Was she spinning, or was it the world? Nope, definitely her. Spinning around inside a giant washing machine the size of a whole world.
She’d forgotten how whacky the entrance effects in the Circle of Descent were. And like every other time, it was Not pleasant, especially after being bitten, clawed, and torn apart limb from limb, and be conscious to enjoy every bit of it until her health hit zero.
Bloom shook herself when she got her feet to the ground. It didn't help. The memory of pain, although faint, still latched on to every cell of her body. She sighed and stepped out of the dimming Circle of Descent.
After so many days, she stood on the cobbled square of the village once again. Of course, no one came to welcome her. In fact, with most of the people still gathered at the gates, the deserted streets, houses, storefronts under the lamppost light looked... Spooky!
She chuckled. After fifteen nights between rocks and grasses, she was well past being spooked by houses.
At least everything looked relatively whole. Not damaged, like she’d been expecting after learning about the beast rampage. Not damaged construction-wise. But what about the people?
Thoringar... Was the blacksmith alright? Did she get any proof against Vogan? And...
Bloom tucked away a loose bang behind her ears and turned her head towards the gate. Her concerns could wait, but the knight’s mouth wouldn’t. She had to find him, and fast.
Let’s hope he understood me.
Lewis clenched his teeth, watching the beasts once again return to the forest from the village walls. As the clearing became empty once again, his fingers dug into the shaved wood on top of one of the thick tree trunks that reinforced the walls. If not for that girl, the three of them...
I would not forget this favour!
“My condolences, sir Lewis, but please try to understand our position.” Formas followed him, his old voice grave yet placating. “We have lost much of our people to the beasts these days, so we could not take the risk.”
“You don’t have to make excuses,” Barsik said testily. “If you had opened the—”
“Barsik!” Lewis held up his hand. “This is not the time. We have other, more important things to handle. You go release the signal.”
Barsik had a disgruntled expression as he took out a tube-shaped object and headed for an open enough space. Soon, a bright golden ball of light rose to the dark skies above the village. Lewis looked at Formas. “Your village chief…”
“It’s me,” Vogan walked over and bowed towards Lewis. “I am Vogan Brensen, your excellency, the chief of Caramis.” He turned his eyes towards the edge of the jungle. The sounds of battle outside the forest were receding, but a wisp or two of red flame still flickered on the bare soil of the clearing. His face turned into a mask of regret. “He was your companion, I presume?”
“She!” Edrich answered. “She was—”
“She was one of our captains.” Lewis hurried, drowning the voice of the Mage with his own.
“Hide my identity from the villagers!” They were Bloom’s last words before she stopped to stall the beasts. He understood them clearly; though, not the intent behind them. Still, after what she’d done, he wouldn’t ignore her wishes.
“A brave captain,” he finished.
“Ah!” Vogan nodded. “Would you like us to send a search party to see if she…”
See what? How many pieces of her is left? Some of Lewis’s own annoyance grated into his voice. “No need. I wouldn’t want your villagers to be in danger because of us.”
Vogan hid his smile. The angrier the knight was, the better. He looked for the two players, but they’d disappeared somewhere. Apparently, Vista guild had had some... not so pleasant exchanges with the border patrol at Fort Marlingue while crossing the savage lands. And though Raina and Fazi weren’t the direct initiators, Vogan understood their wish to avoid confrontation.
“Pardon me for saying this, sir Lewis.” He turned, his gaze travelling through the three people as he spoke. “While we appreciate you braving such danger to reach our village, shouldn’t you have brought an army? Or do you believe you can subdue those beasts with only the three of you?”
“Vogan!” Formas raised his voice in dismay. He hurriedly turned towards Lewis. “Forgive his words, your excellency. He meant nothing—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lewis said, giving Vogan a cursory glance before he turned away and made his way down the stairs. “If you must know, against thousands of beasts, what force the garrison has is hardly enough.”
“Then how about reinforcements?” Formas asked.
“Reinforcements?” Lewis shook his head. “To take down the beasts, we would need an army of at least tens of thousands. And we don’t have time to gather such force.”
Is it already time for that? The creases on Vogan’s forehead became more prominent. Such a pity. “Why would you not have time?”
"We don't have the time..." Lewis turned his head towards the north, apprehension flickering in the depths of his eyes. “The threat of these beasts is nothing in front of what’s coming.”
“What do you mean, your excellency?” Formas spoke in alarm.
“That’s something I would certainly discuss, but I want you to arrange a gathering of the Circle for that”
“Gathering of the Circle! But that is...” Formas halted in his steps. The alarm in his voice turned into apprehension. “Is it really such a dire issue?”
“It certainly is. The future of your village, no, the entire kingdom depends on it. We will also discuss how to best handle the beasts there.” With what Bloom had said during their meeting in mind, Lewis turned and held the gaze of both Formas and Vogan. “Reliable sources have led us to believe the cause of this riot might lie in your village.”
The village chief, walking right behind him, faltered on his last step. Lewis went forward, intent on supporting him, but Argon already had his hands around the man’s shoulders.
“Are you alright?” Lewis asked. That stumble... didn’t look natural.
“I don’t know.” Vogan rubbed his eyelids. “I might be lacking some sleep.”
“Well, you have been awake for three nights straight. You should take some rest.” Formas turned to Lewis. “Convening all the elders should also take a while. Meanwhile, your excellency should freshen up.”
“That’s a good idea.” Vogan stood straight once again. “Argon, you lead sir Lewis to the inn and tell Andrew Ruze to prepare refreshments.”
Argon raised an eyebrow. “And you, my lord?”
“I’ll be fine.” Vogan’s jaws drew a hard line. “Just fine.”
Lewis glanced at the Circle of Descent on their way out of the inn. Although a few of these godly circles existed in some of the big cities of the kingdom, having one so far out in the wilderness, and not in a city or even a town, but a village, was... odd, to say the least.
Immortals descend through those!
His eyes widened. Wasn’t Bloom an immortal? He’d completely forgotten about that. But then...
Should she still be alive?
“Would the Army arrive soon?” An old villager stopped Barsik, whose common face and relaxed posture made him more approachable than the other two. He wasn’t the only one. The moment they exited the inn, people had been making tentative approaches, asking questions, searching for reassurance. The only answer they received was “We are doing our best.” And while that wasn’t enough, they didn’t dare to pry further. But they were becoming more daring by the minute.
It wasn’t only them, though. Lewis needed answers, too. And if, as Raela said, Bloom knew something, they needed to find her. Lewis frowned. Only if she’s alive.
“Don’t talk, just listen,” a familiar whisper jolted him to a stop. “Tell the other two. When I show up later, pretend not to recognize me.”
Lewis turned his head just in time to spot the edge of a dark-grey cloak disappearing in the crowd. It didn’t stand out among the similar garbs the villagers wore, but he recognized it right away. He’d given it to the girl this evening before they began their mission.
“Is something wrong, sir?” Argon, who led the way ahead of the three, asked.
“I just remembered something,” Lewis signalled Detrich and Barsik to come closer before looking at Argon. “Please wait for a moment. I have something to consult with my captains.”
Argon narrowed his eyes, watching doubtfully as the knight took his two associates away with him. They returned a minute later.
“There’s something I want to ask.” Lewis pointed at the Circle of Descent. “I have heard you have immortals in your village.”
The suddenness of the topic caught Argon off guard. He nodded. “We do. Three, no two of them to be exact.” He gestured back at the inn. “That’s where they are staying. They have a friendly relationship with my lord, and I’m sure they would be more than happy to meet you. Would you like to?”
“Of course, I would, but,” Lewis frowned, “you only have two immortals? I thought there would be more.”
“There used to be a third one, but she—” Argon lost his voice, his eyes, locked on something behind the knight, widened like a fish.
“Well, well!” a barely audible whisper escaped through his lips. “Speak of the devil!”
With the memory of the blue beam still fresh in her mind, Bloom had a hard time calming her erratic heart. That and the explosion it caused...
She met the butler’s eyes, resisting the urge to leave, and made her way towards the knight who’d turned after spotting Argon’s peculiar expression. The three of them were excellent actors, as it turned out. They didn’t even bat an eyelash.
“Who is she?” Lewis asked Argon. The butler’s reaction made him curious.
“She…” Argon hesitated. “She is the third immortal I was talking about. But she—”
“Oh, really!” Lewis exclaimed. “Would you mind calling her over?”
“This…” Argon frowned. The knight’s enthusiasm felt a bit odd. Shouldn’t he be more... wary of the immortals like the rest of the southern folk?
“Okay!” he nodded before turning to face Bloom. “Miss Blame!” he called out. “Could you come this way, please?”
Following the four of them, Bloom went past the village chief’s house, heading deeper into a part of the village she'd never been to before. The ground here was more rock than soil, and some of the more ancient buildings, though similarly circular, were carved out of boulders and rocks that rose from the earth. They stopped in front of one of them.
From outside, the one-story building looked like a giant grey disk placed on the ground, with small, slit-like windows lining up along its curved walls. Compared to Vogan’s more elaborate mansion, what it lacked in height, it more than made up in girth. They bypassed some cranky looking men guarding a square stone doorway. Taking some twists and turns through a few long and short corridors, they ended up in a spacious hall.
If the scarlet and gold tapestries hanging down from the walls, the plants in colourful ceramic pots, the grey rug that sank an inch with each step made the room extravagant, the round, black stone table half the size of a tennis court sitting in the middle of it gave it an air of dignity. The low hum of conversation stopped, and people sitting on high-backed ebony chairs surrounding the table turned to look at the new arrivals.
Old, the lot of them. Grumpy, wrinkled faces starting from the tender age of sixty and continuing upwards. The presence of a few younger folks among them, including Vogan, didn’t seem to fit quite right. Bloom counted at a glance. Thirty-three people.
Thirty too many.
The hall, though large, felt cramped and... suffocating. Her stomach tightening from the pressure of their gaze, Bloom found it hard to maintain her composure.
“Oh!” Came a calm, confident exclamation that somehow bypassed the others and reached only her ears. “Fancy meeting you here, girl.”
Bloom relaxed, took a deep breath, and turned towards the voice that released her from the spell.
A presence even more incongruous than the others, her little form sat on a chair too big and too high for her. A flare of curiosity danced in the green eyes of the blacksmith, but just as Bloom wanted to walk over to her, the butler spoke.
"Come this way, your excellencies." Some seats were still empty, and Argon led the four of them to the largest clump of them. There were a few near Thoringar too, Bloom noted, but sadly they weren’t enough. For the next bit, she needed to be near Lewis.
As they occupied their seats, the butler left them for Vogan, sitting about a dozen seats away from them. He bent down, whispering in the village chief’s ears. Vogan raised an eyebrow. Intrigued, he glanced at the knight once and gave a brief nod of his head. Argon silently made his way back to the door. Just before exiting, his eyes fell on Bloom one last time.