Today she was going to ask Ha’vie to take her to the Empire’s prestigious Academy in the Capital. Something the Free Desert Cities didn’t have. If Ha’vie was late though, she had a letter in her hand to leave with the Receptionist. It was a request addressed to the elf herself.
She wasn’t too sure if the elf girl could even keep the appointment. She was known to get herself into trouble where ever she went. From picking fights with people picking on single mothers to subjugating large bandit groups because she was ‘bored’. The girl often stuck her nose in people businesses whether she was wanted there or not. It was also something she loved about her. Truly the spirit of a Hunter.
Holding her cute little daughter who was nearly half her height, her small cute face would bloom into an attractive young lady like her mother… And hopefully, never have to hunt a monster in her life. She had been taking more and more dangerous jobs that could orphan the girl if she failed, but she wanted her to leave this god-forsaken desert where the sun beat down mercilessly on every living thing in its presence.
She, herself, was already tanned on every visible part of her body where she was light skinned under her shirt and pants! It was unforgivable to leave a girl looking embarrassing!
Shaking her thoughts away, she reached the large wooden double-doors of the Guild where an exiting hunter held the door for her.”Hey, stay safe out there.” She said as she passed. “Thanks, you keep your kiddo safe, yeah?” The hunter chuckled, his face scared from past fights. “Definitely!” Was the last response as she was greeted with a cool wave of air as she stepped into the magically conditioned guild where tens of hunters occupied. Most sat at the restaurant area while some lined up at the reception area to submit their completed quests or pick up one.
Ha’vie was suppose to be here, but she glanced around and didn’t catch hide nor hair of her. Sighing with a hint of disappointment, she lined up at in the reception section. “Your aunty isn’t here yet. Let’s go leave the letter for her.” She softly whispered to her daughter. She was fifth inline until the branch manager, who was passing by while speaking with a receptionist stopped by her. “Layla? Savannah? What are you two doing here?”
The man was rather thin with a rather feminine touch. He was a man through and through, but Layla always thought he’d have made a better woman than a man. She wasn’t judging to be mean, she just thought it was a waste of such feminine looks. “Leaving a letter for Ha’vie, she was supposed to meet me here now. She hasn’t shown up yet so I was just going to leave this here for her.” She briefly held up the letter in her hand. “Ah.” He responded thoughtfully with a soft voice that wasn’t girly nor manly.
“If you don’t mind, what did you need her for?” He asked after a moment. “I want her to take Savannah north into the Empire. I want her to study to be as smart as you.” Layla laughed shyly after that last sentence. The branch manager only laughed “Really? Which school are you sending her too?” He asked. “The Academy in the capital.” The branch manager looked perplexed at that. “Really? Did you already ask them and provide the funds?”
Layla nodded “Mommy got me accepted, Uncle Bow!” Savannah interjected as she showed the branch manager, Bow, the acceptance letter her mother had tucked into a hidden pocket under her right breastplate. “Ah! Congratulations. Are you going to quit hunting afterward?” He asked with a weary smile. “No, I’m going to take the advancement test.” It was time for Bow to sigh. “I was afraid of that… You know Kevin wouldn’t have let you.”
“If we were back in that mountain village, I may have had other options. Out here, I can’t farm that plants I grew up with neither can I make use of old favors to try a different career.” She was originally from the empire, but her husband wanted to move to the Nephes to make it as a Hunter. Money was good then when the city was constantly putting out requests. Escort requests, Collections, Missing Persons, Monster Subjugation, and Dungeon explorations were abundant. Now mostly Monster Subjugation and Dungeon explorations were the mainstays in the city, at least, at her level.
“How about I help you move back to the Empire…?” He asked.” I’d hate to lose a talented hunter like you, but Kevin was a damn good hunter and my friend.” Layla only shook her head. “My village was destroyed by a monster horde two years after I came here.” She said with a forced smile. “A-Ah. My condolences… I should-” Layla cut him off. “Don’t worry about it. You have your hands full managing these vagabonds. I don’t expect you to remember all of our home towns. It’s just nice you keep tabs on most of us.”
. . . . .
The two girls passed through the city’s Townsquare while tearing happily at wooden skewers that held grilled meat and vegetables. With the harsh sun slowly dipping over the horizon, the sky had turned creamy orange while the night sky was off in the distance. The square itself was full of hunters returning for their quick quests, people out shopping for their food and merchants. Stalls made from wooden frames and different colored clothes sat all over as people haggled, shopped and gawked at the wares.
Music played from passing bards and several kids played amount the bustling crowds as everyone went about their day. In the end, Layla decided it would have been rude not to tell Ha’vie in person about the news. She had been good to them and leaving a letter about it felt a little… distant. The Academy had visited the city to recruit students a month ago and Savannah managed to score in the top twenty of nearly two hundred.
Layla was so proud when she did. She had been slaving away as a single mother to teach her daughter when she herself was almost as illiterate, but they both learned together. Now she was able to make a few more coins reading the quests on job board for those who couldn’t read and fill out forms for those who couldn’t. But now, her daughter had a shot of becoming a scholar, or a mage, or maybe a knight! Knights may have put themselves in danger like her, but they’d have teammates and benefits from the empire.
Whichever route Savannah went, it’d earn more than what she was making here from dawn to dusk. As the evening sky was about to drop over the horizon, leaving the desert city in a haze of orange, their happy afternoon turned for the worst. The putrid smell of ozone slowly filled the air around the square. The moment she smelled it, the hairs on the back of her neck became needle straight. It was the same smell when a lot of mana was being spent at one time, similar to large scale battles or a rather powerful spell or ritual.
“Baby, come here.” It took most of her self control to not bark the words out, but the words did come out strained as she quickly picked up her daughter and carried her against her breastplate. Whatever was going on, she didn’t like it. It was the same feeling when she fought in a Dungeon Boss Subjugation where they fought the Dungeon’s master. The feeling of something more powerful than yourself aiming for your life. It was something one only had to experience a few times before one could sense killing intent. That was the feeling she got right now that something or someone was aiming to kill.
She looked around trying to find the source of the feeling but only found that other veteran hunters were also looking around confused. They, however, had brandished their swords. People around them shouted in surprise until the smell and intent became thick enough for even them to notice it. Now everyone was on alert.
… Sadly, it wasn’t something they could ever hope to defeat…
A black orb began to manifest itself over the center of the square, black electricity dancing around it as it hummed in everyone’s ears. The orb itself was blacker than anything they had ever seen with all light beginning to bend around it causing a halo effect and distorting the air. The smell of ozone overpowered everything around them. Most of the people in the area just stood in shock at the orb manifesting as the blackness itself began to drip down onto the ground below, those other it quickly pushing to avoid it.
Each drop sizzled against the sand below before leaving small craters where the drops had eaten away small bits of the floor. A glow appeared from under her breastplate which roused her from whatever effect looking at the orb brought her under. Thus her instincts as a mother and Hunter kicked in.
She quickly turned her head realizing she was under a spell and dashed through the crowd who stood stunned. Those she bumped into were roused by the external influence and quickly began to run two causing a domino effect. Some of the veterans were able to overcome the spell’s effects as well and the same thing happened as all those who managed to break free scattered as best as they could.
The only thought running through Layla’s mind was to protect her daughter. “Run! Get her out of the city!” Her instincts screamed at her louder than the crackles, hisses, and hums of the orb that was as large as a two-story building, hovering over the square. Once she was free of the stunned crowd, she cast several spells on her and her daughter. Her voice was monotone and clear as she recited them. Blue, yellow, and brown. Speed increase, Fortitude, and Curse Protection. All of them below the tier-2, but they were useful enough for her. She cast Fortitude and Curse protection over her daughter as their speed visibly increased as an explosion rang out.
What struck her heart was not that there was an explosion. She anticipated that something was going to happen. Giant orbs didn’t just appear over the town, but it was the sound of the explosion. The explosion sounded like a normal one for the first second, but then unworldly wails rang out afterward. Looking back, the orb exploded into a thin half-transparent dome that kept increasing and engulfing the town at an alarming pace.
The spell itself shook every building it passed through and with every person it hit… their souls were ripped from the bodies as they wailed from the other side before being devoured by strange black orbs that began floating about inside the dome. The bodies left behind were turned into stone. That mid-step only crashed into the ground, turning into grey piles of rubble while others only stood in place, staring at the town’s center or trying to shield themselves.
A deeper fear gripped her heart like a dragon was trying to squeeze the blood out of it. Fear that her daughter was going to die. “Baby! Put my necklace on!” She screamed, tears streaming from her eyes involuntarily. “B-But mommy! Aunty said-!” She was about to say Ha’vie told her mother not to ever take it off when she was in danger…
Layla’s fear wasn’t that she was going to die.
She had made her peace with death long ago. Each quest may be her last. Each time she left those gates, she may never walk through them another time. She was a Monster Hunter. Death was an occupational hazard. No…It was her daughter. The thought of her daughter turning to stone and shattering against this desolate sandy road was more heartbreaking than her having to be orphaned – Even if she was to die with her. “Put it on!” She nearly roared, scaring Savannah to quickly fumble through her mother’s shirt and dig out a silvery necklace – a mithril necklace.
It was warm to the turn with a topaz embedded in the center with strange silvery runes carved into the body that glowed as the black dome was nearly on them. “Put it on!” She cried out once more, her voice breaking with fear. Layla cast another speed spell that upped her speed once more, breaking away from the dome that nearly bit her heels. People were also running alongside her, some quicker, some faster. Those faster were casting spells and downing potions to increase their speed. Some with smaller mana pools had slowed down before the black wave of death bit their feet.
They stumbled when the stone foot was stepped forward, causing them to stumble over themselves before the rest of them turned to stone and crumbled away. Once more, Layla cast the last spell she could, using up her mana causing her sight to black out momentarily. Sheer willpower kept her body moving through the loss of consciousness before the sight of the gates, which were pushed open by the guards as they fled came into view. She was at the head of the back now, having slowly overtaken the others.
With a glance back and through the pain, she saw no one was behind her but the ever-quickening black tide as it consumed more and more souls. The buildings behind her crumbled here and there while the rest appeared to quickly age.
“A little more, just a little more! Just a litt-“