In spite of the new lows I associated my dwarven companions with, we carried on. What else was there to do?
I kept wandering through hallways, picking intersections at random, while the dwarves tried to keep up enough to stay within the radius of my [Shine], no other light making it down here.
Which is why when I saw dim flickering flames, I instinctively held my hand up in a fist, Ranger hand-speak for “halt” as I extinguished my [Shine].
“What did you do that for?” Ned complained as he waded up next to me, the sloshing of the other three dwarves giving away their position.
Of course, my instinctive use of Ranger-hand speak meant nothing to the dwarves, although I glared at him in the dark. Not that he could see me.
“Shhh!” I said, futility pointing at the flickering light, cursing the inexperience and inability of these supposedly high-level dwarves.
Sure, they fought decently well, but the moment they were outside their “normal lane”, they did dumb shit all over the place. Like talk loudly when I’d just tried to get us into stealth mode.
“Lights over there.” Drin hissed to Ned.
Ok, fine, maybe it was just Ned that was a dumbass.
“Glifir, can you check it out? Quietly?” I whispered to him.
“I’m not Glifir, I’m Fik.” Fik replied, barely moving his mouth.
Whoops. Wrong hairy dwarf ear when I’d just turned off the lights.
“Glifir!” I whispered into the right hairy ear. “Can you check out that light?” I said, pointing.
“Yeah, but not without them seeing me.” He said.
I weighed my options, as I saw the light start to rapidly brighten.
“Retreat! On me. We want as much distance as possible.” I said, calling it out a bit louder. Whoever they were might hear us, but that was the price we paid for good communication.
At this point, it wasn’t like they didn’t know we were here. My [Shine] was just as obvious to them, as their torchlight was to us. I also heard some low voices, coming from a throat I’d never heard before. Not exactly an encouraging start.
We waded backwards through the knee-deep water, fortunately draining. We made it to the end of the tunnel, where it branched again, and waited.
I took a kneeling position, the water sloshing around me, but the rest of the dwarves stayed standing, weapons in hand, shields out in front. Drin had managed to re-armor almost everyone, although Ned still lacked a few pieces, and I hadn’t gotten anything yet. Our fearless frontliners, Drin and Fik, stepped forward, shoulder to shoulder. I could see Drin’s shield starting to crackle with Lightning, and Fik was getting some pebbles ready. Glifir was conjuring up Ice knives and letting them float in the water next to him, preparing to throw them.
Being in the tunnels was cramping his style. Hard to sneak around people and fade into Mist when there was nowhere to fade to.
“Wait for my command.” I whispered to them, seeing four heads slowly nod back.
We spent a terse moment waiting, as the torchlight grew brighter and brighter. My stomach gurgled, trumpeting our presence and location, and complaining that it’d never been fed. Then they stepped round the corner.
They were four brutish hulks, humanoid, with dark red skin and sharp tusks sticking up from their lower jaws. The tunnels were just a hair too short for them, and they needed to bend their heads to be able to move comfortably around.
Even then, I saw the third one bump his head on the irregular ceiling.
Probably the mentioned orcs.
The only defining features I saw was the one in the lead carried a long stone quarterstaff, and the one that’d bumped his head had a flame on his shoulder, following like a faithful dog.
Right. Wood might be valuable down here, and skills were infinitely preferable as a light source.
With a roar, the dwarves next to me exploded forward, bellowing warcries. I mentally facepalmed at them completely and totally ignoring the “wait for my orders” part, and rolled with the new situation
All the yelling made hiding in the dark completely useless, and killed any advantage of surprise we might’ve gotten. With deep, guttural noises, sounding like barks, the orcs carefully retreated back down the hall.
Not before I was able to get a [Long-Range Identify] off.
Two [Warrior]s, two [Mage]s. Levels 350 to 400.
“Back! Back!” I yelled, only to be completely ignored. I sighed.
I threw up a [Mantle of the Stars] at the edge of my range, just barely managing to catch Fik and Drin.
Fik halted at the barrier, but Drin tried to plow through it. Fortunately for me, he wasn’t able to get a lot of speed, thanks to the water slowing him down, but it did take a chunk of mana.
A chunk of mana that I didn’t have to spare.
The orcs vanished back around the corner, and the flickering flame they were using was either extinguished or concealed. I let a light [Shine] come off of me, so we could see, and not have to suffer in absolute darkness.
“Fall back! Follow me!” I yelled, not caring that the orcs could hear me.
“But we need to-” Drin started to protest.
I cut him off before he could get going.
“You need to follow my orders.” I said, my tone brokering no argument. “They know the area. We don’t. We didn’t even know if they were hostile to begin with! After seeing you lot try to murder them though, they are now.” I said, glaring at them.
“I expected you to shoot them or something! You’re a mage, right?” Fik complained to me.
I glared at him, but didn’t want to reveal [Oath], and how it limited me to self-defense and protecting patients.
I needed the orcs to attack first. Given the lack of attachment I had with the dwarves, I’d be hard-pressed to justify them as patients that needed defending, not until they started to get injured.
Then I could fire at will.
But again, I wasn’t going to start shouting it from the rooftops.
“We didn’t know they were hostile.” I repeated myself, emphasizing every word with a fist smacked into my open palm.
Drin started to protest, as a funny smell reached me. I sniffed, trying to identify it.
[Bullet Time] activated, as a massive, flaming glow came from around the corner.
“DOWN!” I tried to yell as I put up [Mantle] as a wall, while trying to dive into the water.
The words felt like they were taking an eternity to leave my mouth. The flames would reach us before I’d finished talking.
[Bullet Time] was giving me way too much time to reflect.
Once upon a time, I’d grabbed Fire as my element for my [Mage] class. Maximus and I had many long chats about Fire, and how it wasn’t a particularly good element for a mage.
Not until it was paired with another element.
With that being said, I was seeing exactly what Fire paired with a second element could do. In this case, their mage had filled the tunnels with Spore, Miasma, or something else, then lit the fuse.
Causing the roaring explosion heading towards us.
It was extra-nasty in the tunnels, since the explosion was well-contained and well-directed towards us, instead of being more dispersed.
The last thought I had before the explosion ripped through my shield and washed over us was that the orcs seemed well-prepared for fighting in tunnels.
Then with a mighty boom, the explosion and pressure wave washed over us, churning and splashing water, pressure making my teeth rattle so hard I bit part of my tongue off, flesh cooking and searing in the heat.
My skin blistered under the heat, only for my body to immediately reabsorb it as I healed through the damage. Water swirled, picking me up for the ride, twisting and turning me so much that I no longer knew which way was up.
Then it was over, gravity reminded me which way was down, and I was once more unceremoniously dumped on the floor, where I flipped myself up as water rained down around me. One of Glifir’s knives inserted itself into my shoulder, and I wrenched it out with a curse.
His bloody prep ended up turning itself against us. However, in his defense, I would’ve never imagined things going like this, so I wasn’t going to hold it against him. A good reminder that no plan survives contact with the enemy.
“Trying to blow me up” firmly put them into “self-defense” territory though, and I was weapons-free.
The rest of the dwarves were picking themselves up off the ground, a bleeding gash on Drin slowly closing at the same time Fik’s arm with too many elbows was getting righted.
Ok, fine, Ned was at least solid at being able to keep his teammates up.
We were regrouping as the orcs charged around the corner, looking annoyingly healthy and hale for the stunt they’d just pulled on us. The warrior with the quarterstaff charged at us, while the second one reached his arms out, one hand on either wall. I wasn’t sure what he was up to, but I didn’t want to find out.
Our frontline charged in tandem, and I was forced to flare [Mantle] to stop a high speed rock - one of Artemis’s favorite tricks, and clearly it was good enough to cross species - from braining me. A second shot headed my way, and I continued to play “whack-a-mole” with fired rocks, keeping Ned and Glifir safe.
The occasional shot headed towards Fik, but when it got too close it either curved away from him, or got redirected to the charging orc with a quarterstaff, where the stone seemed to just glue itself to him.
Fights where multiple people could manipulate the same object, from [Earth Manipulation] to [Gravity Manipulation] to whatever the orc was using, got weird fast. Basically, whoever was closest to the object usually had the best “grip” on it, but then stuff like magic power and magic control came into effect and -
This was not the time.
I probably could’ve erected a full shield, but that would’ve cut the three backliners out from the fight, and we weren’t going to leave Drin and Fik by themselves, 2v4. That would be all sorts of dumb.
Glifir started throwing knives, but dwarvish arms came nowhere close to the speed and volume a mage could produce. He was totally out of his element here, but was undeniably helping.
I made a bright cone of [Shine], aiming at the orc’s eyes. I then rapidly cycled it between bright and dim, and tied it off with [Persistent Casting]. A flashing strobe made vision hell, strong utility. Blinding people was one of my favorite tricks.
I tried to move, so they couldn’t just shoot rocks at where I’d have been, only to feel a strong yank on my feet. I looked down, and swore.
Whatever mage was throwing rocks had more tricks, and stone hands had come up from the ground, grabbing my legs, preventing me from moving. I pulled, but I wasn’t nearly strong enough to rip my leg out from the trap.
“Glifir! I’m trapped!” I yelled, hoping that he’d be able to get me out of this mess.
I wasn’t going to stand there helplessly. At the same time that I was calling for help, I threw a [Nova] their way. I was too far to try and brain the mages with Radiance, but I figured [Nova] would keep them on their toes.
I then fired a beam of Radiance at the charging warrior’s head, who roared at me. His mouth was full of broken teeth, with bits of rotting meat stuck between them. He continued to twirl his quarterstaff one-handed, as the other hand reached up and grabbed the ceiling, grabbing a chunk of stone that became a stone helmet as he slammed it onto his head.
I wasn’t going to lie. I was a bit intimidated by that. My angle was now all sorts of shit, as Fik and Drin were in the way of lower shots.
At the same time - I think I got his eye. Which would be a huge win in my book. I was a fan of blinding my opponents.
The second warrior orc had been holding onto the walls, but as [Nova] approached at high speeds, he started to slam his fists together, muscles bulging as he seemed to physically pull the stone out of the wall, creating a shield.
He wasn’t quite fast enough, and the [Nova] impacted on him, exploding in blinding Radiance. However, he’d pulled the stone “doors” closed enough that between them and his body, the mages behind him were safe. Didn’t stop him from becoming “extra-crispy”. He’d need to see a healer after this, or spend a week recovering.
Naturally, I tried to finish him off. I sent a second one their way, only for him to finish “closing the door” so to speak.
[Nova] exploded harmlessly against the stone - but they were no longer shooting at us.
The different types of shields struck again! His shield was slow, and it took time to make - but once it was up, he didn’t need to spend another point of mana on the shield. In contrast, my shields were instant, but everything they blocked took mana.
I could use the skill again, and I fired a third [Nova] down towards their backline, trying to keep them pinned. If we couldn’t win a 5 versus 1, I dunno what we’d do.
Then Fik, Drin, and the quarterstaff orc all charged into each other.
The orc was bigger, taller and meaner. He had no shield, but was charging with a quarterstaff held like a polearm. I was dubious about the weapon of choice, given that the tunnels and his size didn’t exactly give him a range of motion to use it without hitting the walls - until he swung it in a vicious side-swipe.
Given that his hands were scraping the walls of the tunnel, I was surprised that his staff didn’t bounce off the walls, or break. No, the stone staff melded with the stone walls, and with bulging, straining muscles, the orc finished his swing, his weapon having gone through the stone.
No, not quite through.
Instead of a quarterstaff on the other end, a weapon that could generously be described as a warhammer emerged from the other side. More accurately, it was a big stick with a giant rock on the end of it, a chunk of the wall missing where his skills had “grabbed” it from. It swung into Fik at a speed that made me widen my eyes and redouble my struggles against the stone hands that were holding me fast. They were slowly tightening, which I didn’t like.
I might be able to scrape the little pieces of Fik off the ground fast enough to heal him, but that relied on me being able to get to him.
I was forced to duck as the wall of the tunnel turned into a spike, trying to impale my head. I rarely fought creatures with real intelligence actively trying to kill me and my party, and I was pleasantly reminded that healers were perpetually on the ‘kill them first’ list. It wasn’t helping that the enemy mage knew where I was, by virtue of having grabbed onto my legs.
The hammer connected, but instead of Fik being turned into paste, he was simply launched to the side and crashed into the tunnel wall. The landing looked rough, but he was still groaning and moving, with minimal blood loss, and a lot less dwarf-paste than I was expecting.
I threw another [Nova] back at the mages in the back, trying to keep them pinned behind the shield. Not that it seemed to be doing much, not with the enemy Earth mage knowing exactly where I was and throwing blind attacks at me. Glifir had seen what I was doing, and kept throwing the occasional knife in that direction.
Then, it was Drin’s moment to shine. The orc’s crushing swing had left him open, and Drin made full use of it, a flash of Lightning on his feet as he suddenly sped up and smashed his shield into the orc’s stomach, making the orc stiffen up and freeze entirely.
Not one to waste a chance, I threw a lance of Radiance through the orc’s right shoulder. It wasn’t a lethal blow, but trying to swing that absurd hammer would be much harder with only one functional arm. Glifir got a knife between the orc’s ribs, and Drin opened up a vicious cut along the orc’s gut.
Glifir reached me at that, and started working on pulling me out.
Then the orc was back in action, but hurt. He couldn’t bring nearly his full strength to bear, not with an arm out of commission and his guts starting to spill out. He dropped his warhammer and punched Drin with his left hand, causing him to go to one knee - and hit the orc again with his shield.
Glifir took one hand off of me, and flicked another knife at the orc, managing to somehow curve the knife up and under the crude stone helmet. I don’t know what it hit, but there was a good amount of blood streaming from the bottom of the helmet.
I threw another [Nova] at the orc’s shield that protected their backline.
Only half-powered though. I was running dangerously low on mana, having never gotten a solid rest, and Radiance wasn’t exactly going to do a ton of damage to stone. I just wanted to keep them pinned. Since none of the orcs could see me anymore, I changed [Shine] to a safer “lamp” mode, so we could see without me throwing blinding rays around.
The orc crashed to the ground, and while there hadn’t been a notification yet, he was clearly out of the fight. It was only a matter of time now, and ugh. There was a chance I might need to save him.
Either way, his current threat was neutralized, and it was time to deal with the rest of the orcs, and get freed from the stone hands still gripping my legs.
“Drin! Need a hand here!” I yelled, as Glifir tried to give me an extra inch or two of height.
I shielded a spike growing out of the ceiling, trying to impale me head to toe, delighted that my shield was strong enough to stop the spike. Ha!
Only to discover that the rest of his team hadn’t been idle behind the shield as a second large explosion ripped through the hallway.