Dave reacts first, shooting a hastily drawn arrow point-blank at the startled Froggo that just came out of his hut. The Froggo barely dodges, the greysteel projectile zooms past its cheek, leaving a scratch from which big drops of green blood well up.
The Froggo inhales.
Jacob Charges and rams the edge of his shield into the startled Froggo’s swelling throat. The creature gurgles and goes sprawling back into the hut. Jacob follows him in. His blade flashes and a spurt of thick green blood comes flying out.
It remains quiet after that. I release a breath I didn’t know I was holding and mentally curse myself. I had the blowpipe at the ready; why did I freeze?
I shake my head, share a relieved glance with Kaitlynn, and move onward.
After another minute or so of sneaking, we reach the barge. It’s tied—with vines, of course—to two wooden poles sticking up from a simple dock made from carefully stacked rocks.
The barge itself is a 20-foot-long, flat wooden boat, that appears to be carved entirely from a single piece of wood—even the small cabin at the back. Even the movable parts, like the steering wheel in front of the small cabin and the rudder behind it, seem to have been cut from the same tree.
Dave quickly takes charge, putting Jacob and Kaitlynn to work untying it with some gestures and undoubtedly some telepathic commands.
<Stand on lookout,> he sends me, confirming my suspicions.
As I turn to face the village together with Alec, a glimmer catches my eye from a nearby hut. I frown and walk a few steps to the right.
My eyes widen. The cottage I’m currently ogling is actually a little bigger than the rest, and stands a little higher, on wooden poles. What catches my eye, however, is the glimmer and glow of crystals inside, and particularly, the altar from which a fully crystal trident rises up.
A weapon with the Toughness of crystal... wouldn’t that be crazy strong? You could probably pierce through greysteel with that! With enough Strength, you could probably ram that sucker straight through Jacob’s shield... as a purely hypothetical example, of course.
I swallow thickly. Alec by now has caught on to what I’m looking at and turns to me with glittering eyes.
I hesitate for only a moment before I turn back to the barge to flag down Dave. He comes over with a frown, eyes scanning the village behind us.
“What’s wrong?” he whispers.
“I just found the motherlode,” I whisper back excitedly, before pointing back. “That building appears to be some kind of temple; didn’t the appraisal say something about the Froggo’s worshipping crystals? Well, that place is chock-full of them. I’m going to take a look.”
“I’m coming with,” Alec quickly says.
Dave frowns. “Wait. What if it’s, like, boobytrapped?”
“We’ll be careful,” I say, “you guys ready the getaway car, we’ll take care of the heist.”
I turn around before he can protest some more. There’s no way I’m leaving a room full of treasure alone.
We sneak over to the wooden stairs leading up to the entrance and look around. I may be greedy, but not stupid; if there’s valuable stuff there’s bound to be—
My heart skips a beat when I spot it. Backlit by the crystals lighting up the room, the thin wire which stretches across the entrance before disappearing into a hole in the doorpost is actually not that hard to spot, if you’re paying attention.
Silently, I point it out to Alec. His eyes widen.
Wary of other traps, I look beneath the building. It’s rather dark, but I at least don’t see any obvious things sticking out of the floor’s bottom, or any obvious holes in the ground with spikes at the bottom or anything like that below either.
I wonder what the tripwire triggers. Judging by how primitive the Froggo’s are, I honestly doubt they’d have any sophisticated mechanisms.
Satisfied with the lack of real security, I carefully walk up the short stairs to the entrance. One of them creaks and I freeze, but it remains silent. I reach the top and carefully step over the tripwire.
Alec follows me inside, careful to skip the creaking step and step over the tripwire with care. I set foot through the doorway and my breath catches. There is a ridiculous amount of crystals here, in all shapes and sizes and glowing in all the colours of the rainbow, spread out on tables and shelves around the room. Some as tiny as a fingernail, some too big for us to even carry...
Alec takes off his backpack and starts loading up, seemingly at random. Probably for the best. Meanwhile, I slowly move towards the main prize, warily testing the floor in front of me with each step before I put my weight down.
The back of my neck is prickling; it feels too easy, even if it is in the middle of a village full of murderous amphibians. There must be another trap.
But the trident is gorgeous; the mostly transparent crystal is lined with jagged, glowing blue veins. Its surface is a little rough, making the blue light spread diffusely. It’s sticking out of a hole in the middle of an otherwise empty altar, made of a large slab of rough, off-white rock.
Mmm. If there was going to be a fancy contraption anywhere, it would be here. The altar reaches all the way to the floor, so I can’t see what’s below that hole...
Could it be one of those traps where you have to quickly replace the object with something of the same weight to avoid triggering it? If so, what should I use, my spear? I could always buy a new one if the trident turned out to suck...
That’s all assumption however. Would I be better off just grabbing it and running after Alec has filled his pack? What would be the worst-case scenario then... a shower of toxic darts from hidden mechanisms in the wall? An alarm going off? Both?
Before I can check the walls for holes, something clatters on the ground behind me. I spin around with my heart in my throat.
Alec looks at me sheepishly. “It shocked me,” he whispers, before gingerly picking the crystal up regardless and sticking it in his backpack, which looks pretty full. Alec seems to agree, huffing exaggeratedly as he hefts it on his back.
Rolling my eyes, I turn back around and...
The trident is gone.
I stare blankly at the hole in the altar. An inane part of me wants to look inside to see what was below it.
The rational part of me looks up, to find two large eyes with horizontal pupils mockingly staring down at me from the dark space above and behind the altar.
I raise my blowpipe as fast as I can, but a long arm appears from the dark and casually backhands me into a table full of crystals. My blowpipe spins away, unleashing its contents in a cloud over my head.
The Froggo jumps down, the wood trembling under his weight, and dazed, I can only stare at its hulking figure. Unlike the other Froggo’s, this guy—which I immediately dub ‘the chief’, in my head—is blue. Aside from the beautiful crystal trident he’s now wielding, he also wears a crystal-adorned headband and has a deep blue crystal embedded in his throat.
“Kill the intruders!” he croaks mightily, his voice no doubt reverberating through the entire village.
I nod agreeably as he says it. Naturally, killing intruders is a good policy. Though, a little voice nags in the back of my mind, that the ‘intruders’ include Kaitlynn, and like, me. Wait, what am I thinking?! Shaking my head, I manage to clear my mind from the Dreamcloud drifting down around me.
My face is throbbing. Groaning, I try to get upright, and retrieve my spear from behind my backpack. He really did a number on me.
Thankfully, I’m not alone, so before the chief can use his trident to turn me into shishkebab, Alec storms him, hammer raised high and crackling with lightning.
The chief nimbly sidesteps his downward swing, which ends up breaking one of the floorboards and... chuckles. “Funny little humans...” he croaks. Suddenly, his face turns furious, and his free hand grabs Alec by the neck. “Unworthy to be chosen! Unworthy of the Gods!” He punctuates his last words with a burst of electricity of his own, tendrils of lightning arcing from his webbed fingers onto Alec who stiffens and convulses.
Then, while I am still fumbling and reeling, to my horror, he puts his trident up to Alec’s face and uses one of its tines to whip out Alec’s eye-crystal. He nimbly catches the amethyst eye-crystal with the hand that’s still holding the trident.
Then he proceeds to Alec’s remaining eye.
The blood drains from my face, as it pops free and arcs through the Aether. The chief opens his mouth slightly and whips out his tongue. In the blink of an eye, it latches onto the flying eyeball and pulls it into his mouth.
I hear a faint but horrifying ‘pop’ before his throat convulses as he audibly swallows.
Alec, released, falls down screaming, clutching his face in his hands.
The chief turns to me with an evil smile and a glint of madness in his eyes.
Jacob comes bursting in. His Charge takes the chief off-guard, and although the large blue Froggo, manages to jump awkwardly out of the range of Jacobs sword, he still gets bashed by Jacob’s shield and ends up sprawling behind the altar, both hindered and protected by the massive stone.
“Emma, MOVE!” he shouts at me, as he drags Alec upright.
At last, I truly snap out of my daze. Sounds come rushing in, croaking of Froggo’s from all around the village. We have to get out of here.
Jacob drags Alec—who is sobbing and clutching his hands to his face—out of the hut. On the way out, they trigger the tripwire, which sets off a loudly chiming bell somewhere high in the building.
Well, that won’t make a fat lot of difference now.
The chief grunts and flails behind the altar; he could get up at any second. Still, I remain in the room for a second longer, frantically scanning for a hint of amethyst that I swear I saw the chief drop.
Why did he have to drop it in the middle of a friggin’ display of—there! I pocket Alec’s eye-crystal and sprint out the door.
A Froggo with a blowpipe is aiming for Jacob’s back. I jump down the steps onto his back before he looses his dart. My feet hit his shoulders and my spear enters his neck. He goes down in the sand as I transition into a forward roll.
I am up and moving again before any other nearby Froggo’s can react, sprinting after Jacob and Alec towards the barge.
A dart flies past me from the left, nearly grazing my nose, another bounces of my left vambrace. I don’t break stride.
An arrow flies from the boat in answer, courtesy of Dave. A Froggo to my right gurgles and goes down.
A blast of hot orange passes on my right. The pained grunt and the sound of sizzling flesh tell me it hit something chasing me.
“Go go go!” I shout at them when Jacob and Alec stumble onto the barge.
Understanding my intention, Dave loosens the last rope and pushes off with his foot.
Kaitlynn whips her head at him in shock, and then back to me, worry in her eyes as the barge drifts away from the dock.
By the time I’m up on the dock, darts and even some rocks whizzing by my head, the barge has drifted off some 20-25 feet, and is picking up speed away from me.
Back on earth, a jump like this would have been impossible for me. Here and now, however, I have a permanent strength of 12, with the second mode of Boost Physical raising that to 14, and my agility from 15 to 16.
I leap, swinging my arms and my greysteel spear up for additional momentum. As I go over the edge of the dock, Gravity decreases a little, increasing my airtime as I sail over the Hydrum.
I have to stretch my feet forward a little, but ultimately land on the edge of the boat. A few stumbling steps forward transfer the rest of my momentum to the boat.
A dart hits me in the back, shallowly piercing through my armour. I pull it out with a grunt and duck down next to the small cabin where Alec is propped up against the small. There isn’t enough space inside for more than two people really, and Jacob is still next to him.
“What the hell happened?” Dave hisses at me.
Before I can answer, a loud croak echoes over the river. “Unbelievers! Thieves! Get them, you lazy spawn!”
“That guy happened,” I say numbly. “The chief apparently sleeps behind his treasure; paranoid bastard.”
“Why is it so dark here?” Alec moans, “I can’t even see my status bar; am I dying? Sarge? Sarge, answer me!”
Jacob carefully pulls away Alec’s hands. My stomach turns at the sight of his empty, bleeding eye-sockets.
Dave curses. “Jesus! Okay, hold on buddy, let me try to Restore you.” He pulls his Focus Crystal out from where it hangs on a pendant under his armour.
“No, wait!” I say quickly, rummaging around in my pocket, “we have to put his eye-crystal back in first!”
Dave glances at me in confusion, when I pull out Alec’s eye-crystal, holding it up so he can see it in the dim light of the stars above.
He looks at it and blanches when he recognizes it. “Oh damn, so that’s why he’s calling for Sarge...”
I nod grimly and hold it out for him. “I managed to grab it after Jacob tackled the chief; it was about to become part of his—”
Something wet and slimy whips out of nowhere and snatches the crystal right out of my hand.
I turn, wide-eyed, to see the chief smirking at me mischievously. He spits the crystal out into his webbed hand and waves it at me tauntingly. “Unworthy!” he croaks happily, “Attack!” He dives under, disappearing out of sight as three Froggo’s hop out of the Hydrum onto the barge.
Hey guys, exciting news: I found an editor for the first book of IAGTD!
Josiah Davis--a professional, freelance editor who specialises in LitRPG, and worked on The Gam3, among many other things--is going to take a crack at it during the second week of September. I'm very excited to start working with him, and have been working on a preparatory edit for the past two weeks now.
The exciting part for me here is mostly the chance to work with--and learn from--a professional. Of course, professionals don't come cheap. I also need to get a professional cover done, as that's an important driver for sales, but that'll also cost me.
I want to deliver a quality product, I really do, but I still dubbed over these decisions for a while... I worry sometimes, because I'm taking a financial risk here, that I'm not sure is going to pay off, at the same time that I've decided to start working fewer hours (only one day a week now, down from three) to get more time for writing.
As I'm turning into a real freelancer myself, I also have to start paying attention to things like taxes and insurances.
It's all becoming very real, very fast.
Basically, if you are considering becoming my Patron at some point, now would be a great time. ^^'
Either way, I've set things in motion, and the first e-book is just a matter of time now. There will be a page in the back where my sponsors will be listed; I haven't completely decided what the conditions will be to get in there, but being an active Patron at the time of publication will be one of them, at least.
To get all the latest news the fastest, you can join my Discord. (You should do that anyway, it's fun! ^^)
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P.S. I am aware that the buttons currently aren't working; I'll try to fix it soon, it's been a very hectic time ^^'