No one moved. No one breathed.
The recruits stared in the direction the howl came from, looking for any movement between the trees and bushes. But they didn’t see nor hear anything. The woods were silent again, save for an occasional gust of wind that disturbed the leaves.
Then, the branches behind them rattled, and something fell to the ground with a thud.
They spun, readying themselves for an attack. A large barrier shimmered in the air, and flames engulfed Elijah’s sword as he pointed it at a small figure standing a few meters away.
With its cheeks puffed out as far as they could go, the squirrel froze, staring back at the group. The creature held a large acorn in its paws; two more lay on the ground beside it, and it tried to hide them using its fiery tail.
“Fuck me.” Ari breathed out, relieved, but slightly embarrassed.
The barrier winked out of existence, and Tasia narrowed her eyes at him. “Teach your damn squirrel to eat after we’re out of the creepy forest.” She paused, confusion crossing her features. “Do summons even need to eat?”
They looked again at the squirrel that, in the meantime, started munching on the acorn. Before anyone was able to say anything, the transceiver in Ari’s pocket buzzed, and he retrieved it. The surface of the device contorted, opening before him like a flower unfolding its petals.
A moment later, they heard Luka’s voice. “What was that?” He sounded strangely far away as if he were at the bottom of a well.
“Are you okay?” a second voice pitched in. This one was female and sounded concerned.
Ari moved the transceiver closer to his mouth before answering. “We’re fine. The howl came from somewhere deeper in the woods.”
His teammates scanned the surrounding trees, but they cast curious glances at the transceiver from time to time. It felt weird for him too — talking to a piece of steel and hearing voices coming from its insides.
“Do you want to continue the search together?” Luka asked.
Ari looked at his teammates, and when they shook their heads, he let out a sigh. Even though the howl scared them shitless, they still wanted to hunt the monster alone. And he could only blame himself for that. After they lost all their points, he wanted to give them a bit of hope. A purpose. Deep down, he knew their chances to win the competition were low, and it would be a miracle if they finished in the top five, but it wasn’t worth risking their lives.
“We entered the forest two hundred meters to your left. We will continue heading north, where the howl came from. Start walking in that direction too.” Ari paused, ignoring the questioning looks of his teammates — only Elijah looked relieved. Ari couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being observed and needed to warn the other team. “And Luka, be careful. There’s something wrong with the forest, and it isn’t the monster.”
“We know,” Luka replied after a long moment of silence. Then the device closed, and Ari gave it a last curious glance before hiding it in his cloak’s pocket.
“Why would you say that?” Tasia scowled at him. “We agreed to work with them, but only to find the monster faster. We need those extra points for killing it.”
“If we’re dead, they are no use to us,” Ari replied flatly.
“He’s right. I’ve been hunting my whole life, and never have I felt so”—Killian paused as if looking for the right word— “alone in a forest.”
Ari’s brows rose. The silent archer rarely spoke about himself, and while he wanted to know more about his past, now wasn’t the time to ask about it. “Stay in the formation and let’s move,” he said finally.
They pressed on. The forest grew denser, the trees more imposing. They were massive; their size alone suggested they have been growing here for quite some time. Years, hundreds of years even. Ari spread his Sense toward the sides of the path, trying to find anything, but with no luck. He closed his eyes and focused on the skill to increase its range, but then a tree branch smacked his face.
Ari cursed. He raised a hand to check his cheek, and his fingers touched something warm and wet. He must have been cut pretty deep because a metallic taste slid into his mouth.
“Sorry,” Elijah whispered over his shoulder.
Ari healed the wound instantly and spat out the remaining blood. The squirrel walking beside him raised its pawn at Elijah, and Ari barely stopped it from doing something stupid. The spell that allowed him to control the summons using his thoughts was helpful, but there were moments where he regretted getting it.
As they ventured deeper into the forest, the ambient light grew brighter. More sunlight’s rays than before filtered through the treetops, and Ari looked up, wondering what was going on.
“Stop!” Tasia’s hushed voice broke the silence.
She gestured for them to join her. When they did, she pointed at a damaged trunk visible beside a bramble thicket. Behind it, more trees lay shattered and broken, forming a wide, straight path through the forest. The trees and bushes flanking it were blackened as if they were burned by immense heat.
“What happened here?” Tasia asked after they edged closer.
Killian crouched down beside one of the broken trunks and ran his hand up its side. Then, he picked up a couple of leaves and sniffed them. Slowly a grimace spread over his face. “I’m not sure. But whatever it was, it happened at least a few weeks ago,” he said.
Ari and Elijah exchanged worried glances. They saw similar destruction before, the night of Elijah’s arrival to this world. If another Wanderer appeared here… But Ari knew this shouldn’t be possible. This close to the village, someone would see the rainbow storm, and Hunters would be crawling all over the forest.
“So before the first attack.” Tasia frowned. “Maybe there was a dungeon here, and a monster managed to escape from it?”
“And a monster did that?” Killian looked over at her and spread his hands.
Ari gazed down the path of destroyed trees. “Let’s check what’s at the end of it.”
He didn’t like it. His senses told him to run, but he knew it wasn’t possible because he needed to get stronger. And there was only one way to achieve strength — by facing monsters and killing them.
They walked forward, trying to avoid stepping on twigs or anything else that would betray them. Soon, the path ended, and the group entered a small clearing. It looked like something exploded in the middle of the forest and left a shallow crater filled shattered trunks, broken branches, and ravaged earth. A gray wolf lay still on the ground, maybe twenty meters away from the group, with its tongue unpooled from the maw.
“Is it dead?” Elijah asked.
Ari strained his eyes. The wolf looked dead. He watched its chest for a moment, and it wasn’t moving. Even from where he stood, he could see that the animal’s eyes were glazed as they stared into nothingness. But just to be sure, he Read the aura surrounding the creature.
“Its essence is still fading away,” Ari said a moment later. “It died not long ago.”
His teammates nodded, and they slowly approached the wolf. Tasia prodded it with her sword, just to be sure, but it didn’t move.
“Killian, check what killed it. The rest, cover him,” Ari said.
They stood with their backs facing each other, observing the surrounding trees while the archer studied the body.
A deep voice suddenly spoke in Ari’s mind. A voice that wasn’t his. He looked around in confusion, but besides his teammates, there was no one nearby.
“There are no wounds on the body,” Killian said before Ari was able to ask about it. “And I found tracks, left by some kind of a large bug. Leading that way.” He pointed toward the trees to their left.
“How large?” Tasia asked.
“Too large.” There was worry in Killian’s voice.
Ari’s mind reeled. Sweat began to drip down his forehead as his pulse raced on. The howl, the wolf lying in the open, the tracks on the ground leading deeper into the forest. Suddenly he felt like they were led here. The only thing that didn’t make sense was the voice that told him to leave, but he couldn’t get rid of an uneasy feeling that this was a trap.
“We need to get out of here, now!” Ari said in a panicked voice. He pulled out the transceiver and wanted to contact Luka, but out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something.
The ground beneath Killian’s feet moved.
“Watch out!” Ari shouted as he burst into motion. He jumped, and for a few almost heart-stopping moments, he thought he would make it in time. But before he managed to push Killian out of the way, the ground opened up under their feet and swallowed them both.
They slid downward, earth and dirt swirling around them. Their screams echoed and bounced off the walls as they fell. Ari tried to grab at anything to slow down the descent, but the walls were smooth, and his fingers found nothing. With a sickening thud, he hit the ground a few seconds later and rolled a couple of times before stopping.
Ari’s head rang like an iron bell, and his chest throbbed with pain that seemed to rumble its way through his entire body. He gingerly touched his ribs and could feel a bone sticking out of his skin. Groaning in an agony he had never experienced before, he started healing himself.
After the pain in his chest slowly subsided, he managed to open his eyes, but he could see nothing but impenetrable darkness.
“Killian,” he whispered.
Only silence responded.
Ari grabbed at his pack, but only found its torn strap, the rest was missing. He cursed and spread his Sense around. Killian lay motionless on the ground, not far away from him, but he also noticed three additional sources of essence closeby.
He froze instantly as he tried to Read them. One belonged to his squirrel. The summon wasn’t moving, but if it didn’t vanish, it meant it was only wounded. But whatever the other two creatures were, the aura surrounding them was weak — they were barely at the start of unranked.
What to do, what to do. Killian is wounded and I need to heal him… Ari thought frantically. While keeping an eye on the creatures, he started crawling, dragging his trembling, aching body toward his friend. His healing spell was still fighting against the damage he suffered during the fall. After nearly a minute, he reached Killian and grabbed at his ankle.
Ari sucked in a breath through his teeth when his spell told him how extensive the man’s wounds were. Without wasting a moment, he poured as much essence he could and used both his healing spells at the same time. He was so absorbed with the process, he even forgot about the creatures. When he turned his head to check on them, they were already gone. Just great, he thought as he kept healing Killian.
“Uhhhh…” Killian groaned a minute later.
“Quiet! We’re not alone,” Ari whispered.
Killian stirred under his touch but remained silent. Ari blindly grabbed at the archer’s side and found his pack. From inside, he retrieved one of the lightning sticks. Knowing the enchantment would blind him temporarily, he closed his eyes before throwing the stick away. After the sizzling sound died down, he squinted his eyes open.
The bright green light illuminated the darkness, allowing Ari to clearly see his surroundings. The cave was round and small. A hole was visible in the ceiling, but he couldn’t see anything when he peered into it. How far down are we? He sighed and looked around the ground, searching for his pack or the transceiver, but both were missing.
“Damn it,” Ari whispered. Then he turned toward Killian. “How do you feel?”
“Like someone dropped a mountain on me,” Killian whispered back. He reached out with his hand, and Ari helped him stand.
While the archer picked his bow and inspected the string, he approached the squirrel. It lay motionless, but when Ari touched its small body, he felt something jolt against his fingers. A moment later, the squirrel stirred and jumped on its feet. It chittered livelily, and Ari put a finger to his lips.
The squirrel tilted its small head slightly and stared at him with its large eyes. He smiled and commanded it to climb up his shoulder before returning to Killian. He didn’t know where they were, but he felt safer with his summon at his side.
“What do we do?” Killian asked. His bow was gone, and he held his dagger in his hand instead.
“Looks like we don’t have much choice,” Ari said and pointed toward the only exit out of the cave.
Ari picked up the lightning stick, and they ventured forth. Deeper and deeper they went. It was a never-ending tunnel filled with twists and turns. The walls were smooth to his touch as he ran his fingers along the sides; they were too smooth and too shapely to be made naturally. A minute later, he stopped in his tracks when he saw an opening to his left. He kept his back to the wall as he edged toward it. When he was close enough, he stuck his head out to check what was inside.
“What the hell?” Ari whispered.
The cave was smaller than the one they landed in, and dozens of large sacs hung from the ceiling. He gestured for Killian to join him, and the pair of recruits stood in the cave’s entrance, staring dumbfounded at what they found. Suddenly, one of the sacs stirred and fell with a wet smack. The moment it struck the ground, it burst, splashing green ooze everywhere.
From within emerged a creature that looked more like an ant than anything else — although you rarely saw an ant the size of a cat. An elongated skull with two antennas curiously surveyed the surroundings. Two sharp ooze-covered mandibles protruded just above its mouth. After a second, the ant turned its head upward and stared at the two recruits with two glowing eyes.
A bow appeared in Killian’s hand, and he pulled back the string, but Ari raised his hand and stopped him. He could feel the archer’s questioning gaze on him, but he focused on the creature instead.
The ant shook off the green ooze, revealing a black carapace. It tilted its head slightly, and its mandibles clicked hungrily. Ari drew his breath in through his clenched teeth, thinking he made a mistake. But then the creature let out a high-pitched shriek and dashed past their legs into the darkness.
“Why did you stop me?” Killian asked after a moment.
“I don’t know,” Ari replied. “Somehow I felt it didn’t want to harm us…” His voice trailed off.
Killian narrowed his eyes at Ari but nodded. Still, he didn’t look convinced.
A foul stench attacked their nostrils as they passed more caves on either side of the tunnel. Some were filled with sacs, but others were empty. Then Ari heard a sound. It was a sticky sound, almost a squish. He hid the stick beneath his cloak, and it only gave a little glow, but it was enough for them to see.
The tunnel ended, and they emerged into an enormous cavern. It had a rounded dome-like ceiling, supported by curving walls. A gently sloping ramp led to a large platform that rose at the back of the cavern. It was filled with more of those green sacks, but those were much much bigger.
Ari noticed a slight movement in the shadows beneath the platform, but it was too dark to see anything. He spread his Sense, and a chill ran down his spine when it found hundreds of the ants there. They stood motionless as statues, with their heads turned toward the platform.
A few meters away, Ari saw another tunnel, and he pointed in its direction. Killian nodded, and both men got on their knees before crawling along the ledge toward it. They were partway through when an alien voice resounded through their heads.
“Human spawn, come join us. We need to talk.”