A chorus of whispered assents, and we advance into the cavern, Wind in front, assault rifle snugged to her cheek and gently bobbing from side to side, Slend to the left, chain mail softly clinking. I scan our right flank through the holographic sights of my own rifle, trying to take in everything, knowing that anything could be a warning, or a threat. In the Game, you learn quick or you die. Exhalations of steam billow from gently bubbling mounds ringing the edges of the room, creating a hot, wet mist in the air.
We cautiously advance counterclockwise around the room, keeping clear of the large, shadowed mass in the center. The tension saws at my nerves, every sense hyperalert, waiting for the encounter to begin. Magma vents continue their slow churn. We make it halfway across the room, and then everything goes to hell.
A Smile like an Open Grave
Wind screams the word with an accompanying burst of gunfire, and my head snaps over to the left. The hulking shape in the center of the room, what I thought might be rockfall or a golemtrap, is slowly unfurling a huge pair of wings, delicate purple veins undulating against the leathery skin. A long neck stretches up into the air, tapered scales running its entire length, and perched atop is the dragon's death-cold stare. Malevolent red eyes glitter beneath thickly armored brows, and a crown of horns sweeps back from the top of its head. It opens its mouth, revealing two sets of meter-long serrated teeth, and roars, blasting sound at us like a riot suppressor.
"What do we do? What do we do?" Kiro squawks in alarm, his breath labored. It sounds like he's hyperventilating.
"Stay relaxed. Scatter and ground it." My voice is calm, but only from years of training. Inside, my heart feels like it's going to burst through my chest. It's incredibly rare to encounter a dragon, and the wipe rate against them is close to ninety percent. We've only fought one once before, and that was carefully planned out over an entire month. Even then, if it hadn't been for Brand working miracles in support, we would've failed.
Nothing you can do now, except fight your way through. Just another encounter.
I sprint to the right, keeping away from the magma vents and maintaining my distance from the giant wyrm. Adrenaline surges, the old fight or flight instinct kicking into gear, and I flip my assault rifle up, thumbing off the safety. I focus on my sights and loose a chattering series of shots on the run, aiming for the dragon's wings. Several impact the worm-like veins, but only open small holes—our tech weapons still weakened by the rules of Everdark. Not good. If we don't keep the beast from getting airborne, we have no chance. We learned that the hard way last time.
"Kiro! Ranged buff, now!"
An orange glow suffuses the air around my tactical rifle, but it's fitful and weak, like a sputtering fire. I curse under my breath—Kiro isn't maintaining his forms properly, lessening the effect of the spell, which means I can't afford to miss. I slide to a halt, snug the stock up to my shoulder and cheek, the movement second nature by now, and take a deep breath. Slowly exhale, pause, then gently squeeze the trigger.
Chattering barks fill the air, and my bullets slam home, tracers filling the air with bright flashes. Three of the veins I aimed for wink out, spurts of purple blood falling to the rocks below. The dragon's right wing goes limp and ragged, unable to maintain its structural integrity. Short bursts of gunfire from the other side of the room indicate Wind and Slend following my lead, efficient as always, trusting that I can handle my side on my own. After playing for this long together, it's almost like we can read each other's minds. The other wing shudders and falls. Kiro cowers near one of the back walls, fumbling at the safety on his gun with one hand while trying to maintain the complicated finger motions for the spell with his other. He's not doing a great job of accomplishing either. At his feet, his anchoring staff lies forgotten.
The dragon screams in rage, rearing up on two hind legs, thrashing its now-useless wings and sending the mist roiling. A spiked tail comes whipping across the ground, and I vault it with one hand, slapping the pebbled skin to give myself a boost over the top of its mass. Jagged tail spines whistle past my body, but I chose my gap carefully, and I land unscathed on the other side. Suddenly, the beast draws in a huge breath, chest expanding out like a balloon. Scales glow cherry red across the front of its torso.
We have ten seconds before someone gets incinerated. Another fact learned the hard way.
"Regroup at Kiro and get ready to group shield," I yell, integrated comm channel sending my words to the others. The tail comes slashing back in my direction, and this time I tumble underneath. A spike snags my rifle strap, sending the weapon spinning away across the floor, but I use the change in momentum to roll upright and back to my feet.
Thank goodness the quick-release clip worked properly, otherwise I'd be a red smear on the rocks right now.