Dark shapes loomed between boles of tall trees, equally dark and forbidding. Their eyes, red and mad with suppressed violence, glowed in the pitch black of the night. They stared fixedly at the village beyond the forest, silent, still like sinister sculptures curved from tangible shadows.
Four silhouettes blended with the darkness, passing under the nose of one beast after another, inching closer to Caramis. Bloom, along with Lewis, Edrich, and another captain, a man of light build and even lighter feet, Barsik HerdsMason. A transparent liquid-like dome covered them, camouflaging, softening any sound they made, and helping them in every way possible to avoid the beasts’ attention.
[Stealth Sanctuary], an intermediate stealth spell from Edrich. Though they still had to be mindful not to trip on fallen branches and the net of roots sprawled over the forest floor, it had gotten them so far through the encirclement. An impressive feat as far as Bloom was concerned. And after always sneaking around to avoid the more… spicy of the beasts in those grasslands and canyons and nabbing a [Sneaking] skill for her trouble, she had some authority on the subject.
Maybe I should try magic.
[Yeah, why not?] The A.I. answered Bloom’s musings. [Traps, swords, archery, you still haven’t stretched yourself thin enough, so go all in! I support you.]
The tone, despite its literal meaning, wasn’t very supportive.
Bloom frowned and turned away to pay attention to something else, focusing on the closest dark shadow that loomed just a few feet from where they were passing through. The fur on its back shone mildly silver in the few strands of starlight that reached through the black canopy overhead. The rest of its features she could barely make out.
[Silverback Leopard (Curse Controlled)
Curse Controlled. She’d also seen the words during the battle earlier, and along with the black markings coiling around each animal...
Bloom shelved that thought for later. The word ‘controlled’ was more important right now. If there’s a ‘controlled’, then what about a ‘controller’?
The marks were most likely responsible for the ten additional levels of the beasts, and who knew what other perks it brought them. Just as the guardsman had said, if unprovoked, the beasts stayed pretty docile at night. That... inactivity, and the health they’d been constantly losing during the battle even without being directly harmed...
The life leeching aspect is also the same.
Bloom’s eyes narrowed slightly in the darkness. The answers should lie in the village. But how should she go about forcing them out from—
“We are here.” Lewis’s curt whisper brought her mind back to the forest. Their party had stopped below a boulder just within the treeline, and beyond it lay the most dangerous part of their journey, a spacious clearing.
The village wall, now twice as thick and sturdy because of the recent ordeal, lay a couple hundred meters from the treeline. The space between them, without trees, rocks or even grass, felt bald. Even the stumps of trees were at a level with the ground. As powerful as the stealth spell was, even it wouldn’t conceal their presence in such an open area under constant watch of both the beasts and the villagers.
Thankfully, they had the guardsman’s warning.
Lewis calculated in his mind. They were just in time. “It should begin soon.”
Clad in thick steel armour, Jared stood beside Raela and two other captains. Behind them, an army of three hundred soldiers, each with a bow in hand, nocked and ready, waited for his order.
“Draw!” His deep voice rumbled in the quiet night. The soldiers pulled on the strings, the arrow tips aiming upwards at a forty-five-degree angle, when Raela took action.
She lifted above her head a golden staff exuding an aura of elegance, with nine small jewel-encrusted rings set at even spaces around a large circle at the top of it. They jingled in a strange rhythm. And as the music rippled through the ranks of the soldiers, the arrowheads glowed golden.
“RELEASE!” Jared ordered, and the soldiers loosened their fingers.
Orbs of light rose like hundreds of golden moons. They chased away the darkness, swooping down on the beasts, and the thin veil of silence shattered into a million pieces.
Howls, growls, screeches, as if a nightmarish hellscape broke loose in the forest, startling the children awake from their restless sleep in the circular homes of Caramis. A few guards nodding off on the wall jumped up, and the village that had fallen into a lull sprang back into activity. Villagers and guards alike pooled on the walls, their eyes wide open, glued to the dark forest beyond the clearing.
“What is happening outside?” A scraggly man asked, gripping the shaft of his rusty halberd even harder, though the tip of the weapon still shook. “Are they going to attack?”
“I don’t think so,” answered Raina, standing beside the man. After spending these few days defending the walls, she and Fazi had garnered quite the fame and goodwill among the villagers. “Those golden lights, they... look kinda familiar.” There were only a few kinds of magic that produced a light like that. One of them was purification. “I think help’s coming.”
“Help?” A guard standing nearby perked up. “Is someone attacking the beasts?”
Before Raina could answer, the second volley of lights arched down into the forest; then came the third and the fourth. The volleys stopped at seven, but even as far away as they were, the distant sounds of battle passed on. Sounds of rampaging beasts, clash of weapons, and the cries of men.
The villagers craned their necks. Of course, their eyes failed to make sense of the occasional flashes of light beyond the trees, but some of them glimpsed something else in the clearing ahead.
As predicted, when Jared and the others started their assault, the statue-like beasts came alive. Bloom’s party stuck their backs against the mossy boulder, almost melding into it. They watched quietly as the dark shadows around them took off in the direction of the battle.
“Let’s move!” Lewis whispered, sure the coast was clear. They left the shelter of the woods and stepped into the clearing, keeping their bodies low and close to the earth. The sounds of battle grew further. With nothing there to hide them, even the darkness seemed unusually bright as they made their way towards the village gates.
“Something is moving in the clearing!” The voice, loud and clear, reached them before they’d covered fifty paces.
“Someone noticed us.” Detrich stopped, looking at the wall. “Such an open space really makes the spell ineffective.”
“Do you need to stop?” The words came out through her teeth with more hiss than Bloom intended. She couldn’t help it. Now in the open, the feeling of exposure pressed on her mind like a dark, rain-filled cloud. “We are still pretty close to —”
The four of them turned their heads as one, staring into the depth of the forest, at the pair of blood-red orbs shining in the darkness.
A pair of eyes.
“Run!” Lewis gave a low shout, though the others weren’t really waiting for his invitation. He, too, turned around and made a dash for the gates. Bloom caught a last glimpse of a dozen pairs of eyes lighting up right behind the first one. And from how high they were from the ground, whatever they belong to, were Big.
“OPEN THE GATES!” Lewis shouted as the ground shook under their boots, along with a muted rumbling, signifying the start of a chase. “I am Knight commander Lewis Dawven from fort Marlingue! Come to provide assistance!”
Impressive! Bloom thought. To yell the whole sentence at a full sprint without losing his breath, the man had some powerful lungs.
A volley of arrows from the wall interrupted her thoughts. Her heart constricted at the sound of them cutting through the air, relaxing when they passed over their heads. At least the villagers weren’t crazy enough to shoot at them. Their assistance hardly had any effect on whatever was chasing them, though. The sound of rumbling behind them only drew nearer with each passing second.
“Open the gates! Open it!” Intense enthusiasm burned in the hearts of the villagers. People ran up and down the stairs leading to the top of the walls, guards fired arrows at the chasing beasts, leaders of the village came running. The knight commander from the nearby garrison himself! That was a big deal. Men prepared to raise the gate and lower the bridge over a shallow trench they’d dug outside the walls.
“WAIT!” An urgent voice broke through the commotion. Vogan walked down the stairs with Argon and the players. “Don’t open the gate,” he said firmly. “That’s an order!”
The men working the levers stopped, confusion and concern clear in their faces. They looked from him to the guards who’d ordered them to open the gates.
“Why are you stopping them?” A man of short stature walked forward from the ranks of the guards. A leather village guard’s helmet sat loosely on a face with more wrinkles than a dried apricot. Except his age, he seemed ordinary from every other aspect, but those deep-set eyes full of wisdom evoked respect in anyone who saw them.
“Greetings, elder Formas.” Vogan dipped his head at the man. “The beasts are chasing after those people. And with the situation as it is, I’m merely being cautious.”
Formas Lionheart frowned and shook his head. “Even so, we must open the gate. That man is the commander of fort Marlingue!”
“So he says,” Vogan had a hint of suspicion in his voice. “But I don’t see his army with him. Would the knight commander really be out there like that, running around with only a handful of people? I suspect some sort of trickery.”
Formas shook his head. “Whether or not he is who he says, is inconsequential. If he really is the knight and our decision leads to something unfortunate, the consequences could be disastrous,” he said, turning to the men at the lever. “Open the gates.”
“No, don’t do it!” Vogan overrode that order. He turned to Formas. “Alright, I will allow the opening of the gates if they somehow reach it, but I won’t risk the lives of my people to save him.” His firm, unquestionable tone brought a few nods of agreement from the villagers. Watching those eyes full of admiration, Vogan held back his smile.
As for whether they can reach it…
“The gate... isn’t opening.” Bloom rolled her eyes at Edrich stating the obvious. The guy was slow, and if they weren’t matching his pace, they’d be closing in on the wall already. After confronting so many enemies above her level, escape was almost in her blood. But right now the prospects looked dim.
“Why?” gasped the mage, sweat flying from the creases of his skin, clearly pushing himself over his limits. “Why aren’t they…” he paused for a breath, “...opening the gates?”
Bloom jerked her thumb behind them, pointing at their pursuers. Though She had experience being chased, the other three weren’t taking it well. Lewis’s teeth dug into his lips, and Barsik clearly had trouble not breaking into a full-blown sprint and leave everyone behind.
And the footsteps of the beasts? Only a few seconds away from catching up.
A look passed between the knight and his captains. A wordless conversation. The way they were going, without a doubt they won’t be reaching the gate.
Someone had to stall for time.
Even if an immortal, Bloom was an outsider. And Lewis had his pride. It was him, or one of his captains. And with his position, it couldn’t be him, so…
He spotted a grim look flash past the mage’s exhausted eyes. Edrich was decided. He had been struggling the most among the four, anyway. His strength wasn’t in speed but in spells. Spells that might buy more time for the others.
“I…” he’d barely began when Bloom’s voice rode over his. A few clear words reached their ears. She stopped, turned around with her sword blazing red in her hand, and slashed it horizontally.
“Leave!” she said as a scarlet sea of all-consuming flame flared before her. None of the other three could say anything. With a last glance in her direction, they redoubled their efforts to run, but a hint of respect still blossomed in their hearts.
[+35 Affinity with Lewis Dawven]
[+35 Affinity with Edrich Westwise]
[+35 Affinity with Barsik HerdsMason]
[Damage Dealt: 1655]
[Damage Dealt: 1895]
[Damage Dealt: 1402]
Two death reports stuck out among the pile of damage messages. She’d barely caught a glimpse of some ape-like silhouettes before drowning everything in fire, but ‘two’ definitely wasn’t their number.
Damn! Bloom gripped her sword tighter, staring at the flaming landscape. She’d been hoping to get to the village without dying. But she just had to take up the stalling duty, didn’t she? And now that she had it, she couldn’t just ditch.
Well, she had to confirm something, anyway. And at least she won’t stay dead.
A massive hand, its fingers outstretched, blew the flame apart as it zoomed towards her. Bloom leapt into the air, the hand scooping up a giant piece of the ground she’d been standing on and crushing it between its thick fingers. She spun in the air and landed on a muscular forearm as thick as a tree trunk. The twisted marks of the curse stood out below her, a darker shade of black beneath the charred fur and flesh.
The rest of the beast’s body emerged from the flame. An ape, standing at least two stories tall, with spikes on its head and shoulders, scowled at her with furious red eyes. Bloom glanced at the crimson description above its head.
Well! that wasn’t something you just fight against. Not even with all four of them together.
And its status...
The ape lifted its other hand and slapped down on her, putting a break to her thoughts.
Bloom dashed forward, dodging its palm in a heartbeat, but the wind displaced from the blow struck her off its arm and flung her into the air. Its fist, the size of a boulder, swung at her. And this time it didn’t miss.
Struck from the air, her body smashed down to the ground. It ricocheted, bouncing and skidding for a good few meters before stopping in a messed up heap twisted in all the wrong ways.
[Damage Received: 4436]
Bloom blanked out, losing all sensation for a second before she felt the pain. A lump in her throat made breathing impossible until she coughed it out. A glob of blood. She drew ragged breaths, trying to blink away the sanguine curtain covering her eyes, and wished she hadn’t.
The great ape approached the periphery of her vision, with a bunch of smaller ones trailing behind it. Two of its thick fingers pinched one of Bloom’s ankles and lifted her up. It bought her closer to its face, watching her limp body dangle helplessly, her long black hair swaying below her in the fire-swept wind. Its lips peeled back from rows of jagged, mishappen fangs that made a mockery of the word ‘smile’.
Suddenly Bloom’s limp body turned. And before the beast could register what was in her hand, a blazing red arrow sunk into one of its eyes.
Its eye socket exploded, blasting skin and flesh apart from one side of its face. The scream that ripped through its lungs startled the whole jungle. It tumbled back, the girl’s body slipping from its grasp and falling to the ground on her back.
“That felt good!” Bloom muttered, lying on the ground as she watched smoke rise to the dark skies above her, but as the other dozen ape minions jumped towards her, she didn’t feel so good anymore.