The room was dark, the ground hard and cold. And though underground, the air was not cool, as one would expect. This was only because of the steam vents that could be found all over the cave that also emitted a periodic eerie, yellowish-green light. These vents usually provided all the light needed in this room of the cave, which is why the party chose to stay there. That, and because they knew that by sticking to one spot and not constantly roaming, like the others in the cave chose to do, they were safer.
Four figures sat on the rocky ground, resting for the moment, idly chatting. This time, like most of the times they sat to rest, they had arranged themselves in a particular way that was almost automatic to them now. The two somewhat weaker fighters on the inside, while the two stronger sat around them, ready to protect them if needed. At the moment though, there seemed to be no immediate danger, so all four members of the party were able to relax.
"I can't wait 'till I'm a knight," said a young swordsman with green hair, fingering the handle of his weapon. "I'll be so strong, we'll be able to fight things so much tougher than these puny ants."
"Puny?" questioned another young man, this one a merchant who also had green hair. "If they're so puny, why do you need us here with you?"
The swordsman shrugged. "I'm not strong enough to handle them alone yet when they all start helping each other, I can admit that. But one alone is very puny."
As they were talking, a gray creature flew into the room and headed toward one of the two in the middle, starting its attack. All four jumped up to help him fight off the bat, which took no time at all.
As they all sat back down, the young man who had been its target, a blue-haired acolyte, complained, "I hate bats…why do they always come after me?"
"Janus, don't you know you're our bat bait?" the swordsman chuckled.
"I feel so privileged," the acolyte, Janus Dragmire, muttered.
The fourth member of the group, the only female, giggled. She knew Janus and the swordsman, Murata, had been friends for a long time, and she loved spending time with them because they always had fun. They had been on many adventures together, and these two had really done a lot to help her learn and gain experience to be as strong as she could be.
She laughed again as Janus stood up to go pick on the one poor little white ant that had just wandered into their little area. He hated to sit still, never really liked to rest if there was anything in the area for him to do.
The merchant, named Raum Darkforge, groaned. He'd seen the trouble Janus liked to get into far too often, and just knew that ant wouldn't be alone. He stood up and pulled out his chain in anticipation of a fight. The other two stood up as well, and Raum and Murata reached Janus just as two more white ants, and a green ant, showed up. The two white ants ran over and started attacking Janus, to help the ant he was hitting.
"I hope everyone got enough time to rest, because here we go again!" Murata yelled as he rushed in to start slicing at the ants. Somehow it always seemed like when one ant came, they never stopped coming.
The lone female of the group, a red-haired acolyte, hung back. She didn't belong in the heat of the battle, she only really helped out when either she felt it was very necessary, or she was fully rested. This time, she knew she hadn't had quite enough rest to jump in and help, and that they might need her to save her strength to help them in a different way. Though she was one of the weaker fighters of the party – in fact, the weakest – what she lacked in physical strength, she quite well made up for in her ability to keep her party alive. While Janus was a acolyte built for fighting, she instead had knowledge of power that went a long way in supporting a party – making them faster, stronger, and healing them when needed. And she knew that when she was strong enough to become a priestess, she would learn a lot of new and better skills. For now though, the ones she already knew would do nicely. Taking a deep breath, she cast blessing, her favorite skill of all those she knew now, on herself and prepared to do whatever she could to help with this mob.
"Murata, magnum break these ants, they won't stop coming!" called Raum, doing his best to fend off the white ants that kept running over to help out the others.
Murata sheathed his sword and cast a spell that blew fire all around him, pushing back the ants. Unfortunately, he not only hit the white ants they were fighting, but also a green ant that was too close. It turned and started attacking him, and sure enough, three more green ants came to help.
"Great, now what?" cried Murata as he used magnum break a few more times, hoping to kill off part of this ever-growing mob. "Ruth, got enough energy for some agility?"
Ruthlyn took a moment to be sure she had enough, then cast Increase Agility on her three friends, healing Murata right afterwards when she noticed how much he'd been hurt.
After a few more minutes of intense fighting by the men and supporting by Ruthlyn, Janus was able to finish off the last ant. He looked up at the rest of the group and smiled apologetically, "Well, that was fun, right?"
Raum groaned again, sat down, and put his chain down on the ground next to him. "You sure do like getting us into trouble, don't you?"
Murata just laughed, knowing that there wasn't much anyone could do to keep Janus out of trouble. Ruthlyn sat down where she was, breathing a sigh of relief that it was over for now, and everyone was ok. "Janus," she pleaded, "please don't do that again until I'm ready, I almost ran out of energy."
"Sorry, Ruu-chan," he apologized, using the familiar nickname he and Murata had given her. "I'll be good, I promise."
Raum snorted. "Yeah, right. I don't believe that for a minute."
About five minutes later, the first one to get up was actually Murata. He stood up slowly and crept over toward the far wall, behind one of the steam vents.
"Murata, what are you doing?" Janus asked indignantly. "Did Ruu say it was ok to fight again yet?"
"Shhh!" Murata hissed. "It's a vitata." At that word, Janus and Raum both stood up and walked over as quietly as they could. Vitatas were more rare than the other ants. And Ruthlyn didn't completely understand it, but she'd heard that sometimes when you killed one, you could find something of great value left behind.
"It's ok, it's only one," Raum whispered. "I'm quite sure we can take it with no trouble at all."
Feeling refreshed now, Ruthlyn got up and moved closer to where the guys were, getting a look at the fat, black ant just as Murata surprised it with a quick swing of his blade. As the vitata turned to face its attacker and defend itself, Raum and Janus rushed in adding their own blows to the swordsman's. Ruthlyn, after first looking around to verify that there was nothing of any danger to the group close by, decided to join in, swinging her own chain at the large ant. It died rather quickly under such a barrage, and Janus was the first to turn back toward the center of the room.
"Whoa," he stopped quickly. "I've never seen one of those down here before."
"What is it?" questioned Ruthlyn, who had come up next to him.
Raum and Murata quickly joined them to see what they were talking about. As soon as they saw the pinkish worm that was burrowing around in the ground, Raum gasped.
"It's a hode," Murata informed her, sounding a bit confused. "They live out in the desert—I've ever seen one here before either. I'll bet we could kill it easily together. Ruu, can you—"
"No," Raum said quietly but firmly. "Don't touch it, don't even go near it." He started backing away.
"Why not?" Murata started toward it. As he did, he saw two more appear behind it, then a fourth. The first one saw him and started moving toward him.
"No!" Raum shouted. "I have seen these here before, only once. And with them was the biggest, ugliest, meanest creature I've ever seen. Does everyone have fly wings on them?"
The rest of them nodded and they all started to back away from the advancing hodes. Their safe little room had just become a death trap, and Ruthlyn felt her heart start to race.
"If we get separated, meet outside the entrance of the cave." Murata no sooner got the words out then a huge, pink quivering mass walked into the room behind the hodes. It looked around for a second, then started moving toward the group, faster than Ruthlyn could ever imagine something like that moving.
"FLY! FLY! FLY!" Raum hollered.
Ruthlyn saw the three men around her throw their wings to the ground and disappear, and she did the same, only a split second later, closing her eyes. She'd used fly wings numerous times before, and was almost used to the odd sensation of being instantly transported to a random spot not far away. But this time, it was different. Something wasn't right; that feeling was accompanied by a sharp pain in her stomach that she could feel all the way into her arms and legs. As she opened her eyes to see a whole new area of the cave, she felt herself fall to the hard ground.
Ruthlyn heard someone call out to her, ask if she was alright. She tried to stand up and felt strong arms helping her. She looked up to see a woman wearing a lot of armor, with a shield strapped to her back and a huge spear on the ground next to where she knelt in front of Ruthlyn. Nearby stood a pecopeco, a beautiful and colorful large bird, wearing a saddle.
"Are you ok?" asked the woman. "That looks pretty bad." She motioned towards Ruthlyn's stomach, and Ruthlyn looked down. The creature had definitely gotten a hit in before she was able to fly, and the wound was bleeding badly.
"I'll be ok," Ruthlyn said weakly. She was hurt, but she had been fully rested when the creature came. She knew she could heal herself, she just needed a chance to sit and calm down a minute, to regain some composure. The knight helped her sit down on a large boulder, and Ruthlyn heard a familiar voice.
"Ruth! Thank goodness you're ok!" In the darkness, Ruth saw Janus running towards her. Seeing her holding her stomach, he stopped. "You are ok, aren't you?"
The knight stood up and turned to him. "She's hurt bad. I don't even know if she can heal herself. Can you help her?"
Janus knelt in front of her. Though he was an acolyte who had trained mostly as a battler, he did know some basic healing skills. He lowered his head, closed his eyes, and clasped his hands together. It took more energy for him, but it got the job done. He had healed Ruthlyn, and she noticed it right away. She felt no more pain, and was able to stand up easily.
Janus looked at the woman. "Thank you for helping her."
The woman shook her head. "I didn't do much, you're the one who saved her."
"I'm Janus and this is Ruthlyn." He gestured to his friend.
"Koneko, nice to meet you." She paused. "May I ask what happened?"
This time, Ruthlyn spoke up. "We were attacked by a gigantic, pinkish colored monster."
Koneko gasped, "Phreeoni found you?"
"Phreeoni?" Ruth looked at Janus. "I-I don't know its name. There were a bunch of hodes there too."
Koneko nodded. "That's Phreeoni, alright. I'd say you're lucky to be alive; one hit by him could easily kill someone as young as you."
"We need to get out of here now, to meet our friends outside." Janus took Ruthlyn's arm. "You going to be ok to make it to the entrance?"
"Yeah, I'm fine now. But what about that…thing? He's in that room, and we'll have to go by it. You really think he hasn't left the room to find someone else…" she trailed off.
"Wait," Koneko said, turning back toward her peco. There was someone else over there, who she said a few words to, and they both walked back over. The other woman who was now with Koneko was tall and wearing a purple dress, with a cross hanging from a chain around her neck.
"This is Althena. We actually came here to hunt that creature that you encountered. We would be happy to see you safely back to the entrance."
Ruthlyn knew these two must be very strong to be able to take on this Phreeoni. She felt that she would be safe if they were with her and Janus. "We would greatly appreciate the help, thank you so much."
"It's no trouble at all," Althena assured her. "Just stay close to me and you'll be ok."
Koneko picked up her spear where she had left it and climbed onto her peco, pulling her shield off of her back to be prepared. She led the way, and as Althena walked behind her, Janus and Ruthlyn quickly followed. They walked by many an ant, which they ignored, and encountered a few bats, which Koneko downed with one hit from her spear. After a bit, Ruthlyn recognized the hallway outside of the room she used to feel so safe in, and they passed a wizard who was walking the other direction, out of breath and limping. Koneko stopped as Althena walked over to the wizard.
"Are you okay?" she asked with a look of concern.
"Phreeoni…back there…barely escaped…" the wizard barely managed. Noticing Althena there, he pleaded, "Please, Ms. Priestess, can you heal me?"
Althena nodded and cast a quick, but strong heal on the wizard. "You say Phreeoni did this to you?"
The wizard nodded, and thanked her for her help.
Koneko called over, "Come on, we have to get there quickly, before anyone else gets hurt!"
The wizard wished them good luck and went on his way, and Althena rejoined the group. She and the two acolytes continued to follow the knight as Koneko carefully led the way closer to the entrance. Ahead Ruthlyn could see the entrance to the room she and her friends had been in when they first met the horrible creature. She found herself moving closer to the priestess who she just knew could keep her alive. She felt Janus's hand on her arm and knew he was scared too.
Althena put her arm up to motion for her and Janus to stop. Koneko quietly went up to the entrance and looked inside the room. She came back quickly and shook her head. "There's another room just like it on the opposite side of this hallway. It might have moved over there." Again she went to the entrance, this time of the other room, and looked inside. And again, she came back quickly, shaking her head. "It's not here. But where could it be? Obviously it didn't get past us since the wizard ran into it."
Ruthlyn was not very concerned with where the monster was. She knew the exit of the cave was just around the corner of where they were, and that's all she cared about right now. She didn't particularly want to see that thing ever again, and would gladly leave the hunting of it to these much stronger fighters.
"I don't understand it either," Althena agreed, "but we can go looking for it later. Right now we just need to get these two outside."
Koneko nodded. "We're close now, only a few more yards." She turned her peco to face the direction they were headed and again started walking. Althena followed her, with Ruth and Janus keeping close behind Althena.
As Koneko turned the corner, the other three were just far enough behind to see her disappear for a few seconds, then come flying back out, almost running into the wall. Ruthlyn instinctively took a few steps back, almost stumbling over Janus. "Found him!" Koneko cried, as she worked to regain control of her peco.
Althena healed Koneko quickly, then went to work casting spell after spell on Koneko and herself, getting ready for a fight. Ruthlyn almost forgot about the danger they were facing as she watched Althena in amazement, hoping that one day she could be this powerful.
As Koneko took her spear and charged at the huge monster, Althena glanced at Ruthlyn and Janus quickly, barely daring to take her eyes off of Koneko for more than a second. "It's not safe for you to be here. We need to get you out that opening!" The hole she gestured toward was past Phreeoni. Somehow they had to get to it. "I'm going to give you each a powerful dose of increased agility, which will allow you to move much faster than you normally could. Koneko should be able to keep him occupied enough for you to get out; just run as fast as you can."
The hodes that usually accompanied Phreeoni were getting into the battle too, coming at the knight on her peco for all they were worth. Althena turned back to heal Koneko a few more times before she cast the Increase Agility on Ruthlyn and Janus. They looked at each other and started sprinting toward the door, yelling thanks back to their temporary protectors. They managed to get past Phreeoni, and were only a few feet short of the hole that would lead up and out of the cave, to the desert and to safety, when a hode saw them and slid over, blocking off their escape.
The acolytes jumped backwards, and Janus gasped, "What do we do now?"
The hode came full force at Janus and body slammed him into the wall behind him. Janus grunted and tried to pick himself up, but the hode came again. It knocked Janus back into the wall with even greater force this time, and Ruthlyn could tell Janus was barely holding on. She cast Blessing on herself and healed Janus twice. "Can you kill it if I keep healing you?" she asked, though not quite sure she had enough energy for such a fight.
"I don't know, but I think we have to try. I don't think it will let us out that hole." He picked up his mace and faced the hode as it prepared to attack him again. It rushed at Janus a third time, but suddenly stopped and recoiled as it got hit by a bright ball of light. Janus stood ready, unsure of what had happened, expecting the hode to continue its attack. Instead, the hode turned around to face its new attacker.
Althena called to them, "I used Holy Light on it, it'll leave you alone now. But you have to go now!"
Again Ruthlyn and Janus thanked her for her help, but Ruthlyn knew they could never truly thank her as much as she wanted to. They turned and headed again for the exit. The hole that would lead them out of the desert and to safety was actually above them. At one time, it had just been a hole in the ceiling of the cave, and Ruthlyn always imagined the first explorers to the cave having to use ropes to climb down into the cave, and then to pull themselves back out as well. Now, there were crude steps worn and even carved into the rock wall adjacent to the hole. They were steep and slippery, and almost more like a ladder, but it was the only way out without having to go much deeper into the cave.
The two reached the steps and Janus motioned for Ruthlyn to go first. She climbed up carefully, but trying to move quickly so they could both get out before another hode decided to come their way. As she heard the sounds of the intense battle going on below, Ruthlyn concentrated on putting one hand after the other into the shallow steps in the rock wall, and then finding foot holds to keep climbing further out of the cave. When she was finally able to see the sky and feel the warmth of the sun on her face, she felt relieved for the first time since meeting Phreeoni. Pretty soon, Ruthlyn's head was above ground, and she could see Raum and Murata a few yards away, feeding a red herb to a pecopeco.
Outside of the cave entrance, someone had long ago fashioned a pair of makeshift handles for one to hold onto and pull themselves the rest of the way out of the hole. They were simply two thick pieces of wood that had been pounded into the desert sand about three feet apart, and deep enough to hold under a good amount of weight. Ruthlyn used them now, climbing the rest of the way out of the cave. She crawled out of the way, then turned back to help Janus out behind her, offering her hand. He took it with one of his own, then grabbed a handle with his other, and pulled himself out of the hole as well.
At that point, Murata and Raum noticed their friends coming out of the cave and ran over. "Are you guys ok?" Raum was the first to ask. "We got worried when you didn't come out for a while."
"We're ok now," Janus replied, sitting down to rest, "and have we got a story to tell you guys."
"Tell us on the way back to town," Murata suggested. "I need to get some supplies."
Janus agreed, and as he stood back up, he looked at Ruthlyn. "I always knew I'd save you someday, Ruu-chan."
"I saved you too, don't forget."
"So what's new about that?" he laughed and playfully shoved her, as the four of them headed north toward the capital city of Prontera.