A party of five were making their way through the thick forest. Two armed guards led the way while three adventurers followed them. They were one out of four groups searching the forest for the Sweeper that had appeared recently.
“Really, what was Sarge thinking?” complained Mark.
Harold frowned at him in response. “The sergeant knows what he’s doing. We need those three’s abilities, but they didn’t have a vanguard. That’s our job.”
“I know that. I just… I can’t really trust people that easily. Especially that Rogue. He won’t even tell us his name!”
Harold shrugged lightly and looked over his shoulder, where the other three were following.
“Hey, buddy! What do we call you?”
The tall, slender man who was wrapped head-to-toe in blackened leather turned his gaze towards Harold.
“‘Buddy’ works,” he said casually. “And I don’t reveal my name because of guild policy. Occupational hazard they call it. I’m sure you understand.”
Harold turned back towards his colleague with a smirk.
“There, see? He’s Buddy.”
“Very funny, Harold.”
‘Buddy’ was part of an adventurer guild called The Dark Hand. They didn’t let anyone join unless they met the minimum requirements - Level 5 Rogue Main Job with at least Level 2 Stealth Skill. It was a den of thieves, spies and assassins. Mark wondered how such a thing could possibly be legal. And while the general populace like himself might doubt it, that guild was completely legit. There was a very high demand for their services, after all. A Rogue could disarm or set traps, pick locks, scout ahead under Stealth and murder the everliving shit out of monsters - all things that were necessary in dungeons. Even once the battle started they made themselves useful by keep the enemy off balance. Smoke bombs, poisoned daggers, throwing knives and all manner of other dirty tricks and tools made them reliable allies in many situations.
Buddy was a particularly promising recruit. He was a Level 21 Rogue and Level 6 Alchemist. Choosing an Artisan Job for a Side Job might seem weird, but being able to brew his own potions and poisons was a huge help. Plus, the Alchemist Job and its related Skills all raised Dexterity (DEX), Perception (PER) and, to a lesser degree, Endurance (END). A Rogue could make good use out of all three of those Attributes. The downside was that Artisan-type Jobs took a long time to train, but it was still a Side Job that matched perfectly with his Main Job.
His Status aside, he also looked the part. The tight leather bodysuit fit snugly around his arms, torso, butt and thighs. While such armor couldn’t really ward off blows, a Rogue who was expecting to get hit was already a failure in his book. That’s why his gear amplified his AGI, allowing him to dodge and evade rather than block and parry. His head was completely hidden - a hood and mask covered everything but his shifty eyes and sharp ears. Although exposing his ears did help a bit with his hearing, the main reason he did that was to show he wasn’t an elf. He had nothing against those people personally. If anything, he was actually a fan of elven women. However, a significant part of his clientele were humans that hated elves. They would simply trust the Rogue more once they saw his ears weren’t pointed.
But the thing that irked Mark the most was the Rogue’s personality. Here they were, hunting a dangerous monster in the middle of the forest and what did that shady guy do?
“I may be an honorable thief, but I believe it is your piercing stare that has stolen my heart.”
He spent the last half hour hitting on the sole female in the group - the Witch, Xera.
“Thank you. That’s so sweet of you to say!” she replied while blushing lightly.
You don’t have to play along with that, screamed Mark inside his head. He had tried reprimanding them at first, but gave up on that. He let out another sigh. In his eyes, that Xera was also a problem.
The way those deep-red eyes darted all over the place while her mouth hung open was the tell-tale characteristic of a natural airhead. Her face was pretty and her long, black hair gave her an undeniable charm. Her long, navy blue robe dragged slightly along the ground behind her. The light fabric left her shoulders and back bare, while wide sleeves ran the length of her arms.
Then there was the completely outrageous cleavage. Her breasts were absolutely massive - almost as large as her head and bounced hypnotizingly with every step. They pressed dangerously against the thin, low-cut garment. It was almost as if they were trying to rip it apart from the inside. If one had keen eyesight they would be able to notice the subtle outline of her nipples.
In short, she looked like a total bimbo. Her appearance and behavior were completely mismatched with her claim of being a Level 27 Warlock. Mark wanted to question if that was really the case, but he knew better. Everyone here had submitted to a limited Appraisal to prove they fit the minimum requirements for this quest. Questioning his superiors’ ability like that would just earn him a week of cleaning toilets.
At least the last member of his group was reasonable. Koross was a well-built Level 21 Priest, no Side Jobs. He wore sensible white robes with delicate golden embroidery around the wrists, heart and waist - garb typical of those in service to the Gods. He had a thick, dignified beard and moustache that went down to his stomach. His bald head seemed to glean unnaturally in the sunlight. Koross was also well built, hinting the that the steel mace on his hip was not just for show.
He wasn’t without fault though. Koross was a dwarf. And like most dwarves, traveling with him came with two very specific problems. The first one was that he was short. His stubby legs meant he had trouble keeping up with the others and had to constantly half-jog after them. The second issue was that dwarves were really weak to the lure of alcohol. Koross was no exception. He would occasionally bring out a hip flask from inside his robe and take a swig from it. It was fine though - dwarves were of stout constitutions and needed a lot more than that to get tipsy. All things considered, the guy who reeked of whiskey seemed way more reliable than the shifty Rogue and the ditzy Witch.
Just as Mark had rebuilt his focus on the path ahead, Xera suddenly let out an embarrassed “Nooo!” There was the sound of a slap and a yell of pain from Buddy. “I can’t do that sort of thing with you!” she continued while covering her face with both hands. It seemed that Buddy had pushed his luck a little too far.
“Will you cut that out! This is enemy territory!” shouted Mark. He couldn’t take it anymore. Was this the sort of attitude adventurers had while on the road? Yes, actually. This was more or less how those people behaved. A guard living in a relatively peaceful city like Monotal would have no idea how stressful adventuring could get once you approached Level 30. If these people didn’t let off steam regularly, they’d implode.
“What’s your problem, man?” said Buddy while rubbing his cheek. That slap from earlier had more power behind it than it looked. “I’m properly keeping an eye out, you know?”
“Like hell you are!” shouted Mark.
“Haaah,” sighed the Rogue. This was why he hated working with civilians. “Fine, let me prove it.” He took out a small straight knife from his belt and threw it up and to his right. It cut through the air without making a sound before hitting something in the branches of a tree. He then pulled deftly on the almost invisible steel wire, reeling the knife back into his hand. It had cleanly skewered a small brown squirrel.
“My Perception is really good, see? My ears alone can detect anything trying to sneak up on us. It can even beat a Level 4 Sneak Skill you know!”
Mark blinked a few times, processing what just happened. That man in front of him had just hit a small target some 20 meters away without so much as looking at it. “Cheh,” he clicked his tongue. “Alright, you win. Just… keep it down will you?” Harold expected this much already, but he too was impressed. Koross was in his drink at the moment so he missed the display entirely.
Xera, however, had a different opinion on the matter. “That poor fuzzy thing!” she wailed. “How could you!? You there, shorty! You’re a Priest right? Can you heal this little guy?!”
The startled dwarf hurriedly put his flask away. “Huh?! What? Who? Oh, a squirrel! That our lunch? Good work, lad!”
“Thanks old timer,” replied Buddy in good humor. “But I think lunch will have to wait. I smell blood.”
“Well aye, it’s all over yer hand there.”
“No, not this,” said the Rogue before throwing the squirrel carcass to the ground. “Monster blood, it’s coming in from the east. My guess, about 500 meters.” He pointed towards the treeline to their left.“And look,” he continued.”There’s some weird markings on the trees here. Like something was trying to take a bite out of them.”
The group stared at the tree in question. Forget trying, something had actually succeeded in taking a sizable chunk out of the thick trunk. And judging from those odd marks, it wasn’t a stretch to say they were teeth tracks.
“Should we send a flare?”
“Not yet, Koross,” said Mark. “We need to confirm it with our own eyes first.” He and Harold both unsheathed their swords and readied their shields. “Arms at the ready! We’re going to check it out!”
Buddy unsheathed his twin daggers from his lower back. He took out a small vial from a pouch on his hip and applied the viscous green liquid inside it to his blades. Xera’s normally vacant expression became almost unnaturally focused. She seemed like a completely different person. She reached over her shoulder and took the heavy wooden staff out of its leather sling, gripping it tightly with both hands.
The Rogue’s keen eyes curiously eyed that staff. The upper end of the wood curved like the letter C and had a purple crystal ball that floated inside the half-circle. It looked fancy. Expensive. How come he didn’t notice it earlier? Ah, probably because it was behind Xera’s back while her voluptuous breasts were, as expected, on her chest.
Koross was already holding his mace in his right hand, while his left reached into his robes. Only this time, instead of a flask, he took out a small black book - the Scripture of the Sun. He went down on one knee and put the book to his forehead. He mumbled something under his breath before finishing the chant with “Blessing of the Sun!” Everyone present started glowing with a faint yellow light. A few seconds later, it faded away.
You are now under the effects of Sun’s Blessing. Maximum HP +90.
The effect will last for 60 minutes or until it is overridden by another Blessing.
“Fiuuu,” whistled Buddy. “Not bad, old timer.” Judging from these numbers, he guessed Koross to have a Level 6 Prayer Skill. “To think the most devout priest I’d ever seen would be an alcoholic.”
His light joke wasn’t far off the mark. While the dwarf may not have had a Side Job, being able to devote himself fully to their God had its own merits. Such as being able to focus on training the Skills that really matter. Not to mention a particularly powerful Perk if he became a Level 25 Priest with no Side Jobs.
“Ain’t nothing in the Scripture that says us Priests can’t enjoy a good drink, lad.”
Buddy smirked to himself. He wasn’t a particularly religious guy, but he had to admit the Sun God Solus was probably his favorite one. His clergy always seemed to be the most fun ones. Not to mention the priestesses that worship him always seemed to have amazing boobs.
With their preparations ready, the group of five headed off into the lush forest. They warily crossed between trees and bushes, keeping a close eye for anything that the Mimic could be disguised as. Even if it was a shapeshifter, a Mimic could not shrink or drastically alter its rectangular body. This was true for both the Lesser and Greater species of the monster. However, it could drastically change the way it looks on the surface. Along the way, they pierced and attacked several suspect rocks, two fallen trees and one stump. They followed the trail of gnawed trunks and curiously chopped off tree branches.
Buddy felt an odd sense of incongruity. He decided to give voice to his concerns. “I think our target is inviting us in. The trail’s way too obvious.”
“Aye. That bugger’s supposed to be smarter than this, right?”
“It’s still a Mimic though,” said Xera while climbing over a small ridge. “Even if it became ten times smarter than normal, it would still be as dumb as a rock.”
Harold decided to chime in. “She has a point, but I’m with Buddy. This is way too suspicious.”
The party moved onward carefully, watching their every step and minding their bearings. After about 10 minutes of painfully slow progress, they arrived at a clearing. Rather than a natural meadow, something had cleared out all the trees in the vicinity and turned them into about 20 small flimsy huts.
“Goblins,” muttered the Rogue under his breath. A goblin was a monster that vaguely looked like a 10 or 11 year old child. It had green skin, a bony physique, and exceptionally long nose, chin and ears. Regular goblins hovered around Level 10 or 15, but that was just a formality. The weak body of a goblin meant that, despite its actual Level, its true strength was closer to a Level 8 or 9 monster. But goblins never fought one-on-one. They attacked in great numbers and often roamed in packs of dozens, maybe hundreds of them. They often made crude villages like this one where they could breed and multiply like the vermin they were.
But this village had already been exterminated.
“What the fuck?” Mark was so shocked he reflexively cursed. The scenery that unfurled before him was entirely too familiar. There was blood everywhere. It painted the walls of the flimsy hovels. Bits of goblin flesh were strewn about the place. Piles of grey ash littered the scenery. But one overwhelming theme was immediately apparent. There was not a single corpse left behind. It was almost exactly like what he had witnessed first-hand in that damned dungeon. Only it looked like the monster had tried its absolute darndest to outdo itself.
Since their ‘glorious leader’ was currently staring slack jawed at the scene, Buddy decided to take charge. “Think it’s hiding in here?” he whispered. “There’s a lot of crappy baskets and pots around the place.”
“Yeah,” nodded Koross.”Them logs around the campfire are also pretty suspect. Could be in the huts, too.”
“I have an idea. I can try to smoke it out,” suggested Xera.
“Won’t you be wasting your MP? I thought those Ruin spells were quite costly.”
“They are, but I’ll be fine, Harold. I have over 1000 MP you know.”
The men shared several glances and nodded at Xera. They moved closer to the village as a group without dropping their guard, even for an instant. After walking closer to the edge of the village, Xera signaled everyone to stop. The Witch then held her staff up towards the sky and closed her eyes. And then she started chanting her Spell.
“There is nowhere to hide! There’s nowhere to run! This village will burn like the heart of the Sun!”
Out loud. She chanted it clearly and purposefully, her voice echoing unnaturally.
“With infinite glee, I call upon thee!”
A chill ran down the men’s spines. They had a very bad feeling about this.
“INFERNO!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. A massive hurricane of red-hot flames appeared out of nowhere and swept across the goblin village. It must have been at least 10 meters in diameter and 5 meters tall. It only lasted several seconds, but that was enough to set the entire village ablaze.
A wide smile appeared on Xera’s face. It was so wide that it seemed like her jaw was about to fall off.
“Kuhihihihihi,” she giggled. “Huhuhuhuhuhuhu. HAHAHAHAHA! AAAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH!!”
She spread her arms and let out a maniacal four-stage laugh. Her eyes gazed madly at the flames that ravaged the wooden huts and turned everything in front of her to ash.
The rest of the group merely went Ahhh. There it is! inside their heads. Nobody knew how or why, but it was a sort of unspoken rule that female Casters were all fucked in the head. This seemed especially true for offense-type Jobs like the Witch. In Xera’s case, it was obvious that she had a bit of a pyromaniac streak going on. The way she cackled like that made it clear she had forgotten completely about her surroundings. This was a serious fault that could one day lead to her death.
“Get down!” screamed Buddy. Everyone besides the still laughing psycho hit the dirt. A streak of dark matter flew above them, precisely through the spot where the dwarven Priest’s head was half a second ago. It kept going for several more meters before fizzling out of existence.
“Aegis!” screamed Koross. A transparent bubble of golden light wrapped around the party. A second mass of darkness slammed into the hastily-constructed barrier. The Aegis spell couldn’t take it and shattered, but proved enough to repel the attack.
Buddy recognized the Shadowbolt Spell. He leapt to his feet while shouting “It’s a Warlock!” to his comrades. His right hand held three throwing knives between its fingers. He threw the trio of knives at a particular tree some 20 meters away. The Rogue was aiming at a rather dense pile of leaves. His heightened senses had already confirmed that was the origin of both Shadowbolts.
In an instant, the leaves opened up to reveal an array of dagger like teeth and a thick, red tongue. The out-of-place maw then swallowed up the three throwing knives like they were an afternoon snack.
“Kishaaaaaa!” screamed the Mimic. Since it was already discovered, its leaf camouflage was now useless. It leapt from the tree branch it was sitting on. By the time it hit the ground, it had already returned to its regular appearance - that of a wooden chest frame with six black spider-like feet and a trio of tongue-tentacles gripping a sword each.
Having confirmed their target, Mark immediately took out the flare launcher. He aimed it at the sky and pulled on the string. There was a bang and a flash as the bright-red flare shot off screaming into the blue sky. Having confirmed the signal was sent, he then turned his attention towards the monster. In the next instant he felt something small and sharp fly past his face, leaving a scratch on his cheek.
You have suffered a minor scratch. HP -2.
You have been poisoned. HP -20.
Your movements have been dulled by the poison.
Buddy, who had already distanced himself from the two Warriors in the front, broke out into a cold sweat. He recognized the projectile that grazed Mark as his own poisoned throwing knife. One of the three he had thrown at the Mimic just moments ago, to be precise. The monster had somehow caught it inside its mouth and had thrown it back with speed rivaling his own. If its aim was better, Mark would have a metal handle sticking out of his eye socket right now.
Buddy wasn’t a particularly religious guy, but he still found himself offering a silent prayer to whatever God was listening.
Please let our backup get here in time!