Dawn broke on the horizon, spreading its warmth over the dim swamp.
Kashi and his crew ignored its radiance as they lugged the loot gathered in the town to the river. Jero awaited their arrival by the ship. He perked up when he saw them approaching, and lowered the gangplank.
“Ugh!” Hektor grunted as he dropped the last crate of weapons on the deck. He stepped back, flexing his sore muscles as he admired their find.
What the Froggers lacked in gold, they made up for in steel. There were more than enough weapons to outfit a small army. Better yet, most were in good condition. They had also hoarded several raw materials from the swamp which the elf had seized on sight.
“A nice haul,” Iason said. He wiped sweat off his brow and took slow breaths to calm his beating heart.
“Take what you wish,” Kashi said. “Especially you, Hektor. Put on some decent armour.”
“Tch. Fine,” Hektor conceded. He rummaged through the pile for something acceptable. He settled on some leather armour. On Kashi’s urges, he added heavy metal breastplates, gauntlets and greaves for additional protection. He replaced the stone axe with one made from steel. It was large with an imposing edge that gleamed under the morning’s rays. He holstered it at his back and looked up.
“Oh…” Jero mumbled.
“Who would have imagined…”
Even the twins and Kira gave Hektor an approving nod.
“O-oi! Wat’re ya all staring at eh?!”
Kashi slapped his back, nearly causing him to topple over. “Haha! See, you do look the part after all.”
The elf was pleased. With this, the tanks now looked intimidating enough for their roles. This would cause their enemies to hesitate, allowing them to deal more damage and sustain less. He spent the next thirty minutes repairing and upgrading everyone’s equipment. Then, he used up an extra hour repairing and identifying the weapons they had looted.
He took out his blacksmith tools and converted half the loot into raw materials. These he remade into large metal spears. When he finished the last one, they placed everything below deck for protection.
“Is there a reason you are taking your time?” Jero asked when Kashi came topside. “I thought you planned on ending this today?”
“That is exactly why I am taking my time,” Kashi replied. His answer was deliberately vague and Jero knew not to question further.
“Is that also why you let the Froggers run?” he asked instead.
Kashi grinned, a deceptive glint in his eyes. “Exactly.”
Paris sighed. “And here I thought you had just done it out of rage.”
“Never. It was a show for the Froggers.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell us why?”
“It is much more fun to see than to be told,” Kashi replied. “No need to fret. You will find out soon enough.”
“Will you at least tell us what was on the parchment you read?”
Kashi’s eyes darkened. “You will not like it.”
“We deserve to know either way.”
Kashi shrugged. “I warned you.” He pulled the parchment out from his inventory and tossed it to Jero. “It is a letter sent from a man you know vaguely. His name is Absalon and he was recently-”
“Voted May’r of Kerta. Yeah, I’ve ‘eard of ‘im,” Hektor finished.
“Is this real?” Jero asked. His voice shook in barely controlled rage as he gripped the letter.
“Let me see that.” Iason took the letter and scanned it. His brows furrowed deeper with every line he read.
“It is,” Kashi confirmed. “I thought it odd he rose to power so fast. I wrongly assumed he just pilfered his guild members’ citizen points and money.”
“He made a deal with the bandits?!” Iason cried, nearly ripping the paper to shreds. Paris saved it before the brute had his way.
“The previous mayor did the same. If they turned a blind eye, the bandits would pay them handsomely,” Kashi said. He folded his arms and rested against the mast.
“Then, it was not that they could not send us aid…” Narkis said.
“They simply refused to,” Alex finished.
“Why would you think of hiding this?” Iason asked, in a tightly controlled tone.
“Imagine what would happen if this was known to all…” Kashi said.
“Chaos…” Jero mumbled
“Yes. At the very worst it might erupt into a civil war. The only ones who would gain from that are the bandits.”
Collective gasps echoed across the deck.
“You thought that far ahead once you saw that letter?” Iason stared at Kashi, eyes wide.
“Something like that,” replied Kashi, avoiding eye contact. He definitely could not tell them Razznik had once employed a similar technique.
“If you do not want us to speak of it, then what do you propose we do?” Paris asked.
“Nothing.” At their shocked and horrified expressions, he added, “For the meantime. Our current course is much more productive. The time will come when we face him, but it is not now.”
Jero shook his head. The corner his lips rose in a wry smile. “As you wish.”
Kashi strolled over to the wheel. “Raise the gangplank. Its time we set off.”
“We heading for Graena next?” Jero asked as he and Iason pulled the gangplank onto the deck. Hektor raised the anchor once they were done.
“No,” Kashi said. “Our target is Norcha.”
The deck went deathly silent as six pairs of eyes turned to him. “Norcha? T-that’s a fort!”
Kashi grinned. His eyes gleamed as the sails caught the wind, and guided the ship onto the river. “I know…”
Paris rested on the walls of the crow’s net. He closed his eyes, smiling as the wind caressed his silky blond hair. He did not care much for the mission they were on. However, it had been quite fun so far, not counting the distasteful swamp. Also, the money he gained after they split the loot was quite substantial. Now, if he could only take a bath; the smell of swamp still clung to his clothes.
Sighing, he picked up a spyglass left behind by the bandits. He scanned the horizon with it, then turned to the right. Something caught his eye. “I see something!” He called to the men on the deck below.
“What is it?!” Iason asked.
“Give me a second.” He focused in and made out a girl running through the swamp. He panned to the side and understood the source of her panic. “Stalkers! They are chasing a girl.”
Stalkers resembled hybrids of Komodo dragons armadillos amped on steroids. They had short stocky legs with hard shell like an armadillos that rattled as they ran.
“I count five. She doesn’t stand a chance!”
“Jero, take the wheel,” Kashi said. He let go of the wheel and dashed to the side.
“What?!” Jero yelled. He quickly grabbed it as Kashi dove into the river, accompanied by Kira. “Narkis, Alex!”
“On it!” They cried as they dove into the cold waters. They swam to shore and chased the elf and his companion.
“Leave me the heck alone!” The young girl cried over her shoulder. She stumbled on a tree root and fell face first into a dirty lake. She cursed as she stood up, and wiped seaweed from her face. She waded through the waters, her progress severely slowed by the terrible footing.
“Screw this!” she yelled and held her breath as she dove underwater. She kicked hard and swam to the opposite bank. She surfaced and coughed as she walked to shore, then looked behind her.
Her pursuers did not hesitate as they ran into the lake, their stocky legs allowing them to swim effortlessly.
She frowned and resumed her escape, looking over her shoulder when she heard their growls. Her pupils dilated as she stared at the monsters who were only a few meters away from her. They lunged at her and she whirled around, dagger at the ready.
“Get down!” a voice ordered from behind the monsters.
She did as it ordered, and the monsters inexplicably blasted past her. She turned around to see arrows buried in their armoured backs, then to the direction the arrows had come from and saw the strangest sight ever.
An elf with skin dark as soot was poised next to the largest wolf she had ever seen. At either side of them stood dark haired twins brandishing twin swords.
“Get over here!” the elf cried.
Gusts of air blew past her, accompanied by pained growls. She turned to see the Stalkers getting to their feet as more arrows bored into them. She did not need to be told twice. She ran behind the elf and his companions.
Kashi glared at the reptilian creatures as he launched another volley of arrows. This time the creatures dodged them with surprising agility. He was about to fire again, but instinct kicked in and he whirled around.
“Damn,” he said through gritted teeth. Five extra stalkers blocked the lake and slowly inched their way towards them. The closest path to the river was through that lake. If they ran any further in, they would only attract more monsters to their presence. To make things worse, he had zero information on the area. Worst case, they would stumble into a boss battle while being chased by the stalkers.
Kira and Alex charged the first mob of beasts, while Kashi and Narkis focused on the newcomers.
“Um… thanks,” said the girl.
He appraised her. She was quite short, dressed in a dirty camisole with protective bracers. On her hands and feet she wore white dress gloves and boots. Her sole weapon was a small dagger. She was definitely not a warrior class. The lack of a staff also ruled out most magic classes.
“E-excuse me?” She said, crossing her right arm across her chest. She took a step back, eyes cold. He noticed she had greenish blue eyes, with aqua-blue hair.
“What class are you?” Kashi asked.
“Bard,” she answered.
“Good, please support us,” He said as Narkis charged the beasts.
Monster #1 and #3 charged at Narkis but he twirled between them and increased his pace as he rushed the others behind them. He jumped into the air, then swung both his weapons down at #4. His swords clashed against its armoured shell but failed to penetrate.
It barrelled into him, its scales digging into his skin. “Ack!” He yelled in agony, but clenched his teeth and elbowed the monster’s head. It fell to the ground wailing, as its brothers took its place and attacked the swordsman.
Narkis’ blades proved useless as the beasts ferociously tore away at him. However, he did not slow down. If anything, he seemed to get stronger as time passed. Blood seeped into the youth’s eyes, blocking his sight. Despite this, the accuracy in his strikes increased.
The beast surrounded and pinned him to the earth, biting away at him.
Gusts of wind blasted the monsters in all directions. It died down, revealing Narkis. His eyes glowed black with sparks shooting out of them. His grip tightened as he burst forward. He jumped and swung down at one of the beasts. It spun around, shielding itself with its shells. “Useless.” His sword cleaved through the beast, ripping it in half.
Such was the ability of a berserker: They gained strength during battle, and bloodshed caused them to descend into murderous frenzies.
The remaining four gained their footing. Three charged at him while one attacked the archer.
Kashi fired <<Multi-Shot>> at the approaching beast. A smile curled up his lips at its cry. I know your weakness. He shot a volley of precise strikes at its exposed head. It burst into light soon after.
Another series of growls caught his attention, and he looked up to see several more Stalkers running towards them. He gripped his bow in a death grip as he simulated several scenarios in his mind. While Narkis was unbelievably strong, he gave up his health for strength. A prolonged battle would be suicide for the lightly armoured swordsman.
“Excuse me, but I said, support!” He shouted at the girl. He would have gone to Narkis’ aide if it were not for her.
Heat crept up the girl’s neck, and she flushed. “I-I know!” She clasped her hands together and closed her eyes, lips parting in preparation…
Time seemed to stop as the monsters and warriors froze, enraptured by her voice.
You are under the effect of Warrior’s Song:
Agility increased by 50%
Attack increased by 59%
Kashi broke the silence. He shot several arrows at the beasts. Stunned by her voice, they failed to dodge and it shattered their scales. They chose to charge at him, but Narkis ripped apart the closest, then hacked away at their backs.
They had no choice but to turn and face him.
Kashi made up his mind. “Narkis, protect her!”
He left the girl’s side and rushed to Narkis. He jumped over the beasts, shooting arrows into their heads. They burst into light as he ran past Narkis, heading for the newest influx of monsters.
There were ten of them, but he did not falter. He nocked four arrows into his bow and shot. Three bore into their targets’ heads. The last pinned to the ground harmlessly. The three hit instantly burst into light as the remaining seven converged on the elf.
Kashi instantly took in their positions as he ran. He dodged five simultaneous charges, then grabbed the arrow that had pinned to the floor. He nocked it and shot into the mouth of the sixth, instantly ending it. The last attempted to chew off his leg, but he hopped over its outstretched mouth.
He landed behind it and grabbed its tail. He pulled on it, spun the beast around him, then tossed it towards Narkis. Narkis’ muscles bulged as he ripped the beast in half. Its blood sprayed over him and the girl. She took it as a cue to switch her song.
This time, the monsters visibly slowed down and Kashi did not waste the opportunity. He shot several arrows into them killing them systemically. It was not long before the last of them burst into light shards. Or so he thought.
A survivor charged at the girl, fangs bared… It never made it.
A boy with snow-white hair appeared on its back and sunk his daggers into its head. It perished instantly. He stood up from his kill, sheathed his daggers and walked over to the girl.
“Shadow!” She squealed as she hugged him.
“I told you not to run too far,” said Shadow, as he patted her head. He was average height, dressed in black leather armour.
Panting heavily, Kashi picked up the scales left behind by the monsters. He walked over to the bard girl. “Thanks for the help. You are quite strong for your level.”
She smiled. “And you’re insane, period.”
He stared at her mouth agape. His lips curled into a smile as he said, “I’m Kashi. You must be Lunette I presume?”
Once again, her eyes went cold. “How do you know that?”
Shadow glared at him with unbridled hostility.
“I passed through Lew Creek and Ranad. You were quite famous,” Kashi said. Kira and Alex joined the group, having dispatched their batch of enemies.
“I see,” Lunette said. “As you thought, my name is Lunette, and this is Shadow, my brother.”
“Nice to meet you,” Kashi said. He took Shadow’s hand in a firm handshake, noting the boy’s grip strength. “What are you two doing this far down? It is too dangerous for a party of only two.”
“I could ask you the same,” Shadow countered, eyes narrowed.
Kashi sighed. “My destination is Norcha.”
“You must be new to this place. Norcha is run by the bandits.”
Veins bulged on Shadow’s forehead. “You. Are you working with the bandits?” His voice was tight.
“No. My aim is to eliminate them.”
“You and what army?”
Kashi grinned. “Who needs an army? I am more than enough.” The sheer display of arrogance stunned the rogue. “I’m kidding. I have a plan.” He looked at Lunette. “You guys want to come with us? We have a ship.”
“It’s okay Shadow,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. “Let’s go with them.”
Kashi nodded. He turned around and led them back to the ship.
Kashi watched as Lunette and Shadow introduced themselves to the rest of the crew. The duo were much nicer to the crew. It was probably because the crew was comprised of residents. Still, he had gained two extra hands. For the upcoming battle, they were more than welcome.
He took control of the wheel from Jero and set a course for the fort.
“What are you going to do about the bandits at the other villages?” Jero asked.
“We do not have to do anything,” Kashi answered. Jero raised a brow in question. “Ask Paris to look at the villages through the spyglass as we pass by them. You will see your answer.”
Paris did just that. Hours later, he saw a pattern in every village they passed. He descended the rat’s ladder – lengths of thin line tied between the shrouds of a sailing ship to form a ladder. “The harbors were deserted,” he said.
“What?!” Iason yelled. “What do you mean deserted?”
“They were empty. It looked like the bandits left in a hurry.”
Eight pairs of eyes turned to the elf, awaiting an explanation.
“What would you do if you heard your bases were being attacked by a small group of players?” Kashi asked.
“Reinforce the bases with more men,” Jero replied.
“Good answer. But what if your men are already spread thin?”
“Gather your men in one strategic location, and wait for the enemy to approach,” Shadow said.
Kashi glanced at him, impressed. “Exactly. Which is why I let the Froggers run. They had enough time to warn their leader, and he did the smartest thing he could think of. He holed up in his fort and gathered his men to protect him.”
“How did you know he would react that way?” Shadow asked. “There are a number of different strategies he could have employed.”
“True. That is why I bargained on him being a coward.”
“I don’t follow,” Lunette said.
“If he was not, we would have fallen into some trap by now. The fact that the villages are deserted and we have met no opposition proves the bandits are all at the fort.”
“Doesn’t that just mean that they now have far more men stationed there?” Iason asked. “How do you propose we infiltrate a stronghold designed to prevent enemy ships from coming through the Forever Sea? They have dozens of cannons on the walls. An army would have a hard time infiltrating, let alone a single ship.”
“No. We will succeed precisely because we are so few. Besides..” He turned to Lunette, and she took a step back, overwhelmed by his intense gaze. “We have something we lacked before.”
“You can’t be thi-” Shadow started.
“Exactly. Bait.” The dark elf’s eyes gleamed.