The early morning sun streamed through the window into Ari’s face, forcing him to shield his eyes. The carriage was rocking from side to side, and he could hear the sounds made by the steel horse pulling it — a mix of hooves clattering on the cobbled road and buzzing of whatever powered the insides of that thing.
Ari expected they would walk to the dungeon again, but Roisin surprised him when she arrived at the gate, driving a large black-blue carriage. When they asked where she got it, she just shrugged her arms and ignored the question. Now they sat inside the luxurious-looking cabin, while she was driving and shouting obscenities at other carriages they passed on the road.
His teammates barely said a word during the ride. They stared with serious expressions at their feet, and Ari’s attempts to get them talking failed miserably. Thankfully, maybe fifteen minutes after leaving Bourfall, they reached their destination.
The carriage stopped in front of a wooden gate, flanked by a three-meter tall palisade. Two guards armed with spears and armored in mail stood atop of it. After a short conversation with Roisin, one of them waved toward someone behind the wall. A moment later, the gate opened, and the carriage passed through.
They drove by a large wooden house, in front of which stood a family of five, wearing farmer clothing. They had worried looks on their faces, but the smallest kid, a blonde long-haired girl, waved at the carriage and grinned broadly. Ari waved back, but when her father noticed him, he whispered something to the girl, and a sad expression replaced the smile.
Finally, the carriage stopped near a barn. When Ari opened the door, a smell of rotting flesh made him gag involuntarily. He covered his nose and mouth with the sleeve of his cloak, but it did little to disguise it. His teammates reacted the same, and Tasia said in a muffled voice, “What the fuck?”
Ari wondered what could have caused such a foul odor. He went to the other side of the carriage and balked at what he found there. Dozens of severely decayed bodies of cattle were scattered everywhere behind a fence in front of him. Maybe thirty meters further, an hour-glass shaped rift shimmered in the air. But compared to the one they saw in the forest, this one was visible with a naked eye. From time to time, one of the colorful tendrils swirling on its edges would catch one of the body parts, tugging at it, but it didn’t have enough strength to pull anything into the rift.
“Unlucky lot, those farmers,” Roisin said from above them. She jumped off the carriage in a smooth motion and stood beside Ari. “Over a hundred dead cows, they will probably lose the farm.”
“Why? Won’t the Order help them?” Ari asked.
Roisin shook her head. “It doesn’t work like that. There are farms supported by the Kingdom and, let’s call them private ones. In the case of the latter, people invest their life savings to create a farm and earn their living that way. If something bad happens...”
Roisin didn’t need to finish, because Ari understood what she meant. He didn’t like it, even in the slightest, but he understood. That was probably the most significant difference between the Islands and the continent — back home, people would help each other, no matter what, but here… One night, he talked with Elijah about the golems they saw near the mansions, and in his world, a similar thing was happening as people were losing their jobs to something called machines.
“Do you have everything?” Roisin’s voice brought him back from his thoughts.
Ari checked his pack to see if the spherical holder was there and nodded.
“Good,” Roisin said. She retrieved two detectors from her pocket and opened both at the same time. After a few seconds of staring at the identical maps hovering over her hands, she let out a deep breath and turned toward the group.
“Better safe than sorry. This dungeon has a similar rank, as the previous one should have,” she continued and her expression hardened. “But this doesn’t mean you can get overconfident because—”
“It’s a slow and insidious killer?” Elijah interrupted her.
Roisin blinked a few times then gave him a small quirky smile. “Well, well. That sounds pretty damn nice, Roasty,” she said, patting him on the back. “Now, follow me.”
Ari unstrapped his scepter and gripped it tightly. He missed the shield, but his injured arm still hurt, and it was too weak to hold anything. I can’t summon anything yet because of the new skill. He was afraid it would attack someone right after appearing in the dungeon while they were incapacitated.
His companions vaulted over the fence, unsheathed their weapons, and advanced toward the center of the field. While walking they tried to avoid getting too close to the mutilated bodies. The smell was even worse here, and Ari felt his stomach heaving.
Roisin’s white aura flared. Its warmth allowed them to at least disregard the rift’s corrupting influence. When the group was just a few meters away from it, the woman stopped, and the team pressed forward.
Just before entering the rift, Ari glanced over his shoulder and saw Roisin smiling.
“Good luck.” Her voice reached him, and then he vanished.
A sudden blinding white pain shot through Ari’s head, and his knees buckled beneath him. His breath was shallow, and his chest hurt, but unlike the last time, he was in full control of his body.
It was a dark night, but an eerie blue light scattered the surrounding darkness, and he clearly saw the muddy ground covered with grass and stones.
Ari raised his head and stared into the eyes of a creature looming over him. Startled, he scampered backward, landing with a splash in a small puddle. He pointed his scepter at the thing and readied himself to discharge the essence, but stopped when he noticed it stood still.
“It wasn’t that bad—“Elijah said and gagged right after. “Fuck.”
More groans followed, but Ari remained focused on the thing in front of him. What he mistook for a monster was a figure carved in stone, placed on a large column. It flanked an ornate steel gate, rusted and overgrown with clinging ivy.
The creature looked like a giant bat, but instead of small ears, it had thick curly horns. Two large wings were tucked behind its back. But the most jarring part of the creature was a hideous face with a gaping maw of sharp teeth covered in green moss. Ari glanced to the right and saw a twinlike column standing on the other side of the gate.
A hand appeared in his vision, and Killian helped him stand up.
“What’s that thing?” Tasia asked as she tried to approach the column.
Elijah grabbed her shoulder and stopped her. “Don’t get too close. It’s a gargoyle,” he answered.
Elijah ignored her question and continued, “We need to be careful, those things might come alive.” He eyed the creature cautiously.
“I don’t Sense any essence inside of it,” Tasia said.
“Still, I don’t like it,” Elijah grumbled.
Ari looked up at the sky and watched as the wind blew thick, dark clouds across the face of the full moon. The bright round ball of light shone clearly through gaps in the clouds, but the problem was that it was far larger than the moon he knew, and its color was blue instead of white.
At least there are no flying stones, Ari thought and looked beyond the gate. The rift transported them in front of a long-abandoned cemetery. Headstones and monuments were scattered all over the place, some of them toppled or destroyed. Large trees with gnarled, twisted trunks grew along a stone pathway leading through the center of the cemetery. At the far end of it, Ari saw a large building with a semi-circular dome.
The entire cemetery was encircled with a tall steel fence, and the only way inside seemed to be through the gate. Ari carefully approached it and reached out his hand, but then Tasia appeared beside him and slapped it away.
“Stay behind,” she said and narrowed her eyes at him.
Ari nodded and retreated, letting her and Elijah in front. Only Killian stood a meter behind him, scanning the surroundings. His white bow held low at ready with an arrow knocked.
“Wait,” Ari said and looked expectantly at Elijah. His friend nodded, and flames engulfed his hands.
“Hyrr, hear my summons and obey,” Ari whispered.
A moment later, his squirrel appeared beside his legs in a ball of flames, and he commanded it to follow him.
Tasia pushed one of the gate wings open. The tight hinges let out a screech of protest as they scraped against each other. The screech echoed throughout the cemetery, and a group of crows cawed as they took flight from the nearby trees, startling them. After the sound of their wings flapping died down, Ari and his teammates let out breaths of relief and walked through the gate.
The path was overgrown with weeds, and some of the stones were missing. Weapons held ready, they ventured forth, searching for any activity among the graves.
There was something in the air that made Ari’s throat sore, and he felt tired just from walking twenty meters. Droplets of sweat trickled down his forehead and into the corners of his eyes, which kept making him blink and rub them. He glanced at his teammates, and they looked even worse than him.
Ari Sensed a presence behind him. He whirled and came face to face with a raven sitting on a headstone. It stared at him with his black, unblinking eyes. I nearly blasted it… What’s wrong with me? The raven spread its wings and let out a yelp. Only then, Ari noticed it had two heads, but the second was featherless, and something moved beneath the sickly green skin.
“Why did you stop?” Tasia whispered at him, and he turned his head toward her.
The woman breathed hard and the large two-handed sword she carried, trembled in her hands. Ari mouthed an apology and glanced at the headstone, but the strange raven was already gone. He shook his head and kept walking.
Soon, they reached an open, circular area in the middle of the cemetery. Four small crypts stood there, their entrances collapsed. Suddenly, the sound of heavy stone and metal crashing onto the ground broke the silence. Ari and his teammates spun around and stared intently in the direction from where it had come from.
The steel gate they entered through lay on the ground, and so did one of the stone columns. Dust obscured the view, but Ari was confident something was missing there, and a shiver ran down his spine when he realized what.
He opened his mouth to warn his teammates, but an eerie shriek echoed throughout the cemetery, followed by other unearthly screams. Then, the sounds of scraping and thudding came from everywhere around them.
Ari saw something between the trees and brought his scepter up. An old man, barely wearing any clothes, jerked and stumbled toward him. His jaw was missing a chunk, and his tongue hung from the side of the mouth. His blue eyes glowed in the darkness as they stared right at Ari. He didn’t hesitate and discharged the scepter. The gem on the top of it flared, and a second later, the draugr’s head was blasted off, and the body crumbled to the ground.
But more of them appeared in its place, shambling in his direction. Killian started shooting at the monsters, and the sound of his shrilling arrows joined their wailing. When Ari looked around, he saw dozens of draugr rising from the graves.
Someone cursed behind him, and he felt a faint flush of heat on his back. A torrent of fire shot toward another group, the moment they walked from behind one of the crypts. Their bodies came apart as soon as Elijah’s flames touched them.
Three draugr were shuffling through the middle of the path some distance away from the team. Ari commanded his squirrel to attack, and instantly a flaming acorn flew at them. After just a second it exploded, shattering their bodies and setting ablaze a few more, which had appeared behind them. But that didn’t stop the creatures, and they still pressed forward, even if the fire consumed their decaying bodies.
A low voice resounded through the cemetery, and something changed. At first, the draugr were slow, but now they started moving faster than it should be possible.
“They will surround us soon!” Ari shouted.
“The mausoleum doors are open, we can defend there!” shouted Tasia. She cleaved through the stomachs of two draugr and stomped on the head of the one who still clawed at her.
They ran toward the large building on the other side of the cemetery. Each breath they took sounded ragged and strained as if their lungs were fighting to force oxygen into their depths. Ari knew they couldn’t stop, even for a second, or the monsters will swarm them.
Tasia and Elijah slashed their swords at anything in front of them, clearing a path for the group. At the same time, Killian and Ari focused on dealing with any draugr appearing between the trees on the sides. The archer’s hands moved in a blur, drawing, releasing, and flicking a new arrow out of the quiver and onto the string in rapid succession. He never missed, and every draugr that came too close died with an arrow in its head.
After discharging his scepter at another undead monster, Ari saw a large shadow on the ground, getting bigger with every passing second. He raised his head and noticed a fast-moving shape against the blue moon. He squinted his eyes and realized that a gargoyle dove straight at him.
Ari shouted a warning, “Above!”
Killian pointed his bow up, and the air crackled and buzzed. He released the arrow, and a lightning bolt split the sky into two and pierced through the creature. Part of its shoulder vanished, and one of the wings was torn apart. But it seemed not to be bothered by the wounds, as it still plunged toward Ari.
Suddenly, a flaming whip appeared out of nowhere, catching the gargoyle by its leg. Elijah yanked it, and the stone monster crashed into the tree to their right, flattening the draugr who were unfortunate to stand beneath.
The group was close now, maybe fifteen meters away from the mausoleum’s entrance. Killian panted hard after using the spell, and Ari put one of his arms around the man’s waist to give him support. He didn’t waste a second and started healing the archer.
Ari glanced over his shoulder and saw maybe two dozen draugr on their heels. He couldn’t aim his scepter and wanted to call for help. But then, the squirrel running beside him stopped and turned around as two acorns appeared in its paws. Fiery essence flared around the summon before it jumped toward the group of monsters. Moments later, the air was shattered by an explosion, sending dirt, debris and body parts flying high.
The blast wave caught them instantly, and Ari and Killian tumbled to the ground. Ari’s ears drummed. His vision swam crazily, making him feel sick. Someone helped him get up, and he forced his feet to move.
The large steel door swung open, and Tasia placed a large barrier at the bottom of the steps, blocking maybe forty draugr from reaching them. They clawed at the shimmering blockade, and cracks appeared all over it.
They ran inside and closed the door, but without the moonlight, Ari couldn’t see anything. He and Elijah stood with their backs against the door, breathing hard. Not even a second later, the first draugr crashed into them. The creatures pounded and scratched at the metal, but at least for now, it held.
Killian used one of the lightning sticks, flooding the hallway with a green light. “Get away from the door,” he said in a weak voice. He was on his knees, and saliva ran from the corners of his mouth.
“They will get right in,” Elijah snapped at him.
“Trap... outside,” the archer panted and fell face-first onto the stone floor.
With looks full of horror, both Elijah and Ari jumped away from the door. Not even a second later, a terrifying storm rumbled outside. Blue-white lightning emerged through the gap beneath the closed door, and Tasia’s barrier blocked it. The lightning crackled and raged for ten seconds before fading into silence, leaving only the sounds of their rasped breathing.
“Did we get them all?” Elijah said. He let himself slide down against the wall to a sitting position.
“I hope so,” Tasia replied and joined him.
“Why were they so fast? Aren’t zombies supposed to be slow?” Elijah asked.
“Those weren’t zombies, but draugr,” Tasia answered.
“Shh, keep quiet,” Ari said.
He approached Killian’s unmoving figure and tried to heal him. But his spell did nothing, as the archer was exhausted from using his spells. Next, Ari turned his attention to the narrow hallway they were in. He placed his hand on the stone wall, feeling the dampness beneath his fingers. After taking a few careful steps, he stood at the top of the stairs leading downward, but it was too dark to see what lay at the bottom.
Ari rummaged through his pack and found another lightning stick. It flared to life, illuminating the narrow staircase in sharp and stunning detail. While the first few steps were made out of stone, soon they transformed into a yellowed bone. Metal hooks were embedded along both walls, and on each rested a human skull.
“Oh, don’t be so shy.” A curious voice came from somewhere below, muffled through the stone. “I rarely have any guests.”