Chapter 16 - Weight of Responsibility
Abandon the village and go to Bask on my own?
Like hell I would do that.
"Gina. If we keep running, we can get back to Southcreek in a little over an hour."
"Mm." She nodded. "But you're hurt pretty bad..."
"I'll be fine now that the wound has been treated. Follow my lead, and tell me if you sense anything weird, okay?"
We set off, keeping a steady pace as we moved in the direction of home. The deep gash in my abdomen throbbed as I ran, making me grit my teeth in pain. A small amount of blood leaked out and stained the fresh bandages.
I don't know if ignoring my main quest is the right decision, but it makes the most sense. Why would the system want me to go directly to Bask? It would mean two days of crawling through these monster-infested woods with no supplies. The village isn't that far from here, and going there first means I can grab a horse. It's safer, faster, and most importantly, allows me to warn everyone still in Southcreek.
Maybe following the quest is the "hard way", which is why I'll be rewarded if I successfully pull it off. If that's the case, then this is fine. I don't care too much about Karma anyway.
But maybe the village has already been destroyed. Which means I'm getting myself and Gina killed with this detour.
That's the thing, isn't it? It's not just my life I'm gambling with here. If I choose wrong, this girl dies too.
Just means I have to move even faster then.
In the end, my resolve is weak. If there are two possibilities and I have no way of knowing which is right, I would rather choose the one where I might save everybody.
Damn it, why did the monsters have to come here of all places? It's too early. My body is only ten years old with no special abilities - how am I supposed to deal with a crisis like this? I knew that this world was going to be dangerous, which is why I was happy to stay in place until I became an adult. But it looks like trying to keep a low profile was the wrong move. Danger has come knocking on my front door. Aren't stories like this supposed to be more convenient for the hero!?
Who says you're the "hero"? And you know why they're here. The monsters are after you. You put everyone in danger! Those hunters died becau-
No. I shook my head strongly, getting rid of those thoughts. I can't afford to be distracted right now. There's plenty of time for self-blame later.
* * *
We had been running for almost twenty minutes when Gina grabbed my arm and sharply pulled me to the ground. I didn't bother asking her what the matter was, as I immediately tried to control my breathing and blend into the underbrush. After a few seconds, she pointed at something a short distance away.
Three creatures landed on a nearby clearing, their wings stretched widely. They looked like massive diseased vultures. Dull black and red feathers adorned their bodies, and their large hooked beaks were designed to rip into flesh with ease - one of them still had traces of blood on its beak. Parts of their plumage seem to be have fallen out, exposing gray skin covered in small boils. If they stopped slouching and postured at full height, they would probably be over six feet tall.
The Hellfowl is an interesting species. They are scavengers native to Lumor's hilly regions, and travel in flocks of five to ten birds. Most are content to pick apart the carcasses left behind by stronger predators, eating and dissolving even hard bone. However, they have sharp talons and can vomit corrosive bile, making them extremely dangerous when provoked. It's why humans don't bother exterminating them, and peasants merely try to steer clear of their nesting grounds.
When food is scarce, the Hellfowl do resort to hunting. But due to their cowardly nature, they prefer attacking from a distance. Their large wing muscles ended in appendages that resembled fingers, giving them some measure of dexterity. They would fly around the prey, dropping sharp sticks or rocks until it was weakened enough for them to dispatch. Some even learn how to use crude bows (though they obviously cannot fly while wielding one).
These three fowl seemed to have no weapons, and no other companions in sight.
"Should I?" Gina whispered.
We couldn't risk a frontal confrontation with these monsters. They were too large and deadly. Even if I had three lives, I don't think I'd be able to kill one with just this falchion I'm holding. So it will be all up to Gina to drop them with an arrow each before they realize what's happening. If they take to the air, it'll be much harder for her to land a clean shot. And if they attack us immediately, we're dead meat.
"Wait. They might move." I decided it wasn't worth the risk.
Fortunately, two of the creatures took flight just a short while later. But one stayed behind, preening its feathers.
We had no more time to waste, and there was no telling when more would come, so I gave Gina the signal to fire. She slowly rose to a crouching position and readied her bow.
An arrow soared and pierced right through the fleshy sac at the base of the creature's neck, spilling a large amount of bile. The monster squawked hoarsely and spread its wings in an attempt to fly, but Gina's next arrow hit its shoulder, dropping it to the ground. We watched as the Hellfowl tried to crawl away, only to wheeze and collapse in a feathery heap. Looks like the first arrow had punctured its airway.
We approached it cautiously. When it was clear that the bird didn't have enough strength left to attack us, I moved closer to it and chopped its head off with my falchion.
...I'm getting too used to bloodshed, aren't I? To think that even killing a pig was hard for me not long ago. Yet here I am, executing a monster and my arms are only slightly shaking.
Gina sighed in relief. "I'm glad it was that easy. I only have two arrows left."
I looked at her almost empty quiver and nodded. "Great shooting. When we get back, make sure to brag to Hans. Your trophies blow his out of the water."
* * *
The rest of the journey was mercifully uneventful. At one point we had to sneak past five massive arachnids that were feasting on a live stag, but they were too absorbed in their meal to notice us. I'll never forget the animal's cries though - Gina had to cover her ears as we walked away.
When we finally saw the wooden gates of Southcreek, I sighed in relief. Everything seemed completely normal; looks like we were able to get here before anything else. The two of us were physically and mentally exhausted, but making it back here was only the first step. I don't know if the attack will come in two hours or two minutes, so we needed to quickly spread the word to everyone in the village.
You have returned to Southcreek Village. Main Quest "Escape NOW!" failed.
No Karma has been deducted because of Beginner Protection.
New quest on hold. Conditions not met.
As expected, I ended up failing the Main Quest. But I'm glad to see that I didn't receive any kind of penalty. So that's what Beginner Protection is for, or at least part of it...
I could hear gasps the moment we ran into the village center. Our clothing was in tatters and stained with huge splotches of dried blood. The bandages around my abdomen and Gina's arms left no doubt that we were badly wounded. As several of the adults rushed forward to ask what happened, I cupped my arounds my mouth and began shouting.
"There are monsters in the forest! Many of them are headed in this direction. We need to leave now!"
"Please! Spread the word and get the horses ready, we don't have much time!" Gina added, half in tears.
Perhaps some of them would have laughed or scoffed in disbelief under normal circumstances. It did sound like the kind of childish prank that Gina would pull. But our bloodied appearance helped sell it - there was no way they'd think these injuries are fake. An uproar immediately began, as the villagers talked in panicked voices. I felt irritated; what are they wasting time for? I should have brought a goblin head and thrown it at them...
"There's no way, we're miles from the border!"
"We can't just leave everything behind..."
One of the men looked skeptical. "Are you sure you saw it right? You weren't just attacked by wolv-"
"I'm a huntress, I KNOW WHAT A WOLF LOOKS LIKE! GET MOVING!"
I stared in disbelief at Gina, who had screamed in rage at the person doubting us. The man looked startled, then nodded and immediately ran off. It set off a chain reaction as people began scattering in every direction to their homes to tell their families. A few stayed behind to ask if we needed help, but I waved them off.
Looks like this girl had a bit of Hyacinth's attitude in her after all.
"Come on, we need to find your mom and Uncle Whitelaw." I grabbed her hand again.
"Mm." She nodded, sniffling a bit.
Her home was nearer so we headed there first. I really hope that Hyacinth didn't decide to go out into the forest today...