Night fell far too rapidly, and I found a small clearing by the road to sit down in, a medium size boulder to lean against, ring of mushrooms demarcating the borders of the clear zone. Weird how nature works that way sometimes. I couldn’t run all night – while I could heal myself, and possibly keep going with [Running] and [Greater Invigoration], the woods got dark at night. The thick growth of trees blocked out most of the star and moonlight, and even with skills giving me fuel, I needed rest. Legends had it that some people could go days without sleep, when they had a high enough Vitality, but I didn’t know anyone that could do that. It was the stuff of stories, like Sentinel Gideon.
I ate the last of my food – why didn’t I think that this could take more than a day – and tried to make a pile of clothes to sleep on and sleep under, money pouch helping form a pillow. The last glow of dusk vanished, and I found myself starting to shiver despite my layers, jumping at every creak and crack that rumbled through the woods. Was that some ground critter over there, or a snake sneaking up on me? Was that the sound of a deer, or some sort of wolf? Were the dinosaurs here herbivores, or would they think Elaine was on the menu?
I spent, far and away, the most uncomfortable night of either of my two lives. I clutched my knife with my right hand, my pendant with my left, hoping that their wards for luck and protection were more than just a saying.
I started to doze, only to hear some bushes rustling. Icy panic flooded through me as I scrambled upright, knuckles white on my knife. Several seconds of hearing my heartbeat pound in my ears, an eternity later, I relaxed. Just the wind. I hope. I tried to settle back down, eyes getting heavy, as a light drizzle started. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. I moved, knocking over something – the clang suggested my water bottle, but I couldn’t see anything - trying to get my clothes under me, so they wouldn’t get wet.
So instead, they got muddy. A scream of frustration left my lips, my hair flopping about in long, wet strands, droplets of cold water flicking off with each movement. Forget trying to keep them clean. I heaped them around me, trying to keep myself vaguely warm and dry. The rain stopping did more for that than any of my efforts. This was miserable.
I had the good sense to drink some of the rain water, and to leave my water bottle out to catch more, but that was more silver lining than anything else. [Vigilant] leveled up three times, a feat that I hadn’t seen since the incident with the wind weasels.
I settled back down, exhausted, barely able to keep my eyes open, to try and catch anything sneaking up on me. Why was I trying to keep my eyes open? I couldn’t see anything anyways.
I woke up with a start. Ambush! No, just the wind again. Heart pounding, it took ages before I could fall back asleep.
I’d gotten a terrible night’s sleep the previous night, and tonight was shaping up to also be terrible sleep-wise.
Dawn found me shivering in my muddy, sodden pile of clothes, miserable, but alive, and if this was still Earth I’d be mistaken for a racoon or a panda. Normally I’d be sleeping for longer, but staying here wasn’t getting me any closer to Artemis and her team, and maybe I could gain some ground. Hopefully they liked sleeping in.
All of my clothes being soaked through increased the weight I was carrying dramatically, and I could feel it. My stomach gurgled, protesting the lack of breakfast, or anything else to eat. I eyed the mushrooms lining I reached up to the tangle of my hair, realizing I hadn’t brought a comb.
I don’t know why, but realizing I hadn’t even thought ahead enough to bring a comb is what broke me, causing me to sob in a little glade in the forest. It brought home the idea that I could die doing this, that this wouldn’t be as easy as a hop-skip-jump. In my mind I’d meet up with Artemis, and everything would be sunshine and roses. I hadn’t thought that it might take longer than anticipated to find them, that I might even miss them entirely. I had no way of finding water. I had no way of getting food. I’m not even sure I could kill a rabbit if I found one.
After some time unproductively wasting water, I dried my eyes and wiped my face. I eyed the brightly colored mushrooms all around me, a riot for the eyes. I had [Cure Toxin], so maybe I could risk eating one. I weighed the pros and cons in my mind. Food. Potential death from poisoning, if it was too fast, or my skills not enough. I was hungry, not starving. Rule of three. Three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food. I looked at how skinny I was, and amended it to ten days without food.
Let’s not risk it, yet. I’ll keep in mind that food most people considered poisonous I could attempt to eat in small quantities.
I used [Attack Bacteria] on my sodden clothes, then wrung some water out of them into my mouth – waste not, want not, and the skill would hopefully stop me getting sick. I grabbed my stuff, and started a long loping journey down the road, keeping my eyes peeled for food, water, or things that’d consider me food. The deeper into the forest I went, the thicker the bamboo was, to the point where it turned into a crisp, clean corridor of green. [Greater Invigoration] helped shake off some of the sleepiness, and I started moving.
[Greater Invigoration] was like a few strong cups of coffee. It cleared the fog in my head, it woke me up, but I still felt that distant sluggishness that came from a lack of sleep. Multiple nights with terrible sleep.
It was about mid afternoon when I rounded a bend to find a bunch of rocks in the middle of the road. I paused, looking at them. I cursed. I must have missed Artemis and company by a mile – no way they’d let fallen rocks like this stay. Decision time – do I weave my way through the rocks, and keep going forward? Or do I double back, trying to find wherever the Rangers went? I scratched my head, somehow unable to beat the itch there.
A jolt of realization went through me, sleep-deprived fog clearing as adrenaline hit the emergency button. That was [Vigilance] going off, warning me that I was in trouble, that I needed to be alert. Heart pounding, I looked all around me. Nothing. Just bamboo shoots, swaying in the breeze.
Above me? Canopy. No death from the skies today. Behind me? Bend in the road. In front of me? They’re just rocks, right….?
I decided forward was the way to go. [Vigilance] was going nuts, but that just said to be careful. If I started trying to double back, I’d just walk back home. That wasn’t an option. I started to squeeze between the rocks – nothing too big, not too tight of a squeeze – and jumped a foot in the air as someone said “Excuse me miss?”
I’d known someone was there, but a polite greeting instead of a vicious attack completely threw me off-guard, startling me.
My shin landed on the rock on the way back down, unbalancing me, causing me to throw a hand forward to catch myself. With a sickening crack my right arm hit another rock, causing me to scream in pain as I finished landing. I curled up the best I could, sobbing through the pain, as two well-armed men and a woman came out from the bamboo.
“Ha! Hypatios, you’ve never taken someone out just by saying hi!” the voice that initially called out to me said. He was a young man, older than with a cocky, arrogant swagger, wearing mis-matched leathers and well-used weapons.
“Gregorios, don’t be a dick. She’s clearly not a courier, merchant, or trader of any sort. Probably another runaway.” Another male voice, I assume was Hypatios, responded. I looked at him. Older looking, hair almost entirely white, but still in lean, mean fighting condition. I knew jack shit about weapons, and his were either well-used, or terribly maintained. If I were a betting girl, I’d bet on the first one. More importantly though, they knew I was a runaway! I couldn’t bring myself to care, my arm hurt too much. Wait, I was being dumb. [Deaden Pain]. I gasped in relief as the pain left me, well-aware of the dangers of possibly leaving my sense of pain permanently off.
“Excuse me, are you ok?” The woman in the group leaned over me. She looked middle aged, time having left a few marks on her, but could be anywhere from 30 to 50.
[Identify] gave me [Laborer] on her.
“I think I broke my arm.” I said clinically, still lying on the ground. I was trying to evaluate myself for any other injuries, but that was nearly impossible to do with my sense of pain completely turned off. Even with magic, there was no winning.
“Can you try to get up?” The woman persisted.
I groaned, and slowly sat up, cradling my arm. Fortunately, it seemed like the rest of me was ok, if badly bruised. I didn’t feel up to trying to stand all the way up.
“Come on Iola, we need to get us off the road. She’s [Healer]-tagged, just grab her and get the road clear.” Clear roads sounded nice. Iola grabbed me under my good shoulder, and lifted me up, then steered me off the road, into the thick bamboo.
“Hey wait, won’t we get lost in here?” I asked, confused why we were heading into the forest, off the road.
“Shhh! I’ll explain later. You are a runaway, right?” Iola hushed me, continuing to lead me through the thick brush. I caught a glimpse of a person, no two people, no three, four, five – just how many people were hiding in the woods here!? Why weren’t they clearing the rocks off the road? Those things were dangerous!
It slowly dawned on me as we suddenly ended up on a game trail that yes, it was dangerous, and they had deliberately made it dangerous. Those weren’t people hiding in the wood, those were bandits waiting by their trap. They were why my [Vigilance] was going nuts. Those rocks were there to stop a wagon, they were just around the bend so they’d run into them full speed.
I cursed my naivety as I suddenly realized I had been oh-so-gently kidnapped by a bunch of bandits. Welp, this running away thing was going swimmingly so far.
We went through some twists and turns in the forest, Iola seeming to know every step and crook and cranny, while my mind raced. My arm was broken, and completely useless. I couldn’t even properly reach my knife – left arm gently but firmly held at the shoulder; right arm useless. I hadn’t been robbed and murdered on the spot, and Iola, in spite of this gentle kidnapping, seemed to be treating me in a kindly, if brisk, manner. I should just go with the flow for now, get my arm healed, see what was going on, and try to trade some healing for freedom. There had to be someone injured, or at the very least, wanting some scars removed.
Then again, if they were injured, that meant they were fighting – and killing – people on the road, which swung the pendulum back on “they’d be ok letting me go”. Afterall, if I knew where a bunch of murderous bandits were, why would they let me go?
We made it through another twist, and came in sight of a monument to human ingenuity, persistence, and the thousand and one properties of bamboo. It was a fortress, a base, a large complex building – none of those words quite fit. Rows of bamboo were woven together with bamboo fibers, creating walls eight feet tall. I couldn’t see people walking on top of the walls, but there did seem to be a watch tower – purely made of bamboo – in the middle of the fortress. I snuck a look at Iola, and realized everything she was wearing, from tunic to belt to sandals, were also woven bamboo. When in bamboo forest, do as the bamboo.
We entered through a gate made of, surprise surprise, bamboo, the bottom of the gate pulled up for us to get through. I looked around to see a village in miniature. Someone was weaving baskets – out of bamboo, what else – a large communal cookpot was stewing, with a large chef dictating what went in and what didn’t, as several other people brough various types of food over, leaving with bowls of stew. Someone else was peeling and preparing bamboo logs, with a large pile behind them of prepared wood. Iola kept bustling me around, leading me to a circle of rocks around another fire, sitting me down, throwing a blanket over me, and getting me a bowl of food, all without saying a word.
At the food, I threw her a grateful look, and started to eat. The blanket was warm, the food causing a blissful heat to spread through me. I barely knew what it was, just that it tasted like deliciousness, and that hunger was the best spice.
“So, runaway?” she started, and I had a distinct feeling that this was an interrogation, and not really a friendly chat. In spite of all the heat around me, I felt a chill go through me. I hesitated, then nodded. She seemed pleased at that.
“Anyone going to come after you?” I thought about that. Would anyone chase after me? I’d gotten a solid head start, the letter might delay them, they might not look too hard or go as far as I did – after all, I was running with all my might for a whole day and change. I shrugged my shoulders – my right arm was still broken, my left hand was busy feeding me, and my mouth was occupied inhaling as much good as possible. Communication on expert mode.
Iola gave me a look from top to bottom. “Yeah, I can see why they might chase after you – or might not depending. Name’s Iola – what’s yours?” Drat, I had to actually talk now.
I swallowed my food, another bite ready to go. “Elaine.” Politeness finished, food back into mouth. Iola grinned at me.
“Elaine, what a beautiful name! Why don’t you stay here with us, in Verdant Village? We’re all runaway slaves here, as long as you pull your weight and don’t slack, you’ll fit right in!”
I froze at that, food in my mouth the only thing stopping me from shouting out. That’s what they had meant by runaway! They thought I was a runaway slave! If anyone found me here, they’d assume I was also a runaway slave! If slaves had it mediocre, runaway slaves had it horrible. It was always some gruesome form of execution, a way to tell the other slaves that ‘it could be so much worse’.
At the same time, it was obvious that they’d been here for a good long time. A structure the size of Verdant Village didn’t show up in a month, or even a year. There was clearly food, community, and a sense of safety. I should probably play along, at least until my arm was better, get a sense of the place, then escape.
Artemis would be so long gone by then, but maybe I’d be able to catch them at the next town. They did like taking a week or so in town, maybe they’d get sidetracked, and I believed I could move at least as fast as them. I ignored the voice saying that I clearly did not move as fast as them.
Iola could see me thinking about it, eyes narrowed as she watched me. Another reason to agree – they’d be here a long time. I’d never even heard rumors of a place like this. They clearly liked their secrets. I suspect if I said I wanted to leave; I’d leave in a funeral pyre. I nodded and smiled, tried to bring another spoonful of food to my mouth, before realizing I’d run out. Drat. My excuse to talk as little as possible had run out.
My agreement got a brilliant smile out of Iola, with black holes checkered where she was missing teeth. “Great! What kind of healing tricks do you have?”