The world was on fire. And I knew it was so for me.
I walked towards the forest line, following the Runes lighting my way as they cut a path through the blaze.
I headed beyond and saw Arya smiling warmly at me from a distance. "We came to rescue you," she spoke in a hoarse voice quite unlike her, "saves the trouble of searching through each tent".
A dark-robed Assassin had sneaked behind her. "LOOK OUT!" I shouted and ran towards her, a litany of spells ready on my tongue. However, I knew it would be too late even before I opened my mouth as if her death was somehow pre-destined.
A dagger plunged into her throat and she dropped to the ground like a puppet with strings cut. Carol raised the hood covering her face and took her time removing the dagger. She flicked the blood off and chuckled, "She thought we were friends."
Before I knew it, I was lying down on the foliage with Carol holding me down with her knee on my chest. "W-Why?" I croaked.
Her face turned grotesque with a malevolent smile I had never seen on her before as she answered, "Because I'm a professional," and thrust her dagger into my throat.
¤ ¤ ¤
I woke up with a jerk, my hand twitching to ward off an attack that never came. It took me a moment to calm myself, taking in the cold air of the pre-dawn morning. Eventually, I got up from my resting place by a sturdy tree. The robes I was wearing were a blessing in these circumstances.
"More bad dreams?" Tyee questioned from the side, as he rummaged inside the side-bags to produce a water bag. "Here. Fresh from the stream."
"Thanks," I murmured, taking in deep gulps. I decided not to comment on the question. Bad dreams were not new to me, even before coming to this world. Thankfully, mine never turned into full-blown nightmares. Yet the nature of dreams had changed. In my homeworld, they were mostly nonsensical. Pertaining to weird entities that I often wondered where my brain conjured up from. Out in this world, however, the dreams mostly revolved around me being chased by outlandish monstrosities with a hunger pang. Today was the only exception.
I returned the water bag to Tyee and stretched as the Sun peeked its head in the horizon behind us. "So what's the plan for today?" I queried, enthused for what the day held despite the rough start.
I had been traveling with Tyee for close to a week. Granted we were taking a bit of a circuitous route to destinations unknown, but the time spent was well worth the gains for me. I was just shy of level 25 now, and even Tyee claimed that that was when the real fun started. Not in those words exactly, he said something along the lines of "foals becoming worthy of glory" but I got the gist. Level 25 was a turning point more pronounced than ever before. That the humans considered level 20 as a baseline seemed to amuse him.
"I noticed tracks of a Dark bear when I went out to restock." He started packing up the stuff from last night. He usually took care of our camping needs, food and water supplies, threats lying in wait, maintaining our equipment, and so on. Basically, everything. I felt like I was on one of those expensive camping trips where others did all the hard work and you enjoyed the barbeque. That was not to say I was idle, however. Aside from the aforementioned tasks, Tyee took time to train me. And boy did he run me ragged.
Even on the edge of these "untamed" lands, the monster population was nothing to scoff at. We encountered many simply by trekking along. Some Tyee tracked down on his own, considering them worthy hunt or some such. Suffice to say there were a lot of monsters here. And we fought every monster. Every. Single. Monster. This was looking less of a hunt and more of a massacre. And now? We had a Dark Bear to murder.
"What's a Dark Bear like?" I questioned. While the name did evoke images of a black bear, I had learned not to make assumptions when magic was involved. Just the day before, we encountered an emerald-green snake that had leathery wings and fired projectiles of venom whom Tyee called a "Feathered Serpent". It had no feathers. Identify gave it some weird name that I wouldn't know how to begin to pronounce. 'This world is supposedly based on Earth but it looks more like someone took pieces of facts and fiction, mashed them together, then threw them around and called it a day!'
"As the name suggests," he started, and I resisted an urge to throw in a barb, "it is a bear that uses shadows. Unlike the Great Spirit who crushes foes with might and valor, Dark Bear sneaks around and catches its prey unawares. It is fairly weak in direct combat compared to its kin but no less deadly when on a hunt." I mulled over that as he finished packing up, "and we must make haste if we are to chase this one. Their tracks are exceedingly difficult to follow unless they are recent enough."
¤ ¤ ¤
"Do you notice those markings on the tree?" Tyee asked. We were standing near the stream where he filled the water bags earlier in the day. I strained my poor eyes and peeked at the nearby trees. After an embarrassing amount of time where I refused to ask his help while he stood amused watching me dither, I finally noticed them. The wood looked like it was kissed by a chainsaw. The reason it was so hard to notice was the shadows of the tree cover made the marks somehow blend in.
"That is not a territory mark," Tyee remarked, taking a closer look as he continued his lecture. "Dark bears are monsters. They make no home, claim no brood." He move on ahead, apparently finished with the examination, "And as I mentioned before, this one is close by. Be on your guard." He already had his bow out.
We meandered upstream for a while. I noticed a couple more marks on the way, but I was pretty sure I missed more than I sighted. Tyee had gone silent, having asked me to keep quiet as well. I was absorbed in finding more markings, the camouflage they created was intriguing to say the least. That was why I was mildly surprised when Tyee halted in his course.
I looked up at him. He glanced back, raised a finger to his lips, then gestured away from the stream into a particularly thick clop of trees. I nodded and sneaked behind him, taking care not to step on any twigs. After going a little distance inside, Tyee stopped again and removed an arrow from his quiver. I witnessed the cause of Tyee's caution: A pitch-black shaggy bear the size of a pony. It was just out of my range, so I boosted my Circle of Perception and cast an Identify.
'At least show me the skills or something!' I groaned. Tyee had notched his arrow and was looking at me. I boosted my Circle of Protection and nodded back to him.
Over the course of the week, we had fallen into a typical fighting routine. If we were the aggressors, we would pepper our target from the range with arrows and spells. Most monsters fell early on to Tyee's headshots. If they were to run, my curses came in handy. Should a rather tough one engage us close-quarters, Tyee would discard his bow and use his sword instead. He also had a small hide shield that he used sparingly. If the fight did become a melee, I was to either find a suitable range to fight back from or run and hide till things calmed down. I was pretty proud of the fact that only once did I run back in all our fights so far, from a horde of mole monsters that had overrun our camp by surprise from underground. Nasty buggers. Either way, I was to not get close to any monster if I wanted to survive.
I looked at the bear, lazily giving itself a back rub on the poor tree. This area was pretty disadvantageous to Tyee, with trees sticking close to each other not leaving much space to maneuver. Not to mention the thick umbrage above would work in the shadow monster's favor. That would be the first advantage I would remove. I did my pre-fight checkup.
Escape Route? Check.
I raised my hand. I did not need to, but it was meant as a signal to Tyee that I was about to cast. I always attacked first, to ensure that even if I did not get another attack in later, I would get some points from the kill. The first spell I cast these days was one of the curses. I did try incendio_slowly, but it was a sort of letdown. Effects on most of the monsters of this place were ambivalent at best.
"Petrificus_slowly," I whispered.
The bear immediately stopped its leisure activity and sniffed the air. It did not find us, we were still quite far off. I decided to attract its attention. I choose a pebble near the bear, who was still sniffing about.
"Lumos," I chanted and watched my mana drain increase. I was not done, however, as I selected the bear's snout and the pebble's outer layer. "Stupefy," I finished and watched the show unfold.
The bear seemed unaffected by petrificus, so that was a bust. But I was used to my spells being hit or miss now, that is why I always laid multiple layers instead of depending on one.
The pebble eventually started emitting a low light. The bear's attention, however, was focused elsewhere. I used the mana volume trick to force-feed the spell, making it glow as bright as a bulb. In the shadows, it stood out quite well. The bear plopped down on the ground, as I reduced the flow. The pebble, despite glowing low now, had arrested the bear's attention.
It growled deep in its throat, a sound that carried even as far as we stood. I watched with fascination as shadows coalesced around the monster. Just for kicks, I made the pebble grow brighter in response. It growled again, baring its teeth this time. It marched closer and closer to the pebble, extremely cautious in its approach. That was working in my favor, as the potential difference just kept on increasing with time.
Soon, the bear came close and tried to paw at the light. The pebble just rolled away. The bear followed, its curiosity overwhelming its caution. It sniffed at the thing, wasn't satisfied with the result. It brought its snout closer to sniff again and that was when my spell went off like a firecracker.
The bear jerked back, the shadows dispersing back to normal. Before it could fully recover from the "shock", an arrow sprouted from its eyeball. Tyee the Centaur had made his presence known.
The bear roared and immediately set off at a terrifying pace in our direction. I was slightly surprised that it was still kicking with an arrow inside the noggin. I didn't let my surprise hold me back though, because I immediately climbed the tree I had designated as my escape route.
After finding a fairly high up and thick branch to perch on, I brought my attention back to the fight. Tyee had discarded his bow and held his sword in a parry stance. His shield wasn't out, so he must be quite confident against this one. The bear on the other hand, was coming in fast with a grudge to settle.
I felt no strain on my mana, so all my spells had finished. I waited for the moment when the bear would slow, so I could target and cast another spell on it. Then I realized it was too fast and too well hidden. It was hard to discern where the bear ended and the shadow started.
So I chose a different strategy. I selected a number of small rocks and pebbles within a dozen meters of Tyee and also selected his sword. And I cast Lumos on all of them. The mana drain was so intense that I almost buckled. But boy was it worth it.
The bear, now a shadowy monstrosity, came crashing into the suddenly brilliantly lit clearing. Tyee, on the other hand, had positioned himself for a quick thrust he often employed against unsuspecting opponents, his sword glowing mildly like a holy weapon. The ground beneath their feet was alight with glowing white luminance, fighting for dominance against the creature's shadows. The entire scene looked straight out of a painting. I felt like I was looking down on Sistine Chapel.
It did not last for long, as the thrust went through and the bear was downed for good. I watched as the bear shuddered and took its last breath. I felt a feeling tug at my mind. It was different somehow, not a normal level up. Something... more. I instantly pulled up my Status Window and stared dumbstruck at the text.