Nothing could have prepared her for this sight.
They had been walking through the forest, talking over the plan again when they crossed over into the clearing.
And what a clearing it was! Her eyes went as wide as they would go, which, considering the light level out here now that all the trees were gone, was more like a really wide squint. She barely noticed; she'd gotten used to bright areas by now. Squinting was just her default state when walking around in the daylight by this point.
She had known in her head that Lorevale was a logging village. Annie had explained what that was; a place where they traded wood and things made of wood with other villages and towns to get the stuff they didn’t have as much of, like food and metal.
She had understood that, in an abstract way. There would be a group of people, who cut trees down and made stuff out of them. That was impressive, considering how big a tree was. The only thing she’d seen take down a tree before was the tree-eater, so the fact that humans managed it was an impressive feat.
She knew they made houses which she was super curious to see. Like their own little caves that they lived in, but they were the ones who created them!
However, it wasn’t until she stepped into that clearing that she really understood what it really meant. When a group of thinkers spent their lives cutting down trees, they could do quite a bit more than she imagined was possible.
All the trees were just gone, only their hulking stumps remaining.
There were miles of cleared land. The humans had changed the entire landscape. They were no longer in a forest, only a vast ocean of trunks.
Shadow was bouncing with excited energy as she walked, dashing up onto a stump so she could get a better view of the landscape.
Well, she tried to anyway. Something jerked around her neck, choking her to an abrupt halt. She backpedaled a little and hacked as she caught her breath.
“Shadow! Be careful! Don’t do that!” Annie scolded.
She drooped a little, sheepishly walking back to her temporary anchor, and moved in to walk beside her friend.
No more exploring for now.
She was currently confined to a very limited range of movement, and it was important that she didn’t mess up trying to move past it. It wouldn’t do for her to be seen as anything less than perfectly obedient.
She looked back at her new accessory. Namely, the leash in Annie’s hand that was attached to her new collar. If everything went well, she wouldn’t have to wear the leash for long. They just needed it at first so introductions didn’t get too scary for the village people. It was meant to help them feel safe so Annie would have a chance to talk.
The real magic was in the collar. Literally. It was actually magic. It glowed with radiant gold symbols, just like Annie’s wrists when she was healing and the formation anchors when Annie had been powering them. She’d needed to let them break up her crystal to make it work. It was the only way to make the collar glow like this.
The crystal had been filled with pure mana, and that mana made it glow. Touching the crystal allowed the mana to flow into her body. Normally it was really bad to have a lot of excess mana running around inside you (Annie had said it caused ‘rampant, uncontrolled growth of the flesh’), but for some reason Shadow was fine.
Annie thought Shadow was converting all pure mana to dark-attuned mana and then using up the extra somehow, but she didn’t know for sure. Shadow thought that sounded reasonable, but also didn’t know enough about how that all worked yet to really have any faith in her opinion.
The point was, her crystal was to be used in the creation of the glowy collar, and as much as she hated to see it go, this plan was the most tolerable of the lot. There had been other ideas, but they were… worse. She was willing to see her crystal destroyed if that’s what it took to keep some dignity.
Annie had fashioned the simple collar out of the scrap leather she had left over from the construction of Shadow's belt, and had ground up some of her crystal with some fat into a paste. She painted fancy runes onto the collar using the mixture, and then tied the remaining chunk of crystal to the collar with some cloth (so at least it wasn’t all gone).
Annie had done something where she sucked out all the mana still in the leftover chunk of crystal and filled it up with her own light mana. That was when the whole thing had started glowing.
It was amazing. Shadow hadn't been able to stop staring at the thing. She was still staring at it on and off. The golden glow pulsed and swirled as it moved around the collar. Her collar. She got to wear this. Well, technically she had to wear this, but given how pretty it was, she was feeling a whole lot less bitter about it.
She’d asked Annie if she could use her own mana to make it glow, so they wouldn't have to use the remaining chunk of crystal. There were a few things preventing that, apparently. The particular runes she was using only worked with light mana, and Shadow’s dark mana was ‘all the way on the wrong side of the elemental wheel’ from where it needed to be if she wanted to make light herself. She’d asked what that meant but Annie had told her they’d get to it later when she was more experienced with her mana manipulation.
That bummed her out a little bit, but the feeling didn’t last long. She was quite enamored with her new glowing accessory. She couldn’t help but love it, even considering what it was supposed to represent. They would be lying to everyone about it, and Shadow needed to keep up the act (Annie had told her lying was a bad thing, but apparently it was okay to do as long as it was for the 'greater good').
They had taken a few days to get everything ready and travel the rest of the way to the village, but that was probably for the best. It gave everyone a chance to calm down. Well, mostly it gave Annie and Shadow a chance to calm down. Jonas was already pretty calm. It also let them hash out the plan and practice some.
But now they were here, and Shadow was becoming more and more impressed by the village as they approached it.
It lay in front of them, a behemoth of construction. A grand wooden edifice, like all the forest had come together and made itself an impassable barrier. Well, perhaps the great thing was a little shorter than your average tree, but it was so wide!
The idea that this was something that could be built boggled the mind. It was twice as tall as Jonas and it wrapped all the way around the village.
She studied the wall as she got closer and realized that her impression of it being like a barrier of trees wasn’t that far off. It seemed like someone had taken a bunch of trees, chopped them down to size and stuck them all together in a big circle (Well, an almost circle. It was vaguely circular. It did go around the whole village though if Jonas could be believed!). Perhaps that was exactly what they had done.
How did they manage to move the pieces?
She glanced once again at the massive clearing.
How did they cut down all the trees? How did they do any of this!?
Shadow was equal parts excited and intimidated.
She wanted to learn everything about… all of this. She wasn’t even inside the village yet!
She was smelling it though. The scent of humans, animals, and waste, along with a good number of other smells she couldn’t readily identify.
As they approached the wall their path started to curve. Annie told her they were looking for a gate, so they could get in.
She was trying not to freak out, and only kind of succeeding. There was so much to see! She could hear it from over the walls now too. There was movement and voices. Banging sounds, water, and the sounds of other animals.
Are those dogs? Maybe horses?
She’d heard about them, but this would be her first time experiencing them for herself.
She found herself pulling at the end of her leash again.
She froze for a second, then continued at a more sedate pace, looking back and giving an apologetic duck of the head to Annie.
Annie, for her part, just gave Shadow a sly smile and waggled her finger at her. Shadow stuck her tongue out at her and Annie laughed.
Annie contained herself with a shake of the head, then pointed.
“There’s the gate. We’d better get serious. We’ll be running into people soon. Remember, in there, I’m your master, and you need to follow my commands exactly.” Annie stated, her voice serious.
Shadow nodded, and straightened her gait, stopping her curious wandering and shifting into a controlled walk. Her tail moved in sync with her steps and she held her head held high, keeping her face attentive and friendly-looking. She tried to keep her eyes as wide open as possible, despite the discomfort, because apparently big wide eyes were cute to humans. She wanted to try for every ‘not a horrible monster’ point she could get.
She walked slightly behind Annie, her forelegs right by her side. It was called heeling, because she stayed by the heels! She’d only recently figured that out, despite knowing about the command for a while. Apparently heeling was something that only well-trained animals did, and that was definitely the look she was going for here. Even if she didn’t really like the idea of having to be a ‘beast companion’ she was more than willing to put up with it if it meant she got to meet all the people without them trying to kill her.
Then they were there. They rounded the corner and walked through the opened gate.