Her feet barely stayed beneath her as she ran. The terrain in this part of the mountains was treacherous – not only was it rocky and hard, but the trail would turn back on itself after a hairpin turn, leaving the feeling that no progress was made at all. She used her hands to pull herself along when the trail led through a particularly rocky outcropping, propelling her body forward like a rock in a slingshot. All she knew was that she had to keep running to avoid the monster that stayed just a few strides behind her. If she allowed herself to get caught, the pain would be far worse than the intermittent stabbing of the rocks on the soles of her feet.
Her hands found the potion bottle in her pack and popped the cork, not needing to stop moving to finish the liquid inside, as her body faded from view. The sound of the footsteps hounding her, driving her to keep moving, suddenly slowed and she almost allowed herself to punch the air and cry out in victory. Successful test of invisibility potion – she slowed her pace and ducked behind the first tree she saw. The mountains did not make a suitable home for most trees due to the rocky soil. Still, luckily this was a large tree that would provide cover in case the invisibility didn’t hold. Forcing herself to calm down and take shallow breaths was harder than it should be. She dug in the pack again and swore quietly. Unable to locate another potion, any food, or a full skin of water – any of those things would have helped replenish the energy she expended on the sprint up the mountainside. All she had at the moment was the air, those controlled breaths, and the fact that she was free. It would have to do.
“Em!” She smiled at the sound of a familiar voice calling her. “Did you lose it?”
“Yep. That potion worked, good job!” She leaned back and sighed thankfully. “You outdid yourself, Alex. I didn’t even have to stop running.”
“That was the point,” he replied. Maddie rubbed her closed eyes for a moment as she yawned. “You getting tired?”
“A little, yes, but I’m good. What’s next?”
“Well, if you open your map, you’ll see that I’ve marked your next target. This one is a little tougher though – I’m not sure that potion will do as well as just running as fast as you can.”
Maddie frowned as she looked at the map, noting that the red X Alex had marked was on top of something that looked like a tunnel. “Is it underground?” There was no answer, and Maddie rubbed her temples. “Alex?”
“Um, yes. I know you don’t like closed spaces, Em, but it will only be for a second. If you let me guide you, we will be in and out with the loot before you know it.” There was a long pause, and she knew he was letting her mull over the prize associated with such risky behavior. “No one else is as fast as you are, Em.”
“Feels more like no one else is as expendable as I am.”
“You know that isn’t true, darlin’.” She sighed loudly. That was a dirty trick, using his southern charm to get her to agree. She loathed how well it worked.
“Fine. Give me a minute or two to recharge, and then I will be good to go.”
“You are an angel.”
“You are a bastard. Now be quiet and let me concentrate.” She could hear him chuckle and did not resist as her mouth tugged up at the corners into a smile. As she opened her well-worn spell book, she resisted the urge to go straight to the page she needed and simply turned the pages slowly, looking at the evidence of her training there in the scribbled spells. She looked over a few that would be helpful and committed them to memory before putting the book back in her rucksack. It was a good thing that the book was under a spell to be much lighter than it would typically have been. This was the price of extensive magical training – an increasingly heavy book of spells. She got back up and shook herself off. “All right, let’s do this thing.”
“One second, Em, let me scout ahead for you.”
She giggled. “NOW he is a gentleman?”
“Okay, all clear.” She took off at a dead trot for the spot on the map he had marked. “You may want to take it easy there, Em, it’s kinda crowded in there.”
“Just how I like it.” She spun her daggers in her hands in a moment of flashy bravado and grinned as she heard him chuckle. “I can’t believe it took me so long to figure out how to do that!”
“I can’t believe you never think to release them after you spin them because of the added torque from the spinning, that -”
“-would push them to fly faster and land harder and kill more efficiently, yes, I know. You aren’t the only one that paid attention to all that tutoring in weapons use, Alex.” She could imagine his grin. “Besides, you know I only do that to look cool.” She jumped into the air, turning an almost perfect somersault before landing.
“Yes, just like that.” Alex laughed but soon returned to his serious We Are In Raid Mode demeanor. “Just be careful, all right? I’m not kidding when I say this place is tight – I don’t know if I could get into where you are with enough time if something happened.”
“Nothing is going to happen! Relax, I’ll be -” She skidded to a halt as she came to the entrance to the burrow. It was nothing more than a hole in the side of a small, rocky hill – like the entrance to an underground tunnel at best or a large animal’s home, at worst. “Um, Alex, is this the right place?”
“Okay, great. Should there be any movement in there at the moment?”
“What?” She inched closer to the entrance, crouching as she moved as if to hide behind the non-existent brush cover on this section of the landscape. There was nothing to conceal her approach; she straightened up and continued at a snail’s pace, straining to see what looked like movement near the opening in the ground. “What do you see?”
“Do you not see anything?” Four figures crawled up out of the ground and surrounded the entrance. “I’ve got four possible hostiles up here – none of them seem to have noticed me, though.” She moved even closer to get a better look. The four of them were all the same height as each other and only slightly shorter than she, and they all wore dark brown cloaks with hoods so she couldn’t tell if they were male or female or human, or elves, or…alive. She raised one of her hands slowly, and there was no response, so she waved at them.
“Em, what are you doing?”
“You are the greatest potions master I have ever known, Alex. They can’t see me because of your invisibility potion. Well done!” She waved both her arms over her head and then suppressed a giggle when there was still no response. “They can’t see me. I’m going in.”
“Wait, Em, I think they can -” Not waiting for Alex to finish the sentence, she took off sprinting toward the cave entrance. The four figures did not move until she was almost past them – their bodies turned, and arms shot out to catch her and hold her fast virtually before she could see them move at all. Flailing against them, she stabbed the air with her daggers as she tried in vain to land a blow.
“I could use a little help here!” she snapped, but Alex had fallen silent. “From where you are, Alex, there’s no sense in both of us being – OW!” The figure on her right twisted her arm behind her, pinning it to her back at the wrist. The counterpart at her left arm did the same, and the two on her feet soon had them bound – with magic, dark magic that stung the areas on her legs where her trousers had been torn in her frenzy to free herself. “Alex, they are casters, and I don’t think -”
The blow to her head must have been what caused everything to go suddenly dark. Maddie thought she could barely make out Alex calling her name, but she couldn’t be sure. She pushed back from the keyboard and pulled the headphones off for a moment, swearing as she hopped out of her desk chair. What on earth had she been thinking, running in there alone? Of course those things could see her. The bar on the screen that served as a timer on potions had turned red long before she ran up and waved at them like a drunk sports fan who just discovered the tv reporter with a camera outside the pub.
She let her auburn hair down from the clip holding it on top of her head and then fixed it back into a bun on the back of her head. After rubbing her eyes for a moment, she replaced her glasses and walked back over to the computer just in time to hear Alex calling her through the headphones. She put them back on and pushed the talk button on the keyboard. “What?”
“You weren’t answering me. It makes me twitchy, and you know that. I know how much you hate it when your toon dies.”
“Yeah, well, she might not be dead, she might be unconscious -” She glanced at the screen.
Returning to Starting Point, Loading, Please Wait…
“Oh, yeah, okay, she’s dead.”
“I’m sorry. This time I will go in there.”
“You’ll never fit. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Maddie heard a hitch in Alex’s voice. “You, uh, heading out’?”
“Yep. I need to sleep. I’m not at my best if I think I can take four shadow guardians on my own like that.”
Alex chuckled. “Is that what you think they were? Shadow Guardians?” They were some of the toughest opponents in the game, and Maddie hadn’t been sure until right before they knocked her avatar unconscious.
“Yeah, I saw the emblem on one of the robes when they hoisted me upside down,” she replied, chuckling. “It’s all good. We’ll try again tomorrow. Besides, I have a book to read.” Alex had suggested a fantasy series to her that she had fallen head over heels in love with, and she couldn’t wait to start reading again. Maybe that was what had distracted her from the game?
“Yeah, you do. Night, Em. Sweet dreams.”
“You too, sweetie.” She logged out of the game and the voice chat and hung the headphones on the monitor before switching off her desk lamp and heading upstairs. She paused in the kitchen to make a cup of tea to take up to bed with her, then grabbed her phone in one hand and her cup in the other, making sure to tuck the novel she was working through under her arm. It was tempting to take her laptop up as well and keep working on the story she was writing for this year’s novel-writing challenge, but she couldn’t bear to look at a screen any longer. The book would have to do.