"I see the shiny one," Julie whispered quietly. "Should I take the shot?"
John and Carla had joined us; all four of us were sneaking towards the herd. It was now within eye-sight. Unfortunately, my perception didn't make it so far, so I had to rely on my non-magical senses only. Carl was nowhere within sight, although John explained it was okay since him interfering would skew the XP gains. He would help out if things go dire, so there was that.
I tried to strain my eyes and check the Maricha for myself. Unfortunately, I could barely make out a golden blob in the distance. And it only stood out because of the sea of brown behind it. I was surprised that Julie was confident about making a hit from so far away; she must've progressed quite a lot.
"I would say no, milady," Carla whispered back, "even if you hit it, it won't go down in a single arrow. Evolved monsters have high HP pools. And it would alert the herd as well. Were-deer are not the aggressive sort. They would just run away if they can, I say."
"What's the plan then?" I queried.
"What is your range, Sire Pat?" John queried back.
"About a hundred meters," I replied, "Although I can boost it to 120 if needed." I gestured to the circle on my hood. The robe was, to my great dismay, coming off at seams. It was quite a reliable piece of equipment, besides being easy to clean and comfortable to boot. I was loath to discard it, but it was damaged beyond repair due to my haphazard journey the weeks before.
John nodded as I shook off the upsetting thoughts, "We should make it so they have no choice but to fight. Sire Pat, take Carla and flank them from the left. Julie and I shall take the right. The fighters of the herd must stand their ground against us while the rest make their escape."
He glanced at Julie, "That is exactly what we want. Gain as much experience from the fighters so you can level up. Ensure you hit each target at least once, then focus on taking them down. The rest of the herd will scatter, and without their guardians, will be easy pickings for the other monsters."
'Wow. Ruthless.' I was a bit taken aback at how easily the man had signed off the death of over a hundred innocent creatures. And I was a part of it whether I liked it or not. It was how this world worked. If the deer were left alone, they would bring more threats down on the people around here. So pragmatically, it was the right approach to cull them. Yet I was still a bit disheartened over the cold-hearted manner in which it was approached.
John continued with the minutiae of the plan while I steadied myself for the massacre to come. 'Just another batch of monsters. Won't be the first, won't be the last.'
"Let's go then." Julie started moving immediately after saying those words. John followed her after another nod to Carla and myself.
"Well, just you and me now Carla," I noted with a grim smile. "Shall we get in position as well?"
"Yes, Pat." Carla nodded, reflecting my smile. "Let us be off."
¤ ¤ ¤
I was a bit behind the "schedule". The hurried trek up north had put a major dent in my stamina points, so I was taking my time to ensure I did not gobble too much before the coming fight. Thankfully, I was just in time to make a couple of observations that could potentially throw a wrench in our plans.
First, the golden deer - which was more of a stag than deer, had lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as it got into range. Normally, I would've considered it to be a magical coat or something similar, just high-level monster things.
Second, another normal-looking deer had lit up similarly as I got into position. This deer, unlike the golden one, did not stand out in any way compared to the rest of the herd. Just the two deer giving off a strong magical presence.
I stopped to observe what was so special about the second deer. I wanted to shoot an Identify at it. Unfortunately, an arrow hit the golden one's neck just as the thought came to me.
"PAT," Carla shouted, "NOW!"
I watched in mute amazement as the entire herd stilled as one and stared at the falling monster. The one still lighting up my perception was looking in the direction where the arrow came from.
I did not stay watching, however. I selected a horizontal strip of land in front of me with sufficiently flammable-looking grass and immediately cast Incendio. A long line of fire raged out of nowhere just as the golden-turning-brown deer stilled on the ground and lost its magical sheen, kicking the monsters into action.
Most of the herd instantly backpedaled. I watched the little ones in the middle of the herd, still on wobbly legs, being urged away by their mothers. In that single cold moment, I realized Tyee would not have called these were-deer monsters at all. They lived and bred like normal deer. They were simple animals.
Not the magical one though. It gave a disdainful snort in the fire's direction and barked at the others surrounding it. They formed a wedge formation in Julie's direction and were charging straight towards her within moments.
"A lure!" Carla hissed from my side, "They need help Sire, come on."
And so our plan fell apart at first contact. Originally, we expected the deer to panic after we took down their leader; then we would harass them from both sides while they flailed about before picking them off one by one. Instead, our prey responded with nigh-military precision and immediately turned the tables on us.
As we ran towards Julie and John's position, I noticed another magical blur coming in from far away. A dark shadow was approaching our destination from the other side of the deer charge, a shadow I recognized as Carl. Shit had actually hit the fan.
Unfortunately, our four-legged prey was far too fast for either side to reach in time for help. Unlike Carl and his granddaughter though, I did not need to physically reach there to help.
Even if I wasn't running myself, the deer themselves were too fast for me to target. I noticed a trail of magical one's signal as I followed it through my perception alone. Then, I selected a patch of ground a bit ahead of their assault and charged a thousand points worth of lightning.
"Carla, wait," I called out. She halted and looked back at me with an annoyed expression edging on anger, about to say something, but noticed my raised palm and stayed silent.
"STUPEFY!" I shouted.
With a resounding crack like the whip of the heavens, white-hot supercharged bolts of pure electricity coursed through the superconducting channels towards the target and hit the ground with mighty thuds, throwing dust and hot debris into the air.
The stampede was immediately stunned to a stop. All were unhurt, of course, but I never meant to hit any of the creatures themselves. I just wanted to buy enough time for us to regroup.
As I came within shouting distance of Julie, I screamed: "The one in the back, half antler one, SHOOT IT!"
The were-deer shook themselves out of the stupor. I felt more than saw the half-antler magical one narrow its eyes at me.
An arrow sprouted from another deer's belly by its side. 'Damn it, Julie! That one only had a quarter antler, not a half!'
"THE OTHER HALF ANTLER!" I yelled and pointed fervently. 'Fuck I'm winded.' I was pretty sure my SP was touching the bottom from all the sprinting around.
"Pat, don't stop now, we're close," Carla called out from ahead.
"Y-Yeah," I breathed in, "Just gimme a minute."
Carl had reached the duo, so they were probably okay now. I watched Julie shoot an arrow at the magical one, which was probably the Maricha, and the arrow missed. I knew she had her True Shot skill active because I watched the arrow curve mid-trajectory, but it was aimed at a target that didn't exist. 'Is it throwing illusions around its real body?'
Coming closer, I realized it was doing just that. The magical cover that my perception showed me and the body my eyes were seeing were not lining up.
Thankfully, we reached the trio before any further action happened. The five of us now stood off against around ten of the were-deer. Carl was standing in the front, flanked by John and Carla. Julie and I stood behind them, tensed.
"That one on the left. Besides the one Julie just shot. That's the Maricha." I called out. "It's using some form of body illusions."
None replied, but I knew they all heard me. Even the Maricha itself. This close, I could see the sharp canines it sported in a sneer. Its eyes were now fixed on me, somehow having singled me out for recognizing it. Perhaps all my hand-waving and pointing helped. It hid behind another large one, safe from the arrows.
It gave a quick glance at the retreating herd, and I could swear its sneer widened into a smirk. In direct contrast, the other were-deer looked like they were about to piss themselves.
Julie restarted the combat, scoring a hit on a so-far unhurt one. With a bark, the deer tried a haphazard rush again. I was ready this time. I selected the Maricha before it could gain momentum and cast another beefy Stupefy.
Unfortunately, the lightning did not strike my target, instead scattering the charge again and blowing the big one to kingdom come. Before the steaming chunks of still-steaming meat fell to the ground, half the were-deer immediately turned tail and followed the escaping herd.
Some of the meat chunks hit the Maricha and it hissed. In the next moments, Carl and Carla took down one each with a thrown dagger to the temple. John had cut one that came too close in a hurry to run from the explosion.
In a handful of seconds, only two of the ten were-deer remained. The Maricha was looking at me with ferocity as if I had personally offended it somehow. It barked a couple of times, and both the stags were covered by the golden coat that was so peculiar to their kind. 'Has it figured out how I perceive it?'
Another bark and both dashed towards the forest to the west.
¤ ¤ ¤
"My deepest apologies milords and milady. I saw the golden one and my Skill didn't think it was all that trouble. To think it be disguising itself among the crowd, very clever this one, aye..." Carl started. Apparently, his danger detection skill was fooled by the decoy and that led them to bite more than they could chew. At least, would have without a Battle-Mage on their side.
"It's alright Carl, we made it out fine. I am so close to level 25, I can almost taste it!" Julie replied. Her enthusiasm wasn't deterred in the slightest. "We should pursue them. If we finish off the Maricha, I know I will level up."
Carla was introspective. John, however, was staring at me.
"What is it?" I asked after he kept staring without speaking.
"Uh, apologies my lord Sire Hero Mage." He spoke the mouthful of a title for the first time since yesterday, "I was simply astounded by the powerful Skills at your disposal."
"Haven't you already seen a Battle-Mage fight? Francisa's brother, wasn't it?" I was confused, "You said he had Skills powerful enough to take down the Dark Bear in minutes."
"True," John exhaled with a chuckle, "although Sire Hilbert was a Master Battle-Mage, close to level 50 at that."
"I... see," I replied, not sure how to take it. "Thanks, I guess?" 'A compliment it is.' I decided to address the matter at hand. "So, what now?" I motioned towards the tree line beyond which our two foes had disappeared less than a minute prior.
Before anyone could interject, Julie vehemently set our path, "I want that golden deer." She gestured around, "We almost died here, but we persevered. It is five against two now, and one of them is injured. We are so close to the finish line, are we just going to give up now?"
I was against the idea. From the looks of it, John was too. He seemed to hesitate to put it into words, however. Carl has decided to keep his silence this time. Surprisingly, it was Carla who backed Julie up.
"It is still mid-afternoon, we have half a day yet." Then she started at Carl, who just nodded, "And I'm confident I can track the monsters here. We have them cornered and out-numbered. Better not to let a dangerous monster roam free if we can put it to ground, I say."
With that, the decision was made. Julie actually had Carl hang back, wanting the thrill of hunting herself I guess, citing that four of us were enough. Carl warned us not to split up, especially giving stern warnings to John and Carla to stick to Julie and me respectively. Even so, he would be keeping an eye out, so I did not protest much.
We trailed the monsters and it wasn't long before we encountered a golden were-deer in a clearing. I felt it in my perception long before I saw it, and between our Scout and Warden with home ground advantage, it was simply a matter of time.
Julie immediately notched an arrow. The were-deer, so far just standing and glancing around, promptly bolted away as soon as it sighted us. Normally, we would have given chase. The issue, however, was that there was a very conspicuous trail going in the exact opposite direction.
Once more, my suggestion of following one trail at a time was overruled. John and Julie ran after the fleeing golden deer. Carla and my sulking self were left to fend for ourselves.
"We should head back. This is so obviously a trap, it is not even funny anymore." I was so done with this hunt; wasn't really my thing anyway.
Carla, though, took it personally. "Sire Pat, I-I know I don't have my grandfather's expertise nor my liege's strength." She inhaled deeply, and affirmed more for herself than me, "but I am a Proficient Scout. Please trust me, I know what I'm doing."
I was about to reply that I had no doubts about her abilities but was cut off by Julie's yell.
Both of us stood still, staring into the darkness in the direction of the sound. Carla took half a step in that direction. "Carla, don't-" I tried to warn but another yell cut more off.
Her liege's voice, calling out for her specifically, was the last straw.
"Carla, don't." I tried to call her out. "It's a trick!" But my words were lost in the wind. By the time I finished my sentence, Carla was already out of the clearing and into the darkness beyond.
"Fuck, I didn't sign up for this!" I tried to backpedal, back to the camp. I couldn't find the trail we took here. "Fucking forests." Might as well have been a maze to me. "Carlaaaa!" I shouted. No response. "Caaaaarl" I tried. Nothing.
A rustle pulled my attention to the side. Just behind a large tree stood the golden were-deer. 'The fucker actually hid from my senses!' I noticed its hide no longer had a shiny golden sheen. Nor was it the common orangish-brown of its comrades. It was dirty dark-yellowish fur instead, decorated with long scars telling of battles past. It wasn't magical anymore. It was real. I was facing the Maricha.
And it was pissed.
When my eyes found my foes, I was slightly taken aback. It had the same beady eyes as the Centaurs, strongly reminding me of how Nina's fury had bored into me the night her tribe was set aflame. While Nina's anger held a deep sorrow underneath, this one was fueled by a ferocious unbridled hatred. But I saw the same resolve in both. A resolve that promised terrible vengeance, even on the pain of death.
Perhaps I deserved it. After all, I killed the guy's friends and family. What did the innocent animals do to me? Dozens of little baby deer, barely days old, would be chased by monsters like Dark Bears and ripped into pieces. Weren't they running away from the monsters? Yeah, they were. We attacked them without reason or notice. I personally stopped them from fighting back. I was the one who pointed their leader out. Crippled them.
'They are fake, just mob creatures in a game.' A part of me insisted.
'Is their pain fake?' Another part spoke up.
'Is their hatred fake?' It asked again.
'Is their fury fake?' It insisted.
The former part of me stayed silent. I cared not. A tear streaked my cheek. It certainly felt real.
I wiped the tear away with a finger, staring at the surreal spot of wetness for a moment.
I looked up, and the Maricha was gone.
'Wait, what Maricha?' A part of me questioned.
'You know, the deer we were chasing in the forest.' Another part answered.
'What forest?' A third part spoke up.
I looked around. I was standing in the clearing.
'What clearing? There are no trees around.' Some part of me questioned. One of those three, I was sure.
I did look around, there were no trees. Only darkness. Darkness so deep that it stood like a wall circling around me. Like I was standing at the center of a large stage, with a harsh spotlight on top of me.
'I... I was in this game.' A voice spoke in my head. It sounded like me.
Yes. Game! I immediately flicked my finger up, willing my Status Window into existence.
The semi-transparent window popped up. It was as it always was. No voices spoke up in protest.
'Why am I looking at my Status Screen again?' I questioned. At least, I hope it was me.
I was just about to close it down when something under "Special Effects" stood out:
[Maricha's Snare]: You will sleep, and dream, and sleep, and dream, until you die.
[Countering Perpetual Illusion]: ETA 2:43 min