Today's Reading

I dash over to Kiro, huddling fearfully near a vent, the iron sights on his rifle bobbing through a shaky figure eight. He's panting in sharp gasps, hyperventilating, hindbrain instincts exerting control. I slap him across the face.

"Kiro! Drop your gun and get ready to shield! We'll support, but you've gotta initiate it!"

"'s...dragon..." His rifle drops back against his chest and he kneels for his staff, clutching it like he's going to be sick.

Wind and Slend run up next to me, breathing slightly heavier than normal. Slend reloads her rifle, grabbing an armor-piercing magazine from her ammo pocket and slotting it home with smooth, economical motions. Wind pulls a belt of grenades out of one of her pouches, like a magician's trick, and straps them around her waist. She looks away from the dragon and groans, seeing the whimpering form of Kiro huddled on the ground.

"Dammit, Ash, I told you he was gonna be trouble. We're gonna wipe for sure, and on a dragon too. What a useless waste of time. This could've made us rich."

"Shut it, Wind. He'll come through for us. You'll see." I grab Kiro's forearms, trying to get him to look at me. "Kiro. I know this is pretty heavy for your first encounter, but you have to raise a shield. Otherwise, we're toast. We have about..." I quickly glance at the enraged dragon. "...three seconds before we're charcoal. C'mon. I know you can do this. Focus, just like we practiced."

A moment of silence fills the cavern, the dragon's steam whistle intake of breath suddenly gone. I look over again, seeing the tiniest wisps of flame starting to leak out of the corners of its mouth, and swear. My hands move, seemingly of their own accord, starting the motions of a barrier, but it's pointless. I don't have enough specialization in applied defensive magic to keep us safe if I'm the spell anchor, and Kiro's staff isn't attuned to me. Wind sighs dramatically.

"Fucking newbies "

A broad hand brushes me aside, interrupting my cast. "No. I... I can do this. I can."

Kiro steps in front of us, then slams his staff into the ground. A minor shockwave ripples out, tiny dust waves undulating across the floor. His hands blur into motion, creating the impossibly complex forms required to initiate a max-level group shield spell, the now-unsupported staff floating gently above the ground, a solid pillar of brightening green runes crawling along its length.

"Get in support positions!" My voice is halfway between a yell and a cheer.

Good job, Kiro. I knew you could do it.

Wind and Slend take positions to either side. I run behind Kiro, completing the diamond formation, and prepare for impact. Above us, a massive fireball descends.

Kiro finishes the final hand gesture and crosses his wrists in front of him. We all copy him, bracing one foot behind our bodies. Beams of light flash from us to the staff, and then a shimmering blue wall flashes into existence, between us and the descending torrent of flame. A millisecond later, it hits like a crashing tsunami.

Raw force slams into my arms, the sheer power of the dragon's fire eliciting an involuntary grunt. Straining, I push back against the brutal pressure, keeping my section of the shield firm. My shoulders and core muscles quiver beneath the stress, and I scream out in defiance.

Magic in the Game is reflected by three elements—physical dexterity to create the proper forms; raw strength proportional to the level of the spell being cast; and the force of will to endure the pain for as long as it takes. A max rank shield spell will withstand anything, as long as our flesh doesn't give way. If it does, if we fail to hold the appropriate form against the requisite burden, then the spell crumples, along with our bodies. In situations where a max rank shield spell is required, that means a wipe.

In front of me, the other three push out as well, muscles bulging. Tears are leaking from the corners of Kiro's eyes. As the anchor, he's bearing the brunt of the attack, an onslaught of crushing weight trying to smear him into the ground, and if we weren't sharing the load, the dragonflame would've breached the shield almost instantly. Even the strongest Gamer in the world isn't strong enough to withstand close to a ton of pressure.

Incandescent heat spreads across the pale blue of our barrier, a half dome covering our braced forms. Rock melts and flows in a circle around us, but the shield stays intact, keeping us safe in our tiny island. Sweat pours from my brow, but I ignore it. If I didn't want to push myself, I would've stayed in Candyland. Finally, mercifully, the fire ends, the smothering weight falling away.

"Wind, Slend, draw its attention. I'm going for the tail. Kiro, move! Don't stand in the fire!"

We split apart once more, Kiro narrowly avoiding a magma eruption at his feet by diving out of the way. Hissing super-heated rock shoots into the air behind him, a deadly fountain barely missing his leather boots. It cools and solidifies into a new layer on the ground. I shake my head at his narrow escape.

You gotta pay attention to environmentals, Kiro. That's how most parties wipe.

This excerpt ends on page 25 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Providence by Max Barry.

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