad.  Fight only if absolutely needed.”  She sounded exasperated.

“Hai, though I will make sure to do enough to receive participation credit for the battle.”

She nodded then turned to the rest of the players.  “Anyone else hurt?” 

“Ava and Angelo!” Iliya called out from the left clearing.  

Jackson had been on the right side of the barricade and apparently killed his attacker while Ava and Angelo had been on the left.  They hadn’t fared as well.  Their leaping croc-frog had exchanged blows with the two archers while the suddenly appearing stealth frog had delayed the melee team from intervening.

“I think Angelo’s wounds are minor but Ava’s look really bad,” Iliya said from within the crowd of players moving forward to see.  “But I don’t really know…”

“That’s fine, Iliya,” Maya said.  “Melee team, take Ava to Emma at the medical tent to see if she can do anything.  I’ll First Aid Angelo myself to get him back into shape.  Jackson, gather up their bows and arrows.”

“Um, both of their bows are broken,” Iliya said.  “The frog used a silver skill.”  She held up one of the bow’s remains, the wood partially decomposed.

“The brown frog had a Metal aura effect,” Lilly added helpfully.

Maya grunted in frustration.  “Great, of course they broke our most expensive weapons.”  She paced back and forth by the barricade.  She was no doubt tallying the loss of 60 NPs worth of investments the two bows represented.  

“The arrows look okay,” Lilly reported as she inspected the area.  “They were on the ground out of range of the aura.”

“At least one thing didn’t go wrong,” Maya said wearily.  “Grab them for Jackson.  While we successfully repelled the raid, it certainly hampered us.  Zhang and Ava are out of the fight entirely, Asahi is injured, several players expended their EPs, and we lost two of our three bows.”  She continued to pace as she made her list, her shoulders tensing further by the second. 

Nathan thought her assessment, while accurate, was a bit pessimistic given they won the battle with no casualties.  That was a win in his book.  As leaders, they had to keep up morale.  “Well, I was starting to think Hell difficulty was getting too easy,” he said with a grin.  “We must be ready for nightmare mode now.  Probably get better loot too, right?” 

Maya slowed down and peered over at him, a slight smile creeping onto her worried face.  “Nightmare mode?  You realize that makes no sense, right?”  She was smirking now.  “How is a nightmare worse than actual Hell?”

He laughed, but before he could respond, Johanna collapsed on the other side of the trail.  A couple players rushed to her side, but Nathan quickly realized she was fine.  She’d been reading her interface screen and was obviously learning a new skill.  Every player’s wristbands had begun glowing as soon as the croc-frogs had disengaged but Johanna had been the first to open hers up.

“No one check your messages!” Nathan cried out.  The last thing they needed was for all their players to be passed out learning new skills when the boss showed up.  Since his EPs were maxed out before the battle started, he couldn’t tell the time for sure, but he estimated they had roughly less than a minute before the next round of fun would begin.

As if his thoughts tempted fate once again, a loud chorus of yipping noises echoed across the valley.  

“That’s coming from both directions,” Maya exclaimed.  Her brow knitted in concentration as she glanced at Nathan.  “That means we use our Two Front Plan.”

Nathan frowned as he considered the alien players who had fled.  “No, I don’t think that’s necessary.  We hadn’t considered the presence of the croc-frogs when we made the Two Front Plan.  The retreating frogs are now a buffer between us and the monsters coming from the North.  If we leave the North monsters to the enemy players, then we can mostly focus on defending the South.”

Understanding framed her face and she nodded.  “Listen up,” Maya yelled to the scrambling players.  “Our South Defense Plan is now in effect.  One change; Asahi and Johanna will guard here at the North barricade while we focus our forces to the South.  Now Asahi, I know it’s risky, but heal yourself up by learning a new skill once Johanna wakes.  You two will watch and sound the alarm if the monsters get around the croc-frogs, or the frogs retreat back this way again.”  

“Hai.  And the two captured players in the pits?”

“Just guard them,” she said.  “It’s inhumane to leave them like this, but we don’t have the luxury of pulling them out right now.  Maybe if I upgrade my Language skill we can get information out of them or even broker a truce.”  She glanced around at the rest of the players and clapped her hands.  “What are you all waiting for?  Get to your positions!”

Nathan didn’t waste another second and sprinted South down the trail, arriving at the first barricade Harrison had constructed.  He nimbly climbed over, coming to a stop beside his three waiting goblin spears.  

During their preparations, Harrison and his helpers had built a total of three barricades.  One to the North of their settlement, and two to the South.  Nathan was currently standing beside the original South barricade placed halfway up the hill between the creek and their buildings.  It was the secondary defense on this side.  

Their most recent barricade, finished only minutes before the croc-frog raid, was placed at the base of the hill next to the creek’s edge and would be their first line of defense.  The trail was relatively straight from the secondary barricade as it crossed the first barricade, the creek, and went up the opposite hill, affording a decent view of any approaching monsters from where he stood.  Though the fading light of dusk made visibility poor.

For the South Defense Plan, Nathan’s role would begin as one of the ranged players.  They were to hit the enemy from their higher vantage as they came down the opposite hill towards the creek.  Nathan would throw his three spears before joining the frontline.  The three bow users would fire arrows as long as they had ammunition and then act as a reserve unit.  Of course, they only had the one archer now so their effectiveness would be greatly diminished.

Jackson arrived a moment later, climbing to stand on top of the barricade.  He dumped a large bundle of arrows beside him and retrieved one to nock in his bow.  There were at least fifteen in the pile, Jackson having added Ava’s and Angelo’s arrow stash to his own.  But the fight with the croc-frogs had depleted the boy’s EPs, so his shots would unfortunately be without the Serrated Strike effect.

The other players began streaming by them, headed to the creek to take position by the first barricade.  The spear team would hold the middle while the melee team would break apart to flank either side.  Though with two of their players having to guard the North barricade, and two injured in the medical tent, their numbers were far fewer than when they devised this plan.

Angelo appeared a moment later, carrying his own load of three goblin spears, which represented the rest of their throwing reserves.

“Glad to see you’re feeling better,” Nathan said.

“Maya’s First Aid is a miracle,” he replied, his voice in awe.  To Nathan’s knowledge, it was the first time the man had been healed from an injury.  “But my bow is ruined, why does this always happen to me?” 

“No worries man, have you thrown a spear before?” Nathan asked curiously.

“No, but I got both the Ranged Weapons and Pole Weapons skills, so can throw just as good as you.”

“Hah, cool.  We’ll put that to the test,” Nathan jested, giving the man a friendly smile.  “Want to count who can score the most kills?”

“Isn’t that Legolas and Gimli’s game?” Angelo asked, a smile finally working its way onto his face.  “Kind of morbid, honestly.  But it could make for good sport too.”

Nathan was surprised he shared some common ground with the older New York man in the form of fantasy books.  Though to be fair, he hadn’t actually tried to get to know him very well.  There just hadn’t been time.  “Hah, yeah.  I didn’t expect you to know the scene from Lord of the Rings.  Have you read the books or just watched the movies?”

“Read the books,” Angelo stated proudly.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I can see the monsters,” Jackson called out excitedly, gesturing with his bow to the top of the opposite hill across the valley.  With no further preamble, Jackson drew back and released his arrow.  Nathan watched it sail through the air before losing sight of it in the fading light of dusk.  Whether he hit anything or not, Nathan couldn’t tell.  Jackson’s eyesight had to be better than his own.  It took another five seconds before shapes began to form on the opposite hill.  There were a lot of them.  A few moments later, he could count them.

Three guthark tribesmen were marching abreast wielding spears.  Then three more followed behind them.  And then another three.  There were still more.  They were five freaking rows deep!  Fifteen goblins total, all with spears. 

Jackson gathered another arrow from his pile and fumbled it as he tried to ready his next shot.  Nathan was antsy to help but the enemy was too far out for spear throwing.  He could only watch as the young Haitian fired his second arrow.  Jackson’s hands were shaking as he lowered the bow.  Nathan didn’t know if he was nervous to be firing in combat, or because he was in the spotlight with everyone’s attention on him. 

A bestial roar reverberated through the air.  Nathan squinted and spied two new forms appearing behind the fifteen marching spearmen.  Nathan recognized them by their massive antlers.  Tier 2 bears.  They were tough opponents, resistant to all but the strongest attacks.  The players had established ways of dealing with though, but not usually while also fighting fifteen goblins.

A strangled yip announced that Jackson’s second arrow hit its mark.  The leftmost goblin on the third row fell out of formation. 

“Good on ya!” Harrison called from the barricade below them.

Jackson readied his third arrow and released.  

Nathan estimated the goblins were close enough so he readied his first throwing spear over his shoulder.  He sprinted downhill, his Quick Step skill allowing him to accelerate to full speed in as few steps as possible.  In a whip-like motion, he rolled his shoulder forward and snapped his elbow down with his arm fully extended.  He released the spear and immediately began arresting his momentum before he accidentally collided with the lower creek barricade.

The spear angled upward as it flew over the defenders’ heads.  The guths were at a higher elevation on the opposing hill so the spear’s trajectory never tilted downward before reaching its target.  The spear blasted the thigh of the rightmost goblin on the front row, continuing on to nail the one marching behind it.  The front one screamed as its leg was severed while the secondary target yipped in pain as it staggered into the underbrush.  

Nathan smiled as the players let out a collective cheer.  He’d actually been aiming at the center of the formation but he wasn’t going to complain about the positive outcome.  Angelo’s spear arrived shortly after his own, but missed the goblin formation by about a yard to the right. 

“Hit ya bloody target,” Harrison yelled out as the two players ran back up the hill to retrieve their next spears. 

Nathan didn’t think Angelo deserved the criticism.  “It’s alright, these crude spears are horrible for throwing,” Nathan said to his fellow spear chucker.  “You were close.”

“Close isn’t bloody worth anything,” Harrison shouted, having apparently overheard.

Nathan sighed while Angelo’s face flushed.  The older man mumbled, “Harrison better watch that I don’t bloody hit him by accident.”

Nathan barked a laugh, and Angelo joined in with the laughter.  It seemed the two of them shared something else in common; enduring a jerk teammate.

Nathan gathered his second spear.  He sprinted back down the hill and launched it at the center of the goblins.  Jackson was releasing either his fifth or sixth arrow.  There was no question the bow and arrow was a faster method of launching attacks.  Once Jackson practiced more, or upgraded his skill level, he would certainly improve his rate of fire.  As it was, he was wasting time fumbling his arrow between each shot.  

Jackson must’ve missed with a couple shots since he’d only hit one more since he’d last looked, reducing the guth numbers to eleven.  About the only advantage the throwing spears held over the bow was the heavier damage they inflicted on their victims.  

Nathan’s second spear nailed a goblin simultaneously with Jackson’s arrow strike.  The goblin instantly pixelated from the ranged bombardment.  While effective, the overkill was wasteful.  But it wasn’t like calling out their targets would make any difference given the inaccuracy of the spears.

Angelo’s second spear throw did much better for him, skewering a goblin and resulting in a kill.  Now there were only nine marching. 

Nathan was feeling confident about the flow of the ranged battle until he spied a new figure behind the bears.  A red energy glow surrounded it.  Then a flame ignited the torch in its hand.  No, not a torch… a flaming sword.  Crap.  It was a chieftain mini-boss with sword and shield like they’d fought at the Fire Obelisk.

The spear minions were only ten yards from the creek so Nathan didn’t have a good angle to hit them again.  The bears were behind them but Nathan’s eyes were locked on that flaming sword.  He sprinted back up the hill to retrieve his third and final throwing spear.  He would take out that mini-boss before it got to the barricade.

One of Jackson’s arrows embedded in a bear’s shoulder.  But the large creature didn’t even flinch.  While the bears tasted good, he hated fighting the massive beasts.

Sounds of battle came from the creek as the goblins met with the players.  The players held the high ground on the bank behind the barricade while the guths had to cross the water to reach them.  Five of the goblins ran straight at the barricade while four veered right to circle the defenses.  The two mutant bears took the left path and the goblins seemed all too happy to stay clear of them.

Nathan sprinted down the hill and threw his last goblin spear, aiming for the flaming sword that was still approaching the creek.  His spear flew low, clearing the heads of the players by only a foot as it whizzed over the barricade.  The mini-boss raised its wooden shield and blocked the spear from colliding with its chest.  The momentum against its shield knocked the chief flat to the ground.  It appeared dazed and Nathan felt a moment of triumph that he’d knocked it down.  Then the feeling fled as another enemy crested the hill.  

The new enemy was another grey guthark, but it was hunched over, leaning on a tall staff as it walked slowly down the hill.  It wore blue robes and its staff featured a human skull mounted on top.  It looked like a shaman from a fantasy book cover.  

A blue glow began swirling around the enemy’s upturned palm in the shape of a small blue orb.  It then tapped an injured goblin lying on the trail with the base of its staff and the blue energy was channeled down the staff’s length.  The energy was absorbed by the hurt monster and the goblin stood up, fit for fighting once more.

That shaman was a healer!  It had to be the boss monster.  It was the only enemy new to them.

Nathan had seen enough and he was out of throwing spears.  He continued his run down the hill, pulling his ranseur out of the ground where he left it waiting for him.  

Maya and Gabriel had their hands full while they fended off the guths assaulting the improvised barricade directly.  One of the goblins climbed on top and took an arrow in its chest.  It seemed Jackson had plenty of arrows left.

“Jackson, good shot!  But focus fire on that shaman!” Nathan yelled back at the younger player.  He already knew they could handle the regular guths and bears, but the boss monster had unknown abilities.

A quick glance to the left to see who was handling the bears made him grin.  Iliya and Lilly were already waiting for them.  They were their best bear killing duo, the combo of Stun and Thrust being highly effective against the massive creatures.  Both ladies had upgraded their respective skills to level two, making the abilities more powerful and cheaper to cast.

The first bear hit the waiting pit trap and fell face forward with an angry growl.  They hadn’t placed spears at the bottom of this hole since the creek had half flooded it with water.  But it served well enough in surprising a rushing monster, particularly one as bulky as a bear.  The second bear veered around the pit and plowed off-trail through the underbrush as if the dense plants weren’t even there.  The two ladies moved to intercept the creature and Nathan was confident they could handle it.

Nathan checked the right side of their barricade.  The four goblins who went to the right were engaged in battle with Harrison, who held the narrow clearing by himself.  One against four weren’t great odds, and Nathan knew that was where he was needed most.  As he moved to reinforce the lone defender, Harrison took a wound on his thigh, but the man never ceased swinging his club savagely as he knocked the spears away.  Nathan had observed earlier that the two handed club was a great offensive weapon when trying to overwhelm an enemy, but for defending it seemed to be severely lacking.

“Need a hand, or should I say, spear?” Nathan asked as he rushed up beside the man.  There wasn’t enough room for them to stand side by side without Nathan being tangled up in the thick underbrush, so he stood slightly behind and used his weapon’s reach to support the man.

“Ugh, terrible joke.  But sure mate, why not?” Harrison said with a grunt as he crashed his club down on a thrusting spear.  He pinned the spear down with a stomp from his foot, disarming one of his attackers in the process.  Harrison retreated backward two steps so he was now standing side by side with Nathan.

Nathan appreciated the man’s repositioning since it gave them both room to maneuver.  The goblins would only be able to approach them one at a time unless they wanted to tangle with the thick plants to the side.  They unfortunately hadn’t had the time to add a pitfall to this side of the newly constructed barricade.

The first goblin charged at Harrison, spear thrusting forward.  The man batted the spear away contemptuously with his club while Nathan pierced its throat with his longer ranseur.  It pixelated as it collapsed.  The second goblin was right behind it, charging Harrison with the same tactic, so they dealt with it the exact same way.  

The third approached more cautiously so Harrison shouted, “We don’t have all day.”  With the odds now in their favor, Harrison went on the offense.  The large man rushed past the goblin’s spear tip and savagely swung his club at its head.  The smaller creature’s head burst from the impact.  Without slowing, Harrison charged the last guth behind it too.  The creature was obviously able to feel emotions because it cowered before the overwhelming assault.  Its trembling didn’t save it as a single clubbing ended its existence.

“Too bloody easy,” Harrison laughed as he shook gore off his club.  

“Yeah, literally,” Nathan replied with a nervous laugh as he eyed the viscera dripping from his ally and the surrounding plants.

Harrison approached Nathan and slapped a blood covered hand on his shoulder, oblivious to Nathan’s discomfort at the mess.  “Thanks for the help, mate.”

Nathan shied away but he managed to grin since Harrison’s gratitude seemed genuine.  “You know, we actually make a good team when we’re fighting monsters together and not each other.”  

Harrison barked a laugh and slapped him on the shoulder again, leaving another bloody handprint.  Nathan couldn’t tell if the blood was solely from the goblins or not.  The Australian man didn’t even seem to notice his thigh was severely bleeding below his shorts.

Nathan checked his EPs to see they had regained to 41.  He reached out and activated First Aid, channeling healing energy into the man.  The benevolent action left him with 21 EPs afterward.

“Whoa, thanks,” Harrison said when it was finished, jumping up and down once to test his restored physical condition.

Nathan turned his head to check on the rest of the battlefield.  Gabriel and Maya were both holding off the last two guths trying to jump over the barricade.  On the other end of their defense, next to the water’s edge, one bear was pixelating while Iliya was delivering a killing blow to the other.  Her scimitar pierced deeply into the stunned creature’s neck.  She then pulled and pushed on the hilt, sawing the blade back and forth in the creature’s vitals. 

Lilly held her mace and shield ready in case the bear moved again as the two waited for it to pixelate.  

A blur of motion and then a flaming sword came crashing down on an unsuspecting Iliya while she was focused on the bear.  The chieftain mini-boss had apparently recovered from Nathan’s spear throw and used an unknown Fire skill to blitz the woman unaware.

Lilly responded in kind, blurring forward faster than Nathan thought possible.  A yellow and red glow surrounded her, indicating a hybrid Earth and Fire skill.  Shield Ally let her move at 4x speed when defending an ally and it was the first time he’d seen it in action.  

She planted her shield between Iliya and the flaming sword.  She deflected it to the side, then swung her mace in a counter attack.  The large guth leapt away, dodging the crushing blow instead of using its own shield to block.  

With distance between them, Lilly frowned as she noticed the flames stuck unnaturally to the outside of her wooden shield.  The fire would either need to be extinguished or it would engulf her whole shield.  She had no time to address it as a flaming sword thrust came back at her.

She blocked again, and the large goblin rained blow after blow at her, not allowing her a moment to recover.  She took a step backward with each block on her shield as the flaming sword tore chunks off of it.  She soon reached the creek’s edge. 

Nathan moved to help as Iliya desperately tugged on her scimitar still embedded in the dying bear’s neck.  She was unable to quickly free the sword and needed to wait for the bear to pixelate.

Maya saw the predicament too and left Gabriel to hold off the last goblin assaulting the barricade.  She rushed with her spear at the chief’s flank while its attention was on Lilly.  Maya was joined a moment later by their reserve squad.  Though squad was a generous term for them, given that Angelo was currently its only free member.

The older man reached the mini-boss first, and thrust with his spear.  The chief danced around it and didn’t even bother to look at him.  Instead, a blue streak unexpectedly flung Angelo backward like a ragdoll.

Maya gasped as she pulled up short.  Nathan continued towards them as he tried to figure out what happened.  Angelo lay on his back on the trail, clutching weakly at something blue embedded in the middle of his chest.  It was about two feet long and appeared made of crystal since it reflected the last light of the setting sun. 

One glance at the opposite hill and the wicked glee pasted on the face of the elderly shaman told it all.  It had a ranged ice spear attack!

Unlike the rest of them, the Fire wielding chieftain seemed uninterested in the shaman’s unveiled ability and took advantage of Lilly’s distraction.  It bashed its shield into her face and she tumbled backward into the creek with a splash.  The chief slashed its flaming sword downward at her fallen position.  Lilly held the last remains of her shield up in a feeble defense, but she wasn’t fast enough.  The sword cleaved straight through the middle of her wrist and continued down to bite into her shoulder.  

Her shriek echoed across the valley and Nathan reacted instinctively.  He hurled his ranseur, the short range ensuring he wouldn’t miss his target.

A red and yellow hybrid glow surrounded the chieftain and the monster spun impossibly fast, deflecting the projectile off target with its shield.  It staggered from the momentum, but stayed on its feet.  The chief’s teeth spread into a grin as it eyed Nathan’s shocked disappointment.

Then the creature gasped in horror as Iliya’s sword slid into its neck from behind.  Flames licked angrily from its sword toward the woman in response, but a blue shielding glow protected her from the worst of it.  She’d activated her Fire Shield skill before even approaching.

The dangerous mini-boss crumpled, its flaming sword hissing as it landed in the water.  

Iliya bent down to Lilly, grabbing at her bleeding stump to stop the gush of blood.  She began shouting hysterically for Emma as she began dragging the woman up the trail.  Nathan reflected grimly it was probably only due to Lilly’s Defense Up and Tough Skin skills that she survived the vicious sword attack at all.

His stomach began to roil and he panicked as he realized he was about to become sick.  No, not now.  They were still in combat.  He pushed his horror away for later.

Nathan turned to check on Angelo but had to look away immediately, his gorge threatening to rise again.  The pixelating light coming from the player’s body indicated it was already too late for the man.  He was gone.  Nathan gritted his teeth and held in a scream.  There would be time afterward to dwell on it.

The remaining able players turned towards the last threat, their fight not done.  There were shockingly few of them still fighting.  Only Maya, Harrison, Gabriel, and Nathan stood to face the final boss.  

Nathan moved down into the creek water to collect his thrown ranseur, the action renewing his purpose.  As he examined their foe up the hill, he was surprised to find the elderly shaman just waiting, flanked by four spear goblins.  Judging by the wounds on the four minions, they were previously injured and healed back into fighting shape by the boss.

An arrow whizzed from behind the barricade and one of the spear goblins leapt protectively in front of the boss shaman to block it.  The arrow caught the minion in the shoulder as it shielded the shaman with its body.  Nathan was grateful Jackson was still providing ranged support, though he wished the arrow had taken the shaman instead.  If only the croc-frogs hadn’t destroyed their other two bows and reduced their ranged strength.  And Angelo might still be alive if he’d been up there beside Jackson firing arrows like he was supposed to be.

A blue glow gathered around the shaman’s upturned palm and Nathan assumed it was going to heal the re-injured goblin like he’d seen it do before.  Then the energy shifted to center around the top of its staff.  When the boss began adding a slight amount of red to the blue, Nathan became concerned.  Was that how it powered its projectiles?  

On some unknown instinct, perhaps due to the Physical and Mental enhancements he’d gained, he immediately dove face forward in the water as a blue flash emanated from the robed creature.  The air buzzed overhead as an ice projectile whizzed by at incredible speed.  

The attack impacted the bank behind him like a crashing chandelier, smaller ice shards shattering in every direction like a grenade.  It was a totally different category of attack than the ice spear that killed Angelo. 

The players scattered, hunkering down behind the barricade for protection.  As soon as the spraying ice and rocks had settled, Nathan scrambled to his feet and moved to join the others behind cover.  Maya had a bleeding gash on her forehead but otherwise they’d all escaped unharmed.  A large chunk of ground had been churned up in the wake of the impact, demonstrating the destructiveness of the Water skill.

So this was the power of a boss monster?  The creature was likely a Water Prime as evidenced by it using mainly blue energy.  Nathan’s own Water elemental resistance was only 10% so it would afford only the barest shred of protection against one of those ice rockets.  It would be best to avoid being hit entirely.

Jackson fired off another arrow from the secondary barricade.  Nathan peered over his own barricade to see the attack miss the shaman by a handspan.  The boss was in the process of healing the wounded goblin that had shielded it with its body, restoring its honor guard back to its full strength of four. 

“We should rush it,” Harrison said.  They were each hunkered down with their backs to the barricade.  “We’re sitting ducks here.”

“Yes,” Gabriel said, nodding along.  “It can’t hit us with those ice bombs if we get close enough to it.”

“It’s too risky,” Maya countered, biting her lip.  “We have no idea what other skills it has.  We should wait for it to use up all its energy points before engaging.”

Nathan shook his head at that suggestion.  “That would be a good plan against other players, but we don’t actually know if monsters have energy points like us or not.  In many games, bosses usually cheat and have infinite mana anyway.”

“Mana what now?” Harrison asked, his hands gripping his club with intensity.

“Same thing as EPs, just semantics,” Maya replied distractedly while her concentration remained elsewhere.  She was likely trying to develop a plan cleverer than running straight at the boss like a bunch of idiots.  He sincerely hoped she came up with something good.

He spied two of the spears dropped by the defeated goblins.  “Maybe we could gather up the fallen spears and soften it up with ranged attacks?”

“Isn’t that what it’s doing to us?” Harrison said.

Maya wiped the blood off her forehead with the back of her hand.  “Yes, but we have barricades to shelter behind and it doesn’t.  Nathan, you and Jackson will have to take it out.”  She gestured at Harrison and Gabriel, “We don’t have the Ranged Weapons skill.”

Another icy blur streaked overhead and they all flinched in response.  The projectile zoomed them by and ploughed into the side of the higher secondary barricade that Jackson stood atop as he aimed his bow.  The impact caused the younger player to fall backward while fragmented ice shards tore a rather large chunk out of the barricade.  When Jackson’s head popped back up on the other side with a look of surprise plastered across it, Nathan released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“Maybe we should also get reinforcements too,” Nathan suggested.  “There’s Iliya and Emma at the medical tent and they both have Ranged Weapons.  And if we need to rush it, it’d be good to have either Asahi or Johanna to bolster our numbers.  It’s true there might be a potential threat from the North they are guarding against, but there’s most definitely a massive threat already here to the South.”

Maya nodded.  “Alright.  It wouldn’t hurt to gather more strength while we wait to see how the boss reacts.  We might not need to charge it if it loses patience and decides to come to us.”

“Jackson!” Nathan shouted up to the other barricade.  “Bring every person who can fight including Asahi at the North barricade.  If either Ava or Zhang are healed yet, have them relieve Johanna on guard duty and bring her too.”

“Yes sir,” the younger player replied with a salute, emulating a soldier taking orders.  The teenager turned and sprinted back up the trail.

Two more ice rockets hit their barricade while they gathered the fallen spears.  Each attack tore a sizable chunk out of the logs and rocks that formed the barrier, and peppered the sheltering players behind it with debris.  A surprising number of the spears had already been destroyed by the ice attacks.  It was almost as if the shaman was aiming for them intentionally to deplete their weapon supply.

“Waiting it out isn’t looking like the best option,” Maya conceded after another blast hit the ground behind the barricade and showered them with deadly shards, adding another cut to her arm.  “It seems reckless, but we need to end this when the others get here.”

Nathan launched one of the spears at the shaman when the coast was clear but missed his target.  From a standing position, the throw had a lot less power behind it than when he had a running start.  His second try grazed one of the goblin’s arms, but otherwise was a bust too.

Jackson returned shortly after, stopping at the secondary barricade up the hill with Iliya, Asahi, and Johanna in tow.  Emma was notably absent, likely unwilling to leave the injured at the medical tent untended.  Iliya’s eyes were raw and red from where she’d just come from Lilly’s side.  Nathan took a moment to worry about the Kenyan player too.  She’d lost her hand, and he had no idea if there was any way to regenerate a lost limb.  

Nathan checked on the shaman again to see it pulling blue energy into a massive swirling orb.  The orb hovered at the top of its staff like it had with the previous ice rockets.  But this time, the energy was twice the size of the previous attacks and continued to become denser.  The boss began adding red Fire energy to the blue orb and Nathan knew that meant it was about to launch.

“It’s cooking up something big this time!” Nathan yelled.  “Get down!”

The icy projectile shrieked as it tore through the air.  It hammered into the front of the barricade Nathan and the others were hiding behind.  The resulting explosion flipped him over several times, and he took several moments to regain his senses.

He blinked to clear his vision where he lay.  When the blurriness abated, he first noticed the massive breach in the middle of the barricade.  A spike of fear shot through him.  Maya, Gabriel, and Harrison had been behind that barricade too.  

He sat up, wincing in pain, as Iliya leaned down next to him. 

“Are you okay?” she asked.  Concern oozed from her expression.

“I’ve been better.”  He tried to laugh but coughed instead.  “The others?”

“Oh God, I don’t know!” she said.  “Harrison and Gabriel are moving around, but Maya seemed bad off.  Johanna and Asahi are already carrying her up the trail.”

A sinking feeling settled in the pit of his stomach.  “I have to give her First Aid!”  He tried to rise to his feet but became dizzy and sat back down.

Iliya shook her head.  “Your skill isn’t strong enough to help her.”

“But I have to…”

“Take a deep breath since you’re not thinking.”  Her face split into a self-deprecating smile.  “Not thinking is usually my problem, but...”

She kept chattering away while he only partially listened.  Maya could be dying…  

“...anyway, Emma’s been saying that the best way to heal serious wounds is to learn a new skill.  Maya should’ve gotten one as a reward from the frogs earlier.  Zhang is already learning one at the medical tent right now so no reason Maya can’t too, right?  So you need to First Aid yourself so you can keep fighting.  Or should I just kill this thing myself?”  She laughed. 

She’s right.  His First Aid would do nothing for Maya.  But it could get himself back into the fight.

He nodded at her.  He regretted the motion immediately since it made his vision swim.  He then activated his skill, channeling the healing energy into himself.  Within moments, his head cleared and his aches disappeared.  A hundred cuts and bruises vanished instantly.  But the healing high was immediately replaced with despair as he thought about Maya’s limp body being carried off.  

He gazed at his EP counter.  He only had 7 EPs, not enough to use another skill.  His frown deepened.  Then he took a deep breath and composed himself.  There was nothing he could do for the injured players right now except win this battle.

“Thanks Iliya,” he said.  He paused, searching her face for her thoughts.  “I’m sorry about what happened before.”

“Forget about that.  Just kill this ugly ice freak.”  She smiled, her scar making the friendly expression look more severe than it actually was, a reminder of the trauma she’d endured.

Nathan smiled back.  “You got it.”

Harrison and Gabriel had both pulled themselves up into sitting positions to either side of the remaining barricade.  Harrison gave him a bloody smile and Nathan wasn’t sure if he still had teeth or not.  “No worries with me, mate.  My Defense Up buff soaked up a lot of the explosion.”

Nathan nodded, wishing he had a similar skill.  He shifted his view so he could see the shaman through the now gaping hole in their defense.  The boss hadn’t started casting another blue ice rocket yet, but it was only a matter of time.  It was going to obliterate them with artillery if they sat here and let it.  They didn’t need a clever plan, they just needed to end it.

“Harrison!  Get ready, we’re going with your plan.  Let’s rush the boss before it can get another one of those freaking rockets off.”

“Hell ya!” the man replied gleefully, gripping his club.  Harrison shot a quick glance over to Gabriel who nodded his approval too.  “I’m going to smash that bugger like a pikelet.”   

“A what?” Nathan asked.

“Pikelet, you know...”  Harrison sighed.  “A pancake.”  He mumbled something else about Americans but it was spoken too low to be understood.

Nathan ignored him since they didn’t have time to screw around.  A more pressing issue was the fact Gabriel was now unarmed.  The man’s ranseur was nowhere to be seen, and the only other weapon lying nearby was Maya’s fused spear.  Unfortunately, it was shattered into pieces from the explosion.  

Harrison also noticed the issue and pulled his steel knife out of his waistband.  He tossed it to the man.  Gabriel caught it by the hilt with a dextrous flourish.

With no further discussion, Harrison hopped to his feet.  He was through the new hole in the barricade in an instant.  The speedy Gabriel went through a moment later.  Nathan and Iliya followed closely behind at a sprint. 

Harrison shouted indecipherable obscenities at the top of his lungs as he crossed the creek and started up the opposite bank.  Yellow energy appeared around him which Nathan recognized as his Defense Up buff being reactivated.

The hunched over boss appeared physically weak so if they could reach it, then it would likely be game over for it.  The four spear guths took defensive positions in front of their leader as the players approached, intent on slowing their advance.

One of the defending goblins fell backwards, an arrow sprouting from its chest.  Jackson had hit his mark by arcing an arrow at a steep angle high over the charging player’s heads.  The boss only had three guards now.

Gabriel quickly outpaced Harrison, taking the lead.  The speedy Fire Prime hit the enemy line like a whirlwind, red energy radiating off him as Haste activated.  He stepped around a spear thrust and batted another aside with his open palm.  He closed the distance to the far right goblin and plunged his dagger deep into its neck.  A spurt of blood exited the wound and a moment later the monster began to pixelate.

The middle guth dropped its spear since Gabriel was too close for its longer weapon.  It drew a knife of its own intent to go toe to toe with its attacker.  In a blur of motion, Gabriel kicked the blade out of its hand.  

Nathan was in awe of the man’s speed.  The Fire Prime must’ve already unlocked the Unarmed Combat skill since learning about it from the weapons vendor.  Nothing else would explain the competency of his fighting moves.

The boss guth didn’t like the turn of events and let out an enraged yip.  It began glowing blue again.  Harrison was in the process of dodging a spear from the far left guth as Nathan caught up.  The slower Iliya had fallen several paces behind them.

The boss shaman held forth its palm.  The energy gathered far faster than the times before suggesting it was either rushing its spell, or it was doing something entirely different.

Harrison clubbed the leftmost goblin while Nathan stepped up beside him and speared the remaining middle one that Gabriel had disarmed.  Only the shaman remained.

“Kill it before it finishes its spell!” Nathan shouted.

Gabriel, Harrison, and Nathan all lunged forward, Iliya still a few steps behind.  The boss’ staff tipped down horizontally, aiming at a spot between the three lead attackers.

Nathan’s longer ranseur was the only weapon to reach the shaman, piercing through the robed gut of the enemy as the blue orb reached completion. 

“Iliya,” he heard Harrison shout in warning.  The big man reversed direction and tackled the smaller woman to the ground.

A moment later, a blue flash and a torrent of arctic air blasted over them.  Nathan was thrown backward, becoming airborne long enough to experience the distinct sensation of flying.  He landed roughly on his back in a tangle of weeds and vines.  The wind was knocked out of him and he lay there momentarily stunned. 

His face and upper arms were strangely burning.  He sat up on one elbow and took in the view of his exposed skin.  He was covered in frost.  The burning sensation must be some kind of frostbite debuff.  A blue snowflake symbol had appeared on the debuff side of his wristband to confirm that it was indeed a system designated ailment.  As he tried to move, he realized the frost had even penetrated his clothed areas, greatly limiting his range of movement.  Only his armored hands and forearms had been afforded protection from the icy blast.

He unfortunately didn’t have the EPs for First Aid.  He struggled to sit up and realized he was also shivering.  This wouldn’t do.

He strained his frigid muscles again, harder.  He grunted with effort and forced himself to lift his body up.  As he began to rise, the motion became easier, though no less agonizing.  Perhaps the debuff was wearing off?  As his blood circulated, the burning intensified.

Once upright, he could see what had happened.  The plants in a half circle in front of the boss had been flattened, now covered in frost.  Harrison lay groaning facedown while Iliya climbed out from under him.  The tall man had shielded her from the worst of the blast, a surprisingly chivalrous feat.  The fact the man hadn’t pixelated meant he was still alive, but otherwise he appeared effectively out of the fight.  

Gabriel was nowhere to be seen, likely knocked flying like Nathan though he’d surely received worse.  Gabriel as a Fire Prime had a negative 35% Water resistance thanks to the additional penalty of his element being the destructive enemy of Water.  The blast must've been brutal for him, assuming he survived.  A shiver ran up his spine, and he didn’t think it was due to the frost.

Nathan had to marvel at the versatility of the boss.  Not only was the shaman devastatingly powerful at range with its ice spears, ice rockets, and a massive artillery strike, but it had healing support magic and an icy AoE blast to protect itself at close range.  AoE was a term from many RPGs meaning area of effect.  The larger the area of effect of a skill, the more players it could hit.  Considering Nathan survived being hit with it, he had to imagine the increased AoE of the skill thankfully came at the drawback of reducing its destructive power.  If he’d taken an ice rocket to the face instead, they would be finding his pixelating body parts strewn all up and down the trail.

The shaman boss stood leaning on its staff for support, blood seeping through its robes where Nathan had speared it.  The monster had to be tougher than it looked to still be standing up after that blow.  Despite its grievous injury, it held another blue glowing orb in its upturned palm.

Was it about to heal itself?  Nathan groaned since that would mean all their hard work and sacrifice was for naught.

Nathan swiveled his head as Iliya, Asahi, and Johanna approached the boss in formation.  Iliya appeared fully recovered already, though her dress still showed signs of frost clinging to it.  Nathan stepped forward to join them, finding his muscles reacting slowly.  Despite that, he continued onward.  The more he moved, the easier it became.

Asahi signaled for Iliya and Johanna to flank the sides of the boss while he approached head on.  The three players appeared overly cautious, and for good reason.  Anyone reasonable would fear being blasted by an AoE like the first group had been.  Johanna was audibly whimpering.

The boss waited, blue energy held in its palm at the ready, but not released yet.  Had it formed a healing skill, or another AoE attack?  If the boss chose to heal itself, it would leave itself open to Asahi and company to rush it.  If it was holding an AoE, it could blast the players if they attacked prematurely.  So the two sides were at a temporary stalemate as they waited for the other to move first.

Nathan soon joined the three players, taking a spot on the far left, spaced far enough from the others to make it harder for the boss to target them all.  Nathan debated throwing his ranseur, but knew the move would force the boss to release its ice attack in kind.  With the frost debuff still affecting him, his throw wouldn’t be fast enough, and he’d only get one chance to take it down.

The boss, seeing Nathan returning to the front lines, must’ve realized stalling wasn’t in its favor.  The longer the standoff lasted, the weaker it would become from blood loss and the more reinforcements the players would gain.  That point was punctuated with Jackson’s arrival from down the trail, his last arrow nocked in his bow.  

Nathan had to wonder if the younger player could even hit the shaman given how dark the night had suprisingly already become.  If it weren’t for the glowing blue orb on the creature’s staff, they’d be fumbling around with only the reddish moonlight to go by.

The boss acted first and the players reacted immediately, though there was no way he could move fast enough to prevent it from carrying out its final act.  The shaman held forth its staff and the swirling energy shifted to the staff’s head.  Based on Nathan’s previous observations, it was likely casting an ice rocket instead of its close-range AoE.  The desperate boss was now wide open for counterattack but it apparently no longer cared.  It must know it was doomed and only wanted to take down another player with it instead of trying to extend the fight longer.

The shaman aimed the staff towards the player unlucky enough to draw its final ire.  By some cruel fate it chose Iliya.  Fire energy began entering the orb, meaning the rocket attack was imminent.

Nathan felt the blood drain from his face.  He held his ranseur up to throw, knowing even if he hit the boss, he’d still be too late to stop the rocket aimed at Iliya.  Oh God no!  He snapped his arm forward and released.

Iliya for her part didn’t run away or cower.  She charged, sword leveled to meet the challenge.  With a sick feeling, Nathan knew it was futile.

But Jackson drew his bow faster than Nathan could complete his sluggish javelin throw.  The arrow nailed the boss in the shoulder, causing the creature to flinch slightly though it didn’t stop adding its energy to the staff.  But the momentary distraction caused the blue energy to lose a fraction of its shape.

The delay was enough.  Nathan’s flying ranseur rammed through the blue energy ball and penetrated the shaman’s throat.  Blood spurted outward from the wound, the red liquid mixing with the blue energy.  Luckily, this particular type of red wasn’t the Fire energy needed to launch the spell. 

The boss collapsed.  The blue energy on the staff dissipated, dispersing with the wind.

“Good god, it's finally over,” Nathan said, more to himself than to anyone around.  He slumped to his knees as he caught his breath.  “Two freaking days down.”

“Has it really only been two days?” Iliya asked.  Unlike the rest of the players, she wasn’t winded post battle thanks to the massive stamina reserve provided by her Improved Lungs skill.  “That’s crazy.  It’s felt more like a lifetime.”

Given how much they’d changed mentally and physically since the arena began, he supposed there was more than a little truth to her statement.  He’d transformed as much in the last two days as he had in the last fifteen years.  And as he stared at his glowing wristband, he knew his evolution for the day wasn’t even finished yet.

“It has been a lifetime,” he agreed.  He thought about Maya, Lilly, and the other injured or missing players.  “And it's hardly done.  C’mon, let's go help the others.”

As much as his body protested, he rose to his feet, and got to work.

A note from Gilgilad7

Next Chapter Target Release Date: Wednesday, June 24th.

Status Update: Two shorter chapters remain to finish out book one: Chapter 24 and then an epilogue chapter.  So the book will be completed in two weeks.  After that, I have a lot of prep work I'm already working on (revising my outline, compiling all my character sheet information, further game mechanic design, etc.) to get ready for book two so not sure what my posting schedule will be like yet.  I will give more details in a bigger status update once book one is finished.  Thanks for reading!

Spoiler: Nathan's Character Sheet


About the author


  • United States
  • Aspiring Author

Bio: I love games in all forms.

Small sample of my favorites:
Boardgames - 7 Wonders, Agricola, Ticket to Ride, Dominion.
CRPGs: Wizardry VIII, Bard's Tale III, Final Fantasy VII, TES III Morrowind.
MMOs: World of Warcraft, Eve Online.
Shooters: Goldeneye, Halo, PUBG.
CCGs: Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone, Pokemon TCG.
RTS: Dune II, Red Alert, Warcraft II, Starcraft II.
4x Strategy: Alpha Centauri, Civilization III, Endless Legend, Age of Wonders III.
MOBAs: Vainglory.

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