We've been running for quite a while, today, I just realized. With this in mind, I tap the right side of Kobo's head twice. He slows down. “You can take it a bit easier, for now,” I say to him. “Would like to take a moment to take in this scenery.”
Yes. The green grass, green leaves... they aren't quite so green, this far out. While there is still some green, other trees are starting to get those orange leaves you see in autumn. Some of those leaves have started falling to the ground. Keep in mind, it is still August. I've started getting far enough that I'm seeing The Decay. Somehow, I still haven't reached a single town.
I reach for the map that's inside one of my bags. According to the newest one, if I'm where I think I am, Redwolf shouldn't be too far off. In fact, if I have Kobo run at full speed for the rest of the day, I might make it there before sundown. The thought of doing so is actually pretty tempting. It probably wouldn't be bad to just do that, but...
“...I think I'd like to keep this pace for a bit longer.”
There's no rush. I still have food and water, and we could always make a sprint for Redwolf tomorrow morning. So there we go. My mind made up, I start to let myself relax, taking in the clam breeze blowing by, hearing the occasional dead leaf crunch under Kobo's feet.
“What was that, you smartass little bitch!? Say that again and watch what happens!”
“Huh?” I just heard a man shout. Looking around, I see...
“Okay, I'll repeat it so even a thug like you will understand; if you touch me, I'll make sure you regret it.”
There's a girl, around my age, and she's surrounded by three men, holding swords, knives, and axes. Bandits... this is going to get ugly in a second.
“Ha ha ha, woo, look at this, guys! We got ourselves a fiery one!” Says one of the smaller guys.
A bigger man walks toward her, clapping. “Fine by me. Those are the ones I like to teach a lesson!” He gets right in her face, saying: “What, do you think God is going to send some help for you?” Well, maybe not God, but I am right here, and I'm pretty sure I can take these guys without too much trouble.
“You're gonna see real quick why guys like us don't fear God!” The third one draws his sword and licks his lips, definitely focused on having his way with her. Er... yeah, I'm probably going to feel like shit if I don't do something. Let's go over there.
“God's not listening! Nobody is going to come and help your stupid ass! Come on, boys, you know what to do!”
“Hey, fellas, come on, all three of you ganging up on a vulnerable girl like that is no good. What say we even the odds just a bit?”
Confused, the three of them turn around as I come riding closer. I hop off Kobo and draw my sword, continuing to walk toward them myself.
“Who the hell are you!?” They've mostly turned their attention to me, and are now ignoring the red-haired girl, who, from the look on her face, seems just as thankful this is happening as she is puzzled.
“Oh, I'm just a traveler passing by. Nice to meet you.”
“Ah, fuck, I swear I don't like this guy already!” Now they're starting to close in on me. I keep myself alert, waiting for any of them to give me a chance to strike. I look back again at the girl, who, to my surprise, has not run off, yet.
“Tough guy, huh... well it won't be the same kind of fun we would have had with the girl but we can still kick his ass!” The big guy with the axe comes at me first. “Make your peace, pretty boy! You won't be so pretty once I'm done with you!” He swings his axe. A big, wide swing that leaves plenty of openings. I almost feel bad about what I'm about to do. Almost.
As he brings his axe down, I step in, avoiding where the blade of the axe would land, and swing upwards. The warm, red blood raining over me, and the fact that I'm not hurt, means I did it right.
“Aaaah!!!” The axe he was holding falls to the ground, and his hand along with it. “My hand! He got my fucking hand! Aaaah shit!” While he's unable to fight back, I jab him right in the face, sending him tumbling back, then I bash him over the head with my hilt. These guys are scum, but I'd still rather not kill them if it can be helped.
“What!? You son of a bitch!” Now, it's the one wielding the sword. He's faster than the other guy, but it's nothing I can't keep up with. He quickly thrusts his sword forward, but I step to the side and trip him with my right foot, knocking him off balance. Then I kick him in the face while he's down, which seems to knock him out. As for the guy with the knife...
Curious as to what he'll do next, I find myself smirking at him, daring him to make a move. Must look far scarier than I thought, because he actually looks fearful for his life.
“No, no! Please don't!” With that, he runs off, leaving his buddies behind. Guess these three weren't all that tight. I can't quite explain why, but I get a bit of a laugh out of all this.
“Well, I guess that takes care of that.” I sheathe my sword, having no more need for it in this moment. As for the girl...
“...you're still here?”
“Well, it seemed like you had it under control,” she says, laughing herself. “Plus, it wouldn't do to run away without thanking you properly, kind sir.”
Oh, please. I'm no 'sir'. “I could have come find you afterwards, you know.”
“Ah, but why put you through the trouble?” She starts walking closer.
“Actually, I would rather walk away from here. There's no telling when these guys will get back up, after all.” I mean, I'm sure I could deal with them again if it came to that, but if given the choice, I'd rather not.
“Hmm... yes, you're right. Okay. Would you mind if I followed along for a while?”
“For now, not at all.” I snap at Kobo exactly three times, getting his attention. “I'll be walking on foot, so just follow behind closely, okay?” Immediately understanding, he does so.
“Thanks again,” she says as we continue walking. “I'm Maria Redwolf.”
“Redwolf?” I ask. To think I'd so randomly chance upon meeting someone with that name. “Then, you wouldn't happen to be related to...”
“That's right,” Maria says, “the town of Redwolf belongs to my father. He's a very generous, and very powerful man. I'm sure he'd have some reward for you for helping me.”
“I'm honored to be in the presence of someone so important.” At least, I feel like that's what I should be saying right now.
“Oh, please, you'll make me blush, traveler,” she says, hiding the red of her cheeks behind her hands. “My father and brother are the great ones. I am just Maria.”
“Still, pleased to meet you all the same,” I say, honestly feeling a bit awkward. I can't quite get a read of this girl just yet.
“I'm proud to hear it,” she says, smiling. “May I have your name, traveler?”
“Yrza. No last name.”
“So, what were you doing out here, Maria? If you don't mind me asking, of course. Are you on some kind of journey, too?”
“Ah, how shall I say this... the whole story is a bit embarrassing, really,” she says, blushing again.
“Well, if you tell me, I promise I won't laugh.”
“Okay.” She sighs. “Do you of Doctor Cook?”
“Never heard of him.” It's been years and years since I've been out onto the Empire's Corpse, and I'd imagine that there was a lot of news that never made it our way.
“He's an alchemist, who has been working on some kind of formula that, if he succeeds, should help heal the dying land of the Empire's Corpse.”
“Hm, is such a thing possible?” I don't really have any memories of what Clawscar was like before The Last Days. However, if it's possible to get it as beautiful as the adults used to always say it was before things went to shit, I have to admit that I would like to see it happen.
“Well, Cook and my father sure are saying it is.” Maria opens the pouch on her belt and shows me what's inside. “I was supposed to go to the Old Capital and give him these to help fund his research.
I look at the shimmering gold coins inside the pouch. They have little birds engraved onto them, rather than the four claw marks I've seen more often. “Hm. These aren't claws, are they?”
“No. Birdies. The funding is coming from our neighbors in the south.”
“Wingsgrave, huh. I wonder, what is the situation like over there? Your father, Lord Redwolf, does business with them often, doesn't he? What does he say about them?”
“From what I can tell they've really been putting their nation back together,” she says, typing the pouch closed once again. “It's funny, they used to rely so heavily on Clawscar, now it's starting to seem like it's the other way around.”
“A lot of the bullshit that went on in The Last Days really messed with things.”
Wait a second. Why do I feel like I'm forgetting something? “Hmm... so what's so embarrassing about all that? Seems like you're on a pretty interesting journey, to me.”
“Well, uh...” Maria looks away, blushing even more than before. “See, I wasn't sent out here by myself, you know? At first, there was a bodyguard out here with me, but at some point between last night and this morning he chickened out and ran off.” She sighs. “He took my speedscale and almost half the food, too...”
“It's just too rough out here for a pretty little thing like me. What am I gonna do?”
“Hm, I dunno. It can be pretty harsh.”
“Huh? What is it, Maria?”
“You came from the southeast, didn't you?” She asks, pointing in the direction she saw me ride in from. “I heard there was a very powerful Rune Master who lived in a big house over there. It's more than a little out of my way, but if I went to see him, maybe he could help, somehow? What do you think, Yrza? Should I try to go and see him?”
I try not to look sad, but it must show on my face, anyway, because after looking at me when she asked that, she looks very worried.
“What is it? Is something wrong?”
“I, uh,” I stumble over my words a bit, the sadness over what happened coming back up to the surface after I was starting not to feel it so bad. “I'm sorry, Maria. You must be talking about Rune Master Grandall. He might have helped you if you could see him, but he passed away a few days ago.”
“Wha--” Maria is taken aback. Clearly, this wasn't what she was expecting to hear. “Oh, that's so sad... I used to hear stories about Grandall a lot when I was little. It's a bit difficult to think that he's dead.”
“Yeah, things haven't been very simple for me, either.”
“Did you know him personally?”
“I knew him well, yes,” I say, pointing to the emblem on my left sleeve. “I was his last student.”
“Oh... I'm very sorry. It must be really hard for you.”
“I'll be alright.”
And so, just like that the conversation suddenly peters out. After a few moments, we both become aware of the uncomfortable silence we're now stuck with. I think to try and say something, but no words are coming to mind. Maria stares at me with those brown eyes, seemingly wanting to say something herself, but she seems just as paralyzed.
With neither of us saying anything, I just start walking away.
...well, I was going to.
“Maria, what are you doing?”
“Yrza, come with me!” She's grabbed me from behind. I can't quite shake her off. Well, maybe I could, but I don't know if I'd do it without hurting her. “You can't let me go by myself! Please, help me just a bit more!”
“I've got my own journey to be going on right now, Maria. My path was going to take me to Redwolf.”
“I believe there's a town north of here that you can still get to within a reasonable time. It was on one of the newer maps I've seen. Please, can't you at least help me make it there?”
“There isn't a town like that on my map,” I say, knowing full well my newest map may be out of date. “I'm going to assume the map you saw was newer, but that was stolen from you, too, wasn't it?”
When she hears me sigh, she seems to cling to me even tighter.
“Come on, Yrza! You're lonely, too, right? You could use some company, couldn't you? I still owe you for saving me from those bandits. Maybe I can...”
“...are you saying what I think you're saying!?”
“Uh--” As if she's only just realized the kind of tone she's set, Maria suddenly lets go of me, looking more embarrassed than ever. “Sorry! I—I'm sorry! It came out wrong!”
“Ugh...” I snap my fingers three times. “Come on, Kobo, let's go.”
“Aaaah! No!” As I start to walk away from Maria, she ends up clinging to my leg. Does she not realize how bad a look this is? “No, no, no, please don't leave me here! If I mess this up, father will be so upset with me! Who knows what kind of wild punishment he'll cook up if I go running back home!”
“Pleeeeease! I could actually die out here!”
“Aaaah! Alright, already! Just stop screaming!”
“Really!? Yay!” Within seconds, Maria's off the ground, hugging me so tight I feel she might just snap me in two. “You're the best, Yrza! Thanks so much!” I barely manage to pry her off.
“Alright, alright, if we wanna make it to that town we'd better make tracks fast. First thing's first, though...” I reach into one of the bags Kobo is carrying and take the oldest map out of it, along with a newer one. “So, the newest map doesn't have anything in this spot, but there was a place called Janestown in... this spot, here, according to the older map. They rebuilt it?”
“Yeah. It was destroyed in the Ghost Hurricane, but people are starting to settle there, again. I've heard it's become a pretty decent-sized town by now.”
“Sounds good,” I say, putting the maps back. “We should make the trip to Janestown in about a day, I think.” Seemingly having come to the realization that Maria's is going to be coming along, Kobo has been watching her for a while, now. “Don't worry about her, Kobo, this girl is alright.” I climb into the saddle. “Hop on.”
“Okay.” She seems a bit nervous about getting on the speedscale, but she does so, anyway, wrapping herself around me once she's seated. I do wish there was a more comfortable way for us to ride, but for now, it can't be helped.
And so, we take off at full speed, for Janestown.
We've been riding for hours, now, and I see the sun setting. It might be a good idea to make camp soon. I tap the right side of Kobo's head twice to tell him to slow down.
“Hm? What is it?” She asks, sounding a bit tired. It probably would be good to rest, for her sake, as well.
“We'll camp around here tonight, okay? You can get off if you want, I'm gonna scout the area real quick and gather some stuff. Go ahead, I'll be right back.”
“Mm-hm...” Maria slowly gets off and goes to sit under a nearby leafless tree. While she sits there, I go ahead and look around for wood and stuff I can use for fire. It only takes a moment for me to find a decent amount. I don't see any bandits out here, or dangerous animals, either. This is a fine place to camp, I'm sure.
I set the fire up and... wait, before I forget...
“Nice work today, Kobo,” I say, reaching in the bag with the boar meat in it. “This is yours.” I set it in front of him, and he immediately starts eating it. “As for me...”
“Yrza,” Maria says, suddenly.
“What is it?”
“Here.” She reaches in her traveling bag and produces two packs of dried meat from it, giving one to me.
“Wait. Are you sure?”
“It's okay,” she says, opening her own, “I'm sure I'll be able to get more food once we reach Janestown. Plus, I don't feel right leaning on you like this and giving you nothing in return. Please, conserve your food. I'll share with you tonight.”
I'm actually kinda moved by this. Maria struck me as a bit more selfish, at first, but maybe I've misjudged her. I should probably try being nicer. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“It's the least I could do,” she says, smiling.
Once we've finished eating, I notice that Maria has been staring at me for a moment. “What is it, Maria? Do you need something?”
“Y'know, Yrza,” she says, resting her head in her gloved hands, “I still don't know what you're doing out here, yourself.”
“Hm. You're right, I didn't say.”
“I'm curious. Will you tell me about it?”
“Sure, it can't hurt.” Ah... where to start? “So, Maria, what do you think of the Ghost Hurricane?”
“Hard to say... what do you mean? Are you talking about how little is known about how it came about and all?”
“Yeah, stuff like that. There's just too much mystery surrounding it all. I'm out here because I want to uncover those mysteries. I want to know if there was some kind of reason for it to happen.”
“Huh...” she scratches her head, looking more than a bit confused. “I'm sorry, Yrza, I don't mean to offend you or anything, but this sounds like a huge waste of time, to me. I'll be honest with you, I wonder about that from time to time, myself, but it's not worth dwelling on because I have other things going on right in front of me.”
“Among other things, that other people are busy with other things is why I feel the need to do this myself. What if we're missing something important, here?”
“I really don't think so, Yrza,” Maria says, shaking her head. “Well, maybe we are, but where would you even think to start looking? Who would you be able to ask? What if the answers just aren't there for you to find?”
“There has to be something, I'm sure.”
“Yrza, why?” She asks. “Why is this so important to you?”
“To be honest, I can't easily answer that question, but I just feel like I've needed to seek out the truth of this for the longest time. After all, Master Grandall told me that people giving up on seeking the answers is part of what led to The Last Days in the first place. So I'll find the answers to this.”
“I guess you have a point, if you look at it that way.”
“So, Maria, do you think everything in this world has some purpose? None of it? Something in-between?”
“Well...” she brushes her chin with her right hand, thinking. “The Church of El Rey teaches that there isn't a single meaningless thing in this whole world, but as to what everything means, only God knows.” She shrugs. “I don't know how much of that I still believe, personally.”
“You know a popular rumor about the Hurricane that even I've heard? The one that fascinates me the most? That there was a person who would appear along with it. If this really was the work of another human being, then I really do have to know. If they're still out there, I would have to meet that person, and understand why. Like I said, no one else seems to be trying.”
“Yeah, fair enough,” Maria says, lying down. “I'm tired, Yrza. Think I'll go to sleep.”
“Okay, get some rest. Sleep well.” Saying that, I find myself looking up at the stars.