A sudden gust of wind ruffled through Bloom’s hair, blowing a few unruly strands before her eyes. Her lips pressed thin as their tips brushed against her cheek, tickling unpleasantly. Swiping them aside, she returned her attention to the surrounding woods. Should be an hour since she left the Plains of Valerie. After half a month of tall grass and arid, shadowless terrains of the canyon, the thick, seamless cluster of trees had been a welcome sight. Even now that fact hadn’t changed, no matter how much the silence of the forest bothered her.
Yeah, the silence. Before, she used to have to be at the ready to either avoid or fight something every fifty steps of the way, but not today. Other than the occasional wind rustling through the leaves and branches of the trees, the woods were startlingly quiet. Even the ambient sound of the birds and bees were absent. She couldn’t sense their presence anywhere near her.
And if she followed storybook logic, a quiet forest meant anything but good.
[Maybe they ran away.] The message fairy offered her ever generous opinion. [Because you stink too much.]
Bloom kept a tight seal on her mouth, refusing to comment, but her eyes couldn’t help but dart towards her attire. Her armour, tunic, gloves, breeches, boots, all of them were in tatters. Even the least damaged piece of cloth, her faded green cape, looked ‘worn’ at best. Thankfully, the splotches of blood and grime stuck to them after every fight got refreshed each time she logged back in. Or she could just imagine how absolutely horrendous...
She shoved the image out of her head and raised both her sleeves close to her nose, giving each a careful sniff. Yeah, the smells get reset too. So it definitely wasn’t her fault.
Most likely wasn't...
She shook her head, puzzled eyes landing on the empty trail heading into the depth of the forest. Well, since she couldn't figure anything out...
“Let’s head to the village.”
“All signs indicate they are under the influence of something... unnatural, sir,” Edrich Westwise spoke with a slow and deliberate cadence that revealed nothing of his inner tension. The steel armoured man sitting on the dark brown stallion beside him had no such reservations, though.
Lewis Dawven, the knight in charge of the expedition, had kept his eyebrows drawn in a perpetual frown since the start of the situation. He nodded, acknowledging the mage’s words, but his hawk sharp gaze never left the battleground where tens of his own soldiers gave their all to defend against a wave of beasts.
Hundreds of beasts.
Wolves, boar, reptiles, deers, the usual prey and predator now mixed into a huge pile of snarling, snapping, howling mass. Eyes red, froth dripping from their open maws, they trampled over their dead and wounded, bashing repeatedly against the shield wall the soldiers had put up with suicidal frenzy. Unlike the animals, the army at least had no casualties except for some injuries. The shield wall also held firm.
But Lewis knew it won't for very long. And when it broke...
This was not at all how he imagined his day beginning. More than a day, actually. The trouble started with the messenger bird from the capital that arrived at fort Marlingue five days ago.
It was an urgent notice, so he’d taken it upon himself to investigate the authenticity of the information. Admittedly, he’d been sceptical, like any sane man or woman in this part of the land would be. After all, the information had come from one of the most… undesirable sources. What he’d found, however, had been worse than the info provided to him.
A rude and abrupt end to his ‘good days’.
Now, here he was, attempting to fulfil the second set of instructions the capital had sent. But he just had to stumble upon such a mess as soon as he approached the biggest of the villages, Caramis, didn't he?
His streak of rotten luck was a gift that just kept on giving.
He turned his head, looking at the man propped against the trunk of a tree with his eyes closed. Right now, their herbalist had already turned the man into a bandage covered mummy. According to the man, he was a guardsman from Caramis, heading towards the fort to request the help of the army. Lucky for him, the regiment had already been heading towards the village on the same path he was on. They’d found him one hour ago, grievously injured, running from a bunch of frenzied wolves, and unlucky for them, trying to rescue him from the beasts brought the attention of this unholy horde.
Well, at least he brought them some news. Too bad, it was bad news.
“What kind of influence?” Lewis returned his attention to the mage. “Something connected with the situation back at Marlingue?”
“I’m not too sure, though I find that unlikely,” Edrich mumbled, tilting his head at the great grey wolf beside his horse. It was one of the beasts chasing the guard from Caramis. Luckily, he managed to tame it through his second occupation, [Beastmaster]. A job well suited due to fort Marlingue’s proximity to the savage lands of the north.
Though this time the effect was less than ideal.
Although the wolf sitting quietly on the grass seemed docile at first glance, he could feel it fighting against the bond. Occasional, almost imperceptible shivers ran down the length of its body, shaking its bristly grey fur. Twisted, pitch-black marks crept on the edges of its forehead and the corners of its eyes like thorny vines. Before taming it, they used to cover its whole body, just like every other beast in that crazy horde. Whatever they were, made the beasts stronger and more resilient, but also took away their sanity.
And they raised the hairs on the back of Edrich’s neck each time he looked at them.
“Whatever is influencing them is quite powerful,” he said to Lewis. “I fear we cannot identify the cause in a short time.”
“Can’t you find a solution?” Lewis demanded, pointing at the battlefield. “The defence won’t hold for long this way.”
“It is not a problem that could be solved in one or two hours. I think it would be better to retreat first, then try to find a solution.”
“Retreat? Against these mindless beasts?” Lewis frowned, scowling at the backs of his soldiers. The first rank of shield-bearers already looked exhausted. The defence wall was minutes away from collapsing.
“First rank, fall back! Second rank, forward!” his bark rang above the snarls, shouts, and clash of the battlefield. Retreating in this situation wasn’t only shameful, turning their backs to this crazy hoard wouldn’t be intelligent. They had to stall the creatures first.
He unslung his mace, preparing to make a move as the exhausted frontline soldiers roared in unison, summoning the last of their strength for a final, unified [Shield Bash]. It struck the horde like tens of giant battering rams, crumpling the bodies of some of the weaker animals at the forefront and stunning the rest momentarily. Taking advantage of the opening, the soldiers started falling back.
The second rank stepped up, working methodically, putting up their shield wall with well-practised ease and discipline. Everything went well until one of the soldiers stepped on a piece of rock and stumbled. He regained his balance quickly, working to pull up his shield but before he could find proper footing, an angry rhinoceros beast charged towards him. Its thick black horn slammed into the equipment, easily blowing through the hasty defence and throwing the soldier to the ground. The others scrambled, hurrying to fill his gap, but the beast had already broken into the formation.
It rammed its massive body side to side, shrugging off the stabs of spears coming from every direction, clearing the path further as it advanced towards the fallen soldier. Nothing could stop it, not even Lewis, too far away to reach them in time. Suddenly, it faltered, its giant, looming form swaying before the eyes of the frightened soldier. A small groan escaped it as it tried to take another step forward, but its knees buckled, its body slumping forward to crash down on him.
Even from far away, Lewis noticed the arrow shaft sticking out of the soft skin at the base of the beast's skull. He barely had the time to react before trails of fire rained down like a shower of meteors.
Those are arrows! Flaming arrows!
His eyes widened as explosions rang out among the crowd of beasts. Blasts of crimson flame caught fur and skin, spreading from one animal to the other. He looked up just in time as a figure dropped from the skies, her long black hair spread wildly behind her, tongues of red fire swirling around her and her sword.
The girl brought down her weapon, striking the ground like an oversized hammer of flame. The earth rocked. Cracks spread, boiling red fire bursting out from their depths. The beasts lost their footing, stumbling to the ground, some falling into the fissures, some burning in the fire.
In just one attack, she incapacitated a large number of beasts.
Lewis stared flabbergasted for a moment before his eyes lit up. He jumped from his horse, sailing through the air like a hawk. Landing beside the girl, he raised his mace high in the air.
A hand clamped over his opened mouth, choking the word in its infancy. Startled! Shocked! Dismayed! He couldn’t describe the feeling that bubbled up from his guts. No one had ever done such a rude thing to him before. His outraged eyes turned to face a set of big brown eyes scowling at him.
“What ‘charge’? Are you feeling suicidal?” she hissed through her teeth. “Retreat now, idiot!”
Idiot? Lewis stiffened. It took him a moment to take a deep breath and relax his limbs. With the beasts around them were starting to get back to their feet again, the best chance to attack had passed them by.
Such a pity!
He clenched his jaws in regret as he turned to look back at his exhausted soldiers.
“Sound the retreat!”
[Quest Accompliced: Roadside Conflict
- Aid the army against the frenzied beast: Succeeded
- Defeat or retreat from the beasts with the least amount of casualty possible: Succeeded]
[+20 Affinity with Lewis Dawven]
[+20 Affinity with Edrich Westwise]
[+20 Fame with the kingdom of Rosente]
Bloom frowned and waved away the floating boxes before her. She brought her fingers down, running them through the trimmed black mane of the mare she rode. It was surprising how she didn’t need a riding skill or something similar for this. For a game banking on realism, she expected there to be one. But it seemed the feature was automatic. Though she wouldn’t call it an expert riding experience, she could at least sit on the animal and steer it wherever she wanted it to go.
Kinda like a living wheelchair, huh...
She shook her head, focusing on the other thought bothering her since the battle. The marks on the animals. Though not entirely the same, she’d seen something similar before.
Almost like the ones on...
“Thank you for your help there, lady...” Lewis’s voice broke her out of her reverie. She scrutinised the man, taking a moment to understand the source of the expectation on his face.
“Bloom,” she provided. “I’m Bloom.”
“Lady Bloom.” Lewis nodded before meeting her gaze once again. “Pardon me for asking, but why did you make us retreat? With that skill of yours, that was the perfect chance to take those beasts down.”
Bloom sighed. If only she could throw out [Rend Earth] whenever she wanted...
“That’s a one time skill,” she said, looking at the blue bar above her. It was starting to fill up now, but the unique sense of hollowness whenever she emptied it still remained fresh.
“You can’t use it anymore?” Lewis asked.
“I see.” Lewis narrowed his eyes. In that case, retreat definitely was the better option.
But the skill she used, where had he...
His frown deepened as he studied the girl. “Pardon me for asking, but you are not from this area, are you?” Someone as powerful as her, he’d have remembered.
Bloom tapped her lips, gazing thoughtfully at the sky peeking through the canopy overhead. Though she did start in Caramis...
A smirk curved her lips as she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“So, who are you?” he asked, puzzled by her attitude. “Where do you come from?”
“I know!” Both of them turned around, looking at the source of the voice. The injured village guard from Caramis, now awake, headed straight towards them.
“I know who she is.”