After taking a moment of respite to rejuvenate her Mana and some stamina, Erin treated her and Lyra’s major wounds to the best she could with Spirit Mend. Even though her evolution provided her the benefit halving the Mana consumption for Spirit Magic, she still used a lot of her Mana. Not only was it Mana consuming, it was even draining for her stamina. At her current level, Spirit Mend was ill-suited for combat.
For bruises and scratches, they treated those with salves they received from Aedan beforehand. Lyra’s bones were mended with Spirit Mend but she still wasn’t in any condition to walk without support. Erin was more than willing to provide Lyra assistance in which she happily accepted.
“We were too late,” Lyra mused self-deprecatingly. “We couldn’t save the village. We couldn’t save William and we couldn’t find Marcus.”
“What happened to William… perhaps it’s fortunate that we didn’t find Marcus. We could be dealing with two Wights and I doubt we can take on two of them at once.”
This wasn’t the first time Lyra had failed a quest but it was her first failure that brought upon casualties, even though she was not to blame. “We’re dealing with a Necromancer, aren’t we?”
“Necromancy is just one of our culprit’s many tricks. They could turn people and beasts, alive or dead, into their puppets. They could even make its puppet stronger than they originally are. We could call ourselves fortunate if our culprit is just a Necromancer.”
“How are we going to take this son of a bitch down?”
“With patience, intelligence, and some degree of luck, I suppose?” Erin sighed at the bleak prospects of uncovering the mastermind. “Come on, let’s regroup with Aedan and the rest.”
There was no meaning for them to stay any longer in the ruined village. Their mission was to eliminate the source of the threat but as it stood, they had no leads and no means to search for the source. The job’s difficulty had surpassed their league. The only thing left for them to do was to bury their deceased companion, Freed. But for good measures, Erin decided to burn the body instead. Erin wanted to burn the whole village too but with the current available resources, it just wasn’t possible. What’s more, they might need the village intact as proof of their work for the Guild, burning the village down would practically discredit their work and experience.
“What happened here?” Lyra gasped just as she and Erin stepped out of the village. In her sights, there were numerous rotten carcasses and corpses laid strewn about as far the eyes could see.
“It seems the ritual had a vast range of effect,” said Erin who was walking by Lyra’s side, supporting as her crutch. “These were all Ghouls not a few minutes ago.”
“It’s a jungle out here, as people always tend to say. It’s a fight for survival in the wild. It’s no surprise there would be many carcasses and corpses ripe for the ritual to be transformed into Ghouls.”
“Cal and the others, are they alright?” Lyra asked.
“Aedan’s with them. They will be fine. I’ll be surprised if they weren’t and if they weren’t, it would mean that we might be up against something stronger than a Dragon. We’re fucked then.”
Lyra glanced at Erin dubiously as they trod through carcasses-ridden path. “You seem to trust him a lot.”
Erin smiled wryly. “He’s not some criminal, Lyra, as far as I know. He’s just… cynical and I think a little bit demented.”
“You sure know a lot about him,” Lyra muttered dryly. “I guess you would know this much considering your escapade last night.”
Erin stared wide-eyed at Lyra. She half-expected this outcome but just not in this sort of moment. “Nothing happened between us, Lyra.”
Lyra gave a smile that failed to reach her cheeks. “That’s hard to swallow, Erin. Had he truly been a Dwarrow, your explanation might have been easier on the throat but he’s not a Dwarrow. You expect me to believe a Dragon and a Fae, alone under the night sky, in the woods, and nothing happened?”
Erin sighed. “I don’t know what kind of fairy tale you have heard but we did not fuck.”
Lyra laughed meekly. “I know,” she said. “I trust you.”
Erin raised a questioning brow. “You do? Didn’t you just said—”
“I said it’s hard to swallow.” Lyra grinned smugly but weakly. “I didn’t say I don’t believe you.”
“Unexpected, I know.”
Lyra was silent for a while. When her lips parted, a tear overflowed from the corner of her eyes. “You were dead, Erin. I saw the Wight impaled the sword through you. It killed you. You were dead, undeniably. It may only be a miracle that you came back from your untimely demise. But your death, I saw it clearly. Even now, your death was all I can think of. You know what I regretted then?”
Erin said nothing and only shook her head.
“I regretted not trusting you. I regretted not believing in your intentions. At that time, I didn't care if you had been lying to me. I didn’t care if you had been fucking others. I-I… I just wanted you back. I couldn’t care what you have done. I just wish you were alive.”
“Lyra… Nothing happened between us, really.” Erin then looked away. “But admittedly, we came close to doing that.”
Lyra frowned. “If you want me to believe you, start by telling me what happened last night.”
As Lyra had already known of her secret as an Outworlder and she was someone Erin herself deemed to be more than just a friend, Erin saw no point in hiding Lust Deviant from her. She retold everything that had transpired on the night before but she held back on revealing her former gender. That was still a hard truth to spill.
“I’m sorry, Lyra. It feels extremely good doing it with me, that skill is most likely the reason.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I was a virgin, Lyra. Hugging a girl was the closest experience I had to coitus. How else could I be so good at it? I doubt I’m simply talented.”
Lyra leaned in close to her ears. “Maybe you are talented. You are a Fae now, and Fae are known to be extremely gifted in various kinds of aspects.”
Erin herself wished that to be true but somehow, she was skeptical about that notion.
“Anyways…” Lyra’s expression darkened. “Aedan saw you bare, didn’t he?”
“Why is that—”
“He did, didn’t he?”
Erin gulped. The conversation was going off into a weird direction. She quickly looked for a way to steer the conversation back on track and fortune smiled upon her. They had reached Aedan and the rest while they were conversing. Lyra was forced to brighten back her darkened expression. She didn't to be want petty enough to further contribute to the already bleak state of circumstances.
Cal was the first to notice them or rather, the first to react to their presence. “Miss Erin!” he called out as he ran towards them, leaving a disgruntled Selene behind and Celia in Aedan’s care. “Thank the gods… you’re alright.”
“I’m fine too, thanks for asking.” Lyra glared.
“O-of course! You too, Miss Lyra!” Cal quickly gave a rushed greeting at Lyra.
Putting aside Cal’s infatuated gaze, Erin scoured around the area. Everyone was unhurt which didn’t surprise Erin since Aedan was here. There was barely any damage to the wagon and most important of all, their mode of transportation remained functional. Abundant carcasses and corpses were scattered around the wagon but none were in reach of the horses or the cart. There was a charred ring surrounding the wagon. It only stood to show they had handled their predicament well, or rather, Aedan had handled it well.
“I’m glad the four of you are safe too,” Erin replied.
“Yeah, thanks to Aedan. The things he used… I don’t know what they are but they worked. Aedan was really prepared.”
Erin glanced over at Aedan, who was cradling the still-unconscious Celia close. He shrugged in response to Erin’s questioning gaze. Erin could tell Aedan used his own magic and masked it off with one of the many random items he brought along with him on this excursion.
“She’s still asleep?” Lyra asked, her eyes staring worriedly at Celia.
From her appraisal, Erin realized Celia was under some spell that kept her asleep. More specifically, Aedan’s spell. She threw him a glare.
“What? You want her to wake up to all these?” Aedan gestured at the bodies. “If she wakes up, I hope her first sight will be the comforts of a warm bed and the smell of a nice warm meal.”
Shot with such reasoning, Lyra backed off his case and Erin reeled in her glare.
“I’m glad that the two of you have returned safely,” Selene greeted them. She got off the wagon and approached Erin. She glanced around, befuddlement painted her face. “W-where’s Freed?”
Lyra immediately cast her gaze down.
“He didn’t make it,” Erin woefully answered as she showed Selene Freed’s adventurer tag. “I’m sorry.”
Selene gasped. She saw a small patch of blood smudged on the corner of the tag.
“Why are you sorry?” Cal asked. His hand reached out to comfort her but Lyra’s gaze shrunk his attempt.
“Because I have sworn to bring everyone back,” Erin responded. “But I didn’t keep my promise... I wasn’t able to.”
“And no one’s blaming you, Miss Erin,” Cal assured her. He tried his luck and courage, reaching his hand out for Erin’s shoulder but Lyra stood in the way. She didn't want to be petty but Cal was too cunning and opportunistic for the wrong reasons.
Cal cast his gaze away and awkwardly retracted his hands.
“What exactly happened over there?” Selene asked. “All the dead just came rising from their graves. Ghouls, Aedan said they were.”
“And Aedan’s right. That’s what they are. There was a dark ritual at the center of the village. It turned everything within the vicinity into Ghouls. It might have been using William as a relay. Every undead stopped being undead when I fell William.”
“William? You mean our William?”
Erin nodded and proceeded to recount the despairing event that almost claimed their lives. When she was finished, Cal had the worst reaction out of them all. His face was drained of its colors and his hands couldn’t stop trembling. and as expected, Aedan seemed to have grasped the situation prior to their return.
“And Marcus…?” Selene hesitated to ask.
Erin shook her head. “We didn’t find him. There was even any trace or clue to be found after what had happened.”
The group fell silent until Selene broke it.
“What now?” she asked. “We couldn’t find Marcus. We couldn’t find the source of this necromancy. And we lost Freed. We couldn’t even save the village. We failed the quest...”
“We go back,” Erin said with her gaze cast down. “What else can we do?”
“Does this mean we won’t be getting our rewards?” Cal asked who was doing his best to control his body from shuddering.
“Really, Cal?” Selene cast a frown at Cal. “After everything that has happened, the reward is all you can care about?”
“N-no, Selene. That’s not what I—”
“Freed is dead! Celia’s whole family is probably of the same fate too! The entire village is ruined. We couldn’t even find the one responsible for all this. And our reward is all you can think about?!”
“I don’t mean that, Selene. I didn’t think—”
“That’s your problem, Cal. You don’t think. You never look at what's around you, just what’s in your sights. You—”
“That’s enough, Selene.” Erin cut in. “Cal’s worries are understandable. You two are not exactly well off. Every single coin counts. He’s merely worried about what’s to come if the two of you don’t have enough to put food on your table, and that’s a very reasonable concern.”
“I-I’m sorry...” Selene bit her lips. “I-it’s just… this is a lot… this is a lot...” Tears began to trickle down from her eyes as she broke down sobbing.
Cal approached Selene slowly and pulled her into an embrace. “I’m sorry too,” he muttered.
“Cal does have a point though,” Lyra said. “We failed this quest, didn’t we?”
“Not necessary,” Aedan chimed in.
Erin raised an eyebrow. “No?”
“The nature and the state of the quest had changed drastically,” Aedan explained. “We have necromancy at work here and it’s not just some novice level necromancy. The entire area was turned into a spawning ground for undead and our Necromancer wasn’t even here in the flesh. Instead, they used an intermediary, a Wight, to sustain the necromancy. Expecting adventurers of our caliber to complete this is just… absurd. The Guild of this branch can’t even afford that much of a reward had we completed this level of quest. We survived this ordeal, that in itself warrants some recognition.”
“And they’ll believe our story?” Cal questioned. “I’m having a hard time believing all of this myself.”
“The Guild has means to determine that, lest you forget. This quest is beyond the capabilities of adventurers from a small town. I’m sure they won’t fault us for this failure.” Aedan then turned to Cal and Selene. “However, I must ask all of you here to keep silent about this whole ordeal, say nothing of this to others with the Guild being the exception. If the town caught wind of this, there’s no telling how the people will react. In the worst likelihood, lives may be threatened in the ensuing chaos. Do I have all of your understanding and cooperation?”
Cal nodded immediately but Selene glanced towards Erin who gave her a nod.
“Fine,” Selene agreed. “I’ll keep silent about this.”
“Splendid.” Aedan clapped his hands together. “Well then, if we move now, we should be able to cross the valley by nightfall. We’ll make camp at the entrance. We’ll make the rest of the journey on the morrow. Sounds good?” Without waiting for a response, he continued. “Good. Let’s move.”
Deep in the darkness where lights had no place, a figure was lashing its anger out on its minion servants; namely, Goblins, Ghouls, Serks, Rot-rats, Dire Wolves, Rock Apes, and many others. Its minions, hundreds of them, didn’t even budge at their master’s outrage. They all just stood there unflinching as they awaited the rage of their master to befall on them.
“That mutt…! That vixen…! Again… and again…! Always her…!”
Seething with rage, the figure crushed the head of a Goblin that was unfortunately chosen to bear the grunt of its rage.
“Must… kill her… Hindrance… Impossible… with her...”
The figure turned its glance towards a naked man, chained to a rock pillar. The man was Marcus. For a few days now, he had been drifting between the boundaries of death and life. It was only by the dark figure’s whim that he was still drawing breath. Holes were present throughout his body and rods of unknown material laid strewn about his feet. Blood was no longer flowing from his wounds, an effect of necromancy.
“You are… strong… Stronger… than the others before… Yes… you are strong… but resist… forever… impossible...”
The dark figure grabbed Marcus tightly by his jaws and leaned in close to his face. The adventurer returned an empty gaze that could only belong to the dead.
“You will submit… One way… or another...”