She was probably the most important person Annit had ever escorted. High-level Classers didn’t really need the escort, and since Wildwood Retreat itself was located at the entrance to Wildwood valley, it was easy enough to find. Besides, half the time they could fly or gate or something. Or came in a party with someone that could.
No, it was the lower levels, who’d just evolved their classes to the second tier and wanted to move to a real hunting ground, find some like-minded people and group up, that needed the escort. And damned if this Shayma didn’t look like she was freshly Classed, clumsy-graceful in the way only those with newfound Ability boons could be. Not to mention young.
But she was apparently Iniri’s messenger, and it showed. The outfit the fox girl was wearing cost more than she made in a year, which seemed a little unfair, but at least Shayma shared her largesse.
Annit reached into her pocket again to touch the healing Source Gem that Shayma had provided as payment for taking her to Wildwood. She wasn’t sure if Shayma didn’t know how rare healing Sources were or simply didn’t care, being rich enough to use them as casual payment. Either way it was exactly what she had been looking for, delivered as a gift from the gods themselves. With a Source, Keri could finally break through and evolve her Class, which meant they could finally join serious groups at Wildwood or one of the Great Dungeons, which meant -
Well, that was the future.
For now, she had a job. Usually she was much faster than the low level types she escorted, between [Agility] and [Trackless] and her Class Ability [Grace of Air]. She could breeze through the thick forest effectively unimpeded, letting her roam around her slower charges. Yes, that meant it took four or five days to get to Wildwood, but it also meant that they didn’t run into much in the way of wildlife since she could steer them clear.
This Shayma, though, had some method of travel that rivaled hers. Annit glanced back at the ephemeral outline of the fox-kin as she paced Annit through the woods. Frankly, the ability to simply pass through trees and shrubs was just cheating. How in the Abyss did a new Classer get such a powerful Ability? The two of them were making good time, at least.
She held up her hand as the winds brought a faint sound to her ears, and Shayma stopped instantly, phasing back into existence beside her. At least she paid attention, unlike a lot of newbie Classers. “Zern Hound up ahead. Maybe as many as three. I’d say go around but they leave magical trails all over the place that they can sense. Kind of like a spider. I can frighten them off or kill them, but I’ll need you to stay here.”
“Not a problem.” Shayma flashed a disgustingly brilliant smile and seemed to fade from sight. [Enhanced Senses] still caught her presence, but it was an effective and also unfair technique. Annit was starting to think Shayma was actually a tier three and just messing with her, but she’d specifically stated that her combat ability wasn’t that high, so…
Annit ghosted forward, leaping lightly from branch to branch so she would have the advantage of height. Her mana sense wasn’t able to distinguish their traces from the mana-rich vegetation, so she moved forward cautiously, letting the wind guide her until she spotted the ghostly green of Zern Hound fur. Carefully, slowly, she took out the thin bone tube of her blowgun, loaded a dart, and brought it to her lips.
Her wind Affinity gathered around her as she marshaled her Skills, vision stretching to target the wolf before she launched the dart, which ripped through the air and slammed into the Hound hard enough to send it tumbling. Unassuming as it looked, her weapon of choice was as good as any bow or spear, and easier to carry besides. Most of the time she didn’t even need the special darts, poisoned or exploding or tracking, the sheer impact of the metal being enough to kill her prey.
In this case it wasn’t quite, and a yelp sounded from the hound ahead, followed by a pair of growls. And a howl, answered by another one off to her left. “Shit,” she swore. Not that they were a threat to her, but what about Shayma? There was a reason she usually scouted far ahead of her charges.
The hounds drew on their mana, making the noise that provided their name, flooding the surroundings with odd zipping sounds. Their mana trails flared, lingering on the air as the pack dashed toward her.
She had a choice. Did she fight them here, and hope they left Shayma alone, or return to where she’d left the fox-kin knowing the hounds would follow? At least then she’d be able to defend the girl, who probably had never seen truly mana-touched wildlife before. Actually, given how low level Shayma was, they’d probably home in on her directly, sniffing the sweet scent of concentrated mana without any of the attendant strength to defend it.
Annit scowled and vaulted backward, breezing to where she’d left Shayma and taking up a post on a tree limb. The noise of the Zern Hounds followed her. “Monsters incoming,” she said shortly. “I’ll take care of them, but I advise activating any defensive Skills you have.”
“Right,” Shayma said seriously, and there were suddenly three of her. Which was an impressive trick, but Annit wasn’t sure it’d do much to distract the hounds. Once they found there was no meat on those fakes, they’d ignore them. They weren’t that stupid, as animals.
The first one appeared through the trees and another blowdart flung it back, a spatter of greenish blood covering the bark of the trees, and the others darted in from the sides. [Grace of Air] took her out of the path of the one closest to her, her blowgun smacking it sharply across its elongated muzzle and sending it skidding.
Shayma’s doppels were doing a credible job of distracting the third, menacing it with their daggers. The real Shayma, if Annit was right, was hanging back, not making a target of herself. That was great, because there was that fourth one out there which probably would try and flank them.
At that thought, the fourth one appeared, rushing in only to topple over, scrabbling at the air with its legs and whining for no reason Annit could see. Never one to waste an opportunity, she tore through its throat with another dart, spilling more of the green blood. Since the one closest to her was still dazed, she turned to the one Shayma was keeping busy, and blinked as Shayma seemed to just appear behind it. She lashed out with her dagger...and entirely failed to penetrate the thick fur.
Everyone was momentarily surprised at that. It was as if Shayma were some level one Classer-wannabe, instead of someone with Skills that clearly belonged to a tier two or three Class. The Zern Hound seized the opportunity to dart off, shielding itself with Shayma and her doppels. The other one, recovering its senses, yelped and slipped off into the trees too, leaving the corpses behind.
Shayma, weirdly, seemed a little winded, despite the fact that these were merely level sixteen or so beasts. In all, it just served to fuel Annit’s irritation. Was this lady messing around with her or what? Queen’s messenger or not, she wasn’t going to take Shayma along unless the fox-girl actually listened to her. “What were you doing? If you can’t cut them properly, stay out of the way! You hired a guide, let me do my job!”
She blanched. “I’m sorry! I thought I could take care of one, at least.”
“Well, you couldn't. Whatever you did to that one was pretty useful, though.” She gestured at the one with the gouged-out throat. “If you must help, stick to support. I expect we’ll run into two or three more things on our way to Wildwood. Nothing more dangerous than this, though.”
Shayma nodded, apparently chastened and looked down at the Zern Hound corpse. “So what do we do with these?”
“Leave them. We don’t have time to properly gut and dress them, and they’re not really worth much anyway.” Annit shrugged.
“Do you want them Blue?” She asked the empty air, then nodded. “I suppose so,” she replied to the same empty air, and looked at Annit. “He’s not that interested, so we can go on.”
Given that they were headed to Wildwood, this ‘Blue’ was probably more interested in those spoils anyway. Despite her predictions, they didn’t run into anything of note before night fell. Not that there weren’t beasts out there. The winds spoke to Annit of mana-touched bears and trees and one stalking cat, but none of them seemed interested in the pair of them. Still, she was careful about setting up her ward crystals when they made camp. Such things didn’t work out past Wildwood, of course, but for the comparatively tame area between Khiral and Wildwood, it made traveling solo or as small group actually possible.
Speaking of which, she was wondering what Shayma planned to do. The girl didn’t come with any kit, and hadn’t requested any when hiring her. Clearly she had something planned, but Annit wasn’t expecting Shayma to produce an entire tent from nowhere with a swirl of black. Annit nearly choked. Spatial magic? What in the abyss was up with her Skills?
“What...how much do you have hidden away like that?”
“I don’t have much, but Blue has...a lot.” Shayma looked...amused? Blue did have to be a pretty impressive mage to be able to gift Shayma such an expensive and impressive magical item.
“Do you think I could use it to store my kit? It would make fighting easier.” She tried to be polite, despite how much Shayma had irritated her. First, she was a customer, and second, she was a powerful customer. Plus, it would be really nice to be able to travel light.
Shayma blinked, then giggled. “Blue says he admires your gall, but if you want to ask a favor from a Power you should probably aim for something more important.”
“He says…?” Annit had a sudden sinking feeling she’d missed something important. Shayma had mentioned something about Blue before but she figured that boasting about being a Power was just the standard hubris of high-level Classers. “Exactly who is this Blue?”
“Didn’t I go over this before?” Shayma’s ears flicked briefly. “He’s the Power that’s hosting Queen Iniri.”
“He’s...actually…” The bottom dropped out of Annit’s stomach as she contemplated the fact that she’d tried to treat a being that could move the heavens and earth as a backpack. Keri was going to kill her, if this Blue didn’t do it first for that, or for mouthing off to his emissary. And snapping at her. And generally treating her as a spoiled noble.
“You’re right, it probably is hard to believe. Yeah, but I don’t know what.” Shayma muttered at nobody in particular - or rather, to Blue, before focusing on Annit again. “Don’t worry, he’s not that petty. Yet.” She grinned suddenly. “In fact, he appreciates that you’re showing me to Wildwood despite the fact that I’ve never actually been out to a mana-rich area before.” A pause. “Yes, you are.” She said, her grin sliding into an affectionate smile.
“Actually, he did want to know why you wanted a healing Source when you’re a Wind Hunter. He says he doesn’t spot any healing Skills.”
This thing could actually read her Status? At range? She regarded Shayma warily, not wanting to get Keri involved. But on the other hand, if she screwed this up Keri would kill her twice. “My...friend at Wildwood, Keri, is [Healer] classed. It’s really hard for her to make a breakthrough and evolve her Class without a Source, since they can’t put out enough power for anyone to take along hunting or delving, otherwise.”
Shayma nodded sympathetically. “I know how hard that is. My original class was Seeker.”
There were a vast number of Classes, getting more obscure as they tiered up, but there were a few that were infamous. [Devourer], the only Class with a death sentence. [Healer], which couldn’t get any weapon Skills until it evolved...and [Seeker], which locked out both magic and weapons and was almost impossible to level. “How in the Abyss did you evolve it?”
“Oh, I didn’t. Blue...reclassed me.” She waved it aside, as if unaware how ridiculous that reply was. “Anyway, could you introduce us to Keri? We might be able to provide something better than a healing Source.”
Annit opened her mouth to immediately reject the offer, but paused. She definitely did not trust Shayma or Blue, and something like Blue offering to provide “something better” was not going to come free. But being [Healer] classed was hard enough and Keri should be the one to hear them out and turn them down. Or rather, not turn them down, knowing Keri, though Annit was of the opinion that they ought to stay far away from actual Powers.
“I...can ask,” she said cautiously. “I can’t guarantee anything.”
“Of course.” Shayma didn’t push. But she did smile, and Annit had to wonder if Blue could read her mind, and already knew that Keri would leap at the chance. The fox girl peered at Annit, then shook her head. “Don’t worry, Blue can’t read your mind.”
She had no idea what to say to that.