Dexterity: 10 + 1
Most used abilities: Dark Bond
Most used weapon skills: Dagger Throw, Power Stab, Sneak Attack, Lunge, Spear Throw, Throat Opener
A lot of explanation, sneaking-around, fruit-gathering, and drinking-from-the-river later we found a more or less safe place. We had been lucky enough not to encounter any of the octopus giants, though we had cut the fruit gathering short and run when the now-familiar awful smell suddenly became apparent. We had still managed to get almost as much fruit as we could carry, so dinner was set.
I was sitting with Devi'lynn in a more or less secluded place, surrounded by four large trees. We weren't far from the water, but I hoped that with all the trees around we would notice if any giant was heading our way. The place where we had surfaced was further to the west than the cave where we had taken shelter for a few days previously. On the next day, we would have to follow the river to pass that part of the forest and then go even further to get to our meeting point. First however, I needed to eat and sleep. Especially sleep, though it was strange how a hungry stomach could keep me awake even when I was totally exhausted.
I quickly cut up one of the several blue fruits we have collected, then handed my dagger to Devi'lynn. It felt strange... or maybe even wrong that we used Soul Eater for cutting up the food, but we didn't have any alternative. These orange-sized blue fruits had a really though outer rind that was inedible. However, the light brown flesh was quite sweet and juicy inside, if you didn't bite down on any of the seeds. I was just about to start eating when I noticed how awkwardly Devi'lynn was holding the dagger. If she slipped while she tried to cut the fruit - which was more than possible with that kind of hard rind - she could have easily cut her fingers.
"What are you doing?"
"Mmm...?" Devi'lynn asked, concentrating on whatever she was doing. "Cutting it up."
"That's quite dangerous."
"Why?" she looked up, confusion clear in her eyes. Did she really not understand what she was doing wrong? It should have been common sense, but...
"That's not how you hold it when you cut it," I said, scooting closer. "Do it like this, and this," I demonstrated it for her, "so you don't cut yourself."
"Oh, I see. My thanks."
"You never do something like this, right?" I asked as I sat back to my place. She averted her gaze but didn't answer.
"How about when you normally eat? You don't cut meat?" Perhaps I should have dropped the issue - it was clear that she was embarrassed - but I was just too curious. Devi'lynn mumbled something in response.
"Hmm?" I prompted.
"No, meat was always cut up beforehand!" she snapped at me. She waved Soul Eater in my direction. "Knives are dangerous, don't you agree?! Women shouldn't hold them!"
Ah. And now she defaults back to being angry and indignant. At least this time the anger wasn't directed towards me, I hoped. Well, the way she was waving Soul Eater around was certainly dangerous. I eyed the dagger as she lowered it finally, her hands slightly shaking in tension.
"Yes, and we live in dangerous world already," I told her with a slight smile, "go ahead and cut that fruit."
She nodded sullenly, then got to work. I had a feeling that out of spite she would have tried to cut up the blue fruit anyways, even if I told her not to. But honestly, this kind of reaction was way better than the alternative. She didn't expect it from me to do the work for her, as if I was a servant and she a spoiled child. I considered myself lucky that I didn't have to deal with anything like that.
The next few minutes was spent in silence, both of us quietly munching on the fruits. Only Nosy broke the silence every now and then. He was constantly coming and going, sneaking around in the forest in our vicinity. He didn't like the menu we had, so I supposed he was trying to hunt down something to eat, but for some reason he never wandered off too far.
"Tomorrow we will hopefully meet Teva'ryn and Imaya," Devi'lynn suddenly spoke up.
"Yes, we will," I mumbled around my last bit of fruit. I was already quite full, but I didn't want to leave the rest uneaten.
"And Teva'ryn probably already healed his -- ," she added silently.
"And he won't let me -- my weapon."
"Yes, he won't."
"Why didn't you want to lead our group?"
"Yes, I- I mean, what?" I almost didn't get what she was saying. Devi'lynn had the unpleasant habit of starting conversations when I was bone tired.
"Lead. Us. You told him to lead. Why?"
"Why not?" I asked back. Of course, my reasons weren't that simple, but it would have been a chore to explain all of it with my poor vocabulary.
"No. I can see you are trying to avoid answering to me. Explain," she said in a no-nonsense tone.
I sighed. She was just so pushy with her questions sometimes, that I was already afraid what it would be like when I knew their language enough to have proper conversations. I tried to explain her that my foremost reason was that I didn't like the responsibility - which was damn hard to describe, not knowing the word for 'responsible' - and then I argued that Teva'ryn had probably more experience in fighting and survival than I had. Not so surprisingly Devi'lynn didn't like my first reason, but to the second she grudgingly agreed.
"Anyways, it matters not," I added. "When we reach Bildy, I think you leave me and Imaya to find other Sylven."
Devi'lynn didn't say anything to that, just stared at me with an expression that I couldn't exactly place anywhere.
"Bildy is the Human town," I clarified for her, thinking that she didn't understand what I was talking about.
"I know," she murmured but her mind was obviously elsewhere. I decided to wait for whatever she was about to say. I hoped that she was done pestering me about my decisions... or at least that she would wait till I am well-rested.
"I don't think I'll go with Teva'ryn," Devi'lynn finally spoke up. "I'm going to stay with you two."
"Alright," I replied simply after taking a long look at her. I could tell that she had already made up her mind.
"Aren't you going to ask why?"
"No, I can... image. I have an idea. Anyways, it's your life. If you don't want to find other Sylven, that's alright. Do what you want," I replied. I leaned back to the base of the large tree and tried to make myself comfortable, then added, "Now, is that everything? I want to sleep."
"No, wait! I wanted to ask you a -- . Please don't let Teva'ryn take away my weapon. I know he will try, and he is stronger than me."
"So? He is stronger than me too," I replied but then saw her grit her teeth and hurriedly added, "Fine, fine, I talk to him."
"Thank you," Devi'lynn said and bowed her head. I frowned at that. I didn't think she should be thanking me, since I didn't promise her anything. Sure, it was true that I was with her - I regarded this custom about women not holding weapons quite idiotic - but my desire to avoid conflict was greater. I didn't want any infighting within our group when there were already so many monsters around us to fight.
"Alright then. You take first watch." It was nice to have companions and not having to rely on sheer luck and a pet cat to avoid danger. "Wake me... umm... half time. When it is my turn."
Devi'lynn just nodded silently. I hoped that she knew what I was talking about. Had they been taking turns at keeping watch while travelling through the forest? It seemed the obvious thing to do in these kinds of situations. In movies and books it was a common thing to do, though I had no idea if it would be effective here. When it was my turn to watch I knew I would be so bored that I'd have trouble keeping myself alert.
"Oh, and give me that." I pointed at my cloak that she was wearing, or at least the remnants of it. It would be good enough for a pillow. Devi'lynn glared at me - I didn't understand why, when the cloak was mine in the first place - but she took the ragged fabric off and handed it to me. I nested myself between two roots that were partially protruding from the ground, nudged the magic staff a bit further away from me so that I wouldn't accidentally break it, then closed my eyes... only to open it up an instant later and jump upright.
"Noooo," I groaned, clutching my head. I totally forgot to bring extra magical orbs with me! I planned to steal, or... requisition the rest of the glass orbs, but then we found that corridor and after that there was the revelation about the giants... and it had gone out of my mind. Devi'lynn looked at me questioningly, so - partly just to save face - I decided to grab the staff and offer it to her.
"Here, take this. It's no weapon, right? Teva'ryn won't take it." I still had plans with the staff but for the time being it was useless, so she could have it. Less luggage for me to carry!
"Just be really careful with it. Don't break it," I added as I went back to my nest, not even waiting for Devi'lynn to answer. In the brief time I hadn't been occupying it, Nosy had already taken my pillow for himself and curled up on it. I picked him up and put him on my chest as I leaned back. It wasn't exactly like a blanket, but his oddly warm fur provided enough heat that it was quite comfortable. Exhausted as I was, it didn't take me more than a minute to fall asleep.
"Randel, wake up! It's your turn."
I just groaned and turned on my side to avoid the poking fingers.
"Me no good in language. Me no understand. Me sleep."
"There wasn't even anything to understand! I was just calling your name," Devi'lynn said and she began shaking me. "Come on, I want to sleep too!"
With another groan I sat up and looked around. It was still dark. Why did she wake me up then? Oh, right, keeping watch. Still, considering the shorter days, I couldn't have slept more than a few hours. It was not even nearly enough.
"Okay. Okay. I'm wake now," I mumbled. Devi'lynn was crouching at an arm's length from me and just kept staring at me.
"What?" I asked.
"Move," was all she said. Oh, of course. She wanted to take my cozy little sleeping nest. Well, it might be better this way. At least I wouldn't be as tempted to lie down and go back to sleep. I settled down with Nosy in the other side of the camp. The wildcat was awake too, because I dumped him on the ground when Devi'lynn was poking me. Having left the dictionary with Imaya, the feline was my last hope to stave off boredom.
I spent the rest of the night trying to teach Nosy a few basic commands. I wished I had some meat to offer him as reward, but I had to make do with a few ear-, neck- and back rubs. He actually didn't like when I rubbed his belly, my newly acquired scratches were clear signs of that. The rest of the night passed quite uneventfully, with the one exception of Devi'lynn throwing a pebble at the back of my head when I got too noisy with Nosy and she woke up.
By the time the sun was rising, I managed to get Nosy to hold my dagger in his jaws and follow me around. Not even once, but twice! It was a major success. The weapon was a bit too large for him and he moved awkwardly while holding it, but I was hoping that he was still growing in size and one day this task would be easier on him.
With the sun came the bugs, and with the bugs, a constant buzzing. It meant that I didn't have to wake Devi'lynn up, because the sound of the bugs took care of that. Or maybe it was Nosy, who walked across her legs with Soul Eater in his mouth. I wasn't sure which.
"Good morning, Devi'lynn!" I was in an unusually cheerful mood thanks to the successfull training with Nosy. Devi'lynn mumbled something which could have been either 'morning' or some kind of nasty swearing, then she got up and shuffled out of the camp. I supposed she wasn't a morning person either. I began to follow her but she just pointed a finger at me without looking back.
After a few minutes which was filled with the sounds of splashing water, Devi'lynn reemerged from the direction of the river. Her hair was damp, but she was back to her usual self, with her graceful pose and quite ragged clothing. She held my damp cloak in her hand: it had probably been used as a towel. She also had the wound on her right arm redressed.
"I've been thinking, and... do you remember what did you call me back then?" she asked from me when she got near.
"Ah, no, apologies. I didn't mean this morning. I was thinking about yesterday. When we -- from the tunnel and you pulled me back."
Who would remember something like that? I made a face, but actually tried my best to remember. She had been speaking quite loudly, and I wanted her to shut up fast...
"Yes, I think it was... Devi? Sorry, I just tried to call out to you quick," I apologized. "I meant no insult."
"Yes, that's it!" she said with a huge smile. I was confused by her reaction. "Don't worry, I took no insult. In fact, I insist that you call me Devi from now on!" She was practically beaming, and I had no idea why. Were nicknames such special things in her world?
"Uhh... sure?" I waited for her to explain the reason of her enthusiasm, but she picked up the Super Tunnel Creator and without further ado began marching forward, beckoning me to follow.
And I had thought that I was the one who was in a cheerful mood this morning...
We made good progress alongside the river. In the meantime, I was learning new words from Devi, but more importantly, she began learning my 'Common language' in return. It was a good thing too: it would be essential for her in Bildy among the other Humans.
I also attempted to explain her the reason I decided to take the magic staff instead of returning it, and made my complaints about the Thardos. It was quite difficult without my book, but we had plenty of time and it was as good topic for practicing their language as any other topic. During the lengthy process to make my reasoning clear for her, she gave no visible reaction to anything that I said. I could feel she still didn't approve of what we did, but she didn't argue about it either, which was enough for me.
And then, all too soon, we arrived to the camp where Lukas and the others had rested before the battle. Until I heard Imaya's chattering from the distance, I didn't even realize that I hadn't been worried about them at all. I felt a bit guilty about that. It wasn't like it had been granted that they would make it out alive.
But just like last time, I could tell from the Asian girl's cheerful voice that things were probably more or less alright. We still couldn't see where they were, but I could make out what Imaya was babbling about even as the insects were making so much background noise.
"I have to say, this is much harder than I would have thought. Having only a dagger instead of scissors is one thing, but these horns are terribly in the way!" She held a little pause there, then continued on a different line of thought.
"You know, my grandmother would probably be really envious right now, if she knew what I am doing. She was a hairdresser in her time, but I bet that she had never seen such a nice, silky hair in all her life! It's incredible! We have been in this forest for weeks now, without shampoo or conditioner, and your hair still looks so amazing! How do you do it?"
At that point, we emerged from behind the trees. We were on their left side, so I could see what was going on without them immediately noticing us. Teva'ryn sat cross-legged on the ground. His face was distant, seemingly regretting the decisions he made in his life - or at least the most recent one - but maybe it was just my imagination. Imaya was standing behind him, Stabby in her hand, and was doing the final adjustments on Teva'ryn's now considerably shorter, spiky hair. I cleared my throat and spoke up.
"Why didn't you do this at the river where you could wash away-"
"YOU LIVE!" Imaya exclaimed, then dropped the dagger and bounded over to give both me and Devi a brief hug.
"Oh, I have been so worried," she said, "we have arrived here yesterday, and I had no idea how long we would have to wait for you! Haaa, Devi'lynn, what happened to your arm? Are you injured? What happened with you guys? Woah, and what's that staff, are you a mage now, Devi'lynn?"
"Hey, hey, calm down, Imaya! One question at a time. Umm..." I looked at Devi who was hanging back a bit, keeping her distance from Teva'ryn. The Sylven man looked a bit glum, though I supposed it was either because of the haircut or the fact that we had managed to sneak up on him. But I remembered clearly that things weren't exactly rosy between him and Devi last time they saw each other.
"Teva'ryn, can you heal Devi'lynn, please? I want to talk with you soon, but for now... please help her."
Even if Devi hadn't been complaining about her wound, the sooner she got patched up the better. I had no idea how Teva'ryn's new Ability worked, but the fact that he had been able to use it on my knee wound was promising. I waited until Teva'ryn nodded and walked over to Devi'lynn - I noted that he wasn't limping anymore - then I turned back to Imaya.
"So?" she asked, "Where were you? What did you find?"
"Well, you know... we found a bunch of spiders."
"Ugh," Imaya shivered. "I hate spiders so much. They are my weak point!"
I was about to get into the details when Imaya suddenly became distracted. She saw Nosy behind my legs, and crouched down to address him as well.
"Well, hello there! I missed you too! Come here, Nosy, come to Imaya!"
The wildcat wasn't really keen on approaching the Asian girl, so I cleared my throat and hoped that we could get back on track again.
"So, umm, the two of you arrived here yesterday...?"
"Three of us!" Imaya corrected me.
"Three? Did you find someone while we were away?" I asked, confused because I couldn't see anyone else around.
"You could say so!" Imaya said as she skipped over where she had been cutting Teva'ryn's hair. She bent down and picked up something from the grass. That something turned out to be a big, ugly, brown toad-like creature. I unconsciously took a few steps back, but Imaya didn't seem to notice my revulsion and closed in the distance, raising the toad with both hands towards my face.
"I present you Mr. Destroyer!" she exclaimed proudly. "He is my companion! See, Randel, I am a Tamer too!"
"Y-You... named him Destroyer?" I asked, not daring to avert my eyes from the animal in case it decided to jump at me. Nosy climbed up on my back and peered over my shoulder, focusing on the toad as well.
"MISTER Destroyer," Imaya emphasized. "I cannot do anything about it, that's what the collar said."
"You had to call him at least once by that name for the collar to name him," I pointed out for her.
"Yeah, well..." she trailed off. "But it fits, right? He destroyed all the flies around the camp! And even the mosquitoes! Mr. Destroyer is a true hero!" Imaya made her case, dangling the toad left and right as if it was flying.
"Yes, well..." I said, though my mind was already elsewhere. "Say, did you get any stat bonuses from... khm... Mr. Destroyer?"
"Stat bonuses? No, but that would be cool. The collar's description didn't say any-"
That was as far as she got with her answer, because in that moment Nosy launched himself from my shoulder, biting into the legs of the toad and wrenching it out of Imaya's grip. He landed with catlike agility, then sprinted away with his prey.
"Nosy, nooooooooo!" Imaya wailed as she chased after the cat. The feline swiftly climbed up a tree and settled down on a wide branch where Imaya had no chance reaching him.
"Bad kitty! Come back here!" Imaya shouted at Nosy in vain. I didn't bother to call Nosy back because I knew he wouldn't listen.
Hmm, maybe not every animal companion gives stat bonuses, just the really rare or magical ones, I speculated as Nosy destroyed Mr. Destroyer with a small spout of flames.
After Teva'ryn depleted all of his mana, we got moving. As I had promised to Devi'lynn, I approached Teva'ryn and got ready to argue. To my greatest surprise, he was already one step ahead of me.
"I would like to thank you, Ran'del, for escorting Lady Devi'lynn to safety. She has explained what happened." He paused there for a moment, then added, "I have also apologized to her for my earlier behavior. I do not wish to discuss it further at the moment."
"Wh- Oh that's good." Well, that was unexpected. "So... umm, she also tell you about the alutnarat?"
"Yes, she did."
"And... you believe her?"
"Of course I believe her. Why wouldn't I?" He looked at me as if I was crazy to even think about such things. I was baffled, but decided to move on.
"And what about her keeping the weapon?"
"I told you," he said with a sigh, "I already talked about it with her. She can keep it." He looked really uncomfortable as he said it, but it was still really strange. What made him change his mind?
"So you admit that you make mistake? That you did wrong?" I decided to push him a little. Teva'ryns eyebrows twitched and he took a deep breath before answering, but at least he did answer.
"I wasn't wrong. But I see now that the situation requires -- . As the ranking male in this group, I can declare -- ." He continued on for a few sentences but I didn't understand anything of that. He was also speaking really fast, not the usual slower pace that he normally used when he was talking to me. Whatever, I'll find out about his reasoning later, I thought. The important part was that Teva'ryn had changed his mind, and I didn't even need to do anything.
"Be considerate and translate for me, you bane of all frogs!" Imaya nudged me from my other side. I sighed. Ever since the earlier accident, Imaya hadn't stopped calling me names and blaming me for the death of her pet toad, no matter how many times I apologized. It was really getting on my nerves. Taking responsibility for my pet's actions was one thing, but the way Imaya reacted was almost as if I was the one who ate her toad.
Moreover, I didn't think she was aware about much of the drama between Teva'ryn and Devi'lynn. She probably knew something was going on, but I hadn't explained it to her previously - she had been too busy grieving the death of Tobias - and I didn't want to do it now either.
I told her about our adventures instead. At least that successfully distracted her from the loss of her companion. I told her about the Thardos, about the deal we had made, and finally about the nest of alutnarat that I had found.
"Woah!" Imaya exclaimed, "It must have been the boss room!"
"That's one way to put it," I agreed. "And it does not seem to be a coincidence that it was more or less under the clearing where the octopus giants were working."
"Do you think the squidheads were building something there?" Imaya asked. "I got that impression when we saw them, but I didn't really have a good look. I was too busy trying to find a way to escape!" she laughed, but it didn't sound genuine.
"Your guess is as good as mine, but yeah, I think so too."
"Oooh, some mysterious force gathering monsters to build a castle? And we are the only ones who discovered it? It smells like adventure!"
"No," I replied grimly, "it smells like get the fuck out of here."
"Aww come on, you know I was joking!"
Lagging behind the two Sylven, we continued on in silence for a while. When I glanced at Imaya, I saw that (surprisingly) she was thinking on something. She was wrinkling her forehead and biting her nails nervously.
"What is it?" I prompted her.
"Well, I was about to suggest that we report this to someone when we arrive at Bildy. But when I thought about it I realized that we don't really have any proof, do we? And I don't think there are many people who would believe us. I mean, just look at how we look like. We wouldn't make a good first impression like this."
Wow, that was... actually thoughtful. I never really thought that far ahead, and certainly didn't consider reporting this to anyone.
"If all goes well, we can get new clothes in Bildy, so first impressions shouldn't be a problem," I replied. I didn't know how much those coins from the smuggler were worth, but I hoped that silver was somewhat valuable. If not, I still had the crystals from the observatory in my pocket.
"Nevertheless, I wouldn't report it to anyone," I continued. "Maybe it's just me, but I'd like to stay low profile. Claiming that someone is gathering an army of monsters would draw unwanted attention on us, I think. Besides, we are still far from the town. If I remember the maps that the Shrissten showed me, we still have about a week's worth of walking before we reach Bildy. I don't think the town would be interested in something so far from them."
"Yeah, you might be right," Imaya agreed.
"Okay, let's change topic," I said after I saw that she had nothing more to add. "What happened with you two in the last few days?"
"The three of us, you toad-murderer, might not have found such mysterious secrets like you adventurers did, but mighty Warrior Teva'ryn and sharp-eyed Archer Imaya had their share of-"
"Okay, could we jump to the actually important part?"
When I interrupted her, Imaya took in a sharp breath and her face turned into a mock-impression of shock and disdain.
"How dare you! Telling a story is a work of art! Everything should be told in its own pace. You cannot hurry the flow the river, or the change of the seasons!"
"I see. Well, see you later, Imaya! I'm going to ask Teva'ryn now."
"Noo-hooo, Randel, waiiit!" she wailed but I was already picking up speed, trying to catch up to the Sylven. However, I didn't succeed. In the next moment Imaya kicked out and tripped me, making me stumble and fall face-first to the ground.
"That was mean," I mumbled into the fallen leaves under me.
"No, you are mean!" Imaya retorted. "I didn't have anyone to speak with for days, and you are going to leave me alone again?"
"Didn't you have Teva'ryn?" I asked as I picked myself up, trying my best not to point out that before rejoining them, I didn't have anyone to talk to for weeks.
"That's not the same, you frogs' menace! He didn't understand a word from anything I said."
"That didn't stop you, though," I muttered under my breath. I brushed down the leaves that clung to my clothes, then turned back to her. "Okay, I got it. Please tell me what happened with you, but under five minutes."
"Tsch-tsch, it is a difficult task you ask from me, young man. The tales of this beautiful and talented Archer are numerous, and..." she trailed off when she saw my 'not-impressed' look. "Geez, you are the worst audience ever, frog-killer. Alright, I'll be brief," she said to my great relief.
"So, after we got separated from you, Teva'ryn and I continued on in the cave. You know, I actually thought at the time that something was odd about the tunnel. It led us to the other side of the hill, so it was as if, dunno, someone made a shortcut so they wouldn't have to climb over? Now that you told me about those rodent guys, it is even more obvious."
I wondered whether it was true. I didn't think the Thardos needed any shortcut through the hill, at least not at the moment. Additionally, the cave and its tunnel wasn't as artificial-looking as the tunnels down underneath. However, it was possible that they wanted to disguise an entrance that way, or perhaps that particular passage had been made ages ago, when the Thardos formed tunnels differently.
"Anyways," Imaya continued, "just before we found the exit, we encountered a two-headed bear. That's right, it had two heads! Its necks were longer than usual, but overall it was a bit smaller than, let's say, a grizzly bear. But it was still reeeally scary!" Imaya said, then stopped with her monologue and looked at me expectantly.
"So, what did you do after that?" I asked resignedly, deciding to indulge her a bit.
"Good for you to ask! Well, Teva'ryn jumped forward with his sword, pushing me behind him. His left wrist was injured still, and his legs weren't good either, but he fought really bravely! He eventually cut off one of the heads - and mind you, it wasn't as easy even though it had a narrow neck - but then the beast became even more enraged and slammed Teva'ryn to the wall! Thanks to that, the way was clear and I could shoot it right in the eye. But! The bear didn't die, even though it was half-blinded, no, three-quarters blinded! It was also very clever and bit down on Teva'ryn's right arm and used him as a living shield from any further arrows."
Imaya paused once again. I rolled my eyes.
"Woah," I said as emotionlessly as I could. "What could you possibly do in a situation like that?"
"Well, I realized that I couldn't do anything with my bow. But I still had your dagger, Stabby! So I rushed forward, skirted around Teva'ryn, ducked under one enormous paw, then struck the blade into the beast's neck. It let Teva'ryn go and collapsed soon after!"
"Just like that?" I asked, this time with genuine surprise.
"Yup, just like that!" Imaya grinned. I had been prepared for some kind of over-detailed and maybe a little exaggerated description about how she had saved Teva'ryn from the jaws of the beast.
But on a second thought... I suddenly had a suspicion why Teva'ryn changed his mind about Devi'lynn.
"Well, you can thank me later," Imaya chattered on, "Because my story isn't finished yet! Not long after we exited, we encountered a single squidhead. It was alone, moving towards their gathering place, so we didn't even need my Holy Sight to spot it," she said with a tinge of disappointment. "Aaanyways, it saw us as well, so we had to escape. Teva'ryn couldn't run very fast, but I used my new Ability to help him escape."
"Which is...?" I asked. At the time when she had received it, she had been depressed and only willing to say that it was an attack-type Ability.
"Arcane Covering Fire. When I activate it, several tears open in the air above me. Kinda like Teva'ryn's portal, but you can't see through these, they all have this purplish color. After each shot from my bow, energy beams are fired from each of those tiny portals, one after the other with a slight delay. So you see, it's really useful because I can keep firing continuously. While the portals are shooting magical arrows, I can nock and draw and loose the next arrow and then the next series of magical barrage can begin! The energy shots are also quite strong and could get even stronger with points on my Magic stat."
It sounded really impressive. I guessed that she had been disappointed about not being able to do much against the octopus giants, and the collar had decided to help her out. With an Ability like that, she could be a serious threat if her enemy cannot get close to her fast.
"So! As Teva'ryn retreated, I began shooting at the giant. I cannot use Covering Fire while moving, so I had to stop each time I was using the Ability. But! My shots actually hurt the giant. Hurt it really bad! It eventually stopped coming after us and retreated. So that's how I saved the day a second time," she turned in my direction with a huge smile.
I briefly wondered whether I made a mistake by not asking sooner for the in-depth explanation of her Ability. It could have helped us a lot, if we had chosen not to explore the cave but rush out instead. However, there had been more than one giant waiting for us, and Imaya probably wouldn't have been able to hold all of them back. Especially with Teva'ryn so injured...
"What happened to Teva'ryn's arm?" I asked. "The one that was bit by the bear." I was looking at it but it seemed normal to me.
"Oh, he healed it pretty fast. Seems like he can heal flesh much faster than bones. His Ability doubtlessly leveled up a few times after using it so much, and maybe that helped too."
"Okay, that's good. I'll get the details from him later," I said.
"Alright! Now, let me tell you another story, a tragedy this time. It's story about how I found my one and true companion, and how he encountered his early demise due to an irresponsible person."
I couldn't suppress a groan. The journey to Bildy couldn't be over soon enough.
The next few days were - not too surprisingly - filled with language lessons. I was teaching the two Sylven the basics, the Sylven were teaching me some grammar, and Imaya was just lazing around. Or, if anyone asked her (no one actually did) she was 'improving the listening skills' of the two Sylven.
For some reason, it was more difficult to hunt smaller animals to eat than it was when I was alone. Even so, we were never really hungry. There were plenty of fruit and we also ate fish that Teva'ryn occasionally caught. The only thing I could complain about was the weather. Though the trees shaded us quite well from the sun, the air was still way too hot and humid. When the rain fell, it became even worse: on the three separate occasions when we encountered a storm, we had to stop and wait it out. Even after the worst of the rain had passed, it wasn't easy to continue walking, as area around the river became extremely muddy.
It seemed to me that the Sylven were more accustomed to this kind of climate than me or Imaya. It was difficult to judge though, because our blue companions rarely ever complained. On the other hand, the one who had the worst time was Nosy. Well, the rain-free days didn't bother him - though he often traveled on my shoulders just to avoid stepping into the mud - but as it turned out, he absolutely hated any kinds of water that he wasn't about to drink. He totally freaked out during the storms, and I always had to do my best to shield him from the rain whenever we were out. His reaction was even worse than a normal cat's would have been, and I didn't understand why. It wasn't as if the water physically harmed him, he just simply didn't want to get his fur wet.
The four of us set up a good system for the nights, with which I was more or less satisfied. I could finally say that I got accustomed to the shorter days of this world. Every second night, I slept while the two Sylven were looking out for danger. On the other nights, however, I was keeping watch for a while, then took a nap when it was Imaya's turn. If I were home, I would have called this having a short night's worth of sleep, followed by an afternoon nap later on. I didn't know how the other humans in this world were going about their days and nights, but I suspected that it was something similar to this.
Just before we could get too accustomed to this kind of lifestyle, the forest abruptly ended. We reached a part of the forest where the trees have been systematically cut out, possibly by lumberjacks, though we saw none at the time. What we did see, however, were two roads. One coming from the North, and one coming from the South, both of them skirting around the forest and meeting at the river where the town of Bildy could be seen in the distance.
"Hey, we are nearly there!" Imaya broke the silence.
"Let's head for that road on our right," I said. "I had enough of wading trough the mud."
"Look, guys, look!" Imaya pointed forward, "Other people! And a cart!" The way she said it sounded as if she had never saw anything like this. But I had to agree that it was refreshing to finally find something approaching normal. Still not completely familiar, but at least not that alien.
The people with the cart were probably farmers, bringing their crops to sell it, heading towards the town. From the opposite direction, I saw four men on horseback coming our way. Well, not exactly horseback, but the beasts looked like robust horses. The men wore uniforms so they were probably soldiers, or... damn. A patrol.
"Keep moving towards the road, and don't mention Nosy," I whispered to Imaya, who just looked at me questioningly. I quickly cast Dark Bond on Soul Eater, then turned around and hurled it back into the forest. Suspicious? Probably. But still better than turning around suddenly and going in the opposite direction to avoid the guards. Besides, maybe they didn't even see that I threw anything. The patrol was still quite a distance away.
"What are you doing?" Devi asked, but I ignored her question for now.
"Nosy, stay. Stay," I tried to emphasize the command as I picked him up the ground. I really hoped that he wouldn't try to follow me immediately. When I was sure that he listened to my command - which, by this time, he was supposed to understand - I shifted him to the dagger.
We reached the road, and continued on towards Bildy, while internally I cursed our bad luck. Or is it actually bad luck? There was a reason why the smuggler hadn't followed the road and tried to cut through the forest instead. I could imagine that in a world like this, regular patrols were essential in order to ward off monsters and bandits. Otherwise, farmers and merchants would have to pay for personal guards themselves, and it would definitely impact the economy, or something like that. I wished that I had paid more attention in history class back in high school. It would have been really useful now. Paying attention wasn't one of my strengths though, no matter what kind of class I'm talking about, I reminisced.
I was jolted back to the present when the shadow of the first horseman fell upon us. I looked up at the guards, but they didn't even glance in my direction. Only the last one took a brief look at me when we passed each other, and from the look of disgust on his face, I concluded that it wasn't my earlier strange behavior that he had problems with. Then the moment was over and they had left us alone without so much as a word.
When we were a safe distance from them, I teleported the dagger back to me. With the added points on my Spirit stat, I could keep up the bond for almost three times longer than in the beginning. I didn't have to hurry that much to get Nosy back to me.
"So, care to explain what that was about?" Imaya asked when I was cradling Nosy once again, trying to calm him down.
"Oh, I just heard that magical beasts are illegal for some reason. I'm sorry but I don't know any details."
"Pfff, why would a cute kitty like that be illegal?" Imaya asked incredulously.
"No idea," I shook my head, "Maybe because he spits fire, and most of the houses are made of wood in this world?"
"It still doesn't explain why can't you keep him here, out in the open."
"There was a forest over there, you know."
"Well, good luck igniting anything in that humid air, and with all those storms!"
"Hey, I don't get it either," I replied, "I'm just trying to make some sense of it. Anyways, I'll try to ask around - discreetly - if I can."
"Alrighty then! Don't worry Randel, your secret is safe with me," Imaya said cheerfully as she mimed zipping her mouth shut. I wondered whether she meant it ironically.
We entered Bildy pretty easily. I thought that there would be large walls, gates, guards and things like that, but there wasn't any. Was it because this town is still small and expanding? Maybe I was just stereotyping too much, thinking about castles and moats and knights in shiny armor.
On the edge of Bildy the houses were more spaced out compared to the center, where I could see even from afar that the buildings were taller and more clustered. Most of the buildings were made of wood, but had a solid stone base. The main road and even the smaller streets branching from it were cobbled, and relatively clean. All in all, it barely felt like a step backwards compared to Earth. Where I came from, I knew several small towns which looked so much worse than this at first glance. I kept forgetting that even though technologically this world was behind us, they had magic here. It solved a few problems that medieval Earth couldn't handle.
One perfect example for that had just raced past us on its four robotic legs.
"What was that?!" Imaya exclaimed as she looked at the dog-sized structure running down the road and out of the town. It was mostly made of metal, but was painted in different colors that probably symbolized something. There was a hump on its back which looked a bit comical. Without it, the robot would have passed as a dog. A really colorful, rattling and jingling dog.
"It's a messenger golem," I answered, surprising Imaya. "It delivers letters and small packages between cities. These golems also have a self-destruct function in case someone tries to take their packages from them on the road... so be sure not to stop one when you see them running."
"And how would you know all that?" she asked.
"You know, I didn't join the lizardmen only to smoke weed. It was exactly information like this that I wan-"
"Wait, the lizardmen smoke weed? That's so cute! How did they do it with those jaws?"
"Well, they had pipes for-"
"Ooooh, and how was it, did you try it yourself?"
"No, I didn't want to-"
"Have you at least brought some from them?"
"Arrgh, shut up! You saw my bag, I didn't have any," I grumbled. "And now I forgot what I wanted to talk about!"
"Baah, you are boring," Imaya said and skipped forward. "But it's fine, I'll help you out," she added and turned around to walk backwards. "Now that we are here, what the duck is our plan?"
"Oh! Yes. I have a few ideas. First, we should find a cheap inn or something to sleep, because it's getting late now. Tomorrow we can go and find the Core of the city."
"Another thing that the lizards have talked about?"
"Yes. It is a place where only Players can enter, so I want to check out what's up with it as soon as possible. Cores are considered to be the source of the mana permeating the air around us. Well, mana is supposedly everywhere, but its denser around these Cores. That's why settlements are usually springing up and growing whenever someone finds a new Core. It is especially useful for mages."
"And you are telling me this now?!" Imaya exclaimed so loudly that basically everyone on the street snapped their heads to look at us. "This stuff is soooo interesting and important, and you didn't tell me earlier?!"
"W-Well, you didn't ask. Besides, it wasn't exactly relevant in the middle of the forest..."
"What else? What else do you know?!" she stopped walking, grabbed my shoulders and began shaking me. "Will I see wizards around the core? Or witches?"
"Well, yeah, kinda," I said while trying to extricate myself from her clutches, "But not the kind of wizards that you are thinking of. Most of them would be just ordinary people."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," I cleared my throat, "every local has the aptitude to do magic in this world. It requires a lot of learning and practice, so only a very few actually become mages. Even so, the mana around the Core can be useful for non-mages as well, because for example magical artifacts function better around it."
Imaya was breathing hard now, as if she had run a marathon. I had a feeling that the more I talked, the worse this situation became. Teva'ryn and Devi'lynn were patiently waiting for us to finish - not really understanding what this was all about - but I noticed that a few other people were also listening in to the conversation. I tried to get moving once again but Imaya extended an arm to stop me.
"So. Magic. Everyone can do magic. Like what? Throwing fireballs? Telekinesis?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that. Just minor stuff, like creating golems, or barriers, or casting enchantments..." I trailed off. "Sorry but I don't really know the specifics. The Shrissten were joking around a lot..."
"Wow. So you mean that I could also learn making those golems or casting barriers? Are there schools for that?"
"Err, well, you can't. I said locals can manipulate mana. Players cannot. You have to be born here to be able to do that."
I paused a little, a bit unsure if I should add anything more, but then I continued.
"In fact - if I'm guessing correctly - that might be the reason why they kidnapped us. I thought about this a lot... about the reason why they needed us to experiment on, and not just any person from this world. If the collars only work on those who cannot inherently do magic, this theory makes sense, right?"
Imaya just looked at me silently with big eyes, a serene expression on her face. I didn't know how to interpret that, but I didn't think it meant anything good for me.
"I- I mean," I continued, "This is just a theory of mine. It's not necessarily true. Maybe we could do ordinary magic too, but the collar is preventing it. Aaand, maybe we aren't even experiments at all, though I had that feeling when they fixed my collar and gave me my dagger. But it could have been some thing else, a trick, or... I dunno..."
"You are such a douche, Randel," Imaya stated and poked me in the chest. "You knew all this, and you haven't said anything about it! For how long? We were travelling together for days, and you didn't even give a hint!"
"As I said, it wasn't relevant." Besides, it wasn't as if I was thinking about this that much. During the days after I had left the Shrissten camp, I had already chewed through everything I had learnt from them. By the time I rejoined them, I had shelved it to the back of my mind.
"It should have been the first thing you said after you met me, you idiot!" she complained. "Right after the 'Hi Imaya' you should have followed up with 'By the way, did you know that everyone in this world can do magic?'"
"As I said, not everyone can actually-"
"Shut up, I'm talking! And now I'm angry!" She didn't actually sound really angry, only annoyed with me. There was a hint of smile behind her voice as well.
"You will pay for this, Randel, I swear! I won't talk to you for at least a week!"
Upon hearing that, I couldn't keep my expression in check and smiled. She noticed it, of course, and I saw a glint in her eye. Uh-huh. She had baited me like a professional. I braced myself for the worst.
"No, scrap that. I'll be talking to you non-stop for a week! I want to know every itty-bitty detail that you learnt from the lizardmen! And then I'll extract every little twisted thought that passed through your head ever since you left their camp!"
We didn't find any place to sleep in Bildy. Most of the people became really skittish when they saw our collars, and it also didn't help that we were in ragged clothing and had basically no money.
At first I was worried that Devi'lynn and Teva'ryn would have to face racism, but we didn't encounter any problems on that front. I asked one of the guests in an inn - he was completely at ease around us, standing out from the rest of the people with his atypical behavior - and he said that different kinds of adventurers pass through this town all the time, so the locals were accustomed to them.
This man who was kind enough to have a proper discussion with me was a stout middle-aged man named Harold. We didn't talk longer than a few minutes, but I got him to explain a few things about keeping pets. Having Nosy was a serious disadvantage. Though I was glad to learn that most of the people wouldn't instantly recognize his species as magical, it was still frowned upon to bring animals into an inn.
It turned out that the Emperor had banned keeping magical pets about ten years ago, when someone's runaway fire drake had burnt down a large part of the capital. Ever since then, anyone caught having magical beasts without any 'licence' had to pay a large sum of money or were sent to jail. I was glad to note that at least it wasn't outright execution.
Before this law, magical animals had been quite common merchandise: they'd been freely bought and sold on the market. Rich people had possessed large collections of different kinds of rare animals from all over the world. Even the common folk had bought certain types of creatures, often for entertainment. Frost fairies or dust pixies had been quite popular, despite their short lifetimes and relatively high price. Needless to say, problems caused by these creatures had been quite frequent. This is why - even though several people had vehemently opposed it - the Emperor had decided that this law was necessary.
So while all this meant that the law wasn't specifically targeted for Players with Companions, it applied to me as well. I still had to be wary of guards and officials that would ask me for my licence if they saw Nosy, but at least I didn't necessarily have to keep my cat away from everyone.
A few times I had stayed outside with Nosy while the others had negotiated, but we still didn't get any rooms. People around here weren't really friendly, I had to realize. Well, at least not friendly towards us. They either outright refused to deal with us, or set so outrageous prices on theirs rooms that we couldn't afford even a single one. The best deal we got was a place in the stables on the floor for one silver per person. I wasn't about to give up almost half of my money for a night which would be roughly as comfortable as sleeping in the forest.
And that was the other thing: only I had money. The others assumed that I had got it from the Shrissten, and I had no desire to correct their belief. The ten silvers and few coppers in the smuggler's pouch weren't much, but I still had the crystals from the Thardos. I just had to find a place where I could trade it for coins, without being swindled.
All of these resulted in walking back to the forest. The sun had already set, but we wanted some kind of shelter. As opposed to Bildy, the Western Forest was at least something we were familiar with: all of us felt it safer to spend the night hidden amongst the trees. It would be my and Imaya's turn to sleep, but to be honest, I wasn't all that tired. The prospect of exploring Bildy filled me with too much anticipation.
"So tomorrow we are going to visit this Core you talked about," Imaya spoke up as we were gathering leaves to make the ground a bit more comfortable. "And then what?"
"Oh," I said, "I want to do so many things that I barely know where to start!"
"Well, most importantly, I want to learn more about this pet licence for Nosy. I don't want to bother hiding him forever. We will also have to ask around and find out if there is a city for Sylven, since Teva'ryn said that he would like to find one."
"Okay, yeah," Imaya nodded enthusiastically, "what else?"
"Well, I'd like to discover more about the collars. They are quite important, and the more we know about them, the better our chances are for survival. We need to find other Players and have an interview with them. I want to know what's the purpose of attribute points, and what the limits of the Abilities are."
"Okay. And?" Imaya prompted further, and I continued with a sigh.
"Then, I guess we could also find out more about how magic works. I heard that there is some kind of Mage Circle, and there are also Academies where they teach students. I think there are also several other interesting facilities in this town that we could check out."
"Beep! WRONG! All wrong!" Imaya exclaimed. "I'm really, really disappointed now, Randel."
"What? What are you talking about? I was just listing the important things on my to-do list."
"Well, your to do list sucks!" Imaya retorted. "Do you know what we need? Clothes! And shampoo and soap! And dear god, a toothbrush! Do you have any idea how long it was since I last brushed my teeth?!" Imaya took a deep breath, then continued her tirade with exaggerated arm gestures. "Oh, and I want to eat something delicious! Not this half-cooked flavorless meat that we are eating all the time. And I want a large bed, with blanket and pillow! I can't even remember now how it feels to lie on something soft and comfortable. And do you know what we need for all these? Money! So get your to-do list in order, and figure out how to get more silvers!"
She stood there like a strict mother would in front of a disobeying child, hands on her hips and giving me a level stare. I wasn't the only one in the group, so I didn't understand why I was the only one who got this treatment. Why don't you do something about it if it bothers you that much? I could have called her out on it, but I had better things to do than argue pointlessly with her. Biting back my retort, I decided to say something constructive instead.
"Well, I have some ideas for that one too." I was mainly gambling on the fact that my crystals had any worth. "But let's talk about that after we looked around in the town tomorrow. There is a Bountyhouse in every large settlement, so if nothing else, we could do some of these so-called Quests."
"Okay," Imaya nodded, "Fair enough." When I didn't say anything else, she reluctantly got back to work.
I let out a low groan and massaged my temple. Imaya had been really on a roll at sapping my energy today. I looked around to find the two Sylven and see what they were doing. At least when they argued, their voices were still pleasing to the ear.