Hunger, the hunger once again echoed through his body. Gretony felt the fading embers of its intelligence waver as he squeezed himself through the pixie tunnel toward its lair. It hurried along, wasting no time in breaking the seal and scooping up the head of a stray dog it had been saving.
“Better,” it moaned as the dog head dissolved into its gelatinous body, “but I need more. This won’t do, I need more.”
Because of the drop in adventurers within the dungeon, Gretony had been forced to kill animals and use their heads as replacements. However, the animals heads did not help it for very long, and it was craving adventurer heads once again. Not only that, but it had finally run out of its stockpile.
“I won’t go back,” it muttered, “I need to think, need to know. I need more.”
Making a decision, Gretony shuddered and zoomed down the tunnel to the town exit. It was a beautiful night outside the dungeon, with stars twinkling in the cloudless sky. Gretony took no note of this, for it had a mission and lacked the understanding to appreciate beauty. It needed more heads.
It crawled up the building and listened, letting the vibrations of the ground flow up the building walls and into its body. Few were walking around at this hour, and most were traveling in groups. Gretony sensed the iron and copper weapons as they clattered against armor. It had no desire of getting into an uneven fight.
No, it needed fresh, easy to kill prey. Gretony turned its attention to the buildings. The building two buildings away was vibrating, filled with prey making noise. It listened to the sound of glass being picked up and down, to the noises of what it learned to be laughter, music, and drinking. The heads had taught Gretony these things, and it knew it had its prey.
Still, Gretony was cautious. It had never taken on more than one prey at a time. It didn’t want any escaping; that would be a waste of a head. It needed to get them all, and keep them quiet. Thankfully, Gretony had acquired a new ability after eating many prey.
Gretony threw itself off the roof edge onto the wall of the next building, repeating this process until it reached the roof above the noise.
Gretony decided to use the first new skill after evolving into an overslime. It first grew to its original size, and then shuddered horribly. Its slime moved in ways that would disturb any who looked upon it. From where there was once one large slime, now there were many, smaller, purple slimes. However, anyone looking at these slimes would immediately notice that except for one, every slime lacked a slime core.
“Go,” Gretony commanded in its mind.
Like a flood, the slimes scattered across the room and flowed down the walls. A few leaped away and destroyed every source of illumination near the building. The rest used any and every opening to get into the building. Soon, the laughter and cheers were replaced by screams and cries of horror. The lights went out inside the building, and the screams quickly disappeared. The rest of the slimes waiting outside to catch escapees quickly flowed into the building as well.
Gretony would feed well this night.
“Adventurer Fiora here to report,” said Fiora as she waited outside the command tent.
“Enter,” Ken’s voice came from within.
Fiora lifted the tent flap to reveal a room much larger than what the outside suggested. This magic tent was top of the line, and had been enchanted to hold double the amount of space within compared to a normal tent. Inside, Ken, Leo, and few ranger captains waited around a square table with a map detailing the surroundings.
Fiora saluted, “Sirs.”
“At ease,” Ken ordered. When Fiora relaxed, he nodded for her to begin her report.
“After arriving yesterday, the rangers and adventurers have successfully set up this command base within the elvin forest,” Fiora began,” Today, the ranger and adventurer scout teams have returned from Duran. It’s not good sir.”
Ken and the other leaders sighed sadly. “How bad?” Leo asked.
Fiora grimaced, “About half of Duran was devoured by fire, and most buildings are wrecked shells of their former selves. The worst damage was found at the various temples and other places of worship; they’re all gone sir. The rangers confirmed the complete collapse of the former palace, and it appears parts of the wreckage have been melted together. It’s . . . unlikely the king and queen made it out sir.”
Ken took a long, shuddering breath as the other leaders patted his back. He released it, breathing hard as an angry gleam came into his eyes.
“Alright, I was prepared for that. Fiora, did they find anything left of the treasury?”
Fiora nodded, “The adventurers located the former treasury, which was ransacked. There was no gold left, but they were able to confirm the presence of the secret door outside the building. They couldn’t do more without risking revealing themselves to patrols.”
“Patrols?” one of the captains asked in alarm, “That’s not right. Patrols are only needed to guard valuables, but they shouldn’t know we’re here yet.”
“The plan must have been leaked,” Leo grimaced, “We may have been seen by an enemy scout while we were moving through the woods. If the enemy knows we’re coming, then this’ll be a much harder mission.”
“Fiora, did the scouts note where the patrols were heaviest?” Ken pressed.
Fiora nodded. “The demon patrols have completely ignored the devastated parts of the city, instead opting to just patrol the former commercial and royal districts.” She walked over to the map and indicated a part of the city less than half its size, “The teams found no traces of survivors, fleshlings, or warlocks within the city.”
“No fleshlings or warlocks?” Ken asked incredulously, “If there are demons, then there should be warlocks somewhere. However, where did the fleshlings go? I thought they couldn’t get away from the mutated host?”
“Perhaps the hosts have been moved, or even killed since their usefulness was over,” Leo postured, “What I’m more concerned about is that Fiora has failed to mention the presence of corpses within the city.”
The various military leaders all turned to look at Fiora, and she shook her head.
“There were no signs of corpses: no bones, blood, bodies, graves, or even hair. Any proof humans lived in the city is gone. It is as if the city had been long abandoned by people hundreds of years ago.”
Ken and Leo exchanged a look of dread. If not a single corpse could be found, then that meant the enemy had taken the time to collect every dead body in the city. However, to find no a trace of people meant the enemy actually used precious time to collect and get rid of every bit of evidence.
“Necromancers can use pieces of bodies to replay images of the past,” Ken said slowly, “However, no mage can create an accurate image of occurred at a place using just destroyed rumble.”
“All communications were cut off before anyone in the city or town could send out a warning or cry for help,” Leo continued the thought, “Which means outside this country, no one knows of the empire’s activities here. If the empire claimed that a plague destroyed the city states, then no one would come looking.”
“So, is this a cover-up?” Ken wondered as he drummed his fingers on the table, “Nehatra sits on the peninsula at the bottom of the continent. If no one knew the empire was here, they could use the empty ports to prepare for an invasion anywhere along the coast. It would make sense to disguise the invasion as a tragedy. All they have to do is leave some fleshlings at the border; no one else has ever seen fleshlings before. They don’t even need to use the fleshlings really. They could claim it was any number of things: zombie outbreak, plague, corrupted dungeon, divine intervention, demon invasion. All they need to do is make sure we’re eliminated and their plan is complete.”
Ken shook his head, “Adventurer Fiora, thank you for your report. You are dismissed.”
Fiora saluted and quickly left the tent. Once out, she grimaced as she considered the words she had just heard.
“Not a single body or body part?” Jonas asked in shock, “Gods above, how long do you think that took? They would have had to use magic to track down everything!”
“Indeed,” Gran nodded, “The most skilled magisters are able to divine entire events merely from a piece of hair. This level of collection is to be expected if the Empire wished to hide their wrong doing.”
Nat leaned over the edge of a cot and spat in disgust, “Great, not only are they causing more trouble, they’re also trying to hide the blame. A right group of evil geniuses, aren’t they?”
Fiora rubbed her head as she sat inside Jonas and Nat’s tent. She’d come straight here after reporting to the ranger commanders, and now she was going over the report with her three friends.
“Needless to say, none of this has any effect on our mission,” she interrupted them, “The secret door was found, and the treasury was empty. So, we need to find those seals if this country is going to have a future.”
“Well of course,” Nat said lazily from the cot, “we all know that. In fact, I count no less than five different occasions where the ‘importance’ the these seals was ‘emphasized’ to everyone. I mean, isn’t once enough to get the point across? It’s like the commanders are trying to reassure themselves they aren’t making a colossal mistake.”
“They’re under pressure too,” Gran reminded her, “The commander hasn’t been formally promoted to ranger general yet, so he needs to complete this mission in order to create a reason for his brother to promote him without raising ire from the other generals.”
“Really; even at the end of the world politics still exist? What a country we have indeed,” Nat scorned.
“Honey, are you alright?” Jonas asked in concern, “You’ve been really negative ever since we left town. This isn’t like you.”
“Yeah? Well having to live the worst year of my life is kind of getting to me now,” Nat responded sarcastically, “I mean: my brother died, my family died in Duran, all my belongings and saving were destroyed, I’ve faced down demons, dungeons, skeletons, and fleshings, oh, and I even finally realized my love for you just in time to learn you’ll be dead in 10 years best. So yeah, the stress is kind of getting to me now.”
“Nat, my love, please don’t get upset,” Jonas pleaded as he knelt beside her, “Whatever has happened, has already happened. You and I can’t change it, but we can fight for a better future.”
“Jonas, I love you, but please shut up,” Nat flipped over away from him, “I don’t need the positive ‘feel-good’ philosophy mumbo-jumbo right now. Just . . . let’s just finish the mission and get back to town. I don’t want to stay here any longer than we have to. It’s just depressing to see home . . . like it is now.”
“Natalie . . .”
“Let me rest,” was the last thing out of Nat’s mouth. With a hurt look, Jonas led Gran and Fiora out of the tent.
“She’s been getting worse,” he told the two, “Losing her twin brother was a blow to her mind, but losing the rest of her family and savings really broke her heart. I’ve been doing my best to care for her since we rescued the refugees, but she’s becoming more withdrawn. However, her combat prowess keeps increasing as she practices more behind my back. I’m worried.”
Fiora pat Jonas’s shoulder in sympathy, “I know it’s hard Jonas, but you’ll get through this. We just need to finish the mission, get back to town, and then survive long enough for a rescue to appear. That’s our only hope right now.”
Jonas’s shoulder drooped, “Yeah, I guess it is.” With a tired farewell, he went back inside the tent.
Gran shook his head, “Even we elves are starting to feel disheartened at the situation. The light of hope is getting fainter and fainter, and thus cracks are starting to appear within our group. Everyone is feeling the fatigue, and we need some good news badly.”
“I know,” Fiora admitted, “But all we have now are words to encourage everyone. This mission needs to succeed.”
“Are we being sent out tomorrow?” Gran asked.
Fiora nodded, “Yeah, the plan is to use the information our scouts gave us to mount a retrieval mission tomorrow, and then leave after that. We’ll spend the night in the woods between here and the town. Everything begins tomorrow.”