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In my dive, I slammed into Susie-Q. We tumbled through the hedge and into the air. I wrapped my arms around her, and we crashed onto a grated platform. She shrieked, and I lifted my eyes. On each side were creatures of nightmare. As large as the biggest of dogs, eight-legged monsters stood around, with vines whipping from their backs. The vines weren't just a trap; they were living creatures.

    “No sudden moves,” I whispered into Susie-Q’s ear.

    I stood, watching the plant arachnids with caution. They were spiders for sure, their bodies made of foliage, but their eight eyes were red balls of blood or maybe they were berries. Their thorny vines swayed as they watched us.

    Susie-Q stood and glanced each way. “Should I use Rachel?”

    The spiders' names appeared, Lv09 Grape Vine. Six such creatures existed.

    “Summon her.” I gripped my sword. “And make sure she’s big.”

    Susie-Q looked at her menu and spoke. “Rachel, come.”

    She clicked a button in the air and a great growling came from across the hedges several feet above us. The Grape Vines went into action, striking at Susie-Q.

    “No!” I activated Battle Cry and blocked Susie-Q from the attacks.

    Six vine whips hit me. My health dipped under five percent. I fell to one knee, grabbing my chest. I’d almost died from one round of attacks.

    “Don’t protect me!” Susie-Q shook her head. “Please don’t!”

    I wheezed. “Can’t help it. It’s my job role.”

    A shadow flew over our heads, blocking out the rain for a moment. The great cat, Rachel, landed between the critters and us. My eyes widened. She’d grown to the size of a tiger, if not larger.

    Susie-Q pulled me back. “Rachel, guard us!”

    We ended at the edge of the platform, near a suspension chain. My head lolled, and I looked through the grate. Below were tall, thin thorns, as if a pit designed by Vlad the Impaler.

    Rachel hissed, and swiped her claws, striking one Grape Vine. Its health dropped to half, and the others converged upon the giant calico.

    “Rachel!” I gasped. “She'll need our help.”

    Susie-Q reached into the menu and pulled out a large red potion. “This will heal you.”

    I took the flask and downed it in one gulp. It tasted boysenberry-ish. My health climbed inch by inch.

    “I thought this was a full heal potion?”

    “No, regeneration.” She glanced sidelong. “Give it time. It’ll heal up to two hundred HP.”

    I stood back up, holding Scalpel before me. “We don’t have the time.”

    “If not, you die. And then I die. You want to be a hero, right? You sound just like my son!”

    I screwed up my face. “Your son?”

    “Never mind.” Susie-Q jumped into her menu again. This time, she drew a six-shooter pistol. “I’ve no choice.”

    “I didn’t even know you had a gun! Hurry and use it!”

    Rachel backed away, hissing and swatting. Her health had reached half, and only two of the six Grape Vines had fallen.

    Susie-Q lifted her firearm and pulled the trigger. The force of the powerful gun threw her arms over her head. A spider’s life bar hit zero, and it shattered into light.

    “What kind of weapon is that?”

    “Magnum.” She gritted her teeth. “I didn’t know it had such a kick!”

    I watched as she joined Rachel, and covered her, aiming and firing at the monsters on her flank. A vine whipped out and smacked Susie-Q across the face. She couldn’t handle them without me, so I ran into the fray, my health bar only at half.

    Susie-Q gasped. “What are you doing? You’ll get yourself killed!”

    “No, I won’t!” I swung Scalpel and struck a Grape Vine. It retaliated, and I tried to spin away, but its attack clipped my shoulder and almost executed me. My HP dropped to a third.

    “Careful!” She shoved her gun forward, firing. The spider creature squealed and stumbled back to the pit's edge.

    I rushed forward, leaping an enemy, and stabbing forward with a Lightning Jab. The arachnid jumped back and fell. I pumped my fist. “Yes!”

    I spun to the remaining two spiders. Rachel and I flanked one. It tried to keep us at bay, whipping back and forth, but never reaching far enough to strike. The other came in at Rachel, but her Tamer blasted it away.

    The final spider chose Rachel as its target and smacked her head aside.

    “Lightning Jab!” I stabbed Scalpel. My attack struck the front of the ugly pest. Its hit points dropped to near zero, and Rachel came back, with a great roar. The air rippled as a shock wave blasted forth. I dropped my blade and covered my ears so not to take damage. The spider glowed red and exploded into nothing.

    “Phew!” I retrieved Scalpel.

    “That was close.” Susie-Q sighed. “Good job, Rachel!”

    The large cat purred and approached her owner. She rubbed against the girl, making her look diminutive.

    “Can you heal Rachel?” I asked. “Her health is low.”

    “I have no mending abilities for my familiars yet, and no more crackers.” Susie-Q shrugged. “But I have another regeneration potion.”

    She opened her inventory and withdrew another large red flask.

    “Open wide!” The cat obeyed the command, and its jaw fell open. She tilted the potion in, and the cat drank. Its HP ticked up a few points every second.

    “Dammit, that was close.” I looked around and the tall hedges, surrounding us. We stood on a lowered, but suspended platform.

    “Wait.” Susie-Q stopped and looked. “Do you hear?”

    I held my breath and listened. A vine spider came out of nowhere. It swung onto the platform with one of its vines. With only one percent HP, it had to be the one I knocked away. The spider flew, landing on Rachel’s back. It reared up and then sank its fangs into her neck.

    “Rachel!” Susie-Q screeched.

    Rachel’s HP hit zero.

    Our jaws dropped as the cat looked to its master, confused. She whimpered and glowed red. Susie-Q screamed and shoved the magnum into the face of the Grape Vine and fired. The arachnid flew, flipping to its back, legs curling underneath, and vanishing.

    “No, no, no, no, no!” Susie-Q covered her mouth.

    Rachel shrank back to her normal size, and stumbled, her strength failing her.

    “Oh crap,” I murmured.

    Susie-Q scooped the cat in her arms. With a small meow, Rachel shattered.

    The horrified girl sobbed. “You can’t leave me! No, no! I need you, my little Rachel! You’re the only one who cares about me; loves me! You can’t die, you can’t!”

    Salty tears entered my hanging mouth before I ever felt them coming. I sheathed Scalpel and kneeled next to Susie-Q. “I’m sorry”

    “No you’re not! You don’t care! She was my only friend. My baby!”

    I swallowed hard and sighed, standing and facing away. I’d had pets in my life; two dogs, a few cats, a rabbit... I knew the pain of loss well. It seemed every pet I owned died young, and from something unpreventable.

    “I am sorry.” I shook my head.

    “Leave me alone.” Susie-Q's voice was icy.

    “It’s not wise to be by yourself.”

    “I don’t care.”

    I heaved a sigh. “You can’t stay—”

    “I said leave, dammit! Before I throw myself into this pit!”

    I turned and regarded the girl. She kneeled with her arms in the same position as if Rachel were still there.

    “Dammit...” I walked to the platform's edge and grabbed the thick chain, swinging myself. With caution, I climbed to the hedge top. I perched atop a pillar and scanned the maze. It didn’t reach that far. I memorized the path to get to the manor.

    I didn’t enjoy being separated from the group. With my map, I searched for Zimea and Pan. The Assassin had almost reached the manor, and Zimea trailed.

    I took one last glance at Susie-Q. “Stay safe.”

    With that, I hopped onto the path, and found the blood trail, following it. I curved and made my way to the manor's front side. Pan stood at the exit of the hedge maze. He looked back as I came.

    “You made it.” He grinned. “But where are the ladies? Still alive, I hope?”

    “They are.” I nodded. “But Susie-Q lost Rachel.”

    “I hope she hadn’t become too attached to the virtual feline. And if it hinders her abilities in combat, then we will need to kick her from the party.”

    “You can’t be serious!”

    “Oh, but I am.”

    I cursed under my breath. Susie-Q didn’t even have another strong pet; only Molly the Nevermore. She had her gun even though Creature Tamers weren’t proficient in firearms.

    “So, we wait before attacking the Unicorn.” I crossed my arms.

    “No.” Pan grinned wide. “We are sufficient.”

    “I don’t think we should fight it alone.”

    “Come now. The beast is only level nine. If you do not wish to fight, then I shall take it on my own.”

    Pan walked towards the manor where the Unicorn grazed in a patch of grass.

    “Wait!” I ran alongside him.

    “Goodie!” Pan clapped his hands. “Draw the creature’s attention, and I'll take care of the rest.”

    “Easier said than done.”

    I ran within twenty feet of the beast. It lifted its eyes and stood as still as a statue.

    “Don’t worry, buddy.” I drew Scalpel. “We only need to kill you.”

    The Unicorn snorted, and rainbow flames shot from its nostrils.

    I raised Scalpel and used Battle Cry. The Unicorn stomped its hooves and charged. It barreled toward me, and I jumped to the side. It ran past, skidded on the grass, and shook its head. Its mane flew as the wind increased. I no longer saw Pan.

    “If he left me, I swear...” I muttered.

    On came the unicorn again, its head lowered, ready to impale. I stepped away and snapped my sword, deflecting the silver attack. Sparks flew, and the blow had me stumbling.

    I grinned. “Here, horsey, horsey!”

    It came back fast this time. There was no time to dodge, so I stabbed forward, engaging in a game of chicken. The Unicorn didn’t yield, and my sword cut deep into the side of its face. It jerked, and the horn caught my coat. The next thing I knew, I hit the ground.

    “Crap!” My back slammed the stones as it dragged me toward the maze. I struggled to maneuver out of my coat, but I couldn’t.

    “Fool!” Pan fell from the sky and landed on the back of the Unicorn.

    The beast skidded, and Pan sank a pair of daggers into its shoulders. He flipped from the front and stumbled into the hedge. I twisted free and slashed Scalpel along the backside of its legs. It howled and reared back, shaking its head.

    “Behind you!” Pan shouted and hurled a dagger.

    I gasped, falling to my knees. A wretched vine spider squealed in its death throes. I turned to see the creepy thing glowing and dying.

    “Thanks, I—” My words cut short.

    The Unicorn had its head forward and twisted its spike inside of Pan’s chest. His eyes widened, and he grabbed at the horn. His hit points were draining fast.

    “Die!” I ran forward and jabbed the Unicorn’s face. It pulled back and turned but I brought my arm back around and chopped the bottom of the horn, which came off clean.

    The Blood Unicorn whinnied, reared, and burst.

    Pan slid to the ground, holding a gaping hole in his character. He didn’t bleed, but the hole glowed the same color as an enemy when it died.

    “Are you okay?” I reached for the hole.

    Pan smacked my hand away. “Tis but a flesh wound.”

    Despite the unicorn’s death, his health lowered; the opposite effect of regeneration.

    “What’s happening to you?” I sheathed my sword.

    “The Bleeding status.” Pan sighed. “I’ll continue to lose hit points for a set period.”

    “How long is that? We need to keep you on potions!”

    Pan looked at his health bar. “It reads one hour.”

    “That’s ridiculous! No one can live that long bleeding so bad.”

    “A sad truth.” Pan shrugged. “Only a Priest or Doctor can heal the effect.”

    “A Priest?” I remembered Orion, Joker’s brother. “We can get you one, but we need out of this Dungeon!”

    “Goodie, goodie!” Pan grinned. “But we’d best make haste. I only have a few potions left.”

    I nodded and helped him to his feet. Zimea came walking over, shaking her head. “I worried sick about you, dude! Why isn’t Susie-Q moving on the map?” 

    I lowered my head. “Rachel... The cat bit the dust.”

    Zimea cursed. “We gotta find her a new familiar.”

    “It’s not that simple. She loved her and acted like it was her cat in real life.”

    “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.” Pan scooped the unicorn horn. “But I will die if we don’t find the boss soon.”

    Zimea looked at Pan’s wound, and her jaw dropped. “What the hell happened to him?”

    “Oh, you know, just a romantic toil with a mythical beast.” Pan rolled his head and walked by. “Now, shall we go?”

    “What about Susie-Q?” I glanced back.

    “She’ll get teleported with us.” Zimea waved for me.

    “Poor girl. She's suffering.”

    Zimea shrugged. “Don't want to sound like a bitch, but unless we clear this game, none of us will ever find happiness again.”

    “True enough,” I muttered.


Bit 18: Platforming

(click here to go to Amazon to purchase the title)…

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