The gate bell was rung and shortly after that, the giant town gate was slowly being opened, pushing sand as it moved outward.
”Oh, its you Wright triplets. Welcome back! How was your hunt? ” greeted the gate guard. He then took a glance at the blood stain on Chriss shoulder.
It was Lark Larson, the guard in his late forties. He was someone who was familiar with the triplets. In fact, most people in the town were familiar with each other, as there were only fewer than five hundred people living there.
Larson watched as the triplets entered through the gate with a worried gaze hidden behind the sternness of his face. As soon as the triplets were in, he quickly closed the gate in order to prevent any accident from happening.
He was one of the people tasked with the safety of the townsfolk, and he took his job seriously. Although he was only a gate guard now, he used to be a strong hunter when he was younger, only deciding to retire and dedicate his life to protecting the townsfolks in the end.
”Don worry, Im alright. Im strong, ” said Chris noticing the mans worried gaze.
”It was successful, Mr. Larson, ” Catherine answered politely, ”Weve got what we needed now for my advancement ritual. ”
”Must be nice to be young! Im too old now, can advance anymore. The pain is too much for my old body, ” he said.
”But you made it all the way to Tier 5, Mr. Larson. Thats not something everyone can achieve, ” Crane replied with genuine admiration.
”And I can lie boys, Im proud of it! ” Larson folded his arms proudly, his eyes glimmered, ”But you guys are even more unbelievable. Becoming Tier 2 in less than a year! It took me two years to master Tier 1, and another year to finally reach Tier 2! ”
Tier 1 Votaries was the stage where people would get a slight boost in their abilities as humans. Some Votaries got a slight boost in their intelligence, like Crane, while some others got a boost in their physical capabilities. It was nowhere near the superhuman level. However, it was already enough to distinguish them from normal humans, and in the face of danger, the difference was enough to decide whether they would survive or die.
e just lucky, ” replied Crane humbly.
”But its mostly because of me, ” Chris interjected proudly. He smiled as if what he had said was the whole truth.
”I must admit, you helped, but just a little bit, ” replied Catherine. She jokingly pinched the air to signify how small her brothers contribution was.
”Hahaha! Its always the same with you three, ” Larson laughed in amusement, ”Ever since you were young, you two always fought. But seeing as you weren hurt too badly–except for Chris–the hunt must have been successful. Are you going to start the advancement ritual right away? ”
Crane shook his head, ”I don think so, Mr. Larson. Dawn is coming soon, so its too dangerous to gamble it. Well do it tomorrow and just relax for the rest of the night. ”
”Thats wise, son. I can count on one hand anymore how many lives were lost because they couldn finish their ritual before the sun rose. Its best to be safe. Some rituals can take hours, ” he advised. There was a hint of sorrow in his tone, ”Thats also how the last gate guard died, so you three be careful. ”
”We will heed your advice, Mr. Larson, don worry, ” Catherine replied, ”Although Chris can be reckless at times, we can assure you that we never do things that are too dangerous. We have Crane to thank for that, ” she shot a glance at her oldest brother.
”Then well be moving along, Mr. Larson, ” said Catherine politely.
”Ill see you around then. This town is not big, after all. Take care, you lot! ” bid Larson farewell.
As the trio walked away, Larson returned to his job to guard the city gate. His hand was on his concealed revolver, ready to take it out if danger approached.
The town was not as lively as before with the dawn approaching. Most of the children playing had gone back inside their houses, and only the adults were left outside. Most of them were working, while a lot were housewives chatting away in front of their simple houses.
”Isn it the Wright triplets! Come, come! ” beckoned a kind-looking elderly lady.
That was Mieke Ludwig, or people would call Granny Mieke, the local baker. She was one of the only bakers in town, so she had got a lot of regulars, the triplets being among them.
Mieke Ludwig was in her late sixties, with blonde-curly hair that had almost turned all grey. She was plum and rather tall, showing what kind of a strong woman she was in her prime. Her smile was kind and comforting; the kind of smile a loving grandmother would give her grandchildren. Her wrinkled skin was full of age spots, but she was still lively and full of energy.
Her husband had long died, and Mieke Ludwigs had no children, so she lived all alone. That was why she treated the triplets like her own children. In fact, she also showed loving and caring gestures to a lot of the people in the town.
”Hello, Granny Mieke, ” greeted Catherine.
On their way to the hunt, they were in a hurry, so they couldn properly greet the townsfolk.
”Come, come! You must have just returned from your hunt, correct? Ive just baked some bread, have some! ”
Once she saw the trio approaching her nameless bakery, she quickly went inside and came back out with a basket full of warm, freshly baked bread with beautiful crusts. It was enough bread to feed a small family of three for a day.
”Thank you so much, Granny, ” Chriss eyes lit at the sight of the mouth-watering bread, ”Im really hungry, and these look soo good. ”
He extended his hands to receive the bread, and once the basket was in his possession, he took one piece of bread and stuffed it in his mouth.
”Hmm… itsh good ash ushual, Granny, ” he complimented. His mouth was busy chewing the soft bread with a crispy crust, ”Crane, Cath, have some, ” he offered.
”Later, but thank you so much, Gran. How much is this? ” asked Crane.
”No, no, dear. Its free for you three. I just baked too much, and if not eaten now, they will go stale anyway, ” replied Granny Mieke with a friendly smile, ”your dolls are as cute as usual. If only they were real, I would bake more for them! ”
But these are still warm. Did she bake these just for us? Crane thought but didn say anything. He was secretly relieved that he didn have to spend any money.
”Make sure you finish everything, and if you three need more, tell me. I still have a lot of bread inside, ” she added, ”I plan to give them all away soon too, since the sun is rising soon, ” she suddenly looked down and her voice became heavier.
The three of them also knew what she was feeling.
”Thank you again, Gran. Well be going now, ” Crane bowed his head.
”Make sure you three finish the bread so you can grow stronger. Come by any time! ” the friendly old lady waved the triplets goodbye as they continued walking down the cobblestone road deeper into the town with Thompson leading the way with a freshly lit candle.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
The triplets passed construction work on the side of the road, which looked to be road maintenance. There were only a couple of men working, but the noises they made were enough to attract the threes attention.
”Working at this hour, Mr. De Jong? ” Crane greeted the man closest to them.
”Hi, isn it the Wright triplets? ” the man stopped what he was doing and looked at the trio. It was Henssen De Jong, a tall man in his late thirties, ”We want to get as much done as possible before the sun rises. ”
Shortly after, a woman who looked about the same age as Henssen came out of the house nearby. She was gracefully carrying a tray with four cups of milk for the people working the construction road.
”Good evening, Mrs. De Jong, ” Catherine greeted the woman politely.
She was Linda De Jong, the wife of Henssen De Jong. She was a beautiful woman with a beehive hairdo, adding to her elegant style. On that evening, she was wearing a simple yellow floral dress with a brown wool cardigan to protect against the cold.
”Hi, Catherine, and Crane and Chris too, ” she greeted the triplets back with a pretty smile, showing her dimples, ”So sorry I didn bring enough milk for you too, ” she shot a glance at the tray in her hands.
The lady handed the tray to her husband, who, in turn, passed the cups over to the other people working. They took a short break and had a sip of the hot milk.
”Don worry, Mrs. De Jong. We are just passing by. We just came back from hunting, ” Crane explained.
”Was it successful, Crane? ” asked Henssen. He looked at the full backpack that Thompson the puppet was carrying, ”Well, judging by the full backpack, I assume it is, isn it? ”
”Yes, Mr. De Jong. Fortunately, we managed to gather what we needed. What about the other hunting team? Have you seen them? ”
In the town, the trio was not the only hunting team. There were others like them since monster materials were crucial to the towns survival. Most of them were people who had gotten the approval of the towns Chiefs. Since the outside world was dangerous and they needed to make sure as many of them could survive, permission to go hunting was not given to just anyone.
”Yes, theyve come back just before you guys. Everyone returned safely tonight–at least from the South Gate they did–which is a great relief, ” replied the man. He took another sip of the milk and sighed, ”I feel really bad that the young need to go out there and risk their lives, while all I can do here is fix the road. ”
Henssen showed a heavy expression. His wife put her hand on the mans shoulder to console him.
”Everyone is doing their part, Mr. De Jong, ” Crane replied.
”And the chance of ritual failure is higher the older you are, so leave the hunting to us young folks, ” Chris added convincingly.
Henssen smiled bitterly, but he nodded in understanding. ”I guess you are right. I hope one day one of you guys will be able to find a clue to breaking the curse, but make sure to stay safe. I don want to see another tombstone added to the graveyard. ”
He was referring to the hunting teams, who regularly went out of the town to hunt for monster parts. The hunting teams usually went to the outside with an official mission from the towns Chiefs, whether to collect materials or to explore more of the world in search of anything that could aid their survival. They were divided into teams with one of the people appointed by the Chiefs as the leader. The siblings were also part of a hunting team.
In the case of the siblings recent hunting trip, it was for gathering materials for their advancement. Their strength had also been acknowledged, and on top of that, they had a strong artifact with them, that was why they could easily get the approval to go hunting in their own time.
Not all of the hunting trips were successful. A lot of times, one or more of the members would fall victim to the danger of the outside world. Due to the danger, it would be difficult to recover the bodies, so the townsfolk would usually just add a tombstone without an actual grave to signify the dead. It was a heartbreaking moment every time it happened.
”When is you guys official hunting trip? ” asked Henssen again.
”It would be the day after tomorrow, on Thursday. Thats why we want to get strong quickly so we can explore farther, ” Catherine replied. Crane and Chris nodded.
”Lets stop with the heavy stuff, shall we? ” interjected Linda, ”Its already stressful enough that my son wants to join the hunting team soon. ”
”Sorry honey. I guess I started it, ” Henssen smiled awkwardly and put his arm around his wifes waist.
”I think we should get going, Mr. and Mrs. De Jong. We need to sort out our loot quickly before dawn comes, ” Crane made a gesture of checking his watch.
After that, the three bid farewell to the couple and the other workers before continuing their way home. It wasn far from the road maintenance site. They just had to take the right at the fork and walk about three hundred more meters before finally arriving at their small house.
On the way, they passed a lot of houses and when they had a chance, they took a glance inside through the open windows. They could see a lot of parents yelling at their children, forcing them to go inside iron cages. The trio could only look ahead and suppress the heaviness in their hearts.
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