“That was a Gloomling?” Ari asked.
He glanced down at the mutilated bodies lying on the ground and then at the destroyed gate. His and Luka’s spells left only a few small scratches in the steel-reinforced wood, but the creature’s attack cut it in half like it was nothing.
The black-haired woman nodded. “A young one. It must have snuck through the gate during the downpour.”
“Couldn’t it just fly over the walls?” Ari asked, pointing at the three-meter tall palisade. The creature had wings after all, and it moved pretty damn fast.
The woman looked him up and down with questioning eyes. “Are you really from the Islands?” When Ari nodded, she sighed and continued, “We enchant the gates and walls, so monsters can’t just fly over them.”
“And the gate is ruined now,” Luka grumbled. His axe and shield vanished, and he turned toward the woman. “Why didn’t you help us sooner?”
The woman shrugged and hadn’t said anything.
Luka scowled, and she approached him and slung her arm over his shoulder. “Now now, stop sulking. A captain shouldn’t behave like that,” she said in an overly sweet voice.
The man tried to shake her off, but she clung to him so tightly, he couldn’t do anything. It looked comical because he was a head taller than her. After a few seconds of struggling, he gave up. His face blushed, and he tried not to look in Ari’s direction.
“You know each other?” Ari asked. He already Read Luka and his teammates earlier, and they were of similar rank as him. But the woman was far stronger as she was really close to advancing to opal rank.
She let go of Luka, to the burly man’s relief. She walked over to Ari and reached out her hand. “Name’s Leah.”
Ari clasped it and wanted to introduce himself, but Leah interrupted him before he managed to open his mouth. “And you’re Ari, the infamous captain. I was there in the main hall when the headmistress attacked the Hunters. Oh, how I wish my team would do something exciting, but with mister grumpy”—she pointed her thumb over her shoulder— “we have to do everything safe.”
“At least we’re still alive,” Luka grumbled again.
They soon heard the sound of footsteps pounding toward them. A moment later, a group of guards along with an elderly woman emerged from around the corner of a nearby building. They immediately balked, gawking at the bodies and the three recruits standing beside them. The weapons in the guards’ hands trembled, and one of them turned green. He stumbled and leaned against a wall, retching violently.
The elderly woman looked at him with disapproval in her dark eyes, but her face softened nearly instantly. She shook her head before shifting her eyes at Ari and the other recruits. She wore a simple black dress, which contrasted with her white hair twisted up into a braided bun.
“What happened here?” she asked, her voice low and hard.
“A Gloomling,” Leah answered simply.
The guards drew air through their teeth with a hissing noise and started nervously looking around.
Seeing their reaction, Luka shook his head and pointed at the gate. “It’s gone already, but we have another problem.”
The elderly woman nodded. Then she turned toward the guard who retched before and said, “Run to the carpenter shop and grab Johnson. Tell him that I need him here right now.”
“Yes, chief!” Relief crossed the guard’s face. He saluted and ran back into the village.
“The rest of you cover the bodies and take them to my house. Then help with the gate. We need to have it repaired before dusk.” The woman barked up orders, gesturing with her hands.
“Yes, chief!” The guards shouted in unison before spreading out.
The chief was left standing alone, and suddenly she looked frail, fragile even. Ari saw as pain flashed across her face. But not only pain; there was rage there as well. But she shook her head, and it vanished instantly.
She approached the recruits and said, “Thank you for your help. First the monster and now this…”
“Can we talk about the monster?” Luka said. “I know it might not be the best moment, but—”
The chief waved her hand, cutting him off. “No, we can talk now. While I’m grateful for your help, your presence in the village makes my people nervous. So the sooner you deal with the monster, the better.” Without waiting for an answer, she turned and gestured for them to follow.
“I will return to the inn and let the others know what happened,“ Leah said.
Luka nodded, and he and Ari ran after the chief.
Her house was close, merely two streets away. Ari’s brows creased when he noticed it. Village chiefs back home were treated differently, and their houses always were larger and better made than the rest. But the chief of Abingdon lived in a house that looked like any other on the street — wooden, small, with a moss-covered roof and barely two stories high.
They entered the house, where she led them up narrow stairs to a large room. Fishing poles and nets hang from pegs along the walls. The woman sank into a leather armchair behind a wooden desk and folded her gnarled hands.
Ari closed the door and sat beside Luka on one of the chairs in front of the desk. The chief measured them with the glance of her eyes before she started rummaging through one of the drawers. A moment later, she carefully placed a token on the tabletop and pushed it toward Ari. He thanked her and compared it to his — they were identical. He nodded and returned the token to the chief.
“We keep a small herd of cattle outside of the village,” she began after hiding it back inside the desk. “Two weeks ago, we found one of them dead. There weren’t any visible wounds on the body, so we assumed it died naturally. But then the next day, we found another one.” She paused and narrowed her eyes at them. “Same thing — no wounds and the guard who was keeping an eye on them swore he didn’t hear nor saw anything.”
“We sent out a small team of guards to check the nearby forest, but they found nothing suspicious. Over the next few days, nothing happened, and we thought it was just a coincidence, but then our team of hunters didn’t return for the night.” The chief sighed and rubbed her temples. “We found them the next day, close to a creek in the forest. Dead. No wounds again. Since then nobody went into the forest. Something is out there, and I want you to find it and kill it.”
Ari nodded grimly and asked, “Can we check their bodies?”
“We’ve buried them already,” the chief replied flatly.
Ari tried to hide his disappointment. The villagers hadn’t found any marks, but maybe the monster left something on the bodies, and they could use Killian’s abilities to track it. It was a long shot, but without the bodies, they were left with nothing.
“We understand,” Luka said, casting a glance at Ari when he remained silent for too long. “Can someone show us the place where you found the hunters?”
The chief shook her head. “I’m afraid this won’t be possible.”
“Why?” Luka asked.
“The guards who retrieved the bodies died in the Gloomling attack, and I won’t send out there anyone else.”
“I thought—well...” Faint color stained Luka’s cheekbones, and he looked abashed. But he quickly recovered and rose from his seat. “Thank you for your help. We will leave immediately.”
After Ari and Luka returned to the inn, they were surrounded by recruits from both teams. Even though Leah told them the story, it seemed it wasn’t enough, and they shot question after question at the captains. They wanted to know everything about Gloomlings and their spells in case they met one. While everyone feared the creatures, they rarely appeared in the areas surrounding Bourfall.
Only Royce sat at the table away from the recruits, casting nervous glances at them. He looked troubled, and Ari wanted to speak with him, but their mentors told them it was time to leave. A quarter of an hour later, the recruits stood outside the northern gate, split into two groups. The temporal peace between the teams vanished as soon as it appeared, and they returned to keeping to themselves.
The sky cleared, and the sun came up warm and dominated the blue sky. Still, the wind moaned outside the walls, forcing them to draw their hoods deeper into their eyes, and wrap their cloaks tighter around their bodies. While waiting for the mentors to show up, Ari observed his surroundings.
A group of workers, accompanied by guards, worked diligently, repairing the damage the monster did. Using wooden planks, they already managed to patch the cracks in one of the gate wings, but the other was slit nearly in half. Ari was worried they wouldn’t be able to repair in time. He turned and looked at the forest bordering the village. It began merely a hundred meters away from the wall. With his bow ready, Killian stayed quiet and alert and would not take his eyes off the forest tree line. But it wasn’t only him — they all were quieter than usual.
Before long, both mentors emerged from the gate.
“Gather on me!” Roisin shouted. When the recruits joined her, she continued, “During a mission, there are moments when you can’t stay together. To keep in contact with each other, Order uses this device.”
Something appeared in her hands. It reminded Ari of the compass she used to track the rifts, but it was slightly larger, and a bug-like antenna was attached to the top of it.
“This is a handheld transceiver. It allows you to talk over distance, but after a few hundred meters, it will stop working, so use it cautiously.” She paused and walked over to Ari. “Place your hand over it.”
Ari reached out, and he winced when a part of his essence separated from his body. The antenna vibrated, and a small green lamp lit up on the device. Selner retrieved another transceiver and repeated the process with Luka. Then, he and Roisin exchanged the devices and passed them to the captains.
Ari glanced at Elijah. While his friend closely observed the device in his hands, he hadn’t reacted in any way. This brought a smile to Ari’s face. Elijah mentioned once something called a phone that made long-distance conversations possible. But it seemed he managed to stop himself from gawking each time he saw things from his world.
“Now the devices are paired with each other. To use them, just press this button,” Roisin said, breaking Ari out of his thoughts. “Remember, try to return before nightfall. Even for two teams, it is dangerous to stay outside the walls after dark.”
She looked like she wanted to say something more, but instead, she only glanced at Selner and nodded. Then, the two mentors returned to the town, leaving the teams alone again.
“What’s the plan?” Ari asked.
“I think we should stay together,” Royce said. Since the moment they returned to the inn, the large man’s behaviour changed. Sweat covered his forehead and he spoke with anxiety in his voice. “The Gloomling could still be around.”
Luka shook his head. “While I agree it would be safer that way, the forest is simply too vast. We can spend days looking for the monster, and we can’t waste that much time.”
“Agree,” Ari said and nodded thoughtfully.
“But we should stay in the range of the devices all the time,” Elijah interjected. “Oh, and let’s do check-ins, whether we find anything or not.”
“What’s that?” Luka frowned and looked at him suspiciously.
“We will call each other every, let’s say ten minutes? That way, we will know that we’re okay and not in trouble.”
Luka was silent for a few seconds before he smiled slightly. “Good idea.”
“Also the chief mentioned a creek, so if you find it let us know,” Ari said. “We might have a way to track the monster.”
He spoke with his team earlier about it, and they decided to reveal Killian’s tracking abilities. The double amount of points for the better team wasn’t worth spending a week hunting the aberrant monster. Time wasn’t on their side, and they needed to finish the mission as soon as possible.
“We will enter there.” Luka pointed at the forest. He paused before adding, “Good luck.”
His team walked over to the tree line, where they stopped and he said something to Surma. The lean man nodded, and a moment later, five small birds made of dust started floating above his head. Then, the group vanished into the trees.
“That seems useful.” Tasia whistled softly as she looked at Ari. “Shame you don’t have any flying summons.”
Ari ignored her comment and said, “Ready your weapons.” He extended his hand, and the scepter appeared in it. “Elijah, fire.”
His friend nodded, and flames engulfed his fists.
“Hyrr, hear my summons and obey,” Ari whispered, and the squirrel appeared in a ball of fire.
The summon chittered, and its tail made of living fire wiggled happily. Somehow Ari knew it was happy. That was a weird feeling, one he felt for the first time. He looked at the squirrel with curiosity as it tugged at his cloak before climbing up and sitting on his shoulder.
“Ready?” Ari said.
When the recruits nodded, they ventured into the forest. The walk was easier at the beginning, where the ground was flatter and the trees sparse. It didn’t take long before the squirrel jumped off Ari’s shoulder and began leaping from branch to branch above their heads. He smiled at the summon’s behavior, but the smile soon vanished. He glanced left and right, his face tense with worry.
Something was wrong with the forest.
He couldn’t tell why, but he felt a tingling sensation at the back of his neck as if someone was watching them. Or something. He immediately spread his Sense, but it found nothing.
As they continued, the forest grew darker and the trees thicker and denser. The group followed a narrow path between them and encroaching hedges that hid the sun. The path was overgrown in places with thorny bushes that caught their cloaks and pulled at their thighs.
“Wait.” Killian’s hushed voice broke the silence. “You hear that?”
Tasia, who walked at the front of the group, turned toward him. She gave a listen, then frowned. “Hear what? It’s quiet.”
“That’s the problem,” Killian said. “No birds. No animals. Not even insects.”
The recruits’ expressions turned grim. No one said anything, the silence stretching over them like a blanket. They nervously glanced around the trees and bushes but were unable to hear anything besides their ragged breaths.
Tasia was the one who broke the silence. “It’s already been ten minutes, contact the—”
Suddenly, a terrifying howl echoed through the forest, making the hair on their bodies stand up.