A blinding light swallowed the twelve otherworlders. An unknown amount of time went by, and when they snapped out of their daze, they were in the middle of a small clearing in a forest. The sun barely pierced through the thick foliage. Around them were mere dozens of people: priests, mages, and a handful of guards. Their atmosphere was tense, but when the summoned beings appeared, they breathed out sighs of relief. At their feet, they could see a complex magic circle drawn in the damp earth.
One of the people walked forward and bowed a little, “Greetings to you, Mighty Heroes. I am High Priest Kan Yune of the Arkadium Kingdom.”
The whole entourage other than the high priest knelt and shouted, “Greetings to you, Mighty Heroes!”
At the forefront of the group, Dorian was savouring every moment. He was looking down on them as if he was a god. He wasn’t the only one being lost in the moment.
“Rise”, Dorian said with magnanimity.
Kan Yune straightened himself and a light contempt flashed across his face. The non-attentive Dorian’s expression remained unchanged, but the black-dressed youth’s gaze flickered for a second.
“You must be confused and—” started Kan Yune.
“Lyres, the god’s whatever said we’re here to save you and you need us in order to win the war against the demon race,” interrupted Nora, the girl with the red hair.
The high priest was at a loss for words, having never imagined that someone could have the gall to interrupt him. A flint of anger lit in his heart, but he tried his best to suppress it and managed to squeeze out a smile. “Indeed. Our world is in peril. And we—” He couldn’t say more before someone else interrupted him once again.
“How come there are only you guys to welcome us?” Dorian interrupted. “Why in a forest? Is this how you treat Heroes who come to save you?”
Where was the throne room? The bimbo princess? The bling-bling?
Kan Yune breathed deeply as to pacify his rising anger. “It’s not convenient to discuss here. We prepared carriages. Let’s head to town. After a rest, everything will be explained.” He then turned around to give orders and cut short the conversation.
Nora said in a soft voice loud enough for all the others to hear, “I hope the town isn’t too shabby.”
Ran took in their expressions as she thought: they saw themselves as Mighty Heroes who had to be venerated. Most of them were keen on forgetting their life back on earth. Power, fame, gold, and adoration, they wanted it all.
But while they were caught in their own delusions, Ran was fidgeting and looking around restlessly. 3 priests. 9 mages. 6 soldiers. A magic circle of 5 m in diameter. She narrowed her eyes. Cardinal crossings. Elemental sub-division. 16 slots. 16 magic stones, 7 broken. Something wasn’t right. She sniffed; burned earth and the faint smell of blood. She turned her head and counted again. 9 mages. Ran was standing at the back of the group, her mind racing with her body still. She bit her lip, but unseen by the others, a cold light flickered in her eyes.
The black-clad youth was also surveying around with attention. His eyes moved to the circle’s periphery, then to the mages outsides. Cloak to cloak, they shifted 9 times. His brows creased for a second and then immediately relaxed. He observed his surroundings, thinking in silence. It should be early morning. The carriages weren’t on a common forest path as the tracks weren’t deep. The clearing was well hidden and he could feel the dense mana in the air. They’d hid the corpses of the missing mages, but had forgotten the extra set of footprints on the ground. The number of carriages also didn’t match the number of people nor the tracks on the ground. The trace of suspicion in his eyes was buried with care.
He had kept track of everyone’s movements. Not too far from him, the latecomer was in a daze, her head turned to the heavens. She was completely out of it, and her worn-out pajama made her look even more miserable. He glanced at the sky and suppressed a frown.
He walked over to her and introduced himself, “Hey. Hi, I’m Rikku.”
She was startled by the sudden introduction, her long eyelashes fluttering in panic. She gazed at him; he saw her eyes pass over his tall stature, black hair, and clothes, pausing a bit over his Asian features mixed with half-elf ones.
She blinked fast and stammered, “My name is… Ra- no, it’s Ran. My name is Ran. Nice to meet you.”
He saw her startled face yet there wasn’t much emotion in her eyes.
He pointed out, “Are you alright? You seem really nervous.”
Ran was startled again. She gave a small nervous laugh, and said, “You’re not? This whole thing is just absurd. Complete nonsense.”
She shook her head and hugged herself in a comforting manner. Her fingers dug into her flesh and some unknown emotion flickered in her gaze.
He slightly pursed his lips, and he hesitated before asking, “Do you want to share a carriage?”
The girl lifted her head and stared at him. Rikku felt uncomfortable. Something in her eyes was unsettling. It took her several seconds before she nodded. He gestured for her to walk in front, which she did. He lowered his head to hide his expression and followed the young woman.
Each carriage was normal, albeit a bit worn-out by travel. From the outside, Ran could tell there was no sign that they possessed any valuables or people of a certain nobility. Everyone boarded in groups, and she entered ahead of Rikku into the last and also the shabbiest. They travelled in silence, each sitting at a window and gazing at the landscape. Rikku was resting against the wood panel whereas she put on a blank expression, seeming to have lost touch with this new reality once again.
The ride was bumpy and somewhat painful. The suspension didn’t exist and they were thrown all over the place because of the holes in the road. The wood was hard and smelt weird. The cushions were thin and rough. But the newly arrived heroes strangely didn’t complain much. They expected the level of technology to be low, welcoming it as an attraction for the time being. The whole trip lasted three full hours.
The sun was almost at its zenith when the caravan arrived at the city’s gates. Ran squinted her eyes. She had seen better fortified cities before.
Rikku couldn’t help but remark, “This is the capital?”
A soldier nearby replied, “How could this be! This is the countryside. Linestone City is just some city of the Oria Duchy. The capital is way further north and far from here”—the soldier sneered—“If it wasn’t for you Heroes, we wouldn’t have come here.”
“Are we far from the Capital city?”
“Pretty far. We need to cross the whole Oria Duchy on our way to the Capital. It should take us a month if we travel fast.”
Rikku questioned further, “Why weren’t we summoned in the Capital?”
The soldier shrugged, “Must be a secret. They must want to keep it from the spies of the Demon Army.”
The shadow of a smile drew itself on Rikku’s face. “Hm.”
Ran muttered, “Oh. Demon spies in the Capital. How dangerous.”
Underneath his indifference, her travel companion noticed the faint sarcasm in her voice.