IN A DARK UNDERGROUND CAVERN,

FAR, FAR AWAY...


"IT'S BEGUUUNNNN!"

The black-shrouded figures moved around a pool of pitch of black liquid...which seemed to be bubbling ominously with what looked like lots of white objects.

Slender white objects...

"Hail be! Hail be!" The tar-like liquid seemed to roil faster...

The walls of the cavern were painted in strange symbols...which dripped with a scarlet liquid. As they figures began to chant, the symbols started blazing a fierce red...

"Hail be! Azaarraa! Hail be! Azaarraa!" Voices chanted as smoke began to arise from the pool...

And, so did something else...


DAY 1

00.30 hours

THE HIDDEN GROUNDS

The first thing I saw...was fire.

Crackling, hissing flames.

So why was I so cold?"

"Ria!" Someone whispered. Almost immediately, I tried sitting up, only to be pushed back by someone. Light flickered and I looked up at Amir's face. "Not yet...get up slowly..."

I looked around, and for some reason, a side of my head felt warm.

It was dark, and we were - I blinked. It looked like we were in a cave?

"What happened?" The last thing I remembered was...the Hedge?

Amir poked the tiny fire with a tiny twig, expressionlessly. "It was your cousin...Haruka. Him and a girl..." He shivered. "They were waiting..."

I frowned. "Haru?" I closed my eyes..and saw...fire. Bright blue fire.

Amir basically told me a horror story - in which Haru seemed to have gone around the bend - knocking three kids out and if I heard right - tried to burn me alive!

"I think I'm going to be sick." I did feel sick. "You say I was in the fire? As in?" Amir nodded. "It appeared like he was trying to place a tabeez upon you, but it wasn't going right...anyways that's what Kian said."

Almost instinctively, I touched the place where the blue stone hung around my neck. As I touched it...again, the back of my head heated up. Okay, why did something feel weird?

Amir froze as I tilted my head, his eyes narrowing at something over my head?

"And Ria..." Amir was pointing to the back of his head. "Over there..." As he spoke, my fingers brushed against something warm...and soft.

Huh?

I grabbed it. It felt like the softest thing ever...and way too warm. "Ria..." I grabbed harder, yanking...only to feel pain.

The hell? It felt like...a thick hair? I yanked harder. "Yeowch!"

And then, it moved. It moved!

I started to shake. "What - what is in my head...?"

Amir's face darkened.

"Before the darkness came...Haruka flung something at you - something which must have touched you before we got transported."

Wait... "Haru did this?" Amir nodded, describing something out of a supernatural action movie.

"When I woke - I saw it first...it looks like a red-gold feather."

I cautiously touched it. "A feather?"

"Yeah...and it looks like its..."Amir stuttered.

"It's what...?" I whispered.

" It-It's attached itself t- to your- your...head." He looked freaked out..eyes fixed on whatever it was on my head. "It's..standing up." He whispered, eyes wide.

As he spoke...I felt it start to wriggle.

Wriggle, wriggle wriggle...

And I started to scream...


Miles Away

HIDDEN GROUNDS - CABIN...

Henry and Asta studied the class grimly. "Almost everyone is here..." He looked around the wooden room they were in.

It was pitch black outside...and everyone had proceeded to collectively freak out together when they had woken up. The last thing anyone remembered was the ringing of bells...

And then the darkness came.

Till they woke up here.

It looked like they were in some sort of a cabin house...which looked and felt like it could collapse any moment. The only source of light was from the one and only lantern...so basically there was no light - they could barely make out each other's faces. No wonder it had taken so long to stop mass panic from breaking out.

"Congrats." Asta stepped up to Henry. "Looks like your plan worked...almost." She bit her lip, strands of hair falling free from the cap she was wearing. Which everyone was wearing.

As everyone was wearing the same clothes. Human Combat uniforms with black boots and skullcaps were what some kids from the lands had told them. Kids who were currently in the middle of 'losing their shit' as Kuran would say. The cabin/lodge was ancient...and every time the wind blew, the shuttered windows would clatter violently. The eery sound of the wind sounded like wheezes of some evil entity...

But that wasn't what worried Henry.

"Who all are missing?" He asked Asta.

She looked worried. "Ria, Kian, Amir, Damon's group - although I'm not sure if they all were together. I told them over and over not to go to the washrooms that close to the time limit!" She hissed as she bit too hard, and tasted blood. "And we have no idea what happened to Ria and the others.." Asta looked down, silver hair falling around her face. "What do we do?"

Henry tilted his head back. Something must have happened - or someone. But, if Kuran was with them.. Henry forced himself to think clearly. Panicking won't do anything...He needed to get control first. As it was, the class was not in a good shape.

"Henry?" Asta prodded. He nodded, clearing his throat. Everyone turned his way.

"It appears that we need to figure out - "

Just then a long, loud, noise sounded somewhere outside...close by.

It sounded like a deep horn...but a very creepy sounding one at that.

"What...what was it?"

"Noooo!"

"What do we do?"

As the horrible sound faded...something else began.

Dumm!

Dumm!

Dumm!

"Henry...do you hear that?" Asta strode to the locked door. "It sounds like some drums..?"

Dumm!

Dumm ! Dumm!

Dumm ! Dumm!

Henry approached the door, followed by Zach and a tall boy black haired boy with intense grey eyes. Asta frowned as Zach motioned her back.

He hadn't opened the door, let alone explored outside yet - getting the class from collectively freaking out, finding out who was missing etc etc had taken way too long. Now, it seemed, they were out of options. He turned the rusted door handle...

Only to stop when a thuumppp sounded right where his head was...on the other side of the door of course. Everyone shut up, staring at the door...which was slowly swinging open. An icy chill hit them, and gasps filled the Cabin as a heavy mist poured in...along with an almost unnatural speed.

The lantern flickered dangerously.

"Henry! What was that?" Asta ran to the lantern. "It's too dark..."

Ignoring the cries of some kids, she grabbed the lantern and walked up to where Henry stood frozen. Her eyes widened when she saw what he was staring at.

Pinned on the worn wooden door was some sort of crusty paper...but Asta's eyes were fixed on what it was pinned by. It looked like a weird sort of white knife.

"What is it?" Someone called out.

"It's probably the rules." Another voice answered. "That tells us what will happen..."

Asta peered over Henry's shoulder.

Sure, enough there were words written there.

Henry reached out to touch the sheet - only to be held back. He turned to see two people step before Asta.

"Hey..." Zach suddenly stepped before him, eyes wary. "Don't touch it just yet...let him help..." He motioned towards the tall boy beside him, eyes anxious. "Miguel here - wants to help. Trust me, he can."

Henry studied him intrigued as...the boy was clearly a C level. And yet, he couldn't read him as well as most people.

This was rare...

The boy hesitated, grey eyes shifting between Henry and the door. "Allow me.." He reached for the items, a look of concentration on his face.

Henry stepped back and allowed the boy to approach. By the now the rest of the class was also watching.

The moment the boy touched the sheet - he flinched violently. Henry's eyes narrowed.

Asta was getting a bad feeling...which only became worse when the boy's fingers brushed the creepy looking knife. With a small cry, he collapsed before them, face bloodless, eyes wide. What the?

"Oh noooo!" Well well! Someone just read her mind.

"What the hell happened to Miguel?"

"Is he dead?"

Cries filled the room. Henry dragged him away from the door, helped by Zach and Asta.

"SHUT IT!" Zack roared, crouching beside his friend. Henry on the other hand just grabbed hold of the knife (kids screamed) but he pulled it out without any issues (screaming subsided a little) and headed for the lantern, spec flashing. Crouching on the ground, he spread the paper. The textury was weirdly leathery...

"What is it?" Asta held up the lantern. A few heads crowded around. "Did a person write this?" Someone gaped.

The writing was...almost indecipherable, and honestly rather ghastly. It looked like chicken scratches made, well, by a chicken.

It took them minutes to read...and then they almost wished they hadn't been able to read.

For what it said...

Was the stuff of nightmares...


THE HIDDEN LANDS -

DEEP IN THE WOODS

Kian would never admit to anyone, even himself, that he was scared. Nopes, not him!

But right now, he was...freaking...terrified.

What he had just come across...

Never, in his wildest, most messed up of guesses - could he have imagined that it would be this bad...

Cursing, he carefully scrambled down the tree he had been hiding in, eyeing his cut and bloodied hands in dismay.

Shit.

He had only gone to check out the surroundings...but never had he thought he'd stumble across something like that. He shuddered. The Committee couldn't have been that insane right?

Let's just forget about it till I get back...

Clearly, they were in some sort of jungle. Though he suspected the area may be wider than just that. It wasn't as dense as the forest of the five...and not as dangerous...or so he'd thought. He had been so, so wrong. Looking around, he shuddered as the air got colder, heavier.

Need to get back...find the rest of the class...

Long needs to know about this...

And then he heard it...again.

Dumm!

Dumm!

Dumm!

He froze.

Oh shitohshotoshit...

Dumm!

Dumm!

The beats were growing stronger, seeming to pulse into the very life of the forest around him. And then he noticed...the mist seemed to grow stronger, denser.

Dumm!dumm!

dumm!dumm!

dumm!dumm!

It was so, so cold...and it was difficult to make out anything. And, he could swear...the sounds were getting louder...He had to get back to the other two...

Heart racing, he held out his hand. What?

And gasped.

And then tried again.

He couldn't...summon his flames...


Miles away...(somewhere)

A group of kids sat inside a run-down cottage...and stared at the piece of parchment before them.

"What is that?" someone asked in a quavering voice.

The boy nicknamed 'Dollface' wished this was a hoax...but he knew it wasn't.

This was...bad.

"You idiots!" He yelled at two girls crouching on the floor nearby. Both were sniffing.

"We're sorry Damon!"

"We never thought it was true!"

He snarled. "You useless morons! Why the hell did you have to leave the group so close to the time limit? Do you know what a mess we are in now?" He threw the paper down towards them, watching in grim satisfaction as they read it...and began to wail.

"I should have just let you go alone..."


In the cave...

1.30 am

Amir and I gaped at the parchment paper before us. Moments before we had heard a weird sound...and Amir had gone to check it out.

Turns out the sound had been that of a weird whitish arrow - which had the paper wrapped around it.

"Hey...tell me I read it wrong. Tell me!" I clutched Amir's shirt, eyes wild. "This is -"

"You read right." Amir peered out of the entrance of the cave. "If we don't find the others...we are in trouble."

"But Kian is out there!" I half yelled, falling silent when Amir hushed me. "I just hope he hasn't gotten lost..."

Amir looked grim. "Me too. He should have been back by now...I just hope Kuran makes it back...in one piece."


THE CABIN...

Asta gaped as Henry read out the 'Challenge' for the rest of the Class.She had already read it...but hearing it was a whole new level of real..which was crazy.


"WELCOME TO THE HIGHLY ANTICIPATED FRESHERS'

THE OLDEST TRADITION OF ST WARRIOR'S HIGH! - LUCKY YOU!

THE ODDS ARE SO NOT IN YOUR FAVOR!"

"Huh?" Zach looked up eyes bugging out. "What?" Out of all of them, only Henry looked normal. He must have gotten used to it by now. Asta shook herself. A few more kids started to talk.

"Silence!" Henry snapped, glasses flashing. "Let me read it out first." Everyone shut up sharpish.

"NOW THE CHALLENGE:

YOU ARE CURRENTLY IN THE JUNGLE OF TAMAS (popularly known as Jungle where 'Evil' perpetually resides)

AND YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT TO THE ONE AND ONLY BOUNDARY LINE!

YOU HAVE THREE DAYS TO MIDNIGHT!

TO DO THIS YOU HAVE TO SUCCESSFULLY CROSS THE JUNGLE OF TAMAS.

If you are unable to do so, you have our sympathies in advance...(we don't do 'rescues')

Now the tricky part...

You have to figure it all out by yourself through this lovely riddle: the object of which will lead you to the desired direction!(& your salvation!)

"Follow me, follow me...

Across the deities which reside.

in the vast, vast sea of eternal night.

All I have is endless sight

My father was King and his father Time,

Oh, beloved huntress! Oh, twin of mine!

Often separated, a pearl truly divine.

The truth rests in the lands outside of thee's

Celestial vision thus defines me.

Seek me, Seek me,

Eternal guide, father of life,

Follow me, follow me...

Should you fail, beware, eternal darkness shall reign

And your precious lives it shall surely claim...

Find me, find me, before it is too late..."

As you know, more than half of you are required to successfully cross before a week's time to 'pass' as a Class! So, we suggest as many as possible do try for this honor! Remember - time management is important! Also, good luck in finding your own food XD

SO PLEASE, TRY NOT TO DIE ON US!

(THIS IS NOT A JOKE - but deadly serious)

OH, YOU ARE SO NAUGHTY, YOU ADORABLE NEW STUDENT COUNCIL!

P.S. BEWARE OF THE DRUMS

P.P.S AVOID THE NATIVES

P.P.P.S AVOID BLEEDING PROFUSELY AT ALL COSTS

P.P.P.P S The Fresher's Committee is in no way liable for any mental/physical mutilations/scarring/accidental or incidental 'devouration' etc etc which may result. This event is being co-covered by the prestigious NC!


A sea of white faces stared back at Henry...who had finished reading the instructions out.

"The hell was that shit?" Zach muttered, still beside the unconscious Miguel.

"Yeah...what is that riddle?" Another girl asked shaking her head. "There is only one boundary line and we don't even know where it is?"

"Devouration?" Someone else asked. "Is that even a word?..."

"Days? They expect us to be here for days?" another groaned. "Someone really hates us!"

Asta shook her head. "What worried me is that they have given us an exact number of days...and that's the lower limit."

Henry pushed his specs back. "Egir is right. If they have given us a time limit...it means that whatever it is - is formidable, and would require more than three days to cross. That means...we have to start immediately, no matter what."

"You've got to be kidding..."

"We are doomed.."

Kids started discussing again. Asta noticed Henry holding onto the white knife, examining it. "What is this..." He muttered. "Haven't seen this before..."

"NO! Don't!" A pained voice yelled out.

Suddenly Zack gasped as Miguel sat up, face pasty white and sweaty. Talking died down as kids gathered around him and Zach.

Miguel's eyes were fixed on the object in Henry's hand..and looking at it, he flinched again.

"That - that thing...I saw what it used to be..."

Henry carefully set it down as the chaos in the boy's mind leaked out. He was...terrified.

"What is it?" Henry turned to Zach, who looked as confused.

"He can read the history of any object he touches...and its memories." Zach helped the boy sit up. "And he's never been wrong."

"What was it?" Henry crouched down before him. Miguel's eyes were wide...he looked like he was in another world...

"Running...running...through the darkness. Cold, I -cold." He whimpered in a high pitched voice. Asta almost backed away...this was creepy.

"Is he okay?" she nudged Zack...who shook his head. "He's remembering what he saw. Sssh!"

"It's so cold...they are coming! Nooo!" Miguel moaned.

The lodge was absolutely still. Not a single person moved as they watched the boy talk. And it wasn't getting any prettier.

"Drums...they hunt the living...they-they took the others!"

Asta's heart skipped a beat...her mouth felt dry as sandpaper.

What the...

"THEY ARE THE HUNTERS OF THE LIVING! THE DEVOURERS! THEY ARE COMING!"

Everyone jumped as Miguel let out a shrill scream. Someone started sobbing.

Asta noticed Henry's clenched fists - and wondered if he clenched them like her - to keep them from shaking.

"Who are they, Miguel?" Henry touched two fingers to the boy's head. "What are they?"

A moment passed.

Then Miguel opened his eyes. His wide, terrified eyes.

"Who...they are - they are the dead of course. The dead."

A stillness so icy filled the room that time appeared to be frozen.

"And..whose memories did you see?" Henry prodded on voice low. "Tell me."

Miguel shuddered as he looked at the knife. "That thing's of course. That - that used to be a person."

Asta thought for a second, her mind made that up - that is till she saw the other faces.

TF?

WTFF?

She felt as if someone had sucker punched her...and she wasn't the only one. The entire class was staring in horrified fascination at the aforementioned object.

And Miguel wasn't done just yet...

"It was - he was a boy like us...but many - years and years ago. It was Fresher's I think." Miguel carried on. "He never made it out...and those things...caught him."

"And then?" Asta squeaked out. She wasn't even embarrassed by the pitch in her voice.

"And then?" Miguel's face went blank. "They - they caught him...and then ate him!" He pointed a shaking finger at the sheet and bone. "That's all that's left of him...skin and one bone..." He finished in a whisper. "That's all...That's all... "

And as kids started screaming, Asta knew that all her suspicions about this insane academy had been right.

I should have run for it when I had the chance.

And as Zach helped his friend sit up, Asta could still see him shaking and mumbling...and she swore she could make out the words he kept mouthing over and over again.

"Running...cold...running..drums..."

She shuddered.


Need to run faster...

Kian knew he was closer...but was he being followed?

This was so messed up...

He had been running for an hour already...and it was so damn annoying to run blind. Ever since he had gotten injured...the drums seemed to sound closer and closer...

Suddenly he stopped as a sudden thought struck way...

What if?

He gazed at his bloody hands. Summoning all his power, he forced it to heal the torn skin.

Thankfully, the skin slowly started closing up...He sighed. At least his healing ability was intact...

As he began to run again, he noticed that the cold mist didn't seem so thick, nor that cold.

If anything, it was getting thinner...


THE CAVE,

3 AM

"What is happening?" I muttered, watching Amir pace near the entrance.

This was...I didn't actually know what this was...

I didn't know what to make of the 'challenge' letter at all.

More than anything I found the weirdy cheery tone of it all scary. I bet it was totally done on purpose...but why? It was already bad enough to be tortured...

I had taken a look outside, but the fog was too thick to see anything clearly. How the hell did Kian go out there? A few metres away I could make out the outlays of trees and shrubs, but it was way too cold and way too dark. After I suggested going to look for him, Amir assured me Kian's fire was the best offence against anything out there...

But I wasn't so sure...

I mean come on...eternal darkness...lives taken? That was some serious shit.

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THIS PLACE? I groaned, flinching as the thing on top of my head moved again. From what it felt like I totally imagined a flag on top of my head or something.

Let's not think about this, for now, a life-threatening situation at hand, Ria.

"So, we have to avoid the natives and drums..."

Amir nodded. "If they have mentioned it - that means its no joke - that means danger with a capital D." He shivered. "Is it just me or it getting colder?"

Huh...It was.

"It is...and something is wrong with this...fog." As I shivered, the thing on my head also moved. I grimaced, avoiding the itch to touch it.

For some reason...I really wanted to - and it was creeping the hell outta me.

What the hell had Haru done to me? I mean he actually put me in a fire...and then attached an alivish- feather thingy to my head?

I was so going to Councillor H when I was outta here.

Tit for tat and I was gonna watch him burn.

I grinned when I thought of the epic shit Haru was in for when I got out of here.

Just you wait, you psycho...

Then I noticed Amir watching me with a weird expression.

"The look on your face ...isn't very nice." He muttered. "You looked like Haruka for a minute."

That snapped me back. Hang on...

"What if Haru did this - to trap me here?" I thought fast. Why else would he show up just at that time?

"Kind of weird that he would just happen to attack just before midnight..."

I had no idea why, but given his attitude...it was definitely planned.

Amir looked unnerved for a second. "I can't say...but I think Kuran has the whole story. He seemed to know what was going on..." We both fell silent.

Where was he? Amir and I had made a pact - come another hour and Kian still hadn't returned, we would go looking for him.

According to Amir, he had gone out to take 'a quick look'. Huh. It had been almost three hours by now...

We both must have fallen asleep - as we both jolted awake at exactly the same time.

I woke to some noise, a chuffing or something.

Something was at the mouth of the cave.

I woke to find Amir stirring - then his eyes met mine as something moved in the darkness...ahead of us.

It was bent over...and was making weird sounds. Dread pooled at the bottom of my stomach.

Oh...shit...

What was it?

"Don't move!" Amir hissed, throwing an arm out.

Before I could do anything, he was standing, hands raised...palms beginning to glow...

The figure suddenly raised its arms.

And Amir raised his hands higher. "Any closer and I'll blind you! Stay where you are!" I blinked at the fierce note in his voice.

Woah...Amir.

The figure seemed to freeze, then collapse.

"Itsme. Itsmee, 'm back!" Whoever it was was panting like a racehorse.

The voice was familiar...

"Kian?" I jumped up as Amir dropped the battle hands and stance, running forward to help him up. As his light filled the small cave, we both gasped.

Kian looked ...beat.

His face and arms - were covered in scratches, some deep and bloody. His clothes had mud and leaves all over them, and his eyes - they looked...spooked. Like he had seen something really, really bad.

He smiled weakly. "Oh shit...I thought I was never gonna make it back." He shivered. "I got lost in the middle - "

"I told you not to go explore." Amir sounded a little mad. Not that I blamed him - Kian looked like he'd been through hell.

"Yeah...I mean why?" It looked like something out of a horror movie outside. Directors couldn't have asked for a better setup.

Kian glared. "It wasn't like I wanted to get lost...I was forced to." His eyes shuttered. "And trust me, I was glad to."

I and Amir exchanged looks as he closed his eyes.

What on earth happened out there?

"Uh...then I guess you should take a look at this..." I handed over the paper. Kian sat up, read it and then suddenly knelt, head between his legs, eyes shut tight.

We both jumped when his eyes suddenly opened. "Shit...we need to find the rest of the class. Like asap..."

"Kian, what happened? What did you see?" Amir asked, voice stronger. 'You must tell us, we are running out of time!"

Kian looked up, and nodded. And started to talk.

And what he told us...

We wished we could forget...


THE HIDDEN LANDS,

SOMEWHERE OUT THERE...

"SHIT! THOSE MORONS!"

The boy ran into the night, heart beating wildly, cursing whoever, whatever had made things turn out like this.

Behind him, drums sounded, the eery sound reverberating in the valley he was running across. A dark mist was stealing across the land...roiling and malevolent.

"It's too late..."

He glanced down, wherein his hand, he clutched a rolled up paper and a weird looking knife...

"I told them, I told them..." He gasped. "Why didn't they..."

He paused as he reached the valley's end. Ahead, a dark wood lay, something out of the ancient tales. He glanced behind and clutched his arm...which had a sharp gash on it.

Dumm Dumm!

Dumm Dumm!

Dumm Dumm!

Dumm Dumm!

DUMM! DUMM!

His pretty, almost beautiful face paled.

Without a second thought, he ran into the Woods...


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