Tabitha and I waited three hours for the dino-rhino to wake up, the two of us having stood guard over the beast until it started to show signs of waking up.
Once we saw that it was starting to come around, we grabbed our gear and hid in one of the tallest trees surrounding the clearing, making sure we chose one downwind from the beast. There was no way we were going to repeat the same mistake twice.
“Finally,” Tabitha remarked as we watched the massive beast struggle to its feet. It looked a little shaky, but that was expected after taking multiple strikes from my hammer.
“Thanks for helping me keep watch,” I give Tabitha a sincere smile without any of my usual sarcasm. Though she didn’t try to keep her annoyance hidden from me, not once did she ask for me to leave the dino-rhino behind.
“It wasn’t like I could leave you,” she dryly notes, watching the beast in the clearing shaking off its drowsiness and what was most likely a concussion. I wonder if I could do the same; at what point did mortal injuries stop being a threat? Maybe Pacore would know?
“Still, thanks,” I grin.
“You aren’t going to do this with every animal we come across, are you?” Tabitha casts me a nervous glance.
I was tempted to mess with her by saying yes, but I didn’t want to ruin the mood. “No, this was a special occasion. I shouldn't have charged it as I did; I was hasty and didn’t see that it was only trying to protect its family.”
“You know you still could’ve killed it regardless?” Tabitha points out to me.
“I could have,” I nod in agreement. “But I don’t want to kill needlessly.”
"Sure, but you know you would've gotten its other horns and hide if you finished it off?”
“And then what?” I snarkily ask. “You saw how large its horns were. Were you going to help me carry them around?" We entered the forest with relatively little gear, but that was because the more we brought with us, the more it would slow our advance.
I could grab everything around us that had a slightly elevated mana level if I wanted to, but if I did that, I’d have no way of carrying it all. The same thing would happen if I had killed the dino-rhino, I only would’ve been able to carry a fraction of the materials I could’ve harvested from it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful.
Plus, now that I was thinking about it, the dino-rhinos reminded me of rhinoceroses back on Earth. As an animal lover, it didn't feel right to kill something that reminded me of an endangered animal.
“I am not a porter,” Tabitha’s eyes narrow ominously.
“I thought so," I chuckle. Tabitha made it abundantly clear that she wasn't going to help me unless I needed it, and it made sense that she wouldn’t want to carry anything for me. Tabitha's movement speed could be the life or death of us, so weighing her down is a no-go.
Turning away from Tabitha, I watched as the dino-rhino stumbled out of the clearing. It was heading the same way its family had run off in. I hoped with all my being that it would find them; at least then, I might be absolved of some of the guilt I was still feeling over recklessly attacking it.
In the future, I had to be better, for what was strength without morals. If I only wanted power, I could easily give in to the desires of my tier 6 skill. But, as soon as I did that, I would cease being Aaliyah and would only be a monster in its truest definition. And I would never let that happen!
I was blessed with a second chance at life, and I wasn't going to taint it by becoming a being of endless hunger.
“Time to go?” I ask Tabitha for her opinion. The dino-rhino had been out of sight for a few minutes now, and I was ready to return to my adventure.
"If you're ready?" She asks back.
“Let’s head out then,” I joyfully shout, propelling myself off the sturdy tree branch we were perched on. The bark of the strong tree easily withstood the full force of my jump, allowing me to launch myself dozens of feet into the air before I started to freefall towards the ground.
I glanced over my shoulder and watched Tabitha take a less direct route down. Just as she had climbed up the massive tree, Tabitha hopped from one branch to another to get down. Each of her steps was meticulously calculated and made what she was doing look easy. I could do the same thing, but not as fast as she was. It was like she already had a path laid out in her head, so she was already jumping to the next branch as soon as she landed. As a result, she was descending at almost the same rate I was, and I was in a freefall.
Not wanting to be outdone, I shifted my body downwards and used Air Walk behind me, propelling myself faster toward the ground. It isn’t until I’m twenty or so feet from the forest floor that I flip mid-air and use Air Walk again to stop my descent.
“Beat you," I twirl around and grin at Tabitha as my feet touch the soil.
“I thought I told you to stay close to me,” Tabitha berates me as she gracefully hops down from the last branch.
"You were only a few seconds behind me; I'd call that pretty close, wouldn’t you?” Tabitha wasn't mad at me for leaving her side; she was mad because I beat her down. She may appear stone-faced most of the time, but if I learned one thing training with her, it was that she was a sore loser.
“Don’t do it again,” Tabitha brushes off my comment with her head held high. I giggle to myself as I take up position next to her.
I was ready to get out of the clearing; the sun was starting to get on my nerves. While the rest of the forest was decently lit, standing in the clearing made me feel like an ant under a microscope. The sun was surprisingly intense. I didn’t notice it when we first entered the clearing because I thought the brightness was due to our time in the forest, but after waiting around for so long, I learned that wasn’t the case.
I was becoming more and more convinced that the forest’s mana was doing something to the light, not just reflecting it as I initially thought but amplifying it. You would think such intense light would leave everything a scorched barren of a landscape, but that wasn’t true. All the plants in the clearing were eagerly absorbing as much light as possible.
But light wasn’t the only thing plants needed to survive. Everything around us was green, but it wasn’t humid. We weren’t in a rainforest, yet everything looked like it was getting enough water.
Kicking the ground with my boot, I test to see if the ground had any moisture at all. Maybe there was a water source just under the topsoil?
Sadly, my hypothesis is quickly proven wrong when my boot only kicks up dust.
What was with this place? Were all the plants surviving solely on sunshine? If they were, that isn’t a good thing for us. We only brought so much water, and though our high stats may decrease the amount we needed, that didn't mean we could go indefinably without it.
We filled our canteens two days ago outside the magic-dense region. Depending on how active we are, we could stretch our current water supply to three days. Max.
“Hey, Tabitha,” I call for my partner's attention as we exit the clearing. As soon as we pass the tree line, the temperature noticeably drops by a few degrees.
"What is it?" Tabitha briefly looked over her shoulder to ensure I was still following her.
“Was the sun this bright in the magic-dense regions you’ve been to?” I motion behind us at the clearing.
“No,” Tabitha pauses briefly to shake her head. “The weather has varied in each magic-dense region I’ve been to, but this weather is a first for me. Be happy it isn’t as hot as the Inferno Sands.”
“I take it the Inferno Sands is another magic-dense region in Scholl. Does everything in your country have such an ominous name; Inferno Sands, Blood-Lowlands; I mean, come on?"
Tabitha doesn't smile at my joke, but I do get a raised eyebrow, so I'll take that as a win.
“It’s the Blood-Flats, not the Blood-Lowlands; that's an entirely different place," Tabitha corrects me with a straight face.
“That’s a real place!?” I purposely pretended to forget the name of the magic-dense region Tabitha told me about, but I didn’t think my made-up name would actually exist.
Tabitha stares me in the eyes, and a grin slowly spreads across her stony face.
“Wait, was that a joke?!”
“Maybe?” Tabitha coyly turns around so I can’t see her face and continues to lead me deeper into the forest. Who knew Tabitha had a sense of humor because I sure didn’t?
“Funny,” I let out a fake chuckle. “So, tell me about the Inferno Sands. I take it by the name; it's pretty hot there."
“That would be an understatement," Tabitha answers my question but doesn't look back at me this time. Instead, her head was on a swivel, on the lookout for hidden threats.
I, too, kept my eyes peeled for any enemies or rare materials, but that didn't mean I wasn't going to ask Tabitha about another magic-dense region.
“Cool. Cool. How hot are we talking?” I press for more details.
“Extremely hot, the Inferno Sands is a desert and acts as Scholl’s western border. It's miles of scorching sand filled with magic beasts specializing in camouflage and sneak attacks. It’s a fun place to train.” I could practically hear Tabitha smiling.
“Sounds like it,” I respond sarcastically. But if she’s trained in a desert before, then hopefully… “What did you guys do for water? Did you drink cactus juice or something?” I was curious not only because of our current situation but because I had a feeling one day I, too, might be taking a trip to said magic-dense region.
"Cactus juice just makes you thirstier," Tabitha explains, reminding me that not everything I'd learned from movies was true. She then went on to tell me how you find water in place there appears to be none. “One way you can find water is by looking for animal trails. Unless they're golems or the undead, everything needs water to survive. It would be best if you also kept an eye out for crevasses and lowlands where water can collect. There are also magic tools that help gather water from the air.”
“Really? Do you have one?” I ask excitedly; I would love to get my hands on another magic tool and was a little peeved that Tabitha didn't mention such a device earlier.
"Not on me," Tabitha quickly bursts my bubble. “I didn’t think I would need it while staying in a village. If Master told me I’d have the opportunity to explore a new magic-dense region, I might have come more prepared.”
It was rare to hear Tabitha complain about anything related to Pacore; I wonder what he would think about where we were?
“So, I take it you’re keeping an eye out for water then.”
“Of course,” Tabitha tells me like that was obvious. “There’s an animal trail to our right; we can follow it until we find water. But more importantly, we need to start looking for a place to shelter for the night.”
“But it’s not even getting dark yet?” I glance up at the canopy towering over us. Though few and far between, plenty of spots leaked the sun's rays down into the forest. We had hours before the sun started to set, and I would think finding a water source would be more important. But then again, it gets dark in a forest fast.
“We can find water tomorrow,” Tabitha tells me. “Our main priority should be finding shelter for the night and some food, in that order. We don’t know what this forest will be like when the sun goes down, so we need a defendable position before then.”
She makes it sound like everything will transform once the sun goes down, but I suppose it could. There are a lot of animals that only come out at night, and I'm sure it's the same with magic beasts. “We need a cave then," I note.
“Precisely, so keep your eyes open,” Tabitha instructs me.
So, while the two of us followed the beast trail, we kept an eye out for suitable shelter.
Once we started looking, it wasn’t hard to find spots that would make a decent temporary shelter—nothing game-changing, but decent nonetheless. The roots of the nearby trees were massive, and it was pretty common to find cavities one could hide in near the base of them. A few were even big enough for the two of us, but each appeared to have a tenant already.
One particular crevice housed a lizard the size of a cow. It hissed at us as we approached, but I convinced Tabitha to leave it alone since it didn't do anything other than that. It wasn’t like the forest was lacking in hiding spots, and it was only a minor inconvenience for us to keep looking. And if the sun started to go down without us finding a spot, we could always double back and evict the lizard. With extreme prejudice, as Tabitha put it.
At least while we were looking for a place to stay, Tabitha's advice about game trails was accurate, and we came across a small pond as we cut through the forest. It was closer to a large puddle than anything else, but it gave us a chance to fill up our canteens. With one less thing to worry about, we continued to look for shelter, but it wasn’t long until Tabitha started to become irritable.
“We should go back.” Tabitha wasn’t frowning yet, but I could see a crease forming on her forehead.
“It’s only been like an hour,” I remind her. “We still have plenty of time.”
“We should’ve killed the lizard,” Tabitha’s voice drops an octave, and I start praying for the lizard.
“Yeah, or we might find a better spot.”
“I never had this much trouble in the Blood-Flats,” Tabitha grumbles.
Sensing a chance to distract my companion, I ask her to elaborate. "What, was there like a bunch of camping spots everywhere?" I make sure to use an extra sarcastic voice that I'm sure she'll respond to. “Sounds like you had it easy.”
That last part is what gets me a response. "It was not easy; I merely stated that it was easier to find a defensive shelter. The Blood-Flats is nothing but rocks and caves; you couldn’t go more than a few feet before running into one.”
“We’ve walked past a few large burrows; what about one of those? Would that make you comfy?” I suggested to her and immediately regretted my decision.
"Are you not thinking?" Tabitha goes into full-on lecture mode. “Any number of beasts could dig in or overturn one of those, or did you not notice they were empty? We need someplace strong…. out of the way…. has a good line of sight.”
She continued to lay out everything we needed, and the more I listened, the more I thought such a place didn't exist. The lizard's nest checked many of the boxes but not all of them.
Was Tabitha overacting, or was I underestimating the night that was about to come?
Maybe she should pray to the gods for help? Looking up, I chuckle to myself, and in doing so, I see a flash of color for a brief second up in the trees.
“Tabitha, hold on!” Before I even finish calling out to her, Tabitha is next to me with her hand on her sword. It didn't matter if we were bickering a moment ago; as soon as she heard the change in my voice, she closed the distance between us and went on high alert.
“What is it?” She whispers in a calm voice.
“Three trees to our left, up high. It was red; I only saw it for a second,” I tell her. We were still far away from whatever it was, but if I could see it at this distance, it was big. Not to mention anything with bright colors was certainly strong enough that it didn't need to hide.
"We move slowly," Tabitha directs me to follow her.
Silently, we circle the tree I pointed to until we arrive at a better vantage spot. And that’s where I see it, the most enormous bird I've ever seen in my life!
It only took a glance at its soul to see that its level was in the high 70's, a strong beast.
“Tabitha, I think we should…." I was about to suggest we leave it alone but stopped when I saw the manic look on her face.
“Yes,” Tabitha grins at me. “Do you see what I see?”
“A big ass bird,” I answer bluntly.
“That too, but look where it is,” Tabitha points at the colorful monster, and I see what she meant.
The bird’s nest was in a large hollow in the tree. It had a great vantage point, the trees’ bark was as strong as metal, and it was definitely out of the way, the perfect place for us to spend the night. Now, if only there weren't a giant bird guarding it!
“Alright, go get it,” Tabitha slaps my back, gesturing me forward.
“By myself?!” I looked at the armored woman like she was crazy.
“This beast is perfect for you," she ignores my pleading eyes. "Not only will we gain a place to sleep, but you’ll earn your first feather too. Lucky you.”
“Yeah, lucky me,” I roll my eyes. Then, craning my neck up, I size up the bird and let out a sigh before making up my mind. Turning back to Tabitha, I quickly lay down some grown rules instead of rushing in like earlier today. "If it's protecting babies, I'm not going to fight it; the same thing if it flees.”
Tabitha rolls her eyes but surprisingly agrees to my terms. “Fine, but hurry; I want to be up in the tree by the time the sun starts to fade."
“No pressure then,” I roll my shoulders and crack my neck. Then, drawing my hammer, I prepared to fight the large colorful bird.
Well, I did say I wanted to fight something stronger.