As we stepped past the entrance and inched our way towards the trees, I noticed that this level was slightly different than all the previous ones. The dusky light that had accompanied us so far seemed to have given way to darker shades of itself. A heavy fog hung over the arena, getting denser inside the trees. The trees themselves were rooted quite close together and looked uninviting. Unlike the withered old bunch of the last level, these ones were teeming with vitality. Dark green leaves swayed silently to the tender breeze that shifted the fog ever so slightly. The terrain felt alive. Dangerously so.
Everyone else was similarly affected. Carol no longer dared to go ahead to scout. We were all bunched together, moving as one organism. Poor formation for combat but no one suggested otherwise. As we stood a few steps before the first tree, a slight hesitation numbed our progress. 'Should we just head inside? What if we get ambushed? There is no way to counter here.' Worries plagued my mind. I wondered what sort of monsters inhabited such a dark and intense place.
"Should we just... Get on with it?" Julie whispered. True, there was a small track going through the woods. 'Thank the creators for this mercy!' "We don't have any other choice," Taro mumbled. Unfortunately, the track was small enough that only 2 people could fit in tightly across. Little discussion was required before we fell into formation - Taro and Divin up front, myself and Arya in the middle, and Carol and Julie covering the rear. Arya had loaned her staff to Julie. Everyone had their weapons drawn.
Our cautious footsteps made no sound on the soft undergrowth. The fog surrounding us afforded the view of a few trees around us, but it seemed to grow slightly thicker with every step forward. A slight wind made a few leaves shiver, and my heart started beating faster. Thankfully the rustling died quickly and I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding in. It was at that moment that our only source of light decided to make an announcement - "This is level 4 of the Dungeon, Lair of Panthera!"
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The moment she said it, we all stopped and bunched up even closer. Glancing around frantically in all directions revealed no monster. There was a pin drop silence as we stood rigid waiting for something to snap at our heels. The image of monstrous crocs was still fresh in our minds. Seconds slipped by, nothing happened. After a couple of minutes of a tense standoff with mute fog, Taro took a tentative step forward. Divin slowly followed. Both of them had their swords raised in either direction. I was not far behind. With Taro's lead, everyone started shambling ahead. No sign of enemy so far. Yet no one spoke, not even a sound.
Suddenly I heard another rustle somewhere behind me. Others did as well, as we all halted our reluctant march. Just as I turned around to see what was up, a shadow leaped out from the bushes at Carol. She was quick to raise her arms and hold the daggers to defend herself. I saw as it overpowered her stance with pure strength as she fell on her back. The shadow jumped again, with the intent of disappearing in the darkness on the other side. It succeeded in knocking down Julie on the way, the staff breaking like a twig. Soon it disappeared and silence reigned.
Julie was unhurt - Arya's staff took the brunt of the force. Carol, on the other hand, was bleeding profusely. She had deep long scars on her forearms. One of her daggers was lost. It was the best outcome for her, given the situation. The thing had lunged at her throat; her falling ironically saved her life. It was quite a close call. Arya was stacking heal upon heal on her wounds. Us guys were covering the women from three sides, keeping a close lookout for the shadow.
Just one encounter and we lost two weapons. One of us as hurt as well; luckily with non-fatal injuries. This level was not looking so good. It was a testament to our hardened will that none of us made a run for it. It must've been exactly what the creature wanted, so it could pick us off one by one.
A good minute and Carol's wounds were halfway healed. We changed the formation again. This time, I was taking Carol's place holding one half of the staff. Julie stood beside me. We had formed a crude sort of circle, having an eyeball in every direction. No one moved. No one spoke. We all waited with bated breath for this mysterious foe to attack again.
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"In front," Divin whispered under his breath. Everyone turned and looked in the direction our path was heading. There I saw yellow eyes surrounded by dark fur. The eyes were reflecting the glow of Betty who was hovering behind us. Nothing else could be seen in the fog. I gulped unconsciously at the ghastly scene. Once the creature saw that our attention was pinned on it, it made a low guttural growl and vanished again. 'Fucker is toying with us!'
"A black panther," Divin whispered. I noticed his voice quiver a bit. "It's baiting us," I grunted. "What's our plan?" Carol murmured. No one answered for a few seconds. Gears were turning in everyone's brains. 'It is not as powerful as the crocodiles, so it cannot one-shot us - at least I hope so. It is however faster, stronger, and stealthier than everything else we have faced before. Also, this forest feels like its home terrain. It's too fast for me to cast a spell-chain. Only close-quarter weapons have a chance, but it uses hit-and-run tactics. We can only defend for now.' "We can only defend for now," I said out loud. No one responded, but they all held their weapons tighter.
Not a moment after I said that did we hear another rustle, this time from Taro's side. Immediately, I moved closer to him. Broken staff in one hand, palms held up for the other. Divin moved to his side. Others took a step close as well. The panther jumped out again, but instead of attacking, it feinted. Perhaps us cramming together made it change its mind. This, however, was a golden opportunity for me. I immediately followed the shadow with my palm and cast incendio.
I was 250 mana lighter. The spell was cast successfully. However, I did not get any XP notification. As expected though, it would be too easy if it died to a single incendio. However, its speed ensured I'd never get a chance to cast another. We waited in a tight formation for 5 minutes more but no other attack came. 'It must be recovering from the spell's damage. It will be warier now that it knows we can hurt it.'
Several more minutes passed by. We decided to move on. No point in staying in one place for too long. While it did take us by surprise the first time, now we knew the sign of its approach. We could perhaps scare it off. 'Wait, how many of these panthers are there? Also, how are we supposed to level up and reach the next level if we can't kill them?' I got lost in my new scary thoughts, arguably not the best time to be absent-minded. I got my lesson soon when I was a second too late to notice the rustling sound which sounded awfully close to me. I could do nothing but barely raise the staff in my hand when the furious yellow-eyed shadow leaped on me. Everything moved in slow motion. 'Am I going to die? This feels so weird!' The thing hadn't even touched me when I stumbled backward and fell. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed a sword thrusting ahead. The shadow deftly avoided the straight blade by leaning it slightly and having it slide through its tough fur. And then it landed on me.
Just as its claws dug deep into my stomach, I had a moment of clarity. 'I am so stupid!!!' I had a spell to counter it all along. 'Too bad I won't get a chance to use it. I hope these guys make it through somehow.' I didn't care much about death now. Yeah, I was scared of dying at first, but then realized where I was. I was even slightly glad that it was me that was going. 'Soon, I'll be back home!' I thought and closed my eyes.