Chapter 93 Stranger in the Woods (Part 3)
Almost as if reading their minds, the woman answered the unanswered question lingering in their minds “No I am not threatening you. I am helping you. I am telling you the truth. I am giving you useful information, what you choose to do with that information is for you to decide.”
The melody of her voice was mesmerizing and Haeru had to hold himself back from taking a step forward. Instead he focused on what she was saying and the gravity of the words and their meaning.
Steadying himself, Haeru finally noticed what was strange about her words. It wasn’t the content but rather that he felt something familiar. Something far more obvious when his dad tried it. Even though he was considered to be from a good family, Haeru better than anyone knew how limited that truth was. He was born under lucky circumstances but his family heritage wasn’t nearly as long as the families that held true power within Lumea City. His father often spoke to him about how lucky they were that his grandmother was so powerful, she was both skilled in the usage of mana towards body enhancement and elemental usage. She was the entire package, it was just a pity that she died in service to the city. She died protecting the people as it was her very nature, that she never got the chance to have enough time to develop her skills.
It was his grandmother’s valor and contributions that made his family rise to prominence, and it was up to the future generations to maintain that prestige. Haeru had been burdened with a lot of responsibility from an early age as most noble families were. His father’s skill was more than decent but not enough to make him stand out in a world where humanity was teetering on the edge of annihilation.
Therefore his father had poured in almost all of his time and effort once he felt himself reach his limits in power. Once he’d come to the realization that he would only ever get so strong, he decided to spend less and less time during services for the city and more time raising Haeru to have all the advantages he possibly could in order to get stronger faster and younger.
Haeru’s father came to understand far too late that while understanding and insight can come at any point in life, training specific elements had to be done early in life in order to get the body familiarized with that element. After a certain age, the body just can’t adjust to having it’s mana forcibly changed into an attribute. Therefore he came to understand that age limits the amount of progress one can make. Only early on in life is every door available to those with talent and potential.
He’d spent all his time teaching Haeru the magical skills he knew and could pass on and explaining his own insights. Everyday he would hammer these skills into Haeru, and there was something Haeru was all too familiar with. His father had originally tried to use body enhancing magic like his mother, but his talent was just too limited in that field. Regardless of that, he’d still learned a lot of basic applications for mana, and enhancing his voice with mana was one of the things he did with regular use when he was screaming at him to do something during their trainings.
The beautiful woman in the tree was enhancing her voice with mana, on a level so different from his father that it was impossible to compare. Clearly she wasn't just a nobody, and although he didn’t know who she was, the circumstances already pointed towards the likelihood of her being dangerous. Now he had confirmation that she was more than just a pretty face. The amount of talent in what she was doing was more than he could understand, but a simple thought made things more than clear enough to him ‘No one that has the ability to use their insights to merge their voice with mana so clearly would be limited to just this… If her insight into something seemingly useless is so high… Her combat skills must be insane…’
Haeru didn’t look over towards Leo because he couldn’t help but think that it would be unwise to look away from the beautiful woman but he whispered towards Leo “We need to be very careful. She’s dangerous.”
Leo ignored Haeru as if he was speaking the obvious. Instead he responded to the beautiful woman “If all you’re doing is being helpful out of the kindness of your heart, then we would be fools not to listen to you. Please, share with us whatever it is you think you know, we’ll be more than glad to hear whatever it is you have to say. Although if you could give us your name, it would go a long way in having us trust what you’re telling us.”
“Your group of 50 or so humans split up a few days ago. The other group who headed north is currently being attacked. Although they aren’t close they aren’t that far either. Although they are being attacked, it’s a threat they can handle. What they don’t know is that there is an even bigger threat waiting to ambush them and something else heading their way.”
Finally Haeru and Leo took their eyes off of her as they glanced at one another quickly as if trying to see what the other was thinking.
‘There’s just no way of knowing if what she’s saying is true.” Haeru thought, while Leo was more disturbed by the knowledge that even if what she said was a lie, based on what she said he could tell that she had been keeping an eye on them for days now. Not only had he not noticed anything but the professor or guardsmen who were keeping an eye on them hadn’t done a single thing.
‘Either they don’t perceive her as a threat and chose not to do anything… Or it’s even worse than that and even they didn’t notice her. If they didn’t even notice her… Doesn’t that mean she might even be stronger than something they can handle?’ Leo wondered, as Haeru had finally started thinking along the same lines and came to a similar conclusion.
Even as they both wondered what to do, Leo’s mind came to a halt when his mind seemed to freeze. ‘Your group of 50 of so humans… That’s what she said right…?’ the realization that her wording implied she wasn’t human made Leo’s blood run cold.
Mustering up the courage he had, Leo spoke “It’s not that we don’t believe you, but although we are skilled, we are all still young. It’s natural we would be wary of a stranger in the woods. You don’t seem to want to tell us your name and we won’t pressure you to do so, but if we are to believe what you are saying… Then I must at least ask, why are you telling us this? Why are you helping?”
Leo’s words held a very simple implication: ‘People don’t help other people for no reason, unless they aren’t helping at all’
It was a skeptical view of the world, but one that his grand father had instilled in him because he knew it would serve Leo well. Humans no longer had the luxury of leading such a peaceful life that allowed them to believe that good things happen to good people. That was no longer the world they lived in. They lived in a world where the strong ate the weak and the stronger ate the strong. If someone or something had strength, they would exercise that strength and impose it on others, just because they could. Just because humans were no longer at the top of the food chain.
Leo tried to hold the woman’s gaze, but he’d never come across anything that was inhuman but had the same appearance as one. It was both unsettling for him, and daunting. As far as he knew, the only creatures that had a similar if not the same appearance as humans were high races and creatures merely taking the shape of the human at will. If that was what this “beautiful woman” was doing, then she could likely kill everyone here without batting one of those possibly-fake-but-beautiful-eyelashes.
Each second felt like an eternity for Leo as he waited for a response to his question, as he both hoped for an answer while simultaneously wishing she would just go away. He’d never been in a position where he felt like his life was in somebody else’s hands. Even more so something possibly ridiculously strong that wasn’t human.
After what felt like a lifetime, the woman finally responded “I am helping you… Because you smell like someone I used to know. I don’t know why that is, perhaps it is your mana, your smell itself or perhaps I’ve merely been away from humans for too long. It doesn’t matter. I know there are a plethora of humans currently scattered around the forest and they are all part of your group. I chose to help you out of a whim, that’s all. Take it for what it is.”
Leo and Haeru were both instantly surprised by her answer. Neither of them were expecting her to answer, to answer so thoroughly or the content itself. It was only now that Haeru realized she likely wasn’t human herself while Leo was already two paces ahead of him as he contemplated what kind of power or ability she had to have in order to be able to sense thousands of humans hundreds if not thousands of miles apart. The very notion that she had the ability to do that made him feel even smaller.
Instead of saying any more, the woman turned around and seemed to disappear into the forest. Even though they were looking right at her, it was as if she disappeared before their very eyes.
Haeru gulped as he processed the information swarming around in his brain.
Leo was suddenly very motivated to become stronger. ‘In the face of overwhelming power, I am just an ant. I need to get stronger if I want to become someone amazing, if I want to travel outside the small bubble I’ve lived in my entire life. I need to become stronger if I want to travel past the small territory Lumea City has been trapped in, I want to get strong enough to face someone like her and be able to keep my head held high!”
Leo’s fists were clenched, and he didn’t even realize the fiery look in his eyes as he made an imposing expression that personified his desire for strength and the lengths he didn’t realize he would be willing to go through to get it.
Haeru took a few seconds as well as he processed everything and turned around to look at the others in the group only to realize they seemed almost hypnotized. Still staring at the spot where the beautiful woman had been, a glazed over look in their eyes.
“Hey! Snap out of it!” Haeru waved his hands in front of them and snapped his fingers a few times but they didn’t even blink.
Finally irritated with the entire situation, he infused his mana into his voice as he screamed at them “Wake the hell up!” as he felt his frustration reach a boiling point.
Only after hearing Haeru yelling, his mana piercing through their eardrums did everyone around them finally wake up as she looked either shocked or confused and began asking one another what had happened.
“What’s going on?”
“Where’d that beautiful woman go?”
When Haeru asked some of them what had happened to them, most of them could only remember seeing ab beautiful woman and then a second later Haeru had been yelling and the woman was gone. Haeru pieced everything together and realized that they’d all either been intentionally mesmerized or perhaps they didn’t have enough mana to even stand in that woman’s presence.
Unlike Haeru who was desperately trying to figure out what had happened, he was less focused on whether what happened to them was intentional or not and more focused on the simple facts. It was a fact that only Leo and himself had heard the words she’d spoken, and it was a fact that the conversation was held strictly between the three of them (even if technically only Leo had spoken).
It was a fact that the woman had shared information that was had yet to be proven false and a fact that she had left without causing any harm to them. She claimed she was helping, and all the facts pointed towards that as well.
He began to discuss with Haeru ignoring everybody else what they should do.
“Even if she wasn’t lying and was telling the truth, there is no reason to assume that the other group wouldn’t be able to handle themselves. Even if they can’t, they still have an instructor and some guardsmen watching over them.” Leo pointed out, unwilling to venture through the forest with the aim of helping Damien.
“Yeah… But clearly you’re saying that because you have an issue with Damien even if it’s true. Moreover let’s think about this clearly… If what she said is true, then we may be in just as much danger as them. A threat to humans is a threat to us, if they can’t handle it then we might not be able too either by ourselves. Moreover… If we go, we can attack and steal the kills, if we kill some monsters that even the other group can’t or that we might not be able to handle if they were in tip top shape, then we’ll definitely do a lot better. The goal is still to get top marks on this exam right?”
Leo couldn’t help but grimace. What Haeru was saying was true… Moreover the guy was sneakier than he’d anticipated.
‘Heh… If I can steal a kill from Damien, make him look weaker, save his life, and make myself look better all in one go… Well I guess that wouldn’t be so bad…’
“Okay… Let’s do it!” Leo said, finally agreeing even if Haeru hadn’t specifically been pushing for going. It was as if his and Haeru’s decisions alone were the only ones that mattered in their group of near 25.
Haeru nodded and began to lead the group with Leo north at a jog’s pace “Let’s move faster. No point in going if we’re going to show up late!”
What Haeru didn’t say out loud was, after thinking things through and having spoken with the others. He came to the conclusion that while it seemed like Leo and himself were the only ones who heard her words, there was no guarantee that the instructor who was supposedly following them hadn’t heard as well.
‘Whoever our instructor is, he or she has been following us from far enough that we can’t tell where they are. That means they definitely aren’t weak. It’s entirely possibly that they heard the conversation and if they did, and we choose not to help the others. That might be enough to either label us as cowards or traitors. This is the safe bet.’ Haeru thought.