“I hate it, but not as much as I hate the alternatives,” I said. T-minus fifteen seconds until slaughter. The soldier was close enough now for me to make out the features on his face. He was one that I hadn’t nicknamed yet. Black hair and thick beard, face covered in dirt and sweat and blood. I now christened him Speedy.
Bohriam un-manifested his sword back into whatever pocket dimension whence it came. “Alrighty then,” he said nervously. “I hope we have enough AGI for this. Follow me.” And in as much time as it would have taken for me to blink, he pivoted 180 degrees and took off in a sprint in the exact opposite direction of Speedy.
As soon as my mental reflexes caught up to me, I took off running after him.
I poured all the energy I had into my legs. They were still sore from earlier, but I pushed through the pain with all the adrenaline-fueled instinct of a deer running for its life from a wolf. Except this time, there were no metaphorical headlights to stop me.
It had gone down to T-minus ten seconds until impact, and I had no idea whether I was gaining or losing ground against Speedy. I had no way of knowing without turning around to look, and turning around to look was a surefire way to get myself killed. My world had only one direction: forward. The forest behind me was an unknowable abyss, and for once in my life I had to be okay with that.
All I did know, running forward at top speed, eyes centered on Bohriam’s back, was that I was losing ground against Bohriam. Shit. I redoubled my efforts to go as fast as humanly possible. And then I tried to go even further beyond, because I knew that was physically possible in this world.
A gruff shout from behind me. “Fireball!” A quick whooshing noise. And then a blast of fire hit the tree to my left and it exploded in flames.
Again. “Fireball!” This time, a tree to my right. The fireball crashed against the thin trunk of the tree, hitting it with enough force to snap it in half and send the flaming, decapitated treetop toppling toward the ground. Come on, that’s not even fair!
I veered left, dodging what I could of the firestorm of leaves and branches. The head of the tree smashed into the ground with a heavy crack that echoed throughout the forest and shook the ground enough to almost knock me off balance.
I wasn’t going to be able to keep this up for much longer. The muscles in my legs were shrieking in agony, overworked to the point that they already felt like they were on fire. I had to think fast, pun not intended, to come up with a way to survive this.
I mentally blitzed through everything I knew so far. I was in a world of stats, magic, and RPG mechanics. I was Level 1 or 0, if I even had a level at all, and my aggressor was probably a lot higher than that. Speedy had access to fire magic by merely invoking the name of—aha. Maybe I could fight fire with fire.
Still looking straight forward at the distant Bohriam, I tried aiming my hand behind me, fingers spread apart, and I shouted. “Fireball!”
… And nothing happened.
Shit. I tried again. This time with feeling. “FIREBALL!!!” And again, nothing happened except I felt like I was shooting up in the Darwin Award leaderboards.
“Fireball!” That time it was Speedy. His magic missile hit the ground just behind my feet, exploding in a blast of heat and flame that lifted me ten feet into the air and sent me spinning out of control. I screamed. This was how I was going to end.
Ahead of me, Bohriam skidded himself to a stop, turning around while manifesting his lightning sword again. He started running toward me, toward Speedy, raising his electrified blade and roaring like he was charging up to go Super Saiyan and then he brought his sword down in a definitive slash even though he was still at least fifty feet away from Speedy and the slashing sword unleashed a literal lightning bolt of energy that arced parallel to the ground and hit Speedy square in the chest.
That was what I saw in bits and pieces during the chaotic few seconds when I was tumbling through the air. And then Bohriam caught me. “Gotcha!”
It was far from a graceful landing, and even further from painless. I only had a split second to find my bearings again before Bohriam threw me over his shoulder and got back to running. I screamed again.
For a second I tried to think of a good joke about Bohriam being a literal pick-up artist, but then I saw that Speedy was still hot on our tail. Whatever damage Boh’s lightning bolt did, it wasn’t enough to seal the deal.
With his free arm, Bohriam held up a wooden bow for me. “Take it!”
“Where the fuck did this come from?!”
Oh, right. Magical hammerspace. I took the bow, then he held up a couple arrows to go along with it. I took those too.
“Don’t aim for the head,” Boh shouted. “Too small a target.”
Normally I would have been perfectly okay with not shooting to kill, but this situation was anything but normal. I was being carried over the shoulder of a fantasy hero who was apparently a weak one even though he could shoot lightning bolts out of his sword. This was the craziest day of my life, by at least a dozen orders of magnitude. I wondered if for Boh and Speedy this was just Tuesday.
Focus, Ash. You’re not out of the woods yet. I tried aiming the bow and arrow at Speedy, which was a lot harder than it already would have been, thanks to being slung over a shoulder that was already moving at top speed over uneven terrain. It would’ve been real nice if this bow had some crosshairs.
I aimed. I pulled back. My puny arm struggled against the tension of the bowstring. I fired. The arrow hurtled through the air, missing Speedy entirely. It hit the base of a tree far behind him, lodging itself into the tree’s bark with little fanfare. Damn. I was hoping it would at least explode or something.
I had one more arrow. I strung it back as far as I could, holding myself as steady as I could on this bumpy terrain, knowing how completely the odds were stacked against me. But if there was one thing I knew from years of anime and Terry Pratchett, it was that a one in a million shot was just dramatically improbable enough to be a near guaranteed success. Come on, literary clichés. Don’t let me down now. I launched the arrow.
It flew through the forest wind faster than I could see. And it hit… nothing. I lost sight of it completely. I had no idea where the arrow went, except that it clearly hadn’t hit Speedy, who was still chasing after us with all the intensity of a medieval Usain Bolt.
“Out of arrows,” I shouted at Bohriam.
“Me too,” Boh shouted back.
I resisted the urge to admonish him—what kind of poor excuse for an RPG protagonist only leaves home with two arrows? Then I realized he had probably used all his arrows up in the battle with the Gray Guard that I crashed. Then I realized he also probably wasn’t the protagonist of this adventure. At risk of sounding way too egomaniacal with my newfound cosmic destiny, that honor probably belonged to me.
“Do you have any more of those lightning grenades?” I asked.
“The thing you used back on the battlefield!”
“Oh, the Kineosphere,” Bohriam said. “Only one, but I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”
“It would be a pretty damn special occasion if we survived this! Use it!”
Bohriam hesitated for another few seconds before manifesting the Kineosphere out from his Inventory and into his hand. It was a ball of dark gray metal a couple inches wide, covered with about a dozen short cylindrical rounded spikes. It kind of reminded me of the mines from the old Windows Minesweeper game, except a lot sillier. Bohriam dropped the Kineosphere onto the ground below us.
“What are you doing?!”
“Wait for it…”
I waited for it. I watched as the Kineosphere receded into the distance, camouflaged among fallen branches and dead leaves from bygone years. Speedy didn’t seem to have noticed the dropped sphere, his furious eyes focused only on me. Eep.
And then he reached our landmine.
The Kineosphere burst up from the ground at just the right time to slam straight up into Speedy’s chin, immediately exploding into a beam of lightning that engulfed his skull and shoulders, blasting through the trees and into the sky and who knows how far beyond that. The beam’s luminosity seared my vision, forcing me to close my eyes lest I be rendered temporarily blind by the afterimage.
When I was finally able to open my eyes again, Speedy was no longer following us. His body lay on its back on the forest floor, feet limply pointing up. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive, or whether he even still had his head. Honestly, that was okay with me. I wasn’t sure which possibility would have been worse—that I had just taken part in a murder, or that the people of this world could survive lightning bolts to the face.
“He’s down,” I said.
Bohriam slowed his run to a walk and then to a staggering halt. “Thank Magann.” He dropped to his hands and knees. I politely dismounted, noting that Magann was a much more reasonable name for a local deity.
“Well that wasn’t fun,” I said. “Let’s never do it again.”
“It could’ve gone a lot worse,” Bohriam replied. “Luckily he tried using fireballs on you.”
“I mean, I knew we had a chance as soon as I heard him verbalize his magic. Only people with really low MAG and ATT need to do that. Does Earth really not have the Seven Sevens?”
“Dude, I once again have no idea what you’re talking about, so I’m gonna guess no, we don’t. And I’m also gonna guess that, whatever system of sweet magic you have on this planet, I don’t have it, considering my own attempts at verbalized fireballs went up in smoke. Uhh, in no smoke, that is.” At least now I knew what Seriphen’s fuck-up was. (Hint: It was me, as it always is.)
Bohriam nodded, deep in thought. “Well, we can worry about that later. For now, we need to get back to my town—a couple miles north of here. I need to tell them that they don’t have an army anymore.”