In the past half a year, I used Haste so many times it had nearly become ingrained — it was a versatile spell, with rarely an instance where it would be useless. Right now, for instance, against monsters that had neither soul nor mind and who could move with agility surpassing any adventurer, Haste was quite possibly my greatest asset.
It took me a mere moment to cast the spell — only on myself, charged with as much Dimension mana as I was able to draw, as time was of the essence — but even with a single instant passing the battlefield had changed considerably. Haste snapped into place, and the world around me slowed to a crawl. In real time, it would only last fraction of a second, but for me perhaps a couple of seconds would pass. But there was no time for hypothesizing. There was a battle to focus on.
I gathered my bearings and took a good look at the battlefield. Three vines had shot out from a copse of trees to our right — two were headed straight for David, either of which would impale him if left uncountered, while the last one circled around the group to strike at Alexis, who was still off-balance from having been dragged across the ground.
Another four had burst from the left, though our position on the right side of the creek meant they would arrive slightly late to the party. These vines had spread out, with two having gone around our group, likely looking to neutralize our backline — myself and Cameron. Another was poised to strike at Shiro, who was still staring at the original three — and he wouldn’t know there were enemies coming from behind. Finally, the last one was oddly headed towards the bear.
First things first, though — I needed to get myself out of the immediate danger before I could help anyone else. I shifted my weight to my right leg, trying to dodge the vine headed my way — or at least, I tried to. Moving was like swimming through a tar pit. Worse than a tar pit, actually, since even a viscous fluid would have some give.
But I had pushed the spell too hard, trying to stretch a single moment into infinity, and as a result the Hasting had been imbalanced — my mind had been quickened, but my body had been left behind. And with the spell taking up all of my available mana, there was nothing I could do from here, not until I released my current spell — aside from coming up with a battle plan and hopefully relaying this information to the rest of my team once I was out.
A battle plan, then. This had been Leon’s purview, back in my adventuring days, and sometimes Kyrian’s, but never mine — but now I had these kids depending on me, and letting them down was not an option.
In the moments I spent debating with this, the vines had already gained some ground. They were still moving slowly to my eye, but if I had to guess, once the spell wore off the vines behind me and Cameron would skewer us within the second — and so, the first step of my the plan was congealed: lunging away from their path and pushing young mage out of the way.
Next, both David and Shiro were in a precarious position. David had already sensed the danger, and he’d jumped, twirling slowly in the air as he brought his daggers before him in a defensive stance, ready to slice apart his assailants. But concentrated as he was on the two in front of him, he wouldn’t notice the vine coming to strike him from behind — the one who had seemed to target the bear, only to use the undead animal’s bulk to hide its own approach.
Shiro had leaped to David’s aid, either not trusting the boy to handle the vines himself or simply going for the first enemy to catch his attention. But this left his back undefended from the tendril on the left, and his own target was already twisting out of the way. If he missed — when he missed — he’d be left wide open for the other vine to grapple him to the ground.
Alexis, true to her ranger abilities, already had eyes on her attacker, in spite of its attempts to sneak up on the girl. Knife in hand, she’d assumed a low stance, ready to greet the attacker. She’d been sorely underestimated, and likely wouldn’t need any help.
My eyes finally zipped to Sarah, but before I could parse her situation, I felt the Haste slip away from my grasp — the extended time was over, and a heartbeat later reality had reasserted its grasp on the flow of time.
I pushed hard against the ground under me, throwing myself to the left, and raised both my arms and shoved Cameron as hard as my body allowed. At the same time, threads of Dimension came happily at my call as I worked a new instance of Haste — a less intense version, but one to affect our entire group.
My own attacker had gone wide, perhaps surprised to find its target no longer in its path. Cameron stumbled away with a yelp, his vine barely missing the boy and brushing against my extended arm instead.
I had no time to turn around and see what the original vine was doing, because the one before me was already twisting in the air, changing its target to the one who’d caused it to miss. Without thinking, I ducked while doubling down on the spell, rushing it to a close and finally setting the group Haste in place.
The effect wasn’t as staggering as the previous one, but nevertheless, the world around me — around us — slowed. No longer were the vines quick as lightning and twice as nimble, now brought down to a more manageable level.
I rolled to the right, and as I came to face the sky I saw that my decision to duck had been a good one, with the vine that had attacked me having also adjusted its path to circle back to where I had dodged. Cameron had finally noticed the two, and his demeanor quickly shifted as he fell into a ready stance, drawing a knife that had been strapped to his thigh. I silently praised his foresight — magic could be quick, but a jab with a sharp blade was still, especially when faced in close combat.
Fire erupted before him, catching both tendrils by surprise — and nearly singing my eyebrows for the second time in less than two weeks. I rolled away and back to my feet, turning my back to the boy and his battle. I was fairly certain I had a good grasp of his abilities, and Force was a good match against the two vines.
The other side of the battlefield was nothing like it had been mere moments ago, and I suppressed a grimace as I noticed that my unannounced Haste had had unintended consequences on the fight — and not good ones, to my chagrin.
With the vines moving slower than expected, both David and Shiro had overshot their targets. Of the two, David was better off — he had caught on to the change of pace and adjusted accordingly after missing his first strike, and had managed to get a good strike on one of his two tendrils. It was now missing a good portion of its tip, with about two feet of its length having fallen limp to the ground. At least it didn’t remain alive once detached — that was good to know.
The other vine had retreated upon its failed attack, sensing that the roguish boy was no longer an easy target, and instead abandoned its companion (was it even its companion, or were they merely the limbs of a bigger organism?) in search of a better approach. But there was still another one of the tendrils just behind David, one he didn’t know about. It was about to reach him, when—
Sarah, who’d been hidden from my line of sight by her bear had not missed the willowy vine as it tried to sneak around her. With a gauntleted hand, she grabbed the tendril, yanking it back, while her other hand completed a wide arc of her sword, slicing the plant monster cleanly and severing it several feet from the tip.
Meanwhile, Shiro had overshot his target so hard that he’d completely leaped over the vine, crashing heavily into the soft ground and skidding to a halt some distance away. But he was exposed, and his own vine had already reassessed its trajectory and was coming for a second attack.
Sarah and David were too far away to help, while Alexis and Cameron were locked in their own fights — so I channeled Force, the same spell as I had with the scout. Fire would have worked better, but given how the vines had engaged the Heroes in melee, I decided against it.
Friendly fire, after all, wasn’t.
A framework shaped like a net, intent poised to bind and capture, and a modicum of mana combined into an invisible yet, for the vine, devastating effect as it was stopped in its tracks, unable to as much as wiggle in place. And it tried, with all the power it could muster, but compared to a barely-sentient piece of vegetation, my will was iron.
Its struggle to break my grasp ceased, suddenly, once Shiro rose to his feet and charged the tendril head on, grabbing it with both hands and pulling with a surprising amount of force — Sarah must have already empowered him with her aura. I dismantled my spell as the tendril went limp, ripped from its roots or main body or whatever source had spawned it.
I turned around, taking a moment to check how the battle had evolved. True to my expectations, Cameron had held his own, with one charred husk of a vine lying dead over the creek’s bed while the other flailed wildly, trying but failing to put itself out — it wouldn’t succeed, either. Magical fire was not so easily extinguished.
Cameron, himself, was not too worse for the wear. His gaze was alert, scanning for threats. I met his eyes and motioned ahead of us, where two vines remained.
Or at least, I had thought they did. But upon closer inspection, David had already charged to Alexis’s aid, making quick work of the vine that had locked her into battle. And the last one, the vine who’d retreated earlier was nowhere to be seen.
A few moments passed where nobody said anything; only the sound of the desperate flaming vine could be heard over the tense silence. Finally, like a set of dominoes, everybody relaxed, some sighing in relief and Cameron whooping for joy.
As for myself, once it was clear the danger had passed, I couldn’t help but break into a smile. I had been worried, afraid even, that the kids wouldn’t be up to the task of assaulting the Archipelago, even with their System-enhanced power — but it seemed all my worries had been misplaced.
“Plant monsters? Really?” Shiro asked, dropping onto the ground into a cross-legged position. He leaned backwards, propping himself up with his arms and stretching his back.
“What’s wrong with plant monsters?” I asked, more than a bit amused.
“Nothing, but just imagine if we’d lost. Being done in by plant monsters. I’d never live it down.”
“Nah, if we lost here, we’d all be too dead to care,” Sarah said as she hopped back onto her bear. Winnie had been of no use during the fight, his simple wight programming not tuned for high speed monster battles. Once we were back on the ship, I would need to adjust the bear’s mind to better suit our needs.
“I mean, most of us were okay, but Shiro here was looking pretty scuffed during the fight,” David said, lips curling into a sly grin. “It would have been awkward if he bit the bullet. ‘Oh, if only we hadn’t lost Shiro to the plant monsters!’”
“Piss off,” Shiro said, but there was no heat in it.
“Plant monsters are nothing to scoff at,” I said, breaking apart their little moment of levity. “Some of the most dangerous dungeons house various kinds of hostile plant life. Many good adventurers have fallen to them.”
Sarah broke into laughter. “I’m sorry,” she said between breaths, struggling to get the words out, “it’s just, you said ‘plant monster’ with such a serious look on your face.”
“What else would I call them?”
“I don’t know, something more scholarly?” she asked, her grin still reaching her ears as she tried to contain her laughter.
“Yeah, something like, I don’t know, malicious vegetation?” Alexis piped up. “Chlorophyllic fiend, maybe?”
“Guys, guys,” David said, waving his hands. “Doom vegetables.”
“There’s nothing wrong with plant monster. They’re monsters, and their origins are plants. Hence, plant monster,” I said, quite miffed.
My complaint fell on deaf ears, however, as the five teenage heroes began were completely taken with the idea of mocking the enemies we’d just defeated.
Alexis turned to David. “Young man,” she said in an authoritative tone, planting her hands on her hips, “you better eat all your doom veggies, or else…”
He fell to his knees, clutching his shirt in mock pain. “But moooooooooom!”