The light of the explosion washed over us as I watched the expanding flames.
I was low on mana. I’d been in non-stop marathon mode, and fighting was expensive. Sure, I had more mana - but I could also blow through mana a lot faster. I just didn’t have the reserves to handle another explosion, then handle the rest of the blasted fight.
No, it was time to start pulling out my gems. Powerful, one-time use skills that we Sentinels all swapped and traded with each other, rounding out our kit to bail ourselves out of difficult or tricky situations.
Like being out of mana, deep underground, watching a roaring explosion heading towards me and the other dwarves. Just another typical Sentinel mission. My stomach roared in protest, reminding me that I was technically starving. My brand-new body had no food in it at all when it was conjured up.
I was totally going to acquire Glifir’s snacks after this, one way or another.
With deep regret over losing one of the last mementos I owned of Sealing, I blew the gem with his skill. Brilliant walls snapped around us, cutting off the flames from the fuel. I threw up a second [Mantle] behind it, just to be safe, but the barrier held against the explosion, incandescent flames against a shimmering barrier of light, with stars layered against the whole image.
Sealing, still saving lives from beyond the grave.
[*ding!* Your party has slain a [Stone Berserker] (Mountain - 370)/[Mountain Mauler] (Mountain - 316)]
Fik had taken the moment to finish off the orc, the notification indicating that he was fully gone.
“Grab the body! We’re out of here!” I yelled, as I started to retreat, only to be rudely reminded that I was trapped.
“Actually, Drin! Help me out here!” I shouted.
“On it!” Drin yelled, as Fik started to haul the orc’s body down the tunnel.
Drin grabbed one arm, and Glifir grabbed another. I opened my mouth in a silent howl as they yanked, and I felt bones breaking. Bless [Center of the Universe]. I was still stuck though.
“Do you mind?” Drin asked, hefting his axe.
Ah fiddlesticks. Not this again.
“Do it.” I said through gritted teeth.
Four sharp hacks later, and I was free, regrowing my feet once again. I didn’t even have the tattered remains of my sandals left, and even if I found sunlight I wouldn’t be able to use [Talaria]. Blast it all.
We all got to the other side of the barrier, and I did a quick headcount. We were all here, and Drin and Fik were working together on the orc’s body.
“Great! We’re off!” I said.
I dropped Sealing’s barrier - it was a cube in the end, and had also sealed off our escape - and started to jog at a good clip, not too fast where if I took two turns quickly they’d lose me, but not too slow that we’d get caught up in the next explosion. The more distance we could put between us and the orcs, the better.
We could kill them if we got the drop on them, and we had full mana. We had neither right now, and not only did the orcs have a home field advantage, but it was blindingly obvious that all their classes, skills, and fighting style revolved around being in the tunnels. It gave them too much of an advantage.
I don’t know how long we ran for, but we’d gone a considerable distance before I halted us in a dead end.
First things first.
“Is anyone still injured from that fight?” I asked. Heads reluctantly shook. My stomach awkwardly growled in the silence.
“Does anyone know or see of a threat to us right now?” I said, looking around in a large, exaggerated motion.
Ned didn’t say anything, just folded his arms over each other.
Confirming with my own eyes that we seemed safe enough - barring monsters bursting through the ceiling, which was a distinct possibility - I threw up [Mantle] across the entrance to the dead-end, and took a seat, so fast it was like I was falling.
Important things first.
“Glifir?” I asked him with a pleading voice, giving him my best puppy-dog eyes. No idea if they had puppies or anything, but it was kind of a universal gesture.
My hope was rewarded as he rolled his eyes with a knowing smile, and handed me one of his snacks. I tore into it like a woman who hadn’t seen food in weeks.
Hunger was THE BEST spice. The hard, tasteless rations became positively divine.
“Come, sit.” I said, not quite keeping a slight tremor out of my voice. Life and death fights were a pain, and the crash of adrenaline was never fun.
“What about-” Glifir asked, before shutting up. I raised an eyebrow at him.
“What about….?” I asked, encouraging him to finish his sentence. The amazing snack-hander-out could do no wrong in my books.
“Toke.” He reluctantly finished.
“She’s probably dead.” Drin muttered unhappily into his beard, taking a seat. “Orcs don’t take prisoners, they take rations.”
“Disgusting practice.” Fik made his displeasure well-known.
However, at Fik’s words, slow nods went around the room. It seemed like we were recognizing that Toke was dead. I’d need to grieve for her - and Lule - when I got a moment. I’d done so a bit earlier, but I hadn’t finished processing the grief. I was just shoving it away in a corner to process, to move.
“Right. We’re taking a break here.” I announced. “We’re going to rest up, before tackling the rest of the mine. Our current goal is to escape. Does anyone disagree?”
Furious nodding met my proclamation of our goal being to escape. Bit surprised it was nodding, but hey, different cultures and all that. I’m glad we were on the same page, and nobody had ideas of trying to hunt the orcs down to the bitter end.
“Oh, Healer Elaine, what was that barrier there at the end?” Ned asked me, shuffling over towards me a bit. “Is it related to how you were able to heal yourself from being beheaded? That looked like Brilliance. Did you get a third class and reset your first? Is that how you’re so strong? That would explain the decapitation thing...” He trailed off, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
I gave him a blank look, before laughing.
“No, if I’d managed to hit 512 before I was 20, that’d be one heck of an achievement!” I continued to chuckle at the idea. “No, just good classes.”
“What I want to know.” Drin said, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “Is why your Radiance beam didn’t go right through the orc’s head. You claimed to have what, 114,000 magic power? More now? You healed your entire body in one move, which supports that claim, but then you shouldn’t have had trouble with the orc.”
I felt some heat rise up my neck.
“Caught.” I said, the edges of my [Oath] going to be revealed. “I’ve got a skill that improves my healing power and control.”
“But the barrier?” Glifir interrupted. “How did you have that?”
I didn’t want to tell them or show them, but, well. More cats outta the bag. Just hoped they wouldn’t try to murder me in my sleep - not that they’d shown any inclination for that so far, but you never knew. Starving, trapped in the mines, I wasn’t one of them. I was Other”, and it was a lot easier to kill, butcher, and eat an Other than to resort to cannibalism. Especially when she was pesky and kept giving orders.
I’d hope that keeping them all alive counted for something.
I tapped my right vambrace, the only one I had left. I’d lost the left one to Lun’Kat’s flames.
“Gemstones. Sentinels are equipped with a wide variety of gemstones, with the most powerful utility skills we can reasonably find and purchase. That skill was-”
I found my voice wavering, sadness crashing through the little hole in my mental defenses left by the crashing adrenaline. I powered through.
“-from a good friend of mine, who died recently.” I said, not stopping a few hot tears from falling.
Sealing. There one day, then in a moment, a flash, he was away with the strike team, and never came back.
“Got more of those?” Fik asked, greed in his voice.
I shook my head.
“Just the one. My role isn’t a combat one, I just have a few tricks for self-defense.”
“Hang on, I-” Ned was interrupted by Fik, and honestly, I was more inclined to listen to Fik and answer him.
“Like what?” He asked, eagerly crowding around and looking at my bracer like it’d give them magic abilities.
I mentally smiled. Wood-obsessed as they were, everyone liked shiny gems.
“I’ve got a few invisibility gems, which are usually great.” I said, waving my hands at the rocky walls surrounding us. “Like Glifir’s discovered though, they’re not nearly as good when there’s nowhere to vanish to. Speaking of, we should talk about that fight.”
I feel like a prayer had been answered somewhere. I’d somehow redirected a conversation well. A diplomatic win had somehow occurred.
“Stopping our charge was a mistake.” Drin immediately called out. “We should’ve taken them from the start.”
There were nods of agreement around.
“Help me out. Why? We weren’t on the same page, which led to us kinda stumbling over each other.”
“Orcs are vile and cruel, and must be fought wherever they’re found.” Ned said, practically sniffing, seemingly sidetracked from his question.
The dwarves were so frustrating. I could scream and rip my hair out. I was seriously considering just taking my chances on my own. It was only out of a sense of obligation, guilt that Lule had died for me, along with the belief that, as a whole, they helped my chances more than hindered me, that kept me around.
Ned - I disliked him strongly. But he was a competent healer, if incredibly obnoxious. He’d patched me up without a moment’s hesitation after I’d fallen, and was out of mana, and constantly had heals up on everyone else. Ranged heals. It let me focus primarily on the fighting, and not need to run around slapping healing into people.
Drin was a strong front-liner. He was too aggressive, but his ability to stun people was no joke. I had my doubts on how well it’d work, before I saw how effortlessly he took apart the orc. It wasn’t like he stunned them briefly, and that was it. No. He could chain his stuns, in a way that almost permanently crippled a foe, all while he took them apart with his axe.
That, and he was regrowing everyone’s armor. Stupidly unfair, but I made a mental note to ask for some anyway. Now that we were no longer in a rush, I wasn’t taking a risk.
Also, I was a dumbass. I should’ve asked him for a set while we were moving around.
That thought made me reevaluate myself.
I hadn’t quite given them a fair chance, or a solid shake. I’d been paranoid, then slightly put off by them, and I’d just retreated into my own mind and books that I’d been given. I should’ve been socializing with them, making friends. Instead, I’d been stand-offish. Arrogant. Practically putting my nose in the air as high as Ned’s. I’d assumed I was better than them, just as much as Ned had assumed he was better than me.
I was no great actor. There was no way they hadn’t picked up on it.
Fik was solid. He was supportive, and had amazing tricks with his Gravity magic, along with being a stout warrior. A classic spellblade, and was vocally supportive of the decisions I was making. Possibly to keep the harmony, but hey. I liked it.
Then there was Glifir. He was completely out of his element, and I couldn’t blame him much for it. It was just like when I tried to stab the slime, except I had the ability to fall back on my other weapons. He was trying to fall back to his plan B, but it was only so-so.
At the same time, he seemed to genuinely enjoy being around me, and was nothing but helpful. His mapping abilities were priceless, and if I had to only have one dwarf with me, I’d pick Glifir every time.
Which had me circling back round to the idea that I genuinely might be better off on my own. Each time the dwarves pulled a dumbass stunt like the one in the fight against the orcs risked my life, and while I’d heal a patient, there was nothing about preventing suicidally dumb idiots from jumping off a cliff.
My only obligation was to patch them up after they hit the ground.
I wasn’t going to let the dwarves tie me to a boulder, and throw it off the edge.
I realized some time had passed, with everyone looking at me.
“Ok, sure, but why charge? Why not retreat, and wait in ambush? Catch them around a corner, while they didn’t know about us?” I asked. “Help me understand, so we can work better as a team.”
Drin held up his hand.
“Healer Elaine the 94th.” He said, and I was instantly giving him my full focus and attention. We’d lowered how formal we were being, given the situation, so the full, formal title grabbed my notice.
Maybe that’s why they did it?
“None of us at the wall are, um…” He said, trailing off awkwardly and tugging at his beard. He looked around, and saw that nobody was going to help him. He sighed.
“None of us at the wall are really there because we want to be.” He said. “It’s a punishment detail, of sorts. Screw up. Go to the wall. The one out of the way where nobody is nearby and nothing happens for years. Serve however many years of punishment there. Come back.”
I said nothing, waiting for him to continue. “Sorry we’re all fuck-ups that got sent to a shit detail” wasn’t exactly endearing to me. Nor did it excuse their behavior.
Drin’s beard went through some awkward twitches here and there, as he worked something out internally.
“We’re just, well, not trying to screw this up. If people knew we’d run from a fight, our reputations would get even worse. Might even get years added to our time at the wall. If they knew we’d ran from orcs, of all things, we’d be lucky if they just threw us out.” Drin said. “Win though? Kill a team of orcs in combat? We’d be back home so fast, we wouldn’t even be able to plant a tree to mark our passage. So it influenced me somewhat, ok? Baseline, it’s a matter of honor for us. Tradition.”
I had a lot of thoughts of where, exactly, those could be stuffed. I kept my cool. Drin continued.
“Hearing your questions, you’re right. I’m under a lot of stress. I screwed up. We screwed up. It’s hard though, when your teammates are dying, and flames have wrapped your country. I don’t even know if my family is alive.”
There was a lot of muttering at the last one. Glifir patted Drin on the shoulder, who patted his hand back.
“Yeah, that’s terrible.” I said, sympathizing. My thoughts strayed to my family, especially my dad, who might get caught up in the civil war that was brewing. I didn’t want to try and one-up them though, so I kept it to myself.
“Hey, look. Let’s just try to survive, and get out of here, ok?” I said, swinging my arms out to half-hug Drin and Fik, who were sitting next to me. “I imagine getting a diplomat out of a tight pinch is worth a bunch of honor, right?”
There were some confused looks at that, and I plastered a cheery smile on.
“Look, you’ve told me what you need. You know what I want. To get back home alive. Tell you all what. We get out of here, and I’ll make sure you get assigned somewhere nicer. I’ll tell ’em it’s a favor for me, for saving my life a dozen times over. Heck, I’ll even make sure you’re able to plant some trees along the way.” I had no idea what the last bit was about, but I was now resolved to find out.
That got them happy, and I mentally celebrated. I’d finally stopped treating them like automatons, and more like people. I’d spent some time figuring out what they wanted, not just needed besides basic food and drink. I’d worked out how to align our goals together.
I was still so hungry though.
That’s what the orc body was for.