The tunnel ceiling crumbled and the group scattered to avoid the torrent of stones falling everywhere around them. Ari managed to dodge a few, but he stumbled and hit the ground on his hands and knees. He tried to roll away, but he slipped on some pebbles and fell back down. Just when he was about to be squashed, a large barrier shimmered above him, blocking the boulders.
“Move! I can’t hold it,” Tasia shouted.
Ari made a desperate dash toward the woman as the tunnel behind him collapsed with a thundering crash.
He sat on the cold ground, breathing hard and staring in disbelief at the blocked exit. His teammates coughed their heads off from all the dust and smoke, but at least they were alive. But for how long... The sounds of shouts and footsteps reached his ears. Despite their short legs, the creatures were fast — Ari gauged they had half a minute at most.
Think, think. There.
To his left, the cavern ended in a fiery chasm, and from the opposite direction, the goblins were attacking. Ari pointed at an elevated position among the rocks. “Killian, get up there and support us.”
The archer nodded and started climbing without delay. Ari threw his pack on the ground and turned toward Elijah and Tasia. “We need to push through them. Here they can swarm us from every direction, and I don’t want to find out what’s at the bottom of that chasm,” Ari said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. They needed to believe he knew what he was doing.
The raven-haired woman nodded and marched forward. Elijah followed her; his red-glowing sword readied in front of him.
Ari looked at his spider and whispered, “Help them, but try not to get killed.” After increasing his mind attribute, he could summon it with better efficiency. But he barely sensed any water in his near vicinity, so if the creature died, he wouldn’t be able to resummon it.
Ari took another deep breath and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He tightly gripped the scepter and shield before hurrying after his companions.
“There’s a crevice, maybe a hundred meters to our right,” Killian shouted from the rock above them. The archer fired arrow after arrow, and soon sounds of groans could be heard among all the shouting and howling.
Ari nodded and said, “You heard him, we need to move along the wall till we reach it. Run, now.”
They hadn’t waited for the smoke to clear, and their three black-clad figures charged through it. The two small goblins at the head of the group died instantly as Tasia swung her large sword horizontally, cutting their heads off. Then, she engaged four more green-skinned creatures, as they appeared on her left side. The spider jumped on one, pinning it to ground, and blood squirted thickly into the air as it ravaged its torso.
Seeing another goblin, armed with a nasty-looking spear, trying to flank the woman, Ari pointed his scepter in its direction. Please don’t miss, please don’t miss, he thought and discharged essence from the weapon. A blue-white shaft of light hit the creature straight into the chest. It slowed down, seemingly confused, and another goblin crashed into it from behind. A second later, both exploded, spraying blood and gore far enough to land on the goblins still trying to reach their group. Some even slipped, and their charge temporarily came to a halt.
Ari stared in disbelief at the scepter as a warm wave spread through his body. He hadn’t expected it to work that well.
“Watch out!” Elijah shouted, and Ari turned his attention back to what was happening in front of him. He looked up, only to find a goblin flying through the air, its two curved daggers aimed straight at his head. Ari raised his round shield in a desperate attempt to block the attack, but he knew he wouldn't make it in time.
But then, he felt a source of heat flying over his head, and the goblin howled in pain as a thick stream of black-red fire cut it into two pieces. The upper part fell on his shield and landed on the ground with a splat. Ari wanted to say his thanks, but the chubby man marched past him without even glancing in his direction. His face showed no emotions, as he gazed with cold eyes at the group of goblins sprawled on the ground ten meters away.
Elijah held the sword in front of him and flicked his wrist. The blade flared as flames appeared all over it. Then, a sizzling torrent of fire shot toward the creatures, forcing Ari to cover his eyes from the heat. The goblins howled as they died, their bodies coming apart in flaming sparks and smoke. The sudden blaze vanished a moment later, but the air was still filled with ashes, as well as the stench of burned flesh.
What is he? A shiver ran down Ari’s spine.
A figure appeared between the smoke and ashes. The husky creature stomped on the still scorching remains and licked its lips. Elijah fired another stream of fire, but the goblin blocked it casually with his jagged sword; the second one was still strapped to his back. A cruel smile crept on the husky goblin’s face as he cracked his neck to the left and then the right. Then, it charged at them.
Ari fired an essence blast, but the creature dodged it effortlessly. Before he was able to pour enough essence into his scepter, a howling arrow hit the creature into his steel cuirass, barely slowing it down.
Elijah rushed to intercept the oversized goblin. Their weapons clashed in a dazzling flash as the two figures collided with each other. The chubby man swung his burning sword down toward the goblin’s neck, but he effortlessly danced away. Considering its size, Ari was both impressed and terrified by the creature’s speed. He wanted to fire another blast, but he was worried he would hit his teammate by accident.
As the two exchanged further blows, their swords echoed throughout the cavern, and Elijah seemed to have the upper hand. Suddenly, the creature kicked the chubby man straight into his chest sending him tumbling to the ground. Without wasting a moment, the goblin swung at Elijah’s head. But a barrier shimmered in the air, blocking the jagged blade. The creature retreated, eyeing it with curiosity.
Tasia approached Elijah and helped him get up. The raven-haired woman’s face was splattered with black blood, and it was twisted into a snarl of anger and pain.
The husky goblin grunted and muttered a few words in a guttural language while he reached for his second sword. Ari wanted to use the moment to attack, but he sensed something to his right and ducked just in time to avoid a small fireball. It crashed into the wall behind him, raising another cloud of dust and pebbles.
He scanned the cavern, searching for the source of essence. There. On the bone altar, beside the still sleeping red boar, stood a tall goblin wearing a patched yellow-red robe. The creature pointed a gnarly-looking staff in their direction, and even from here, Ari could sense the fiery essence surrounding it.
“Take care of the caster,” Tasia said. “We will handle this one here.” She and Elijah started circling their opponent, who observed them with a mocking smile as if the tactic amused him.
Ari wanted to stay and help, but another fireball came flying and the woman blocked it with a barrier. “Now!” she shouted and charged at the creature. From the other side, Elijah did the same, but their opponent easily blocked both attacks. Ari cast one last glance at the pair fighting against the dual-wielding monstrosity, and he focused on his target.
“Killian, come—” Ari turned toward the rock, where the archer stood before, but the brown-haired man was already beside him. He moves like a ghost.
“Can you hit him from here?” he asked Killian as they rushed toward the altar. Not even a second later, the archer shot another howling arrow. But when it was about to hit the caster, a barrier flared in front of him.
“Really?” Ari groaned.
They closed fast on the altar, dodging more fireballs; the caster’s attention now entirely focused on them. But soon, he stopped firing the fiery balls of death and stared at the approaching pair. He’s conserving essence already.
“Try flanking him,” Ari said when they reached the first muddy hut. Killian nodded and vanished behind it. If those barriers were similar to Tasia’s, then the caster wouldn’t be able to defend himself from two sides at once.
Ari stopped when he was twenty meters away from the altar. He glanced at the platform where the caster stood, leaning on his staff. The boar beside him still had its eyes shut as if it didn’t care about the ongoing battle. From up close it looked even scarier. The monster was the size of a carriage and its red fur glistened faintly. Ari noticed there was a silver collar around its neck.
His nose curled as an acrid smell entered his nostrils. In the area between the huts, pieces of meat were roasting over a fire, skewered on sticks. Is that an arm? He bent down and gagged. If his stomach wasn’t already empty, he would’ve vomited right where he stood.
He caught a glimpse of movement behind him. Startled, Ari spun around and brought his shield up in time to block a spear thrust. He pointed his scepter at the goblin and discharged it. With a loud crash, the creature smashed through the hut’s wall behind. A second later, the whole building exploded, and pieces of stones and mud rained on the area around him.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ari noticed another charging goblin. Before it got too close, his spider tackled it, and they tumbled inside another hut. An anguished shriek was cut short, and his summon emerged outside, its translucent body now partially black. Before he was able to catch his breath, Ari sensed something beneath his feet. He dove to the side an instant before a sharp spear burst from the ground where he had stood a moment ago.
The goblin caster tsked and muttered, sounding dissatisfied. He pointed the staff at Ari, but another barrier flared on his side, blocking an arrow. Ari used this moment to fire another essence blast, but a second barrier shimmered in the air, deflecting his attack. The goblin cackled and fired two fireballs in the direction of the archer.
Ari hid behind a hut and commanded his spider to attack the goblin, but even it couldn’t pass the barrier. We have to wear him down. Those spells must cost a lot of essence and... The sounds of swords clashing reached him. No, we can’t wait. Tasia and Elijah need our help with the weird goblin.
He glanced toward the altar and the rock formation behind it, and an idea formed in his head. “Climb up there,” he whispered and pointed at a spot high above the ground.
The spider’s eight blue eyes blinked and it skittered away. Ari discharged his scepter two times, trying to give a moment of respite to the archer. He still had over half of his essence left, so he could waste some to help him. Right away, more spears, but smaller ones than the one before, burst from the ground, and he had to keep moving between the huts to avoid being skewered. Soon, his breath became ragged. He was getting slower, nearly getting hit by the last spear.
While dodging, Ari kept glancing at the spider as it slowly climbed up the rocks. After noticing it was in position, he shouted, “Jump, now!” Then, he discharged a blast aiming at the altar in front of the goblin caster. Dust and bone fragments rose from the ground, blocking his sight. The barrier still flared with color, as Killian’s arrows crashed unto it. Ari charged the scepter and a moment later, he heard a terrible scream as the goblin fumbled out of the smoke, with the spider on his back.
He fired again. A shaft of blue-white light hit the goblin into the shoulder, spinning him around and a smile crept on Ari’s face. Got you! But the explosion that followed barely made any scratch in the creature's skin, and it only knocked down his spider, which now lay on the ground unmoving. Fuck.
An ominous buzzing and crackling sound filled the air, which made Ari’s hair stand straight out. The feeling reminded him of the nights he spent outside during a storm. Even the goblin had a surprised look on his bloodied face, as he glanced left and right. Suddenly, he spun to the side and a barrier started forming in the air. But an arrow dazzling like a lightning flash smashed it into pieces and pierced through the creature. An afterimage of a lightning bolt was left in its path for a second. The goblin stared in disbelief at the massive gaping hole in his chest, before he fell to the altar and stopped moving.
Ari sat on the ground, trying to catch his breath. I nearly fucked everything up. The plan worked, but the last essence blast did more harm than good. It seemed it was too weak to penetrate the defenses of stronger monsters.
He sensed a presence to his right and noticed Killian leaning hard against a hut, one of his arms hanging limp at his side. Ari’s eyes widened, and he hurried to heal him. He placed his hands over the injured limb and instantly sensed the wounds were far more extensive than he thought. But to his surprise, the damage wasn't done by one of the fireballs — Killian's cloak was intact and there were no burn marks on his body. It looks as if he did it to himself.
Ari tried to pour essence into the archer’s body, but it did nothing as if it was rejected. He frowned, and after closing his eyes, tried again. But instead of focusing on one place, he spread it throughout the whole body. The moment he felt his essence working on healing the damage he let out a deep breath. At the same time, a box appeared inside his mind.
|Your Mend spell evolved into Healing Touch|
|Old spell: Heals light wounds. Constant contact is required for this spell to work.|
|New spell: Heals moderate wounds. Contact is required to cast the spell. After the wound is healed to 50%, the leftover essence will keep healing the target.
“Ha ha ha.”
A cackle brought him back to reality and Ari looked at the altar. The goblin caster held one of his arms high and something sparkled through his fingers. He cackled one more time and crushed the item.
The red moss covering the whole cavern dimmed as if the essence fueling it lost its power. Immediately, a terrible pressure forced Ari to his knees as the boar opened its eyes, burning red with malice. The creature gazed straight at him, roared defiantly and started flailing like a rabid dog.
At that moment, it dawned on Ari he made a big mistake — the thing around the boar’s neck wasn’t a collar, but a chain and the goblin somehow kept it under his control.
And now it was free.