It was a small mercy that the creatures hunting her were no bigger than Kat’s knees. They were some sort of giant rat or small hound covered in quills.
Her breath came in quick gasps as Kat ducked around one of the ice spires just ahead of a pair of snapping jaws. Her knife flashed, taking the creature’s eye.
She grunted and kept moving. The strike should have been fatal, but the scavengers pursuing her had a large bony plate just beneath the pallid flesh surrounding their eyes. An unfortunate feature that caused her blade to slip, simply slicing open the side of its head rather than penetrating into its brain.
Another howl rang out behind her as the monster she’d injured marked her location for its companions. Kat pursed her lips in displeasure as she ducked under another blade of ice and kept moving away from the creatures.
In retrospect, maybe their size wasn’t a blessing. It adapted them perfectly to the field of ice spikes designed to gore and murder the unwary players that tried ot raid the dungeon. While the treacherous terrain slowed and hampered her, they could easily crawl over or around the frozen obstacles to surround her.
This fact was made readily apparent by the rough semicircle of monsters that was slowly tightening around her.
Kat cursed quietly as her eyes flickered from one quilled foe to another. There weren’t gaps in their formation. The web of sharpened ice trapping her would slow her enough that one of the creatures harrying her would be able to catch her before she could escape.
Her eyes flickered to the ice blades above her. With a thought, she felt a click and then the welcome flow of mana as it left her body to empower Levitation.
The ice of the spear was cold under her hand as Kat hefted herself up. She’d never been terribly heavy, but at only twenty percent of her base weight under the influence of the spell, a quick jump that would have made her an olympian on Earth put her out of the snapping monsters’ each.
Her shoes slipped slightly as she tried to plant herself cleanly on the sheer ice of the spike. After two tries, their grips finally caught, allowing Kat to create the tension needed to balance herself against the ice spear by maintaining her grip on the ice spear with her left hand while pushing off against it with her crouched leg.
The encirclement broke down, one of the monsters approaching the spike that she’d partially climbed. It sniffed around the base for a moment before leaning up on its back legs, placing its front paws on the icicle. Despite extending to its full length, Kat was still an arm span or so out of its reach.
Kat let a grin blossom on her face. Her free hand snagged one of the throwing knives lining her armor and lobbed the blade into the creature.
It yelped, falling off of the ice spike as the dagger appeared in one of its shoulders. It rolled on the ground trying to regain its footing only for a second knife to cut deep into the tender flesh of its stomach.
The other creatures backed away from their struggling companion, unsettled by the whimpering and blood that seemed to appear from nowhere. Finally it was on its paws, gingerly not putting much weight on the leg that had already taken a throwing knife.
A third dug into its back leg, dropping the monster once more as it lost the ability to hold itself upright without using an injured limb.
Kat grimaced, as she pulled her fourth throwing knife and hurled it in between the creature’s shoulder blades. One left and then she’d be down to her main knife and the holdout blade in her ankle sheath.
Her left hand was starting to go numb from the cold and pressure needed to hold herself aloft. Even with only a fraction of her weight, her arm was beginning to cramp.
It would be hard to kill the monster quickly with just her five throwing knives. Sure, it was well down the road to bleeding out entirely. If Kat gave it five minutes she didn’t have, it would probably perish on its own.
Instead a fifth dagger buried itself in the creature’s lower back. Kat’s face twisted slightly. She’d been aiming for its uninjured hind leg in an effort to disable it while she dealt with its companions.
Whatever happened, she was out of throwing knives, and almost out of time. With any luck it would be too injured to fight, but even if it could, she didn’t have any other real options.
Kat let herself drop to the floor of the cavern, trying to take stock of how much slower she fell and how much lighter she was on the balls of her toes. For a second, there wasn’t any sound but the dull wet rattle of the heavily injured creature struggling to breathe.
Then the remaining hound things howled, and two charged at once from opposite directions, weaving through the pillars of ice with an agility that made Kat jealous. In the real world, she had no doubt that she could match them, but here, her sluggish body wouldn’t be enough.
Frantically, she dismissed the spell on herself, grunting as she felt her full weight return even as she focused on the monster charging from the left. She felt the spell ‘click’ in her mind and turned back to her quarry on the right even as the mana flowed out of her.
She exploded into motion toward the remaining monster, satisfied to hear a thump and a yelp as the sudden increase in weight disrupted the rat thing behind her. In a matter of seconds, Kat was only a couple of paces from her foe when it launched itself.
Kat didn’t know if the monster was aware that it didn’t have assistance, and she didn’t care. Her leg swept up into the air before hooking back and slamming into the side of the creature’s head, knocking its snapping jaws to the side and sending its entire flying body spinning awry.
It skidded to a halt against one of the ice spikes only to take another snap kick in the ribs. The crack of a broken rib accompanied the whoosh of breath as the blow stunned her smaller opponent.
Kat was nowhere near as adept with hand to hand fighting as she was with a knife, even before she’d gained a skill from the tower. That said, her enemy’s low center of mass called for a change in tactics.
It would still be her blade that finished the fight, but low, fast kicks would be more effective to batter and redirect her opponents until she could bring the knife into play. Kat grimaced. At least so long as she could keep her feet away from the creatures’ jaws and quills. She didn’t trust the thin leather of her shoes to hold up against either.
Her knee met the side of the monster’s head even as it stood up, hopefully concussing the creature. Already she heard the sounds of pursuit behind her as the rest of the back tried to take advantage of her movements to attack her unaware.
Kat’s left hand gripped the slimy skin under the creature’s jaw and forced it up with her left hand. One sure stroke with the dagger her right and its trachea and jugular veins were opened to the damp air of the ice field.
Then she was moving again, the rat hounds baying at her heels.
A swift sidestep brought her behind an ice pillar, her left hand grabbing onto its cold surface to help bring her to a sudden stop. One of the creatures exploded past her only to meet a kick to its ribs.
Kat barely felt the creature’s ribs break under her heel even as one of its quills punched through her shoe, drawing a white hot brand of pain across her foot. Ignoring the agony and the blinking red icon that appeared in her vision, she pounced on the stunned monster, flipping it onto its side and severing the tendons that connected its front right leg to its torso.
It snapped at her, forcing Kat to wince as she put weight on her injured foot to draw back. Then, it tried to lung toward her and collapsed with a whimper, unable to support itself with a crippled leg.
Two stabs to the back of its neck later, and Kat was moving. The creature was as much out of the fight as she was going to be able to make it before its companions caught up with her.
A quick glance behind her drew a frown. Three of the quill beasts remained, much more cautious now that she’d brought down half of their number.
One of them emitted a low growl as they moved to surround her, one creature slowly padding toward her while the other two wove their way through the ice obstacles so that they would be able to come at her from either side.
Kat tested her injured foot, hissing uncomfortably as the spike of pain traveled all the way up her leg. She could beat any one of the creatures in a fight, but two would try her. As for three? Mentally she cursed Arnold’s corpse.
The dungeon would have been a challenge for three careful people. If they’d been able to avoid the trap or survive the fall, fighting back to back would prevent any of the pale scavengers from having access to their unprotected flanks, really the only place where they were truly dangerous.
Just as the two monsters left her peripheral vision on either side, Kat charged the one in front of her. As dangerous as initiating contact was, letting the remainders of the pack attack from her blind spots was a veritable death sentence.
Her eyes focused on the muscles of the monster’s hind legs as Kat twisted her body past the spears of ice jutting from the ground, the burning pain in her ankle a constant reminder that she’d need to finish this fight quickly.
Then she saw it, the creature’s legs tensed as it prepared to leap. Concentrating she felt a click as Levitation snapped into place, catching hold of her adversary just as it threw itself toward her.
Its eyes widened in surprise as the jump that should have brought it to Kat’s throat instead sent it sailing high and into one of the nearby angled pillars of ice, slapping its head into the spike with enough force that the top portion of the trap shattered.
It fell to the ground, half concussed and utterly unable to stop Kat as she limp-ran up to it and plunged her knife into its throat.
Frantically, she rolled to the side as another monster fell upon its dying companion, alerted by the frantic beating of its paws against the dungeon floor. Kat put her back to a pillar and swiped at the monster with her knife, forcing it to back up, but she was keenly aware of the other quill beast, crouched and watching her.
Now that there were only two, even with her injured foot this battle was winnable. Kat just needed to keep the monsters away from her unprotected back. One of her two remaining opponents growled, sending gooseflesh down the back of her neck.
Briefly, she checked her mana reserves. Three. Low but enough for one last use of Gravity’s Grasp before she was completely tapped out. Kat would just need to make it count.
Gauging the distance between the monsters’ she concentrated on a circle of ground between the two of them, just to the right of an ice spike. The last of her mana flowed into it, and Kat moved, her speed hampered by the growing pain in her foot.
She ducked under a bar of ice, making sure to keep her spell between her and the other monster. It backed away from her, snarling as she slashed at its face with her knife, but failing to take the bait and unleash an attack that she could dodge and counter.
Behind her, Kat heard the stumble and thump as the monster charging her rear hit the magical trap she had laid for it. It had bought her a couple of seconds, but that meant that the remaining quill beast was almost upon her.
“Desperate times,” Kat mumbled to herself, as she threw her body on the ground and lashed out with her injured foot at about her target’s knee level.
A flash of white hot pain, coupled with an increase in intensity from the red damage indicator accompanied her foot sweeping the front legs out from under the monster. Then her combat knife, thrown with all the force Kat could muster while laying on her back, embedded itself in the monster’s shoulder with a meaty thunk.
Kat twisted on the ground, her hand snaking to her boot and pulling out the holdout knife. With a blade only slightly longer than her index finger, it was far from her first choice in a fight to the death, but right now, it would do the trick
Her left arm battered a haphazard snap from the quill beast aside as her right drove the knife deep into its throat. Blood erupted as Kat hit something vital, but her moment of triumph disappeared when a heavy weight slammed into her back, pusher her onto the monster’s quills.
The leather covering her torso held, barely, deflecting both the barbed quills pressed against it and the claws raking lines deep into the armor covering her back. Still, pain erupted in Kat’s face as a quill dug in, deflecting sideways off of her cheekbone but still slashing a massive cut into the side of her face.
Grunting, she rolled over, tiny knife still clutched in her right hand. The last remaining scavenger loomed over her, slimy pale flesh clearly visible due to the close range as the smell of rotting flesh poured off of its hot wet breath.
It snapped down at her, forcing Kat to bring up her left arm as she jerked her head to the side. She managed to block its jaws, partially. An incisor still punched through the leather armor, lodging itself into the bone of her forearm.
Kat gasped, but didn’t let the pain slow her. The minute she let herself wallow in the warning signals her exhausted body was screaming at her, she was dead.
She stabbed twice with the holdout knife, each strike cutting through slimy flesh to sever muscles in its neck. It drew back only for Kat to follow it, curling her injured left arm around its jaw to hold it in place while she worked her dagger like a sewing needle into its suddenly exposed throat.
After almost two seconds of stabbing, it broke free from Kat’s weakened grip and staggered backward. She slumped into the twitching and dying monster beneath her, watching as the sole survivor of the pack mewled to itself and let blood pour from its throat onto the floor.
She reached into her satchel and pulled out a few sprouts of sage leaf, and began chewing on them. Her mouth numbed slightly as she turned them into paste, her eyes locked on the remaining quill beast. Even if the creature didn’t realize it, it was already dead.
Finally it collapsed and Kat breathed a sigh of relief, pulling the wad of green matter from her mouth. Gingerly she slipped the shoe off of her injured foot and began packing it in the open and still bleeding wound. A second later, the pain abated and Kat sighed.
It took her almost two hours and her entire supply of sage leaf to treat her wounds and recollect her throwing knives. Finally she stood at the base of the stone pillar on which the altar was housed, her mana fully recovered but her hit points stuck at roughly half.
The sage leaf had helped, but Kat couldn’t help but wish she’d made it to the second level of the tower where shops actually sold potions. Fighting the three ice sculptures at the top of the ladder would be hard enough at full health, the concept of struggling with them injured filled her with dread.
Once again, she quietly cursed Arnold. Even with two of them, this fight would be immeasurably easier, but the absolute idiot was too arrogant to assess risks or listen to her warnings.
Still, there wasn’t really an alternative. Sighing, she checked her battered and frayed armor and put her first hand onto the stone ladder built into the pillar.
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night