The taboo is enforced, you see.
I have no doubt that beside every great Monarch, there is a dedicated Meister who holds great knowledge of Attributes. Those who know the secrets of a great many Classes. These rare individuals are valued for the power they hold, but they are also feared. For, what if another were to learn their secrets? If a person, unsanctioned and unbound, by oath, or blood, were to share this sacred knowledge: the balance of power could be undone in the passing of a single generation.
Empire's will be done: for those who are not deemed worthy, I suspect the only class their curiosity will uncover in detail, is that of the [Assassin]
When I was a child, I remember going camping.
More specifically: going camping, and almost getting lost when I tried to pee in the woods.
It doesn't take much.
Modern day life, there's always light, somewhere. Streetlights, flashlights, car headlights... but when you're far from civilization, the night is absolute. I went just a bit too far from the campfire, and then: bam. Even squinting, I could barely see the ground in front of me.
All in all, the trip to town was a lot like that. Only, with a layer of life-threatening fear placed on top.
Every rustle in the grass beside the trail was another Fernwolf, waiting to pounce. Every misplaced step, was a painful trip, or worse: fall. In that case, a swift kick in the ribs, delivered by my lovely escorts, would follow soon after.
It was dark, confusing, and more than a little bit humiliating. Several times, I thought of trying to use [Hide Presence] to escape. And, several times, I recognized how utterly pitiful my attempt would probably be.
Either they'd cut me down, right then and there, or I'd fall and break something. Like my leg, or my arms, or my face- for that matter. The scuff on my cheek from a bad landing on the trail stung like hell.
No, ultimately I knew that, even if I did escape, I'd really just wind up starving in the woods. Going back to Gregory's shack would just lead to my recapture, and trying to live off the land would probably end in a slow, painful death. Worse, perhaps, even a sudden, violent, end. Being eaten by a monster, or something similar. So, I decided that trying to flee was pointless.
Even if the strong temptation was there...
On the brighter side of things, when we reached town, the Guards didn't force me to continue walking through the night. Instead of following the fork in the road, which went wide around the town, we went inside. Walking under the stone archway, that marked entrance to the small settlement.
It was a shame I couldn't see much.
The town had been an interest of mine. Though I'd been too cautious to try and seriously approach it, I had questions aplenty for how life was lived by "normal" people, or whatever passed for close-enough. The palace, then the Mercenary Camp, had left a lot of worldly knowledge to be desired, and Gregory had never been much for detailed answers, unless his answers involved boats.
What sort of Classes did people have, here? What kind of Titles did they have? How did those fit together- were there benefits? Synergistic effects, or something of the like?
Unfortunately, I didn't get any answers that night, as the only people I could see, were the two Guards.
Heck, I could barely see the streets. With the sky cloudy, it was way too dark.
I knew that nobles (or possibly just wealthy people) in this world, seemed to have something similar to artifical lighting. In fact, I distinctly remembered all sorts of this when I was still at the castle. In each room, in each hall, often randomly decorating the walls: crystals that held an ambient glow were secured. These, however they happened to function, acted as a light-source, so that even in the darkest of nights, you were never blind. Always illuminating the space in which they occupied.
But, fancy magic crystals were apparently out of budget for the people of this area. In the town, there were no fantasy-equivilants to street lamps, or buzzing neon signs. All we had to make out way forward was that single torch, carried by the male Guard beside me, and the occasional candle in a window.
I still tried my best to make sense of the terrain.
This is a path of stone, organized by careful hands. Though the stone is not cut to regular dimensions or equivilant size, those who built this road did so with the utmost care, so as to prevent unneeded maintenance.
Not particularly helpful, but I never quite knew what [Identify] might tell me. Still, even in a situation like this one, I felt that every tiny piece to the puzzle was still very much a piece. The more I could gather, I felt, the better of I might be for it.
Eventually, though, we stopped.
From my perspective, it was seemingly at random, but then the torchlight shifted, and in front of me, almost invisible, I found that we'd arrived at a doorway.
Without any formality, the Guards pushed it open and I was dragged inside, before the very same was closed shut behind us with a heavy "clang."
"What a mess." The male Guard, who's name I hadn't caught, but mentally dubbed Bruiser, muttered, as he lifted the torch to illuminate our surroundings. His frown seemed heavily exagerated by the flickering light. "I'll get us some more light."
"Please do." Said the woman I'd come to mentally associate as Karen.
Normal, I know.
Unlike Bruiser, I didn't have a reason for picking that name, I just felt that she just looked a bit like a Karen, and I had to find ways to distract myself from how awful my night was going.
The room was another such distraction. Looking it over, I tried to make sense of where we were, but soon realized there wasn't much to see. It was almost completely empty, but for a table and some chairs. Two barrels were set to one of the corners, and a barred window waited on the opposing wall. Along that, I could see dusty stairs, traveling up to what was either a second floor, or an attic.
"Does this place even have a proper cell?" Karen asked, pushing me along towards, across from the door we'd entered in. "Town's nothing. Baron hasn't kept a Keeper here in ages."
I realized there was a hallway, or something close to it, there.
As we approached, I realized I could see stairs, going down.
From where we stood, waiting for the torch to return, it looked far from welcoming. Pitch black, it gave the look of an open maw. Damp and cold, waiting to swallow all who dared to enter, whole.
"Wasn't always nothing. It'll have one." Bruiser stated, walking back up to us, having lit a candle while we waited.
It turned out he was mostly right.
There was a room, at least.
At the bottom of the stairs, was a small space, with an iron plated door, and an iron gated window, at ceiling level. Apart from the rotten chair they set me down on, though, there wasn't much else. Stone walls, stone floor, and what might have been a drain in the corner.
I found it was as fitting a place as any to be held captive.
If it hadn't exactly been a pleasant evening before, though, I found much to my dismay, the night was still young. Setting me down on the chair, the torch light soon retreated, and the heavy, metal, door swung shut.
I was left alone, in the pitch black of absolute darkness.
I should have tried to sleep.
Cold, wet, the stone wasn't particularly inviting, and the ground held a smell of something rotten, but I was beyond exhausted.
Instead, though, I spent the hours getting myself free of the gag they'd placed on me, and carefully freeing some of the items they'd failed to take off my person.
They'd been a little careless, I felt. Once they took my weapons and found my armor, they hadn't bothered to do much but tie my arms behind my back. Because of that, they'd missed the small pouch I kept tied to the inside of my belt. The one with a spare flint and a small piece of metal, but more importantly: a tiny bundle of Singing Fern.
I'd taken to preparing myself for trouble. Not quite the "getting arrested" kind, but certainly the "I fell out of the boat, and had to swim back to shore" kind.
[Hide Presence] active, under the assumption that any advantage was welcome, I managed to fish the pouch free, and through a process I'd rather not discuss, get the bundle of grass into my mouth.
I began to chew.
Uncommon plant that produces a noticeable hum during strong winds. Roots can be used in medicinal potions, providing an effect of [Lesser Healing] when condensed. Often used with additional ingredients, for a more pronounced effect.
I hoped it worked like that said it would, because I was pretty sure Bruiser had cracked one of my ribs, earlier.
Though that still hurt pretty badly, I soon found that my mind felt less muddled, as I carried out the laborous task of chewing until my jaw ached. In time, I was pleased to find that the grass tasted a little like mint. Only... warmer-mint, if that makes any sense.
Waiting for it to take effect, I fumbled with the cloth that still had my arms wrapped, before eventually giving up on getting a hand free. Instead, I redoubled my efforts on returning the pouch to the inside of my belt. Small bit of flint, metal, and half a bundle of Singing Fern: I hadn't swum to shore after a wreck, but I knew might come in handy down the line. Besides: even if I did somehow get my arms free, the door was bolted shut, and much too thick to try and kick down. Even if it did open, I wasn't any more confident in my survival than I'd been on the trail into town.
Success, it seemed. Chewing was doing something.
I was happy with that. [Identify] was trustworthy, but my interpretations of what it told me were susceptible to error.
Still, I was learning, all the same.
Ever since I'd come to this world, I'd been trying to puzzle out how things fit together. Despite how unpleasant being forcefully arrested was, I'd come away with a much better picture of where I stood. Or, I in this case, sat.
The Free Lands were aptly named, I felt. The people in this area lived without much, if any, oversight, but clearly not all of them were oblivious to what lay outside their borders. The Peace Keepers, at the very least, knew what I was immediately, and based on their aggression: they weren't particularly fond of the Empire.
I didn't find that surprising.
Hating the Empire, I mean.
The people who summoned me here and sent me to die... yeah, there wasn't much for me to like, either. Combine that with the fact that the Empire clearly fought enough wars to have a Mercenary Companies stationed at multiple fronts along their borders, and it wasn't hard to imagine the rest.
I suspected that hating the Empire was a shared sentiment for anyone not already a part of the it. An aggressive sort of nation, constantly fighting and conquering its neighbors? Rarely the type you would expect to be seen in a positive light.
But, as a [Summoned Hero] I was probably going to be hated by association.
Which was unfortunate.
The grass tasted awful, compared to the start. No longer a warm mint, but a moist cud. Still, it seemed to be working. The fogginess of my thoughts, at least, was clearing up.
I couldn't escape tonight, I decided.
Not from the room, not from the Guards. If I were going to survive, I'd have to hedge my bets on biding time for the right opportunity to present itself.
Plus, I really didn't like the way the Guards had been acting while out on the path.
As easily as they had dealt with me, the pair had been far less confident when it came to other possible of threats. Marching down the trail in the dark of night: twice, the rustling of tall grass in the wind had weapons drawn and curses murmured. Though they hadn't specifically said there were more monsters about, it wouldn't do me any good to pretend that wasn't a possibility.
If I somehow managed to escape the Guards, only to get killed by another Fernwolf... I knew I'd prefer if my last moments would be spent doing something other than cursing my own stupidity.
Little by little...
I suppose that's how it has to be, in this world.
The longer I survive, the stronger I get. The more pain dished out, the more I've been rewarded.
From the first moment I'd arrived, up until arriving in the cell... I had to seriously consider, for a moment.
How long had it been?
One week at the castle... Three or four months at the Mercenary Camp, then a week or so in the forest. Which, was followed another few spent fishing by the cliffs...
I'd only been in this world half a year. Maybe, even less. Yet, still: I could recognize the truth of things. Even though it hardly felt like it, I'd already grown at an outrageous pace. My attributes gained since arriving were nothing to scoff at.
My only problem, really, was how far behind I'd started.
Living a comfortable life in modern society, I wasn't properly built for life here. I hadn't spent decades swinging a sword, or working a forge, or braving the elements out on a boat.
But, as a Hero: I didn't need decades.
I wasn't strong enough to escape. I knew that, just like I knew that the next night might be the same.
But if I were given enough time?
Well... I would think of something.