Chapter 5

(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)

A few days later, Lizbeth and Kaleena returned from their trip to the nearest city of Lafayette, bringing with them all the new apparels for the young girl. And some for the mother too, on the side. Finances might be tight, but a girl gotta spend when she sees something nice. Their trip was almost problem-free, except for that one time when little Kaleena needed to go, and go in a hurry.

The real problem only came after that, as soon as Lizbeth learned of the meeting, and the subsequent arrangement, by her husband and a man from the Imperial Institute.

She was unhappy, to say the least. The first line of her questioning was, “Why didn’t you consult with me first, whether it was prudent of you to personally go?”

It was a reasonable one to ask; indeed it made no sense for Damien to head up the group heading for the Sacred Acre. It didn’t matter if the labyrinth was safe or not, as that was not the issue.

Besides the fact that there were literally tons of unattended documents in his office, he was a father of two young children. Even surrounded by a skilled group of fighters there was always an element of danger when treading on the barely explored grounds.

If it was in the past, Lizbeth would’ve unhesitatingly follow her husband, but now things were different. She was a mother, someone with responsibilities. And so was he, but in her eyes, he was being completely thoughtless.

His defense when questioned was, “I’ll only be gone for a few days, a week at most. My skills haven’t rusted yet, and the forest on the way won’t be difficult at all. Just treat it as my much-deserved holiday.”

“But there are still matters you haven’t attended to yet!! What about your responsibilities? You simply can’t delay them till the last moments, Damien!!”

Needless to say, they argued for a good while. Some harsh words were exchanged in the heat of the moment, and by the time they ran out of breath, things became rather awkward, to a point where it became tough to reconcile quickly, even with external help from Delilah and Rosy.

It was Lizbeth who sort of relented first, giving up in persuading Damien to stay behind after seeing the irrepressible gleaming light in his eyes. She knew it was impossible to dissuade him when he had that shine, the spirit of adventuring burning fiercely still in his heart, it being reflected in those clear, deep irides.

It took about another week of preparations before the group of twenty men and women, consisting of hired Adventurers from the Association in Lafayette, and militiamen from Riverfield plus the subordinates of Sir Jonas Bremble, left the village and headed for the Sacred Acre, located to the West.

During the preparation period, it became rather unbearable, atmosphere-wise, in the Lomax household. The couple hadn’t made up, although Lizbeth did see off Damien on his way when it was time for departure. Putting up a united front, it was.

Even though the pair did their best not to stress the kids, children were naturally sensitive to the unease permeating in the house. More so in the case of Kain, who wasn’t really a newborn kid with barely eight month old inside.

He could see that both Damien and Lizbeth wanted to say something and maybe even apologize to the things that were spoken in haste but for the reason of pride and other unimportant stuff, the chances weren’t taken by both of them.

Each of their gazes would drift to the other when not looking, and then turn away when their eyes were about to meet. The words would crawl up their throats but at the last moments swallowed back down.

Only if one of them acted like an adult and had a serious face-to-face talk, the whole stiff atmosphere would’ve been broken a long time ago. As it was, Damien ended up sleeping in Kain’s nursery or in Kaleena’s room rather than in the main bedroom.

Truthfully, Kain wanted to intervene and say something. He couldn’t bear to see Lizbeth sighing and shaking her head all the time while breastfeeding him.

He didn’t know the divorce rate in a fantasy world like this would be, but it wasn’t an appealing thought to live in a separated family this early on his new life. Although surely, such an abrupt split wouldn’t happen so quickly to a couple who were in love, or so he thought.

And so wanting to impart some sage advice, he nearly blurted out to the couple, but stopped before making that slip. He realized it was way, way too early for a baby to form words, and the prospects of dealing with the ensuing consequences that would definitely follow on the aftermath if he did blurt out something, was one of those things he wanted to avoid like a plague.

Well, imagine telling a mother of a new-born child that her son’s soul was possibly replaced with one from a twenty-something year old dude; surely, that’d go down as well as Donald Trump showing up at a local PETA meeting wearing a baby seal fur coat chewing on a panda jerky, muttering, “I don’t know about this endangered species thing or what,” while having that smug look of his.

So all he could do was just observe while trying to figure out if there was anything he could try. As a baby, his options were limited to taking the first steps, or start talking baby babbling.

If he did either of that, there was a chance that Damien would be so overcome with emotions, he might forego leaving for the labyrinth altogether and stay behind. Or, he could be happy and still go on the trip, and because of the influence of the elated emotions, he ends up getting sloppy and resulting in…. bad things happening.

Knowing him for the past few months, Kain could confidently say that Damien would act the latter scenario nine times out of ten. So he gave up on doing either of the available options.

In the end, he could do nothing. He just watched on as lots of leather armor sets, weapons of several shapes and sizes, and pouches containing…. something, getting handed out to the folks he’d seen before with Damien supervising the process. There was a large, locked storage that were built behind the Lomax house, and all these dangerous weapons of war were kept there.

Only allowed on

As for the individual pouch’s contents, he wondered if it were simply healing medicines and some other balms, or one of those special magic bags that could swallow large amount of luggage which shouldn’t fit in the first place.

Nope, it turned out, they contained various herbs, nothing else. Not a magic bag after all.

Kain also noticed lack of tension on the faces of those receiving their portion of supply. Some were apathetic, some were happy, some were bored-looking. Sure, there were nervous faces in the mix too, but generally, it was more of the “last minute pre-exam jitters” rather than “pre-Normandy invasion à la Saving Private Ryan” faces.

As for the relations between Jonas and Damien, it remained professional at best. No more was said other than what was necessary. Pretty frosty.

Jonas had gone back to Lafayette after the “negotiation” ended, although as a formal gesture Damien did offer him lodging for the night. The Institute member declined as politely as possible within the allowance of his mannerism. Which was, rather curt and impolite, to say the least.

Various small things happened after that, until the departure date – like Damien suddenly exercising vigorously daily, as if to rouse his sleepy body back to the fit form it once had. And he totally neglected the piled up paperwork, as usual.

And just like that, with horses dragging along a large cart loaded with stuff, they left.

Behind them, a pair of tracks imprinted on the dirt road by the turning wheels of the wooden vehicle. It bucked and twisted uncomfortably. Kain wondered about the cart’s durability for a second, watching the frame flex from a distance.

With their departure, the silence filled the empty house. It felt oddly eerie with Damien gone.

Lizbeth, who carried a calm expression in front of others, but as soon as no one was looking she couldn’t stop sighing and continued to knit her brows. She had faith in his abilities of course, but she couldn’t help but worry at a small but insistent feeling gnawing at her heart. She just prayed it was nothing serious, but simply of her thinking up unnecessary things.

Unfortunately for her, an incident occurred three nights after the group’s departure. And it was certainly a big one.

That night, after everyone had gone to bed, Kaleena woke up with a feeling of discomfort. Her body felt sore for no reason, with little irritating aches sprouting from her arms and legs. And she felt her temperature rising up.

She didn’t let either of her parents know, lest she might make them worry needlessly, but this discomfort had been with her for some time now; it came and went intermittently, and when it did manifest it was never quite as bad but tonight, things were different. Previously, drinking water or warm tea calmed her down quickly so she thought by getting some fluids in may help her this time too.

Because she was supposed to be in bed until morning like a well behaved little girl should, her room lacked a water jug. Ironic, seeing that there was a bucket for relieving one’s bladder in the room. So, she had to go to the kitchen to get water. But she wasn’t allowed to walk around alone, especially at night, even at home.

Initially she thought about calling her mother but, knowing how tired Lizbeth was from worrying about her dad, she chose not to.

So alternatively she went and called for Rosy instead, but when Kaleena carefully knocked on the door to the live-in maid’s quarter, the girl was so deep in slumber not even a dragon’s roar could wake her up.

The sight of the cat girl with her ears and whiskers twitching as she dreamed while clutching a pillow, murmuring ‘meat, more meat’ looked pitiful so Kaleena let her sleep.

She tiptoed down the hall and entered the kitchen. She was well familiar with where all the cutlery was, and more importantly where the drinkable water was located.

But after entering, she noticed the door to the backyard was slightly ajar. Which was odd, seeing that all doors were secured before the family went to bed.

Puzzled, Kaleena approached it and closed it carefully. She thought that wind might have blown it open.

After finding the water, she took large gulps and felt relief almost immediately. Satisfied, she decided to head back to her room when, the discomfort reared its head again. This vexed her slightly, as this never happened like this before. Unsure of what to do, she hesitated while standing in the kitchen.

Then she heard a light sound of something falling coming from her father’s office and thought, mommy’s up? Should I go and tell her? If I do, will she get mad?

A short moment of decision later, she moved. The office was dimly lit, and a flash of a shadow flickered occasionally. Kaleena slowly opened the door, expecting to see the figure of her mother.

It wasn’t her.

A masked figure was crouched by the bookshelf containing Damien’s documents, and he was rummaging through it in a hurry. He was clothed head to toe in black, almost blending into the darkened scenery like a mirage.

Kaleena was stunned. She noticed that a very thin layer of dark, fog like substance was layered on top of this person and it totally erased his presence – not even sound was being made as he moved, the fabric not making the usual rustling noise. The parchments that were also lightly wrapped in that dark thing, made no sound as they fell, the dark fog dissipated immediately as the said parchments touched the floor. Judging by that she shouldn’t have heard the sound from before.

Kaleena stood there for a moment, observing this scene, unsure of what to do. The dark fog was different from what her mother was usually wrapped around with when she was casting Invocations, nor what little Kain had constantly around him.

Mother’s were white like snow while Kain’s fluctuated like rainbow. This man’s was – Kaleena was intuitively sure of his gender – dark so she wondered if that meant this person was bad.

If so, she had to chase him out of her home.

Thus Kaleena called out to the intruder.

“What are you doing in my father’s office?”

The masked man flinched. He quickly turned his gaze over at the doorway and saw a little girl standing defiantly, hands on hips, staring at him.

Grimacing, he unsheathed a dagger which gave off a chilling light, and stood up.

Seeing this, Kaleena felt a sudden rush of fear – she was unfamiliar with this type of sensation so it confused her as to what she needed to do now. Yes, she’d felt scared before but that was when Lizbeth was scolding her. This type of fear was different, it was a lot more nastier, lots more unpleasant.

She understood why, when she looked closer at the man approaching her – the dark fog that were surrounding him had begun to spread like twisted thorns, reaching towards her, as if to devour her.

Kaleena screamed, just as the man with the dagger silently lunged forward.

The sharp weapon aimed at the child’s head was suddenly repelled by an explosion of energy. The source was the screaming little girl.

From her, multi-colored light exploded outwards, causing an intense white-out that blinded the man, knocking him backwards into the office.

He spat out a mouthful of blood as his internal organs were assaulted by the powerful rays of light.

After crashing into Damien’s desk with a loud thud, he let out a shocked gasp while trying to regain his blurred sights. “What? What incredible bursts of Aeterna!?”

The blinding light continued to expand and it seared the man’s cloak of dark fog away, stripping him bare and causing burn marks to appear on his body as the black clothing got ripped apart, all the while forcing him harder against the desk, moving the heavy furniture back until it collided against the wall.

Little more, and he would’ve been killed; but maybe because the girl was young, her batteries ran out and the light finally died down.

The man staggered up and quickly picked up the dagger. He looked at the girl who was swaying dangerously before collapsing on the floor, completely worn out.

Grabbing this chance he rushed out. He recognized the danger this girl posed in the future for his employer so even if he die and fail his mission now, he had to at least eliminate this Lomax child.

Again his dagger approached the prone body of Kaleena. This time there wasn’t going to be a force field made of Aeterna to block his attack, and thus his blade sank into her shoulder, just above where her heart might be. He missed his mark due to the damage from the earlier Aeterna burst which he hadn’t had the time to recover from just yet.

Before he could pull out the blade and try once more, he received a powerful kick to the side of his face from Rosy Matte and flew straight into the opposite wall, breaking it. He spat out another mouthful of his own blood, before seeing a fist heading his way, dodging it in haste.

When he raised his head, he saw a red-furred Pantherikin girl snarling at him with her fangs bared. Behind her, Lizbeth was climbing down the steps hurriedly, and running to her wounded daughter.

The man frowned; he knew of these two woman – knew the levels of danger they were to him. Lizbeth was once an Adventurer ranked Gold alongside her husband before leaving that world, while Rosy Matte, although never been ranked, was rumored to be as good as her boss.

It looked like his mission was surely a failure at this point so, he switched to a reverse grip and came at Rosy, while waiting for a chance to escape. Despite being hurt, he had gotten his bearings back and thus he was able to show a considerable skill while attacking the maidservant.

Rosy was one step ahead however. She was enraged that this cat burglar had tried to kill the little miss, but she still managed to keep a cool head and assessed the situation quickly. Not affected by the darkness of the night she read the man’s thrusts and swings to perfection and easily got under his defense.

The man received a huge rising knee to his sternum and felt his chest cave in. Not giving up he tried to counter but the dagger-held hand was then grabbed by Rosy’s tail, briefly immobilizing it. Swiftly she disarmed the man and kicked his thigh from the side, nearly breaking the bone but still destroying his balance.

He cried out in agony as he fell. He rolled back to dodge Rosy’s foot stomp aimed at his head, and tried to open a distance between them.

He was distracted by a sudden flash of white light coming from behind Rosy. It was Lizbeth quickly casting a high level healing Invocation at her bleeding daughter.

The distraction lasted for a nanosecond but that was all Rosy needed.

Before the man recovered, she dashed in and went for his throat with her knuckles. The attack connected splendidly and caused the man to stutter. Rosy finished up by sweeping his legs off the floor then landing a powerful rising kick to his spine in one uninterrupted motion.

The man groaned as he crashed into a heap, unmoving.

Victory achieved without killing the intruder, Rosy turned to her boss, and confirmed that Kaleena was breathing. The little girl lost a lot of blood but her wounds have closed and the immediate danger to her life was over. Lizbeth thanked Rosy for taking care of the assailant, and when she swept her gaze at the fallen man, deathly chill entered her voice.

“Please hold her for a moment, Rosy. I’d like to interrogate our guest properly.

As the angered mother walked closer, the man coughed out a large dollop of blood, and looked at her weakly. He smiled bitterly, causing Lizbeth to halt her steps, as she was still wary of this man’s hidden tricks.

However, he pulled out a slender blade, no bigger than a razor, out from a hidden compartment in the belt buckle and slit his own throat.


Letting out a little cry, Lizbeth hurried to the man’s side but it was too late; he was convulsing with dull gray foams bubbling out from the corner of his mouth. Oh, and the gushing blood soaking the wooden floor.


Lizbeth muttered under her breath. A fast acting, deadly poison applied at the neck meant not even she could cast the right Invocation in time to avert the death of this man.

Soon his body stopped convulsing. The best clue to finding the one responsible for this heinous act was now dead.

Only the Kain’s shrill cries rang around the now-still Lomax house.

Unaware of the happenings back at home, Damien led twenty men and women into the nameless forest located west of Riverfield. Their destination was a special area hidden deep within its depths, colloquially referred to as Sacred Acres. This particular Acre lacked a name – no one’s gotten around to naming it for various reasons so in the meantime, it was simply known as the Riverfield Sacred Acre.

The group of five Adventurers hired from Lafayette branch of The Adventurers’ Association, were recommended by Damien personally as they were his old acquaintances. His old adventuring comrades, in other words, before he decided to live out a life of a civilian.

Damien had his old buddies hired not only out of loyalty, but as this trip happened to be a good source of easy income, it seemed to make sense to call on them. And since he wasn’t footing the bill, there was that too.

He explained to his buddies that this request was more or less qualified as a paid vacation, and they all consented to it in a heartbeat. Jonas wasn’t charged too hefty a bill however. After all, they had moral compasses that still worked.

As for the reason why Damien took the militia guys along, it was simple really; he saw this trip as a valuable chance to gain some actual experience plodding through a seemingly “hazardous” environment, which should prove beneficial for the village’s defenses in the long run.

A win-win for Damien in other words, not so much for Jonas who was looking at a fairly substantial financial expenditure at the end of the day for the mobilization of what is surely an unnecessary force.

Unnecessary, because of how safe, relatively speaking, the forest near the village was.

The thing was, Damien knew of the forest’s layout almost like the back of his own hand; it was a part of his job description – no, it’s not actually, but he insisted on making it so – to personally stop the Fiends, monsters, from taking root in the vicinity of Riverfield. Whenever his fancy and the opportunity lined up, he’d saddle up and dive head in with a child-like glee.

It was a valuable and scarce way of de-stressing from staring at the formal documents the whole day, everyday for him. Sure, many times he went around the village and its surrounding fields performing manual labors that shouldn’t have been done by a Baron, as such a thing was rather unbecoming, but regardless of how hard he worked, at the end of the day, he found those type of labor unsatisfactory when compared to the exhilarating sensation of being on the knife-thin edge between life and death.

Of course, there was the occasional tumble in the sack with the missus too, but that was a different kind of release, so….

Anyways, the annual culling of the Fiends prior to the preparations, and the subsequent arrival, of the Monsoon season happened not too long ago. So the forest was quiet during their current journey, only the infrequent run-ins with the forest’s wild animals being a stuff to lightly worry about.

It was all good, if a little lacking in excitement. He knew this was going to happen but hey, he went through all the trouble leading the group here, so he silently prayed for a bit of action. Anything would do, he mumbled softly.

Behind him, a slender but athletically muscled woman of early thirties approached him. “I’ll take the front now, Damien. Rest up a little.”

Her name was Gillian Herts, a scout who also boasted a Gold rank in the hierarchy of the Adventurers’ Association. She and Damien had been friends ever since he became an Adventurer way back when.

“Thanks Gill. I’ll leave it up to you for a while.”

Damien replied apologetically and fell back into the ranks near the group following loosely behind. Besides her, the Adventurer group consisted of Taylor Ryan, an Invoker specializing in Invocations of combat variety; Gordie Lann, a mountain of a man who carried a shield and a hammer, acting as a damage cushion of the party; and Ben Musgrave, a vanguard possessing a massive halberd garnished with fearsome-looking ax-head. Finally their leader, Philander ‘Phil’ Cosier, whom Damien have known for what it felt like ages. Before Damien and Lizbeth opted for the relative calmness of a civilian life, all seven of them used to belong to the same band of Adventurers, but the ranks had thinned out somewhat since then.

For sentimental reasons the empty spots were left as was. Phil and co did try to recruit several prospects over the years, but for one reason or the other, they didn’t pan out.

Confirming the Adventurers’ formation have remained steadfast Damien checked the rest of the group. With a few exceptions, the travelers’ faces were cramped with fatigue and irritation. It was in the middle of early Summer so the irritating insect hoards were out in full force, and in particular, Jonas’s group were at the receiving end of hostilities that were harsher than usual.

Damien shook his head slowly, watching them tiredly swat away the bugs in vain, and mumbled inwardly.

I told you not to wear those plate armors, didn’t I?

The trio looked pitiful, but the insect-repelling vermillion grass powder that were mixed in with water and sprinkled over a person’s clothing, could only do so much when considering the three of them smelled particularly bad, thanks to heavy sweating brought on by the thick metal armors.

Everyone else wore considerably lighter, easier to move and most crucially, better ventilated leather armors. Even then it was still stuffy and hot. Imagine how boiling it was inside the metal trappings – Jonas and pals must’ve been slowly cooked alive underneath.

Damien ignored the fools who ignored his advice, and went near Phil. He was handed a water skin as soon as he came near his old friend’s side.

Thanking the man, he took a sip of the lukewarm water. There was a hint of herb in the taste of the liquid.

“It’s the blue nettle.” Phil winked at Damien who threw a ‘when did you?’ look over at the older Adventurer.

Blue nettle grass was sometimes used to combat heat-induced fatigue when soaked in water. Too much wasn’t good for one’s bladder but in moderation, it worked wonders.

“You always come prepared, Phil.” Damien chuckled.

While walking forward, they discussed this and that, exchanging gossip and information. Outwardly, they seemed carefree, but in truth, both of their senses were wide awake, not taking anything for granted.

Still, there was some amount of slack evident in their actions; that was because, both of them were present when Damien tackled the Sacred Acre just over five years ago. In fact, the current members of Phil’s party consisted of the very members that fought together at that time. They all knew the way pretty well as the result.

The slackened atmosphere led, inevitably, to a talk of retirement.

“So yeah, still not planning to retire yet, Phil? You are not getting any younger, you know.”

“Nope. Not retiring. Not in a million years. You know me, I can’t be bound to a home and a nagging wife like you. I’m too free spirited.”

“Right,” Damien smiled. “Still, there’s spot for you in Riverfield if you’re interested. We can always use an extra hand, no matter how wrinkly it is.”

“Hey, what about us?” Gordie tapped him on the shoulder. “You don’t think we’re worth it?”

Gordie’s giant frame leaned forward, in a threatening manner with a crease forming on his craggy forehead. Any ol’ regular people might be intimidated by that, but not Damien. He’d been around this tall man for far too long, and knew the big guy actually didn’t mean to exude such an aura at all, it was just that he was cursed with a scary face.

“Oh hey Gord. Right, there isn’t one. I can’t afford your food bills, man.” Damien lightly elbowed the big guy on the side.

“C’mon now, didn’t I say I’m just big boned? I eat normal amount, like everyone else!!”

Damien laughed. “Your definition of normal is not normal, Gord. I’ve seen you wolf down a whole boar in a blink, man.”

Gordie’s face got redder as he tried to defend his eating habits. “That time, it couldn’t be helped!! I was hungry an’ all.”

Hearing this, Phil and Damien shared another chuckle.

“Leave the big man alone, you guys,” Ben interjected with a smile. He too was having a good laugh at the expense of his comrade.

“Right, sorry about that Gord. Of course you’re welcome in Riverfield. As long as you pony up the cash for food up front, that is,” said Damien with a big slap on the big man’s back, and he quickly took a distance from the irritated swat. More laughter flowed after that.

Behind him, Vagas looked a little flustered, so he sauntered closer.

“How are you feeling, Vagas? If you are feeling under the weather, let Cray know.”

Cray was a militiaman charged with looking after the supplies. He had half a dozen pack mules carrying provisions and of course, medicine. This job was ideally suited to the man, as he reared livestock as a main source of income. He even figured out how to drive recalcitrant creatures around to his will. Very useful skill, that was.

If needed, he was able to dispense the correct balms at a moment’s notice. His experiences of looking after sick animals helped immensely with this part of the job – one look was all he needed to select the medicine and invariably, he’d be right with the choice.

“Uhm, sir, it’s not that. It’s just that, uh, may I ask you something?”

The young man’s voice was hushed and quiet, as he didn’t want the nearby Adventurers to hear him.

“Alright, what is it?”

“….Sir, I know nothing of Sacred Acres. What will we see when we get there? Will I fight lots of Fiends once we arrive there?”

Vagas was still a small boy when Damien led a group to clear out the Sacred Acre, so it was natural he didn’t participate back then; it was reasonable to think that he didn’t know what to expect. Damien pondered how he should answer the questions for a little bit, before he turned to face the young man.

“The one we’re heading to, it’s a variant of an ancient ruin, from some forgotten civilization. However, it should be safe now. I personally cleared it out of Fiends and traps, with these fine folks walking up ahead so don’t worry too much about it. Just keep your wits about you and it will work out.”

Vagas nodded. He didn’t look too satisfied with the answer but he knew it was something he had to see for himself first.

“I’m not worried sir. It’s just that, I’ve heard a Sacred Acre can become a breeding ground for Fiends, is all.”

“Not all Sacred Acres are. Some are, yes, but not this one. And what was there, it’s not anymore. In case we run into something, let’s simply smash it out of the way.”

Damien smiled reassuringly and slapped the young man’s shoulder once. The usually brave and energetic Vagas could only return a cramped grin that was not a grin.

One of the militiaman came over and asked how far they were from the destination, signaling the end of that conversation. Riverfield’s Sacred Acre laid just under two days’ distance from the village when traveling on foot. This was the third day on the move – they were well behind schedule. Jonas’s party was to blame, of course.

But they were near the goal anyway, so no one decided to raise a fuss about the delay and possibly sour the mood.

After informing the inquisitive militiaman, Damien relaxed a bit more, wondering slightly whether he was going to see this mysterious Aerinite or not.

And soon enough, them marching past the unruly undergrowth finally bore fruit as they reached the clearing in the forest that marked the boundary of the Sacred Acre.

The surrounding was quiet, with nary a sound of wind blowing. Even the hateful insects preying on blood had ceased their attacks, as they were nowhere to be found.

“Is that it?”

Jonas asked as he concentrated on the crumbling remains of a lone stone structure, standing precariously in the open, barren land. Outwardly, it looked unremarkable as it resembled an abandoned house. Those sensitive to the Flow of Aeterna however, could tell something was off about it just with a simple cursory glance.

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Almost everyone in the party had come in contact with the mysterious substance’s influence at least once in their lifetimes so, they could all feel the ominous, oppressive air oozing from it.

“It’s smaller than I thought.”

Jonas muttered under his breath, as he readjusted his cuirass.

The ground around the structure had nothing growing on it in the radius of well over several Ruten, and not even a blade of grass were to be seen, only the reddish, exposed soil that were hardened by the glares of the sun and the exposure greeting them. The place hadn’t changed since the last time he was here, mused Damien.

“Don’t be deceived. That’s just the entrance. The real Acre lies beneath the surface.” Phil said as he gripped his one-handed sword tightly. “Oi Damien, this here sure doesn’t feel like a friendly place, now does it?”

Damien grimaced at the astute observation of his comrade. It was true that something was wrong here. The atmosphere was getting heavier as they approached the structure and that was something not supposed to happen.

But the thickness of Aeterna flowing out of the hidden entrance was far too dense to be ignored – such density could only mean there were Fiends residing inside.

This didn’t make any sense. Damien and co. properly cleared the Acre back then, defeating the Guardian that nested in its deepest, darkest part; he had the scars to prove it. He even brought out the rare materials that could be found in its depth and made a tidy profit off that. Which had to go into the village’s emergency coffers, by the way. And that was the catalyst of him becoming the lord of the said village, but that’s a story for another time.

Usually, a Sacred Acre was supposed to lose its potency once cleared of its Guardian, never to recover its toxic atmosphere – that was the general consensus, accepted by pretty much everyone in the trade. Yet there it was, right in front of them, a Sacred Acre oozing malice and menace.

Damien suddenly found himself in a serious bind. His gut was telling him to go back, but when glancing at Jonas’s face, he knew that was unlikely to happen.

The Imperial Institute’s representative was the one paying for this trip, and whatever he says, goes – that was the situation. Phil and his gang was officially hired by Jonas, and he also paid for the mobilization of Riverfield’s militia. Unless Damien was prepared to refund the amount, which was impossible now as it was already absorbed into the village’s annual budget, he couldn’t simply back off and not expect repercussions.

But maybe he could scare Jonas into retreating, then….

“Well, let us not waste any more time. Mister Cosier, Lord Damien, isn’t this a place fit for us to make camp?” Jonas said with some authority in his irritated voice, as he pointed at the ground near the structure.

“How about we head back to Riverfield instead, and return later? It seems the Sacred Acre is…. acting up at the moment,” Damien countered while crossing his arms. “Surely, you can feel the unstable Flow of Aeterna yourself, coming from the ruin.”

“What of it?” Jonas looked at him with a puzzled expression. “Have you gone unsteady with such trifling amount present, sir? My subordinate, Miss Helga here, can easily counteract whatever the Acre throws at us. May I remind you, that she is a Journeyman ranked Invoker, decorated with countless achievements and recognition. There is nothing to worry about.”

“Yes yes, you extolled her virtues enough times already, Sir Jonas. But surely, you can tell there’s something very wrong here at the moment. We should exercise caution on the face of uncertainty such as the current situation,” Damien replied while tensing up, careful not to raise his voice.

“We’ve your recommended Adventurers here with us. If it gets dangerous, surely they can perform to their exorbitant hiring fees,” sneered Jonas disinterestedly. “Well, Mister Cosier? What say you? Are you up for the challenge?”

Phil glanced over at his party, then at Damien. A silent communication went between two men, with the younger one pleading with the older to turn back, to say nope, siree, we’re not.

But all Damien got was a look of resigned apology.

“Yeah, we are good to go,” announced Phil.

Hearing this, Damien instinctively slipped his left hand inside the belt-mounted pouch to confirm the supply of healing salves. He had enough for himself, or at least he hoped so.

He also hoped that they would not be needed later on.

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