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I cannibalized the priest’s robe I’d looted from Saben’s stash, cutting it into long pieces of cloth—I had no other use for it—and used the pieces to clean my gear and weapons. Then I saw to my player progression, and after a moment’s thought invested my new attribute point.

Your Mind has increased to rank 6.

My Dexterity didn’t need increasing yet, and I had only one Mind ability slot remaining. Given my increasing dependence on my abilities in battle, I didn’t want to find myself without enough available slots for crucial abilities in the future.

After that, I took the time to rest and recover my stamina. While I munched through my rations and sipped water from my flask, I reviewed the encounter.

I realized the woods had lulled me into a false sense of comfort. If anything, the forest was more dangerous than the dungeon’s tunnels. Here, I could be ambushed at any time and from any direction.

Worse yet, my senses would not serve me as well as they had underground. The abundance of life, the incessant noise, and the constant rustle of trees in the forest, all worked to disguise the approach of any hostiles.

I will have to be more vigilant here—not less.

I sighed and glanced up at the trunk against which I was resting. The lowest branch was within grasp and there plenty more handholds further up. Rising to my feet, I deftly climbed into the upper reaches of the tree. Even without ropes or climbing gear, it was easier than I expected.

Moderately secure, I closed my eyes and stilled my mind. It was perhaps slightly foolhardy to block out my awareness of my surroundings so soon after being ambushed, but I considered the risk of continuing my journey with insufficient psi even greater.

A few minutes later, I opened my eyes.

Meditation completed. Your psi is now at 100%. Your meditation has increased to level 32.

With my psi was fully restored, it was time to get moving again. I dropped lightly down from the tree. My gaze fell to the dead creatures. I still didn’t know what they were.

Kneeling besides the first, I inspected it more closely. The beast’s torso was elongated and from stubbed nose to whiplike tail, it was covered in fine scales. Its head was flattened like a snake’s, but its powerful hind legs, slitted eyes, and long raking claws were reminiscent of a big cat.

Prying open the creature’s mouth, I inspected the inside. There were only two fangs and a forked tongue within.

Weird, I thought.

Letting the head fall back down, I probed the corpse with basic analyze. A moment later, the air around the corpse shimmered with strange symbols that my mind automatically decoded.

The target is a level 28 serline. Serlines are chimeras, part serpent, part feline. Expertly camouflaged, silent and quick moving, they are stealth predators that are well-adapted to hunting down prey in woodland environments.

Your insight has increased to level 33.

Cat-snake chimeras. My lips twisted. That explained their strange appearance at least. More concerning though, was the serline’s level. It was higher than my own. Not since facing off the goblin goliath—which felt like ages ago—had I found myself under-levelled during an encounter.

I guess I’m not the scariest thing around anymore.

I turned away from the creature with an unhappy grimace. Nothing about this forest was setting me at ease. Perhaps, I would have been—

My thoughts broke off as the hairs on the back of my neck rose. Danger, my mind screamed. I spun around, hands dropping to the blades at my sides.

You have detected a hidden entity!

Standing still and poised, with its left foot raised, and less than two yards away, was a serline. A live one. Watching me with unblinking eyes, the creature slowly lowered its leg back to the ground and crouched down on all fours.

Hands on hilts, I froze.

How long has it been there? And just how the hell did it manage to creep so close undetected? For a drawn-out heartbeat, we stared at each other, neither daring to break our standoff.

You have detected a hidden entity!

Motion in the corner of my eye drew my attention to the right. A second cat-snake was padding closer.

You have detected a hidden entity!

More movement. This time on my other side. My heartbeat quickened. I turned my head minutely to the left. A third serline was approaching from that direction. Urgh. How many are there?

I itched to draw my blades, but stilled my hands, knowing the motion would likely impel the creatures to act.

Why haven’t they attacked yet?

My gaze flitted to the two corpses. Perhaps their fellows’ fate made the trio wary, but I suspected it was something else entirely. Sending psi rippling outwards from me, I activated simple mindsight.

Tendrils of my will flooded the space around me, revealing every consciousness within ten yards. There were seven more minds, each bearing a stark resemblance to the three in my sights, hidden in the underbrush and the trees above. Moment by moment, they inched closer.

I swallowed. It was as I had feared. I was surrounded. An entire damn pack of the creatures were closing in on me. Closing my mindsight, I drew more psi and began a second casting. I wasn’t going to win this encounter through a straight up fight. Time to create some confusion. Reaching out to the closest serline, I superimposed my will over its own.

A level 27 serline has failed a mental resistance check! You have charmed your target for 10 seconds. Your telepathy has increased to level 17.

The charmed creature rose from its crouch. Tilting its head to the side, it waited on my instruction. The predatory gaze of the other two serlines broke off from me to study their packmate. Their tails flicking uncertainly as they sensed something amiss.

“Attack,” I breathed through the mental leash I held around the bewitched creature’s mind. Without hesitation the serline spun about and towards its closest fellow.

The targeted creature snarled and swiped a paw threateningly through the air. My minion paid the warning no heed. Pouncing forward, it sank its fangs deep into its foe’s throat. I didn’t wait to observe the fight’s outcome. Swiveling around, I raced away. The third serline pelted after me. I didn’t think I could outrun it, but I didn’t intend to. At least not on the ground.

I took three steps and risked a glance behind. The pursing serline was still too far away. Four more steps. Nearly there, I thought.

I sensed the creature behind me leap. I did too, launching myself upwards at the nearby tree whilst also weaving psi.

You have successfully one-stepped.

The serline’s jaws snapped shut, missing me by a hairsbreadth. My right foot found solid purchase in the air, and I vaulted higher, arms raised. My outstretched fingers grasped an overhanging branch. The bough bent but held. Using the momentum of my leap, I executed a backflip and landed neatly on the branch.

From beneath, the thwarted serline hissed in frustration. I smiled at the creature’s annoyance before turning my attention upwards. I knew I hadn’t fully escaped the creature. Given its claws, the serline was more than capable of climbing the tree.

But it would take time to reach me. Time, I needed to deal with its packmate hiding in the branches above. My earlier casting of mindsight had revealed the other serline. I swung upwards onto another branch, my eyes warily scanning the foliage in which I suspected it was hiding.

A leaf quivered. My gaze flew to the area.

You have detected a hidden entity!

Got you, I thought grimly and made my way closer. Below me, more serlines emerged into sight. One braver—or more foolish—than its packmates attempted leaping onto my tree from an adjacent one.

Midway through its flight, I could tell the beast would fall short. I smiled tightly. I’d selected my refuge carefully, choosing a tree set slightly apart from the rest. The creature howled as it plummeted to the ground. Sadly, though, it suffered no injury. Saved by its feline reflexes, the damnable thing somehow managed to land on its feet.

Curbing my disappointment, I banished the circling pack below from my thoughts and fixed my gaze on my target—a half-seen shape crouched on a branch three yards away. The serline hadn’t yet realized I was on to it. I drew closer. Rising slowly to its feet, the cat-snake readied itself to strike.

I kept advancing.

In a sudden explosion of motion, the beast leapt downwards from its perch and burst through the foliage with its paws aimed at my torso. If I had been caught unawares, the attack would have been fatal. As it was, I had been waiting for precisely this moment.

Twisting my torso, I ducked the outthrust limbs and slashed at the creature with both my shortswords as it rushed by. My blades bit deep, cleaving the beast from forelegs to hindquarters.

You have killed a serline.

The corpse split, showering the pack below with blood and innards. Perhaps that’ll teach them. I glanced down. Eight pair of slitted eyes stared upwards at me, uncaring of the gore that splattered their faces.

Only eight, I noted. My gaze flitted to another unmoving mound on the forest floor. It seemed my charmed minion had died too. In total, the serline pack had already lost four of their number. But despite their losses, the pack showed no sign of abandoning their hunt. So be it, I thought, my face hardening.

“Who’s next?” I taunted.

~~~

The serline pack didn’t respond to my challenge. Instead, they circled the tree housing me with predatory patience, seemingly content to wait me out.

Bad choice, I thought. It would’ve served the pack better to have rushed me immediately. Then perhaps they could’ve overwhelmed me by numbers alone.

As it was, the pack’s delay only allowed me to better prepare myself. Drawing on my psi again, I cast reaction buff. Energy coursed out from my mind and into my body, strengthening and enhanced my muscles.

Your Dexterity has increased by +2. Duration: 10 minutes.

On the tree bough I bounced lightly on my haunches. My reflexes had quickened and I felt a marginally more agile. Not a lot, but every little bit counted.

Casting my gaze over the pack again, I analyzed each in turn, and identified the one who appeared to be their leader. This cat-snake was bigger and meaner looking than its fellows. At level thirty-one, it was higher-levelled than the rest too.

I smiled coldly. Now kitties, let me show you why waiting was such a bad idea. Reaching out to my target with my mind, I cast simple charm.

A serline has passed a mental resistance check! You have failed to charm your target. Your mental intrusion has gone undetected!

All be it unknowingly, the beast brushed aside the tendrils of will I sent searching towards it. My smile tightened, but I was undeterred. I tried again.

A serline has failed a mental resistance check! You have charmed your target for 10 seconds.

On the second attempt, my mental leash slipped onto the beast without resistance. “Attack,” I ordered, directing my new minion towards its nearest packmate.

The bewitched serline didn’t hesitate. Leaping onto its fellow, it drove the smaller creature to the ground and raked its claws through the startled cat-snake. With a pleased grin, I made myself more comfortable on my perch.

Until the pack wised up, there was nothing more for me to do but to sit back and watch the fun.

~~~

It took another three deaths before the serlines caught on to what I was about. Clearly the beasts weren’t the smartest.

Now only five strong, the pack charged up the tree en-mass, long curved claws finding easy purchase on the rough bark.

I let them come.

My pool of psi was about half-empty, and rather than spend what was left, I decided to keep it reserve. After all, who knows what else is waiting to ambush me in this bloody forest? Besides, I didn’t think I would have too much trouble dealing with the rest of the pack.

The first serline reached striking distance. Directly from its position on the trunk, it coiled back and sprang towards me. My footing was sure on the tree bough and I easily sidestepped the beast. Its attack stymied, the serline spun mid-air, claws seeking to find purchase on the branch.

I didn’t let it.

Lunging forward with spider’s bite, I slashed at the creature’s reaching paws while at the same time channeling stamina through the blade.

A serline has failed a physical resistance check! You have crippled your target’s foreleg for 3 seconds.

Energy gushed out of the sword’s tip and into the beast. The creature’s leg went abruptly slack, foiling its attempt to land on the branch. With a startled hiss, the serline plummeted to the ground below.

My eyes darted back to the remaining four members of the pack. Another shape was sailing through the air towards me, with a second following quickly on its heels. I ducked and the first creature flew over.

I wasn’t able to avoid the second so easily.

Before I could attempt another evasion, the beast crashed into me. Its weight flung me off the branch and realizing my peril I made no attempt to hold onto my perch. I threw myself backwards, using the impetus of the collision to propel me further. Twisting through the air, I grabbed onto a lower branch—dropping both my blades in the process.

“Damn that was closer,” I muttered as I pulled myself to safety. I glanced downwards. My blades glinted in the grass. The two beasts that had fallen were next to them. One appeared little worse for wear, with only a slight limp marring its steps. The other, though, was severely injured and crawled pitifully across the ground.

Movement drew my eyes upwards. The other three serline were pacing on my former perch and eying me hungrily. I guess I underestimated the pack, I thought sourly.

In tandem, the three snake-cats leaped down at me. Not waiting to meet them, I dropped onto a lower branch.

Then down to another.

I kept descending until finally I reached the lowest bough. Not pausing to consider my actions further, I flung myself off. Mid-leap, I solidified the air under me.

You have successfully one-stepped.

One of my windmilling legs found purchase, breaking what would otherwise have been a most unpleasant fall. I launched off the foot and directly towards the limping serline.

The creature flung its head up and snarled in surprise. But caught off-guard by my sudden change of direction it was too slow to dodge as I landed on its back. The creature’s spine cracked beneath me and with a mournful whine the beast sank to the ground.

You have crippled a serline!

I rolled off the beast and towards spider’s bite. In a single motion, I grabbed its hilt and bounced to my feet.

I spun around in time to see the other three serlines land soft-footed onto the ground. I backstepped warily, ignoring the two downed creatures and my other sword. It was too far to reach.

The trio split to flank me on three sides. I set my stance and waited. The beast in front leapt. I swayed out of the way, slapping a hand to its side in passing.

You have stunned your target for 1 second.

The beast on my left was airborne already. Dropping into a kneeling position, I thrust upwards with spider’s bite and skewered it through its soft underbelly.

You have critically injured a serline!

That unfortunately left the third creature free to attack me. Rushing in low, the beast’s jaws clamped down onto my neck. Twin fangs ripped into my neck and blood gushed out.

I fell back as the creature landed atop me. Frantically, I whipped a hand to the creature, momentarily paralyzing it with stunning slap. Feeling the beast go slack, I shoved it away and rolled free.

I had little time to recover though. The first beast was already rushing at me again. As it leapt at me, I staggered out of the way—barely. I was still reeling from the blood pumping out of my throat, but I retained enough presence of mind to strike at the creature and cast crippling blow.

You have injured a serline.

A serline has failed a physical resistance check! You have crippled your target’s hindleg for 3 seconds.

Webbed triggered! A serline has failed a physical resistance check! You have immobilized your target for 1 second.

I smiled grimly as both abilities triggered simultaneously. The beast snarled in frustration as for the second time in the encounter it was disabled. Landing two yards away, it hobbled back towards me on three legs. I stumbled backwards and searched for the other hale beast.

It was charging straight towards me.

With little time to prepare, I reacted instinctively. Taking a step to the side, I slapped my left hand to its torso as it sailed past.

You have stunned your target for 1 second.

The beast crashed to a halt a few feet away. I dived forward with spider’s bite outthrust. My aim was perfect and the blade’s tip sank deep in the creature’s neck.

You have killed a serline.

Knowing I had little time, I rolled off the corpse and quickly un-stoppered a healing potion, downing its contents without pause.

The effect was instantaneous.

Ripples of soothing energy flowed through my body, stemming the bleeding in my neck. I bounced back to my feet. The sole uninjured serline continued to hobble towards me, its hindleg still disabled.

I risked a quick glance across the bloody ground. The other three serlines were out of the fight, moving pitifully or critically injured. I smile grimly. The skirmish was nearly over. I turned back to my foe. The snake-cat leaped. Not bothering to dodge, I lunged forward.

Blade and beast met.

Sword triumphed.

The tip of my blade plunged into the creature’s mouth, through the back of its throat, and out the rear of its skull.

You have killed a serline.

The creature crashed at my feet, yanking my arm downwards. With a vicious grin, I withdrew my sword and turned to the injured pack members.

It was time to put them out of their misery.

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Tom_Elliot

Bio: A LitRPG author.

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