"Get back, the barrier's going down! Now!" Chris shouted.
They were only five hundred meters away from the town, but that was still a long way to go in a minute, even if some of them had invested minorly in dexterity.
People began streaming back toward Hartshire. Hopefully the head start would get them all there safely. The gates were open by an infinitesimal margin, letting people slip inside. Ropes and tied bedsheets were lowered from the wooden walls, allowing the more nimble and fit people to pull themselves up. It was like watching an evacuation in reverse.
Chris tapped his finger against the barrier again. Fifteen seconds. Most were only halfway there, some lagged even farther behind.
Was that Bruce? His clothes were ragged and torn, but otherwise he looked okay. His katana was bent out of shape and looked to be in very bad condition. Yeah, that had to be Bruce. He wasn't going to make it.
Chris winced. Was that his fault? If he hadn't trolled him, would Bruce have been faster? Better able to escape the approaching hyena monsters? If he hadn't killed Xys, would the monsters have been this strong?
Bruce wobbled his way forward.
"Shit. Shit. Shit." Chris didn't know how fast the Gnolls were, only that they were faster.
The barrier went down. He sprinted forward.
"Bruce! Run. No! Keep running." Chris kept pace with the fat kid.
"Sir Chr—" Bruce gasped as he ran. "Sir Christopher. I found that treasure in the glade."
"What? No. Keep running." Chris looked behind him.
Damn! Gnolls were fast, they were gaining on them.
"Wait, I'll carry you." Without giving Bruce time to protest, he scooped him up. The kid was heavy, but he kept on running.
They neared the walls, but ahead of him the last few were already trickling in.
"That trick you showed me was real useful, Sir Christopher," Bruce gasped. "I didn't know you could bait mobs in this game."
"Not now, Bruce." Chris glared down at the overweight teenager in his arms.
"Should have put more points into dex and endurance, though. But I'm ready to become your squire. Hey, do you know how to use those Soul Gems? Oh, and Qi?"
"I said shut—" Chris almost stopped running. "What?"
"Those things inside the rock trolls. I got it into my hand, but I couldn't get it out. And I've got Qi, just like in those Chinese novels."
Of course Bruce read Chinese novels. He had a katana. Katana's were Chinese right? Or were they just made in China? Either way, it should have been obvious that Bruce was an Orientophile. He'd need to ask Bruce about them later. If this followed Chinese novel rules then there might be weird stuff going on—the authors of those sorts of books were insane after all.
There was no time to think further. Chris could feel the Gnoll's saliva flecking his heels, their barks and growls and cackling laughter pursuing him. They wouldn't make it in time. He could run alone. Toss Bruce to the baying hyenas. They wouldn't hurt him anyway, not unless he attacked them, he suspected.
The monsters seemed bloodthirsty now. They hung back from him, still seemingly intimidated by his status as an Area Guardian. But by the look in their eyes, the prospect of blood and meat was tantalizing. Too tantalizing to ignore.
And Bruce. He wasn't a bad kid. Chris had already tried to save him. Putting him back down would feel like giving up. But fear gnawed at the back of his mind, insistent and urgent. There was nothing he could do to save Bruce. He would die either way. Whether Chris abandoned him, or carried him. Bruce would die at the hyena's claws. Why was he even running?
Bruce had been dead the moment he started running late. Death was just catching up to him.
Chris knew he wasn't a hero. To be honest, he was a bit of a dick. But Bruce wasn't a bad kid. He was a little bit too innocent, a few stone too heavy, and far too gullible for his own good. And even though fear gnawed at him, guilt tore hungering bites from his wounded conscience.
"You know, Bruce. I really hate you right now," Chris growled. "Pull a thread of M— Qi, from your center, ignore the seven black holes. Imagine pulling it to the tattoos of the crystals. Then push mana into them."
"Uh, are you sure…"
"Just fucking do it. You're on your own. You'd better pray what you have helps you run to the walls quicker."
"Run. Grab a rope. Start climbing." Chris sighed, and put the teenager down on his feet. "I'm sorry, man," he said, too quiet for anyone but himself to hear.
Chris knew he wasn't a hero. To be honest, he was a bit of a dick. But Bruce wasn't a bad kid. If there was one thing he knew how to do well, it was be an idiot. He didn't have a heroic bone in his body. To be honest, he didn't need one.
He unconstrained his mana, forcefully pushing it out, letting it wash over him. It was worse than a simple leakage that came from mere overspill. It was hubris, potency, the distillation of inviolability itself.
"Fuck you, Bruce," he screamed, then swung his hammer around, right into the face of a Gnoll as it leapt past him in pursuit of the tubby human.
The entire Beast Horde paused and stared at him. Chris' Beast Horde Protections were gone, and somehow they knew it. There were hundreds of them, thousands of them, all unified by a single purpose, a single race, a single promise of safety by the System. Even to the atavism of the monster mind, such protections were law. And they had been violated. By an Area Guardian no less; by something that looked and smelled almost human.
The minor Gnoll clans had gathered to grow stronger, unified by the System in the holy duty to destroy the town before them. From across the world it had brought them, reduced them further so that they might grow. Over a thousand claws—twenty teeth—of Gnolls. The round, short human was forgotten by most. A grander prize awaited those brave enough to take it.
A young warrior, barely a pup, the runt of a litter, driven by a desire for something greater dashed forward, eager for glory and dominion. His claws, more used to holding a blade, stretched toward the almost-human's shining carapace.
The warrior's head met a solid slab of metal from the almost-human's upswing. Dead.
So fast. So powerful. But the glory!
The minor Gnoll clans surged forward as one.
With a manic gleam in its eyes, the Area Guardian—the almost-human—called out its war cry once more.
"Fuck you, Bruce!" Chris batted away three bodies at once with his hammer. The Plains Gnolls were fast and tough, but they were physically quite light—maybe their bodies compensating with reduced weight to make more use of their scrawny musculature.
It was like a game of whack-a-mole. Hmmm, whack-a-gnoll? It had a good ring to it.
They went down like tin-can baseballs before the batter, flying away, blood bursting from their bodies as they crumpled.
They hadn't fully encircled him yet, and he risked a glance behind him; Bruce had already reached the wall, grasping at a hastily lowered rope that seemed to have been made of ripped and tied-together curtains.
Chris began taking steps backward, preventing himself from encirclement.
More Gnolls lunged at him, and more went down. His stats were just too high for the low-level Gnolls to compete with. Out of the corner of his eye, far away he saw a larger Gnoll thrusting its way through the throng toward him.
He knew exactly what that was. Bad news.
He sped up his retreat. Then he heard a tearing sound; a brief, short cry; a thud. He turned. Bruce.
The rope had torn. The Gnolls were too close. Even fixated on killing him, the Area Guardian, they were still creatures of vicious opportunity first and foremost. One rounded on Bruce, intent on skewering him on its claws as it passed him by.
Chris threw his hammer. It spun toward the creature. The monster ducked in surprise and the hammer passed over its head, slamming into the wall with a wooden rattle and knocking divots from the finely grained surface.
The thrown shield didn't miss. It embedded itself halfway into the Gnoll's torso as Chris raced past, picking up the disoriented Bruce and tossing him upward.
Bruce yelped as he sailed up, up, up. The teenager clung firm to the remaining tatters of torn, makeshift rope that dangled uselessly from the walls. The rope stretched. The rope held. Moments later, more ropes were dropped to steady Bruce.
Chris' back hit the wall. He didn't see the teenager make it over the edge, didn't see two dozen hands pull Bruce up and over, didn't see the kid gasping on his back—surprised to be alive.
All Chris saw was matted fur, flashing claws, and decaying teeth as dozens of Gnolls piled onto him and bore him down. And, dear god, he was going to fucking kill them.