Ari stumbled to the ground, trying to catch his breath. His stomach churned, and his throat burned as if he drank a whole bottle of the foreign liquor he tried once in the inn.
He pried his eyes open and couldn’t see a thing. Panic gripped his heart and lungs. He tried squinting and blinking a few times, but his eyes felt dry and heavy. What was even worse, he couldn’t hear anything but his heartbeats thumping in his ears.
He wanted to open his mouth, but then Elijah’s voice sounded somewhere to his right. “Why is it so dark?”
Ari rummaged through his pack and found one of the glowing sticks. It flared to life a moment later, illuminating the darkness with green radiance. He let out a breath of relief when he found his teammates near him, and only then he turned his attention to the cavernous space they appeared in.
A long time ago, this had to be a beautiful garden, like the ones he saw in front of the mansions in town. Now, it was barely a shadow of itself. The earth was covered with dead grass and rotten fruits. Withered vines and spider webs as large as curtains hung from the high ceiling blocking the sky.
Ari stood in front of a destroyed fountain flanked by bare bushes, covered with a thick mass of spider webs. Behind the group, the garden ended with a steel wall filled with holes, but when he peered through them, he saw only darkness.
Ari spread his Sense in every direction but found nothing with even a shred of essence inside. Then, he turned toward Killian and said, “Go forward and scout. If you find anything, return to us right away.”
The boy nodded, and the air around him shimmered before he vanished. But it didn’t work as good as Roisin’s spell, and Ari still could see his silhouette. The bush behind the archer rippled as if he looked at it through a bottle filled with water.
While they waited for him to return, Ari retrieved one of the barrels and summoned his spider. The squirrel was stronger, but he knew he needed to level his other summon too. Also, the air was musky and dry, and it seemed that they were in a building, so starting a fire was the last thing they needed.
Not even a minute later, Killian appeared beside them, startling Ari.
“Don’t do that again,” Ari said. His heartbeat quickened, and he tried to calm himself. “What did you find?”
“Dead spiders,” Killian replied. “At least a few of them. The trail of their bodies leads deeper into the garden.” He paused and glanced over his shoulder. His voice was strained. There was something in it Ari hadn’t heard often, something almost like fear. The only time he ever saw the archer show any emotion was when Tasia got hurt in the first dungeon.
“And they died not long ago,” Killan added after a moment.
Elijah flinched, and his face paled.
“What?” Tasia asked. “How is that possible? We’ve just arrived here.”
“I don’t know…” Killian replied.
“Lead us to the first body,” Ari said and gripped his scepter tighter.
Killian nodded, and they followed after him. A horrid stench curled its way up their nostrils before they even found the first body. It was strong enough to make them wince and cover their noses. Only the archer seemed not to be affected by it.
The spider was big, as large as a horse or even larger — it was hard to tell with it lying crumpled on the ground. The monster’s body was glossy black, and a bright red-orange hourglass marked the top of its massive abdomen.
The water spider approached the body and nudged it with one of his legs before retreating and hiding behind Ari. Great. First Elijah and now you? He thought and shook his head.
He passed the glowing stick to Tasia and said, “Follow the spiders and let’s see where they will lead us. Tasia and Elijah, you stay in front.”
The woman nodded, but Elijah paled even more and grumbled, “Why spiders? Why did it have to be spiders?”
In the next few minutes, they passed six more bodies. Some of the spiders were cut down by swords, but others seemed to die from spells — their husks were either scorched or frozen. Or even both at the same time. What the hell happened here?
The garden changed, and now small bare trees and stone sculptures fully covered in webs appeared everywhere around the path they followed.
The eerie silence was broken by the sound of soft, unfocused ripping of cloth. The group stopped dead in their tracks, and Ari spread his Sense, but it found nothing. He strained his ears, but besides his ragged breathing, he hadn’t heard anything either. He was about to give his teammates a signal to move forward, but then he heard it again.
The same ripping sound.
Somewhere above them.
Tasia must have heard it too because she lifted the lightning stick high above her head. Ari looked up and saw a few long, pendulous shapes hanging from the ceiling. They looked like huge caterpillar cocoons that hung from a tree branch after a rain. One of them twitched, and Ari noticed a shadow beside it, in the middle of which hid a dark form with way too many legs.
His hand moved before his mind was able to process what he saw, and a blue-white bolt of essence struck the giant spider in its black-red abdomen.
The creature shrieked in pain and crashed down with a ground-shaking boom. It landed in the bushes behind Elijah, flattening them and rising clouds of dust. He tried to spin toward the spider but was too slow. Eight red eyes flared to life behind him, and the spider struck with its front legs, sending the man crashing nastily into a nearby sculpture.
The barrier shimmered in the air a second too late, but at least it stopped the spider from jumping at Killian. The archer vanished, and the monster turned its attention to Tasia, who charged at it with her glowing sword in hand.
While she fought with the monster, Ari commanded his spider to help her. Then, he ran toward the spot where Elijah landed, sending two quick blasts of essence at the monster, but both missed.
He found Elijah partially covered by rubble. The man’s face was bloodied, and his arm was bent at a strange angle. Ari feared it was broken, but he wasted no time and used Healing Touch. While the spell healed his friend, he glanced over his shoulder.
The lightning stick lay on the ground illuminating the area around it. Tasia kept swinging her sword madly at the spider, but the creature was fast. Terrifyingly fast. It jumped around the woman, avoiding the blade with ease. But whenever it attacked, Tasia managed to dodge or block the legs with her barriers. The shadows of the fighting pair danced on the trees and sculptures surrounding them.
A shrill sound echoed through the garden, and an arrow pinned one of the spider’s legs to the ground. It flailed and tore its leg apart to break free. It only took a second, but a second was enough for Tasia. Her sword struck the spider’s abdomen, and a sizzling green ichor burst from the wound. It shrieked again and jumped on a nearby tree, avoiding another arrow shot by Killian.
Red runes flared on the spider’s injured abdomen, and it spat a green goo at the raven-haired woman. She dodged, and the goo melted through the tree behind her. Some of it sprayed at her back, and she screamed, but at the same moment, a sickly-looking green gleam surrounded the blade of her sword.
The spider jumped down from the tree and rushed at the kneeling woman, but then Ari’s summon crashed into it from the side, sending both creatures tumbling in a flailing mass of legs.
Tasia’s face was twisted with pain and rage, and spittle flew from her mouth as she raised her sword and swung it horizontally. A green arc shot out of the weapon. It left a glowing trail behind as it flew through the air toward the two fighting spiders.
The arc sliced through the monster’s abdomen without any resistance, and half of its legs got cut off. Then it tilted and toppled as loss of the legs had overbalanced it and pools of green goo gushed out all over the grass.
Tasia rushed at the monster, and it shrieked and spat at the woman in a futile attempt to ward off another attack. Then, two arrows—one after another—hit the spider in its eyes, bursting them.
This gave Tasia enough time to close the distance between them, and she struck with her sword in the spider’s remaining eyes. As it flailed in death throes, she roared and drove the weapon into its body up to the hilt. The spider squirmed one more time before its legs stopped moving.
Tasia took a few steps away from the body and threw her cloak at the ground. Smoke rose from it as the goo dissolved the material.
Elijah stirred beside Ari, and his eyes opened. “What happened?” he said in a weak voice.
“A spider, but Tasia killed it already,” Ari said and helped his friend stand up. The man struggled to his feet, breathing hard in ragged, uneven gasps. When he noticed the dead spider, a gulp escaped his lips.
Tasia and Killian walked over to them. The woman smiled, and her eyes danced with excitement.
“What was that?” Ari asked. When she cocked her head, he added, “The green spell.”
“The bracelet you gave me,” Tasia answered with a grin. “No way I’m selling that.”
Ari nodded. The item seemed far more powerful than he expected, and it allowed Tasia to overcome one of her weaknesses — the lack of a ranged attack. Still, she needed to get hit to activate it, but it was better than nothing.
“Let’s focus,” Ari said after a moment. “This was only a normal monster and—”
Suddenly, an explosion rumbled somewhere in the garden, and Ari’s mouth froze open. Nobody dared to move or say anything.
“What was that?” Elijah whispered after the sound died down.
“Whoever killed the other spiders is still here,” Tasia whispered back.
More explosions followed, but those were smaller than the first one. After a minute, they stopped, and a glow appeared beyond the small trees and bushes, maybe a hundred meters away from the group.
Then, just at the far range of his hearing, Ari heard them. Voices. Someone was talking in a language he didn’t understand.
Ari wanted to warn his teammates, but something stirred inside of him, and a box appeared in his mind.
|The Garden of Chin'qies has been cleared|
|Your rewards will appear shortly|
|Essence Rank progress: 38% -> 42%|
What? Ari had to reread the message a few times because he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“Cleared? We barely did anything,” Tasia whispered.
“What’s going on?” Elijah gasped. “Is there a Wanderer here?”
“Tasia, I need light,” Ari said sharply, and a blast of green light revealed their terrified faces. He retrieved the essence holder from his pack and found it filled with essence.
“What do we do?” Tasia asked.
“Someone else killed the boss, but the holder is full, so we can return to our world,” Ari said. That was the safest choice, but he wanted to check what happened here. Somehow he knew it was important. “Or we can go and find out.”
“I want to return,” Elijah said in a trembling voice.
“We need to tell the Order what happened here. If we leave now, we will never know.” Tasia said.
“I agree with Tasia,” Killian added.
“Then it’s decided,” Ari said and Elijah scowled at him, but he ignored it. “Let’s move, but without the light.”
When they neared the source of the glow, the air started smelling of dust and smoke. At the start, it was hard to walk in the darkness, but it didn’t take long for their eyes to adjust to it, and soon, they reached a large clearing and hid behind a bush covered with webs.
An enormous spider, nearly twice the size of the one they fought lay dead in the center of a large stone altar. Part of its abdomen was missing entirely, and the rest was on fire. It already spread to the surrounding webs, and from them to the trees behind the altar.
Ari wanted to send his Sense to check if something was out there, but then a lone, vaguely humanoid emerged from behind the spider’s body and stood there, staring at it.
It was at least two-meter tall, and its body was like that of a muscular human but fully covered with scales. Scales that were blood-red with lighter colored ones on its head and chest, which was partially visible beneath the black leather armor the creature wore. But what really stood out was its face — it had a lizard-like snout full of sharp teeth beneath slightly protruding yellow eyes with slit pupils. A multi-colored casque extended several centimeters above its head like a large crown.
The creature sniffed at the air, but then a shout came from the other side of the altar. It turned in the direction, showing a long constantly moving and curling tail.
Two similar creatures approached, and they started talking in a weird language full of grunts and hisses. The only difference between them that Ari could see was the color of their scales — the newcomers were green instead of red.
A moment later, the red-scaled creature threw something on the ground, and a three-meter tall fungus emerged from it. Its red, rounded cap was stained with white dots, and a water-like surface shimmered on the stalk beneath it.
The green-scaled creatures walked over to the fungus and vanished, but their companion spun and stared straight at Ari. Their eyes met, and a shiver ran down his back.
The creature’s mouth opened slightly, revealing sharp triangular-shaped teeth. “Humansss. As slow as always,” it hissed. A forked tongue darted in and out of the mouth as it made more loud hissing sounds, oddly reminding Ari of laugher.
Then, it entered the portal, and ripples spread out across the surface before the fungus vanished. Ari stared dumbfounded at the spot where it stood just a moment ago, not believing what he just saw and heard.
After a few long seconds, it was Elijah who broke the stunned silence. “Did the fucking lizard just talk?”