“What do we do?” I hastily ask Tabitha.
Tabitha gives me a reproaching look. “That is up to you. Remember I said this was your challenge to overcome. You need to decide; do you fight, or do we flee?” Tabitha grins sadistically, appearing to be enjoying the situation we were in. “Better decide quickly,” she reminds me, pointing her unsheathed sword in the direction the noise was coming from.
I stared wide-eyed at the woman in armor; she was doing this now!?
The rumbling was getting louder, and I could feel vibrations through the ground. Whatever was approaching us was big.
I looked to Tabitha for guidance, but all her attention was on the tree line. Glancing around the clearing, I rush to try to develop some semblance of a plan. I had no idea what was coming and whether or not we would need to run. For all I knew, the monster approaching us was speed-oriented or excelled at tracking; running might not even be an option.
A million possibilities flooded my mind, making it even harder to concentrate. What was the right move!?
As I started to stress visibly, Tabitha called out to me, pulling me out of the rabbit hole I was falling into. “Calm down; what did I teach you?"
Memories of my training sessions with Tabitha come to mind. There was no use trying to come up with a strategy for an enemy you knew nothing about. Any detailed plan I would likely come up with would need to be changed. Simplicity was the only way to go.
My eyes land on the large stump in the middle of the clearing, and a simple yet effective strategy comes to mind. “Hide!” I yell, rushing for cover.
To her credit, Tabitha doesn’t second guess my orders, activating her armor’s enchantments and following me behind the rotten stump without a single word. And a good thing, too, because I hear the crashing sound of one of the smaller trees on the edge of the clearing being knocked over as soon as we're out of sight.
Time to see if I made the right decision or if I screwed up already. Tabitha said we wouldn't run into anything too strong this early, so I doubt we were in any real danger, but you never know.
Peaking around the tree stump, I try to see what entered the clearing without giving us away. And when I do, I get my first look at an impressive magic beast.
Technically, my first encounter with magic beasts was the chameleon spiders, but I wasn't counting those because I fought them before we entered the magic-dense region. And though I’ve seen plenty of magical animals and insects since we entered, they didn’t elicit the same wonder as the beasts in front of me.
Standing thirteen feet tall, maybe two hundred feet away from me, was a living, breathing dinosaur…. Rhino; Dinosaur-rhino thing? It was as tall as I would imagine a triceratops to be, but instead of having a shield-shaped head, it looked closer to a rhinoceros', a rhinoceros with a lot more horns. There were seven of them, running up its face, with the most prominent horns on its snout.
The creature's ebony horns stood out against its light brown hide and naturally drew my attention. There was a lot of mana in those horns, a type of mana I've only seen once before in a tree. And just like an arc tree, I watch as a bolt of electricity jolts from the creature's biggest horn to its other smaller ones.
I wanted those horns, but I was reluctant to rush the massive creature, mainly because it wasn’t alone. Three other beasts followed the first into the clearing. One was slightly smaller than the first, but it had more horns running up its face; only these were even in size and a lot smaller overall compared to the first. The other two were smaller versions of the bigger ones, a family group.
My target was the first one, the bull; I knew it was male because it was the biggest of the four. That, and it was pretty hard to miss the rather sizeable fleshy appendage dangling between its hind legs.
“Tabitha, can you distract the other three while I fight the big one?” I ask in a whisper.
Tabitha sneaks a quick glance at the situation before turning to me, shaking her head, no.
“What; why not?” I frown.
“How many times must I tell you?” She rolls her eyes. “This is your fight. If you want to take them on, you have to do it yourself. They aren’t that strong,” she tells me with confidence. “I’ll step in if something goes wrong, but you should act as if I’m not here. Now, what will you do? They don’t look like they would follow us if we ran.”
Though Tabitha suggested the possibility of running, her eyes say differently. She expects me to rise to the challenge, and quickly scanning the group with Sense Soul reveals that she's right; they aren't that strong. Level wise that is. The bull is around level 65, while the female is in the low 60's. I don't even bother trying to calculate the two little one’s levels due to how small their souls are.
The four beasts were inching their way further into the clearing. They looked to be foraging for food, hooving the ground with their massive feet, looking for gods know what. I watch, interested, as one of the little ones stumbles over to the blue-tipped fern I partially dug up. In one bite, the dinosaur-looking thing swallows the plant whole, not caring in the slightest that it was covered in spiked spores.
While the first baby eats, the second moves over towards its sibling, probably noticing that it had already found a source of food. I expect the two to start fighting over the surrounding plants, but the one who first stumbled onto the magic plant was surprisingly gentle regarding its sibling joining it. While it chewed the fern in its mouth, it moved aside so its sibling could better access the area.
I watch as the second baby digs up the ground and starts snacking on the parts of the fern’s roots I didn’t dig up.
It was amazing to be so close to such giant beasts. I had to fight back the urge to get closer and try my hand at petting one of them. However, I’d already seen that movie and knew how doing something like that would end. And needlessly pissing off their parents wasn’t something I wanted to do.
Or was it?
If I wanted to fight the bull, I’d need to figure out how to split them up. While the two littler ones were eagerly foraging around the clearing without a care in the world, the bigger two were keeping an eye on their surroundings. They took turns foraging for food, with one of them constantly scanning the area around their children. It was only a matter of time until one of us was spotted, and I lost my chance at a sneak attack.
The dino-rhinos were bulky and probably hit like a runaway truck. I'd have to keep on my toes, but that was normally how I fought; the problem was their lightning horns. I had no idea if they acted like tasers or if they could discharge stored electricity at will. I could doge a stampeding beast; I, however, couldn't dodge lightning, no matter how fast I was.
As I was trying to form a quick strategy, I saw the bull and his lady's nostrils start to flare up. Then, both of their heads snap to attention, and they let out a low growl that sounded like a foghorn, signaling for their young to regroup with them.
They must have realized we were hiding nearby, but how? I glanced at Tabitha to see if she was perhaps spotted, but she was still entirely hidden behind the stump. Then how did they?
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the trees in the clearing rustle. I scan them to make sure nothing in them spooked the dino-rhinos, but when my search comes up with nothing, it’s then that I realize what gave us away. The wind had changed direction.
I couldn’t feel the breeze with Mana Skin up, so I rarely thought about it and didn’t notice when it shifted. Unfortunately, it was currently blowing at our backs, and though Mana Skin should theoretically help with masking my sent, Tabitha had no such thing.
The dino-rhinos smelt Tabitha and knew they weren't alone; it was now or never!
Throwing my bag next to Tabitha and leaping out of my hiding spot, I use Air Walk to quickly close the distance between myself and the bull before he could try and escape.
The big boy sees me coming and lets out a threatening growl, and doesn’t hesitate to start charging me. Luckily the other three don't follow in the big one's charge and instead turn to flee. I couldn't have asked for a better outcome; with the other three gone, I only need to focus on the one.
“Holy shit!” I curse and kick the air, dodging out of range of the dino-rhino’s horns. While I was looking at the other three escaping, I almost missed the bull speeding up. His horns were mere inches from turning me into a pincushion. I didn’t expect such a big boy to move so fast.
I draw my hammer mid-dodge and prepare to swing at the beast's exposed flank. Its hide looked thick enough to stop most blades, but unfortunately for him, I specialized in a different form of damage.
My opponent was wide open, and I wasn’t going to waste my chance.
“Let’s see how you handle this!?” I yell. Exhaling during my swing gives it a little more kick, much like how martial artists exhale during their strikes.
My hammer cuts through the air like a wrecking ball, but I feel something wash over Mana Skin just as I'm about to connect with the dino-rhino's side. As a result, I'm again forced to use Air Walk to change my trajectory. However, I was already mid-swing, so I have to wrap my hammer in Mana Threads to leverage it better and keep it from pulling me closer to the beast.
I retreat a few feet from the dino-rhino, before I turn and see what I was hit with, already pretty sure I knew what the culprit was. And just as I expected, when I look at the magic beast, I see electricity discharging from its horns. There wasn’t any control behind the electricity, thank god. The dino-rhino was simply discharging it in every which direction.
If I didn’t have Mana Skin activated, I probably would’ve been subjected to a powerful zap, but luckily, it didn’t do too much damage to my skill, and I only needed to pour some more mana into it before it was good as new. I would've been in trouble if the dino-rhino had better control of the electricity and hit me with it all at once rather than blanketing the area with it. I need to be warry of such attacks in the future.
Dropping Air walk, I land on the forest floor and ready myself for another attack. The dino-rhino isn't done either; it skids to a stop, nimbly changing direction, and charges me again. From there, the two of us play a deadly game of cat and mouse, one where the dino-rhino charges me, and I dodge to the best of my abilities. But it was strange….
No matter how close the magic beast came at times to skewering me, I couldn’t bring myself to muster any fear. I recognized that there was a genuine possibility that I could be hurt, but I was calm, exceedingly so for some reason.
As I danced around the charging bull, dodging its horns and the occasional electrical discharge, I couldn't help but draw parallels to my training with Tabitha.
The bull wasn’t parrying my strikes, and there was never a point I felt overwhelmed by it.
Swinging my hammer, I land a hit on the dino-rhino’s neck, sending it stumbling into the dirt. But he doesn't stay down for long and quickly shakes off my attack before getting up and charging me again.
No matter how I dodged it or counterattacked, the bull didn't change its attack strategy—another difference between it and Tabitha.
Again, my hammer finds purchase on the dino-rhino's neck, and again it gets back up after my strike, all be it a little slower than last time. Then, on shaky legs, the bull continued its mad charge.
It was then that I realized the outcome of our fight had already been decided. I wasn't looking down on the beast or anything like that; it was just that I realized it couldn't challenge me as I wanted.
I was used to being pushed to my limits by Tabitha, and now that I was fighting something ‘easier’ than her, it felt hollow and unfulfilling.
A third strike to the dino-rhino's neck puts it on the ground, and this time, it doesn't get back to its feet. The giant beast whimpers in pain while trying to stand up, striking a chord in my heart.
Despite a growing sense of unease, I raise my hammer again and deliver a swift blow to the side of the beast’s head. Its eyes roll up into its skull, and it passes out. The creatures Vitality and Defense were no joke; even with multiple strikes near its spine and a blow to the head, it wasn't dead, only unconscious.
I didn’t understand what its goals were? After the first few hits, it should've tried to flee, but it didn't. Why was that?
Looking behind the comatose dino-rhino, I see the hole its family made during their earlier escape. During all our fighting, during all my dodging, I hadn’t taken a single step in that direction.
“Damn it, I’m the bad guy here, aren’t I?” I ask myself, replaying the fight in my head.
The dino-rhino charged me while its family escaped, and it did everything to keep me from going after them. That's why it didn't stop charging me, even after I hit it so many times.
“Well done," Tabitha tells me as she steps up behind me. “You barely took any damage at all, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from someone I’ve personally trained.”
“Thanks,” I respond half-heartily, still staring at the dino-rhino in front of me. This is not how I was expecting my first win in the magic-dense region to feel.
“Are you going to finish it?” Tabitha asks, looking at the beast’s side and seeing that it is still breathing.
“I should…. shouldn’t I?” I ask with little confidence. "I mean, I did win?"
“You did,” Tabitha tells me like that was obvious.
There’s a silence between us.
My prize was right in front of me. Naturally, I wanted the dino-rhino's horns, so much so that I didn't even hesitate to rush the beast when I thought it was about to run.
Reaching to my side, I pull out the all-purpose knife I had brought with me and channel my mana into it. The sharpening rune engraved on its blade lights up as I move next to the unconscious beast’s massive head.
Looking over the defeated creature, I make my decision.
"What are you doing?" Tabitha asks me as I carefully start sawing off its middle horn. With Sense Mana, I make sure to cut high enough that I won’t nick any of its underline nerves. If it was anything like rhinoceroses back on earth, its horn should eventually grow back.
“Taking the horn I want," I reply as I work. The ebony horn is stronger than I expected, but my enchanted knife can still slowly cut through it. "Do you think it will be able to recover?" I ask while looking at the dino-rhino's bruised neck.
"It should be able to," Tabitha tells me as I finish removing the horn I wanted. I chose to take the middle one because it wasn't one of its three major ones, but it wasn’t one of the smaller ones either. The horn I picked was a foot and a half long and was more than enough to craft something with.
“You aren’t taking the others?” Tabitha notes as I re-sheath my knife and pick up my prize.
“No, it will need its other horns to protect its family," I say as I walk back to the stump where my bag was located. After stashing the horn and grabbing my pack, I turn to Tabitha. "Are you disappointed in me?"
Tabitha looks at me, then at the still unconscious magic beast across the clearing before turning back to me. “And why would I be disappointed?”
I’m surprised by her response. "Because I didn't kill it," I point out to my battle-loving teacher.
Tabitha folds her arms, “And that is your decision. As the victor, you have the right to decide if you wish to finish it or not. Just beware, you won’t always have this luxury, understand?"
“I do," I respond with a smile. Knowing Tabitha stood by my decision and wasn't looking down on me for it made me feel better. “Do you mind if we wait here for it to wake up?”
“We can do that,” Tabitha agrees, throwing down her pack and hopping back onto the stump, and taking a seat. “While we’re waiting, let us discuss your battle. You did good, but I'm sure you realized you made a few mistakes," she scolds me with a grin.
Tabitha starts laying into me about how that first lightning discharge shouldn't have hit me. I nod along to what she's saying, but my mind is elsewhere.
I was too excited at the prospect of a fight; the dino-rhino didn't attack me; I attacked it. That went against everything I thought I believed in. Kill the aggressive monsters I run into and spare those who try to flee, that was the motto I set for myself, and I came this close to breaking it.
Coupled with my trouble with the remnants last night, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was walking down the wrong path, and it scared me. I’ve seen what a person could turn into when they become consumed with the desire to grow stronger.
I refuse to turn into the next soul devourer.
Becoming stronger doesn’t require I kill everything in sight.
Looking back at the dino-rhino, I offer it a silent thank you in my head. If not for it, I might have lost a part of myself without realizing it. I’ll stay here and watch over it until it wakes up and can walk again; that was the least I could do. Thankfully, that shouldn't take too long for a creature at its level and stats.
What a day, I let out a long sigh.
“Are you listening to me?” Tabitha narrows her eyes accusingly and asks in an icy voice.
“Yeeesssss?” I lie
And it looks like my day isn’t over yet.