“They are coming!”
“Take them down!”
The bandits raised a commotion, swarming Greyvern and Bloom like an angry mob. They were relentless, arrows, swords, spears, maces, all kinds of attacks imaginable rained down from every direction. They kept Bloom on edge. After all, any 5 or 6 of them would be enough to take her life.
If they reached her, that is.
No matter the weapons or the methods of attack, they were all useless in front of a frail, old man’s blade. Wherever the two of them passed, streaks of blinding light left dead bodies and tattered structures behind.
Although Greyvern had doubted being able to protect her, with him standing at the helm, nothing could harm even one hair of Bloom’s body.
And her hair was so long, too.
She tried to help as much as she could. Her bow remained busy, firing arrow after arrow as she tried to pick off the bandits that somehow escaped Greyvern’s onslaught.
Not all her arrows struck home, though. The bandits didn’t Just stand still waiting for her to kill them, and the stifling frustration rising in her chest...
She started missing her shots more and more, which only aggravated the feeling, just like a vicious circle.
She clenched the bow harder and harder, making it more unstable. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. She was supposed to be of some real help. But now? She added nothing; instead, as the old man had said, was just a burden.
Calm! I must be calm.
She took a deep breath, aiming at another target whose health had reached the point where she could, potentially, one-shot him. The red circle began shrinking as she drew the string further and further. The target, a lanky bandit wearing a black bandana, clutched the stump where one of his arms used to be. His eyes bulged from fear and pain as he scampered away. He was kinda fast-ish, so she aimed just a few inches ahead of his path, pulling until the fletching reached her right cheek.
Her fingers loosened. The arrow shaft rubbed against the side of the bow as it shot forward, but before it was halfway out of her bow, a streak of white light suffused the bandit. The arrow lost its target. It flew through the empty air and sank into the wall of a wooden cabin with a loud thump.
Veins popped out on Bloom’s forehead. For a second, she had an urge to throw the bow to the ground; instead, she lowered it with a hollow sigh. The back of the old man looked feeble, but it was also an insurmountable wall.
She was so weak. He was so strong. Then why? Why did he send her to rescue Marcus instead of going himself? Why did he leave it to someone weak like her? Marcus would still be alive if...
Why didn’t you go?
The question died on the tip of her tongue as she looked at Greyvern’s loose and wrinkled face. Barely half an hour had passed, but somehow, he looked so much older.
Some other time.
She took out another arrow and looked at its sharp tip. Was there a way for her to be more useful?
The active one that Greyvern mentioned. But how would she know what it was?
[... it’s ‘Spark’.]
[Spark]… of what?
[... And you’re welcome.]
Bloom raised an eyebrow. Should she have said, thanks? She never asked anything though; at least, not intentionally. She shrugged and fit the arrow to her bow. Those thoughts could wait.
Let’s try this out.
She started the draw, eyes scanning for possible candidates. Wood in this place was plenty enough, but she needed something even more… fire-friendly. Her eyes lit up as she found it and took aim.
A warm stream flowed through her body, heading straight for her hand. It burst out of her fingertips and wrapped the arrow in a glaring red flame. Her heart jolted. She let out a gasp, jerking back her fingers. The shaking almost made the arrow overshoot.
Leaving a trail of flame on its way, the arrow struck the top of the round thatch roof of a hut, bursting into a tiny explosion. Crimson flame pounced on the dry straw. Its spread was quick and liquid, setting the roof ablaze in mere seconds. From there, it reached for the wood. Smoke twisted, rising to form a noxious, grey-black cluster above the hut as the planks quickly turned into blazing red charcoal.
Excitement bubbled within Bloom’s heart. She could use this! Her eyes narrowed as they veered towards the new blue bar just below the red one. It appeared when she used the skill.
Can’t use it forever, huh?
Well, she just had to make each of them count. She took out another arrow and aimed at another flammable target. This time, she chose one where the bandits clustered around. It was the steps of a ladder a few bandits were coming down from. The effect wasn’t bad. The fiery arrow shattered the ladder, showering the falling bandits with splinters of hot, flaming wood.
Bloom gagged, putting her hand over her mouth and nose to ward off the sweet, acrid smell of roasted flesh and singed hair. The smell of blood everywhere was already bothering her for a while, but now this disgusting…
She used the cape to cover her mouth and nose and looked at Greyvern. He only gave her newest accomplishment a cursory glance. His sword flickered, conveniently sending a few light-blades at the burning bandits screaming and running around. He didn’t seem impressed.
Resisting an urge to breathe in, Bloom raised her bow. Impressive or not, at least she could impact the battle now.
Quick to catch onto its prey and quicker to spread, the potency of elemental fire differed from its ordinary sibling on a fundamental level. Planks of wood blazed and crackled, shedding pieces of ember and ash like dead skin; burning rafters and bridges fell on the bandits as they scurried around, trying to douse the flames. The view of this absolute chaos gave Bloom an introspective realization.
I’m a good arsonist.
The bandits also recognized her innate gift of burning things. They’d started diverting much of their attention to her for a while. But with Greyvern present, those efforts were only suicidal. It was almost a one-sided massacre on their part, but the situation wasn’t as optimistic as it looked.
Something… was off about Greyvern. He looked at least a decade older than when the fight started, Bloom noticed.
What’s going on with him?
She opened her mouth to ask, but suddenly her pupil shrunk to dots. She drove towards the ground just as Greyvern turned around, sword flickering through where she was a moment ago.
The sound buzzed against Bloom’s eardrums. A meter long black arrow flew away after clashing with the sword. Bloom tugged on her bowstring, turning to point it at where the arrow came from.
“Uh…” She swallowed, then started counting.
1, 2, 3… 26, 27!
Twenty-seven bandits, and by the level tags floating over their heads, even the weakest of them were as strong as the Bandit Captain she met before.
No, they are Bandit Captains!
Along with five over level 40 Bandit Commanders and two Bandit Generals, who had double question marks floating above their heads. And unlike before, she had an idea what they meant.
The expressions on their faces turned livid as they scanned the camp. The generals turned to glare at the two, their eyes bursting with anger. Bloom expected them to say something, anything to them; instead, they quickly ordered the other bandits to retreat and regroup.
Bloom would rather have them attack recklessly like before than use coordinated strategy. That meant big trouble.
Greyvern didn’t share her thoughts, though. He wasn’t even looking at the bandits. His eyes remained glued to the depths of the huge cavern.
He needed to finish it quickly.
He turned to Bloom, his voice calm like his demeanour. “Take cover,” he said before tapping his feet to the ground. The earth cracked, creating a shower of dust and gravel before he vanished. Bloom had little time to feel the shock. She readied her bow and hid behind one of the burning houses just as Greyvern appeared beside the generals. No matter their level, they didn’t even have the chance to react when he slashed out with his sword.
A flash of blinding white and including the two generals, more than half of the newly arrived bandits disappeared. Bloom stopped mid draw, her mouth open under the cape as she looked at the old man standing in the middle of the space devoid of life.
How anticlimactic! She thought. Wasn’t this supposed to be a hard battle? How strong was the old man?
Absentmindedly, she let loose the arrow at a fleeing figure she spotted out of the corner of her eyes. It struck the severely injured figure right in the small of his back, and he toppled over.
[Damage Dealt: 117]
[You have defeated a Bandit Commander]
[Acquired Boots of Lightness]
[Acquired Wild Kradhorn Bow ]
[Acquired Gold Coin(s) X123]
[You have levelled up]
She raised an eyebrow at the messages. Her level should be over twenty by now. She looked at the dead bandit commander, pretty sure he was the same one who’d shot at her before. She didn’t expect him to survive Greyvern, but at least she paid him back.
Few of the bandits survived the two of them. Those that did were already escaping. Greyvern paid them no mind; all his attention stayed focused on the huge cavern in front of him. Bloom skirted around all the fallen bodies and burned houses, pressing her cape on her nose as she walked towards the old man. The surrounding sight may be somewhat unpleasant, but the smell was just repulsive.
She gave the cavern Greyvern was staring at a look. It was deep. The jagged stalactites and stalagmites jutting out kinda looked like the fangs of that sleeping tiger. Torches burned along the rough stone walls on both sides, but further inside, it curved into the murky play of light and shadow, going out of her sight. It looked empty.
And I hope it is.
She thought, turning to look at Greyvern’s old face. He looked kinda exhausted. Well, she was too. Her body also had this strange… emptiness, a weakness she couldn’t put into words.
Well, at least the battle was over now. There should be no problem with resting a bit, right?
“Um, I think we should go bac—”
A powerful, explosive sound burst out from the depths of the cavern, stopping Bloom’s voice in its track. The earth shook under her feet, spreading cracks everywhere.
From the murky depths of the cave, something gigantic approached.