Like a specter, I moved through the shadows. I made sure to use Air Walk to cover my tracks and make as little noise as possible. As a result, no one could see me as I skulked through the village.
I didn’t have long before the sun rose over the village, and it came to life; I needed to be gone by then.
When I reach the edge of the village proper, I drop my skills and release the breath that I was holding. All I had left was to pass the fields, enter the forest, and I was in the clear.
My goal was to leave the village without being noticed by anyone, not because I needed to or anything like that, but because I didn’t want to be sent off by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. There was no way I'd ever be able to live down that kind of embarrassment.
I’ve become somewhat of a local celebrity at this point, even though I don't interact with most of the village. For a while now, people knew I was willing to put my life on the line to defend the village, and it was pretty much an open secret that my level was ridiculously high for my age. Of course, people liked to guess what it was, and it was only due to my Acting skill that I was able to keep a straight face. Some thought I had already crossed level 100, but others' guesses were a lot closer to the truth.
The news would eventually get out that Tabitha and I had left the village, it was even possible it might spread by the end of the day, but that was all the more reason to leave now.
As I walked past the fields of blood maize, I once again took mental stock of my gear. Mana Threads anchoring my war hammer to my back, check. Rations in case of the off chance we couldn't hunt anything, double-check. My waterproof poncho for unexpected weather, my waterskin, and my utility knife; check, check, and check. I had everything Tabitha said I should bring with me; all tucked away in a simple bag that I could easily unclasp in an emergency.
With my supplies accounted for, I feel over my armor and make sure everything was buckled up tightly. My new armor didn't cover as much as my old set, but what it lacked in size, it more than made up for with its flexibility. My kaglese breastplate covered the most, but it only guarded my front, leaving my sides and back exposed. I still had pads on my forearms and legs, but again, they only covered a fraction of my limbs. Everything was designed for ease of movement.
My new fighting strategy was centered around striking fast and hard. I wasn't a glass cannon by any standards, but what little armor I was wearing was more for a worst-case scenario than for me to block with.
I wasn’t a genius at deflecting like Tabitha or untouchable like Pacore, but what I was good at was using my movement skills to evade my enemies’ attacks. Or at least that’s what Tabitha said. Unlike her and Pacore, I didn't try to bleed my enemies dry with multiple attacks slowly; no, my strategy was to wait for an opening and crush my opponent with a single hammer blow. If my first strike weren't enough, I would disengage and wait for another opening.
It was the opposite of how I used to fight, always rushing in and getting cut up, but I've been able to spar with Tabitha for extended periods since I refined my fighting style. I’m still no match for her, experience-wise, but now I am much more confident dealing with people at a higher level than myself. I might not be able to win, but at least now, it wouldn't be a one-sided slaughter.
“You’re here.” As I was thinking about Tabitha, she appeared out of the shadow of a tree in front of me. I’m starting to think she knows when I’m thinking about her. Her timing is too perfect, and I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibilities that such a skill could exist.
“Sorry I’m late,” I keep my voice low as I approach her. “My Mom refused to stop hugging me.”
Last night I said most of my goodbyes to the people I was close with. Brother, Sandra, her family, Master; everyone who knew that I was leaving today threw me an informal going away party. Minus the party part. And while Mother and Father were there with me, they waited to say their goodbyes until right before I left the house this morning.
Dad had me recite all the woodsman knowledge he's drilled into me over the years, while Mother demanded I didn't do anything too reckless. A promise I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep.
I'm not going to lie; saying goodbye was harder than I thought it would be, and that was knowing I would be back in a few weeks. I can’t imagine what it will be like when Pacore comes for me.
“Ready?” Tabitha asks me with a smile, unaware that I wasn't precisely sharing her excitement at this exact moment.
No, that wasn’t true. Even though my heart was heavy thinking about my family, I couldn’t squash my growing sense of excitement. This was it; I was going on a real adventure. I wasn’t marching to save the village or hunt invisible monsters; I was going to see the world….
And maybe hunt one or two monsters. Knowing Tabitha, it might end up being more than two, but I was ok with that.
“I am,” I reply, with a growing sense of confidence.
“Then lead the way,” Tabitha stepped aside so I could take point. I was to lead us to the magic-dense region, and from there, she would take over. Tabitha had the most experience dealing with magic-dense regions, and it was only wise that I followed her lead once we got there.
The two of us left the village, and I fought the urge to look back. But, there was no time for hesitation, only adventure. I didn't know what lay before me, but I sure as hell would find out.
Tabitha and I ran through the forest, only stopping periodically to check our position using the sun above us. The forest terrain kept us from taking a straight path, but I kept us going in the right direction with only a few detours along the way. Neither of us spoke to the other, focusing solely on our footwork and not tripping over the thousands of roots threatening to do so.
We covered miles in minutes, dancing around trees with the greatest ease. We spent the whole day running like that, and in doing so, I learned something, Tabitha didn’t have the same stamina I initially thought she did. The woman who barely sweats during our sparring sessions was now perspiring like she was in a sauna. Multiple times I had to slow down to let her catch up to me.
That first day we covered over half the distance we needed to and stopped when we found a decent camping spot. While I checked the surrounding forest for something to eat, Tabitha stayed at the campsite to build a fire pit and catch a much-needed breather. She wasn’t a greenhorn when it came to survival skills, so by the time I caught a horned rabbit in its burrow and made it back to camp; she already had a fire going.
“So, who cooks?” I ask, holding up my sizable prize.
Tabitha glanced back and forth between the rabbit in my hands and the fire in front of her. She didn’t have to say it, but I knew cooking was going to be my job.
Fetching my utility knife out of my bag, I skin and disembowel the hare, rigging it over the fire with a few decently sized sticks. The horned rabbit was massive compared to wild rabbits back on Earth and gave enough meat for the two of us to have a decently sized meal. I seasoned my catch with a few herbs I gathered while hunting it. It wasn’t anything as good as what Mother makes, but it kept us from having to dig into our rations on the first day.
There was an awkward silence between us as we sat eating, and I could only stand it so long before I tried to get Tabitha to talk.
“So….,” I try to think of a conversation topic. "What should I expect when we reach the magic-dense region?”
Tabitha shrugs off my question and continues to nibble at her rabbit skewer.
“What was that?” I exaggerate rolling my shoulders. “You don’t have any tips for me? Not one?”
Tabitha pauses mid-bite and looks me in the eyes. She must realize I wouldn't stop asking questions, so she lowered her skewer and finally answered me. "I do not,” she tells me in her monotone voice.
“Really?” I say skeptically. “You don’t know anything about what we might encounter, plants, animals: hell, do you have any idea what the weather might be like?”
Tabitha shakes her head and looks in the direction we are heading. “I do not.”
I don't know what I expected Tabitha to tell me, but it wasn't that. Sure, she explained to me earlier that each magic-dense region is different, but there had to be some similarities between them. Like, what did the mana in them feel like? Was it like at the bottom of our mine where the magicite was or was it different?
“You can’t make any assumptions?” I raise a questioning eyebrow.
“That would be unwise,” Tabitha tells me. “All I can tell you is you should be ready for anything. It isn't an exaggeration to say that anything is possible in a magic-dense region.”
“Like what?” I smirk. “Could it rain fire?” I joke, but Tabitha doesn’t smile. “Wait, it can’t really rain fire, can it?”
“Anything is possible,” Tabitha ominously reiterates. “For all we know, the trees could give way to a volcanic hellscape a few miles into the zone, where fire rains down from the sky, and everything there has grown to survive such an environment. It isn't that I don't want to give you any ideas on what we might run into; it’s that I don’t want you entering your first magic-dense region with preconceived notions. That’s how virgin explores die.”
I swallow a nervous lump in my throat; Tabitha's warning was more than enough to shake my confidence a bit.
“Do you…. do you know how magic dense regions form?" I stammer, trying to change the subject. "I asked Camden what he knew about them, but he told me he wasn’t very knowledgeable and hadn't interacted with any explorers of the region since he was a child. Apparently, during his father’s time running the village, it was common to have explorers stop by the village on their way there.”
Tabitha hums in thought. “Hunters and explorers probably stopped coming to your village when the mountain stopped producing iron. My Master has told me that the Endless Forest borders more of Olebert than just this part. Without a reason to draw in traders, it would only make sense hunters would enter closer to a more populated area, where they could trade in their spoils for better prices.”
I see what Tabitha means; if anyone tried to sell magic materials in Drey, the only people who would buy them were those who would probably want to transport them to Olebert’s capital, where they would make a more significant profit. And the only way they could do so was by buying the materials at a lower margin. No one would want to come out here and risk their lives only to be underpaid.
"As to how magic-dense regions form, there is a lot of speculation,” Tabitha tries to answer my initial question. “Some believe magic-dense zones are the culmination of multiple mana veins converging at one point.”
“Veins like our magicite mine?” I ask for clarification.
“Yes,” Tabitha nods. “Some scholars believe it takes hundreds of these veins over a long period of time to create a magic-dense region.”
“What are the other theories?”
Tabitha pauses for a second to consider her words. “Some believe regions, like the one we are headed to, are a byproduct of great battles from ages past; battles that shaped the world today.”
“Is there any proof to that theory?” I ask on the edge of my seat. To influence an area hundreds of years later, what kind of magic could do such a thing?
"I'm not sure about all magic-dense zones, but one particular zone in Scholl known as the Blood-Flats does. Our kingdom has records detailing a battle that happened there. It isn’t clear if the battle was over possession of the Blood-Flats or if it caused its creation, but what we do know is that the fighting took place back in the warring period, before the declining ages. Back when humanity was at its strongest, unlike today.”
“Wow,” I exclaim in aww. “I’m surprised you know so much. I wouldn’t peg you a history buff.”
Tabitha’s eyes narrow menacingly, but I’m not afraid and smirk at her.
“You forget that I’m nobility,” Tabitha continues to leer at me. “I have had an extensive upbringing where I learned many things," Tabitha pauses for a solid minute. “Most of which I didn’t bother to memorize, but I’m not a simpleton!”
“Sorry!” I hold my hands up, gesturing for Tabitha not to stand up and calm down. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Thanks for telling me what you know.”
Tabitha’s scowl falls away, and I let out a small sigh. Is it just me, or is she a little on edge? We haven't run into anything dangerous all day, not even a four-armed karhu, so I can only guess where we're heading has her on edge. Another sign that I need to take things seriously from here on out.
“Alright, so you can’t give me any specific hints on what I need to watch out for, but can you give me a general idea, please, Senior Sister?”
The two of us stare each other down until Tabitha finally gives in, “Fine. You still need to expect the unexpected, but I guess I can tell you about the main things you need to look out for. Of course, you already know anything can happen with the plants and animals, but equally, something you need to pay attention to is your surroundings."
“Like the terrain?”
Tabitha nods but elaborates further. "Yes, the terrain, but not just your footing, or if we’re on a hill or not, I mean in regards to the mana. The mana in a magic-dense region can fluctuate greatly. You can go from a dead zone where the mana is thinner than outside the region to walking into a culvert with a higher mana level than in a magicite mine. You’re strong enough that you won’t suffer from mana poisoning easily, but the changes in your surrounding mana will play havoc on your mana-based skills as well as my gear.”
“Ok, what else?”
Tabitha brings her hand up to her chin and thinks. "We need to be on the lookout for people."
“You mean like other explorers?” I ask.
“Exactly,” Tabitha tells me with a serious expression. "I don't know how popular this region is to Olebert, but there is a genuine possibility that we might run into other hunters and explorers."
“And that’s a bad thing?” I make an educated guess.
Tabitha nods. "There is an unspoken rule when it comes to magic-dense regions: Might Makes Right.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Then I’m assuming you understand what I mean," Tabitha waits for me to nod affirmative, ensuring she gets her point across. “If we do run into others, you aren’t to say anything and immediately get behind me,” she stresses.
“Anything else I should be aware of?” I nervously ask. By my count, I had to watch out for the weather, plants, animals, the terrain, and other people; if that didn’t cover everything, I was afraid to find out what else I was missing.
“Just one more thing,” she tells me.
“Of course, there is," I sigh, throwing my hands up in exasperation, waiting for Tabitha to tell me her final piece of bad news.
“This isn’t regarding the magic-dense region," Tabitha tells me, drawing my full attention.
“Then what is it?” I ask.
“I may be here to watch over you, but this is a test you must overcome,” Tabitha proudly proclaims. “I’ll step in if need be, but you will have to make your own decisions once we enter the magic-dense region. If a magic beast attacks, I won't step in unless you're about to be critically injured; the same goes for any magic beasts you decide to fight. I know you rushed to come here because you fear Master Pacore will come any day now, and he may, but that means I’m running out of time to train you.”
“I want you to show me you can survive on your own. Show me you are qualified to call me Senior Sister! Can you do that?”
My heart was threatening to beat out of my chest, but surprisingly it wasn’t from fear; it was from excitement. “I’ll show you what I can do,” I proudly proclaim.
“You better,” Tabitha smirks at me like she does when we’re sparring. "Hopefully, you'll have earned your first feather by the time we make it back to your village."
I wasn’t looking forward to always having to incorporate a feather into my wardrobe, but I was excited to earn one, which meant slaying a strong beast and claiming one as a trophy.
I had no idea what I would encounter in the magic-dense region, but I did know this….
I would prove myself to Tabitha and show her how much I've grown. No matter what challenges I came across, I'd overcome them. This I swore!