The next three days passed by before we knew it. Afyne had worn her armor non-stop all three days, except for last night when we needed to rest for the upcoming journey. Maylia and I had taken turns with having Afyne perform basic moves, like jumping jacks, lunges, push-ups, squats, and jumps onto a chair and off again. She did everything we asked without question and tired herself out. We always stopped her before she reached exhaustion, since that was not the point of training.
Afyne needed to get used to moving in the armor and not have it change those movements. We corrected her posture and at random times, would give her a poke in the belly, or the side, or the upper back. She reacted, as almost anyone would, and it threw off her movements. She didn't get angry at us, though. She understood almost right away that she needed to get used to things potentially hitting her and she needed to not let that bother her or stop her intended movements.
We woke up the morning of the fourth day and met everyone in the inn's dining room for breakfast, then discussed our travel plans and ensured that our paths diverted enough between the cracks to cover as many towns and villages as possible. The queen had said that she had implemented some of the measures we had recommended; but, without the appropriate backup available in each town and city for the guards, the majority of the tasks for clearing out the vampires was going to be by adventurers.
We were okay with that, mainly because we were going to be doing it anyway. We decided to split up again to cover as much ground as possible and meet up in a few weeks time at the next major city on the map. Being able to communicate constantly with each other was a huge benefit, for both of our groups, and we were going to use it as much as possible.
With everything settled, we turned in our room keys at the front desk and left the inn. There was no sign of Viri, so we went to the stable to retrieve our modes of transportation. After saying a quick goodbye, Kara and her much smaller group of people climbed into the carriage and drove off.
“I thought they'd never leave.” A woman's voice said and came over to us with a horse.
“Viri?” I looked at her with surprise. “I thought...”
“I saw the looks they gave me when you asked me to join.” Viri said and smiled at me. “It doesn't make me wonder why you have so many and they have so few.”
“I think Jessica would be fine with more members, actually.”
“Uh huh.” Viri gave me a sly smile. “We are not getting the same information from the same looks.”
I had to smile at that. “Have you got everything packed?” I asked, slightly concerned. “Three days really isn't a long time to...”
“I've been packed since the night you asked me.” Viri said.
I chuckled. “Then welcome aboard.” I said and we mounted our horses and rode at a trot out of the city. Some people waved and others turned away. Some had anger on their faces and others had relief. It was a sad time for nearly everyone, which included us because we had caused that sadness. We rode out of sight of everyone and stopped to boost Viri's horse. We only did hers because we wanted it to keep up with our normal movement.
It would take a week or so to get the horse up to the same mana boost consumption of the other horses, and then we could ride full out. I thought about having her double up with someone instead, then thought better of it. We would have to pick up another horse and alter it for her eventually, anyway.
Allirynn, Imiryl, Diofra, Evus, Maylia, Viri, Afyne, and I rode away from the city and towards the next crack on the map.
The next encounter went surprisingly smoothly. I had expected something troublesome, especially after the vampires, and we barely had to fight anything. The crack was located in a deep forest and the creatures were about six feet tall and looked like sloths. Viri used her ability on them and showed us that it wasn't from this world. Just to confirm it, Diofra used her Truesight square and we saw the creatures inside the crack through the illusion.
They were slow moving and didn't even try to run, not that they could have, anyway. They fought against us, to no avail. We quickly dispatched nearly a hundred of them that had scattered throughout the forest, then I prayed to god and we stepped through the crack. I almost felt bad for the things as we easily slaughtered them all on the other side and I put them into the bag of holding. After god checked the stars in the sky, we stepped back through the crack and closed it.
We mounted the horses and diverted from our course to reach a small village next. It wasn't large enough to warrant kingdom guards yet, so we knew that they hadn't heard of the vampires yet or dealt with them. With Diofra's Mass Scribe spell, boosted by me, and Viri's ability to scribe individually, we made short work of completely clearing the village. They were all vampires.
It had been a shock for us to discover. None of them had been human. Unfortunately, we couldn't tell if they were original vampires from the crack or humans that had been killed and became vampires. According to Viri, it didn't really matter. Once you became a vampire there was no hope of you ever changing back. We looted every body and piled them into the town's square. Since they were all vampires, we had to search each and every building to look for their 'food' supply.
I sincerely wished we hadn't.
It was a slaughterhouse. People of all shapes, sizes, and ages, hung from their feet and were being bled out into huge coffers. They had to have been the original occupants of the village. Unfortunately, they couldn't be identified in their current state. I took it upon myself to count them and record what had happened, then I asked Diofra to burn it all to the ground. She didn't argue and no one objected to it, so I held Diofra's hand and she cast fireballs at every house and building.
We went to the center of the village where we had stacked the vampire bodies and I added the miscellaneous vampires that we had gathered from the previous city. With the pile complete, Diofra set fire to them as well. I wasn't sure if it was because of the magical fire or because the bodies were extra flammable; but, the pile went up like a blowtorch and shot thirty feet into the air with bright blue flame. We moved to the outskirts of the village and held each other as we stood there and watched it all burn.
When there was nothing but ash left, we boosted Viri's horse and moved on.
The queen was just as unhappy as we were about the village's destruction and the loss of its people. Since there was nothing that could be done, except for what had already been done, we went to the next crack. We fought the undead there, both physical and phantasm, and they couldn't take the Holy light barrier spell and disintegrated. I didn't bother going inside the crack this time and just sealed it. If there was one thing I didn't want to do, it was fight a few thousand of the undead by myself, even with god's help. I'm not saying I couldn't do it, because I could. I'm saying that I don't want to take the chance of having the undead tear me apart or chew on my insides while I was still alive. No, thank you.
We managed to clear another crack that had let packs of wild and rabid dogs, that were about twice the normal size, escape into the world. Once again, I just closed the crack and didn't try to fight them all on the other side. I had used Presence Lightning to kill them all on this side in front of the crack; but, I'd have to get to the other side to do the same to the rest. With the damn creatures shoulder to shoulder and just raring to come through the crack after us, I didn't want to take the chance that some would get by if I did try to go in after them.
It was going to take us a while to follow the tracks and hunt down the dogs that had managed to flee already. We let Kara and the others know we had to divert from our itinerary because of it, and they offered to come and help. I accepted the offer, to her surprise, and we met up the next day. It took us two days to hunt down the large rabid dogs, and we did it just in time. One of the groups had already eaten through a farmer's chickens and pigs. Unfortunately, the farm animals that had survived needed to be killed as well, because of the scratches and bites from the rabid dogs.
The farmer wasn't happy, even after I gave him the value of the animals that had been slaughtered. On the advice of Viri, I gave him double the money for him to buy replacements. He was placated and looked over the mess that the creatures had made. I stored all of the carcasses, including the animals that had to be put down, and that cleared a lot of the mess up. The farmer nodded and went back into his house and I waved for everyone to go back to where we had left the horses.
“Thank you for coming as quickly as you did.” I said to Kara and the others. “We couldn't have rounded them all up this soon without your help.”
“Even with so many of you?” Kara asked.
“You know, it's been almost a week since the last time I saw your grumpy face.”
Kara gave me an odd look for a second and turned her head to look at Viri.
“She caught us just before we left and decided to come along.” I said. “She's been a great help, especially during...” I stopped talking and took a breath.
“Yes, a great help.” Maylia said and took my hand.
“It was that bad?” Jessica asked, concern in her voice.
“Worse.” Evus said. “I've never seen...” He shook his head. “I hope we never see it again.”
“Call us if you need a hand when you hit the next town on your map.” I said. “Oh, and be careful of new or small settlements. You do not want to go into one unprepared.”
The emissaries nodded and went to their carriage. I gave them a wave as the carriage started to roll away and Jessica waved back. She had a sad smile on her face and I returned it. These were sad times.
My group mounted up after we checked the map and moved on. Over the next two weeks, we fought large venom-spewing lizards, a spider swarm that had built a web nest around the crack that we had to burn down, weird mud-like creatures that were resistant to both spells and weapons, and even a pack of local wolves that had been infested with parasites from the crack.
The one we had the most fun with were the monstrous fire-breathing creatures that looked like chickens. They were three feet tall, had four legs instead of two, two large wings, and serrated beaks. I thought we were going to be in trouble at first, until Evus scared one and it let out a loud squawk and roasted the monstrous chicken in front of it. All of our faces lit up at the smell of roasted chicken, and our 'hunt' quickly devolved into how many times we could get them to roast each other. We laughed and carried on, despite the danger, and we soon only had a handful left to deal with. They were easily killed and then we had to decide what to do with all the roasted meat.
“I do have a Cleanse All spell.” Diofra said.
We all exchanged happy and hungry looks.
“I'll gather the eggs!” Afyne said excitedly and we laughed, then got to work.
We decapitated them all, plucked and cleaned them as if they were real chickens, then everyone sat down while I cooked them up properly. The chicken legs were the size of my forearms and the breasts were the size of my head. Thanks to my cooking skills, they came out succulent and delicious. The smell of my cooking must have spread for miles, because after an hour, I felt several hunters enter my detection range and I warned my group. A little while later, the men came out of the nearby woods.
I glanced at Diofra and she nodded and cast the Mass Scribe spell on them when they were close enough. “Welcome!” I exclaimed when they all came up as human, and tossed my bundle of cheap sheets to Afyne and she spread a couple of them out for the newcomers. “Have a seat. The next one is just about ready.”
“What is it?” One of them asked as he sat down. “Thanks, lass.”
“Monstrous fire-breathing giant chickens!” I said and held one of the headless three foot tall creatures. They gasped and said some kind of nonsense name for them.
“I'm re-branding them chickens.” I said and ignored the real name.
“Are they safe to eat?” Another man asked and saw the others in my party had half of one gone already.
“Our magic user cleansed them.” I said and several of the hunters nodded. It only took another ten minutes to finish cooking the next one and I started to divide it up. “Who wants a leg?”
Four of them put up a hand and I chuckled.
“Just the right amount, then.” I said and cut off the legs and handed them out. One wanted a breast and another wanted a thigh. Most of the bird was picked over and I went back to the fire to keep cooking. There were a lot of birds to cook, so I pulled another out of a bag of holding and started cooking it and ate absently while I did so. When the hunters were done eating, they asked where we found them.
“These are the last of them.” I said, not specifying how many we actually had.
I saw several of them twitch a little and one actually reached for the knife on his belt. His friend touched his arm and stopped him.
“Well, it was nice having dinner guests.” I said, pointedly. “Now that it's over, you need to leave.”
When the two men looked up, they saw us looking right at them.
“That's a good idea.” One of them said and stood as he dragged his friend with him and kept a tight hold on the man's arm. “Thanks for the food.”
I didn't respond and the other hunters looked from their fellows and back to me in confusion. They stood as well and the hunters moved off back towards the trees. When they thought they were far enough away, they spoke in hushed whispers. I could still hear them, thanks to my use of Presence.
“What was that about?” One of the other hunters asked angrily.
“Carl here was going to pull his carving knife.”
“What? Why would... oh, you idiot!”
“Just one of those things could feed us for a week!” Carl said. “I just...”
“You were going to attack a group of adventurers, in their own camp, to steal their food.” The man shook his head. “You could have gotten us all killed.”
“How was I to know he was watching us so closely?” Carl asked.
“How many adventurers did you see there?” One of the others asked. “A lot more than four, right?”
“Well, yeah... but...”
“There were eight, stupid.” The man said. “Do you know how strong they would have to be to support feeding eight people?”
Carl shrugged. “Strength doesn't mean squat with a sneak attack.”
A green and slightly glowing Mana Presence Hand appeared in front of him and grabbed him by the throat.
“That's right.” I said, while I used Presence to carry my words to them. “What makes you think you can threaten my people?”
Carl grabbed the hand and tried to pull it off. The others came over to tried to help, and I made more hands to grab them, too. I picked them all six inches off the ground.
“How many people have you robbed, I wonder?”
“N-n-none.” Carl managed to say, and the Presence wavered.
“I hate liars.” I said and snapped his neck.
“I didn't rob anyone!” One of them yelled.
“Did you kill them?” I asked, and he didn't say anything. “I assumed you were hunters of animals, not people.”
They didn't respond, and I sighed.
“I'm getting tired of meeting people who pretend to be one thing when they are another.”
“We're just traders!” Another one said and the Presence wavered.
“Where's your cart or caravan?” I asked and he pointed. “Thanks.” I said and snapped their necks.
“Hunter?” Maylia turned and saw the men's bodies drop to the ground.
“They were bandits.” I said. “I'll keep cooking up the chickens if someone wants to go loot them and check their cart off in the woods.”
“I'll go.” Allirynn said with a smile. “Maybe they left someone guarding it.”
“I'll come with you.” Imiryl said and they quickly crossed the field to the edge of the woods and looted the bandits there, then they moved off into the trees. By the time I finished cooking and dividing up the monstrous chickens, Allirynn and Imiryl had led the cart and horses through the forest path.
“Was anyone there?” I asked.
“Just two. They weren't as honest or as forthcoming as the others.” Imiryl said, disgust in her voice.
“We had to go around the long way with the cart.” Allirynn said and carried the two bodies over to the others. “Can I get a fireball over here?”
“I'll do one better.” Diofra said with a smile and walked over to him, created a small mana barrier and cast a fireball inside of it. It was like an inferno inside and the bodies were burned up in a couple of minutes. She and Allirynn came back over to us.
“That's a neat trick.” I said.
“You gave me the start of the idea when you caught my fireball with your Presence to kill those bugs. When we adapted the barrier for Holy light and Scribe to fight the vampires, well...” Diofra gave me a wide grin.
“That was one spell?” I asked, surprised. “Nice job.”
“Thanks.” Diofra's face flushed a little red. “I'm calling it 'Incinerate'.”
“Remind me not to make you angry.” I joked, and everyone laughed. “Let's check their cart over and see what we have.”
It took twenty minutes to find the jewellery, gold, and personal items that the bandits had hidden. None of them had a bag of holding, so they had to hide it the old-fashioned way. In the bottom of a bag of horse feed.
“They bought the cheapest feed.” Afyne said angrily. “The poor horses.”
“Who do we turn this in to?” Maylia asked and ran her fingers through the stolen loot.
“Considering they were bandits, I doubt whoever they stole from are still alive... or from the same place.” I said.
“Are you trying to convince yourself to keep it?” Viri asked, and we all laughed. A second later, we all pulled bags of gold, silver, and copper out of our bags of holding. “Never mind.” She said, her face red.
“Don't worry. Your cut on the vampire loot is pretty significant. As soon as we find a reputable place to sell it all, we'll divide it up.” I said and grabbed a handful of mixed coins and gave them to her.
“Wh-what are you doing?” Viri asked and tried to keep them from sliding out of her hands.
“We get a bounty for the creatures we kill at each of the cracks, especially if they are a nuisance to people.” I said. “You get part of that, too.”
Viri looked at the pile of money and then at me.
“Now you know why Hunter doesn't mind paying for everything.” Maylia said with a chuckle. “After buying supplies and better weapons and equipment, we honestly don't know what to do with it all.”
Viri took a breath and let it out, then poured the money into her bag of holding. “Now what?”
“Well, we keep the bandit loot separate.” I said and dumped out the cheap horse feed, then put the loot back in the sack. “We'll see if there's a charity or something that we can give it to at the next town.”
“A what?” Viri asked.
“I mean like an orphanage or the healers if they need new beds or something.” I said.
“Oh.” Viri said. “That would be a good use for it.”
“At least it'll help someone and not go to waste.” I said and stored the sack of loot. “We don't really need a cart, though.”
“The food supplies can stretch out our own for a while longer.” Maylia said and stored it into her bag of holding. “We don't need the rest of it, since it's for personal use by those thugs.”
“We could keep the wood for making fires.” Allirynn suggested and I stored the wood. “What about the horses?”
“We'll have to bring them along.” I said. “We're going to need another one soon.” I saw Afyne's happy face, and then it became sad. I gave her a one-arm hug. “It's all right. We can keep sharing until you hit your growth spurt.”
Afyne nodded and we decided to leave the horses on the cart and would sell it at the next town. She was the only one who was experienced in handling multiple horses, so we secured the two horses and cart to my horse and we all trotted our horses at a sedate pace through the woods towards the next town.