Sex stories

Short sex stories




Dream Drive Ch. 10

Author's Note:

Sorry about the extended wait on this one! Life keeps me busy.

Edited by Expoh, AnnabelleFalls13, Michael Scott, Zald, and I.C.


****


Vuntha stood at the top of the hill. Behind him, down the slope, lay the sprawling encampment of the People-Under-The-Mountain. The once-bustling tent city was emptied, devoid of activity but for the wind whipping at the cloth. Behind that lay the mountain, a black wall at their backs, the only defense protecting the women and children should they fall.

The sky was pale and endless, covered by a uniform cloud that obscured the rising sun. His breath fogged against the cold air. The wind was seeping into his clothes; his joints were stiff. A small piece of his mind panicked briefly, wondering if his hands would still move right once the iron men reached them. He shifted his feet and checked his grip, driving away the nerves.

In one hand, he held his spear. He concentrated on the feeling of wood under his fingers, experiencing the slight rises and smooth creases of his familiar weapon. He'd be needing it very soon. All the long, difficult days of training with his father now seemed far too short, wasted away talking when he should have gotten up again and sparred more fiercely, raked in one more second of practice.

Vuntha tied up the top knot of his jacket with his hand, tugging it close to his neck to keep the cold out. It was his leather war jacket, woven more for summer hunting than for wars in winter, but it would let him move easily. The tribes did not usually make war so late in the year.

Vuntha tried to embrace the cold. He told himself it was keeping him awake and alert. He feared the moment in which he'd be warm.

Hanta stood next to him. His father's gaze was locked on the flats that stretched in front of their position on the hills. They took in the view together.

The oncoming tide of the iron men was slow, but inevitable. Their dark green and black uniforms rolled over the browning grass of the plains. Their feet thumped with a mechanical precision, and their iron shields and armor shook in the same ponderous tempo. The sound echoed in the air.

Hanta gestured toward the end of the lines. "Watch for those ones," he said to the gathered men. "Elites, highly trained, extremely tenacious. Their weapons are incredibly sharp – some may be magicked by their mages. Do not try to block them. Use a long thrust when you strike at them, keep your distance."

Vuntha followed his father's hand with his eyes. The soldiers at the end of the iron men's formation were cut from a different sort of steel. Their armor was black; needle-spikes jutted out at the joints. They carried tall, hooked weapons, almost like a spear and an axe hammered together.

Past the assembly of spiked-armored elites that edged the line were their heavy cavalry. The horses kept a slow pace, staying in step with the footmen. Hanta had already informed them that this was part of their strategy. The mounted troops were primed to move easily, either to defend a weak point or strike where the tribes showed weakness. The hook-wielders would defend the flanks in their absence, allowing the main line to swing about and crush pockets of resistance.

Maybe it was because Vuntha had so much practice fighting and hunting that he could appreciate the army before him. The training and coordination required to move thousands of men as one was extremely difficult to achieve.

Knowing their strategy was different from defeating it. The wall of iron was very visible, but a spear wouldn't do much good against it alone. The tribes normally fought on the open plains, where they knew the land and could make an easy escape, hitting their target and running before they could be harmed themselves. This was different. They had to stop the enemy, right here, or their lives and their families would be in danger.

Vuntha brushed at his jacket, and brushed at it again. The sleeves and surface of it were plain, simple leather. The jackets of the men around him were far more impressive, strung with beads, sewn with feathers both white for counting coup and red for taking a life. His father's was most impressive of all, a full battle tale painted on the back by Vuntha's mother.

Vuntha's teeth rattled as the iron men grew closer. He wasn't sure if it was from the cold or the fear. He took up his spear in both hands.

Today, he would stain his war jacket. Or he would die. Maybe both.

A hand settled on his shoulder. Hanta had a serious sort of smile on his face. "You are my son," he said. "You'll be fine."

Vuntha just nodded. He was afraid his voice would come out a squeak.

Hanta patted him again, then moved forward slightly. They stood next to Jalak, the leader of the Three Hills tribes that had not abandoned their brothers. As opposed to Kunaya. Damn traitor.

A surge of anger swelled in Vuntha. This was all Kunaya's fault – him and Boonta. Hundreds were dead, and hundreds more were injured or dying. Vuntha grabbed the hatred, nurtured it, stroked it like a pet hound. It drove away the cold and the nerves.

The iron men were almost in range of their bows. Jalak raised his hand. A shout went up and down the line to nock arrows, and the warriors that had bows did so.

Vuntha heard shuffling behind him. He turned. He almost thought it was Chaki by her height, but the sharper features and broad ponytail marked her as Fenay. Vuntha nodded to her in greeting, and got a nod in return.

Hanta stepped back over. "Where is Chaki? She said she'd stand with our group."

"I don't know," Fenay said. "Secha – the skinny one, shorter." She gestured across her waist, indicating the girl's height. Vuntha nodded his head that he knew her. "She ran to my healing tent and told me Chaki was getting help. I divided the essence she gave us between the apprentices, but it isn't much. We might be able to repel one more of those big spells. Nothing after that."

"Maybe she's gone to see if Jackson has returned," Vuntha said. "The spirit guides don't know about the battle. They might not know how much they are needed."

"We can only hope she returns quickly," Hanta said. "Gather your strength, Fenay. We'll need it."

Hanta stepped out in front of the lines. Jalak gave him a questioning frown, but Hanta just nodded to him. He looked up and down the lines.

"I am Hanta, of the Windseekers!"

Hanta's voice was loud, carried along by the wind. He needed the help – the advantage that the tribes had over the iron men was numbers. By Vuntha's count, perhaps five or six thousand to their three thousand. More, if Kunaya had not taken half the Three Hills and stolen half their horses.

"We are not like them!" Hanta pointed to the oncoming march. "We are not mindless soldiers, shielding ourselves in shame from Mother Earth, hiding behind the very iron we stole from her belly! We are The-People-Under-The-Mountain! This is our home, our land, our most sacred ground! Shakhan is with us, watching over us!"

The men shouted. Spears were waved overhead. The bowmen, still holding their arrows ready, stamped their feet and called war cries, a mixed cacophony of shrieks and warbled notes that briefly overwhelmed the sound of marching feet.

Horns sounded from the iron men, as if in answer – high, exacting notes, blasting over the plains and commanding attention. The line of the iron men thinned slightly, stretched to accommodate the size of that formed by the tribes. The warriors fell quiet as they watched.

Hanta turned back to the line. "We don't have iron, like they do. But today they will find out something else. Our will and our spirits are stronger than any iron they can forge! We are going to show them what happens to those that step under the mountain without the word of the guardian at their backs!"

Vuntha felt the energy of the warriors collect like a tangible thing. He could feel it himself, his spirits rising. They were warriors, huntsmen of the guardian Shakhan, and this was their purpose – to protect and defend the lands Under-The-Mountain.

And he felt pride. That was his father. This was Vuntha's time. Time to prove he was a man, to prove he could take up Hanta's mantle in winters yet to come.

"Prepare to stain your war jackets with a story greater than any in a thousand winters!" Hanta shouted. "They will show no mercy! Show them only the end of your spear! Bowmen, draw your arrows!"

Hanta's last command was barely heard over the screaming and shouting of the warriors in response to his call, but the few bowmen that did drew and sighted up their foes. The others saw the movement, and the order went down the line.

Vuntha realized he was gripping his spear in both hands, holding it tighter than he ever had. He gritted his teeth and set his feet, pointing his spear out. This was it. He was ready.

Another horn blew. The iron men raised their shields above their heads in response to the knocked arrows. A wave of linked steel protected their heads.

"Their wall isn't perfect!" Jalak shouted. "They walk slow, weighted by iron! Aim carefully!"

The archers sighted down, adjusted. Some sniffed at the air, trying to feel out the wind.

"Hold!" Jalak said.

The iron men were almost in range. Vuntha wondered how they would respond. More lightning magic? Something else, something worse?

A horn sounded. The army ground to a halt.

Silence hung in the air. No one moved. Vuntha was almost afraid to breathe.

Jalak kept his hand held. "Hold!"

"What's going on?" Fenay muttered.

"Hanta?" Jalak said. "What do you think?"

"I don't know," Hanta said. "Something's not right."

"They raised their shields for our arrows, but now they've stopped." Jalak frowned. His eyes scanned the battlefield, hunting for some sort of sign.

"I feel magic!" Fenay said. "Some sort of spell."

"What magic?" Jalak asked.

"I don't see the lightning or the fire," Vuntha said.

"It's not that kind," Fenay said. "It's getting closer!"

The men milled, uncertain. The archers lowered their bows, glancing to the sides for instruction.

"Where is it?" Hanta asked. "What are they doing?"

"I'm not sure," Fenay said. "It's almost here!"

"Where?!"

"Right in front of you, and Jalak! There's more!"

Hanta and Jalak exchanged glances with each other, baffled. Vuntha glanced past some of the warriors. He couldn't see anything except grass.

Hanta sucked in his breath, eyes wide. He turned, starting to jog down the line. "Unseen!" He shouted. "They can't be seen! Ready spears! Spears up! Spears –"

Blood spurted from Hanta's side. He stumbled and fell to the grass, bleeding from his stomach.

Where none had stood a moment ago, there was now a man. He was naked but for the collar around his neck. His body was pale and scarred all over, rises and bumps and pockmarks from implements Vuntha had no name for. He held an iron axe in his left hand, now stained with Hanta's blood. His eyes were white – no pupils.

Faster than they could react, the scene repeated itself hundreds of times. Men at their front of the line cried out and fell, some losing limbs, others stabbed in the gut or chest. More men appeared, white-eyed slaves with twisted bodies. They shrieked and hollered as they became visible, then laid into still more men, mindlessly attacking despite being vastly outnumbered.

The man in front of them raised his weapon to finish Hanta off.

Vuntha was running forward. He wasn't going to make it. The axe came down for Hanta's head.

An arrow whizzed over Vuntha's shoulder. It took the man straight through the wrist. His strike was driven off course, thumping into the dirt next to Hanta's neck.

The creature roared, and, forgetting its axe, tried to fall on top of Hanta to get at him with its hands – but this time, Vuntha's spear was there. His weapon slammed home through the man's skin and pierced out his back. Vuntha twisted his weapon back and kicked the man free.

He glanced back over his shoulder. Fenay nodded to him. It was her arrow that saved Hanta from death.

Vuntha checked the lines of warriors. They'd been caught by surprise by the scarred men, but only until spears could find them. Still, it left them in disarray – and in the meantime, the iron men were marching forward, rapidly closing the gap. The bowmen hurried to ready their shots.

"Father!"

Hanta groaned. He rolled over onto his back, one hand on his wound. "Vuntha. I'm alright. Get me a bandage!"

Vuntha checked the wound and breathed a sigh of relief. It was mostly superficial. "You've got to get back behind the lines."

"I'm not leaving this field unless I die or they're all dead," Hanta shouted. "Bandage! Now!"

An angry growl and a hand wrapping around his ankle made Vuntha flinch. His foot was pulled out from underneath him. He hit fell hard, his spear pinned between his stomach and the ground.

The scarred man pulled himself over Vuntha's ankles. He beat at Vuntha's backside, pounding on his thighs and scratching at him with blackened stubbed nails. Vuntha pulled a foot free from its grasp and kicked out, striking him in the face and shoulders, but the only effect it had was to make the thing angrier.

Spears came down into the thing's back, more warriors coming to Vuntha's aid. It gurgled, twitched. And then it shrieked again. It clawed at all of them like a thing possessed, defiant of the four shafts of wood jutting from its torso. They withdrew their weapons and stabbed down again, and again, desperate to stop it from moving. Fenay stepped up, put a foot on the creature's shoulders, and shot an arrow straight into its head.

The creature collapsed. Vuntha kicked his legs free of its grasp and stood up. "Thanks, Fenay. Again."

Her ponytail bobbed a nod of acknowledgement. "Make sure you kill double that to repay me."

They both swiveled when they heard Jalak. He was shouting commands, but they were only partially heeded. The line was in a panic – their scene had replayed itself over and over, the invisible men going berserk until they were torn apart or their heads were caved in. The iron men were nearly upon them. A few bowmen were firing desperate arrows into their formation, but alone, they bounced harmlessly off their shields.

"Bowmen, keep firing!" Hanta shouted. He winced and bent slightly, keeping his bandage pressed over his wound. "Level your spears! Level your spears, now!"

Vuntha and Fenay scampered back into position. The warriors barely had time to lower their weapons, and the iron men were there.

The soldiers rushed uphill and into the spears, depending on their iron shields and their momentum to win the skirmish – and they'd caught the tribes in a barely-organized state. The tribesmen were shoved back, hard, their feet churning to stay balanced.

Bodies pressed together. Shields shoved against bare skin. Spears banged into armor and clashed against other spears. Warriors and soldiers alike shouted and swore and cursed one another in a giant wavering free-for-all. Vuntha didn't even have his spear down – he held it up, out of the way, just pushing against the back of five other warriors to hold the line.

Vuntha sighted an armored soldier pushed over by a nasty shove from the tribes. He fell underfoot of his own men. His armor didn't save him. He screamed until his neck was stepped on.

The smell of sweat and cold air was warmed with the stench of blood. Men were stabbed, cried out, fell. People were shoved into the empty holes they left behind, trampling any hope the injured had of recovery.

The tribesmen were being pushed back. Vuntha could see it. The metal shields were too useful, and their own leather armor was too weak to withstand a frontal assault – and the iron men knew it. It took a careful stab from a tribesman to make it through their armor, but they could simply bash forward and thrust their weapons haphazardly. They'd hit something eventually.

The soldiers were relentless, driving forward, maintaining the close-range shoving match that gave their armor the best advantage. The tribesmen were trying to get distance, line up their strikes – and so they were being walked back uphill, sacrificing their height advantage. Iron men fell in the mad scramble to keep up the constant push, but just as many warriors died to casual thrusts and arrows.

Projectiles from their crossbows were falling everywhere. Their own bowmen were launching far more arrows, aiming for the back of the enemy lines, but they were being peppered with waves of return fire. Vuntha saw a man next to him take a fat bolt one in the eye and collapse. It was as if the air was spitting blades.

The pileup in front of Vuntha surged, heaved. He was swept into the center of the pack like a leaf in a storm.

Arms flailed around him, mixed with screams and shouts and the cutting tips of spears. His own spear was stuck between himself and the warrior next to him, pinned down by the force of dozens of men pushing against each other. The soldier he faced was equally helpless.

Vuntha stared at the man's eyes under his helmet. He was young – younger than Vuntha expected. From a distance, they all looked like pieces of moving metal. There was a man in there, somewhere.

The soldier managed to wedge his shield between them. He rammed his shoulder against it, slapping against Vuntha's side. Vuntha grunted under the pressure, the blow knocking him from his reverie. He took another hit, and another. He felt dizzy.

He saw a flash of skin. A gap between the man's chest plate and his helmet. Vuntha's left hand was almost crushed between people, his fingers still weakly touching his spear shaft, but his left hand was free. He straightened his hand and jammed it into the man's neck.

The man coughed, spluttered. Vuntha jabbed in again and again, smashing the man's windpipe. The soldier's eyes bulged. Vuntha could hear his desperate wheezing. He raised his hand for another blow, intending it to be the last.

A sharp cut on Vuntha's shoulder drew his attention. Another soldier managed to get his spear across the pile to try to save his comrade, then promptly lost his weapon, having it torn away by a warrior three men to Vuntha's left.

The pile surged again. The warriors pushed this time, gaining back a bit of ground. Vuntha's left hand was suddenly free. The suffocating soldier was swallowed into the masses. Vuntha tried to push forward with the rest, but he was just as helpless. He churned his feet, just trying to keep his balance as his feet slipped through the blood and around corpses.

And then he was in the back again. He put his free hand on the shoulder of another warrior, lending his weight to the push. The motion was automatic, unfocused. It all happened so quickly. He hadn't controlled any of it. It could have been him that died as easily as anyone else.

A horn sounded. The iron men fell back.

The lines of churning men parted, like two waves that had smashed together and come apart. The distance was short, barely ten paces, but just that much seemed like eternity after the prolonged shoving match. The warriors swore at the iron men and called out in triumph from having repelled the first assault.

Everyone was heaving their breaths. Both sides looked exhausted. The iron men were disjointed and fractured, but so were the tribesmen. They eyed each other warily, staring over the gap of mud and dead bodies like angry hunters staring at each other over a bison, both claiming it as their kill.

As the pause started to prolong, the iron men began to reorganize. Vuntha looked around for his father, but couldn't find him. He felt like the bottom of his stomach had just dropped away. "Father!" Vuntha strode down the line. "Father!!"

"Spears ready!" Jalak was jogging down the other way. "Keep your spears ready!" The men responded to his words. They straightened their backs and fixed their weapons forward as he passed them.
"Elder, have you seen my father?!"

"He took a spear in the shoulder," Jalak said. He ran by Vuntha, throwing the rest of the words over his shoulder. "Fenay is treating him behind the lines. Courage!"

Vuntha's spinning innards settled themselves. He heaved a sigh, then turned to fill a space in the line. Movement caught his eyes – in the distance, horsemen were fighting, away from the main battle. Their own cavalry had drawn away that of the iron men, fighting their own private duel out on the flats.

Purple light glowed in the midst of the iron men. First one, and then another, lighting up like violet fires in the early dawn. Energy began to crackle.

"Magic!" Vuntha screamed over the warriors. "That's the lightning! Magic!"

A beam of lightning sparked out from the first point with a crack that echoed across the hill. Just as it was about to strike their lines, a white-lined shield of runes blossomed in front of the men it targeted. The lightning impacted the shield with a solid whumph, like a fist striking canvas. It vanished without harm.

All along the line, shields sprung up in response to the lightning strikes. The destructive attacks were met with shields each time, the apprentices casting just long enough to catch the power, then dissipating the spell to save their magic. Vuntha couldn't read the runes, but he recognized the pattern – it was the same as Chaki's spell, the one that had blocked the lightning-coated charge of horsemen. The warriors and the iron men both stared at the spectacle in silence, watching as their sages struggled with magic as they had struggled with force of arms.

The bolts of lightning ceased. Vuntha saw more than one tense pair of shoulders sag in relief. He understood how they felt quite keenly.

Purple lights. Everyone braced themselves.

The lightning didn't come immediately. Before, the glow had been flickering, unsteady, discharging into a bolt when it reached the highest point of brightness. This time, the lights were uniform, slowly growing in intensity.

It was obvious they were going to combine their efforts. That was what they'd done before, with the charge – but that was just two magicians. This was five. He couldn't imagine what they'd be facing next.

A sixth light glowed behind the lines of the iron men, brighter than all the rest. It was like a white flame, just a haze of purple surrounding its edges. It grew above the magician's outstretched hand. The sleeve of his cloak fell back to reveal a black object sitting on his palm, some sort of fuel for the fire.

Purple lightning cracked again, simultaneously, leaping from each of the first five magicians to the one at the center. They merged into the purple flare, sucked into the magician's hand.

A sound echoed over the field – a voice. Vuntha felt it vibrate in his head. It was a whisper and a scream, wordless, sad, terrible. A slow death on a rainy day. His heart felt heavy in his chest.

A strange observation floated through Vuntha's brain, a little fact that picked at him inside his brain. All the iron men had lowered their heads. Their eyes were shut tight. Some had even turned away.

Why would they do that?

The lightning came.

It soared out from the central flame and exploded in the center of their lines. Vuntha was at least forty men away, but he was still flung down by the force. He buried his head between his arms, ignoring the feeling of mud squelching into his head. The ground shook underneath him.

When the roar ceased, he looked up, still lying prone on the ground. He felt heat on his face. A blackened crater marked where before there had been men almost four or five thick. Bodies were scattered around it, some in pieces, others more whole, but all equally dead.

Ash began to patter down on him. And heavier things. One of them struck his neck and plopped into the mud next to him. It was a finger, the flesh charred from the bone at one end.

Vuntha scrambled up, as much to get away from the piece of flesh as get his feet before he was attacked. His innards felt like slush; he fell back onto one knee. His vision swirled. Men around him were in a similar state, disoriented, looking for instruction.

Why hadn't the apprentices protected them? No. They probably tried. They just didn't have near enough power.

White-violet flame around the box was still pulsing. Again, the other five magicians began to charge their own powers. There was a crack, and lightning leapt, charging the man holding the center of the spell.

This time, Vuntha saw the magic in all its fury. They targeted one end of the line. Weak shields went up from the apprentices. The massive helix of lightning tore through them as if they weren't there. A purple sphere of light and energy detonated at the impact point. Warriors in the center were turned to ash. Those further back were ripped to pieces, still others flung bodily into the air.

Men started running in from around Vuntha, both trying to close the gap and save those that could be saved. Vuntha just stared. This is too much. We can't win without the spirit guides. Magic is too strong.

"Vuntha! Vuntha!" Vuntha looked up. His father was limping toward him, coming down from the top of the hill. He sported a heavy bandage over his shoulder. "What in Shakhan's name is happening?!"

Vuntha opened his mouth to shout back, but the events explained themselves. Lightning flickered to the center point and another bolt fired, opening a third hole in the lines. The sound of it boomed over them first, and then the heat washed over them a few moments later. A hundred men, dead in an instant. A hundred more trying to stop their ears ringing.

"This is impossible!" Hanta said. "No one has this much power!"

"They have it!" Vuntha shouted. "What do we do?!"

Haanak ran up to them from a distance. "Hanta!"

Hanta and Vuntha made for him, meeting him halfway. "Haanak."

"Jalak is dead. Died in the second blast," Haanak said. "They're ripping us apart with these –"

He was interrupted by another lightning strike. They cringed as one at the impact. The rumble lingered in the air, rolling up against the clouds and sticking in their ears and chests.

And then the bolts began to fall. The crossbowmen struck in organized waves, targeting the areas that had been struck by lightning. Stragglers were picked off even as they crawled away. Their own bowmen returned fire, but it was a scattered effort, ineffectual. The magicians were shielded by their troops.

"One-Above," Vuntha said. "They're really here to kill us. Every last one of us."

"We have to retreat," Haanak said. "They're going to keep this up until we're in shreds and tear into us with their footmen!"

"We can't retreat," Hanta said.

"We don't have a choice!"

"Father, we have to get out of range," Vuntha said. "Magic is strong, but it isn't as accurate as a bow. If we get far away –"

"Your mother and our family are in the only place we could retreat to!" Hanta snapped. "We have to hold until the elders return!"

"Hanta, listen to reason!" Haanak shouted. "Even all the elders together might not manage one of those –"

Another lightning strike, closer this time. The ripple of force made them stumble. Haanak almost fell, but Vuntha caught him and pulled him straight.

Haanak gave him a nod of thanks, then faced Hanta. "We're sacrificing warriors for no reason by holding here. This isn't our way of war; we're not used to this kind of fighting. They'll steal our advantage of numbers in a matter of minutes. I don't know where they're getting the magic, but they're getting it."

Hanta's eyes darted across the line. He glanced over his shoulder at the mountain, at the tents. He looked back. His face was clenched tight.

"Father, we have to go!" Vuntha said.

"If we run now we'll die on the plains, Vuntha!" Hanta shouted. "If we retreat behind the mountain with the others, we give up our tents, our food, our entire lives. If we drop back into the valley to protect the tents then we'll be crushed against the mountainside!"

Another crashing of lightning and sound pounded the hillside. Vuntha could hear the screams in the distance. Clods of dirt and soot shot up into the sky, falling back down over them in a cursed black rain. The cold winds pushed the smoke and dust, churning it into a drifting cloud that obscured the front lines.


"We're already behind crushed." Haanak said. "Live now, find a way tomorrow."

Hanta's lips tightened in the fiercest frown Vuntha had ever seen him make. "A choice between death while fighting and a slow death from exposure is no choice at all," Hanta said. "We are the People-Under-The-Mountain. If we abandon this fight, if we retreat from our sacred ground, then what was the point of all the lives of our ancestors?! They fought and scraped life from the flats so that we could have a chance when the angels return! So that we could live in this half-world and have our day! And you're telling me to abandon that?! I'll die a thousand times before I see a metal boot fall in the shadow of the mountain!"

Hanta had already turned half-towards the line, as if preparing to run back into the fray. Vuntha grabbed his arm, stopping him. "Father, we only have one life," he said. "But we both know someone that defies death. We need Jackson. We can't win this fight on our own! This is why Shakhan sent him!"

Hanta hesitated. He gazed over the drifting clouds of debris, over the line of warriors that had fallen into disarray. He stared at the impassive faces of the iron men, still and firm under their steel helmets. He looked back over his shoulder, down the other side of the hill, toward the city of tents that held everything they had.

Hanta's eyes widened.

Vuntha started to follow his gaze when something rushed by them, a stream of gold and white tassels drawn on the wind.

It struck the lines of the iron men – a glowing white thing shaped like a person. There was no explosion, no great sound. The iron men were brushed into the air like leaves on the wind. They fell back on their own allies like sacks of metal.

Their lines were tough, but thin. The blow drove a hole straight to the magician in the center.

The white figure moved. It flickered like torchlight, almost faster than Vuntha could follow. He saw a sword cutting through the air, slicing through runes that suddenly appeared, hacking off the magician's leg.

The man's scream cut through the silence. He toppled from his horse and struck the ground. The black thing in his hand tumbled free.

The lightning that had been gathering for another strike fired again - but without his control, it struck the exposed backs of his own men. Their armor did not save them. A second hole in their lines was opened in a blast of violet energy and smoke.

Hanta raised his spear and ran forward. "CHARGE!! CHARGE!!"

Men came at his call. Vuntha ran at his side. They ran through the hole, toward the white figure, even as the light surrounding her faded. And then Vuntha could see her – long gold hair to her waist, a sword like white light in her hand. She circled the magician's horse, snatched up the black thing, and stabbed into the man's neck, finishing him.

And then they struck the line of the recovering iron men, fighting to keep the gap open. All along the entire line, the quiet separation between the armies snapped like a twig. Flesh and steel slammed together, and Vuntha was lost in the press of battle, swept out of sight of the woman.

****


Rachel pocketed the black cube and sniffed at the corpse of the magician. It wasn't Hale. He was smart enough not to make himself the target. But that was one mage down.

Sacagawea's spell had faded fast, but it was enough to do the damage. Pretty amazing shit, though. She needed to learn how to do that.

Rachel glanced up.

The mages had bodyguards, of course, more horsemen. They surrounded her on all sides, still recovering from her sudden appearance. She grinned up at them. The benefits of putting all her stats in agility and having the Indian chick use a haste spell on her were fairly radical, even if it was just for a few seconds.

Rachel didn't have any illusions about fighting all of them on her own. Instead, she waved at them with her free hand. "Tell Hale I have his cube and that I'll be shoving it up his asshole very shortly."

And then she turned and ran.

Hooves pounded the ground behind her seconds later. The battle lines roiled ahead of her, and she was on the wrong side of it. The air smelled like blood and sweat and shit. There was still dirt in her hair. That was probably the worst thing.

A sword swung at the back of her head. Rachel ducked, stumbled. They surrounded her on either side, herding her in. She was fast, but a horse was still faster. She'd have to change that by force.

"Sorry, horsey!" Rachel lashed out with her sword, wincing as she cut the animal. It halted abruptly and reared up in pain. The soldier behind had to pull his reins hard to avoid running into his companion, and the next after that had to do the same. Rachel planted her feet and stopped, using the commotion as cover to give herself a break. She was out of breath after sprinting for so long.

She was fast, but she used up her stamina quickly. She'd lived in a plush and blessedly sterile apartment her entire life. Exercise had never been a priority. Another thing to think about. She probably should have thought about it before deciding to get involved in prolonged and violent magic-based warfare on the side of the humble natives, but Chiki or Chunky or whatever was nice enough. And apparently she knew Jackson, so she couldn't be a complete idiot.

Just as the horsemen reorganized enough to come back and surround her again, she set her feet and blasted off at full speed. She got a good twenty feet away before they were able to change direction and get back up to a gallop again. Now there are some complete idiots.

Rachel reached the back of the enemy lines. Her sword glowed white as she called up an ability. A tiny part of her thought it was rather unfair to attack the completely exposed backsides of the enemy, but a much larger part of her cackled in glee as she took the final few steps forward. Free essence, here I come!

Rachel only had a handful of abilities, but Flicker Sticker was her favorite.

Her arm moved on its own. Her sword flickered, flashed, multiplied. Her arm moved in six stabs in a heartbeat, though the afterimages and illusions created by the ability made it seem like an even greater flurry of blows.

Her ability-guided sword struck home on three soldiers from behind, puncturing their chests. They slumped to the ground, dead. Rachel's essence bar swelled with another 80 points from the kills. The blue line overfilled, and her skin gained a pale white haze, essence leaking out over her limit of 100 points.

An evil grin spread across her face. Flicker Sticker only cost 35 essence, and she'd gotten 80 in exchange.

Rachel activated her ability again and carved into the line. Two men fell – 53 essence. She used it again. Her sword flashed. Screams, this time – one of them men lost his spear hand. He didn't die, so she finished him off with a good old fashioned slice across the neck.

And then she activated the ability again.

Her sword accelerated as she activated the ability three times in quick succession, stabbing between ribs and into shoulders. Her essence jumped up in skips and hops. The more she collected over her limit, the faster it leaked, like a burst pipe that was put under more and more water pressure. She needed to fix that.

She activated her ability again, and, letting the force of the power guide her body through the motions, she brought up her personal attributes screen. A few quick mental confirmations later, she dumped 100 essence into Spirit and another 100 into Agility. She threw 50 into Strength for the hell of it.

The horsemen had caught up to her. Rachel twisted out of the way of a cavalry saber. It swooped by her head, nicking her hair.

Partly to defend herself against the guard, and partly unwilling to let the man get away unscathed, Rachel turned her back to the line and activated Flicker Sticker again. Her sword blazed white and stabbed into the horse and the horseman, ravaging both the animal and the rider's legs. The horse screamed and turned away, bleeding from the neck; the man managed to keep his seat for a few moments before falling, losing his weapon in the process.

Rachel felt a very strange sensation. Something had poked her in the small of her back very hard; the feeling moved into her abdomen and sat there. Her health bar dropped by 40 points, almost cut in half. She tried to turn around, but she was stuck in place. She glanced down and saw the pointed steel tip of a spear protruding from her stomach. That's not good.

Rachel struggled to free herself from the spear. Her health ticked down at a scary pace. A pommel caught her in the side of her head, another soldier turned to attack her. She lost another ten health.

The sensation of pain increased as her health bar dropped, turning from a throbbing weight into a sharp burning pinch. She dropped her sword, grabbed the shaft of the spear with both hands, and grunted, wriggling back and forward to try and pull herself up and off the blade. A kick caught her from behind, helping to cut her free, but another blow knocked her to the ground. Before she could get her legs moving, she was surrounded, kicked, pummeled, stomped on.

Rachel dropped and covered her head with her hands. Her health bar flashed and began to let out a warning sound. She felt nauseous.

"Don't kill her! Lord Hale will kill us if she dies!"

Hands and fists drew back. Rachel felt a weight fall on top of her, pinning her to the ground on her stomach. She didn't bother resisting; she felt more like vomiting.

Hands grabbed her arms and legs. She was brought up; she could see the clashing lines of soldiers. She rolled her head back; a mage stood next to her, dismounted. His eyes were beady and there was a fat mole on his lower lip.

Rachel ignored his examination and craned her neck to stare at the battle lines. She was only yards away from the surging troops. The Indians had driven Hale's troops back down the hill with Rachel's help, but things had ground down into another stalemate. She didn't see the magic girl that woke her up anywhere.

"Chiki!!" she shouted. "Hey Chiki!!"

"Get her back to the command post. Don't let her go for any reason until she has a collar again."

The men grunted and started carrying her away from the battle. Rachel felt the panic begin to curl up inside her muscles. She started struggling, twisting in their grip, but the weakness induced by low health was too strong to overcome.

The battle lines burst open. Warriors flooded through a sudden gap they'd made in Hale's soldiers. A bar of white light struck one of Rachel's handlers in the heart. His eyes rolled up into his head and he slumped over, releasing her leg. When the light vanished an instant later, Rachel realized it was an arrow.

That wasn't magic. That was an ability.

Another energized arrow slammed into the helmet of the guard holding one of her arms, puncturing his skull. Rachel pulled free of their grasp, but her legs gave out underneath her. Iron-toed boots, moccasins, and bare feet stormed through the mud around her. She heard an explosion of lightning magic, weaker than before, but the screams were just as loud.

Rachel went on her elbows, fighting the weakness induced by low health, dragging herself through the mud one arm after the next. A body thumped next to her. She scrambled faster. It's just mud. It doesn't matter. No germs. I didn't actually get cut. Not in my hair. Just keep moving. Her elbow squished through blood. It soaked through her leathers, dampening her elbow. Fuck. Fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck.
"Rach-El! Rach-El!" Hands reached under Rachel's shoulders and dragged her up. The Indian chick's brown eyes thrust themselves at Rachel's face, darting over her features. "Are you alright? Can you stand?"

"Gonna say yes to alright." Rachel tried her feet. Her ankles caved in like wet paper mache. She couldn't get any strength into them. "No to stand."

"Okay, hang on!" The girl pulled one of Rachel's arms around her shoulders and started walking her forward.

The battle around them had devolved into a melee. There were no lines, no organization; just people fighting people. They walked through the center of it, trudging through the mud and the screams.

"If you heal me, I'll be able to walk," Rachel said. "My health is too low!"

"Health? Oh, your health bar!" The girl turned and put a hand out, drawing runes in the air. White lines followed her fingers, then flashed. Rachel's health was restored 20 points. "That's all my essence. Let's get back to–"

Rachel shoved her to the ground because a spear was thrust at her neck. They collapsed together. The girl shouted and struggled under her, not understanding the situation. Rachel leapt up just as another spear came in, trying to skewer them both. She escaped without harm, but the spear stabbed through the girl's leg, pinning her to the ground like a stuck moth.

Rachel instinctively reached for her sword, but her hand grasped air. She'd forgotten about losing it.

Instead, she threw herself at the soldier holding the spear, driving into him with an elbow just below his chest plate. He grunted under the blow, but held his ground. Rachel's arm throbbed where it ground into his chainmail.

Despite the recent boost to her strength, he probably outweighed her three to one. They struggled for leverage, each trying to topple the other's balance. Rachel wrapped her hands around his waist and dug her feet into the mud. He beat at her back, pulled her hair, smacked at the back of her head.

There was a thump. The man stopped struggling. Rachel glanced up; an arrow was jutting through his cheek and out through his head. She pushed on his chest; he toppled over like a felled tree. She glanced back to see the girl on one knee, bow in her hands.

A white wisp rose from the soldier's corpse. It drifted slowly toward the girl, then was sucked into her body when it got close. Essence. Rachel's eyes went flicked to the girl's left hand and noted the pentagram scar. Unlike Rachel's which was twisted and curled, hers was a neat imprint, more like a henna tattoo than a marking.

"Thanks Chiki," Rachel said. "Fucker almost got my hair."

"Chaki," she corrected. "We have to regroup with the others before the lines form up again and trap us."

"I've got some essence left," Rachel said, "but almost all my skills need a sword."

"Then we run faster," Chaki said. "I'll shoot anyone that comes at us. You can pick a blade on the way."

Rachel turned toward the thick of the killing field. It was true – dead bodies and ownerless weapons were all over the place. There had to be a sword stuck in the mud somewhere. Always with the fucking mud. I guess beggars can't be choosers.

"Alright," Rachel said. "Let's do this shit!"

Chaki stared at her. "This...shit?"

Rachel made a fist and pumped it into the air. "Yeah. For when you're ready to take them on."

"Them?"

"You know – them. The man. Authority. A challenge. Shit headed your way." Chaki still looked baffled. Rachel huffed and rolled her eyes. "It's an expression, okay?"

"Oh." Chaki's eyes lit up in understanding. "Jackson uses a lot of those."

"The dissertation can wait," Rachel said. "Less talking, more walking."

"Fair enough."

"You won't be going anywhere."

Rachel felt her bones freeze over. The voice was cold, precise, and horribly familiar. She turned her head towards its source.

Lord Hale approached them on horseback, surrounded by his elite guard. A second mage rode next to him – the one that had been taking Rachel back, until Chaki came to the rescue. Dicks. Double-dicks.

"Chaki," Rachel muttered. "That's collar man. Got any essence from that dude you owned?"

"Enough for one attack," Chaki whispered. "You?"

"I can do a few skills. No sword, but at least it'll be something. Make a distraction." Chaki bobbed a small nod.

"Rachel," Hale said. "It's good to see you again. I hear you collected one of my matrices for me."

"Yeah," Rachel said. "Did your man tell you I plan on pushing your shit in with it?"

"Conversations are always so colorful with you around," Hale said. "An instant of freedom and you're back to your bad habits. We'll be doing some corrective exercises later."

A strange phantom of pain passed through Rachel's chest. She swallowed.

Hale's gaze fell on Chaki. "Drop your bow, and I might spare you."

Chaki's hands moved faster than Rachel would have thought possible. She fired her bow an instant later. The projectile shot through the air.

The magician next to Hale had raised his hand. Blue runes glowed in front of them. The arrow clinked off its surface and fell into the mud.

Hale raised his finger; runes blossomed in front of him. A bolt of purple lightning shot out as Chaki fired a second arrow. The two attacks passed one another mid-flight. Chaki's arrow struck the shield again and fell down, useless. Hale's lightning smashed Chaki in the chest. She was blasted off her feet and back into the air.

Rachel flinched, and then she realized she was supposed to be moving. She dug her boots down and burst into a sprint, reaching for her essence. She didn't have her sword, but damn if she wasn't going to punch him in the face.

"Ren, restrain her."

The mage next to Hale was already casting. Rachel was ducking between the horses when the spell caught her. White ropes of energy wrapped around Rachel's legs. She tripped forward and face-planted into the mud. Her arms were dragged behind her back and tied together by another strand of energy.

Rachel lifted her head and spat the crud out between her lips. She strained against the bindings, growling out between clenched teeth. One of the white bindings on her hands snapped; the energy made a popping sound as it released. It stung her hands; the horses near her stepped back, frightened by the sound.

She used her freed hand to pull on the binds at her legs, but a fresh wrap snagged her wrist. Lying on the ground as she was, she couldn't dodge; her hands got wrapped up again just as quick as before. And then another rope was added, and then a third, holding her arms tight enough to be painful.

She was not going to be collared again. She was not going to be this freak's possession. And so she started crawling forward, pulling her body across the ground like a worm, defying her tied up arms and legs.

She didn't get very far. The men around her laughed at her, chuckled. They didn't even have to move their horses.

"Did we really have to do this the hard way?" Hale said.

Rachel screamed. No words, no swears, just pure frustration, pushing past her lips and through the mud. She'd been doing so well. And then, poof. Fuck magic.

"That was rather unbecoming."

Rachel was hefted into the air. She was turned to face the sky. Hale's face stared down at her. She stared up at him, his preened hair, his neat features, everything impeccable and in place as if he'd planned the singular moment down to the style of his shave. He dug his hand into her pocket and drew out the ink-black box. "Thank you for returning the matrix. I do appreciate it."

Rachel cleared her throat and hocked a loogie at his face. The ball of spit-snot splattered onto his chin with a satisfying smack. Hale's face twisted back in disgust.

"Listen up you little shit," Rachel said. "Jackson is coming, and he's way stronger than me. If Jackson doesn't get you, my brother will. My brother will fuck your shit up. He will fuck your asshole raw! Do you fucking hear me!?" She shook in her bonds. "I'll watch him make you sweat like a whore in church! I'll fucking –"

Hale backhanded her across the face. She recoiled from the strike. Hale sighed and shook his head. "Rachel, Rachel. Won't you ever learn?" He put his lips next to her ear. "I forgive you," he whispered. "It's my fault, really. I was soft. When we restart your education, I'll take it more seriously. You have my word."

Rachel started screaming, shifting. She whipped her torso and kicked legs. More guards moved in and clamped down on her renewed efforts. Someone stuffed a cloth in her mouth; her screams turned into muffled groans.

Hale looked over his shoulder. "Give me a collar."

Something snagged Rachel's senses. She blinked. Hale looked up, frowning at the sky.

It was magic. Even though she couldn't see it, she could feel it - like not being able to see lightning, but still feel the rumble in your chest.

"My lord, that was a powerful spell," Ren said.

"Can you sense its alignment?" Hale asked. "Where was it located?"

"Near the mountain," Ren said. "It's coming this way. Quickly."

"What type of magic?" Ren sat on his horse, his eyes closed, a hand on his forehead. He didn't answer. Hale faced him fully. "What element, Ren?"

"I can't tell," Ren said. "I can't sense an alignment."

"Don't release her binds," Hale said. "I'll handle the defense."

"Look," one of the men said. "In the clouds!"

He pointed up into the sky, so Rachel was able to see his finger. She squinted. It was hard to make out, but there were angular white lines high above them, cutting against the grain of the cloud layers.

The streaks stopped, then seemed to shrink into dots. They held in place for a moment, white specks against a grey sky. The specks started to grow larger. Then larger still. She cocked her head, frowning. Why would that happen?

Rachel inhaled sharply as she realized. They're coming straight at us.

"Release her binds, shields up!" Hale shouted. "Now!"

****


Jackson's Statistics:

Strength - 100 +10 (+10%)
Vitality - 185 +19 (+10%)
Agility - 50 +3 (+5%)
Compulsion - 0
Persuasion – 0
Spirit - 80 +20 (+25%)

Health – 143/248
Essence – 56
Carry Weight – 28.4/59.0


****


Jackson reappeared within the chamber that lay in the base of the mountain. The world swum back into view around him – first the mural at his feet depicting the tree, the pentagram, and the claw; and then the strange cavern, with its sterile dark walls and stone golem guardians. He felt his weight settle onto his heels as the teleportation finished.

He stood there, and he breathed the air. It was the freshest breath of air he'd ever had.

It felt like coming up out of water after being pushed under for an uncomfortably long time. He resurfaced just as his chest began to seize up with the need to inhale.

He rubbed a hand over his face. He felt sweat smear over his nose and forehead. His skin was warm to the touch.

Shakhan was not Shakhan. It was Satan itself - Lucifer.

In a way, Lucifer was supposed to keep the rest of the devils in Hell. But it was a long and crooked road from that grudging and unwelcomed duty to its current status of noble guardian of the underworld, at least in the eyes of the People-Under-The-Mountain. That thing was evil, and it had Jackson's soul in its clutches - or so it claimed. It was a confirmed liar. Still, when he considered the black pentagram carved into his left hand, Jackson was inclined to believe that Lucifer wasn't bluffing.

He could feel Chaki again. The bond had burst back into his head, gold and fierce and full of her fire. It was the lifeline that pulled him back.

His relief warbled into worry. How was he going to tell Chaki the truth about Shakhan? How could he tell Shaka, or Hanta, or any of them? Their entire lives were based in a false mythology.

"Jackson?"

On top of that, there were already at least sixteen people that were condemned to having their souls laid at Lucifer's feet – the finalists of the Top Gamer competition, all who received their copies of Isis early. He'd bet a lot of money that every single one of them had already logged in; you couldn't hold the game in your hands and not play it. But there were another five thousand beta testers that were about to blissfully leap off the cliff of fate and condemn themselves.

Jackson couldn't take Lucifer's word that they had some sacred charge to stop the demons before they attacked Earth. That could all be just as big a lie as anything else it said. He had to speak out, put something on the internet, some kind of proof. Anything he could to bring Isis to a halt until he could find Emil Mohammed and ask him why he sold himself and everyone else to straight to Hell.

A hand on his shoulder brought him out of his thoughts. "Jackson? Are you alright?"

Jackson turned. Shaka stood there. The aged lines of her face were bent in concern. Her hair hung string-like across her face. Her features were colored in bands of red and black from the runes that glowed around them, the remains of the spell that had teleported Jackson down into Dis.

Jackson managed to nod.

"Did you meet with Shakhan?" Shaka asked. "What did she say? Did she have words for us?"

Shaka's eyes felt like they were boring into his head. He could suddenly feel the eyes of all the other spirit guides, watching him, waiting for something – but his mind was a blank.

What could Jackson possibly say? Shaka was so damn tough that she even beat him into shape, but if there was anything in the world that could get to her, it was that her worship was a bunch of crap made up by the guy that told the first lie. Jackson didn't know how long Lucifer had planned all this out – the tribes, the mountain, Isis, Emil Mohammed - but it obviously had plenty of time on its hands over the past several millennia.

"Jackson? What's wrong?"

Jackson's brain found the escape hatch. "An army," he said. "There's an army outside, attacking us, the mountain. We have to help!"

Hushed murmurs from the spirit guides filled the air. They collectively released their magic, and the glow on the mural faded, sealing off the teleporter back to Dis. For a moment, it was pitch black. Some of the spirit guides drew new runes and relit the cavern with a multicolored field of spotlights.

"What army?" Shakhan said. "What are you talking about?"

"Shakhan told me that we have to defeat the army on the plains," Jackson said. "We can't let them get inside the mountain. Let's go!"

Without waiting for confirmation, Jackson started off down the hall, spear in hand, his energy cannon swinging from his hip. He could hear the spirit guides following along behind him; their collective shuffling of feet echoed through the tunnel.

Shaka was quick to keep pace. "Who is attacking us?"

"I think it's the iron men," Jackson said, "but I'm not sure. I'm just going by some pictures I have. Shakhan showed me."

"How did they find us without us knowing about it?" someone behind them called.

"We have scouts out in every direction!" said another.

"They never could have gotten this close to the mountain!"

"Shakhan didn't say," Jackson called back. "All I know is what I just told you!"

The ground underneath them shook. Some people stumbled. Jackson threw a hand on the wall for balance.

Small spheres of white light flickered to life along the roof of the tunnel, leading back out the way they'd came in. The space was washed in bright light. He squinted his eyes and kept moving. Maybe it had something to do with whatever he'd activated back in the mountain.

As they ran through the tunnel, Jackson thought back to the city, back to the conversation. He had the strong impression that there was something in Dis that was really dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands, some kind of powerful magic or device. Jackson couldn't trust Lucifer on which hands were the wrong ones. Lucifer seemed to want Jackson to do something with it, which meant that going back and taking whatever it was for himself was the wrong move. At the same time, it didn't mind waiting for someone else to come along, a more willing puppet.

Lucifer was trying to push its agenda forward using Isis. It claimed demons had broken free and were going to eventually destroy Earth. Suppressed by the fear and the cold, Jackson hadn't challenged its statements, but it didn't offer any proof. It didn't show him anything. It just insisted that they had to do something about it.

If Jackson went in, Lucifer got what it wanted. If someone else went in, Lucifer got what it wanted. If the army went in – or really, one of the two men that Lucifer told him he needed to kill for his quest - that was bad. Apparently that wasn't allowed. Lucifer needed someone playing the game of Isis to take the power inside Dis.

The only winning move was not to play. He had to stop anyone and everyone from going to Dis. If no one reached the City of Demons, then it wouldn't ever become a problem. Alright. Protect Dis now, then warn everyone on Earth about Isis. Somehow.

They reached the door back to the outside. Jackson led the group up the first foothill past the entrance to the cave. The sky was grey, and the air was cold – uncomfortably cold. His breath steamed in front of him.

"Snow," Shaka said, still running beside him. Jackson saw it was she pointed; a few flakes were falling from the sky. Hopefully it wasn't a big storm.

Jackson stopped at the top of the hill to catch his breath. His mouth fell slack. He stared into the distance. The roar of thousands of men washed over him, a rolling tide of shouts and war cries mixed with an exchange of hunting horns and shrill war trumpets.

Shaka loped to a halt beside him, sharing his gaze. The rest of the spirit guides trotted up; they all stopped just the same. No one spoke.

Below them, nestled in the valley between hills, was the sprawling tent city. Past that was another hill on which a tremendous battle was being fought. A giant line of warriors stretched across the high ground like a two-tone snake, one side brown with leather and skin, the other side grey and black with iron armor. They fought over a patch of land that had been moiled into an alien landscape of mud and blood and smoke. Great blackened craters scattered here and there made it seem as if some giant machine had stomped its way across the field, crushing and burning the ground as it went.

A distant purple light flared. Magic shot out of it and exploded on some target Jackson couldn't make out. He recognized the color and the shape of it – that was lightning magic, like the rattok mage had used. Like the kind he and Rachel had found at the bottom of the dungeon.

"One-Above," Shaka swore. "We have to get down there. They're helpless against that kind of spell. Jackson, prepare yourself. I'm going to cast upon you so you can get there first."

Another woman stepped forward. She was probably Shaka's match for age, though she was quite a bit fatter than her more wiry counterpart. "I'll cast with you."

"Better idea," Jackson said. He pulled the energy cannon free from his belt. "Can you all heal me? Do you have enough essence?" They didn't answer him. He looked back over his shoulder. "Did you hear me?"

"Jackson," Shaka said, "you aren't hurt. What are you planning?"

"Abuse of the game mechanics," Jackson said. He planted the claw-end of the gun against his shoulder, trying to imagine the metal sinking into his skin like getting his blood drawn. It helped, but it still pricked a little too hard. He went down on one knee, then lifted the pointy end up, as if he was aiming to lob a shot at the enemy lines. "Get ready to heal me. I'm going to need it in a second."

A tan, translucent game panel appeared in front of Jackson. Two lines of cursive blue writing offered a choice. It hovered in front of him, waiting for a selection.
Essence
Life Force


Jackson didn't have a target. He didn't even know if it was going to work at this range. He didn't even appreciate what he was messing with - this thing was ancient technology that could use his soul for fuel. He tried to focus on where the enemy spell originated. Worst case scenario, the shot was a dud and the spirit guides would patch him up fast.

Jackson took a long breath and braced himself. "Life force."

The claw dug in and clicked, as if latching onto his bone. His 143 life dropped down to 5 in an instant; the strength was sucked from his body.

A beam of pale grey light lanced from the end of the gun. Jackson's torso was bent back by the force. The spirit guides around him flinched, shielding themselves with their arms. An echo of magic power shot out over the fields like ten spells cast all at once.

The white light bent upward, then whistled up into the clouds that covered the sky. It bent again, then rocketed forward, rapidly eating up the distance to the two armies. It split into two beams, then four, each half as wide but traveling even faster than the initial shot.

Jackson collapsed to the ground. The gun fell from his hands. He clutched at his stomach. He felt like retching. The vague indicator of some status effect blinked under his health bar, which itself was pulsing red with a warning tone.

"Shaka," he grunted. "A little help!"

She knelt near him and drew runes. She barely used her hands to draw; the runes appeared as her eyes moved across his body, as fast as he'd ever seen her make them. They flashed as one, and his health bar began to refill.

Shaka's face was worried. The expression didn't suit her. "Your spirit is weak. Even Shakhan's blessing couldn't shield you."

"Yeah," Jackson said. "Figured it –" He held his breath for a moment, fighting the feeling of his stomach turning over. "I feel like shit."

"Keep your crassness to yourself," she snapped.

If he hadn't been spending so much effort sitting on his nausea, Jackson would have laughed – even in this situation, she couldn't resist slapping him on the wrist. He grunted an affirmation instead. "Yeah. Sorry."

"It would have killed any of us to use that weapon," Shaka said. "What did you do?"

Movement from the other spirit guides drew Shaka's attention. Jackson propped himself up just in time to see the results of his work. The beams of light plummeted into the dark grey lines of the iron men. He couldn't make out the carnage at this distance, but he could see the holes his power made in their lines as it darted and blasted between them, ricocheting every which way. Dozens and dozens of black figures toppled over before the light dissipated. The tribesmen seized the moment, surrounding isolated pockets of soldiers and crushing them. Even though they were too far to be heard, the spirit guides shouted out cheers and encouragement.

A few more people joined in healing Jackson. His health bar rapidly refilled, but the status effect box lingered under his health bar. He poked at it with a finger.

The box expanded, giving him a clearer view of the picture inside. It was small grey wisp with a red dagger stuck into it. A label below the picture described it in detail.

Debuff: Soul Damage
Use of magical means or methods beyond your capabilities has torn at your soul, rendering you weakened. You will remain in this state until healed or your soul repairs itself.
Time Remaining: 9:17


"Shit," Jackson said. His health peaked at its maximum of 248 points, but the debuff wouldn't vanish. "Shaka, stop. That's not doing any good."

Shaka let the runes vanish. "There's more to heal," she said. "You took on too great a burden. I can sense the damage, but I'll need time to construct the runes. That kind of healing must be precise."

The guide that helped Shaka tapped at her arm and pointed to the battle. "Look!"

Jacked struggled to see as the spirit guides clustered in front of him, exchanging worried looks. Shaka offered her hand. He leaned on her heavily; he could barely shift his feet forward. His stomach protested at the motion.

The iron men had withdrawn back down the hill. At a glance, it looked like the center of their lines had collapsed; the mages led the retreat from horseback. The warriors were pushing through, chasing them down.

But then Jackson saw the edge of lines swing inward. It wasn't a rout, it was bait. He only now noticed what was at the tip of their formation – square formations of troops with long pole weapons, clad in black steel. As the soldiers fell back, the tribesmen took up the center space, which left them in a disorganized mob between the two groups of elites.

It was a risky strategy. Jackson's sense of tactics only came from strategy games he'd played, but it didn't take a genius to understand that splitting your army could be dangerous. Elites or not, surrounding an enemy army didn't work as well when you had half their numbers.

He was confident the tribal warriors would be able to hold their ground for a moment. They could regroup, then crush one half of the army before turning back to crush the other half. The mages were probably just using it as a distraction to ensure their escape. The whole army would be moving away soon enough.

A few moments passed; the mages stopped a distance away, then reorganized their foot soldiers as the tribes paused to face their new attackers. Jackson waited for the warriors to pick a side and crush one of the squares of troops.

It didn't happen. Rather than be pressed back by overwhelming numbers, they kept moving forward, hacking through the tribesmen with almost no resistance. Where their blades passed, dead bodies accumulated.

Lights flashed along the new battlefronts. Jackson recognized the white sparks of abilities. One of them might have been an arrow from Chaki. Maybe the other apprentices were casting spells.

It wasn't enough. The warriors bunched away from the black formation of elites, surrounding their own archers. Any ground they gave was swiftly taken by the halberdiers. The vicious assault had won time for the rest of the iron men to regroup, and now they were moving back in to attack the tribes on a third front, led from behind by the mages on their mounts.

"Those blade-axes," Shaka said. "They're sharp enough to slice through wood and bone. We have to empower our warriors so they can fight back."

"At this rate, they're going to lose."

"We won't make it in time!"

"You will," Jackson said. He tapped Shaka's shoulder, getting her to let him free, then hobbled back to the energy cannon. He lifted it up and knelt, planting himself firmly. "This'll slow them down. You guys start running."

"Jackson," Shaka said, "you can't use the weapon again. You'll worsen the damage. Let me use it –"

"I don't think so," Jackson said. "You just said I'm the only one that could survive the backlash."

"Then you have to wait until I can heal you. I'll start drawing the spell."

Jackson glanced at the timer. It was down to 7 minutes and change. That was 7 minutes too long. "How long will it take you to draw the spell?"

Shaka furrowed her brow. "Some time, at least."

"That's too long. You lead them down and help the tribes. This shot won't kill enough of them to decide the battle."

"Jackson –"

"Goddammit, Shaka," Jackson said, "Chaki is down there!"

The spirit guides stared at him. Shaka's expression was briefly shocked, and then it firmed into her usual stubborn scowl. She opened her mouth with a look that told him he was about to get a lecture.

"Shaka, I always listen to you," Jackson said, cutting her off. "I think I respect you more than anyone I've ever respected. Please hear me out. I'm not trying to kill myself."

Shaka hesitated. After a moment, she closed her mouth and folded her arms with an expectant look.

"Our guys are going to break under that attack," Jackson said. "Even if we start running now, they'll be slaughtered before we get there. If I fire now, that will give the tribes a chance to fall back and get a better position. You can meet them halfway, then support them with magic to even things out. I'll catch up after."

"I'm going to stay and heal you." Jackson started to speak again, but Shaka stopped him with a finger, jabbing it into his face. "This is not negotiable, Jackson Vedalt." She turned to the others. "The rest of you, get going. Now!"

One spirit guide turned and started running. The rest followed. Jackson nodded to himself, then set the gun against his chest.

Shaka moved a short distance away. "You had better know what you're doing, Jackson."

No clue, actually. "It's under control," he said. Jackson mentally opened up the cannon's information screen, scanning it for anything he might have missed.

Energy Conversion Cannon
An ancient device discovered by Jackson in long-abandoned ruins. It can convert life force or essence into a powerful blast of energy that ricochets between foes; weaker enemies may be destroyed outright. The more energy it can access, the more powerful the effect, but the backlash leaves the user severely weakened. Repeated use is not recommended.
- Rune Slots - None
- Durability - Extreme


He wanted to wait until his debuff was gone, but he didn't have the time. Another five minutes of warfare was five minutes his tribe didn't have. He pushed the butt of the gun into his shoulder; the claw sunk into his skin. He barely felt it above the nausea.

As Jackson eyed the panel that flashed up, a realization struck him. That was the first time he'd really thought of it as his tribe.

He probably should be more worried about the consequences of what he was about to do. Pushing his soul harder when it was still recovering was extremely dangerous. He didn't have any idea what would happen. Even the item's description warned him not to do it, and Isis didn't hand out information like that often.

Jackson was concerned, but he didn't feel any hesitation. He had stared the abyss in the eye and come back in more or less one piece. This was peanuts by comparison.

This was the action that would guarantee the most damage to the army that was killing the People-Under-The-Mountain. It was most likely to save Chaki's life. It was the best possible move.

With that confidence underwriting his voice, he spoke the words aloud. "Life force."

Jackson's health bar plummeted from 248 to 5. A massive beam of grey light erupted from the gun. The shockwave ripped the weapon out of his hands; it smacked his neck and spun away through the air. Jackson was blown backward and sent into a tumble down the hill.

His brain felt muddled. He could barely feel his limbs. It felt like he was rolling down in slow motion. His head snapped back against the ground. He flipped over. His face was dragged across the grass. Flipped over. Not much pain.

His vision went grey. It took him a few moments to recognize he was looking at the sky. His health bar was completely empty. The fall must have knocked the last bit of health from him.

Shaka was there. She was saying something. At least, Jackson thought she was. He saw her lips moving, but he couldn't hear her. Bright runes appeared around him as she began to sculpt a spell.

The status symbol under his health bar changed. He couldn't lift a finger to get a description. He tried to focus on it, mentally order it to expand – and at his command, it did.

The picture came into sight. It showed the grey wispy soul again. It was ripped into two pieces, the red dagger having been driven between them.

Debuff: Soul Tear
Repeated damage has torn open your soul. You are extremely weakened. Unless healed by powerful magic, you will lose health rapidly until you die.


There was no timer.

Shaka's magic went to work on him, but Jackson could tell it wasn't enough. His health bar started filling – and then it skipped down by ten or twenty points. Shaka kept pouring herself into the runes, and his health kept rushing back, but it always ticked back down.

Sweat was dripping from Shaka's forehead. She was breathing hard. Jackson tried to move again, but there was nothing there. It was as if whatever was linking his brain to his body had been cut.

Whatever was linking it? Heh. He knew that. He studied it. It was his life, before Isis, before Charles. Decisions made in the cerebral cortex and prefrontal lobe were passed to the motor cortex regions, then to efferent spinal neurons, ganglia, more neurons, neuromuscular junction, muscle movement. It was what they copied to make prosthetic limbs. The whole science was based in mimicry of what was already there in the body.

Shaka collapsed next to him, sweating and shaking from her exertion. His health bar had actually been refilled quite a bit, back above two hundred. She'd fought very hard for him. He watched it tick back down.

213.

193.

173.

Jackson wished he could see Chaki again. He could feel her still, her bond, burning bright. He couldn't reach for it like he did before. That part of him was gone, too.

It occurred to Jackson, then, that he'd been cheated at the end. He'd never gotten the essence for making all those kills with his energy cannon. Maybe he was too far away. He'd never tested if distance mattered with essence after making a kill. All his other kills were close combat.

113.

93.

Motion next to him. Shaka was up on an elbow. Her face was clenched in effort. She raised her hand, and more runes appeared.

His health popped up back up to 166, and then she collapsed. He hoped she hadn't hurt herself. He was a lost cause.

But he'd made his own decision. There was some solace in that.

146.

126.

Lucifer was right, in a way. For all the criticism he leveled at everyone around him, at the world, at the injustice in the system, what had he done to change things? Nothing much. He just whined about it and called everyone else stupid.

106.

86.

Maybe that's why he felt calm. He'd finally stood up and done something.

Fucking Isis. Fucking Emil Mohammed. I believed you. I thought you got it, got me. I guess I was the stupid one.

66.

46.

26.

6.

Jackson's bar hit zero. Pain shot through him, a claw that reached into his stomach and started digging around as his insides.

His essence bar started draining. The measly 56 points blew away in the wind. In a few seconds, he was in the single digits.

I guess that's the end, then. Good luck, Chaki. Rachel.

White light crept up on the edges of Jackson's vision. It danced around like snow, drowning out Shaka and the grey clouds above. Looks like the storm is going to be pretty bad after all.

****


Rachel could hear a whistle in the air. It turned into a shriek as the beams of white light shot down toward them. The horses started tramping their hooves in the ground, nervous.

"If you want to live, Rachel," Hale said, "I'd suggest staying within our shield!"

Rachel's magic bindings fell loose. She immediately started struggling to free herself. She was getting sick and tired of being passed between captors like a piece of meat. Whatever this was, it was her only chance to get away. Between holding her and keeping their horses in check, her guards were barely managing to keep their hands on her, but she couldn't quite get away.

"Orders, my lord?" one shouted.

"My lord! What's coming?!

"Hold her steady!" Hale said. "Ren, joint cast with me! Write for a narrow deflection angle!"

Ren glanced at Hale, nodded. They both began to scribble in the air. Runes blossomed in front of them. Ren's glowed blue; Hale's were an ugly maroon. They wrote in the air furiously as the white streaks grew closer.

An arrow zipped up and buried itself through Ren's hood and out the back of his head. He slumped over, dead. Half the spell collapsed. Rachel twisted her head enough to see Chaki back on her feet, her clothes scorched and her hair frizzed from Hale's lightning attack.

"Kill her!" Hale shouted. He was still looking upward, entirely focused on repairing the faltering spell. Chaki fired another arrow, but one of Hale's guards took the shot for him.

The beams of light slammed into the shield of runes Hale had drawn into the air. The power hammered on it repeatedly, cracking and banging like fireworks on a tin roof. Sparks and flashes of energy flared from the impacts. Hale bent backward in his saddle, fighting against the force with his body as he shoved his magic into the shield.

The white lasers stopped their assault, reversed direction, and rushed straight toward Chaki. Rachel barely had time to blink before they reached her.

And then they bent around her. It was almost creepy – laser beams, twisting around something at 90 degree angles. And then they were off, rushing toward the battle lines.

Rachel started running. She grabbed Chaki – who was still standing there, dazed – and started pulling her by the arm. Chaki eventually let herself get tugged into a run. Rachel risked a glance back over her shoulder. Hale was slumped in his saddle, his face pale as a ghost, breathing hard. His guardsmen had surrounded him and were drawing him back.

Screams drew Rachel's attention back to where they were moving. She stumbled a half step, caught herself, then kept going.

As if they had a mind of their own, the lasers had gone straight for the armies that were still smashing into one another. The lines of light blew through the iron men, punching holes straight through their armor and leaving bloody messes behind. Just as they reached the warriors, they bent again, traveling left and right down the lines.

Dozens died in a heartbeat. Maybe a hundred. Maybe more. The end result was a huge hole in the lines of the iron men. Rachel didn't sprint quite as fast as she could – she was a lot faster than Chaki, and she didn't want to abandon the chick that just saved her ass several times over. As they ran over the corpses, Rachel lifted a big iron sword from a dead man's hands. Thanks buddy.

Essence drifted up out of the corpses. It spread into the air somewhere – Rachel lost track of it in the clouds. And then she wasn't so sure it had even gone up at all. It had started snowing - little flurries drifting down from the sky.

The warriors had crushed through the gap in the enemy lines. Rachel and Chaki were suddenly surrounded by friendly faces. A few gave Rachel odd looks, but Chaki stayed close, keeping an arm on her to let them know she was vouched for.

Trumpets sounded from Hale's troops. Their main line was retreating. A huge roar went up from the warriors. Spears were lifted into the air in victory.

Booming war horns blasted at the end of the line. The shouting war cries were replaced by a buzzing murmur of confusion. A voice sounded above the heads in the crowd. "They're attacking our flanks! Stay organized! They're attacking the sides of our line!!"

There was a sudden mad press to leave the center and get to where the fighting was good. Rachel and Chaki were carried along in the current. "What's the plan?!" Rachel shouted over the din.

"Keep fighting!" Chaki shouted back. "Wait for Jackson!"

"Sounds good to me! Thanks for helping me out!"

"A friend of Jackson is a friend of mine," Chaki said.

That was a bit mushy for Rachel's taste, but she wasn't in a position to complain about it. She nodded at her and tried to focus on scooping as much of the grime out of her hair as possible while they were carried along toward the front.

As the immediacy of the battle faded somewhat, it occurred to Rachel that she was totally surrounded by a crazed mob of mud-and-blood smeared Indians. God these people smell bad. That one is barely wearing any clothes. Is he smeared with mud? Rachel was abruptly pushed to the side by a surge in the crowd; someone's ankle stomped straight on her toes. "You fucking asshole!"
"What?!" Chaki shouted.

Rachel plastered a bland smile on her face and raised her weapon. "Those fucking soldiers! We're gonna kill them!"

The warriors around her rattled their spears and echoed her cry.
"Kill the iron men!"
"Protect the mountain!"
"For Shakhan!"

Chaki pumped her fist. "Those fucking soldiers!" She glanced at Rachel. "Did I say it right? That sounded like Jackson's tongue."

"We'll work on it," Rachel said. She glanced at Chaki's hand, noting the inverted pentagram marked on her skin. If it wasn't for that, Hale's spell would have vaporized her. "I thought you were a beta tester."

"Beta...?"

"The game! Isis!" Rachel pointed at the mark. "You've got a star thingy? Hello?"

"Shakhan's symbol? Jackson gave it to me."

Rachel nodded to herself for a moment, as if that was the expected answer, and then it hit her. Her eyes bulged. "Wait, what?! How the fuck did he do that?!"

"Watch yourself!" Chaki shouted. Rachel faced front to see that they were about to come into contact with the enemy.

Her surprise of a moment ago twisted into a half-panic and amplified.

Hale's halberdiers were sweeping forward in a wave of black steel. Where their hooked blades passed, men died.

Warriors lost hands, arms, heads. Those that tried to block with their weapons were gutted. There was so much blood that the ground looked more red than brown. The elites stepped over the corpses without slowing, a spiked wall of death.

There were small victories. A few warriors would gang up on one man, managing to get their spears through the articulated plate armor, but then they'd all be cut down together in one attack. It was as if the halberds met no resistance at all when they contacted a person. They moved as easily through bone as they did through air.

A moment later, Rachel was at the front, a chaotic, screaming, gnashing, bloody front. A halberd stabbed toward her.

Rachel ducked left, stepping around the thrust. It might be sharp, but it was a giant knife on a big stick. It took time to swing. She dashed in and activated her Power Thrust.

Her sword flashed white. The tip struck the man's plate armor right on the heart.

There was a heavy thud, and Rachel's sword rebounded. She stumbled backward to keep her balance. The man winced back, clutching his chest. Rachel could see where her blow had pushed his armor in, crushing it against his skin, but he was far from dead.

Another halberd came in low from the side. Rachel jumped it. The man brought his weapon up high, then sliced down in a straight line. Rachel stepped to the side and went in for the kill.

She couldn't risk half-measures. She activated Flicker Sticker. Her sword arm blurred. She felt the tip of her blade strike the armor once, twice, then plunge through the man's gut. She kicked him off the blade and stepped back, away from the oncoming soldiers. They stormed over their fallen comrade without care.

Rachel's eyes flicked to her essence bar as the white wisp drifted into her body. It ticked up by 27 points, leaving her with 64. Flicker Sticker cost her 35 apiece. If she had to use it for every soldier, she'd run out of essence really fast. Their armor was too thick.

A white arrow flew by Rachel's head. It slammed into an oncoming soldier, plunging into the gap in his faceguard. Rachel shouted over her shoulder. "That was fucking brutal, Chaki!"

"You can't get through their armor!" Chaki said. "Go for the weak points!"

Rachel settled herself next to some friendly warriors. Now that they had really turned to face their enemy, the crush had slowed down somewhat. She tried to think. She didn't really have any abilities that could target weak points. Maybe she could make one?

The lines closed together. Rachel peered at them as they moved, looking at the places where the pieces of their armor hooked together. She'd never get her sword through the guy's helmet. Their shoulders were covered over with thick round plates, protecting their armpits. She looked at their legs.

There!

The kneecap itself had a round plate, but the back and sides of only had a leather strap, probably so they could move easily. They were soldiers designed as shock troops for smashing through an enemy, not for protracted battle. If she struck their knees hard enough from the side, she could hobble them, and then they'd be easy pickings.

Maybe she could even crush in the front – that piece of armor didn't have any supporting bits nearby. There was nowhere else for the force to go. If she hit hard enough, she should do damage.

All she had to do was get inside their giant razor-sharp weapons of doom.

One of the soldiers thrust with his halberd. The warriors to Rachel's left moved to get clear. Rachel ducked the other way.

One of the other soldiers swung his weapon over, trying to strike Rachel as she closed the distance. She knocked the shaft away with her sword, then swung the tip toward the other man's knee, activating her Power Thrust. Her weapon flared and was pulled forward on rails, straight for the soldier's knee.

An ugly crack snapped over them. The man screamed and buckled to the ground. Rachel kicked him away. The other soldier was bringing his weapon around, lifting it high – and revealing the exposed skin under his heavy shoulder plate.

Rachel exploded off her feet at top speed and activated another Power Thrust. Her move caught the soldier off-guard. Her blade sank into his chest from the side; his weapon fell from his hands, and she pushed him away.

A panel popped up in front of her.

Incisive
Passive: Increased chance of armor penetration with all active abilities. Chance increases per level.
Active: A carefully aimed thrust. Power multiplies if used at an enemy's weak point.
- Essence Cost: 15
- Level: 1
- Progress: 25.6%


Rachel barely had time to look it over before she ducked back behind another thrust. Another weapon came at her, then another. They were focusing on her, keeping her on the defensive. She whipped her torso around to dodge the strikes.

Rachel almost tripped backwards. She waved her arms and tried to keep her feet. A halberd nicked her in the side, slicing off a few points of health.

As she regained her balance, she saw that she'd almost fallen over a torso. It was the armless remains of the warrior she'd been fighting alongside.

Her temporary success had isolated her from her allies. Everyone else was falling back. Another flash of light – an arrow from Chaki, buying her time. She skipped backward to get clear before she was surrounded.

Rachel realized why she'd been left behind. They'd been struck from the front again by the normal soldiers, reorganized and pushed into another attack. They were able to fight back against those shock troops well enough, but they couldn't do that and pivot to hold off the elites at the same time.

Rachel planted her feet. They were pushed on the front and getting ground up on the sides. She had to protect this flank or they were completely screwed.

Arrows flicked past her head. A few elites went down, but their heavy armor insulated them from that kind of attack. She wouldn't be able to rely on archers to bail her out.

Warriors stepped up to either side of Rachel. They looked grim. Air misted out of their mouths and into the cold. The snow was getting thicker.

The one next to her was young, stocky, short – still taller than her, though. He looked like he'd been through hell. Blood was smeared on his wrists, ankles; more matted down his hair. His rawhide vest was splattered with things Rachel didn't want to look at too closely.

He looked back at her. "You fight well."

"I hope you do, too," Rachel said. "The last guys that stood next to me got cut into little pieces." The young man stared at her. The other warriors set their jaws a bit firmer. "Just saying, if you want to back out. You guys don't have one of these." She waved the hand with the pentagram.

The boy thumped his chest, over his heart. "This will have to do." His eyes firmed up. "We show them our hearts. Our spirit! We won't be broken!"

The warriors growled in affirmation. A few sent up war cries – some howling, others shouting. More started up a chant. It all formed a boiling chorus of noise that filled the air around Rachel. She felt caught up in it.

The elites were closing in. There was no more ground to give. They had to hold the flank.

Rachel and her allies started running toward the enemy line. Her shout was lost inside the rolling thunder of war cries, but she shouted anyway. "Let's do this shit!"

Just as they were about to clash, white beams poured from the sky.

The lines halted. Everyone scrambled for cover. The snow had turned the mud into an icy sludge; warriors fell to the ground, sliding, tripping. Elites jostled, their armor clanking as the front came to a halt.

Rachel ran forward.

Earlier, the beams of light had only killed Hale's troops. She'd watched it – it tried to kill Hale, and failing that, went after the soldiers. It never touched the tribesmen. It bent around Chaki to avoid her.

And after the kills, essence had left their bodies. That meant a player was responsible – and that meant Jackson.

It had felt like twenty years had passed since his first salvo. Being in the battle was like being in a little bubble of time. In the back of her mind, some part of her knew it had only been a minute or two, but time just didn't work the same way when you were clinging to life and trying to bash the other guy's head in.

As she prepared to use her abilities, she had the idle thought that she should be far more disturbed by how easily she was killing people than she was.

The beams of light blasted into the elites just before Rachel arrived. They punched through the black steel as easily as the soldiers' halberds cut through bone, leaving behind shredded metal and gaping blood holes. Rachel used Flicker Sticker, finishing off three soldiers at once. She used it again, and again.

Even as she was plowing through enemies, the lasers moved faster than she could. Essence drifted up into the oncoming snow and vanished. Damn waste.

The seventh time she used Flicker Sticker, a new panel opened up in front of her.

Chained Offensive Multithrust:
As long as one enemy was slain during the last use of Flicker Sticker, another Flicker Sticker can be reactivated immediately for half the essence cost. Additionally, any damage taken by the user will be doubled by each successive use.
- Essence Cost: 100
- Level: 1
- Progress: 35.6%


Rachel didn't like the name of it – she'd renamed Multithrust in the first place – but she activated it without hesitation.

Her sword arm whipped forward. Her essence jumped down by 100 points. A haze of iron and light shot in front of her; she felt her arm vibrate under the control of the ability. Two men fell dead, and she got 52 essence back.

One of the best things about Isis was how the abilities just knew when to activate without you saying anything. Rachel played tons of games where you had to click a button, state a command, make a gesture, something, anything – but Isis knew. Then again, Isis was real life.

She chained into a second Flicker Sticker. Her essence only jumped down by 50 points. She only killed one man this time, but the other two were bashed and banged onto the ground. The following Flicker Sticker – that only cost her 25 essence – killed them both.

Rachel's sword was a white-hot stick of death. She churned through soldiers, killing them one after another while they were still recovering from Jackson's long-distance laser attack. They were still bunched up from when they'd come to a halt, making it even easier to keep up her chain.

By the fifth chained Flicker Sticker, she only paid 3 essence – of course it was rounded down, Emil Mohammed would never fail her – and she'd killed enough enemies to send her essence into overflow. She had to capitalize on her strengths, so she mentally opened the menu as the ability did the work for her and dumped another two hundred into Agility, then threw another 100 into Spirit to help hold the extra essence.

While she was distracted by her game menu, a soldier busy dying in the mud managed to slice her ankle with his halberd.

Rachel's leg was torn out from underneath her; she collapsed to the ground. The blinking icon telling her she was in the midst of a combination attack vanished. All the health she was healed by Chaki and everything she'd been slowly regenerating was chewed up by that little scratch.

The soldier crawled toward her. He raised his armored elbow, then jammed it into her stomach, using the leverage to pull himself over her. Rachel clenched against the blow, trying to stop the air from leaving her lungs.

The man pulled a dagger from his belt. His eyes were wild, driven. Below the armor that covered his neck, Rachel could see a familiar wooden collar.

He swung his shoulder down, bringing the dagger with it. Rachel gripped her sword and screamed out her effort as she lifted the blade, propping the hilt under her shoulder. He impaled himself on the blade. Rachel twisted her neck away, avoiding the dagger that was still coming at her. It hilted into the mud.

She watched the light in his eyes die. Essence flowed into her.

Horns sounded in the distance; high, squealing trumpets used by Hale and his forces.

The soldier's body laid on top of her, dead. She struggled to breathe with the weight on her chest. She didn't have the strength to roll him off.

Something moved the corpse away. Rachel sucked in oxygen.

A hand was offered to her. She took it and was hauled to her feet. It was the young man from before. He was grinning.

"What was that horn?" Rachel asked.

"They're running," the young man said.

Rachel surveyed the landscape on unsteady feet. Corpses were everywhere. Dead warriors, dead soldiers, black armor and brown leather. The snow was still floating down, already beginning to cover up some of the colder ones. One good thing about the cold – it really killed her sense of smell.

"This is fucked up," Rachel said.

They both looked up at the sound of footsteps. Chaki and some other guy were coming their way. He looked like an older version of the one that just helped her up. Then again, I do kinda have trouble telling them apart.

"Rachel!" Chaki said. "They're retreating! We won! We won!"

The man marched up beside them and plopped the butt of his spear in the ground. "Rachel. I saw you fight. Thank you for helping us." He extended his hand. "Is this how you greet each other, where you're from? Jackson taught me."

"Yeah, basically," Rachel said. She took his hand. His grip crushed her fingers together; she grimaced and scrunched her eyes. He pumped her hand in a single, hard shake. She flexed her fingers as soon as they were free, trying to work the pain out. "Generally you try not to rip the other person's hand off," she said.

A sheepish smile grew on Hanta's face. "Jackson said something similar. My apologies."

Rachel sighed. "Whatever."

"I am Hanta," he said. "You've met my son, Vuntha." The younger man nodded to her.

"Rachel Ransfeld," she replied.

Rachel smiled to herself. She didn't get out much back on Earth, but when she did, her introductions were always met with the same response. Ohmygosh, did you just say Ransfeld?! The Ransfeld?! Wait, are you related to Charles? It got annoying after a while.

"That's right," Chaki said. "Jackson was wondering about your name. Do you know someone named Charles?"

Rachel stared up at the sky. Somewhere, a higher power was laughing at her. Laughing and pointing and telling its friends all about the great decades-in-the-making joke it just played. "Yeah. Charles is my brother."

"By the way," Hanta said, "why do you have two names?"

"I told you," Chaki said. "It's because they have more people. When you have that many, you need two names."

"That's ridiculous," Hanta said. "How many people can they possibly have to need two names?"

Rachel was still glaring at the clouds. "I hate you," she muttered.

"What is it?" Chaki asked.

Rachel sighed. Chaki was giving her the eyeball – maybe it was her last name, or maybe it was her muttering to herself. That tended to get weird looks. "Hale's not done. He won't give up that easily."

Hanta glanced into the distance; they all followed his gaze. The snow cut their visibility. The wind wasn't blowing much, but it was coming down in big, wet snowflakes. They weren't the kind that piled up high, but they covered everything in ice really fast.

Hanta watched the snow a bit longer, then nodded. "The iron men didn't cross a hundred miles to withdraw like cowards. They've already caught us unprepared. We need to regroup and expect the worst."

"I think those white lasers were Jackson," Rachel said. "He should show up soon."

"I hope you're right," Hanta said.

"I can feel him," Chaki said. "But it's off. Faded, somehow." She lowered her head. "I think whatever he did took something out of him."

"How can you tell?" Rachel asked.

Chaki glanced at her. "Well, it has to do with this," she said, raising her mark. "We formed a sort of pact. A Bond. That's what the magic calls itself."

Rachel really liked Chaki. She was tough, and seemed pretty smart. She even got the collar off Rachel's neck. That couldn't have been easy.

Those positive feelings were almost totally erased by the bubbling green head of envy that stirred in Rachel's gut at the news she was that close to Jackson. "What kind of bond, exactly?" Rachel asked.

"Well, we're...it would take some explaining," Chaki said. "I'll tell you about it later."

The creature inside Rachel growled and shifted, unsatisfied. Rachel pushed a fake Charles-style smile on her face and nodded. "Sure, yeah. There's a war on and all."

The echo of a scream cut through the air.

Their heads snapped toward the sound. They stared out into the snowfall. The scream came from the direction the iron men had retreated. Rachel could just make out movement at the edge of her line of sight, past the snowflakes – their lines, reorganizing. The source of the noise was unclear.

The scream turned into a low groan, then an almost feral growl, vibrating under the snowflakes. The deep sound got stuck in Rachel's chest and rattled around there like the throb from a massive subwoofer.

"We need to regroup, now," Hanta said. He started off. "Make another line! Regroup! Regroup!" Warriors flocked to his call, rapidly forming into another line along the footprints Hanta's moccasins left in the snow.

****


Lord Hale slammed his fist on his saddle hard enough to hurt his hand. Three mages dead. Three. The Vuldstadt himself would be dancing in his tower when he heard that Hale's magical power base had been halved during the course of the single battle.

His soldiers weren't much better off. He'd expected the barbarians to break under the power of the lightning matrix, but Rachel's sudden arrival – without her collar – had dismantled that plan. And then he wore her down, had her in his hands, and she slipped away a second time. Hale didn't understand the source of the magical bombardment that had forced him into such a corner, but it had done far more damage than the men they'd been fighting had. He mentally swore to kill whoever was responsible – slowly.

He glanced out into the storm. The black mountain loomed in the sky, easily visible even with the snow coming down thick. The spell came from there. It underlined the possibilities, the great force that stirred underneath the rock. If he could harness that kind of power, then it would more than make up for the loss of his mages.

They could still cast lightning magic, but it wouldn't have the power and coordination. Their individual bolts of lightning were powerful, but it wasn't close to the same scale. Two mages couldn't take down an entire army.
He'd already played the card of the ghostmen to start the battle. It had been an effective move, but he didn't have time to make more. Another cavalry charge was out of the question – his own horsemen were still fighting their counterparts out on the plains. They were miles away.

To the credit of their training, his troops had reorganized quickly, stopping their latest withdrawal from turning into a rout. The snowstorm was an annoyance at first, but its arrival couldn't have been better timed to help cover their retreat.

"My lord, I can sense mages!"

Hale turned to Hildan, one of his two remaining magicians. "How many? Are they at the line?"

Hildan nodded. "I count a little over thirty. They'll be with us in moments."

Hale's forehead creased in thought. They didn't have the ability to form Words, but years of skirmishes with the tribes had shown their unparalleled ability to enchant their warriors. Even the Tower at Renstadt would have trouble creating similar effects with multiple magicians. The entire reason for the timing of their attack was to avoid this problem.

Hale turned to his newly-appointed battle captain, a man clad from head-to-foot in black armor. A forest green cape enchanted for physical protection draped down his back and off his horse. "My lord?" he asked.

Hale would have preferred to have Tell'ad on-hand for strategy like this, but after his latest betrayal – letting Rachel get away - he couldn't be trusted. "How many slaves do we have left?" Hale asked.

"Last headcount put us at 43, my lord," the captain said.

"Excellent," Hale said. "Bring them all up."

"All, my lord?"

"Every last one," Hale said, "unless you'd prefer I use you."

"Right away, my lord," the captain said. He turned and snapped orders to his subordinates.

"My lord." Hildan leaned toward him, speaking quietly. "We won't be able to replenish ourselves easily if we use every slave."

"We've lost the luxury of choice."

"I know what you're thinking," Hildan said. "I don't think the creatures can beat them. We'll just be trading our magic for theirs, and then they outnumber us and we've played our last card."

"It's not about winning this battle," Hale said. He stared up at the mountain, his eyes following the peak up until it was swallowed by the snow. He realized they were going about this in the wrong way. His original thinking had been to destroy the tribes and then claim the land, but there was nothing stopping him from making a claim and then destroying the tribes.
"We need to hit them as hard as we can. Now."

Hildan followed his gaze. "What do you think it is, exactly?"

"I don't know," Hale said. "But we're going to find out. The barbarians have accrued some power, but we have the finest magical education in the continent and years of experience. If they've intuited this much just on feeling, imagine what we can extract from the place."

Hildan nodded. "I understand. But we still have to get through them to go there."

"Remove the detachment of halberds from the left flank," Hale said, raising his voice so his commanders could hear. "Concentrate half on the right with the others. Place the rest throughout the army. Tell the cavalry to charge back and attack into the enemy lines."

"Wouldn't that be a waste?" Hildan asked.

"Not for our purposes," Hale said. "They want a fight - a final stand, a grand battle. The slaves will draw out their magic, and the army will challenge them. In the meantime, we bypass them altogether."

"My lord," came the captain's voice. "As you requested."

Hale turned his horse about. The first slave was readied for him, and the rest were lined up. They all had the same look on their faces – those that knew they were condemned to a place from which no one else had returned.

They were, of course, absolutely right in their assumptions.

Hale withdrew his other matrix, the one he stumbled upon so long ago when the land he ruled was not under his rule, when it was a fourth kingdom and not part of an empire. He placed a hand on the slave's head, and he began to channel.

The slave's skin rippled. His bones creaked and snapped. He began to scream.

Hale watched as the slave transformed, his face still. The soldier dragged another slave forward – his newest acquisition, the inept tribal warrior given to him by Kunaya. What was his name? Boonga?

The tribesman's black eyes flicked from the writhing slave to Hale, and back again. His features were drawn up in disgust. His bravado was nowhere to be found.

Hale smiled down at him. There were few things more satisfying than that look of realization on a student's face when they finally learned something useful. Fear was a good start.

Another man stood apart from the other slaves. Tell'ad. The grizzled commander watched Boonta for a moment, then shut his eyes.

"Get the barbarian a horse," Hale said.

"Sir?"

"In fact, captain," Hale said, "dismount." The captain only paused for a moment before following the order. Hale snapped his fingers at the slave and spoke in his tongue. "Mount up. It's time we had a talk."

The young man lifted his head. He stepped toward the horse, then stopped, as if expecting a trick. He took another step. When his collar didn't offer him pain, he used the stirrup to lift himself into the saddle. He sat awkwardly on the platform, frowning.

"What is it?" Hale asked.

"Why use these hard...things?" He tapped on the saddle. "A horse's plain skin is good enough."

Hale sighed. "We can compare cultures at a later date. I need some information. Information for which I'd be very grateful."

Hale watched the thoughts connect together behind the young warrior's eyes. Pride came first, simmering in his gut, anger at being dragged around like an animal. And then something else surfaced – a memory of pain he couldn't resist. His eyes flicked back to the man that was screaming on the ground. The slave's muscles bulged as his body twisted itself into a new form.

"I'm not planning that for you," Hale said, drawing his attention back. "You were full of pride, so I taught you a lesson. Speak true, and you'll be given your due once we return to my homeland."

The man shifted on his saddle, considering the offer. He swallowed when a new set of screams rose behind them. Hildan was working on another slave. "I understand. What do you want to know?"

"I heard an interesting name earlier," Hale said. "What can you tell me about the person named Jackson?"

The warrior's eyes sharpened into daggers. Shadows filled the creases on his face. "I can tell you all about him."

****


Rachel, Vuntha, and Chaki followed close behind Hanta as he ran along the warriors, urging them into another line. There was another scream, a series of shouts and then another rumbling growl joined the first. "What is that?" Hanta asked. He glanced back at Rachel.

She shrugged. "Don't look at me. This didn't happen when I was with them."

The warriors began to make another line. Hanta scanned their ranks, looking for something. He raised his hand to another man that passed in the opposite direction, a heavyset fighter with a big necklace of feathers and beads.

The screams and the growls kept growing. Everyone peered into the curtain of snow separating them from the iron men, trying to discern the origin of the cries from the shadows of men shifting into position. Rachel tried to ignore it, but it was like trying to ignore a VTOL engine at takeoff.

One last dying scream faded. The growls cut off. And then, there was just the wind, and the hush of snowflakes patting onto the ground.

The snow formed a fine layer of white on top of the mud. It almost rubbed away the corpses and black craters from the battle, like whiteout striking away the more gruesome passage of an old war story. But under the coating of frost were still irregular patches of scorched black and drying maroon residue. Rachel shivered.

"I think the silence is worse than the screams," Vuntha murmured.

"That's real encouraging, thanks," Rachel said, raising her head. "Why don't you talk about how many people died? That'd really pep everyone up."

Hanta shushed them. Rachel and Vuntha exchanged a glance, then shuffled their feet awkwardly. Chaki had an arrow nocked. They all looked into the distance. Still nothing. No horns, no sound.

"Chaki!" A breathy voice called out to them. "Shaka's apprentice, Chaki!"

Whatever Rachel had been expecting, it wasn't a fat, wrinkly old woman with brown strings and green-orange-blue-yellow beads flying from various parts of her dress. She looked like a moving, living turd, the sort that followed a particularly disagreeable Mexican dish.

"Drospa!" Chaki said. "Drospa, is that you? Is Jackson back?!"

The woman puffed her way to a halt beside them. "Yes, yes." She raised her palm when Chaki started in for details, begging for a little rest.

"Come on, fatty," Rachel said. "At least tell us if he's okay."

The woman brought herself to her full height, face red and frowning. Annoyingly, she was taller than Rachel. Everyone was always taller. "Excuse me?!"

She had enough breath to waste time being insulted. "Skip to the good part," Rachel said.

"You're the other one," Drospa said. "Shaka mentioned you." She eyed Rachel up and down. "Less mannered, clearly."

"I don't dick around in the bushes like that two-celled subhuman," Rachel said. "So is he okay or not?"

The apparent contradiction between Rachel's words and her concern baffled the fat woman. The fat is probably suffocating her brain.

"Rachel, this is a spirit guide, honored in our tribes," Chaki said. "I apologize, Drospa. You have to understand, they don't know our customs, our ways. I had to teach Jackson many things." She cleared her throat. "The teaching still continues. Frequently."

Rachel's mind buzzed with dozens of barbed comments, but considering everything that was going on, she decided to keep her mouth shut. Drospa threw Rachel one more disparaging look before speaking. "The rest of the spirit guides came with me; we're spreading out across the line. Shaka remains with Jackson near the mountain to heal him. He used some sort of power that exchanged his own life force for magic."

"Explains the lasers," Rachel said. "What a swell guy. Too bad all that essence fucked off somewhere. That was thousands, at least."

"I saw," Chaki said. She sighed. "Jackson feels very weak, but that explains it. I can rest easier knowing that Shaka is with him."

"Honored guide, ready yourself," Hanta said. "They're preparing some new kind of devilry. We'll need your aid."

"I am ready to give it," Drospa said. "Jackson brought great harm to his spirit to hold them off so we could reach you. It is time they learned what happens when a spirit guide blesses her warriors."

"I'm still worried about that screaming," Vuntha said. "It wasn't right."

A trumpet sounded somewhere in the snow. The thump of marching soldiers rumbled in the ground. Glowing runes appeared in front of Drospa. The arrow on Chaki's bow glowed white with the potential of an active ability waiting to be unleashed. Rachel raised her sword alongside Hanta's spears and set her feet.

"They're coming," Vuntha said.

"Man," Rachel said, "forget captain obvious. You've been promoted straight to admiral evident."

Vuntha cocked his head. "I don't understand."

"Don't worry," Rachel said. "The teaching continues. Frequently."

A new pattern of thumps rolled over them, almost like a gallop. It was faster than the marching. Growling followed, pouring over the oncoming troops like a pack of wolves. Shadows shifted in the snow.

Rachel gripped the hilt of her sword in both hands. Chaki pulled the arrow over her bow and held it, ready to fire. The warriors all leveled their spears down and out, making a bristling line of metal and wood. Rachel could feel Drospa start to draw runes.

Hulking masses of furred muscle emerged from the snow, barreling uphill out of the lines of the iron men. They pounded across the ground on all four legs. For an instant, Rachel thought they were gorillas – and then she saw the claws, the long snouts, the whiskers.

Rattok.

They dwarfed what Rachel had seen back in the caves, wild, more animalistic, if that was possible – freshly warped from human stock. They plowed through the snow, driving uphill toward the tribesmen like oncoming trucks.

Chaki's bow pulsed. Her arrow flashed out and struck at the one closest to their position. It took the beast in the arm. Its torso shifted from the force, but it didn't stop. Instead, it turned straight toward them.

"Hey, lady," Rachel said to Drospa. "Now would be a great time for some magic."

"Patience," Drospa muttered. Her fingers worked over a weave of symbols hovering over Hanta's back.

"We don't have any time!" Rachel said. "Chaki, cover me!"

Rachel rushed forward. Chaki duly started firing at the Rattok. She missed her first shot, but her second struck home, catching it in the chest. It didn't even seem to notice.

Rachel reached the monster just as another arrow buried itself next to the first. Rachel bent her legs and leapt as hard as she could, using her height to her advantage. She flew through the air at high speed, her sword held in front of her. The iron blazed white. The tip was aimed squarely at the wound on the creature's arm.

Its other arm came up and swatted her like a fly. She slammed into the frozen mud. Her sword fell a few feet away. Her throat worked as it tried to get air back into her lungs. An icon under her suddenly shrunken health bar told her she was stunned for the next five seconds.

The monster loomed over her. It raised a claw high.

A blazing blue figure slammed into the rattok. It stumbled backward, reeling. Smoke wafted from where its skin and fur was singed in a shoulder-shaped patch on its chest. "Get up!"

Rachel's status effect faded; she clambered to her feet. Hanta stood next to her. On his back was tattooed the enchantment Drospa had been creating. It shined blue, then faded into purple, then back to blue again. Rachel could feel the magical power going into it, extending back toward Drospa like the line from a kite.

"How many times do you have to charge in recklessly before you learn?" Hanta asked. "That's no way to fight." The rattok shook its body, then unleashed a huge roar at them. It began to pace in a circle around Hanta. "Get your sword," he said. "Wait for the right moment."

Rachel dashed for her weapon as the rattok closed the distance to Hanta. She snatched her blade up.

Roars and lights were exchanged all over the battlefield. She saw other men, glowing with other colors and symbols, reds, yellows, oranges, greens. They matched themselves up against the oncoming monsters, driving them into duels before they could smash into the line of the tribesmen. Archers stood ready to fire, but they couldn't target the rattok without the risk of hitting the fighters.

Rachel gaped when she saw Hanta. He flickered around the rattok like an indigo-scaled viper. His spear stung it in the legs, the arms. It turned about, slashing with its claws, but Hanta was always a step ahead. He seemed to start moving before the attacks began.

Hanta's feet slipped on the snow. The rattok's claws flashed toward him. Hanta raised his spear to defend, but it seemed like a twig held up to stop a sledgehammer. The rattok's claw struck the shaft of the weapon.

A rune flashed in front of Hanta, blossoming around the rattok's claw. Its hand sizzled; smoke and snapping sounds rose from the point of contact. The rattok shrieked and recoiled. Hanta pounced, stabbing it once, twice, three times.

The rattok regained its balance and swiped wildly, driving Hanta away. He didn't try to outpace the attack, but took his distance, letting it rage. Rachel noticed that part of his enchantment was gone – burned off by using it in defense.

Hanta began his dance again. He slipped under a claw and, choking up on his spear, dragged the steel tip along its waist, slicing deep. It roared again and pivoted, trying to catch him before he could escape.

Hanta closed his eyes. For a moment, Rachel thought he was going to take another claw in the face. Instead, a part of his enchantment flashed, then vanished. His feet blurred, and then he was several feet back, well out of range of the claw.

The rattok had its back to her. Rachel activated her new ability, Incisive, aiming again for the arm Chaki had hit before. Her blade sank into her target, and she sliced upward, cutting out through the top of its shoulder.

The arm she'd targeted fell slack. The rattok shrieked again, but this time, it was decidedly in pain, not in anger. It twisted around, swiping at Rachel, but she had the sense to make a quick escape. Hanta wasted no time in turning the creature's exposed flank into a pincushion for his spear. It's strong, but it's dumb.

The rattok ignored Hanta's attacks for a moment, concentrating on Rachel. She skipped backwards. Its attack speed was very fast – that claw swipe always came out of nowhere - but they moved about the same speed. It was easy to keep her distance.

Eventually, the rattok was fed up with chasing her. It turned back to strike at Hanta. Immediately, Rachel activated Flicker Sticker. Her blade flashed a half-dozen times, and the rattok's bleeding puncture marks multiplied.

The rattok shrieked again. It swiped at Hanta with its good arm, but its attack was sluggish. Hanta slipped around it, then jammed his spear up into its neck. The blade punctured through.

Blood spurted from the injury, but the huge beast refused to die. It grabbed the shaft of the weapon, pulling Hanta close – and then it tried to fall forward, catching him underneath it. Indigo light flashed again, and Hanta slipped out from the arm trying to bring him down with it.

When the creature hit the ground, they were both on it in a heartbeat. Rachel plunged her sword into its back; Hanta focused on his neck, his thrusts attempting to hack its head clear off. A few moments after their attack, it died.

Rachel gained 80 essence. She grinned through the mud and sweat that spotted her face. Not bad at all.

"Better," Hanta said.

"Oh shit!" Rachel said.

Hanta turned to where she was pointing. One of the warriors had been caught by two of the monsters. One of them held him in its grip. Red lights flashed and burned, but the creature growled and ignored the pain. Its partner leaned in and opened its jaws.

There was a sickening crunch as the man's head was bitten off. The enchantments flickered and failed. The corpse slumped over. The two rattok turned to face them. The one finished chewing on the skull and swallowed it down. Their snouts curled up around their jagged teeth as they started forward toward Rachel and Hanta.

The lines of the two armies rested while their champions fought to decide advantage for the next round. Both Rattok and enchanted warriors both were dead, their bodies scattered through the light snow.

Rachel glanced at Hanta. His enchantment was less than half the size it was when they started. "Can you get that thing recharged?" Rachel asked.

"Drospa used everything she had for this," Hanta said. "It's all I have."

"I don't know if we can take two," Rachel said.

"We have no choice," Hanta said. "Ready yourself."

Rachel and Hanta stood side to side. Friendly arrows flew at the two rattok as they came on. The tough hide of the monsters repelled most of them; those that struck home were superficial wounds. One of the rattok reached up to its arm, snapping away an arrow that was stuck there and tossing it aside.

"I'll take the one on the left," Hanta said. "You're light on your feet. Lead the other far away, see if you can tire it out. Try to circle back and attack mine from its blind spot."
"Got it."

Rachel and Hanta never got a chance to implement their plan, because as the rattok closed in, so did a bolt of lightning.

The spell exploded at Hanta's feet. Rachel was blown back by the explosion. Her health dropped dangerously low, now only 15 points. Aside from the dirt and soot, Hanta was unscathed, but his enchantment lost a sizable chunk. The bright indigo runes that covered his backside had dimmed to a small tattoo on one shoulder. Rachel searched for the mage, but he was hidden by the snow and the line of soldiers steadily making their way forward.

"Run!" Hanta shouted.

They turned tail and sprinted away. Rachel risked a glance back. A maw less like a rat and more like a lion bared its teeth at her and roared. She put her eyes forward and ran faster. Must run faster. Must run faster.

Their top speed was greater than hers; the thing behind her was catching up. She flicked her eyes to the side; Hanta was gone, either having changed direction or fallen behind. She could hear the thing breathing behind her, panting, slavering. Jaws snapped at her heels.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!"

Something brushed against Rachel's side – or maybe she just caught her foot on something. She tripped, spinning to the left, and hit the ground hard on her shoulder. She slid a few feet and came to a stop in a well of mud and ice.

She kept her eyes squeezed tight, ready for the inevitable 500-pound monster to squash her like a bug.

It never came.

She heard sound, a man's voice. Light flashed bright enough to makes its way through her shut eyelids. When she opened them, her jaw dropped. The corpse of the rattok was falling to the ground, several holes having been punched through its body.

Rachel wrenched herself out of the Rachel-sized imprint in the mud and stared at the source of the light. "It's about fucking time," she said, marching forward. "Do you know how many near-death experiences I've had in the past fucking hour? Like, five. At least! Hale's magician almost fucking killed me. Then he captured me again. Then one of his fucking soldiers tried to shove a dagger through my fucking tits!" Rachel pounded both fists against his chest. "Fuck!"

Jackson grunted slightly, but didn't budge. He just looked at her, staring with a cutely bewildered expression. His lips flopped ineffectually as he tried to put some words together.

Rachel decided to continue.

"And then those fucking things came back, worse than before, giant rattok three times my size, and I'm running away for the fifteenth time and think I'm gonna die. And to top it all off, my hair smells like horse shit and vomit! And then you." She poked her finger into Jackson's sternum, using the motion to underline her words. "Finally. Fuckin. Show. Up! The hell were you doing in there, jacking off?!" Rachel folded her arms. "I saw that fat fuck spirit guide, there was no way that was acceptable erotic material. I demand an explanation."

Jackson blinked at her. A white haze misted off his skin, lingering on him like incense from a scented candle. His clothes looked a bit more messed up than usual, if that was possible, all disheveled and ripped. He really couldn't pull off the whole Indian-tribe look to begin with, and putting it with his constantly messy hair and pale skin just made him look like a vampire hobo.

After a moment, he gave a heavy sigh. His lips curled in a half-smile. "I don't know why I was expecting a thank-you."

"I've got a fucking thank-you right here."

"What do y-"

Rachel grabbed his collar and dragged him down to her height, then shoved her lips against his.

****


Jackson's essence was gone. His health hit rock bottom. Shaka was unconscious next to him, having pushed herself too far trying to save him.

Jackson had thrown the dice with the cannon. They came up snake eyes, and he crapped out. He hoped the results of the weapon had given them a chance. He'd never know.

In that last moment, the bad things in his life surfaced in his head, all at once, like the scum left behind when the water drains from a dirty sink.

His relationship with his mother had whirlpooled into non-existence. His relationship with Charles Ransfeld was far worse, a putrid concoction of hatred and longing for vengeance twisted up with should-have-beens and dead memories.

He kept away from people because he couldn't stomach any more of it. He was afraid that the common denominator in his life was in fact himself. He used arrogance and disdain to cloak his insecurities. He couldn't communicate to save his life.

But he didn't have an easy time.

Was that enough of an excuse to be a crummy human being?

A lot of people had a hard time in life. A lot of people had it worse than him, probably. At least he usually had enough food to eat, when mom didn't drink her checking account too dry. He had water, a place to sleep, central heating. How could he complain?

Or was everything relative? Did he meet the arbitrary universal limit for being allowed to feel like shit, and act like shit, or was he throwing an endless pity party for himself?

He wasn't sure.

Dying without knowing sucked.

Jackson was getting impatient for the introspection to end. Why wasn't he dead yet?

He opened up his eyes just as an Isis alert blinked in front of him, obscuring his view of the snow. It was another status effect. How could this possibly get any wor...what the fuck?

Soul Replenishment
While in Essence Overflow, damage to the soul steadily repairs itself. Absorption by the wound increases the rate of essence loss, but negates the negative effects of the damage.
Time Remaining: 4:58


Jackson's eyes shot to his essence bar. It was at 600 points and skyrocketing.

He leapt to his feet. The snow was blowing in full force, blizzarding around him to the point he could barely see his hands. But he couldn't feel any wind. They were down at the bottom of the hill, in a gully between it and the mountain. They should be sheltered from the brunt of the storm.

It hit him like a slap. Essence. This is the essence from my cannon shot!

His body was at the core of a tornado of light as the essence rushed into his skin. His blue bar surged, increasing far faster than it could leak back out of him. His essence hit the 1000 mark and kept climbing. He clenched his fists as he watched it, every part of his body tensing. Holy shit. Holy shit!

Noticing Shaka on the ground, Jackson went to a knee and checked her pulse. He wasn't a doctor, but her heartbeat seemed okay. He put an ear to her mouth and listened. Her breaths rattled, uneven.

Well, he had plenty of magic to spare. He drew the runes for a basic healing spell and pushed essence into her. Color rushed back into her features; the cold fog from her exhalations steadied into a regular pattern.

As Jackson killed the spell, the rush of essence came to a halt. He had about 1300, but it was dropping incredibly fast, at least 10 or 20 essence a second. He had to get to the battle. If he could keep collecting essence, keep himself in an overflowing state, he could keep himself alive and get his body back to normal.

Jackson glanced at Shaka. He didn't want to just leave her out in the elements. The cavern leading back into the mountain shrine caught his attention.

He lifted her up in his arms. She was surprisingly light. He jogged to the cavern, and after searching inside for a good distance, he found an out-of-the-way crevice and set her down. It wasn't perfect, but better than being in the snow.

Jackson ran back to the entrance. After a brief search, he found his energy cannon. Smoke rose from one end; the metal there was melted and twisted, as if it had shot a ball of lava too big to handle. A long crack ran down the middle. Jackson jammed it into his belt and ran up the hill.

It seemed like his cannon fire had done the trick – the warriors were holding their position, though scattered and disorganized from the last attack. The iron men were nowhere to be seen. He kept running.

By the time Jackson reached the first tents of the encampment, his essence had fallen to 800. If his predictions were right about the scoring system of his Attributes, his essence capacity was 335. The rate it bled away dropped as it got closer to his max capacity, but it was still dumping fast. He wasn't going to make it back to the battle before it dropped lower.

He flicked open his list of abilities, scanning through, looking for something he could use to speed himself up. His Lunge attack was the only thing that could propel him forward, but bounding around like the world's worst kangaroo for 10 essence a hop would just get him killed faster. If he dropped below 335, the effects of Soul Damage would kick back in and he'd collapse.

Should he spend essence on Agility? Rachel had definitely been fast, but he didn't know how many points she'd put into Agility to get that fast. If he spent too much and didn't get enough benefit, he'd be working against himself.

Frustrated by the lack of options, Jackson gestured sharply, dismissing the window. If he got close enough, maybe they'd see him – maybe Chaki would feel him. If they found him in time, the spirit guides might be able to heal him if they worked together. There were way too many maybes and ifs in that plan, but he didn't have a choice. He put his head down and pumped his legs, weaving his way between the tents.

The snow actually did get thicker, and it was picking up even more ahead, swirling around in force. He thought he heard something in the distance – shouting, or wailing. The storm muffled the noise. Maybe the battle was starting again.

A squall of snow came down out of the sky. Jackson could almost see lines marking where bands of ice were blowing hardest. He raised an arm, shielding his eyes against the oncoming gale.

The gale had no wind, and it wasn't any colder than it had been. Jackson opened his eyes.

His essence bar was filling, pushing higher and faster than it had before. He was so surprised he almost came to a stop. He remembered that he had a place to be, and he kept running. How is this happening? I already got essence from...

Cannon shot number one. This is from number two!


His essence totals swept up past 1300, easily trumping his previous record. He tried to think back. He'd been somewhat damaged when he fired the first shot, but he was fully healed by the spirit guides for his final salvo. Since he used life force to fuel the cannon, that meant the second shot was more powerful than the first.

The essence reward fulfilled his expectations. It soared up past 1600, and then 1700 in the time he blinked. A blue panel flashed in front of his face with the alert tone, almost causing him to trip on a tent stake. He caught himself and focused on the text.

Spirit Surge
Your soul has been exposed to spiritual power vastly exceeding its capacity, and its capabilities have been permanently altered.

- While in Essence Overflow, essence is lost at 75% the usual rate
- While in Essence Overflow, all Attributes except Spirit are increased by 10%
- While in Essence Overflow, Resolve is tripled
- While in Essence Overflow, passive health regeneration is tripled
- While in Essence Overflow, abilities that require essence have their damage increased by 25%

- Level: 7
- Progress: 78.9%


Even as Jackson watched, the Progress portion of the ability flickered upward to 100, then back to 0. He went to level 8, and then to 9. His overflow was so high that the new ability was leveling up like crazy. It didn't get any stronger, so he figured he had to reach the next tier for that.

His essence kept going up, up, and up higher still. His essence crossed over 2000 points.

A dark thought flitted across his mind. I must have killed at least a hundred people. Maybe more. And I'm running straight to kill some more.

Jackson found that the idea didn't bother him. He'd clawed his way out of a rattok pit, naked. He'd murdered some of them in their sleep in order to escape alive. He'd traveled through Dis, the City of Demons. He'd faced down the hunter, a freakish gargoyle thing that could cancel out his abilities.

This army was putting the few things he gave a damn about in danger. He was going to dismantle it in the most effective way possible, and that was that. If they wanted to run, they could run.

The increase in his essence was starting to slow down. Meanwhile, his health had recovered back up into the thirties. That was still low, but at least he wouldn't die if he was scratched the wrong way.

As Jackson climbed another hill in the sea of tents, he rapidly reviewed what he knew about Spirit. His essence was so far above what he could hold it was coming off in chunks, wasted. He needed to upgrade his Spirit. There was a sweet spot between having enough capacity to hold his essence longer while not having so much that he went out of overflow too soon.

He'd started off able to hold 100 essence. Going by the results of earlier investments, additional Spirit increased that capacity by 2.5 points apiece. He also knew that the initial soft cap for Attributes was 40 points – a conclusion Rachel agreed with. After the first 40 points in Spirit, he wouldn't get 2.5 points of essence capacity; he'd get some smaller value.

40 points of Spirit would give him an even 200 essence. Right now, he had 100 Spirit. His current capacity was 335. That meant that his last 60 points of Spirit had given him another 135 essence capacity. Quick math told him that was exactly 2.25 essence per Spirit.

Jackson jumped over a campfire. His moccasins caught the wooden stand holding up a pot, toppling it over. A hiss rose behind him as uneaten stew splashed over the embers. They'd abandoned the camp quickly.

His essence peaked at 2355, and then it started to drop. He glanced at his status bar. His Soul Replenishment had less than one minute left.

A weight that had clamped itself down on his stomach released. He felt lighter than a feather. He was going to be okay.

Jackson could feel power pulsing ahead of him, over the last hill where the army stood. Lights flashed. Runes glowed, colorful against the grey sky. The fighting was starting again. He kept running.

He had more than enough essence to get his soul back to normal, which meant that he needed to spend some to stop the waste. He dragged his thoughts back to his calculations. If he was programming it, what would he do? Nice round numbers. 2.5 for the first 40 Spirit followed that idea – it gave someone an even 200. However, now he'd gotten 2.25 for the next 60 Spirit. It didn't work in groups of 40. Was each step 20 points longer than the last? If it was him, he'd either keep it 40, or change it to steps of 100.

Jackson shook his head. This was getting too messy. He could either go with his hardware modder's gut instinct, or go with what followed mathematically. He decided to pick a spot in between. That would moderate the consequences if he was wrong.

Jackson opened up his Attributes and allotted 300 points straight to Spirit, then 500 into Strength. The Spirit should put him somewhere in the sweet spot he wanted to be. The Strength was for the army he had to fight.

Jackson's essence loss immediately slowed to a fraction of what it had been – currently at about 1300 and dropping slowly. His capacity was somewhere between 800 and 1200. From earlier, his essence started ticking down quite slowly when it was really close to his limit, so the speed told him he'd got it in the 800-1000 range. Perfect.

He passed a few girls that were near the bottom of the last hill, tending to the wounded. They injured were laid out in lines, exposed to the snow and the cold. They called at him as he ran by, but he didn't stop.

Jackson's feet hit the slope. It wasn't just his mood that had improved – his whole body seemed light. Moving was easy. His spear felt like a toothpick in his hand. His feet propelled him upward with just a touch of effort. Sprinting uphill felt like a nice walk.

He crested the hill, then stopped.

It was a total warzone. The grass was chewed up into mud and layered over with snow. Bright patches of red showed between the white. Bodies were everywhere. Warriors with glowing tattoos dueled massive, hulking rattok, monsters that made the beasts he'd seen back in the caverns look like toy soldiers. In the distance, marching forward through the storm, was the oncoming army of the iron men.

Jackson put his focus on his bond, trying to locate Chaki, but events unfolding in front of him dragged on his attention. Rachel and Hanta were sprinting away from two rattok. Rachel was outpacing hers for the moment, but Hanta's enchantment looked and felt weak, and his pursuer was right on top of him.

Rachel?

Jackson's brain spluttered for a few long seconds.

Rachel!

He didn't know what the situation was, but they needed help. Jackson started running again. A wall of tribesmen, formed into a line, stood between him and his destination. Trusting in the new feeling in his legs, Jackson bent into a crouch, and leaped.

He flew up into the air. His foot skimmed a head, sending one man reeling, his nocked arrow thumping into the ground. Jackson landed hard on the other side, rolling down the slope and straight into the rattok he was aiming for.

The brute was huge, but Jackson was moving fast. It was thrown down by the force; Jackson, in turn, had his momentum halted. He stood straight, surprised by how he was suddenly upright and not falling all over himself.

The rattok was an arm's length away, climbing to its feet and shaking off the blow. Jackson wasn't taking any chances. He gripped his spear and spent the 20 essence for Cyclone Thrust, aiming straight at the thing's head.

White light spun around the shaft and concentrated at the tip as Jackson thrust forward. His attack exploded through the rattok's head, pulverizing its skull in a shower of red flesh. The body thumped into the snow. Jackson's essence bar ticked up a few dozen points, then started down again.

Jackson ran past Hanta and his stunned expression. "Talk later!"

He drove his feet into the ground as hard as he could. His legs crushed the mud underneath him, and he began to build speed, catching up to Rachel and the rattok.

It was going to be close. Jackson hoped she had some health left.

He pushed off in one long step, brought his legs together, and activated Lunge. His feet glowed brightly, and he exploded forward

Jackson's speed carried him through the air, and he seemed to drift unnaturally far, as if the gravity had been turned down a notch. The essence gave him the extra few inches he needed to catch the rattok's exposed back.

He drove his spear into the creature's shoulder. The beast roared and fell, clawing out for Rachel as they went to the ground. It snagged Rachel's shoe, but she fell clear, sliding to a halt.

The beast reared up, throwing Jackson off before he could dig his spear in further. Jackson stumbled back as it turned to face him. He glanced at his health bar. He could take it.

The beast roared at him. Jackson charged forward, roaring his own challenge back. The monster's claw flashed for his gut. Jackson activated Triple Thrust.

Apparently the rattok traded size for smarts, because Jackson's spear was far longer than its arm. His weapon tore holes straight through the monster as if a three-hole punch had caught the thing and smashed down into it.

Jackson was stunned when it dropped to the ground, halted by the power of his attack. He'd expected the monster's momentum to carry it into him, even if it was dead. That was why he'd checked his health. But his newly-improved Strength stopped it cold.
Not only that, but his active abilities were doing a ton more damage. He'd expected to wound it - badly, even - but not drill holes through all that fur and muscle and bone. He'd just turned two hulking beasts into target practice.

Without bonuses, Jackson's strength was at 600. He had a bonus 10% Strength from his title as Tatanka Ska and another 10% from Spirit Surge. His new ability also increased the damage from essence-based attacks by another 25%.

He'd gone from having 110 Strength to having an effective 870 Strength when he used an ability. Jackson's eyes widened as he realized the implications of what he'd just done. He'd virtually octupled his raw attack power.

He'd been conservative this entire time, saving his essence for emergencies. His abilities had saved his life early on, so he'd prioritized being able to use them because he couldn't predict what would happen next, and he didn't know how his Attributes would affect him. Now that he had essence to spend, the value of Attribute investment was finally able to demonstrate itself.

"It's about fucking time!"

Rachel came at him. She looked like a petite blonde banshee that a devil had chewed up and spit back out. Her leather armor was stained and torn up; clumps of something were stuck in her hair. She can't be in a good mood.

Rachel began to shout at him, listing off complaints and flamboyantly baseless accusations, running the gambit from her mental state to Jackson's sexual fetishes. She pounded on his chest, and then, when he didn't respond quickly enough, she continued, jabbing at him with a finger to punctuate her swearing.

When she finally seemed to wear herself out for a few seconds, Jackson couldn't help but smile. It was so very her. Inside of all the crazy shit that had happened, it was a relief to find something that was constant, even if it was constantly chaotic.

"I don't know why I was expecting a thank-you," he said.

"I've got a fucking thank-you right here."

"What do y-"

Jackson's words were cut off when Rachel yanked him forward and kissed him. It was a messy, sudden kiss, lips smashed together without any prelude. He flailed his arms, trying to keep his balance. A firm hand on the back of his head kept him from escaping.

She shoved him away and wiped her lips with the back of her arm. "So," she said, "fuck you very much!"

Jackson stared at her. The feeling of the kiss still sat on his mouth, part throbbing pain, part tingling uncertainty.

"What?" she asked. "No questions? No how-the-fuck-did-you-get-here? Oh, I see." Rachel smirked. "You're puny mind has ripped asunder by the sexy glory that is me."

Jackson tried to say something. Some spluttery sounds came out of his mouth.

"We've got a lot of shit to kill," Rachel said. "See if you can keep up!" She darted away.

Jackson waffled for a moment, but she definitely had a point. He didn't want to hang around in the middle of a battlefield.

He followed her in his own fashion – long, bounding steps, using his strength to keep up with her speed. She ducked around a dead body at sharp angles; he hopped over it. That told him all he needed to know about the difference between their Attributes when it came to running. She could change directions. He was more like a freight train.

The next rattok they encountered had battered a warrior back to the line. Rachel reached it first; her sword went low, hamstringing it. It cried out as its bad leg crumpled. The warrior it was fighting seized the opportunity, stabbing it in the abdomen. Jackson's Power Thrust smashed it through its heart from the back.

Jackson's essence ticked up. He checked up and down the line, but it seems the fight was over. Their arrival tipped the slight advantage the rattok earned back the other way.

Rachel wiped her sword on the rattok's fur. "What the hell," she said. "I did half the work. Where's my essence?"

"Maybe we have to be in a party?"

"We didn't share essence then either," Rachel said.

"I'll have to look at the settings," Jackson said. "There's got to be an option to change the distribution somewhere."

"That, or it's more ammo to use against Emil Mohammed," Rachel said. "When I get my hands on that fucker he's gonna squeal like a little piggy. A piggy that isn't adorable and should die."

Jackson was both slightly disturbed and slightly satisfied with Rachel's choice of words. He wasn't feeling overly kind toward the man since he found out his soul was locked in a demonic pact. "I'll help you hold him down."

The warrior who they just saved was glancing between them, trying and failing to follow their conversation. "Tatanka Ska? My spirit guide told us you were the one that sent the light."

Jackson realized dozens of eyes were on him. Calls and shouts filled the air. The entire line was half-bent around him, watching the white mist seep out of his skin.

"Tatanka Ska has returned!"
"Shakhan's strength is with him!"
"What's that light?"
"There aren't any runes, but he holds a blessing."
"Tatanka Ska!"

Jackson didn't know what to say. He glanced at all the faces, trying to blink some words into his mouth. Nothing came to mind.

"Dumbass," Rachel said. She grabbed his spear arm and lifted it up. The warriors cheered when they saw his raised weapon.

"Tatanka Ska brings us victory!"
"Defeat the iron men!"
"Glory to Shakhan!"

"See," Rachel said. "It's not hard."

"Thanks," Jackson said.

"Hey, I can be your PR gal," Rachel said. "I'll be your people."

"My people?"

"You know," Rachel said. She put her free hand on her hip and waved the tip of her sword in circles. "You have other people call your people, that is, moi." She flipped her hand toward herself. "But our relationship will be strictly professional, so don't start imagining any kinky office shit just because I'm your subordinate. That would be extremely irresponsible and I've definitely never fantasized about that. My hair is really fucking messy right now and I'm really trying hard not to think about it." Rachel chained into more topics without stopping. "The iron men are getting closer, by the way – I assume that means Hale's soldiers? The Indians keep calling them that. Oh right, I couldn't tell you about him before, the whole fucking collar situation. It's gone now. By the way, what's the deal between you and Chaki?" Rachel fluttered her eyelashes. "I thought I was your one true love."

Jackson was struggling to select a single topic for a response. He recognized that name – Hale. Lucifer had made that man part of Jackson's quest.

Gold and fire filled Jackson's head. He turned just in time to see Chaki throwing herself at him. She wrapped her arms and legs around him and planted kisses across his neck and face. "Jackson! Are you alright?! Are you unhurt?!"

Warriors hooted and hollered at the public display. Jackson gave Chaki a quick kiss on the cheek and pried her off him, setting her on the ground. She kept a grip on his shoulder, unwilling to completely break physical contact, her face a bright grin. Jackson smiled at her.

"Well," Rachel said. Her voice was like ice pressed to the back of Jackson's neck. "I guess I've already met your fiancé."

Chaki released Jackson's and inspected Rachel up-and-down. "Are you alright? Do you need any healing? I managed to gather some essence while our men held off the rattok."

Rachel brushed her probing hands away and stepped back. "Don't mind me, just fading into the background."

Chaki frowned at her tone. "What's wrong?"

For once, Rachel had no words; she folded her arms and looked away. Jackson wasn't sure what he could say that wouldn't make the situation go from bad to worse.

Chaki looked about to ask more when they were interrupted by the arrival of Hanta and Vuntha. Jackson and Vuntha shared a quick hug and a manly pat on the back. Hanta clasped Jackson's wrist.

"Nice weapon," Jackson said, looking at the black halberd Vuntha was carrying.

Vuntha grinned. "Thanks. Picked it up from someone I met. He didn't need it anymore."

"I've never been so glad to see you," Hanta said.

"Is Yukatan around?" Jackson said. "If he's in charge, I want to know what he thinks we should do."

The mood changed in an instant. Hanta's face set itself, then clapped Jackson's shoulder. "He's dead. I'm helping to lead until this is over."

Jackson wasn't much fazed. He didn't have a grudge against Yukatan, but he didn't like the guy, either. He gave Hanta a nod. "Okay."

"Where's Shaka?"

"She almost killed herself healing me, but she's doing okay."

"Healing you?" Chaki whipped back around. "From what? What happened?"

Jackson tried to think of something quick he could tell her. He couldn't lie. She could always tell when he tried to duck around the topic. His brain failed to supply him with an explanation.

"The family reunion is really nice and all," Rachel said, "but we've got incoming!"

The line of iron men had emerged out of the snowstorm and was marching uphill toward their position. Black-armored halberdiers with nasty-looking weapons were mixed in with normal soldiers. Jackson sighed slightly, almost grateful for the quick ending to what could have been an ugly conversation. "Can we hit them with a spell or something?" he asked Hanta.

Hanta cocked his head, indicating his shoulder, on which a small blue-purple rune still pulsed. Jackson read it; it was a complex enchantment that would let Hanta activate it at will. It would give him a brief burst of speed. "This is all that's left of the enchantment placed on me," he said. "They used those monsters to draw out our magic. On that front, we don't have the advantage."

Jackson nodded. "Then why are we waiting? We have the height advantage. We should charge them."

"Those halberds are nuts," Rachel said. "They can cut people apart like they're lightsabers or something. And they're longer than our spears. Those guys even gave me trouble."

"Jackson," Hanta said, "what can you do for us?"

Jackson plopped his spear down and put a hand on his chin. His essence was now at 1100 and bleeding down slowly. He would hit his capacity soon unless he kept taking essence – unless he killed something. A lot of somethings.

He glanced at his health. He'd recovered to 150 – not bad considering he'd been fighting the whole time. That Spirit Surge ability was the best thing he'd unlocked by far.

"You think they might still have magic?"

"They should have run out of essence a long time ago," Chaki said, "but they keep casting spells, far beyond what a man should be able to do. They must have prepared huge stores for this battle. Right now we're assuming they have enough to last the duration."

"I felt lightning magic. Bolts and stuff?"

"Yeah," Rachel said. "The black box."

Jackson glanced at her. "Which you gave them?"

"It wasn't like that," Rachel said. "I was forced to."

"Explanations later," Hanta said. "Rachel is on our side."

"I know," Jackson said. "Just confused for a minute there." He looked back over the field. "Alright, here's the plan." Everyone leaned in. "I'm gonna go out there alone and make a distraction. Everyone else stay here and do whatever you can at range."

"Alone?" Vuntha asked. "That's insane, Jackson, even for you. You can't just expect us to sit here and do nothing."

"Jackson, I'm not letting you go out there by yourself," Chaki said.

Hanta put a hand on Vuntha's shoulder and raised a hand for calm. "Jackson. We have thousands here, gathered for common cause. We should work together."

"You just said they'll get killed by the halberds," Jackson said.

"And you won't?" Vuntha asked.

"You people shut up," Rachel said. "You don't know what you're talking about." She stepped up to Jackson. "You have the abilities to take them on?"

Jackson nodded. "Yeah."

"What's my role?"

"I want you to wait for their magic," Jackson said. "I'm the bait. I'll do my best to clear a path. You use your speed to take them out."

"You're going to be bait?" Chaki said. "I'm liking this less and less."

"He can handle it," Rachel said.

"He'll get himself killed," Chaki said. She looked at Jackson. "I'm sick and tired of you running off and getting into situations where I can't –"

"Hey, girl scout!" Rachel said. Chaki stopped. Everyone looked at her. "Jackson's not stupid. If he said he can do it, he can do it. You've got the mark. You're playing the game. Get with the fucking program." Rachel looked at him. "I've got your back. You sure you can take them?"

Jackson nodded. "Yep. Spin to win."

"Awesome. Don't forget to add me to your party. The rest of you dummies back off and let him do his thing."

"Jackson," Chaki said.

"Chaki," Jackson said. He glanced up at his essence. 1047, now. The iron men were no more than a hundred feet away, shields held up against oncoming arrows. "No more time. Trust me."

Chaki clenched her fists. Her lips thinned up. She opened her mouth to say something, stopped herself, then unslung her bow. "I'll cover you from here. Go."

"Alright," he said. Jackson looked at Rachel and gave her a grateful nod. She nodded back.

"Jackson," Vuntha said. He lifted his halberd. "You want this axe? It could help."

"Keep it," Jackson said. "I'll find someone who can lend me one."

Vuntha chuckled. "Don't worry, they're very generous."

Jackson gripped his spear, took a breath, and walked out from the line.

The segment of no-man's-land between the two armies was not a good place to be. This was emphasized by growing drifts of snow, muddy craters, and corpses. Jackson moved alone between the lines, slowly walking forward. An arrow was launched at him from the back of the iron men's army, but it thunked into the snow a few feet away.

Jackson brought up the command for forming parties and invited Rachel. A sharp ting announced her joining up with him. She was added to the minimap in the corner of his vision, a green arrow next to the arrow that marked Chaki.

Rather than hunt through the menus, Jackson tried to mentally ask the system for party settings. The relevant screen popped up in front of him. He scrolled through it as he walked. He found several options for essence distribution; it was set on Killer Takes All by default. Jackson changed it to Split.

As party leader, he could change the split to anything he wanted, from 50/50 to 99/1. For a moment, he thought about doing something like 75/25, considering he was going to be the one doing all the work this time around, but he settled on 50/50. No need to be greedy. Apparently something was going on, but when she had a choice, Rachel picked his side. That was worth a lot of points, as far as he was concerned.

Maybe there was a way he could change the settings between himself and Chaki. She didn't collect essence per se, but rather, her level seemed to increase after a certain number of kills. He'd have to ask her about that later.

Jackson closed the screens and got his spear ready. The soldiers in front of him had lowered their weapons; they eyed him warily. He imagined he must look weird - a solitary figure out on the slope, skin glowing, white smoke coming off his body.

His essence was at 1010, and ticking away bit by bit. He was close to his actual capacity. The first attack would have to count. Staying in overflow was vital, especially because it was increasing his health regeneration.

Jackson stopped. The army kept coming, a solid wall of steel shields and spears, with black halberds lined across it at even intervals. It bore down on him in a heavy, regular rhythm, thirty feet away, then twenty, then ten.

Troops near Jackson hunkered down. Crossbowmen, having moved up while hidden their midst, had their bolts pointed straight at him.

Jackson had expected magic, so it was a pleasantly nice surprise.

He let out a War Cry.

A cone of essence formed at his mouth. His shout was amplified into a hundred-lion roar, blasting directly into the troops. They shuddered to a halt, bumping one another, wincing and flinching away from the sound. The crossbowmen loosed – they all missed. One of them hit their own man in the back. Their wall of spears faltered.

Jackson's essence dropped down to 980. His white haze faded. He felt the loss as Spirit Surge flickered away. Shit.

Too late to change plans. Jackson ran forward and cocked his spear over his shoulder. He activated his sole combination attack, Double Power Spin.

His essence dropped to 910. He felt the power collect in his arms, a spring waiting to fly open. He turned sideways to slip between two outstretched spears, then let fly.

His spear blasted through the men, a white-hot bar edged with energy. He cut through armor and bodies alike, spinning around once, and then again. Jackson didn't stop, activating his ability again in succession. He whirled around like a mad farmer hacking down wheat with a long straight scythe.

He came to a halt with a slight stumble, bringing his spear back to his chest. His vision spun slightly, then settled. He glanced around; his skin was glowing again, his essence over 1000. His plan was a wild success.

He thought he might be sick.

He stood in a circle of blood. The stuff was splattered over the snow in 360 degrees. Limbs and pieces of things that should be inside instead of out were laying everywhere, all pointed away from the epicenter of his ability.

The unluckiest weren't dead – the ones struck near the beginning or end of his attack, when the power was weakest. The shaft of his weapon had crushed them like tin cans.

Jackson forced down the nausea and stepped over the bodies. He turned his walk into a jog, and unleashed another War Cry. The soldiers cowered before him; some dropped their weapons. Others turned and tried to run, but they were trapped by the troops behind them.

Jackson swept through them with another Double Power Spin. For a moment after he used the ability, he left overflow. The kills he racked up brought him surging back over his capacity once more.

He activated the ability again, and this time, he stayed in Spirit Surge for the duration of the move. He could feel the difference. The black armor that had once numbed his hands now crumpled and ripped like all the rest. The extra power of his ability couldn't be stopped.

When Jackson's second spin came to a halt, a black-armored halberdier was waiting. He gutted Jackson through the abdomen and held his weapon there, twisting it to the side. Jackson felt an odd numbness in his feet; his health dropped by 45 points and slid further. He grunted against the sensation and used a Power Thrust, walking up the man's blade and striking him in the chest.

The man's armor opened as if a bomb had gone off inside of it. He was thrown off his feet and into another group of soldiers with a gaping hole in his body. Jackson dropped his spear and wrenched the halberd out of his body. He had a moment of peace while the men nearby circled him, trying to coordinate an attack.

"Analyze."

Black-Steel Soul-Fused Halberd
A high-carbon steel Halberd created by combining expert blacksmithing and magical enchantment using the power of a human soul.
- Rune Slots: 0
- Durability: Very High


Notice: You have equipped a halberd for the first time. Some experience will carry over from Spears and Spear Expertise. Stances pertaining to each weapon may still only be used with that weapon.

Immediately, the halberd felt different in his hands; he realized he was holding it wrong. Jackson adjusted his grip, setting one palm along the shaft facing up, the other down. He bent his knees slightly.

As Jackson's attention focused on his weapon, he could sense something else – something inside of it. It was at the edge of the axe, stuck along the blade. A voice shrieked at him.
Let me out it hurts it hurts please let me out LET ME OUT LET ME OUT IT HURTS LET ME OUT

Jackson's neck was almost pierced by an incoming spear. He ducked away from a thrust. Another attack from his blind spot sliced his ankle. A second later, attacks were coming from all sides. He pushed himself into a Double Power Spin.

Where before there was resistance, now there was none. When he ended his spin, Jackson almost thought he hadn't hit anyone. Men were standing around him, staring at him, weapons still clenched in their hands.

Their bodies began to fall apart. The top halves of them slid off their waists, spilling blood and viscera into the mud. Another man at the edge of Jackson's attack range was screaming, clutching a hand that had no fingers. Another was missing his arms entirely.

Jackson gripped his halberd and stepped forward. He didn't need to use essence with this thing. It had an axe on the end. Unlike a spear, it was designed for sweep attacks.

Jackson let out a War Cry, stunning the men in front of him. His Strength let him wield the seven-foot steel pole like it was made of Styrofoam. He sliced through a half dozen men in an instant. More essence flooded him.

He continued forward like that, sweeping his weapon from side to side, letting out a War Cry now and again to keep them freaked out and off-balance. He noticed that it had less effect after the first few times, but the sheer volume of it strained the ears of whoever was close.

Jackson's kill count ticked upward at a scary pace. He hacked his way through the line so fast that at times he was jogging, stepping over fresh bodies as he swung.

The more he killed, the less it bothered him. It was almost like he really was in a video game. Here he was, swinging a huge polearm around like a baseball bat, mowing down dozens of foes. It let him mentally distance himself from the death, and from the voice that lingered in the axe.

It was still screaming, but it remained a faint echo unless he paid attention to it. If he did, it shouted in his ears. But even then, it mixed with the screams and shouts of the men around him.

Four black-armored halberdiers arranged themselves against him. Jackson hesitated for a moment, then rushed them before they could execute whatever they had coordinated. He used his combination spin again, just in case.

Purple lightning flickered at Jackson's left. Caught in the middle of his ability, he wasn't able to change direction or stop himself. The bolt of energy struck him straight on, taking his health down to only 67 points.

The essence forced Jackson to follow through on his attack. The blade of his halberd smashed through two of the elites, but two of them ducked away in time.

Jackson backpedaled before he was stabbed. He scanned the line of soldiers around him, looking for the mage, but he was hidden somewhere in the ranks. They noticed my weak point and used it against me. This isn't a fucking game.

Jackson was surrounded, but they weren't attacking. Maybe their mage was preparing himself. Jackson checked his essence – he'd built back up to 1300. He hoisted his halberd with one hand, ready to swing if need be, then drew runes to heal himself. When the spell was ready, he pushed his essence into it.

His health bar jumped to 107, then began to fill up rapidly. The soldiers around him tensed, thinking it was a magical attack. They can't see my health bar. They don't think I've been injured, so why would I heal myself? Jackson lowered his head and made the fiercest expression he could, pretending he was sizing up his targets. No one dared get closer. Suckers.

A few seconds passed in relative peace. Jackson cut the healing spell before his essence dropped below 1100, with his health at 204. Immediately, he turned and swung at one of the elites. Caught unprepared, the soldier was bisected.

Jackson brought his halberd up, then dropped it in a Crescent Sweep, aiming for the remaining enemy. The man stepped back comfortably out of range, holding his halberd defensively across his chest. A moment later, his right arm fell to the ground, neatly dissected at the shoulder.

Crescent Sweep was always unpredictable. It extended the reach of Jackson's weapon beyond what it seemed, and this weapon was completely deadly. Jackson thrust forward, impaling the handless soldier, then ended the fight by drawing back out while twisting the blade.

LET ME OUT HURTS IT HURTS HURTS I HATE YOU I HATE YOU LET ME OUT I HATE YOU

Jackson winced and grabbed at his head. The voice gained in volume, battering at his mind, reaching at him from the halberd with angry half-rotted fingers. He saw his mother screaming at him, her hand reaching to hit him.

Another lightning bolt exploded at Jackson's feet. He was thrown into the air. The halberd fell from his hands. Jackson spun helplessly in midair, then hit the ground on his stomach.

He was up again in a flash. Extra Strength helped out. The voice was gone, and the migraine it had induced was gone with it.

Jackson glanced into the bunched soldiers. He had a vague idea of where the spell came from. He eyed the halberd at his feet. He was done with that thing, but he still needed a new weapon. He didn't have any skills with his bare hands.

Deciding one more brief stint wouldn't kill him, Jackson snatched up the halberd, then used his Spear Toss, hoping it would translate into another pole weapon. The essence obeyed his command, wrapping around his hand and guiding his throw. He heard one last faint echo as the halberd left his hands.

Please help me please

The weapon rocketed into the crowd of troops. It skewered three men and gashed a fourth. Jackson ran after it, grabbing a spear from the hands of the first man. Back to basics.

Lightning flickered. Jackson felt the spell coming and leapt into the air, boosting himself away with his Strength. The spell vaporized one of the corpses he'd just made, throwing ash and snow into the air. That was a panicked attack. I'm getting warmer.

Jackson doubled-back toward the bunched soldiers hiding the mage, unleashing a War Cry. They stubbornly held together and kept their grip on their weapons. They were more afraid of the mage than they were of him. That was saying something.

A yellow flash made Jackson tense up. It drove a hole into the crowd, flickering and darting. A severed head went flying. Jackson checked his minimap. Rachel's indicator blinked at the center of a field of red dots.

"We're good!" Rachel shouted, her voice somewhere inside the masses.

Jackson shot another War Cry to help her escape, then tore into the soldiers in front of him with a Triple Thrust. He chained a second, then a third, taking advantage of the fact that they were confused by Rachel's arrival and packed too tightly.

He watched the look on their faces turn from fear at his aggressiveness into expectation that their mage would save them again. And then that dissolved into a hard and wild panic when no lightning was forthcoming. Jackson's final triple thrust was met with a brown alert screen from Isis.

Multithrust:
Thrust your weapon multiple times in quick succession, leaving afterimages that confuse and disorient the target.

- Essence Cost: 35
- Level: 1
- Progress: 25.6%


Rachel burst free in a spray of blood and light and flashing swords. Jackson held up on testing out his new combination attack as she came to a stop next to him. The soldiers behind her broke and ran, totally cowed without their magical support.

She raised her hand, palm out, a smile on her face, the mud and mess forgotten. "Dude, I'm fucking rolling in the essence right now!"

Jackson gave her a high-five. "Nice job. See any other mages?"

"As a matter of fact, I was doing a headcount with the Indians."

"People-Under-The-Mountain," Jackson corrected.

"Yeah, like I'm gonna say all that," Rachel said. "The Indians and me count four mages dead so far before now. This one makes five. That's all Hale has – except for him."

Jackson stepped on the chest of the man he'd stabbed last and pulled his spear free. "Then I feel good about this." Jackson stepped away from her, facing the line of warriors at the top of the hill. He activated War Cry. "WARRIORS OF SHAKHAN! CHARGE! TO ME!"

A rallying shout went down the line in response to Jackson's echoing voice. The warriors surged forward. Their momentum and their height combined to smash into the lines of the iron men.

The soldiers were broken and crushed where Jackson and Rachel had attacked; the tribesmen filled the gap, and in a few moments, their army had been split in two and flanked. Fighting on multiple fronts cut down the advantage of their shields.

"How was that?" Jackson asked.

"Not bad," Rachel said. "For a noob."

"Who're you calling noob?"

"Just remember you'd be nothing without me," Rachel said. She frowned. "We still need Hale. That bastard's around here somewhere. I'm going to gouge his fucking eyes out."

"What's with you and this Hale guy?" Jackson asked. "Is he the leader of this army?"

"Yeah," Rachel said. "I arrived in Isis in his keep. He threw this magic collar on me, basically enslaved me."

"Shit," Jackson said. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"He gave me an order that I couldn't tell anyone," Rachel said. "If I tried, the thing would shoot me with so much pain it'd knock me out."

"That's fucked up," Jackson said.

"He's a fucked up guy," Rachel said. She glanced around for a moment, gauging their position. They were at the center of the warriors, a zone of respite from the front lines. She lowered her voice and stepped closer to him. "I started as his experiment, and then he came up with all this nutty stuff about training me into his perfect queen."

Jackson folded his arms and nodded. "So that's where all the sex references come from. Gotcha."

Rachel punched him in the arm. "It's not fucking funny."

Jackson rubbed his shoulder. He was annoyed that the blow had taken off 2 points of his health, but being in overflow sped up his regeneration anyway, so it was back in a few seconds. "Sorry, sorry."

"I was dragged out here along with the army. We were working with one of the Indians to set you guys up for the attack."

"Boonta," Jackson said. He spat onto the ground. "That piece of shit. I should have killed him when he attacked Chaki."

"Anyway," Rachel said, "Hale sent me to the ruins to find that cube thing. He knows things we don't – about Isis, about this world, whatever the fuck is going on with Emil Mohammed."

Jackson nodded along. "How else would he know to send you to the ruins in the first place?"

"Exactly," Rachel said. "So we need to find the dick and make him talk."

Jackson looked over the lines. The warriors had surrounded the two halves of Hale's army on three sides. "You take the left, I'll take the right. Message me if you find him."

"Message?"

"You can send me an in-game message with the party options," Jackson said. "Check the menu. And whatever you do, don't touch those black halberds. They're cursed with something nasty."

"Don't worry," Rachel said. She started away. "I'm better with swords anyway."

Jackson took off. The warriors had gotten between him and the enemy soldiers. He bent his legs, then jumped and used Lunge at the same time. White light propelled him up and over their heads. Jackson led with his spear as he came down, driving through the back of a soldier's neck and landing on top of him.

Immediately, he activated Double Power Spin. As he turned into the attack, Jackson felt something in the essence. It was a sort of vibration, skimming along his hands where he gripped his weapon. He turned through the attack, smashing away everyone nearby.

Tribesmen burst through the iron men at the weak point Jackson had opened in their lines. They quickly filled in the clearing and used the momentum to drive deep, further fracturing the enemy. Jackson stood firm in the press and looked at the new alert in front of him.

Shockwave Lunge:
Leap high into the air, then land with an explosion of essence that stuns foes.
- Essence Cost: 100
- Level: 1
- Progress: 13.4%


Jackson grinned, waved away the window, then looked for a target. A group of iron men were trying to rally together, piecing back together the line as they gave ground. Jackson ran toward them, gauging the distance, then used his new technique.

Essence and his own strength launched him into the air. In a normal Lunge, it faded as he flew down, but this time, the light increased in intensity, turning him into a human meteor as he fell back to earth. He slammed his weapon into one of the soldiers, stabbing him through the neck. The essence erupted out from him in every direction, tossing men up like ragdolls. From the essence that jumped back into Jackson's bar, a few of them died.

One man stood against the wave, resisting its effects – a black halberdier. Jackson's spear was rammed into the ground. He wrenched it free, but not quickly enough. The halberd was thrust in at his stomach.

Jackson reflexively made a War Cry, focusing it directly on the one soldier. His feet faltered, and he lost a hold of his halberd. Not wanting to take chances with the stronger enemy, Jackson used a Cyclone Thrust, rending a hole in the man's waist that nearly split him in half. Jackson's spear shattered into wooden splinters from the impact, unable to withstand the repeated battering of essence-charged techniques.

Cyclonic Shockwave:
Sound and essence combine into a cone of force projected out from the user, stunning and knocking away multiple enemies. More effective at close range.
Essence Cost: 70
Level: 1
Progress: 28.1%



A fat grin sat on Jackson's face after he read the latest alert. So far, his Combinations had only combined his spear powers. This was the first one that combined an attack with his weapon into something that didn't require a weapon at all – War Cry. He envisioned all his abilities with a cyclone effect, strengthening them into crowd-pulverizing blasts of energy.

Jackson's eyes flicked up to his essence bar. His new abilities were expensive – instead of building up essence, he'd only held steady. He couldn't get too carried away or he'd lose the Spirit Surge bonus.

Jackson picked through the fallen soldiers and found a new spear. He merged with the line of warriors. Things had dissolved to the point that the iron men were no longer one unit, but fractured into large pockets of resistance. Jackson used his abilities to skip between the holdouts and crushed their defenses, allowing the warriors to push in behind him and clean up the rest.

Without a mage, they were powerless to stop his assaults. The only thing that gave him trouble was the halberdiers, but even they weren't a match for Jackson's raw strength. The soldiers started breaking when they saw him coming, swarming away from his spear, but they were surrounded by the enemy. There was nowhere to go.

He started collecting essence to the point that it was being wasted, bleeding away before he could spend it. Jackson kept his Attributes window open in a corner of his vision. After every exchange, he trickled Essence into his Spirit statistic, steadily building his overall capacity while keeping himself in overflow. When this battle ended he was going to do some serious upgrading.

Jackson grunted and twisted his spear through another halberdier. The man fell, grasping at the wound with gauntleted hands. Jackson used a quick Power Thrust to finish him off, then shunted another 20 essence into Spirit.

Jackson glanced around for another target. He was surrounded by allies. He couldn't see any more iron men. It felt like only seconds had passed since he'd last seen Rachel.

He looked down at himself. Snow and mud lined the wrinkles of his clothes. Blood covered his hands, the shaft of his spear. It shined bright against his skin. His spine shivered.

He was strong. Really, really strong. But the power came with a horrible price.

"Jackson! Jackson!!" He glanced up. Vuntha was shouldering through the warriors, trying to get to him. "We need you!"

Jackson pushed through the line to Vuntha. They were jostled and shoved, as much from sheer numbers as from warriors shouting and cheering at Jackson. He grabbed Vuntha and put their heads together. "What's going on?!"

"Part of the iron men broke away, those elite fighters," Vuntha said. "They're headed for the mountain!"

For a moment, Jackson had the fleeting feeling of something tugging at his stomach, a passing phantom of the feeling that had drawn him to the mountain.

It suddenly made sense. The iron men had collapsed so quickly because they didn't throw in everything they had. This was a distraction to keep the tribes busy while they made a dash for the real prize – whatever power that was inside the mountain.

Jackson could have slapped himself. He just used the same kind of misdirection when he fought the hunter, a simple feint to outwit an enemy focused too much on one thing. He himself just recognized how important it was to keep Dis sealed up. And here he was, caught with his pants down, busy crunching through grunts and patting himself on the back for collecting a lot of essence.

"Shit!" Jackson took off running. He barreled through the men around him, trying not to hit them too hard as he pushed his way out of the thick of the line and back out onto the top of the hill. Vuntha sprinted behind him.

Jackson reached the top of the hill. A black mass of elites was marching double-time around the edge of the tent city. They were already halfway to the entrance to the mountain.

A rumbling sound stopped him from going forward immediately. A heavy cavalry unit was coming back over the plains, flanking the tribesmen and stopping them from pursuing the elites. They might have won the battle on foot, but without magic, their own horsemen had been defeated.

There was no way he could outrun a horse without a huge investment in Agility – and maybe not even then. "Shit!" he shouted again. "They're going to beat us back!"

"Jackson!" He and Vuntha turned to see Chaki and Rachel running toward them up the hill. "What's going on? We should be helping fend off their riders!"

"We've got bigger problems," Jackson said, pointing. "Hale's going for the mountain."

"Is that bad?" Chaki asked.

"That's the focal point for the first quest in Isis," Rachel said. "It's obvious there's some serious shit in there. Pull your head out of your ass and get in the game."

"I don't spend my days playing games," Chaki said.

"Then maybe you ought to step off and take Jackson at his word every once in a while," Rachel said. "Especially concerning shit you don't understand."

"I understand Isis perfectly well."

"Could have fooled me."

Chaki fixed Rachel with a glare. Rachel planted her hands on her hips and lifted her chin, daring her to respond.

Jackson stepped between them. "The hell is wrong with you two?! We need to get down there, now!"

Rachel let her arms drop. Chaki frowned, but she ended the staring contest, looking at Jackson instead. "You're glowing with power, Jackson," Chaki said. "Can't you use essence to do it?"

"I get a power boost from staying that way," Jackson said. "I don't want to spend anything, not yet."

"No abilities?" Rachel said.

"Nothing that makes me move fast. And my Agility is..."

"I get it," Rachel said. "It'd be a waste right now."

Jackson nodded. "Exactly."

"An enchantment," Chaki said. "I could grant you speed – but I don't have essence."

Jackson searched through his jacket pockets. Buried in accumulated sweat and grime were two gemstones and the hefty essence crystal he'd gotten from killing the rattok mage. "I was saving these, but I think this qualifies as a rainy day. This enough?"
Chaki's eyes bulged as she weighed the crystal in her hands. "How did you – where did you – you didn't tell me about this!"

"Chunky, would you please stay focused?" Rachel said.

Chaki whirled on her. "What did you just call me?!"

"Chaki!" Jackson shouted. "Is that enough essence for both of us?"

Chaki ripped her eyes away from a smug Rachel to look at him again. "Both of you?"

"I went out by myself last time as a distraction. This is a full assault." Jackson waited. Chaki glanced between the crystal and the gemstones. She looked at him, then back down. "Is it enough or not?"

"It's enough for all three of us," Chaki said.

"What about me?" Vuntha asked.

"Dude," Rachel said, "you're cool and all, but you'd probably die."

Jackson eyed the black halberd Vuntha was still holding. "Vuntha, you feeling okay?"

"A little damn left out at the moment," Vuntha said. "Otherwise I'm fine."

"Sorry," Jackson said.

Vuntha grunted, then made a helpless shrug. "I saw you get gutted by a spear and shrug it off. I can't do that."

"Put your backs to me," Chaki said. I'll draw the enchantment."

Rachel stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jackson. Jackson felt Chaki seize her magic. The energy pulsed behind him in waves.

"Don't use that halberd," Jackson said. "It's dangerous."

"This?" Vuntha said. "It's an amazing weapon. How could I not use it?"

"They sacrificed a living person and shoved their soul into it to get it that sharp," Jackson said. "I heard it screaming at me. Put it down and tell everyone not to touch them."

Vuntha dropped the halberd as if it was red hot out of a fire. "Yeah. I'll do that."

"They're getting closer to the cave," Rachel said. "Make with the magic."

"Shut up and let me focus," Chaki said.

Jackson swallowed at Chaki's tone. Something must have happened for them to be snapping at each other so much. He didn't want to get involved, but now was really not a good time to butt heads.

Before he could compose a speech about the power of love and friendship, Chaki announced that she was finished. Jackson felt power surge into his arms and legs. Runes flashed over his clothes. Gold and white light pulsed in sequence over his body.

"Let's go!" Rachel shouted. She charged down the hill.

Jackson ran after her – and he ran like he'd never run before.

They reached the tents at the bottom of the hill and sprinted straight through them. Jackson's eyes took in everything. He could see smoke emerging from the embers of old campfires, swirling through the air like black drops of food coloring drifting through water. He saw the grain of the wood on buckets. He could pick out individual pebbles of preserved wasna sitting in food sacks left open and untied. He heard cloth brush on cloth; he turned his head. A flag snapped in the wind, unfurling inch-by-inch as if was a video recording played at half-speed.

His feet were alive. They told him about the texture of the bottom of his moccasins – soaked through with cold mud – and about his balance. He had all the time in the world to correct all the minutiae of his gait. He took a slightly longer step to avoid a rope stretching out from a tent stake, his heel swinging over it with an exacting grace he knew he didn't have. He wondered if this was how a runner in the Olympics felt.

The world crept along. On another level, he knew it was flashing by.

He heard a long thump, then another, then another. Some of the cavalry had broken off the main force. They were keeping pace at their right side, galloping through the tents. One of the horsemen came in, trying to cut them off.

Rachel leaped, planted a foot on a stack of firewood, then pushed herself into the air. She spun her body, sword outstretched, and decapitated the rider as she flew past him. His body fell out of the saddle, and the horse continued in a straight line, making it easy for Jackson and Chaki to duck around it.

Another horseman was bearing down on Jackson. He ducked under the swipe of a cavalry saber. The horseman flipped the blade in his hand and brought it back the other way. Jackson couldn't twist himself to stab with his spear and keep running at the same time. He had the choice of being trampled by the horse or getting his neck hacked.

An arrow plunged into the rider's chest. He grasped at his reins on reflex, and the horse pulled up sharply. Jackson saw Chaki sling her bow back over her shoulder.

Damn. Maybe I really do need to get my Agility higher.

They were outpacing the horses; cutting down the first attack put them in the clear. They broke free of the tents. A minute later, they passed through the foothills and reached the final slope.

Below them, having just halted at the cavern entrance, was a crowd of black armored halberdiers. They were led by a group of heavily armored horsemen. One of the riders wore a thick cloak instead of armor, the hood drawn down over his head. Another wore his cloak tied around his shoulders, leaving his black hair exposed to the snow.

The two men turned as Jackson, Rachel, and Chaki crested the hill. Jackson met the eyes of the man with his hood off – sharp, beady, and black. He recognized him from the picture his quest displayed: Lord Reigart Hale, one of the guys he was supposed to kill.

Two figures were dragged behind the mage – a brown-skinned prisoner that looked like he belonged to the People-Under-The-Mountain, and an older, grey-haired man. Both were dressed in rags and had wooden collars snug around their necks. They turned away and entered the open tunnel.

Jackson could feel Chaki's enchantment starting to fade. They rushed down the hill on the dregs of the magic, trying to keep their momentum. Jackson heard shouts and barked orders. The elites formed up into a half-circle, walling off the entrance with their bodies. Jackson gripped his spear hard and braced for impact.

It was only then that he realized he'd moved Shaka inside the cavern. The guy that put a collar on other human beings just walked inside that very same cavern.

Jackson's legs propelled him past Rachel. Her head turned at him as he flew past, eyes widened.

Jackson screamed a War Cry out over the elites, and then another, and then a third. He threw all his panic into that ability, every fragment of himself that dreaded Shaka would be hurt because of his thoughtlessness.

Magic pulsed around Jackson's head. The cone of essence that usually formed in front of him shrunk into a tiny cylinder. The force of the War Cry was compressed and pushed out the end of the light, transforming a diffuse roar into the blaring shriek of an amplified air horn.

Men nearby rolled over as if blown away by a storm. Dozens of men covered their ears and winced away.

Piercing Howl:
Concentrated essence transforms a shout into a narrow stream of sound that blows away enemies close by and temporarily damages the hearing of targets in-range.
- Essence Cost: 75
- Level: 1
- Progress: 55.4%


Jackson shoved his way into the opening his ability created. He used his spear more like a club than a thrusting weapon, slamming enemies aside to clear a path. When he encountered men that had bunched up to try and stop him, he greeted them with Cyclonic Shockwave.

Jackson blasted his way to the cave entrance in short order, but it came at the cost of his essence overflow. His total was now 1134 and holding steady. His knockback abilities were effective, but they weren't lethal enough to keep his bar filled.

Rachel and Chaki skidded to a halt behind him. "Damn, Jackson," Rachel said. "That was intense."

"Shaka's in here," Jackson said. "Rachel, you hold them off, Chaki can back you up."

Chaki shouted something about Shaka. Jackson ignored her and ran deeper into the tunnel. Rachel's swearing echoed past him.

Jackson half-expected to be hunting through the darkness, but the ceiling lights that had turned on earlier were still there. His run turned into a jog as he scanned the darkness, looking for the alcove. He hadn't gone too far inside when he'd found it.

He noticed his essence starting to tick upward at regular intervals. Faint echoes of shouts and pulsing essence bounced down the tunnel. Rachel and Chaki were hard at work.

"Jackson Vedalt."

Jackson stopped. A man stepped out from behind one of the tunnel's rocky ribs. He was a stocky, tanned man, his hair cut close to his scalp and his nose long and flat across his face. The light of the tunnel cast him in sharp black and white.

"Boonta," Jackson said. "Nice collar you've got there."

Boonta swung a spear forward, pointing it at Jackson. "Hale told me the secret to your strength. You're not really invincible. You can just take more of a beating than normal people. You're no more blessed by Shakhan than that yellow-haired bitch."

"So you're with the iron men now?" Jackson said. He slowly raised his spear. "You betrayed your father and your tribe in exchange for enslavement. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"Kunaya was more of a father to me than my father ever was. He understood me. He helped me. This is just another -"

"Yukatan is dead, Boonta."

Boonta's spear wavered. He checked his grip and set his feet on the stone. Jackson used the opportunity to glance around the tunnel. Shaka had to be close. He felt like Boonta would have gloated about finding her, so maybe they'd passed her over in their hurry.

"I don't care," Boonta said.

"You don't sound so sure about that."

"You're lying," Boonta said. "You're trying to make me lose focus. You know you can't beat me in a fair fight."

"You threw everything away for nothing," Jackson said.

"It wasn't for nothing!" Boonta drew his spear close and took a breath. "You took everything from me. Everything that's happened is your fault, and you dare lecture me."

"I should have killed you after you tried to rape Chaki," Jackson said.

"I'm going to kill you right here," Boonta said, "slowly, if I can manage it."

"You might be the biggest dumbass I've ever met, and that's saying something," Jackson said. "Don't you see it? Hale's got you running around like his pet dog."

Something in Boonta's eyes snapped. Anger clenched his face. He rushed forward.

Jacksons stepped into a Cyclone Thrust.

White light circled Jackson's arm and shot to the end of his spear, twisting as his hips turned into the attack. His weapon shattered Boonta's spear in the middle, then continued forward, driving a hole through Boonta's gut. Boonta hung on Jackson's spear for a moment. His lips churned with blood and spittle. His hands wavered and slapped at the shaft sticking out of him, and then he went slack.

Jackson kicked him away. A self-centered idiot to the end.

Lightning exploded in Jackson's face. He reeled back, his skin burning and stinging, acrid smoke in his eyes. His health plummeted to 188.

Jackson stepped clear of the blast and saw the hooded mage peering out around a corner of the tunnel. Boonta was only serving as a distraction while that spell was prepared. Jackson ran at him; the man ducked away.

Jackson reached the corner. As his foot hit the stone, a rune flashed under him, expanding from where he'd touched down. It crackled with purple energy.

Shit.

Lightning thundered around his heels. Jackson was flung onto the ground. His health dipped another 30 points.

Jackson picked himself up. He was surrounded by a cage of lightning. The purple light flickered off the walls around him. He glanced up; it stretched all the way to the ceiling, hooking into two of the lights to seal itself over his head.

Jackson reached out a hand to test the cage. The lightning snapped at him, burning his fingers like a hot flame. He drew back quickly, wringing his fingers as his health took another 3 points of damage. The smell of burning flesh wafted over him.

The mage emerged behind the corner. Jackson could see him smiling under his hood. "It was entertaining watching you bait the slave. You should reflect on lessons like that."

Dammit. I thought Rachel said there were only five of them. "What's the cage for?" Jackson asked. "Keeping me busy while Hale does his thing?"

"Actually," the mage said, "it's to hold you still while I kill you." Runes began blossoming in front of him.

Jackson looked at his feet. The rune rotated there, powered by magic that linked itself to the mage's robes, then up to the power source that was keeping the lights in the tunnel going. It was effective, but it was improvised.

He could dismantle it.

Jackson began to draw his own runes, countering the statements written on the floor. It was sort of like driving a wedge between cracks in a wall, except all the wedges had to fit the cracks just right. Rather than physical force, Jackson had to create verbal contradictions and cancel out the spell.

Of course, if he pushed too hard on the cracks, the wall would collapse around his head. He had to structure it so the energy dispersed away from him. Jackson mentally thanked Shaka for her endless lessons.

The mage's hands flew faster when he saw Jackson working. Jackson shut out the spark and crackle of his lightning cage and focus. They raced each other with their fingers, cutting glowing lines and figures in the air.

The mage stopped. His runes vanished. Jackson didn't bother paying attention; he had his own problems. If I put this symbol between these, it should -

Lighting reached out and caught Jackson in the face. It felt like someone rammed a pack of needles into his nose and lips. He doubled over and lost his grip on his magic. His runes vanished.

The pain faded quickly; he dragged himself upright. His health was only down ten points, but it had cost him a lot of time. The mage's smile was widened. "Sometimes you have to think outside the box."

Jackson tried to start constructing his runes again, but the spell the mage had created was simple, using the power that was already there in the cage. He picked away at Jackson with the lightning, jolting him in the neck, back, groin. Jackson was forced to the floor at that one. He let his spear drop and shielded his head with his hands, trying to reduce the damage.

He glanced at his health. He was down to 90. The cage surrounded him on all sides, and he didn't know how bad it would be if he tried to break through it. Another bolt slapped his shoulder, taking him to 83.

Suddenly, the cave was silent. Jackson blinked. The cage was gone. He sat up.

Someone stood in the shadows behind the mage. It cocked a fist, then punched at the back of the surprised mage's head. A white rune flashed out from the man's robe. The shield-like symbol hovered in the air, made of the same ethereal light as any other rune, but it stopped the attack cold. As the person drew back, they passed under one of the ceiling lights.

Shaka.

Jackson threw his feet under him and snatched his spear off the ground. He spun it into his hands and swiped the tip at the mage.

The white shield-run flashed again. Jackson's spear clanked off of it, rebounding into the cave wall. Jackson drew his weapon back, then attacked again, this time with a Power Thrust.

The shield blocked him. Sparks of energy sizzled at the contact point between the rune and Jackson's spear. Jackson held his weapon in place, trying to force the runes to run through their energy. Protected by his cloak, the mage began to draw runes for a different spell.

Shaka charged at his opposite side. The mage turned to face her, but not before her fist caught him across the face. He reeled backward, stumbling.

Jackson was forced back as his shield moved with him, but he kept his weapon in place. "Shaka, I've got the shield locked down!"

Shaka nodded at him and stepped into another punch. The mage ducked it, giving ground and pushing Jackson back along the cavern floor. He drew runes as Shaka tried to catch him, bobbing his head and slipping her punches.

The runes were building. Jackson was stuck in place, holding the rune-shield so that Shaka could attack. At this rate, she was going to be hit with lightning. She didn't have a health bar; she wouldn't stand back up.

The stalemate continued. The shield at his back was stronger than Jackson. Jackson as surprised Shaka hadn't caught him yet – but a flash of her face in the light told him why. She was puffing, red-faced and sweaty. She was already exhausted after healing him, and dismantling the lightning cage had to have taken everything she had left.

Jackson tried to think of a way to break the stalemate. He was using both hands to hold his spear, and making runes just with his head was still hard for him. Magic was out. His feet couldn't reach to kick the bastard. There wasn't anything useful in the tunnel. He was trapped in place, as good as if he'd been caged.

Wait a second. No I'm not!

Jackson drew his spear away. The shield vanished.

A moment later, an exhausted punch from Shaka came in. It would easily miss. The mage leaned away calmly, his runes almost spinning up in a completed spell. When Shaka's fist got close, the white shield automatically activated, protecting its master.

Jackson attacked. His Power Thrust rammed the mage through his lower back, opening a hole out the other side though his stomach. The lightning spell clicked into place; purple light flashed over Shaka, blasting her into the tunnel wall.

The mage fell, dead. Jackson sprinted over to Shaka. The scent of burning hair wafted around him. Half her face was patchy red blood and charred black skin. The wound stretched down her neck and burned across her dress to her waist. White bone was exposed where it had struck her ribs. She wasn't breathing.

Jackson drew healing runes. He doubled the strength of the spell he used before by rewriting all the same lines twice. Shaka told him that it would waste essence, but it would boost the power of his spells in a pinch. He didn't give a damn about efficiency right then.

His runes glowed steely grey as he pumped essence into them. Light swirled around her.

Nothing happened.

Jackson grabbed her arm. He pushed his magic harder, battering her with it. His reserves dipped to 1000, then to 900, dropping faster and faster. "Shaka, please. Come on. Please. Please!"

The deepest part of her wound wavered. Muscle stitched back over bone, melding together. Skin followed after that, slowly growing back over her face and side.

Shaka's mouth opened and she gasped in a breath. Her chest heaved. "I've got you. You're okay. You're okay. Just breathe for a sec."

The wounds closed up. The skin was pale and fresh, stark against her sun-tanned skin. She opened her eyes and looked at him, then smiled. "Good work, Jackson."

Jackson wiped his fingers across each eye. "Yeah. Thanks."

"Get me up."

Jackson stood, then offered her his arm. She used it to push herself off the ground. She wavered for a moment. Jackson grabbed at her sides, steadying her feet.

She wacked the back of his wrist with her fingers. "Enough. I'm not going to break that easily."

"Sorry," Jackson said, letting her go. "Sorry."

Shaka sighed, then chuckled. "I suppose I can overlook it. You did well, just now."

"I almost got you killed."

"Masters always end up learning from their students," Shaka said. "Your own runes guided me in destroying his cage. If not for that, we'd both be dead." She bent over and stripped the cloak off the mage. "Ah. Look here."

Jackson peered into the hood. Woven on the inside of the cloak's fabric were dozens of runes, many of which he'd never seen before. Jewels and crystals, most drained of essence, had been stitched into little pockets alongside them. Shaka ripped some of the gemstones free, then began to drain their energy into herself. She offered the cloak to Jackson.
It had a hole torn in the bottom from his spear, but it was definitely a hell of an item. Jackson drew it around his shoulders. "Analyze."

Rune-Woven Cloak of Minor Physical Protection
A black cloak woven with fibers imbued with essence and shaped into runes. Given energy, they automatically protect the wearer from physical attacks.
- Rune Slots: 3
- Durability: Moderate


Satisfied that his newest treasure didn't involve human sacrifice, Jackson tied the cloak in a loose knot around his neck. An alert flashed in front of him; he flinched.

New Message from Rachel Ransfeld
Need backup NOW!!111!!1!


The ground shook beneath them. The lights in the tunnel flickered. Shaka and Jackson exchanged a glance. "We need to end this, quickly," she said. "Two others passed by. The gateway into the mountain isn't open anymore, but they can't be doing anything good. Perhaps they think they can force their way in."

"That's what I was thinking," Jackson said, "but there's hundreds of them outside. Chaki and Rachel are blocking them off, but they need help."

"Rachel?"

"She's like me," Jackson said. "The girl I met in the rattok caverns."

Shaka made a hum in the back of her throat, then rubbed her cheek. "I'll go to Chaki. Together, our magic can empower this Rachel even further." She looked at him. "You know this enemy better than I do, but can you defeat them alone?"

The lights kept flickering. Something was drawing on the power keeping them lit. Jackson glanced back at Shaka. "I've got a lot of essence left. I'll make it work."

She clasped Jackson's shoulder. "You've saved my life again, Jackson Vedalt. I am proud of you. May the Earth Mother guide your feet."

And with that, Shaka strode toward the cave entrance. Jackson watched her leave, wondering about the warm feeling in his chest that seemed to brush away all the worry.

And then the worry came back. Jackson wove runes to heal himself back to full, then trudged deeper into the cave.

****


Strength - 600 +60 (+10%)
Vitality - 185 +19 (+10%)
Agility - 50 +3 (+5%)
Compulsion - 0
Persuasion – 0
Spirit - 544 +136 (+25%)

Health – 248/248
Essence – 726
Carry Weight – 28.4/134.5


****


Jackson moved forward at a slight jog. He kept his feet close and his spear tight.

The tunnel was pocketed and rivuleted, as if a backhoe had bitten chunks out from the rock one at a time and no one had bothered to smooth the walls flat. The floor and ceiling were devoid of dust or cobwebs. Jackson's moccasins squelched on the floor. Jackson smiled to himself at the idea he was ruining perfection.

Idly, he glanced back over his shoulder, and then he stopped. He peered where the ceiling lights illuminated the black floor. No footprints.

Jackson rubbed his shoe across the floor. The cloth mushed against his skin, somewhat waterlogged, but it left nothing behind. No water, no mud. Nothing.

Jackson bent down and wiped the top of his shoe with his hand. It came back with clods of dirt stuck to his fingertips.

Jackson turned back toward his goal and jogged a little bit faster.

The passage angled back and forth, but overall it was a straight shot down. Jackson kept his eyes peeled. He tried not to think about why outside mess seemingly vanished when it came in contact with the floor.

Mauve lights flashed at a corner ahead, mixing with the pale white from the ceiling lamps. Jackson trotted to a stop and peeked his head around the corner.

The central cavern was lit in dark red and white stretching to a distant ceiling. Sharp outcroppings hooked over the center of the room. A complex weave of runes was spread over the center mural of the giant tree. Shadows flickered as the runes were modified. Hale was probably trying to force open the gateway into Dis.

Hale himself stood alone near the center of the cavern. He walked amongst his runes, head bowed, rubbing at his chest and analyzing his work. The four stone golems at the corners of the room towered over him in disapproval.

Jackson waited for the right moment. He brought the hood of his cloak up and drew it tight around his head. He didn't want it flopping around during the battle.

After a few moments, Hale had his back turned to the entrance. Jackson stepped into the cavern, keeping his footsteps as quiet as possible.

"What happened?"

Jackson froze. There was a person to his immediate right – the old man with a wooden collar around his neck. He leaned against the cavern wall, arms folded.

"Hildan, you're back." Hale had turned away from his runes and paced toward them.

Jackson's mind roiled in confusion. It hit him. The cloak. They can't tell I'm not that mage.

"Did you stop them?" Hale asked. He stopped a few steps away. "Why the spear?"

There was a long, awkward quiet. Jackson had half a second before they figured out it wasn't him.

Jackson lunged with a Power Thrust. His weapon smacked against a white shield-rune powered by Hale's robes. Hale flinched back in surprise, then reached into his robes, pulling out an ink-black cube.

"Tell'ad!" Hale shouted. Jackson was already moving away from the slave behind him, but he needn't have bothered. The man didn't move from his spot on the wall. "Tell'ad, attack him! Now!"

"Make me," the old man growled.

Jackson whipped his head between the collared slave and his master. Tell'ad – that was the name of the second man he was supposed to kill. But it looked like Hale and Tell'ad weren't exactly on the same side.

"If you insist," Hale said. He began to draw runes.

Tell'ad sprung off the wall. Sensing an opportunity, Jackson followed right behind. Tell'ad began a kick, and then he collapsed to the floor, screaming. The white shield repelled Jackson's spear.

Hale stretched out a finger and pointed at where Tell'ad lay on the ground. Something lept from Hale's finger to Tell'ad, splashing on his skin as dark ooze. It vanished.

Tell'ad's scream turned into a low, feral growl. He flipped over onto his stomach, going up on his hands and feet. His clothes tore open as his muscle and bone contorted and grew rapidly. Fur sprouted at the back of his neck and spread down his back.

Hale drew back. "What you fought earlier was a shadow of what you're about to see," Hale said. "This is the power of a true high-order matrix."

Jackson didn't wait for the man to brag about his accomplishments. He used Lunge, leaping over Tell'ad and thrusting down at Hale. His spear slammed into the shield rune.

Hale, undaunted by Jackson's proximity, began drawing the runes for another spell. Jackson wasn't finished. He activated Power Thrust, then used Triple Thrust. Every strike bounced off the shield.

Jackson went for broke, activating multithrust. His arms were dragged into the attack by the essence. His speartip turned into a steel blur. Energy and afterimages of his attacks slapped themselves into the shield, but it held against every challenge.

Hale's spell glowed. Lightning crackled. Jackson shut his eyes tight and braced himself.

His hand numbed, and his health dropped by a few points. Surprised it wasn't more damage, Jackson opened his eyes.

His spear was destroyed. A segment of the shaft, protected by his palm, was the only portion that survived. The speartip and the rest of the weapon were smoldering bits strewn across the ground.

"I learned quite a bit from Rachel," Hale said. "I might not be able to harm you in the short run, but you're not half as strong without your chosen weapon. A crippling over-specialization, as it were." He glanced over Jackson's shoulder. "But I think you'll find you've got larger problems."

Jackson had seen that trick one too many times to fall for it; he didn't look away from Hale. He balled his hands into fists. If he couldn't stab the shield, he'd punch his way through it.

And then Jackson was flying through the air.

He hit the wall of the cavern and went down face-first. His chin slammed into the stone. His vision swam. His chest felt like it had been hit with a cinderblock.

A roar echoed across the room. Jackson pushed himself up against the wall. A huge rattok was pacing towards him, even larger than the beasts he'd seen before. Even as he watched, more fur sprouted from between the remains of the clothes the man was wearing; muscles trembled and swelled up. It looked less like a rat and more like a huge wolf.

Hale nodded to Jackson, then paced back toward the center of the cavern. The beast pawed its way toward Jackson on all fours. Black eyes watched him at the back of a snout filled with dagger-fangs. Its claws clicked and scratched on the floor.

It leapt, opening its jaws. Jackson jumped away. The rattok tore through the spot he'd been standing an instant earlier. Its claws screeched as they cut thin lines in the rock.

Jackson landed on his toes and skipped back to bleed off his momentum. The rattok pushed off the wall and ran straight at him.

Jackson glanced at his health. He was at 211. He could probably take a hit. He cocked his fist and ran to meet the beast.

The thing opened its mouth wide, ready to snap forward with its jaws. Jackson tried to duck to the side and punch its snout. His fist struck a glancing blow. The beast's jaws engulfed his head and chest.

Jackson flailed wildly. The beast's teeth sawed at his shoulders and neck. Jackson's cloak protected him for a few moments, and then the energy was used up and the shield failed. The tongue slapped itself against his face, coating him in spittle. His health bar blinked wildly, dropping in chunks.

Jackson dug his hands onto those teeth, ignoring the sharp stings of pain. He pried its mouth open. As soon as it was wide enough, he slipped out, but his hands were stuck on its teeth. It swiped him with a claw, so he took a few steps back, keeping his body as far out of its reach as possible.

Jackson stood at an angle, feet propped against the floor, holding the jaws of the monster open. It whipped its head side to side, but Jackson held firm. Jackson pushed harder, stretching the mouth wider, past the point where it would close easily.

The beast pushed forward. It outweighed Jackson easily; he was driven back, his heels sliding across the stone. His back hit the wall, and his lost his leverage on its jaws. He ripped his hands free just before they snapped shut.

He was pinned and the beast was out of his grip. Jackson saw its shoulder move. He ducked away from the incoming claw. The monster's hand smashed against the stone, spraying Jackson with dust and debris.

Jackson backed off a few paces, confused. Before, its claws had only scratched the stone. This time, it ripped right through it. His eyes flicked up. They were near one of the golems – the claw had torn a bit of the statue's leg.

Jackson jumped back toward the statue, dodging another blow from the rattok. Jackson bent his knees, then leapt straight up as hard as he could. He grabbed the statue between its arm and its torso and hauled himself higher.

A claw ripped at his leg, tearing his moccasin away and knocking his health down to 138. Jackson climbed higher, out of reach of the monster. Compared to scaling the side of the mountain, this was easy.

Jackson sat on the golem's shoulder, some 25 feet above the ground. The beast roared and raged below him, scratching the walls and carving stone from the statue's feet. It circled the base of the golem, eyes on Jackson, waiting for its prey to come back down to earth.

Jackson looked at the head of his savior. The golem's face was flat and grim, a caricature of a vigilant sentinel. Remembering the time he'd talked to the statue back on the plains, Jackson tapped on its neck. "Hey buddy. I could use a hand." He pointed at where Hale stood in the center of the room. The red lights were increasing in intensity. "Now's the time to be a guardian, or whatever. Anyone home?"

The golem remained stony. Jackson sighed. He hadn't really thought that would work in the first place.

Another roar caught his attention. The beast had propped itself against the golem, but its head only reached above the sentinel's waist. It snapped and pawed at him. Jackson took the opportunity to wipe some of the rattok's spittle off his clothes and neck.

He caught a flash of brown in the grey fur. Jackson squinted. The monster was still wearing the wooden collar.

The observation began to shape up into a plan. Jackson checked his essence. It was near 650 a moment ago, but it had suddenly started increasing, jumping up twenty, then thirty points. Shaka must be helping Rachel rack up the kills. He wasn't sure how long they'd be able to plug up the tunnel alone, but he was confident Rachel was up to the task.

He glanced down. The rattok was still staring up at him, waiting. Its jaw foamed with exertion.

Jackson was happy to watch it tire itself out with its pacing. The gargoyle had been far worse. It was intelligent, and it could fly. It would have gotten Jackson off his perch a long time ago. This thing was just a mindless monster.

Jackson looked over to Hale to gauge his progress. He was ignoring their battle, entirely focused on the runes. The maroon light was starting to get stronger, but Jackson remembered that it was fully red when the portal was open. He wasn't quite there yet.

Sometimes the winning move was to wait, and Jackson decided to do just that. He'd overestimated his strength trying to take the rattok head on, so he happily ignored its continued roaring and raging. Once his essence got to a certain point, he'd overflow, and that would definitely help his situation. He swung his legs on the statue's shoulder, watching his health bar. It took a lot longer to recover during a battle, but he gained a few health points back.

"You seem quite comfortable."

Hale's voice was cold and stern; it echoed above the growls of the rattok. He was looking up at Jackson's position, arms folded behind his back. Jackson waved at him. "Yeah, it's alright. My ass is starting to fall asleep a little."

"Weren't you trying to stop me?"

"Your spell isn't finished yet. I've got time."

Hale glanced at his runes, then back. "A minute or two longer at most. Perhaps faster. I've been making adjustments."

A flicker of light and shadow underlined his words. The red light flashed brighter. Jackson checked his essence. Rachel must have eviscerated the army, because he was at 1150, but the decrease was starting to drop off. He had to be getting close to overflow. "You don't seem worried about me hanging out," Jackson said. "What if I've got something planned?"

"What if I do?" Hale said. "You don't really think my dog has been scratching around down there for nothing, do you?"

Jackson stiffened. Hale smiled.

Several things happened at once.

Hale pulled his arms out from behind him, revealing a condensed set of purple runes swirling around a black cube. The rattok smashed itself into the statue, and the golem began to pitch over, crumpling in at its chewed-up shins. Jackson's essence surged over 1200, and his skin began to glow as he overflowed with energy, the Spirit Surge notification blinking under his health bar.

The golem creaked as it fell down. It shattered on impact, covering half the room in a rolling wall of dust and debris. Hale's lightning spell blasted through the cloud and exploded across the floor, generating a mini-thunderstorm with his foe at the center. The rattok stalked in behind the magic, hunting through the mess in case Jackson was still alive.

Jackson was very much alive, because he'd jumped off the statue's shoulder and clung to a carved stalactite on the ceiling – something he would never have been able to do if he was his old self.

He waited until the beast was underneath his position, sniffing along for his scent, then let go. Jackson bent his knees just slightly and kept his feet together. He slammed down onto the monster, driving it flat to the floor. Jackson threw out his arms for balance, bending low to absorb the impact.

He leaned forward and grabbed the rattok's collar with both hands, digging his fingers between the wood and the fur. He braced his knees against its back and pulled.

The rattok, scrambling to get its paws back under it, started coughing and spluttering. It made a weak cry against the pressure on its throat. Jackson pulled harder, but the collar refused to break. It didn't matter either way - if he couldn't rip the collar off the beast, he'd strangle it instead.

Despite Jackson's efforts, the creature got itself up again. It shook its back, trying to throw Jackson off, but his Strength held firm. It spun around, then ran headfirst into a wall. Jackson was shifted, his side hitting the stone, but his leverage on the collar held him to the creature's back.

Jackson heard the crackle of lightning. He leaned over. Hale was ready with a spell. Jackson unleashed a Piercing Howl, aiming it straight at Hale's face. Hale's hands flew to his ears and his lost his grip on his runes. The lightning fizzled out.

Jackson was distracted by the rattok trying to turn over onto its back. Jackson squeezed harder on its collar and ground his knee into its spine. They flipped over, and Jackson was enveloped beneath it.

Jackson grit his teeth. The air was being crushed out of his lungs. His throat burned. His left ankle burned. The beast writhed and shrieked on top of him.

Jackson twisted under the fur. He leveraged himself in one direction, then pulled back on its collar. When its legs twitched into the air, he used Cyclonic Shockwave. The blast of power lifted the rattok into the air. Jackson immediately shot out a second shockwave, pushing it onto its side.

The essence cost Jackson his Spirit Surge, but the creature was starting to weaken. He was at risk of the thing rolling back over, so he used one elbow as a hammer, battering the side of the creature's shoulder to keep it in position. He kept the collar tight on its windpipe by propping his other elbow against its back. Its claws scratched feebly.

Its breathing slowed. Its arms slumped. Jackson kept his hands in place, unwilling to let up until he was sure it was down.

Violet lightning burst into life on top of him. It burned across his back and up his neck. Jackson screamed and released the collar.

The lightning swirled around him, sparking, striking. It struck at the monster, too, searing through fur and leaving charred flesh behind. The monster howled and twitched. Its arm hit Jackson's ribs. He tried to crawl away, but another shot of lightning took him in the chest and slammed him down to the ground.

Jackson's vision was red. The pain lingered on his chest, hot and spiked. His health bar throbbed at him. It was empty. Not good.

A boot slammed into Jackson's cheek. He sprawled back, facing the ceiling. Hale leaned over him. "Looks like you've run dry."

Hale caught Jackson in the face with his fist. His head snapped to the side.

It hurt – really, really hurt. He remembered defending himself in the school's courtyard, taking their punches one after another until he couldn't see straight. And then they left him in the corner, alone, until someone found him.

"You've given me quite a lot of trouble." Hale grabbed Jackson's face in his hands. "I'm going to go help myself to the power in the mountain, and then I'm going to come back and collar you. And you'll serve me all the days of your life, Jackson, until your hope finally runs out, you mind hazes over from the pain, and you forget who you even are." Hale shoved Jackson back to the floor and left his line of sight, but he could still hear Hale's voice. "This is it, Jackson! You'd be surprised how hard it is to find real power, but this is it."

Jackson dragged himself toward the source of the light. He could see bright burns on his chest and stomach; his hide jacket was blackened by the lightning. He ignored the needles and burns and pushed himself up on his feet. He propped himself up with his hands on his knees, heaving his breaths.
"You know what I don't understand?" Hale asked.

Jackson slowly looked up. The portal behind Hale was glowing, filling the room with blood-red light. He seemed to have grown taller in the midst of the magic. His face was dark and unreadable, his body a shadow looming over the entrance to the mountain.

Jackson managed a grunt.

Hale spread his arms out. "You were here before me. Why didn't you take the power for yourself?"

For a moment, Jackson was confused, because it appeared that Hale had four arms. And then, as his eyes adjusted to the light, Jackson saw what was causing the illusion. He pointed. "It's behind you."

Hale frowned, and started to turn around. A long arm wrapped around him. The white shielding runes appeared to protect him, but he was trapped, encircled by the long limb.

The gargoyle's other arm waved across the shield. A black pentagram appeared in midair and gently touched Hale's magic. The white runes vanished.

Hale's face was mask of surprise. "Wha –"

The gargoyle's arm crushed inward, pinning him to its chest. The rest of Hale's words left his mouth in choking gasp. The other arm sliced in under Hale's neck, then pulled, decapitating him in an instant. The gargoyle casually tossed Hale's body away.

It was the exact same move it had first attacked Jackson with. As he stared into the beady eyes of the hunter, Jackson had no doubt that the move was quite intentional.

Wispy white smoke drifted out from Hale's corpse and into the gargoyle's long, slender arms. Essence. It just absorbed essence.

Jackson moved backward, away from the rattok, away from the gargoyle, one hand over his burns. The hunter followed casually, slowly, its gaze inspective and cautious. Maybe it suspected a trick. Jackson didn't know, but its hesitation was the only thing keeping him alive.

He checked his minimap. Rachel and Chaki weren't nearby. He was on his own.

His back came up against something. Jackson looked up. Another one of the golems. He was in another corner. The gargoyle bared its teeth and made a low, threatening sound. It paced forward.

He had to buy time. He used Piercing Howl. Essence formed into a cylinder and pulsed out at the creature. A casual swipe of its black pentagram dissipated the attack.

Jackson tried a Cyclonic Shockwave. The essence roared out of him, but the creature stopped it just as easily, swiping back with its opposite hand. Jackson shot a second in quick succession, and it batted it away again, switching off to the other arm.

There wasn't a cooldown time on his abilities, but there was a delay in which he grabbed and gathered the essence together for his attacks. The big combinations were useless. It could erase the magic as fast as he could create it. He needed to think of something else.

Jackson used Spear Wall. It was cheaper, faster – only 20 essence a pop. He cast it five times in succession, burning through 100 essence. Walls of spears made from light appeared between himself and the hunter, creating a layered enclosure that sealed him in.

The gargoyle growled and swiped one of its hands. The black pentagram flashed. On contact, the wall vanished. It paused a moment, then used its other hand, destroying the next wall. And then it removed the third wall.

Jackson leaned back against the statue and tried to think. He had no weapon. His combination attacks were useless. He had no health left. He was reduced to delaying it until help arrived or he could heal himself, and his delaying action wasn't working.

The gargoyle destroyed the fourth wall.

Jackson looked up at the statue. "Hey man. Seriously this time. A little help."

The gargoyle removed the last wall, the final barrier separating it from Jackson. It halted in front of him, breathing heavily between its fangs. It drew back its hand. Long claws extended from its fingers; they gleamed red in the light of the portal.

A fist of stone slammed into the top of the gargoyle's skull. It hit the floor of the cavern. The stone golem leaned over Jackson, then pounded on the creature, alternating its arms like unstoppable pile drivers. The gargoyle tried to raise itself off the floor a few times, but never got far before being hammered back down.

The fists seemed to puncture something, smashing through the monster's outer skin with a sick snapping sound. A sense of the thing's presence that had hung over Jackson vanished. When the fists struck, they began to do real damage.

The golem didn't stop punching until the gargoyle's body was pulped.

Jackson heaved in his breaths. The strong statue's fists halted, then it drew back. It stood straight.

Somehow, the hunter was still alive. Its head twitched slightly, spared from the onslaught of crushing blows. Jackson pushed up against the stone statue. He coughed, then winced. His chest was killing him.

He moved toward the hunter. Its eyes glared at him. Jackson lifted his foot, then stomped down on it as hard as he could.

Something cracked under his moccasin. The hunter stopped moving.

A great white cloud fluttered up above its remains. It rushed into Jackson. His blue bar increased in one enormous jump to over 2000 essence. Soft white light misted from his skin as he entered overflow.

Jackson's eyes turned up to the golem. "Um...thanks."

"It is our duty to guard the portal," the golem said. Its voice sounded like annoyed gravel. Its red eyes bore into Jackson. "Star-marked warrior. Seal the portal."

"I...uh..." Jackson trailed off. "About that. I actually need someone else to help. She's fighting some people that are trying to use the portal. So if you help us with those guys, we can get her in here and shut it down."

"Hmmm..." The golem rumbled in consideration. "Understood. Guide us to those that must be killed."

Jackson grinned, then winced. Moving his face like that made something sting somewhere. "Sure thing. One second." He picked himself up as gently as possible and inched toward where Hale had died. His finger hovered in the air, drawing the beginnings of a healing spell.

Immediately after he sent essence into the runes, he felt better; the pain was the first thing to subside. After a few seconds, his wounds started closing. It was a weird feeling of fleeting, transient itchiness, like little drops of water rolling down his skin. His awkward shuffle turned into a normal walk as he went back to normal. He wasn't certain, but he was beginning to suspect that Spirit Surge improved his magic as well.

After healing himself, he still had about 1600 essence, and it was bleeding off pretty quickly. Jackson put another 200 in Spirit, another 100 in Strength, and 100 in Vitality. After his latest near-death experience, he decided he wanted more health points. His essence stores stabilized at 1202.

Jackson stared down at Hale's headless body. The cut was clean, neat, exposing the round muscle of the neck and a clean white circle of bone in the center. Blood pooled below the wound. Jackson reached down and picked up an onyx cube from the stone. The second cube – one more than he thought he'd find – he had to pry from Hale's fingers.

The power inside the objects practically shouted at him. Jackson juggled them in his hands, almost dropping them before ending up with them cradled to his chest. It reminded him of the voice inside the halberd he'd been using, but this was different. Whatever was trapped in the halberd had been insane, uncontrolled. The voice in each cube was a steady chant. Sometimes it was loud, and sometimes soft, but always a single word, one for each of the cubes.

A Word.

Jackson realized his suspicions were correct. These things were the key to the other half of his magic – Compulsion. If he could figure out how they worked.

"Time...being wasted." A stone hand wrapped around Jackson's waist. For a moment, his brain stuttered to a halt in sheer panic. But the golem gently lifted him up and placed him on his shoulder. "Hold on," it grumbled. "Do we kill the other?"

Jackson frowned, then glanced where it was pointing. He drew back in surprise. The rattok was gone, and in its place was the old man. He wasn't moving, but he didn't look visibly hurt, and the golem implied he was still alive. Apparently Hale's transformation magic had been reversed upon his untimely death.

Hale was dead. The thought sat in Jackson's mind, turning over on slow roast. If he killed Tell'ad, he'd have fulfilled his quest. And thereby earn 5000 essence.

5000 essence.

It was a tremendous number. He killed hundreds of people out on the plains, with his cannon and with his spear. Including everything he'd bled away, he'd earned somewhere upwards of 4000 essence. So, after fighting against an entire army, he still hadn't reached the level of reward for this quest.

Even now, Jackson could use a spear to drill holes in metal armor and wrestle with werewolves. He could only imagine what he'd be like with thousands of points in strength. He'd be miles ahead of every other Isis player. He'd be able to keep the tunnel sealed and halt the progress of the game. He'd be able to experiment, figure out the math behind the Attributes, maybe discover new techniques or combine existing skills.

But Tell'ad hadn't attacked him by choice. He wasn't Hale's friend. He'd been enslaved.

Killing him was the same as accepting an offer from Lucifer. A deal with that thing was no deal at all. It was a trick in disguise. The man could be important in any number of ways Jackson didn't understand. The big number was seductive, but it was no choice at all.

"He's not our enemy," Jackson said. "He wants the portal closed too."

"Understood," the golem said.

And then the three sentinels marched out of the cavern with Jackson carried along for the ride.

****


Rachel slumped against the side of the cavern and hoisted her sword up again. Her stamina was running low, but the fucking assholes were relentless.

Shaka's magic was done. Rachel had killed at least two dozen of them with the speed boost, but the old lady had practically collapsed at the end of it. Chaki had to carry her back into the tunnel to get her out of the way while Rachel held off the army alone.

Rachel decided that when this was over, she was going to give Jackson a very, very stern talking-to.

Rachel ducked. A pike jabbed where her head was a second before. Rachel swept in toward the dick that tried to prick her, sliding the flat of her sword along his halberd's shaft so he couldn't try to bash her with it. He dropped the weapon and tried to pull his knife, but she closed the distance faster than he could get the blade out.

She activated Incisive and thrust the blade at his shoulder. Her weapon buried itself in the joints of his armor. Another incoming halberd stopped her from finishing the job. She pulled her sword free and stepped back from the axe trying to take her arm off.

The black-armored elites surged into the tunnel, immediately taking up the ground she gave. The wounded man was dragged back into their ranks. She was beginning to suspect that their armor had some kind of regenerative magic, but it was impossible to tell. There might have been 300 or 400 of them, and that was a long line when they were jammed into the tunnel. They were replaced faster than she could hack at them.

The good news was they could only take her on two or three at a time. More than that and they'd just get in each other's way. The bad news was that it was like a conveyor belt of black death. Rachel had Agility, but she didn't have any Vitality. She was getting exhausted. Her sword felt like a hunk of lead; her arms burned with every swing.

Two halberds came in at once, both aiming high. Rachel dipped her head. Another Halberd swept in from below, axe-blade aimed at her feet. She dived sideways and out the gap between the attacks and fell into a roll.

Another man behind those three shoved his way forward and tried to catch her when she got back to her feet. The point of his weapon sliced her ankle, but it was a shallow wound. She spun back to escape a follow-up slice. They all stepped forward.

Rachel wiped the sweat off her head with her free hand. She grabbed her essence to make her sword glow and took a step forward. The soldiers flinched back, raising their halberds up to form a defensive wall of spikes. She held there, keeping them in place with the unspoken threat.

She wasn't sure how long she could keep them pinned. If they all charged forward right now, she'd probably be overwhelmed. The only thing stopping them was her earlier slaughter. With Chaki and Shaka healing and strengthening her at the same time, she'd been able to cut a permanent sense of caution into their ranks.

A white arrow shot out from behind Rachel, sinking into the eye slit of a helmeted soldier. The man's halberd tipped out of formation as he fell to the ground, but the soldiers adjacent pivoted inward and closed the gap, mercilessly stepping over their comrade's corpse.

Chaki stepped up behind Rachel, another arrow already knocked. "She's safe."

"Finally," Rachel said. "My toes are going numb."

"I'm low on arrows," Chaki said. "Two left."

"We'll give a bit more and then rush and take some of the tunnel back. Make your shots count."

"Obviously," Chaki said.

"Getting snippy, are we?" Rachel said. "Good. I like 'em feisty."

"I can't contain myself in the face of your idiocy."

"It finally comes out," Rachel said. "I was wondering when you'd break down. Everyone does, eventually."

"Your jealousy is sickening," Chaki said.

"Jealousy?" Rachel said. "Why would I be jealous of some chunky-ass bitch with arrows stuck up her –"

An incoming halberd cut Rachel off. She swayed out of the way. Two others came in low, going for her legs. She flung herself backward to avoid the attack, then turned it into a roll and popped back up.

Chaki skipped back neatly beside her. Rachel made her sword glow and brandished it across her chest, stopping the halberdiers short again. She planted her foot and cleared her throat. "As I was saying. Arrows stuck up in your goddamn twat."

"I was unsure at first, but you made it pretty clear," Chaki said. "You only started acting like this after you saw me with Jackson."

"Jackson? That dumbass? That loser?"

"Jackson is neither," Chaki said. For the first time in a while, she took her eyes off their enemy. "Don't you dare insult him in front of me, you ungrateful, uncultured little clod of bison shit."

"Get over yourself," Rachel said. "I insult Jackson to his face all the time and he doesn't even care. Hell, he thinks I'm funny."

The halberdiers were getting rowdy, so Rachel dashed forward. One man stabbed for her, but she neatly dodged it. Another man swept his blade at her from the left, so she knocked the halberd that missed her up, intercepting it. The hooked weapons tangled up amongst themselves. They were sharp enough to cut bone, but they couldn't cut each other. Rachel withdrew out of their range.

"You might get away with insulting Jackson, but that's because he doesn't want to bother," Chaki said. She scanned the line of soldiers as they inched forward, looking for an opening. "You aren't funny. You're just annoying."

"Jackson doesn't seem to think so," Rachel said.

"I'll fix that shortly. He really ought to have more pride in himself."

"You can't let people be, can you?" Rachel said. "Always second-guessing, always insisting you know better, always butting in when you don't know shit. I've been around you for what, a few hours? I can already tell you're a grade-A control freak." Rachel snorted. "He's not even that good-looking. I don't care who he's fucking."

"Great," Chaki said. "Then you'll keep your giant nose out of things that aren't your business and clap politely at our wedding."

"Man, I almost feel bad for him," Rachel said. "But if he's dumb enough to marry you, he deserves what he gets."

"You might think you have a talent at getting under others' skin," Chaki said, "but you won't get under mine."

Rachel grinned. "Challenge accepted."

The halberdiers had been quiet while they conversed. Maybe they thought Rachel and Chaki were constructing some grand strategy. Rachel kept her eyes on their ranks; they were subtly positioning themselves, several layers deep. She bent her knees and stepped forward to bait the attack they'd set, trusting that her speed would get her out of the way.

Three halberds stabbed forward, one straight at her, one on either side, trying to prevent a lateral escape. Rachel duly stepped back.

Two men slipped between the three in front, lunging forward with their weapons. Rachel twisted between them and knocked both weapons wide with quick swipes of her sword – but there was almost no resistance. In fact, the two that just stabbed at her had knelt down.

Two more men emerged from the third row. They jumped off the backs of their kneeling compatriots and came down, leading with their halberds from above. At the same time, the three involved in the initial attack raised their halberds up and stepped in, keeping them locked in position like the bars of a cage. She was surrounded on all sides.

Rachel grinned. "Now!"

Chaki fired her arrows, one right after the other. They planted themselves in the armor of the lunging halberdiers, throwing off their thrusts. Rachel sprinted straight forward and dipped beneath the attack.

Rachel activated Chained Offensive Multithrust. The two kneeling halberdiers were caught totally defenseless. Her attack shredded their helmets and their faces.

The others were leaning away, trying to drag back their lone pole weapons to defend themselves. Rachel never gave them a chance. Her chain attacks doubled in strength with each iteration. She killed them faster than they could recover their balance.

After the front line was decimated, Rachel forcibly ended the chain early. It was an attack of opportunity; using it casually was too dangerous. She'd learned that the hard way earlier on.

Rachel took a deep breath, then dragged her sword up high and seized her essence. The blade flickered like a white-hot iron lamp, poised above her head. The halberdiers shuffled uneasily.

When Rachel's arms started whining that they were getting extremely tired, she lowered the sword and stepped back. An audible sigh of relief came from the elites. She smirked.

"Now what?" Chaki said.

"Can you do some more hocus pocus?"

"Some what?"

Rachel snapped her fingers a few times. "Abracadabra. Presto Change-o." Chaki's face was blank. "Magic,", Rachel said.

"Too little essence."

"You just killed those guys."

"I don't get essence that way," Chaki said. "I have to meditate for it. I don't choose where to place it like Jackson does."

"So what you're telling me is that you're a shitty tagalong familiar with no customization options," Rachel said. "He really needs to dump you on the side of the road and step hard on the gas."

"I'm not sure what bothers me more," Chaki said. "Your constant gibberish, or the fact that I know that somewhere inside it is an insult."

"You got that right," Rachel said. "Well, since you're now dead weight, I guess I have to do this all myself."

Chaki put up her fists. "Unlike you, I can fight without a weapon."

Rachel blew a few strands of sweaty hair back out of her face. And matted it down with a free hand. "I'm sure you'll do great against the wall of giant ten-foot scythes. Just get out of the way and let the big girls go to work."

"I'm not a child," Chaki said. "Your arrogance is beyond anything –"

"You don't even have any essence!" Rachel said, turning to her. "We're in the middle of a fucking fight! You know what Jackson said before he ran off? He asked me to hold them off, and you to back me up, because he knew that's all your good for. If Jackson didn't happen to run into you and rub his pentagram off on your hand, you'd be about as relevant as the rest of these fuckheads."
"Back off," Chaki said.

"The truth always stings," Rachel said.

"Shut up!"

Rachel heard movement. She looked just in time to weave under a thrust aimed at her head, but she wasn't quick enough to escape the one aimed at her chest. The weapon sliced a line across her clothes, taking a good chunk of her health before she could move back.

Chaki had her own problems; a hack from another halberdier had gone right through her shoulder. Normally, it would have taken her arm off, but she escaped with a loss of health points and a status effect. Her right hand flapped at her side, numb and useless.

They both retreated. Rachel glanced at her health. The nicks and scratches had added up. She was close to dropping into the red zone, and then she'd be about as agile as a sack of potatoes. Chaki couldn't be doing much better.

"Now will you get out of the way?" Rachel asked.

"Enough!" Chaki said. "I stripped you of your collar, and you turn about and start working against me as soon as you find reason to dislike me."

"I can't work with a blithering fuckhead," Rachel said.

Chaki opened her mouth to retort, but then she dived away. Rachel followed suit, getting out of range of another few thrusts.

The halberdiers followed up on them immediately. They'd caught on to the dissention in the ranks. Rachel ducked and weaved backward, staying clear of the pole weapons. If Chaki had just gone down the tunnel instead of digging in her heels about what a wonderful saint she was, maybe Rachel might have been able to hold them off a little while longer. Every inch counted while Jackson was back there...doing whatever.

The tunnel rumbled.

Rachel glanced at Chaki. Her eyes flicked from side to side, then met Rachel's. She'd felt it too.

The tunnel rumbled again, then again, increasing in tempo and volume. The stone walls gave the sound no place to go. Rachel felt like an ant on the inside of a soda can, a can that was being wacked with a stick by an unruly child. She took a knee to stop herself from tripping on her own feet.

A massive stone hand slammed into the ground next to her. Rachel followed its arm to a huge body, squatted low inside a tunnel, then that up to its head, a scarred, flat face that only a mother could love.

Jackson was sitting on the thing's shoulder. There was a big stupid grin plastered on his face.

Whatever Rachel had been expecting, it sure as hell wasn't this. She grinned, half from the suddenness of it all, half from the expression on his face. Written on his face was simple joy of someone who was winning their favorite game. Rachel could relate.

The statue brought its other hand around. It was going to land in the center of the halberdiers. They realized this. They also realized they had nowhere to run. Their careful formation and strict training broke down into blind panic in a heartbeat.

The hand swatted them like flies. The statue moved forward, staying low to keep from hitting its head on the ceiling and using its hands for balance. The soldiers in the way were crushed mercilessly, smashed underfoot or mushed along the walls like dough under a stone rolling pin. Blood and innards sprayed everywhere, popping out of orifices under the tremendous pressure.

For a moment, Rachel's mind didn't react to the carnage. The nerve impulse from her eyeballs stirred around in her brain, grinding circuits around the neurons. Something clicked, and it all rolled out at once, the death, the gruesome carnage, the blood everywhere, fucking everywhere. She scampered back against the wall, drawing in her legs and holding her breath.

Another living statue crept by, and then a third, dragging themselves forward. Any halberdiers still alive were annihilated by their passing.

Chaki ran by Rachel's spot, throwing her a look. She skipped through the bloodstains and around pieces of bodies without a care, following Jackson out to the entrance.

If it hadn't been for that, Rachel would have sat there until the world ended. But something about the way that damn bitch looked at her – the disdain, the dismissiveness – made the pacing green envy inside Rachel rattle the bars. It forced her to her feet and beat back her sense of disgust.

She picked the path that seemed the least bloodstained. She tried to ignore the crunches and squishing sounds that came from her boots. I can do this. Fuck germs. Fuck diseases. I got this. I'm the shit. Fuck this really sucks. Fuck. Fucking Chaki.

Eventually, the mess cleared itself up. She'd probably gotten to the part of the tunnel where they were actually able to escape from the stone golems.

Rachel emerged from the cavern to a scene of total destruction.

The lowland between the foothills leading to the cavern was covered in corpses. Bodies were twisted and deformed, bent in ways they weren't supposed to bend. One of the golems was chasing down a group of soldiers; they were sprinting away, but it moved closer with every step. She turned away when its foot came down on top of them.

She jogged to the top of the hill. The other two golems had mashed a path through the tent city. The bodies of horses were everywhere. Hale's heavy cavalry hadn't stood a chance.

In the distance, the golems moved, their rock almost black against the grey sky. On occasion, Rachel saw one kick out a foot or swipe a hand, taking the life of some hapless soldier.

The snow had stopped. Rachel sighed, and dropped her sword. She was tired of carrying the damn thing.

The battle was over.

****


Jackson sat in front of a campfire. One leg was folded close to him; his other extended forward, bent at the knee. He leaned on that leg, resting his hand across his kneecap.

Rachel squatted on his left, holding her hands to the fire. She was somewhat wet. The first thing she'd done after the golems returned to their cavern was run to the river and throw herself into it headfirst. She'd come out looking like a chilled ghost, but the fire was starting to restore her normal belligerence.

Chaki sat close on his right. She stared at the fire. She hadn't said much.

There wasn't much to say.

Shaka, Hanta, and Vuntha were out and about. There was a lot to clean, a lot to rebuild, and even more to restore.

2000 of the tribesmen had lost their lives. Kunaya and the Three Hills members that had sold them to Hale were nowhere to be found. The remaining members of that tribe guessed that they'd probably run back to their villages. Revenge was being plotted.

Jackson let them plot. He didn't want much to do with it.

He glanced at Rachel. She gazed at the fire. Her eyes were distant. She hadn't said a word in a while.

"You okay?" Jackson asked.

She looked at him. A little smile ran over her face. He braced himself for her usual chatter, but Rachel's words were subdued. "Yeah. I'm okay. Just...it was a lot."

"Yeah." Jackson tried to think of something else. He had the urge to rev her back up, get her mind off things. "That ability was pretty cool," Jackson said. "With all the lights and everything."

Rachel nodded. "Mmm. Flicker Sticker."

Jackson raised an eyebrow. "What's it called?"

Rachel grinned. "I renamed it. It was called Multithrust, but shit, that's boring. Every fucking generic RPG ever has a multithrust. So I named it Flicker Sticker."

"I didn't realize you could rename them," Jackson said.

"Of course you didn't," Rachel said. Her smile turned smarmy. "I'm the brains of the outfit, after all."

Movement on his right drew his attention. Chaki leaned over, wrapping her arm around his. He rubbed the back of her shoulders, then glanced at Rachel again. She wasn't looking at him, but past him – at Chaki. Chaki stared back at her.

"So, um," Jackson said. "I'm glad you two got to meet."

Both Chaki and Rachel forced smiles onto their faces, but even Jackson could see the expressions were forced. They didn't add any words to his feeble attempt at conversation. Jackson looked back at the fire. It didn't seem so warm anymore.

"Tatanka Ska."

Jackson looked up. A man named Jalak was there. He wore a big headdress, and it looked like it had been through hell. Most of the feathers were either burned or missing. Through the gaps in the hat Jackson could see his patchy, balding hair.

Two men stood next to him. They were holding Tell'ad in their arms.

"Let him down," Jacksons said. "He's on our side."

They dropped him. Tell'ad fell to his knees. The two warriors looked like they wanted something else from him – probably a few punches. Anyone with relations to the iron men was currently not in favor.

Jackson's word had stopped them from doing the knight undue harm. Something had changed between Jackson and the tribes; the relationship had been permanently altered. Before, he was an anomaly, a rumor, a walking event. He'd been presented as legitimate from the Windseekers, and many had taken Shaka's word. At the same time, many were quiet skeptics.

Now, Jackson's word was unquestionable law. Probably has something to do with all the people I killed.

"Is the portal sealed?" Jackson asked.

Jalak nodded. "It is done. Shaka asked me to tell you that she and the other spirit guides have closed the entrance. No one will be allowed inside, as you have said."

"Thank you," Jackson said.

Jalak and his men clasped his hands in the way that they all did, and bowed their heads. They moved off.

Rachel had stood. She walked over to Tell'ad. The man was on his feet. They looked at each other for a time, Rachel in black leather, broken and torn from battle, Tell'ad in rags. His collar was gone – probably removed by Shaka.

"Would you believe me if I say I missed you?" Tell'ad asked Rachel.

"Of course," Rachel said. "I'm very missable. And that's Lady Ransfeld to you, Sir Tell'ad."

"Apologies, my lady."

"Apology accepted." Rachel planted her hands on her hips and looked him up and down. "Take a knee."

Tell'ad's beard curled into a frown. "I'm sorry?"

"Kneel," Rachel said, "before I kick you over."

Tell'ad hesitated. He glanced at Jackson. "I'd go along with it if I were you," Jackson said. "She can be pretty mean when she wants to be."

"I know all about that," Tell'ad said. He grunted his way down on one knee, wincing as he moved. Jackson figured he was still getting over the whole monstrous transformation thing.

Rachel's hand went to her belt. She patted there for a moment, then looked down. "Dammit, I left my sword out there." She shrugged. "Fuck it. My hand is the best hand in the universe anyway." She leaned forward and tapped Tell'ad's left shoulder, then his right. "I hereby dub the Sir Tell'ad, of the Order of the Sunflower. Do you accept knighthood in this prestigious order which I just made up, and thereby take up a burden as my companion in the grand adventure I'm sure to have?"

Tell'ad looked at Jackson again. Jackson lifted his hands in in a shrug. Tell'ad made his own shrug, and smiled. "I accept."

"Great!" Rachel smacked her hands together. "That's that."

"A question," Tell'ad said.

"Fire away," Rachel said.

"Why sunflowers?"

"I'm glad you asked that, my faithful servant," Rachel said, raising a finger. "First of all, sunflowers are yellow, and I love yellow. Just like my hair!" She flourished a hand through her hair as she said it. "Second of all, sunflowers are full of energy and just plain happy. Everyone likes sunflowers. What better plant to describe me?"

Chaki emitted a loud snort.

Rachel's head snapped in her direction. Jackson was grateful when, for once, she chose not to pick a fight. She clapped her hands together again. "Yo Jackson."

"Yo."

"What do I have to do to get one of those bond thingamajigs to..." Rachel trailed off as a white pentagram flashed into existence on Tell'ad's hand. They all stared at it. Rachel looked into the air, examining an alert that appeared in front of her. He couldn't see the text unless she allowed it, but he knew the gist of it already. "Never mind," Rachel said. "Hmm. Guess I have to think about this."

"I can tell you what the North Star does," Jackson said. "The rest...who knows."

Rachel nodded sagely. Tell'ad's face wrinkled up with a touch of worry. "Lady Ransfeld, what exactly –"

"Oh, pipe down," Rachel said. She grabbed his hand and pulled him up. "Come on. Even I have a little bit of tact. This is kinda a joint decision." She tugged him away from the campfire, the image of a blonde fairy somehow towing a grizzled bear.

And then it was quiet, and as many nights before, Jackson had the wind, and the fire, and Chaki.

"So," Chaki said.

"So," Jackson said.

"Can I ask?"

Jackson nodded. "Yeah."

Chaki turned, facing him. "What happened in the mountain?"

"A lot of things," Jackson said. "I'm not sure how to deal with it all. But I think...maybe you and Rachel can help, quite a bit."

"Rachel," Chaki said. There was a way she said the name that Jackson wasn't sure he liked. "I'm sure we can handle it ourselves. It's not really any of her business, anyway. Shakhan wanted to see you."

"No, she's involved in this too," Jackson said. "As much as I am. As much as we all..." Jackson trailed off. "I have to stop her!" Jackson launched himself up from his seat and ran forward. Rachel and Tell'ad hadn't gotten far. "Rachel!" he shouted. "Rachel! Stop! Don't make the –"

Light flared on Tell'ad's hand. The pentagram grew brighter and brighter, until it was a sun Jackson could hardly look at. He shielded his eyes.

When the light faded, a black mark had imprinted itself permanently on Tell'ad's hand. Another bond. Another soul linked to Lucifer. Jackson slowly came to a halt, his outstretched hand falling back to his side. He'd inadvertently screwed someone else over. Again.

But as he watched Rachel standing there, a big smile on her face, Jackson remembered something. Lucifer didn't know about Bonds.

Maybe bonds weren't such a bad thing after all.

"Jackson?" Rachel shouted out to him. "What's up?"

"Nothing," he called. "Never mind. It's not a big deal."

"You won't get away with that," she said. "I'm grilling you on it later!"

"That's fine," Jackson said. I fully intend to tell you everything, anyway.

He started back. Chaki had followed him some way from the fire. He took her hand up in his. She gave him a questioning look, but he shrugged and shook his head. She decided not to ask, something for which he was thankful.

He had to log out of Isis and warn a few thousand people about what they were getting into. At least, he had to try. He wasn't sure how he'd do it. Post a video online? Some kind of demonstration? Maybe Rachel or Chaki would have some ideas. First, he had to tell them what was actually down there.

His essence lingered at 1202. He hadn't had to spend a point once the golems came out. As soon as the job was done, they retreated from whence they came, single-function robots. Not Jackson's taste – he'd have added a few more bells and whistles – but they got the job done.

With that much essence, he could do some research. Figure out his Attributes, his abilities. Maybe try out one of the Words from the black cubes.

"About Rachel," Chaki said. They sat back down around the fire. Jackson nodded for her to go ahead. "I asked her about her last name, Ransfeld. She told me she was related to that Charles person - the one that came after us in your world."

Jackson leaned back and stared at the sky as ten thousand emotions and possible responses shot through him.

He settled on one that was tried and true. "Shit."

****


Jackson's Statistics:

Strength - 700 +70 (+10%)
Vitality – 285 +29 (+10%)
Agility - 50 +3 (+5%)
Compulsion - 0
Persuasion – 0
Spirit - 744 +186 (+25%)

Health – 331/331
Essence – 1202
Carry Weight – 29.1/145.5


****


Thank you for reading. Comments and criticism are always appreciated.

This chapter ends the first story arc of Dream Drive. For now, the narrative will be put on hold. I have to buckle down and write the sequel to my published novel, and there are several other ideas I want to explore – not to mention that whole pharmacy school thing taking up a lot of my time.

It's going to be a while before I come back to Dream Drive, but when I do, at the minimum, there will be several major adjustments. In fact, I'm debating whether or not I should rewrite it from scratch. There's been some excellent criticism offered to me through the comments on various chapters, many of which I think are spot on, especially on a few key characters and some of the pacing issues. Either way, when it makes a comeback, it'll be in a professional format and published online. When that time comes, I hope I'll have your support.

The enthusiasm for my work took me by surprise. What started as a fun side-project to get some ideas out on paper quickly became a hugely encompassing tale that I took as seriously as anything else I do. I'm quite grateful for the excellent community here which has reached out and made me feel at home, and I very much appreciate the time and dedication my editors have made to making this story better than I could make it on my own.

If you have questions for me, send me a message. You can find the option to do so in my profile. I keep up with my email regularly, but feel free to contact me again if it's been more than a week or two.

And, don't worry. I'm very stubborn about finishing my projects. Dream Drive will live again. Between then and now, may your life be filled with wonderful books and rich adventures.

I hope you enjoyed the story!

- Over_Red

dream   drive  

May 7, 2018 in romance

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