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Two days later, we were back on the road, winding our way up a mountain to a “great vantage point.”

“It’s a bit of a detour, but I’d thought ye’d like to see the best view in Nolgrod!” Lule enthusiastically told me.

“I’d love to see it!” I said, distinctly feeling on the back foot. After the utter disaster that had been meeting the Mayor, I was down to do anything Lule thought was a good idea. I’d like to be back in her good books. Anything to get a good word in with the important people on the other side.

“Ah! When the sun hits just right, it’s like the entire mountain sings!” Drin enthusiastically entered the conversation.

“Are there any good bugs to be found up there?” I asked him, having finally caught onto the way to butter him up.

He shook his head.

“If anything, it’s a bad spot. Not too many bugs live on the peak.” He told me.

“Oh.” I’d almost assumed there was some sort of super-duper rare bug living in the highest reaches of the mountain. A fun little diversion as we tried to catch it, only to be outwitted in the end by something with a brain the size of a speck of dust. Nope. No such luck.

“It’s great for seeing the stars though! Lusebalt Summit has no trees on the top, and at night, the sky just opens up!” Fik told me. “I’ve been dying to show you the constellations, but the trees keep hiding them from us. Now I can show you the Carpenter, the Anvil, the Firefly, and my personal favorite, the Lyre!”

“Sounds like fun!” I told Fik, only for Glifir to hurry back from scouting, concern on his face.

“Leader Lule, we’ve got a problem.” He said, and his tone caught my attention, while the lack of a generational honorific caught everyone else’s attention.

“Report.” She said, as weapons were drawn.

“We’ve got a Chupacabra stalking us.” He said. “Probably wants the yaks. Wanted me to see him.”

Lule’s beard creased in a way that I associated with frowning. Helmets started to go on heads, and I grabbed mine as well, getting it strapped onto my head.

No need to get my armor on, I lived in it.

“It’s trying to wear us down. Catch us off-guard when we’re exhausted.” She finally declared.

“Toke. Ned. Rest. Sleep if you can. Drin. You’re on stare-down duty for now. Keep eyes on it permanently. It shouldn’t attack while it knows we’re watching. Glifir. You’re still on scouting, let us know if anything else is coming. Nothing else should want to mess with a Chupacabra, but it might have a mate, and be trying something tricky. Fik. You’re with me on guard duty.” Lule rapidly assessed the situation, and handed out orders.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked, feeling somewhat left out. “I have a skill to restore and energize, which could help if it’s trying to exhaust us.”

I got a quick glance from her, a weighty look.

She gave a curt shake of her head.

“Nothing. It is our pride to protect you.” She said.

I shut up, although the moment the Chupacabra came into view, I wouldn’t hesitate to heal everyone, or take some shots of my own.

Wonderful thing about Radiance was the travel time – or lack thereof. I was unlikely to foul anyone’s shot with my attacks, although I’d announce it.

Should probably lay off the [Nova]’s. Especially in a forest.

The Chupacabra took that moment to growl, and reveal itself through the trees.

It looked vaguely like a large, mangy dog, with a row of sharp spines down against its back. It growled at us, loudly, making sure we knew it was there – then spat a sizzling glob of something orange at us, which arced up high, then broke into a fine rain. The Chupacabra promptly faded back into the trees after its attack.

Toke lazily waved her arm, and shimmering darkness spread above us, shielding us from the acid rain.

“No problem to shield this, but this is going to be a pain.” She said with a frown.

Lule sighed.

“No rest for the hard-working.” She muttered into her beard.

I was inclined to agree.

 


Three attacks later, and I’d had enough.

“Oi! You little shit!” I yelled at it, jumping up and hitting it with a cone of [Shine]. I walked towards it, eyes promising murder, as the light stopped it from slinking off too far. I threw a [Nova] after it, but it was gone before it landed.

So much for “not throwing [Nova] into a forest”. That hadn’t lasted long, although with the colder, wetter weather the odds of starting anything bad were slim.

I went back to the cart, muttering.

“Any reason we’re not doing more to annoy it?” I asked Lule, stomping back after the Chupacabra ran off.

“No point in getting ourselves riled up.” Lule answered me after a moment’s pause.

“Mmmm. It might think we’re not quite as soft anymore though.” I said.

“Yeah, but if we never do anything, we say we’re so strong we don’t care about it.” Drin joined the conversation.

“We need to block its attacks already. Not exactly a show of strength.” I grumbled.

“Fine! I’ll help ye on the next trade.” Lule said.

Which is exactly what she did. Next time the Chupacabra showed up, Lule did her best Artemis impression, and threw a few rocks its way. Nothing landed, but it was taking longer and longer between harassments.

We stopped earlier than usual, to set up camp. The Chupacabra lurking about made it take twice as long as we needed to move more carefully, and avoid getting picked off.

Watches were arranged, three pairs of two, and in spite of my volunteering, I wasn’t assigned to any of them.

“I’ve got a shield though! I can help!” I protested.

“It would be improper.” Was all Lule replied to my protestations.

I settled in, fully expecting to be attacked in the night. I didn’t lie down at all – I just half-slumped against the wall, helmet on, shield on my arm and spear in my hand.

I slept fitfully, jumping at every shift change, at every loud snort, every cracked twig.

I was practically awake when the call came.

“Attack! Hellhounds! Attack!” Drin yelled, and I was on my feet in a flash, as Ned ran into the lean-to, with Drin taking a position in the entrance.

The entrance was way too large for him to block by himself though.

First thing first – see what was going on. I used [Shine], bright enough to light the area up, but not so bright that a dwarf looking at me would go blind. It was a good trick to make it super bright and blink it when not working in a team. In a team though, I needed to be considerate.

Ned was out with Drin, and there was already a shimmering connection between the two. As the rest of the dwarves were roused and exited, Ned hooked them up.

As for the hellhounds themselves, they were like mid-sized dogs. Bigger than a small dog, smaller than a medium-sized dog, they were a weird size. They barked and leapt and bounded over each other, a shifting, whirling mass of animal that was hard to get a good number on. I’d wager over thirty, what they lacked in individual size they made up for with individuals.

Some had smoke trailing out of their mouth, others seemed to leave ash in their wake. A few didn’t seem to have any obvious elements, although most of the pack being casters didn’t speak well for us.

Then, as if my light was the signal, they charged, and everything became a chaotic mess.

With a dedicated healer on the team, I went on the offensive. I started by throwing three [Nova]’s at the mass, trying to break them up. Then, when I saw an isolated hellhound, I’d try to drill a beam of Radiance through their head.

I felt a bit like I was a one-trick pony at times, but hey. It was a good trick.

The hellhounds were fast, but I was able to just barely track them, which let me carve deep into their flesh when I had a moment.

Fik joined Drin near the entrance of the lean-to, and Toke and Lule each worked their magic, closing the entrance somewhat. Toke had extended the walls a hair, closing the entrance, but leaving herself small slits to shoot out of. Lule did the same on the other side, but instead of wood she used stone. I mentally winced at that, because the sheer volume of conjured stone would’ve had a major impact on her mana pool. Artemis had done similar tricks – with a wagonful of Arcanite fueling her.

It was good, because now we were properly safe and secured inside.

Bad, because now I didn’t have a clean shot to hit the hellhounds.

Mist spread across the battlefield, and Glifir seemed to fade away. Not quite invisible, but blurred. He walked right past Fik and Drin, and scooted around, out of view. Given the hellhounds weren’t violently ripping him to shreds as he walked past them, he’d probably concealed his scent somewhat. Or there were other skills at work.

Still, they made a solid team. Toke and Lule on the flanks, protected by the lean-to’s walls and their own protections. Fik and Drin in the middle, Ned, having healing connections on everyone but me. Glifir in the Mist, an occasional icy blade flashing down to kill an isolated hellhound, then fading back.

Drin hadn’t shut up about his method of stunning and killing, and mentally I’d been poo-pooing it. It hadn’t stopped me for even a moment, and I’d thought he was all talk.

Well, I got to see it in action. A hellhound would leap at him, mouth full of flames, and he’d block with his shield. As he blocked, a loud crack echoed, and the hellhound would fall, stunned.

Drin would then swing his axe down.

Honestly, I felt bad for the hellhounds. They were literally stunned immobile, defenseless, as Drin hacked them apart with one or two blows.

I noticed that he never went for the vitals on the first blow, and while my estimation of him and his tactics as a warrior went up, my belief of how good of a person he was went way down.

I was slightly concerned about his shield, constantly warding off flaming attacks while being made of wood, but every time it was scratched, the wood regrew, keeping his armor looking pristine, never mind that he was in the middle of a bloody battle.

I had a brief debate of “wagon or yak”, before deciding on the wagon. I climbed up onto it, and, half-hunched over due to the ceiling, looked back towards the battle.

Yup, between the top of Drin’s head, and the ceiling, was a gap wide enough for me to comfortably throw Radiance beams through, although I didn’t want to risk a [Nova]. I stifled a chuckle – I was in the exact position and pose Artemis had been in when we got attacked by goblins, back when I first joined up with the Rangers.

From my angle, I wasn’t able to hit anything in the fighting, but I could hit some of the hellhounds that were skirting around near the back. Generally not lethal, but I stung badly enough that most of them limped away, licking charred flesh.

Lule was a heck of a lot stronger than I gave her credit for. She was holding a little hammer, and swinging it up and down, behind the protections of her barrier.

A much larger hammer made out of stone was outside, and with every swing of her hammer, it came crashing down, crushing hellhounds with started yelps of pain… only for the gory hammer to rise again, continuing its bloody work.

The hellhounds weren’t taking this lying down. Seeing the first few waves get smashed, they backed up a bit – right into Radiance laser range. Still, a few of the ashen hounds seemingly exploded, coating everything in thick ash, with small bits of burning embers dancing through the air. They burned and scorched when they landed on small bits of exposed skin – but fortunately for me, I didn’t have a lot of that. Not that a minor burn would slow me down.

The ashen veil hid their attacks though, and spears made out of glowing ash shot out of the darkness, with us only being able to see and react to it a moment before it connected. [Shine] was amazing against Mirages, but physically filling the air with ash was a different story.

However, the ash neatly ate up my Radiance. Sure, I could probably try to burn through it, but that’d be a large waste of mana. Instead, I decided to survey the field, to see if there was anything else I could be doing.

I looked at Drin and Fik, and briefly considered throwing up shields near them, to help them deflect attacks. They looked like they had things under control.

I had no idea on Glifir, who was either enjoying the added layers of confusion – or had been knocked out of his Mist by it. Either way, I wasn’t going to run out and break the formation when I didn’t know if he was even in trouble. It’d just cause more problems.

Now, if he called out for help, or made some noise that indicated he needed healing, we’d have a problem.

Ned still seemed to have the healing well in hand, Lule was still doing hammertime, and Toke –

Toke didn’t seem to be doing much, although she had one hand on the lean-to, and another on her barrier. Maybe she was reinforcing the wooden lean-to against the hot ash, preventing us from getting trapped in here? Maybe making wooden spikes on the outside, to stop a hellhound gnawing on the wood? Shooting wooden balls out?

I had no idea, but she looked fine. Not all skills were flashy.

Last were the yaks, and my eyes widened as I threw a [Mantle] over both of them.

Luxurious fur + burning embers + multi-ton beast of burden = disaster.

Welp. There wasn’t much else I could do at this point, besides provide overwatch as the fight continued. I briefly debated trying to finish off the hellhounds that Drin was stunning, but that would require shots between his legs. His rapid footwork meant I could never be sure that he wouldn’t step in front of my beam, which had nothing like a friend or foe identification system. Hamstringing my ally wasn’t a great way to endear me.

So here I stood, Sentinel Dawn, healer, Radiance mage, being a wet blanket so the yaks wouldn’t catch on fire and murder us all. Not exactly my finest moment, or the best display of my combat abilities. The dwarves just worked so damn well as a full team though.

I did occasionally dismiss and re-form my shield when a flaming projectile came in, catching it and making it roll to the ground before it could hit something delicate and wooden, but Commander Briga’s assurance that she’d gotten a capable team to escort me was proven in fact as they defeated the hellhounds with strong teamwork.

Without fanfare, without notice, there were no more attacks, just angry barking fading away.

We stayed there for quite a while longer, as the wind slowly blew the ashes away through the trees.

Lule’s arm dropped, and with a thud that shook the entire lean-to, her massive stone hammer dropped as well.

“Well, that was quite something.” She remarked. “Anyone got a flavor of hellhound they prefer?”

Some of the dwarves shouted their preference, while others did their own thing. Glifir showed back up without a scratch.

I just shook my head, and after checking that the area was somewhat secure, laid back down in the wagon and tried to get some more precious sleep.

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Selkie

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