Ari slowly opened his eyes.
He was lying on his face, his cheek pressed against the cold planking. The silence buzzed in his ears, drumming like thunder with every beat of his heart. His vision swam and only shadows of grey and black stretched around him. He tried to think, but his head hurt too much and only a single thought entered his mind.
Why is it so dark?
Groaning heavily, he rolled onto his back to look at the sky overhead. Thick gray-black clouds covered it, blocking the sun. Dazed, Ari shook his head, trying to clear his vision. He let out a low growl of anguish as a wave of pain shot through his skull. Then the stench hit him and he realized those weren’t clouds but smoke that surrounded him. His vision swam again as he scrambled to his feet, and sensation rushed back into his limbs in the form of searing pain.
Ari stumbled and caught his balance by leaning heavily against the palisade. He tried to remember what had happened through the haze of his mind and it slowly came back. The blue pillar. The spell, or whatever it was, destroyed everything, but the village somehow survived. Did it survive? He couldn’t hear anything. There was silence, deep, and penetrating silence. He was still on the wall, at least of that he was certain, but he couldn’t see anything either and was afraid to move. He waved his hands, attempting to clear the lingering smoke, but it only hit him in the face, causing him to cough and gag.
When a sudden gust of wind cleared some of the smoke away, he noticed something strange beyond the wall. The rims of a gigantic crater loomed in the distance — a crater large enough to swallow the whole village. Towering flames leaped up with a roar, sending columns of black smoke in all directions.
Ari gawked at what just a few minutes ago was a forest. The plains between the village and the crater turned into blackened earth as if a great fire swept across them. Even one of the giant owl statues flanking the waterfall was toppled and half of it jutted out of the lake.
Something stirred inside his coat and he slipped his hand into the pocket. The moment his fingers brushed over the small sac Rhaqantiash gave him, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of great sorrow and he knew, the red ant was dead.
Was this your doing? Ari thought as he caught a last glance of the burning inferno before the smoke obscured his view again. For the first time in his life, he saw the destruction of this scale. Part of him hoped that it was Rhaqantiash who caused it because the alternative was much much worse.
When a drop of blood fell onto the back of his hand he frowned and touched his head. His fingertips, already stained with blood, came away with more red. He wanted to heal the wound, but then someone stumbled toward him out of the smoke, startling him. He reached for his scepter but found it missing. When he looked up toward the figure, he recognized Selner and let out a breath of relief.
The mentor’s face was blanched to a deadly white. He was pointing toward the village and his mouth moved, but no sound reached Ari’s ears.
“What?” Ari said and frowned because he couldn’t hear his own voice either.
He closed his eyes and used his healing spell. His head pounded again and he could feel an increase in the pressure in his ears. A moment later, with a pop, his ears unclogged. The sound of burning fire hit him like a hammer and he stumbled forward, but Selner caught him in time.
“Are you alright?” The man shouted straight into Ari’s ears and he recoiled.
Without answering, Ari healed him because he feared he would lose his hearing again if he kept shouting like that.
“Ahh… That’s better,” Selner said in a normal voice. “You need to heal the rest.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Wait,” Selner replied and closed his eyes.
A moment later, the smoke surrounding him stirred and a small figure appeared standing beside them. The girl was young, at most fifteen years old and she wore a knee-length green dress and a black cloak. Her blonde hair flowed over her shoulders, the ends reaching down below the middle of her back.
“You’re only summoning me when you need something,” she said after a moment and folded her small arms across her chest before glaring at the mentor.
Selner raised his hands as if surrendering and said, “Karline, not now. I promise we will talk later.”
“Fine,” Karline pouted her lips and said in a sulky voice.
Then, she turned toward the village and essence started gathering around her small figure. In waves, wind descended upon them and tore angrily at Ari’s cloak as she spread her arms. Her blonde hair cascaded down the black silk cloak that billowed in the howling wind. After a few moments, she shouted a foreign-sounding word and the wind expanded out of her body, clearing all the smoke and revealing the village. Thankfully, it wasn’t destroyed and beside a few broken windows, the nearby houses looked intact.
“Keep your promise,” Karline said without looking back and vanished in a swirl of smoke.
Ari stared with his mouth wide open at the spot where she stood just a moment ago. The same thing happened earlier with the old man, who saved them from the ants. Were those two Selner’s summons? His mind reeled at the revelation that other Masters could summon people, not only monsters, but he shook his head and looked around.
Several figures lay unmoving both on the wall and the ground in front of the gate. The recruits, the guards — all unconscious. Or worse. He pushed that thought from his mind, but he couldn't get rid of the guilt that overwhelmed him. They made too many mistakes in the forest. He made. Now he knew they should have stayed together... Stop it! Now is not the time for that, Ari thought and cast Healing Mist.
A green mist poured out of his body and split into small tendrils that snaked along the ground toward the injured men and women and entered their nostrils. It didn’t take long for the spell to work and the two recruits stirred. Killian was the first to sit up, his eyes fluttered open and he looked around with a confused expression on his face.
Ari wanted to ask if he’s alright, but he heard a faint scream followed by another and then a chorus of screams and shouts came from the direction of the village. He and Selner exchanged glances before both men jumped down the wall and ran toward the closest scream.
“Thank you. Thank you,” an older woman with short gray hair said and let go of Ari’s hands.
Ari smiled and said, “It’s the least we can do.”
Then he nodded toward the young boy standing beside his table. The boy peeled off the bloodied and ragged piece of cloth from the woman’s head and wrung it in a nearby bucket. He did it mechanically, not even winking at the sight of blood. The water in the bucket was already murky and red, and Ari sighed.
The inn looked like a battlefield. Some of the windows were knocked out, and the tables and floor were splattered with blood. Whatever happened in the forest shattered the eardrums of everyone in the village and he spent the last few hours healing the villagers. To his surprise, nobody died. It seemed that the walls surrounding the village were enchanted not only against the monsters but also against spells and somehow they managed to stop most of the blast.
Ari sighed again before wiping his bloody hands with another piece of cloth. Meanwhile, the boy helped the woman stand up and led her toward the inn’s exit where another woman waited for her.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ari glanced at Royce, who sat a few tables away and stared with intensity at a flower in his hands. There were still a few villagers standing in the line in front of the burly man. His healing worked far slower than Ari's — not only did he need to summon a flower every time he wanted to heal someone, but it also needed to sprout before doing anything.
At first, they healed the villagers using their wide-area spells, but that drained their essence too fast and once Ari nearly lost consciousness. He was tired. So so tired. His essence reserve was nearly empty and he fought against his eyes as they wanted to force him to rest. But he knew he won’t be able to rest anytime soon.
The ants hadn’t shown up after the last attack, but still, Selner and Roisin, together with the recruits manned the walls. The mentors tried to hide it, but Ari knew they were terrified of that explosion. He tried to ask about it before, but Selner said he should focus on healing for now and that they will talk later.
Ari took a large gulp from a mug and closed his eyes to check again his essence sheet. After things calmed down a bit, he found out that he not only learned a new spell, but the short fights with the ants progressed his rank by 8%. That was double the amount that he gained in the last dungeon. He asked Killian about it, and the man confirmed that the same thing happened to him. Ari couldn’t wrap his mind around it. They killed, what? Fifteen ants maybe? Something was really really wrong with the monsters.
Tasia’s voice brought him back to reality. The woman sat down at his table and poured herself a mug of ale. After taking a large gulp, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and asked, “How are you feeling?”
Ari looked deep into her eyes, trying to read them. Her eyes did not agree with the slight smile plastered on her lips. There was something inside of them, a hint of worry. And something more.
“Tired,” Ari replied truthfully. “My whole body hurts.”
“This is what you get for trying to play the hero,” she chuckled.
She paused, as if looking for the right words, but then the door swung open and Selner entered the inn. Behind him walked Roisin and the recruits from both teams. The group approached the largest table and sat around it. After filling their mugs, they drunk the ale and stared in front of themselves with unfocused eyes. They all looked tired like they hadn’t sleep in a while, but from the whole group, Elijah looked the worst. His forehead was covered in sweat and his hands trembled slightly and he hid them beneath the table. After a minute, Royce finished healing the last villager and joined them.
“We only have a couple of minutes, so let’s make it quick,” Roisin said. “I don’t feel comfortable with leaving the guards on the walls.”
Selner nodded and continued, “Ari, Killian. Please tell us what did you saw in the forest.”
Ari let out a deep breath and recounted what happened after they fell into the pit. When he reached the part of their conversation with Rhaqantiash and his warning, everyone around the table stared in disbelief at him.
“Thalethians?!” Luka shouted. “Are you fucking kidding? This is not the time for—”
Selned raised his hand to interrupt the recruit. “Are you sure that’s what you heard?” he asked, turning toward Ari and Killian.
“Yes,” Ari replied flatly and the archer nodded.
“They were defeated by the Founders a thousand years ago,” Leah said. “Nobody saw them since.”
“Nobody saw them, because they are dead,” Luka sneered.
“Silence!” Roisin shouted and the man looked down at his hands holding the cup. “Is there anything else?”
Ari shook his head.
Silence befell upon the table. The recruits from the second team stared at Ari and Killian as if expecting them to say that this was all a joke.
“It doesn’t matter what the monsters are,” Selner said finally. “The closest town lies thirty kilometers to the north and they must have seen the death rattle, so they should arrive here soon. We need to stay inside the walls and pray they make it in time.”
“Death rattle?” Tasia asked.
“Whenever you’re close to death, you can ignite the rest of your essence as a last-ditch effort to kill whoever you’re fighting against,” Roisin explained. “And something powerful died there in the forest. It must have been at least emerald rank to release that much essence.”
“It was a sapphire,” Ari interjected and all the eyes turned toward him again.
The implications of his words shocked everyone and even the mentors looked troubled as terror stretched across their faces.
“We’re so dead,” Luka said after a moment.
Suddenly, the door flung open with a great force. On the threshold stood one of the guards, exhausted and covered with dust and dirt. It took him a moment to catch his breath, before he stammered, “They took the carriage and escaped.”
Selner stood up abruptly and asked in a tense voice, “Which gate?”
“South gate.” Seeing the mentor’s reaction he shook his head and added, “Sir!”
Without wasting a moment, the mentors and recruits ran through the empty streets. When they reached the gate, they found two guards trying to close it, but the wooden door was too heavy for them.
“Luka, Elijah, help them!” Selner barked out orders and ran up the stairs to the top of the gate.
The two recruits joined the guards, while the rest followed the mentor. In the distance, the black carriage raced along the lake toward the forest. When it reached the trees, a fissure appeared in front of it, swallowing the vehicle. When the dust cleared out, the carriage was nowhere to be seen and some of the recruits gulped down beside Ari.
“Why aren’t they attacking the village?” Tasia asked, breaking the stretching silence.
“When the ants first emerged from the fissure, their eyes dimmed and they seemed to locate us by smell,” Killian said in a quiet voice.
Selner paled as the recruit's words sank in and he said in a trembling voice, “They’re waiting for dusk before attacking.”