Clearly, the correct thing to do would be nothing at all. Hugh could obviously take care of himself, whereas I had pretty much nothing to offer in this situation. Sure, I'm good at sneaking into places... if you mean an abandoned building or an employees only area or something. Sprinting across a snowy field into a camp filled with soldiers isn't the same thing, and if I got caught I would only make the situation worse.
On the other hand, I did want to do something about that soul-tracker guy. Also that little voice in my head that reminds me to not be a sociopath was yelling that a compassionate person would be worried about Hugh especially since he was probably doing whatever he was doing for me, although that voice wasn't really enough to make me want to charge into certain death.
I spent a few minutes trying to figure out a path that could realistically get me all the way to the camp without being totally exposed and without leaving an obvious set of tracks that would give me away as soon as the next patrol came by, but by the time I'd figured it out and slowly gotten into position it was too late. Hugh had long since vanished into the camp and anything I did would just increase the risk of him getting caught - all I could do was wait and hope that he got out safely. He would probably scout around, realize I wasn't there, and sneak back out.
An alarm went up in the camp, and one of the soldiers briefly flew twenty feet into the air.
The nearest patrol charged towards the camp, leaving me an opening and like an idiot I took it. Following the path I'd picked out I went from tree to tree, certain each time I had to run any distance out in the open that I'd be seen and filled with crossbow bolts. When I reached the tents I pulled my stolen cloak tight around me - since it had been taken from another of these soldiers I at least blended in a little, though I had to assume that if any of them actually looked at my face it would all be over.
I circled around a little, trying to get close enough to potentially help Hugh while also not shoving right into the thick of things. I had the knife clutched in my hand so tight my fingers were going numb and could feel my heart trying to beat right out of my chest. And then, when I got close enough, Hugh wasn't even there. I'd pictured him valiantly fighting, possibly to the death as he'd said before, but instead he'd... taken off. I decided he'd only meant that he would fight to the death if the alternative was being captured, which seemed fair enough. Running away should always be an option.
The soldiers were losing their damn minds about it. Some had run off after him into the woods, and one in a stupid hat - presumably someone higher ranking - was yelling at the rest and trying to get things organized. "Don't just run after him, you imbeciles! Groups three and four, to your mounts! Paringtal search pattern! Group two, wide circle in case he tries to sneak back around! You! Are you on perimeter duty? Who told you to stop patrolling? Get back out there this instant! You're all disgraceful!"
One of the regular-looking soldiers stayed rather than scrambling into action. "Sir, should I contact General Telen?"
Stupid hat seemed to genuinely consider this, then shook his head. "No. The General said he only needed to be called back in an emergency, and the threat is over. We already knew this one was unaccounted for, so being aware that he's still in the area is an improvement if anything. Either he gets away and nothing has changed, or we capture him and have good news to report. Until then, I don't see the point in having the General come all the way back," he sighed, the kind of deep and powerful sigh of someone who hates their job but can't quit, "Once everyone returns, get them moving - we're breaking camp and leaving at first light."
I ducked back between the tents before they could see me eavesdropping. So scary platemail guy was gone, and for whatever reason the soul tracker guy hadn't been able to find Hugh and either hadn't known I was alive or hadn't said anything about it. That was all good news. Was the soul tracker still around, or had he left with Telen? Seemed like a shame not to try and find that out while I was already in the camp, plus I wanted to see if they would catch Hugh - but the camp simply wasn't big enough for me to just stand around without being caught.
I didn't want to hide in a random person's tent in case they came back and the important-looking tent had guards, but there was another larger one that looked like it was probably a supply tent so I prepared to do The Walk. It's pretty easy to do The Walk, but lots of people knowing the secret hasn't ever kept it from working for me; you don't run, but you go just a little fast and look straight ahead. You walk with purpose, and if possible with a clipboard in your hands although I wasn't sure they even had clipboards on this planet. If you do The Walk right, you can blow right past people into somewhere you're not supposed to be and they barely even notice. Sure enough nobody looked too close or tried to stop me, and I strode confidently into the supply tent.
They had bread, actual loaves of fluffy sourdough-like bread, and it was amazing. I had missed carbs so much. After shoving way too much into my mouth, I grabbed a little sack of some sort of root vegetable that was hanging up and dumped its contents into a basket so I could go shopping. I stole some loaves of bread, a little pot of honey, and a big block of cheese. There was a hard sausage thing too, which I took after a moment of hesitation - I was sure the bracelet would keep me from dying but I couldn't totally forget the feeling of my throat swelling shut. There were also some sort of packed lunches, maybe to give people when they went out on patrol, all wrapped in oiled paper. I took all of them.
When someone finally came towards my hiding spot I ducked out the back, and almost ran right into a few soldiers standing there gossiping. I froze, then pivoted and snuck away towards the edge of the camp. The patrol was back and they looked way more attentive than they had before - what was worse, a band of bright red had appeared between the trees as the sun began to creep up. Visibility was better every second, and they'd be breaking camp soon.
There was something stacked under a tree, some bags of supplies or unused tents. I hurried over to see if it was something I could use to hide in or steal or whatever, and found that it was... bodies. Some soldiers, presumably killed by Hugh. And... the soul tracker guy. It seemed possible that that's why Hugh had caused a commotion; I wondered if maybe he'd seen an opportunity to take out the tracker and just gone for it. But did that eliminate the threat? I wasn't sure how he had been tracking me. Did he have a lock of my hair or something? I still wasn't thrilled about looting dead bodies, but...
I tried to be quick and clinical about it. I stole anything that I thought might be important or magic - two rings, a fancy belt buckle, an ornate dagger. As I was checking for secret pockets inside his shirt my hand brushed against something - it was a little metal hexagon, just like the one Hugh had showed me in his armpit. This one was in a different spot, but it was clearly the same thing. I pried at it with a fingernail and with practically no resistance it peeled up leaving a shiny patch of skin almost like scar tissue.
I buttoned his shirt back up, and threw everything into my sack. The bats were returning and I couldn't get a good look - hoping nobody was watching too closely, I jumped up and just barely managed to grab the lowest branch of the tree. I scrambled up as high as I could without shaking the whole thing around and drawing attention to it, and then climbed out towards the edge of the branch to watch.
I didn't see Hugh as they all got down from their mounts, though that didn't mean they hadn't found him and killed him. On the other hand, as far as I could tell all of them came back and it seemed unlikely he wouldn't have taken at least one out with him. Once up in the tree I didn't see a good way to get down without risking being seen and I was hopeful that they would pack up and leave without ever noticing me, so I just made myself comfortable. I've always liked hanging out in trees anyway.
As the packing seemed to be nearing completion, two soldiers came over to the bodies right below me and began pulling off the soul tracker's clothes.
"I'm not seeing it. You don't think he was one of those people that hides it in their ass, do you?"
"Probably. But you lost, so you get to be the one to find out."
"I fucking hate you, Karl. Fine, help me turn him over at least."
After a moment, he kicked at the snow in frustration.
"It's not here. His Dumine is gone."
"Maybe General Telen took it after killing him?"
"You're going to get us both in trouble with talk like that, Karl. General Telen said that Elbren's death was an accident."
"Seems like a pretty big coincidence, especially considering how angry he seemed at Elbren getting so many of us killed."
"I'm not saying I'd be mad if he did choke this asshole to death. I'm just saying... if he says it was an accident, then it was an accident. After all, if he wanted to murder Elberen it's not like anyone would have questioned it."
"Yeah, I guess. So what are you going to tell Leedan?"
"Oh, no. I had to check between Elbren's ass cheeks. Telling Leedan we couldn't find it is your job." They walked away still arguing.
So it hadn't been Hugh that killed the soul tracker. Interesting. I was bracing myself for someone to second guess the soldiers and come to check, and then to realize his belt buckle and rings were missing, and then... well, looking up in the tree seemed unlikely but anything that delayed their departure would be bad for me. But they didn't, and after another half an hour the last of them flew away. Oddly the only thing I'd seen them remove from the guarded tent was what looked like a rolled-up carpet. It made me wish I had gotten a peek inside.
Finding my camp again was a little tricky, but I eventually did it. Snuffy was still there, and someone was leaning against his side.
"Hey Hugh. I brought breakfast."
After the best meal I'd had since arriving, I attempted to get Hugh to give me magic powers by fusing that guy's metal hexagon to me. "Sadly, Calliope Smith, it does not work that way. We would need to get you to a Duminere, a special ancient place that grants magical skill. They are closely guarded, although access is granted to those that have enough money or political connections. Other times the military allows favored soldiers to enter - this is the path I took.
"My Dumine gives me control over two types of magic. One is enhanced skill for fighting, I was required to select this as part of the cost of entry. The military would not have been pleased if I had selected the path of the artisan and become a chef, yes? My other choice was the magic of force - I use that to lend extra strength to my attacks beyond what my actual muscles could ever provide, as well as some little tricks you may have noticed. I knocked some of the riders off as they approached, although force attacks at long range is difficult for me, and I stole the force from some crossbow bolts meant for your pretty little head.
"Many who enter the Duminere receive nothing from their Dumine at all, others gain only one gift, and some lucky few get three. Having two or three is very beneficial because their abilities can be combined in interesting ways."
I turned the Dumine in my hand, looking at the strange pattern of silver and gold. "It's just random how many you'll get?"
"Maybe random, maybe not. We do not know how it decides. We do know that for every two hundred and sixteen people about one hundred eighty get nothing, thirty get one, five get two, and one gets three."
"Wait. Sorry. Something might have gone wrong with the translation there. The numbers felt... wrong. Did you say one thousand, five hundred, fifty, five, and then one? Okay don't answer that. They felt wrong coming out of my mouth too. Let's try... If I wrote a number that was a one, and then three zeroes... what would that number be?"
Hugh looked amused. "Two hundred sixteen."
"Fuck. Hang on. The translator must be broken. Why would it be mixing up one thousand with two hundred sixteen? Or five hundred with one hundred and eighty? I mean that's not even half of two-sixteen. Tell me if I say any of these out of order, okay?"
Hugh nodded, still looking like this was some sort of joke. "Certainly."
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven..."
He held out a hand to stop me. "Why do you count that way?"
Hugh gestured at my outstretched finger. "You counted each finger individually all the way to ten, and then started over."
"That's... how you count on your fingers."
"By why? If you count that way you would only be able to count to ten, yes?"
"That's how many fingers I have. Also why does ten sound like fourteen to me?"
Amusement now battled with bafflement for control of Hugh's face. "One, two, three, four, five, six," as he raised a finger on his second hand, he folded all the rest back down and then started on the first hand again. "Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven," and then once again folded the fingers back down, raised a second on his other hand, and said "twelve."
"Wait. You're counting to five on one hand, and then the fingers on your other hand are showing how many sets of six there are?"
"Oh god. Thirty feels like fifty when I say it because it's five sets of six and nothing left over. Five zero. Jesus. You guys don't count in tens, you count in sixes which means your sixes are tens. Fuck that's going to bug me."
"So is the translator working?"
I had to think about it for a moment. "... yeah. Yeah, it's actually working really well. It's just that I can feel the difference between what I'm saying and what the words really mean and it's throwing me off. I never considered that people could have totally different ways of counting. It felt weird that you would pick two hundred and sixteen as an example because for me that's a... just a really random amount. But for you it's a nice round number, isn't it? Huh. Okay, well. If I can get used to monsters and magic I can get used to counting by sixes. Oh! Speaking of monsters and magic! Those bat things - can they use magic? They shouldn't be able to fly, and then one of them got super heavy while trying to crush me to death."
He nodded, and explained while he began packing up the tent. "Yes, many creatures can naturally use magic in some specific way. The segozertze can control their weight, or... more accurately speaking, their density. It is a subtle difference."
"I know the difference between weight and density." Kind of.
"Of course, of course, I forget that you are educated. They are light when they need to fly, heavy when they need to attack, yes? People can learn this too, in the Duminere. If they swing their arm while it is light and increase its density as it approaches its target they can hit harder than I can. I still prefer Force, but it does look like fun when they run over the surface of water."
"So... okay. Is there a word for evolution? Whoa. Shit." That word had come out as a whole sentence. "Sorry, translation issue. You don't have a word for it, or not one that the bracelet knows. How did that come out? The change in inherited traits among a population of creatures?"
Hugh nodded. "Yes, that is the phrase you used. It is something that is studied by some, primarily those that raise animals for a living although I believe some scholars study it in regards to wild animals as well."
"Okay. So... I'm not an expert, but sometimes animals will develop some ability or physical trait and it's really useful, so they have more babies because they live longer or whatever, and then they pass that on to their babies, and so on. That's probably an over-simplistic way to say it but whatever. If that's the way that it works with magic though, wouldn't everything have magic? What could be more useful than magic?"
He chuckled as he helped me up onto Snuffy's back. "Well, I am not an expert in this. But I can think of one argument against it; creatures that rely on magic - we call them monsters, sometimes - they must have mana to survive. Some live in high mana areas, others are predators that must eat things with high mana such as humans or other monsters. They cannot live on non-magical animals and plants. This limits them severely, and it means having magic brings them danger from stronger monsters, yes?"
"Yeah, I guess that could do it. Man, I just want to learn magic so badly. I was really hoping I could attach that guy's Dumine to myself. So is this just trash then? Why did they even want it?"
"It is quite valuable, actually. The Dumine can be melted down and used in the creation of powerful magic items. In addition to this, depending on how well developed the Dumine is it may hold a large amount of mana that could be accessed in certain circumstances. The owner of a Dumine could even use that energy in an emergency, although it is normally only done when on the verge of death because it resets your progress."
"So you have to improve the Dumine over time by... what, feeding it mana?"
Hugh shrugged. "They say being in a high mana environment helps. Killing monsters of certain sorts. Practicing with your abilities. Regardless, it takes time. And the Dumine grows in different ways for everyone; you can feel it branching out, sense a maze of possibilities. I took the path of a brute, but I could have trained up my Force ability to make shields instead. I could have possibly even used it to fly."
"You picked hitting things really hard over flying?"
He laughed, and then was silent for a moment as he coaxed Snuffy back onto the road.
"Flying with Force is very difficult and I wanted immediate results, yes? I am impatient, and lazy. I learned to fight, I learned to hit very hard, and eventually I learned to shove things from a distance and stop arrows. Always the things that were most useful to me in the moment, never the more subtle skills that would take time to master."
"I'm not complaining. You wrecked those guys."
"You did not do so badly yourself, yes? By my estimation you killed a segozertze and two soldiers, and injured another badly enough that he was no threat. For someone who clearly has no actual combat training that is excellent work."
"Yeah I... sometimes have ended up in dangerous places, and I spent some time on my own in bad parts of some big cities."
"Ah! Yes, a wonderful way to gain experience. I myself was in a gang when I was younger, every time I could get away from my tutors."
"You had private tutors but were still in a street gang?"
Hugh shrugged again, and smiled back at me. "Yes, well. My parents dreamed that I would work in the royal court and eventually I did - as a member of the royal guard. They had something in mind with less murder, but if I have to choose between killing people and politics I know which I find more distasteful, yes?"
Snuffy lumbered around a corner, and whatever I had been planning to say next died in my throat. The world seemed to drop off ahead of us, and I could see for what felt like a hundred miles. A whole new amazing alien world waiting to be explored, but most importantly I could finally see the end of the snow.