The climb down was surprisingly easy, with the aid of the rope. Leah assumed it was her Dexterity coming into play. Only near the end did she begin to struggle, her arms burning and sweat beading on her forehead from exertion.
“Damn… low… Strength…”
“Actually, Constitution is more of a factor for a climb like that.”
The sudden voice behind her made Leah yelp in surprise, and let go of the rope, falling back the last foot and landing with a pained grunt. Liam stood over her with a smug smile, a torch in one hand and his dagger in the other. Seeing she was fine, he went back to watching their surroundings. Leah sat up, rubbing an elbow that had broken her fall.
“I could have hurt myself, you idiot. What was that for?”
She could practically hear the grin on his face.
“Oh, I just heard the two of you bantering at the top of the hill. I wanted in on the action, thats all.”
“Payback will be had, and it will be sweet.”
She looked around, annoyed, and tugged the rope to indicate they had made it down. The group at the foot of the hill had formed a loose circle, with the guard with a sling checking their cart to make sure nothing had fallen out. She hadn’t taken too much of a look from the top of the hill, being more concerned about the awaiting climb, but now she had a moment, she took in her surroundings. They were at the edge of a road paved with loose stones, with another, less steep hill running parallel to the one that had just descended. The road ran between the two of them, taking up most of a small path that ran along the hills. Down the other hill, a small scattering of trees paved the way down to a medium sized river, about 200 meters away and only partially visible through the trees. She supposed that she could only see it thanks to her elven eyesight, with the dim moonlight picking out the edges of objects and glistening softly on the waters surface. She turned her gaze away from the environment, and returned to Liam.
“So, when everyone is down, whats our plan?”
He pointed up the road without looking.
“We head up that way for another hour. Then, we’ll take a break. We need sleep, and hopefully that hill will give us enough of a head start on whatever might be following us. Undead aren’t exactly known for their grace.”
On the topic of sleep, she checked her Internal Mana Pool. It was currently sitting at 8 of 10. She suspected that the bar wouldn’t replenish until she got a good enough nights sleep to counteract the damage she was doing. Or perhaps it was the fact she hadn’t eaten yet. The lack of information was infuriating her. And as if waiting for her to get annoyed with it enough, the bar dropped down, displaying new information.
[Internal Mana Reserve: 8/10(8)]
[1 Mana reserved for maintenance from lack of sleep. Fulfil bodies needs to remove this reservation.]
[1 Mana reserved for maintenance from lack of food. Fulfil bodies needs to remove this reservation.]
Well, that answered one question at least. Two, in fact. And with that knowledge, she was comfortable making a decision.
“Well, if you guys want to sleep, you can, but I can manage just fine for a while longer. I’ll keep watch for the night, and warn you if something is coming.”
“You can- Wait, your trait. Yeah, ok.”
Liam cut himself off before revealing too much information around the guards. He internally cursed for even letting that much slip. He was too damn on edge right now.
“Ok, that makes things easier. Now we just need to wait for Cass and the others.”
As if on cue, two more pairs of boots hit the ground, and tugged on the rope. They joined their comrades in the half circle. The last two began their journey down, leaving Cass on her own up top. Leah looked up at the descending pair of shadows down the rocky hill, frowning. Liam, without looking, apparently knew what she was thinking.
“She’ll be fine. She’s got the best senses of any of us, bar maybe you, and she knows to run if anything looks amiss. Keep your guard up here, though, we don’t know if any others made it down before us.”
Leah tore her eyes off the hilltop, and cast her Mana Sensing around her, still unable to shake her concern.
At the top of the hill, Cassandra heard the last two guards making their way down the ropes. She didn’t dare look away from the plains ahead of her, though, her head turning in a steady arc, her trained and sensitive eyes tracking around for any sign of movement, any hint that something might be coming. Her ears twitched at the slightest sound, as rocks fell behind her from the guards descent and the occasional animal rustled in the grass. Far off, an owl called out. Even with her heightened senses, she still couldn’t see much further than her bows range, which had her concerned. Swords presently drawn in case of a dire threat nearby, she still felt uncomfortable not being able to pick off a target at range. She took a step back, ears trained for the tell tale noise of the rope being tugged against its piton, and hoped that she wouldn’t need to make a rapid descent. She shivered at the thought, and at the inescapable feeling that she was being watched. The undead weren’t known for their good eyesight, she reminded herself, preferring to rely on less mundane senses to track their prey. There wasn’t anything watching her that she wouldn’t be able to detect. She was an expert Ranger, nothing could sneak up on her.
Deep in the darkness, outside of her vision, something watched the lone elf at the top of the hill. There it remained, until it watched her, like the others, climb down one of the ropes. It kept watching for a time, then turned in the shadows and stalked off.
The last two guards hit the ground, and tugged on the rope. Leah broke off from watching the woods below to look first at them, then up at the hilltop. A second passed, then two, seeming to stretch out for an eternity as she wondered why she hadn’t seen a shadow at the top descending yet. She knew rationally that she had to notice the rope, then sheath her blades before making the climb, but still, there was a nagging at her mind that something had gone wrong, and no one was in a position to help if it had. Then, as the worry was reaching a crescendo in her time stretched mind, a figure appeared, cutting one rope and descending on the other. She was down in tense minutes, and when her boots hit the ground, Leah finally let out the breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding. The two nodded to each other, then Liam looked around.
“Right, lets get moving. Maybe we can even get some sleep tonight.”
They made it an hour down the road before Cassandra called for a stop to the party. She pointed to a small gap in the rockface alongside them, where the hill diverted inwards before continuing its path on.
“Here. We have a good view of the road behind us, and it’ll give us some small shelter from the wind.”
Liam nodded, and the guards moved in, eager to get some rest. Cassandra scowled, and started to berate them.
“Oi, we haven’t decided who’s on watch first-”
“Actually, Cass, we have. Leah’s taking first watch, and the whole watch.”
She looked at Liam, her face a mask of incredulity.
“Really? And you want to least experienced of our party, who is probably the most exhausted of us all with her constitution, to be the one watching our backs while we sleep? Never mind the fact that she won’t want to be up all night, she’s as likely as not to fall asleep-”
“No, she won’t. Her trait, remember?”
She narrowed her eyes, and looked at Leah, while she racked her brain to remember the details. Leah put her out of her misery.
“I can make it one night without sleep, easy. Though I might sleep like the dead when I do get a chance, knowing me.”
Cassandra huffed, and followed the guards example, sitting down in the patch of dirt and stone and doing her best to get comfortable.
“Well, if you can’t manage it, wake me. If you fall asleep, you won’t have to worry about anything chasing us when I’m through with you.”
And with that, she closed her eyes, her breathing slowing. Liam sat down on the opposite side, as the party did their best to get some sleep.
“She’s right. If you feel even the slightest bit like you might nod off, wake one of us. We’ll sort the rest out. Wake us at first light, or if you feel anything is amiss.”
Leah nodded, and Liam too closed his eyes. She couldn’t help feeling a little jealous. While she knew inside that she could handle staying up the rest of the night, another six hours by her estimate, she could still feel the nagging edges of sleep at the edges of her eyes, whispering silent thoughts of sleep to her. She shook away the sirens, and threw out her Mana Detection again. She’d have to moderate its usage as best she could, keeping it to a slow pass every minute. Maybe a reduction in range, but a smaller increase in radius could help… The soft hum of calculating in her mind helped to take the edge off. Leaving her submind to actually maintain the skill, making certain to leave it clear instructions on how and when to use it, she kept a watchful eye herself on the road behind them, the low light not doing much good for her spotting anything. If she was lucky, she thought, she might gain a skill in perception, and some good might come out of this lonely evening. She pulled her cloak in tight around her, and started her long vigil.
Throughout the night, the group was watched without their knowledge. One individual in particular was singled out. The watcher never got too close, but sat within Leah’s detection skill for most of the night, all without her knowing. It felt her mana pass over it, and changed the courses subtly, leaving her none the wiser of its observations. Satisfied, the watcher set its sights on its target, the elf who had stood at the top of the cliff. It would take her when their lookout went to sleep, or when the guard changed and they were at their most vulnerable. It was patient. It didn’t know that wasn’t going to happen. As dawn crept in, it left, confused and frustrated, vowing to return the next night and have its revenge on the strange elf that confounded his pursuit.
The night grew brighter around her, and she knew that dawn was on its way. Her new found skill had helped her pick up the minute change, and only improved its effectiveness.
You have gained the skill, Perception(Visual).
As the name implies, this skill governs the users ability to perceive what is around them. It is broken in to subcategories, of which any combination can be attained so long as the user holds that sense. Improving this skill will improve the acuity of the defined sense, the effective range of its use and other factors specific to each sense.
Improve vision range per level
Improve ability to detect motion and colour per level
Chance to detect a target attempting to hide from sight improves per level
You levelled the skill, Perception(Visual) . Its total level is now 3.
Experience gained from levelling a skill.
She was curious to see how much it had levelled just from watching throughout the night, even if she had done it almost continuously for almost six hours. It wasn’t like she had spotted anything during that time. Another benefit was her mana detection had improved.
You levelled the skill, Mana Detection . Its total level is now 4.
Experience gained from levelling a skill.
A small improvement, sure, but an improvement nonetheless. She had more questions about this skill system, though, like how exactly level gain is added. Personal levels seemed to be fairly clear - gaining skills, defeating enemies and presumably other factors that improved your personal growth all seemed to level it. But skills seemed relatively hit and miss, once they had been learnt. Did you need to learn something new about them, and actually improve your usage, or did repetition have the same effect? She would have to ask someone, and with the sun rising, it seemed like as good a time as any. Especially as she now had the task of waking everyone up. She turned her attention away from the road she had been watching for hours, feeling a strain around her eyes as she moved. Had she even blinked? It was hard to remember, as it wasn’t something she had ever thought to actually memorise. Another note for the future.
The small group were fast asleep, some with their backs against the rocky wall, others with their heads propped up by their packs. No one had unpacked anything that wasn’t essential, both because they had fallen asleep so quickly, and because no one knew if they would need to move in a hurry once being woken. Her eyes were drawn to Liam, who was sat opposite her in the crevice, back to the wall. What had got her attention was the fact that he apparently slept with one eye half open. He didn’t seem to be watching anything, as he didn’t react when she moved, but the effect was sufficiently unnerving that she decided not to wake him first unless she had to. She moved on, past the guards she barely knew, and on to Cassandra. The elf had slumped down in the night, so that only her head was now resting against the wall, her legs just barely avoiding one of the guards. Connor, if she remembered right. He was sleeping with his hand in a pouch, which seemed odd, but she’d seen him playing with something in there on the journey over, so assumed it was some personal effect.
Turning back to Cassandra, she shuffled over on her knees, feeling them creak and groan in protest after spending so long stationary. She was acutely aware that today’s hike was going to be agony, and wished she had made more of an effort to move during the night. She hadn’t wanted to wake anyone up inadvertently, though now she was regretting that decision. She leaned over Cassandra, wondering how exactly to wake her up. No one had moved when she had, a fact that only served to draw more irritation in herself for staying still for so long. A nudge on the should also failed to wake up the sleeping elf. Shrugging, she leaned down and whispered to her.
“Cass. Cass, wake up.”
Without opening her eyes, the ranger mumbled,
“Are we under attack?”
“Then I’m going back to sleep.”
With that, she rolled over, facing away from Leah. Leah huffed in irritation, and pushed the womans shoulder again. Now she felt like she was being deliberately ignored. A memory rose up in her mind, and an evil grin descended over the Magalyte Doll’s face. She leaned down, placing her face just an inch from the elfs long, pointed ear. It twitched gently away from her, and before the other elf knew what was happening, she blew hard on it. The effect was immediate and violent. Cassandra yelped in surprise, and sat up quickly, smacking the side of her head into Leah’s. Her hands were on her swords immediately, half drawing them before she saw who her attacker was. The others jumped awake at the noise, hands on their own weapons, every pair of eyes on the giggling elf woman who was laying back on the stony floor, clutching her forehead.
“Oh, that was too good. You shouldn’t have taught me that trick!”
Stowing her weapons, Cassandra stared daggers at Leah, and pushed herself up to her feet. Standing over the still giggling woman, she said,
“Never. Do that. Again.”
“Don’t ignore me when I’m waking you up, and I won’t have to!”
Grumbling, Cassandra stomped off down the hill and into the tree line. Shaking her head, Leah sat up, a smile plastered on her face. Liam, no longer half awake but fully so, fought to keep a smile off his own face.
“I won’t ask you not to mess with Cass, but can you do it in a way that doesn’t scare the daylights out of the lot of us next time? Or did you forget we’re running from death incarnate?”
His admonishments were marred by his mirth, and his message failed to sink in. As everyone slowly got themselves together, and disappeared pair by pair into the small wooded area below to relieve themselves after sleep, Leah split her time between pondering why she didn’t feel the need to go, and smirking at the still grumpy Cassandra. Liam came to talk with Leah after his turn in the woods.
“So, I’m assuming there was nothing of interest last night?”
“Nothing at all, other than some levelling. Of which I have some questions-”
“Ah. What did we say. Wait until we get to the village.”
Leah shut her mouth, saving her questions for later as asked. After a short breakfast of dried rations, of which Leah could only stomach a little, the party set off once again down the road.
“We should make town by midday, so lets keep the pace strong. We didn’t get set upon last night, and the sun being up is in our favour, but we don’t know if anything strong enough to resist it is after us.”
It was a little after the sun reached its zenith that they reached the town. It would have been sooner, had Leah not forced the group to stop as her muscles reached their breaking point multiple times. Cassandra moaned about the delays, but was shut down by Liam after he reminded her Leah hadn’t slept the night before for everyones benefit, and that maybe if she wanted to pick up the pace, she could carry Leah. She’d shut her mouth, blushing at his remarks and turned away, appearing to keep watch in the direction that let no one see her face. The village was small to Leah’s eye, containing 30 to 40 houses arranged in loose rings around a number of common buildings - an inn, the chipped paint on its sign proclaiming it as the Sour Cock (Complete with a faded picture of a grumpy rooster), what appeared to be a general store, and the only stone building in the settlement, a plain and dishevelled church. The only sign it was a church was the unknown symbol hanging over its double doors, and its prominent place in the centre of the village - it looked nothing like the Christian churches Leah had seen in her past life. It was squat and wide, with a gently sloped roof curving over to form an oval. Regularly spaced buttresses and narrow, recessed windows led to look more akin to a fortress than a place of worship.
This was all hidden by a high wooden wall, however, as the group were stopped at the edge of the village by a pair of ragged guards, wearing ill fitting, rusted chain mail and carrying splintered wooden spears. The bows on their backs, however, looked fresh and well used, and the distance they were stopped at indicated the rest of the ensemble might be for show.
“Stop. ‘Oo goes there?”
“Derrek, come off it, we saw ‘em last week.”
“Yeah, but we gotta do it anyway, or Byrne’ll yell at us.”
“They don’t look like monsters to me, but they do look bloody exhausted. Let ‘em in.”
“Fine. Your head. Get in you lot, and go let Byrne know you’re back. E’ll want to set up the nice rooms if you’re stayin’.”
Having already experienced the joys of the local watch, the rest of the party simply walked the remaining distance past them, and into the village proper. Leah, however, had questions.
“They didn’t seem much use.”
“Ah, they aren’t. Having guards at the gate is the lords decree though, even though these lot would stick to the walls in the event of an attack. So they have to put on a show just in case the tax collector comes around and rats them out.”
Liam shook his head at the absurdity of it all, and turned led the group off the main path down a side route. The guards broke off, hauling themselves and the handcart in the direction of the Inn and the prospect of hot food and beer. Leah longingly followed them with her gaze, but snapped her head back forward once they were out of sight to take in her surroundings. Between the houses, there were drying racks and half butchered animals. Buckets of offal raised a thick stench, those working on them looking up at the passersby in curiosity, before returning to their work. Shouts and the ring of metal against bone filled the air. Cassandra noticed her observations.
“Hunting village. There’s not much farmland out in the hinterlands, but the Empire likes to maintain a presence. So you’ll find these all over the place, to keep up appearances and to act as way stations for travellers like us. Supposedly theres a large bonus for those willing to move out here and maintain the villages. “
The three stopped in front of a house slightly larger than the surrounding ones, and without the ever present hunting paraphernalia surrounding it. A thick wooden door with a sign hanging at an angle proclaimed it to be the home of Byrne the elder. Leah was acutely aware that she was reading an alien language, in much the same way that she had been hearing and speaking what was presumably the same language. Another facet to another question for another time. She stood a step behind the two as Liam took hold of a knocker and rapped it hard once, then twice. Shuffling around could be heard, followed by a crash and muffled cursing. Then, a moment later, the door opened a crack, and a wizened face appeared in the doorway.
“Yes, what? Oh, its you. Come in then, come in.”
The door opened wider, revealing the full stature of the older man. Perhaps six feet tall, though difficult to say due to his hunched back, he still looked in tremendous shape for his age. Leah found it difficult to accurately guess how old he might be - she was never much good at it in the first place, but while his skin was wrinkled and pockmarked, there was a youthful glint in his eyes.
“So, just the two of you- oh, I see you picked up someone new. Is that who you were after? I take it the others are at the Cock, making full use of the kings hospitality again…”
He shook his head in dismay, muttering under his breath as he ushered them in. Cassandra and Liam shared a dark look, before Liam responded.
“The mercs are, but no one else. We’ll be burying our comrades before long.”
The man stopped, hung his head and crossed himself with an unusual sign. He looked back up, tugging at his long white beard.
“Ack. Apologies for my flippancy, I shouldn’t have assumed. They died well, at least?”
“As well as anyone can. Though I’d prefer to be drinking with them.”
The man nodded, and led them through to a cramped kitchen area. He rustled around in a cupboard, withdrawing four chipped mugs and a bottle of something foul. Pushing some detritus off the table - papers, quill pens and a knife with a wicked blade - he waved for them to sit. It was a tight fit for all four to sit around the low wooden table, but they managed. He pushed a mug before each of them, and filled it with a measure of the potent alcohol. Each took hold of their mug, and raised it - Leah a half second after the others. The old man led the toast.
“To fallen friends.”
In unison, the group, minus Leah, finished the toast,
“May they drink with us forever.”
Before as one, they knocked back the alcohol. Leah followed that part well enough, spluttering as the moonshine burned her throat and sinuses. As Leah coughed up her share, Cassandra smacked her on the back to ‘help’. A glance told Leah it might just be revenge for that morning, given Cassandra’s smirk. The old man took notice of Leah, as if seeing her for the first time.
“So now. Introductions are in order, I believe. I am Byrne Wirth, or the Elder to those that want to irritate me. And you are?”