Vogan had some doubts as he observed the newest and most unfamiliar existence in the room. The only immortal he hadn’t had a chance to come in contact with yet. The things he’d heard about her, she’d seemed like a dangerous person. But right now, with her thin body, her awkward posture with her neck bent down and arms crossed in front of her defensively, she looked distinctly uncomfortable to be in the Circle hall. It was hard for him to find her threatening.
As far as he knew, the girl had been with both of the imperial knights when they died, so he couldn't rule out the possibility of her knowing something. As for how much she knew, and if she'd told anyone else about it...
Vogan snuck a glance at Thoringar before giving a slight shake of his head. Except for the disaster the bandits went through, there hadn't been any movements against him, so it was unlikely. Besides, right now, another thing bothered him more.
Even though Argon had said they’d just met outside the inn, the girl and the knight gave him a strange feeling. They seemed too comfortable with each other.
I really should have paid attention to her earlier.
“So, Vogan.” A familiar voice broke him out of his musings. A pair of sharp, irritable eyes fixed on him as the owner tilted his head towards Bloom. “Is it your idea to involve—”
“Elder Jonas,” Vogan stopped him. What the old man wanted to say, he didn’t even need to guess. And though it wasn’t his idea, the knight’s proposal would give him some advantage. As for the girl...
I have to observe her first.
He gestured towards Lewis and spoke so the entire room could hear him. “Our guests intend to invite a few more people to the meeting, so I would ask you to humour their wishes.”
Jonas tilted his chin, looking from Bloom to Lewis from the corner of his eyes, and the others joined him too, their demeanour ranging from curious to suspicious. The back of Bloom’s neck grew stiff instantly, the sudden attention increasing her distress tenfold.
But it wasn’t for long.
The door to the hall opened again. Argon walked in, and behind him followed two more people.
Fazi and Raina had less of a reaction to the surprise in the eyes of the crowd of old men than Bloom. The room grabbed most of their attention. Sure, they’d seen their fair share of grand halls and elaborate palaces, but never in a village. Their eyes lingered on the decorations for a few seconds, then landed on the occupants of the room. Getting called for a circle meeting was... unexpected, in an alarming way. Especially when the invitee was someone from fort Marlingue.
Pretty quickly, they spotted Vogan. The Village chief gave a slight nudge of his head, drawing their attention to Bloom. Surprise flashed past their eyes. They looked at each other.
“The newbie girl!” whispered Fazi.
“I can see that.” Raina frowned, her voice equally low. “Blame, was it? She really hid her info now.”
“What do we do?”
Raina thought for a bit. “You go sit by Vogan. I’ll try to sound her out a bit?”
“What?” Fazi’s eyebrows shot up. “You gonna sit by her? Haven’t you seen who’s beside her?”
Raina took a quick glance at Lewis and couldn’t help grimacing. “Not like he knows we’re from Vista.” She chewed her lips. “And besides, it was just a misunderstanding, so it shouldn’t matter.”
She walked towards Bloom, who frowned for a bit before schooling her face to blandness.
“Hey!” Raina smiled, giving a little wave and sat down beside her. “Nice to meet you. I’m Raina,” she said, reaching her hand out.
Bloom gave her extended hand a wary glance. That gesture... it should be a handshake, right? She shifted her shoulders. How... which hand should she use?
Vogan banged his fist on the table, shifting everyone’s attention towards him. Bloom exhaled in relief as Raina's eyes also followed them.
That was so awkward!
“Today’s gathering has been called by the demand of sir Lewis Dawven. So let us hear what he has to say.” Vogan's deep voice bounced off the walls, echoing through the room. As people's focus returned to Lewis, he nodded at the village chief and stood from his seat.
“With the beast riot, the situation Caramis is facing is quite grave. But although we are here as requested to provide our help, our primary purpose lies elsewhere. An even worse situation would soon make its way towards here.” He stopped, frowning down at the table in silence for a while. “Yeah. Just calling it ‘worse’ wouldn’t do it proper justice. Not just your village, the threat it poses to the whole kingdom is tremendous.”
A wave of agitation spread through the room. The old men exchanged glances, hesitating to speak. The beast riot had already created such havoc. What could be worse?
The quiet sound of table-rapping drew the villagers’ attention to the seat beside Jonas. Their eyes carried a hint of reverence, and for good reason. Rowan Aldera, with his snow-white beard hanging in long, neat braids, was older than old. The oldest person alive in Caramis or any other village in the area. He, Jonas, and another elderly woman sitting beside him, they made up the trio with the most authority in the Circle. Though even among them, his words carried the most weight.
“Please elaborate,” he said, fixing the knight with his beady blue eyes. “What kind of threat is it?”
“The worst kind,” Lewis said, inhaling deeply as he took in the entire hall at a glance. “The dark army.”
Sounds of gasp and drawing breaths reverberated through the room, then a chilling silence fell. Fear and anxiety crept into the faces around the table, weighing down like an oppressive force. But not all of them shared such a reaction. The lack of surprise in the expressions of Fazi, Raina, and Vogan didn’t escape Bloom’s eyes. The former two even had a hint of excitement in their eyes.
They already know.
“But why would a dark army be here?” the last elder of the trio, Gina Oderis, asked. "Shouldn’t they be confined in…” Her voice, carrying a hint of terror, lowered a notch. “Necropolis?”
“They are, but this army doesn’t come from necropolis itself.” Lewis signalled Barsik, who took out a roll of parchment from his cloak and unfurled it, spreading it open on the table.
A map, just like the one Bloom had seen during the meeting at Lewis’s camp. It covered a wider scope this time, though. Especially the northern part, where, beyond a row of angular shapes that could’ve represented mountains, the entire land was painted red.
And from Bloom’s experience in this game until now, red screamed danger.
A tiny drawing of a castle lay on the widest pathway that ran through the mountain range dividing north and south. Lewis pointed at one of the marks farther from it.
“They came from this Nurmean ruin.” All the elders stood from their seats, craning their necks to take a look at the map as Lewis continued. “According to the exploration records, there was a powerful seal on the place before. Probably a remnant of one of the initiation wars. Now it has broken.”
“So the army was sealed in the ruin?” This time, Vogan was the one who asked the question.
“Most likely.” Lewis nodded. “And now they’ve started expanding southward towards the kingdom.”
“Why not north?”
“I would guess because all the signs of life lie this way instead of the barren north,” Edrich answered the village chief. “The dark army would not be interested in a land devoid of...” he shrugged, looking over the people gathered in the room, “fuel.”
“But…” Jonas stood from his seat. “But the fortress should be able to hold them off, shouldn't it?”
“Fort Marlingue only contains a garrison of a thousand soldiers. We don't have the manpower. Neither do we have proper barriers to ward off the dark army’s influence. They would run us over in mere hours.” Lewis shook his head solemnly. “No, we cannot hold them off.”
“Then what..." Jonas's eyes grew wide. "You are letting them through?” As Lewis nodded, a sound of murmur rose through the room.
"That is not advisable," Jonas said, tapping the table to bring back silence. "The dark army would only grow stronger with time if you let them come southward."
“That is a risk we have to take,” Lewis said. “Currently we don’t have enough time to make proper preparation against them, so we can only try to minimize the damage.”
Rowan leaned on a black wooden cane and stood from his seat. The way the conversation was going... an awful premonition weighed on his heart. “And how do you plan to do that?” he asked.
“I believe the beasts should be able to sense the coming danger and flee on their own. As for the villages,” Lewis shrugged, “I have been given the task to evacuate them.”