Blood coated his shaking hands and he felt like the world had ended. He relied on something he couldn’t feel, something he didn’t know, and it ended in the worst possible way. He pressed his hands against the wound trying to stop the blood but it was too big. He searched the deepest parts of his mind for healing spells or techniques and came up empty-handed.
The person in front of him would die.
He could do nothing to stop it.
I jump upright at the sound of knocking on the door and huddle into the corner. “W-who is it?” I manage to ask thanks to the encouraging light shining through the window. I stay alert, ready to cast a spell anytime things turn sour.
“May I come in?”
I don’t know what I was expecting, the voice doesn’t sound particularly scary, or low, or demon-like at all. “Come in…” I answer, still a bit wary. The receptionist waves and closes the door behind her. She’s not wearing her usual work clothes consisting of a plain long sleeve shirt with a black vest and pants. Instead, she’s in something more warm and colorful.
“Wha-What is it?” I mumble, uncertain and a bit embarrassed by her sudden visit.
“Sorry to disturb you so early in the morning,” she says as she takes off her hat. “I’m just here to check on you. I know you’ve had a hard time leaving the guild lately and sending you off yesterday might not have been the best idea. I felt pretty guilty when Patrick told me about how you ended up.”
My head sinks into my body and I wrap the blanket tighter. So Patrick told her about me? “I-It’s okay… I, I think it was for the best… I didn’t feel scared yesterday…” for a while at least. “I think it’s good that I left yesterday,” I can’t tell if the words are truthful or lies. Maybe it’s a mix of both.
The receptionist’s shoulders drop and she sighs, relief washing over her tense expression, “I’m glad, really. I might not be an adventurer like you but I want to help those who are struggling as much as I can. Oh, that reminds me. I haven’t told you my name yet, have I? I’m Cecily, nice to finally introduce myself to you, Ellar. If you ever have need of anything else, please come to me. I’m more than happy to help.”
She leaves the room.
Soothed by the light and with a good rest, I allow my legs out of the safety of the blanket and to the edges of the bed. I brush against something and almost shrink back into a ball. I pick up the stack of books, placing the two I finished to the side. I hold the last one, fingering the remaining couple of pages. A rough estimate says twenty left.
How can it end so soon? Did some pages get torn out?
I furtively return to where I left off before falling asleep. I turn the page one after another until the words run dry. I close the book and rise to my feet, stretching once more, feeling the energy the comes with sleep and something else. I gather all three books and while I’m at the library, I browse for more. Four fall into my hands and are taken back to my room. Cecily greets me both times.
I place the books down but can’t make myself read them. A gnawing at the back of my mind and the morning light sets me off pace. Instead of cowering inside like I thought I would, I wander into the quest hall and speak to Cecily. She smiles when I talk to her, something that further pushes my odd behavior.
“I’m glad you want to take on a quest,” her joy leaks into her words, coating them. “But I’ll be more considerate this time and not send you out into the forests at night. How about this one? The mayor is sending some supplies to a village not too far from here and while they don’t think it’ll be attacked, they’d like some extra help defending it. Of course, you might have to help with some loading and unloading. How does it sound?”
“I’ll take it,” I answer, trying to hide my uncertainties.
“Great! The supply carts are set to leave at noon. I’m looking forward to hearing about it after you’re done.”
I can feel my inner voice screaming to run back to the guild and hide inside the room until I’m forced to leave again. I ignore it as best as I can. The feeling resurfaces as soon as I see some of the other adventurers escorting the cart. One of them is a tall, burly man with a scar running from his chin to his eye. He carries a rather large hammer with various trinkets attached to his belt and a shield on his back. He seems to be partyless, just like the other ones here. However, he’s the only one who isn’t making any small talk.
Me included, there are ten adventurers.
Another man, slightly older than me with black hair, converses with a group of two off to the side. They share a laugh strong enough to lure a few guards into the fun. Despite myself, I linger near them, trying to listen in. It proves fruitless as one of the guards call for us to gather. They check off our names and I hear a snort as mine is called.
“She looks green,” the black haired adventurer says.
“A roluk too,” another, bald, adventurer comments. “She’s lucky we’re here.”
“I’d complain about her being a leech but I doubt anything’s going to happen.”
“I can hear you…” I whisper.
The guard’s face turns sour as he finishes calling out the names and glances around. He beckons over another one who ends up running deeper into town. He returns minutes later, exasperated. “They weren’t there.”
“What? What do you mean they weren’t there? Where else could they be?”
“I’m not sure. The captain said he sent them out to check on the miners but they should have been back by now.”
The guard who called our names taps the clipboard against his head, “We don’t have time. These supplies need to be delivered before two,” he sighs and turns around, “We have enough extra help from the guild, we don’t need them. Once we come back, we’ll talk to the captain about those slackers. I’m getting sick of their antics.”
After the last horse-drawn cart leaves, they shut the gates. If I wanted to turn back, I’d have to face their stares as the gates reopen. I decide to stick to my morning convictions and carry out the request.
The supply carts carry water, food, and blankets. The village isn’t any further than it is to Bramble Lake and the road to it should be well maintained, but the issue is with the increasing frequency of attacks by monsters and bandits. While the accounts of attacks have been by those traveling alone and mostly at night, the supplies are too valuable to risk losing.
I have a bad feeling about this job.
“Mind if I ask about why we need to deliver all these?” the black-haired man gestures to the carts.
The guard, one of four, shrugs. “The village has had a tough year. A storm hit right before winter came, scaring some of the animals. A new farmhand went to check on them because of a rather close lighting strike and ended up letting a few escape. The poor kid. I think it was his fourth day too. He was sent to round’em up but went missing. They still haven’t found him.”
“Kid ran away, huh?” he says, rubbing his chin.
“Who knows? Some think he was taken by monsters.”
“All right, some lost animals are one thing, but I still don’t see the point in needing to send so much.”
The guard nods as if realizing he didn’t explain enough. “Right. When I said they’ve had a tough year, I meant that their harvests were less than they were hoping. The loss of the animals is what tipped things over the edge. The village elder had called for the village to band together and offer up whatever they could so he could go and buy supplies for winter. I can’t blame the village for not being more than saints considering some issues with the elder-”
“You’ve got that right,” snorts a guard further ahead. “I heard he was caught buying some jewelry with village funds. They weren’t for his wife neither.”
“Moving on. A lot of the animals that escaped were part of the farmer’s offering to the village. Course, he couldn’t much afford to give anything else out after they disappeared into the forest.”
“How many did he offer?”
“Of the animals? He offered up two cows, two pigs, and a horse.”
“Holy… Was he planning to cover for the whole village?”
He shakes his head, “Rumor has it that his son was aiming for the elder’s daughter. I guess he saw the benefits of that union and was willing to pay quite a bit for it to happen. Course, whether he offered up the animals or not wouldn’t have really changed anything now, would it? Storm woulda came the same and the animals woulda ran the same.”
“Talk about unlucky,” a girl in her twenties says, “I wish someone would offer that much up for my hand.” her comment draws a couple of gazes from the men.
“How about after this, we get to know each other better,” the black haired adventurer says with a wink. “I usually work alone but I have thought about adding some party members.”
She looks him over, focusing on his face and then his arms. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s the best response I’ve ever heard out of her,” the bald man says, laughing. “She wonders why no man wants her while acting like that.”
“I’ve had worse reactions,” the black haired adventurer responds. “There are plenty of routes for the magic to flow.”
“Like that roluk over there?”
I try to disappear but each eye I notice and each shred of skin uncovered feels twitchy and uncomfortable.
“Nah,” he says, holding up a hand. “Pretty, but I’m into more… mature types.”
“Humans, ya mean,” the bald man interjects.
“Not a big factor. I’d prefer someone who looks like they’d be able to handle something more than a goblin.”
I can feel my ears turning red, getting hot from the embarrassment.
“Look, you can tell it’s true by how bright she’s turnin',” says the bald man.
“Quit bullying her,” a man carrying a spear says. “We all started out somewhere.”
“I could kill a goblin by the time I was twelve.”
“Then why are you on a job like this? What was the rating, E?”
“You shut yer mouth. At least if some monster’s are comin’ my way, I know I can scare those bastards off. Dunno why the guild is sending these kids on jobs like these. It’s ranked E, but pays like it's D. She probably stole a spot from someone who could actually do something other than be a meat shield.”
The man with the spear rolls his eyes, “Whatever you say.”
The conversation ends there but I can’t help but feel eyes from both the adventurers and guards fall on me every now and then. I can still feel my cheeks and ears burn. I’ve never heard or had anyone so openly hostile to me even back at the acada… at the… Where?
While there might be a few others who are near my age, it’s true that I’m the only one who doesn’t look like they can fight a goblin one on one. I can’t recall any memories of ever fighting one either. Just what was I doing before waking up?
After a little while, the leading guard stops the cart and sends two others ahead. I peer around another adventurer. The two guards cautiously approach a collapsed man, everyone goes on the alert. I grip onto the staff Cecily lent me for this job and scan the forest. A gust rattles some bushes and branches but otherwise, we see nothing.
“How is he?” the leader asks.
“Alive,” one answers. “Should we bring him along?”
“We can take him to the village and question him there. Load him onto the back of the cart by the blankets. It’d be bad if he knocked some food or water over. Make sure one of you keeps an eye on him in case he turns out to be faking.”
“Aye, but I doubt he’d do much with these wounds.”
No one dares makes a sound the rest of the way to the village, too guarded to talk. Two watchmen receive us at the edge of the village and escort us to the elder. He, a lanky, balding man in his mid to late sixties with a scraggly beard, welcomes the envoy and shakes the hand of the lead guard in charge of the whole thing.
“Please give my thanks to the captain and the mayor,” he says as his beady eyes reflect the various food items and goods on the cart. “Oh, my. This is even more than I was hoping for! My Delilah and others in the village will be so happy. We wouldn’t have made it much longer without these.”
The lead guard lifelessly nods, holding out the clipboard. “Please sign here, Elder Ghertan,” his voice takes on a formal tone. “Once you do, my men and I, the adventurers as well, will be able to help unload the carts.”
“Excellent,” he says, swiping up the clipboard and quickly scribbling his signature down along with the village mark.
The lead guard takes back the clipboard and looks over the paper, giving a satisfied nod. He gazes at the cart, “Elder Ghertan, we found a man on the way here. He was lying unconscious on the road. Do you perhaps recognize him?”
The elder casts a sideways glance into the back of the cart, “Nope. Never seen someone like that around here. Are you sure he’s not some brigand who had his friends scared off by your rather large group of fighters?”
“I cannot say. I believe a few of these adventurers skilled enough to have detected any possible assailants had there been any waiting in ambush. Besides, Elder, I doubt that with snow on the ground we would have missed signs of a raiding party.”
“Of course, of course,” he presses his hands together constantly glancing over his shoulder “Now, please unload the contents. My home should be a sufficient place for them.”
“Hold on a second,” the lead guard says, “Don’t you think it would be a better idea to distribute the supplies to the villagers right here?”
The elder looks surprised by the response. “Well of course… I plan to give out the necessary amount of food, water, and blankets to everyone! As it stands, the people are too busy with their morning activities to come right away and my home is the only place large enough to store all these goods.”
“Excuse me, Elder, but I think it’s best if we personally hand out the supplies.”
“What?” the elder’s face twists and he looks to the lead guard. “What is this rudeness? Has the captain gone mad to send a child as disrespectful as this one here? If the mayor hears of this complaint, I could very well strip you of your position! What is your name?”
“Now, Elder Ghertan-”
The black haired adventurer holds up one hand, “I’m all for some chit chat but the day is wasting away. Let’s trust the elder and leave the goods with him. I’m sure the other villagers will come later in the day to pick them up.”
“Agreed,” says the bald adventurer. “It’s cold too.”
“Yes, at least there are two more reasonable people here. If anything, I’ll be telling the captain in mayor about you two nice men, after I voice a little complaint. What are your names?”
“Norbert,” replies the black haired adventurer, “The Sharp.”
“They call me Fergus, just Fergus,” the bald one follows.
“Norbert and Fergus… Good. Please, show this guard here how a job is done. I’ll open the door.”
“The name is Harold,” the lead guard says. They ignore him.
Fergus shrugs and takes a box of food in his arms, walking right behind the elder. Norbert isn’t as enthusiastic about it but he takes one, ignoring the stare of the lead guard, and follows. Soon enough, the adventurers are taking box after box and the guards join in as well all except for the lead, myself, and the scarred, and scary, adventurer. He holds his hammer in one hand while the other is lazily hanging from his side, he watches the others work.
“Hey,” Fergus shouts as he comes for a second box, “Get to work you deadbeat roluk. Time is a-tickin' and I don’t wanna be breaking my back exerting myself while you have us do all the work.”
Under his intense and hostile stare, I unsteadily try lifting one of the boxes. It’s heavier than I imagined.
“You said she wouldn’t do much,” says the man with the spear. “Would you rather be wrong?”
Fergus turns up his chin at the other man and spits. “Quit stickin’ yer nose where it don’t belong. People always think it’s all nice and well to be treatin’ these greenies like babies but it only hurts’em and hurts us.”
“Fine,” he says, “But spit at me again and I’ll ram this spear through your throat.”
“Quit fighting boys,” the woman from before steps in. “We’ve got a job to do. Besides, I don’t think she can carry a box to the house before she collapses, look at her.”
It’s true. I can barely move with the box. I’ve gone a max of ten feet since I picked it up. My arms are on the brink of tearing off and my back is pained by the effort. I can hardly breathe and my face is getting hotter by the second.
“Lift with your legs,” the scary adventurer says, putting one hand under the box allowing me to catch my breath. “If you keep going on like that, you’ll end up breaking your back.”
“Th-Thank you…” I mutter, a bit startled by the unexpected turn of events.
The lead shakes his head, sighing in defeat. “Might as well help out. Hopefully, the elder’s telling the truth and the boss doesn’t freak out about this in a few days from now. Hey, if you can’t carry them even using your legs, take the blankets. They’re the lightest of the bunch,” Harold hauls one box onto his shoulder and tucks a small pile of blankets under his arm. “Best of luck around these assholes, kid.”
With their advice, I manage at least two trips before the cart is emptied. The village elder looks ecstatic like a child who’s just been given a new toy. He carefully counts the number of supplies, a wild grin manifesting on his face, he barely notices that all of us are back outside. He pries himself away from the sight turning to face the lead guard, “Well, considering how things went and that you contributed in unloading the carts in the end, I may overlook your previous rude comments.”
Harold holds back a snort and forces his head and eyes still but his voice drips with animosity, “Thank you very much, Elder.”
“Hm, so long as you understand my kindness.”
“Is that so?” he says, sarcasm mixed in. “Then how about this man over here? While we did the best we could for him on the way here, it’d be great if he had someplace to rest and recover. May we lay him down inside your house, Elder?”
“What? What man?”
“The one I asked about earlier, Elder,” he says with a gesture to the cart. “He’s clearly unconscious. By simply looking at him, anyone can tell he needs someplace to rest right away.”
The Elder turns up his chin as the suggestion, “I know not if he is a criminal. You would suggest I open my home up to a possible bandit?”
“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Of course, the thought of taking him back with us to the town was on my mind and my initial decision, I reconsidered based on a closer look at his injuries. Surely you would agree to house him for a little while? I will even place a few of my men here in case he turns out to be more than he seems.”
The Elder’s face wrinkles at the thought of letting the injured man inside his house. His expression sours, even more, when the lead guard orders his men to take him inside. “Place him on the couch,” the Elder relents. “However, if anything even remotely dangerous comes out of having this man in my home, I will uphold my previous threat.”
“Certainly,” he snickers. “I know this isn’t what any of you were planning but things don’t always go as planned. I’ll make sure we get back before twilight. You’re all free to explore the village but be ready to go at any time.”
“Fine with me,” the spear-wielding adventurer says as he walks down the road further into the village.
“Hmph. Wastin’ my time like this… that damn spear fool not even gonna stand with the rest of us and complain,” says Fergus.
Norbert sighs and leans against the empty cart. “And here I thought I’d finally get a job done early.”
I peer over the side of the cart that holds the injured man to look at his injuries for the first time.
“Why the rush? Good things can also come from taking things slowly,” comments the woman.
“Money doesn’t wait,” he answers. “What’s up with your face? Never seen a monster attack before?”
I stumble back and stare at my feet hoping they’ll stop talking to me and hoping I’ll calm down. I tuck in my chin trying to hide behind something that isn’t there. My throat feels bare, it almost feels like I’m naked, exposed for everyone to see and hurt if they wanted to. How can someone survive something like that?
Fergus shakes his head, “Damn baby. It sure ain’t just a scratch but at least his arms are still attached. I still can’t believe some kid like this was chosen for this job. Pays too well for some little roluk fresh outta her village. Soon enough we’re gonna be hearing of a party gettin’ wiped because of her.”
Why is he picking on me? Did I ignore him earlier or say something to insult him? I’ve barely spoken since we left the town and I’ve been keeping well enough to myself haven’t I? It’s okay. As long as I don’t say anything it shouldn’t get worse. I need to lay low until this is over and then I can read in that room for a while… Stay strong. Remember why you talked to Cecily this morning Ellar. Even if he hates you, even if he starts to bother you, it’s a step forward at the end of the day. See? That bad feeling isn’t there.
“Why so hateful?” asks the woman. “We all started out somewhere.”
“Hmph! I had to work to get this job. I can tell that little girl over there did nothin’ close to what I had to do. A buddy of mine got denied the job but she got in? Don’t joke with me or say I’m being silly or nothin’. I ain’t okay workin’ with a newbie whose role shoulda been taken by a veteran, especially not if they’re a race barely tolerated by the empire.”
“Men,” she sighs.
“Agreed,” Norbert says, his eyes closed. “While I’m not one to bicker with fellow co-workers while on a job, it certainly wasn’t easy getting in on this. Ah, whatever. So long as there are no attacks and I don’t have to count on that girl over there then it’s all the same to me whoever gets in.”
“...” I keep my back turned to them and pretend I can’t hear. They take the injured man inside and grab another adventurer with them. Twenty minutes pass without much happening. I’m too scared to move as if moving will put me back in their sights.
“Say, how’d you get the job anyway lil’ girl?” Fergus asks. “I’m real curious. Do ya know the mayor? How about the captain?” He walks right up behind me. The air instantly drops a couple degrees. “I know you can hear me. Speak while I’m still bein’ friendly.”
I stay as still as I can, fighting back the urge to run. What if I don’t stay still and choose to run? Will he come after me? Will he touch me? I don’t want that… Doing my best to quell my nerves I muster up whatever voice I can and say, “I-I was g-given this job b-by the receptionist…” I close my eyes, regretting the words as soon as they leave my mouth.
“See!” he shouts. “I knew she didn’t do nothin’ to get this job. Heh. If makin’ friends with some of the guild workers is all I need to do then gettin’ good jobs will be a piece of cake,” he puts an arm on my shoulder and I stiffen, my eyes trained on the ground. “You best be sure to thank your friend at the guild. Otherwise, my buddy woulda been here.”
“You. Stop harassing her.”
I look up to see the lead guard walking toward us.
“Despite what the Elder says, I’m the one who’s deciding whether or not you all get paid since the captain and mayor are going to be listening to my report. I won’t tolerate any bullying or fighting among the people working on this request, understand?”
“I was just joking with her,” he slaps my back startling me and sending me stumbling forward. “You shoulda seen the look on her face.”
Harold, the lead guard, shakes his head. “I don’t care, just don’t do it right now. Anyways, all of you, get ready to go. I already sent out a man to round up the ones who left.”
“What happened inside?” asks Norbert.
“I’ll explain once everyone’s gathered.”
The adventurers who left to walk around the village return one by one all calmer looking than the lead guard. I almost feel relieved when the spear-wielding adventurer returns. He comes back with a different air to him than the others, it worsens when he sees the Elder. The spear he kept resting against his shoulders and secured behind his arms is now held in one hand.
The lead guard, once we’re surrounding the carts and the last person he sent out reports back to him, begins, “Listen up. What I will tell you next is unrelated to this job, however, I guarantee compensation if you choose to participate. Please make your decision after,” he takes a breath. “The man we found is from the mines. He claims they were attacked and most of them were killed. We don’t know what kind of monsters they were or how many there were, however, I plan to investigate. Those who are interested, please raise your hands.”
Norbert rouses from the comfort of the cart, “What happens if we don’t join in?”
“You’ll stay here until we return or if three hours have gone by and we haven’t come back, you’ll make for the town and inform the captain.”
He raises his hand, “I was going to go anyway but I wanted to know the alternative.”
Following his lead, more hands shoot up among the adventurers. The guards’ expressions ease with each hand. It seems they had no choice whether or not they went. No doubt, after seeing the miner and knowing what happened over there, they would be afraid. I’m afraid.
“You’re the only one who doesn’t have their hand up,” the lead guard says. “You aren’t going to come along?”
Stares. All their stares fall on me, boring holes into my body. The bald adventurer, Fergus, snickers in the back and lets out a mocking comment. Norbert voices his own complaint, “Keep the kid here, she isn’t going to do anything except be a nuisance.” I want to deny it and say he’s wrong but he isn’t. I don’t know what I would do if I see bodies…
“I-I…” I start. “I-I don’t-”
“Useless,” Fergus says.
“I-I’ll go,” I blurt. What am I doing?
“I-I’ll go,” I repeat. Whether it’s from the fear of being stuck here and going back alone if they’re late, or Fergus’s comment, or getting caught up in everyone else’s pace, or even the book from this morning, I decide to go. Forced to choose between a rock and a hard place, it’s impossible to go against the flow.
“Herald, I know she’s a member of the guild and I have little say or not but I have to agree with her seniors on this one. Keep her here and we’ll be back,” says one of the guards.
“No,” Herald says, “What if we don’t come back? We’ll just send her to the town by herself? I told them it was their choice and she made hers,” he turns to me and offers a reassuring smile, “Glad you chose to come.”
Norbert and Fergus click their tongues.
“Let’s head out,” Herald declares, leading the way.
It’s near an hour to the mines from the village. The lead guard leads the way and makes no waste of time, we cut through chunks of snow and keep going until we hit a path, not quite cleared of snow. There are no signs of monsters anywhere, no signs of life either. The winter birds aren’t flying, plants that can even grow out of the snow don’t, and the guards are quieter than during the delivery. The snow here feels the void where the life should be and seeks to fill it, shifting and seemingly moving on its own. It’s unsettling.
“Man, what a weird place,” the spear wielder says, holding his weapon in both hands like a hunter. “We’re not even at the mine yet.”
“Heh, Don’t let the nerves get to you,” Fergus says.
The mines appear after we clear the hill. A gust of wind sends a strange smell to us. I pinch my nose and almost retch only managing to stifle it by keeping my mouth closed. The others in the group smell it too, Norbert’s face scrunches in disgust. The rest of the adventurers reach for their weapons. At the entrance of the mine, we’re greeted by blood-stained snow and stone, the weapons and tools of whoever held them are scattered on the ground. The lead guard bends down to look at the blood and beckons over another adventurer with a bow.
“What do you make of it?”
“Looks like what that person we picked up was telling the truth, so far at least. I doubt a person would take the bodies and leave the weapons behind. But that’s strange…” he doesn’t finish the thought. “We should go on inside.”
“Agreed. Who will take point?”
Fergus and Norbert raise their hands. “We’ll do it.”
“No argument,” says the leader. “Go on.”
We venture further into the mine, two guards pick up lanterns left by the entrance and hold them up to free Fergus and Norbert’s hands. The mine isn’t wide, we make do with a two-person wide formation until we reach the more open areas. A concerning air hangs around the place somehow worsened by the moist smell of rocks, maybe a hint of blood mixed in.
The clinking and clattering of armor and the weak burn of the lantern flames are the only noises that accompany us as we dive deeper. My anxiety grows, I turn and stare hard at the moving shadows and jump at noises made by scuttering mice. I can hardly hold back my fears. The person next to me, the large man with scars, nudges me and nods. For some reason, it calms my nerves, enough so I don’t immediately turn to sprint out the mine when the next scene unfolds.
“Oh shit,” the adventurer with the bow says. “I knew it.”
A thin, lanky, person crouched over in the corner of the room, back hunched, reaches down grabbing at something and moving it back up to his mouth. “Cannibalism…?” It takes me a moment that he is not a he but an it.
“What is that thing?” Fergus asks. “It’s-”
The lead guard places his hand on Fergus’s should and raises a finger to his lips. Fergus stares at him in confusion.
A moment later, as we turn our attention back to the monster, we’re frozen in place. It stands on its hind legs, the small round human-like head on its shoulders turns, a gap, a maw opening on the side. A clicking sound echoes through the mine, the monster’s jaw snaps up and down, its unusually long arms hanging lifelessly to its side, the needle-like fingers open wide.
“Don’t. Make. A. Sound.” Whispers the adventurer with a bow.
The monster’s head snaps our way. I shut my eyes and cling to the staff. It’s a mistake. The clicking sounds grow louder, or I think they do. The monster inches closer and the adventurers and guards inch back while I stay frozen, or I think they do. I can’t open my eyes, I’m too afraid to open my eyes.
Then, a terrible, blood-curdling scream.
I force my eyes open. One of the guards holding the lanterns breaks from the group and charges the monster. It opens its mouth to scream back, showing all its horrible bloody teeth. The guard charges with a spear, piercing the stomach of the beast. It swipes the guard away, his body falling limply to the ground after colliding with the wall.
“Stay in the corridor!” Harold commands. “Don’t break formation. We don’t know how many there are.”
Fergus swings at the monster, blocking a hit with his shield and stabbing with his sword. The monster retreats a couple of steps and Fergus bangs his tools together, “Let’s go. What are ya watin’ for you monster?! Come get some!”
Its small head turns, and for the first time, I notice it doesn’t have eyes. The monster crouches down and leaps at the bald adventurer. He’s caught unprepared and they struggle on the ground, the human-like beast clawing furiously at him. He groans as he tries to hold off the attacks.
Harold dashes forward, along with Norbert, and together they kill the monster. Fergus rises to his feet and despite his hostile attitude, I don’t feel a single ounce of enjoyment at his pain. Rather, I’m only more afraid.
“Wha-What is that thing?”
“Quiet- Ah, fuck. It’s too late for that. That monster is an auditor, a listener. They usually live deeper in the forest.” the adventurer with a bow informs us. “When we get outside, be as quiet as you can.”
“More are coming!” Norbert shouts. He jumps forward, cutting off the hand of one of the three that appear. The lead guard hurriedly parries the other two monsters’ attacks but obtains a few cuts. Another adventurer and guard rush to assist. The two gang up on one of Herald’s attackers, pushing it back and injuring it.
Norbert, though not unscathed, laughs. “They’re definitely stronger than the average monster, but nothing to be afraid of!” He jams his sword into its throat and yanks it out. The monster tries to attack but the adventurer with a spear finishes it off. It doesn’t even let out a death rattle as if falls over dead.
The woman casts a spell, jolting Herald’s opponent frozen. He kills it and they turn their attention to the third one. “Kill it fast!” the adventurer with a bow screams.
It backs away until they corner it. The monster, with nowhere to go, lets out a scream, one that hurts to listen to. They kill it but there’s still a ringing in my ear.
“Damn,” Herald says, wiping the blood off his sword. “You two, bring Tanner along. We’ll have to report to the captain about this. The mayor won’t be happy.”
“Should we explore more of the mines?” Norbert asks. “There might still be survivors.”
“No, it’s best if we come back later. We’re not prepared to deal with those kinds of monsters with the oil we have left for the lanterns.”
“We can use magic,” offers the woman.
The lead ponders the suggestion but shakes his head, “No. Tanner’s hurt and he needs treatment as soon as possible.”
Fergus frowns, “I was caught off guard but I can handle one of those now.”
Norbert shrugs, “How’d everyone here get massacred anyway? I know most aren’t as strong as me but the guards of this town are better than usual. How many were stationed here.”
“Fifteen,” Herald answers.
“F-Fifteen?! That’s crazy. You’re saying fifteen couldn’t handle those three?”
The adventurer with a bow steps forward, “As much as I respect and fear the listeners, they leave a much bloodier mess. They don’t particularly care to move their prey either, they eat where they catch them." He taps his bow. "None of this makes sense. Even if they could take down fifteen men, they simply wouldn't. They're hunters. A group isn't what they're after, especially not one that fights back as hard as humans. Considering where the swords were dropped and where they were facing, I’d say the thing that killed most of the guards came from deeper inside the mine.”
The lead guard sighs, “We’ll investigate later.” his eyes raise and focus on the ceiling. “Behind you Fergus!”
Fergus turns, raising his shield. The monster leaps from the top of the ceiling onto him. He throws it off and kills it quickly. “Ha! See. I told you I could-” he stops dead in his tracks. Another one of those listeners appears, staring down at him. It’s an entire size larger than the others. Fergus raises his shield. His arm flies across the room and before he screams, the monster’s fingers stab through his body and throws him aside as Norbert goes to match it.
Norbert swings but the monster moves out of the way, its head tilting to the side. The woman casts another lighting spell catching the monster. Norbert charges in. “Huh?” His legs are swept from under him and the monster rips out a chunk of flesh from his neck.
“Stay in formation and don’t make another sound!” Herald calls. As he moves away from the place where he spoke, he throws a rock behind him.
My breath immediately hastens. I stumble a step backward and use the staff as an obstacle, something between that monster and me. I press my chin to my chest, trying to hide behind something.
“Don’t falter,” the scarred adventurer tries to soothe me. “Close your eyes and don’t make a sound.”
With fear threatening to overwhelm me, I follow his advice. The advice of someone far more experienced and skilled than me. The monster’s clicks are louder than those of the smaller ones, and it moves to where Herald last was. The monster, however, doesn’t stay in the spot long. It moves, moves closer to us, to me.
Click. Click. Click.
Calm down Ellar. Calm down. There are people around you. People stronger than you. They can fight it. They can win against it. Trust in them. Trust in them…
Inside the mines, one of them accidentally kicks one of the tools.
I turn and run.
The monster lets out a scream-like roar and scurries along the ground faster than any mouse or rat. The adventurer behind me grabs hold of me and doesn’t let go. “If there’s one out there, you’ll die,” he says.
I can’t be swayed. I yank and yank my arm trying to get free. I look behind me and see them facing off against it. A guard has his head torn off, the other adventurer loses an arm and falls. Herald, the woman, and the adventurer with a bow fight against it. They push it back with a combination of attacks. More adventurers and guards flood in to help. But the monster isn’t alone. Another one, its size, crawls out from the depths of the cave, fresh blood dripping from its mouth.
The adventurers and guards split off to match it. Things look to be going well but it takes a turn to for the worse. Someone gets injured, another tries to help them and gets injured in the process. Someone dies. Someone else dies. Then they all start dying. The woman screams as the listener tears her stomach open. Herald and the adventurer with a bow fight it back.
I fight even harder, trying to run away. The monster takes notice and starts toward us. The man holding me from running lets go and readies his weapon. I trip over his legs. The scarred adventurer grabs the monster’s leg and pulls him back away from us.
One last glance shows a hard battle between the scarred adventurer as he tries to protect the others from one of them. Herald cuts at the other listener and then loses his arm. He manages to kill it before collapsing.
Once outside, I run and run and run. I stumble over the snow and fall down the little hill.
I open my eyes and see the dimming skies. I look around and see seven people out of the fourteen sent this morning. The scarred adventurer gives me a sympathetic look.
“How are you feeling kid?” he asks, speaking for the first time since he gave me advice.
“O-Okay…” I answer. “W-What happened?”
“We killed them,” the one with the bow says. “But we lost a lot of people.”
“Herald?” one of the other guards finishes. “He bled out. We couldn’t save him.”
“We’re staying in the village for the night,” the Spearman says. “Tomorrow, we’ll all have to go explain things to the captain. Oh, the name’s Christopher.”
“Dorian,” the Bowman follows up.
“...” the scarred adventurer is silent.
“E-Ellar,” I reply.
“Well, Ellar,” he offers his hand, “We’ll need to move if we want to make it there before night falls.”
Back at the village, Christopher speaks with some of the villagers and secures us all rooms. The family I’m staying with has mostly fallen asleep, only the head of the house is awake to greet me. He shows me my room and I’m stuck fending off the night terrors until exhaustion takes over and I fall asleep.
- The Odd Penguin
Bio: Started writing on this site because of Mushoku Tensei. I regularly read manga, my favorite revolves around a guy, that if he were to be the protagonist of a story, it would certainly be a tragedy. I really like Dark Souls.. If you ever have anything you wish to ask of me, feel free to pm. My hobby is reading and writing.