Chapter 30: Ready, Set
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“Hi,” I said and Berla looked away from the fire and towards me.

“You’re supposed to be Miles now?” she asked.

“Yup.”

She hadn’t jumped up and tried to kill us again right after Tomar fell asleep, but she didn’t look like she was okay with the situation either. Even though I had expected “the talk” to go over poorly, her actual reaction had admittedly surprised even me a little. It had yet to sink in how terrified these people truly were of “Mad Ones.” There just was no equivalent for me. Maybe it was something like a literal demon appearing. Yet here we were. She hadn’t left and there hadn’t been a second attempt to murder us either.

“This is so stupid...” she mumbled.

“Huh. You don’t quite believe him, but you’re curious, aren’t you?” I said. Tomar was probably right, at least to some degree he had gotten through to her. She wanted to know more.

“What you said, or what ‘he’ said, is true. His experience doesn’t sound like the Mad Calling. That’s assuming he’s telling the truth. I wanted to see what would happen once he fell asleep, and here ‘you’ are. I also don’t know why anyone would make something like this up, but even if I were to accept what you’re saying, what are you two?”

“Well, I can’t give you any concrete answers. We only have theories.”

I told her what I assumed was happening during the rituals. That, somehow, people’s experiences and abilities were transferred to the inhabitants of this world. I also told her how something had presumably gone wrong during Tomar’s ritual, causing us to not merge, and that the Mad Calling might be related, but not quite the same. In my mind, the connection was indisputable, but for some reason Tomar had been fine.

“You’re not affecting him then?” she asked.

“We’re talking, just like you and I are talking right now. That’s it. I will tell him what I think, but I’m not controlling him. Well... except right now,” I said with an awkward expression. “But that’s different.”

“Then tell me, what was your opinion about helping me?”

After Tomar’s efforts to get her to trust him, I wouldn’t lie to her now. I mentally prepared to defend myself, however, should she take what I was going to say next the wrong way.

“I was against helping you. And especially about taking you with us,” I said, but she didn’t show any strong reaction. “Tomar doing the exact opposite of that should tell you something about how much control I have over his decision making.”

When I met him, Tomar was readily going along with most of the things I suggested, but he was changing. He would consider my advice, but ultimately he made his own decisions.

Berla was looking inquisitively at me. We had piqued her interest. I was never very trusting of strangers, and I certainly wouldn’t have risked my life to save an enemy. However, I had to admit that this turn of events was interesting to me as well. And if she truly became our companion, her knowledge could be very useful to us.

“If this is all a trick, you’re a great actor,” she said. “You two do feel like different people.”

“Can I ask you a question as well?”

“That depends,” she said with a raised eyebrow.

“Just something I haven’t been able to ask anyone yet. What do we look like to you?”

From the moment the water source had exploded, it appeared like we were scaring people. Even the guards who had been present at the time seemed somewhat frightened. Zara hadn’t been willing to talk to us more than absolutely necessary, so all we had to go on was people’s reactions. However, Berla hadn’t looked scared even once.

“I assume you mean that beast-like air around you?”

Apparently the soldiers and agents had been briefed on us. They had been told that being around Riala and Tomar felt similar to being around beasts. They couldn’t see the mana like we could, however. It was more of a feeling, a kind of primal fear that rose up inside you just by standing in front of a beast. And we were similar.

“So that’s really what it feels like?”

“Yes. We Fighters aren’t quite as affected by it, and you get used to it as well. But it’s there.”

“That’s very interesting, thanks.”

Confirmation on our theory. This meant we definitely needed a solution to the problem of our mana streaming out of us before we reached Cerus, otherwise they might not even let us in. Or maybe they would think we were humanoid beasts and try to kill us.

I had ideas for solving the issue, but I was still working on the sigils for it. The chaining of scripts had given me important hints about how we might be able to control the mana around us, assuming that it could be affected at all. Being able to control a script’s input after the mana left the body was crucial. I was deep in thought when Berla interrupted me.

“You seem like the rational one. Can you tell me what the plan is? He wants to help, I get that, but that can’t be all.”

She had asked Tomar the same question repeatedly earlier today, but he had been evasive and essentially only told her that he couldn’t leave someone in that situation behind. He had seen someone who needed help and just helped, without thinking too much about consequences, potential dangers, or his own wellbeing. Berla had called him a child before, but she hadn’t quite understood how right she was about that yet.

“What would you have done in his stead? Before you got your Calling I mean.”

The realization dawned on her. “He didn’t get an actual Calling...” she said.

“I don’t know how much a Calling really changes a person, but you’re supposed to become more mature, right?” I asked.

Tomar was still very young, and if the ritual had been supposed to turn you into more of an adult, he had missed out on that. If he had gotten my cynicism, he would most definitely not have acted the way he had. I’ve known people who would go out of their way to help others in my own world, but jumping into it with no plan at all was something I couldn’t imagine a lot of adults doing. Especially in a cutthroat world like this one.

“I’m relying on literal children here? Now I almost wish you had a little more control,” Berla said with a sad chuckle.

We talked for a while longer, until she finally got tired as well and laid down. I enjoyed talking to her, and maybe I would even go so far as to say that Tomar had made the right decision. However, I was also sure this would not make our travels any easier.

Maybe I can at least optimize our walking speed a little, I thought.

***

Captain Lera kneeled in front of the king in his reception room. It was already late in the evening, but the captain had just returned and wanted to make his report as soon as possible. With him was the one remaining soldier from the group that had set out to hunt down the escaped criminals.

“Your Majesty, I’m ashamed to have to report that we couldn’t apprehend Tomar Remor and Riala Fera yet. We followed them through the woods around town and made it all the way to the south-west, when the beast situation became untenable.”

The captain reported on their travels, about the hints of continued training on the boy’s side, and the unusually high concentration of beasts they had encountered. Every Fighter in the group had been carefully chosen for their experience in fighting out in the Wildlands, but nobody had expected them to run into this many high level enemies. When the captain was unable to regroup with the others, he finally made the decision to retreat. However, on their way back they found a dead soldier and a blood trail, indicating that the rest of the group had most likely been killed.

“I take full responsibility,” the captain said.

King Herta sat in silent contemplation on his ornate chair. Both he and the temple had lost some of their best men during this endeavor and they didn’t even have anything to show for it. One thing was remarkable, however.

“Ten of the best Fighters in town sat out into the woods,” the king said, “and only two came back alive. Yet you’re telling me that two children are surviving out there?”

The captain had wondered about this as well. Not only had they followed their targets’ trail and not found their dead bodies, they hadn’t found any dead beasts either. Even if you were to assume that they could kill beasts with ease, there should’ve been signs of that actually having occurred. Instead, the group that was following them ran into increased numbers of enemies, like a wall between them and the criminals. It defied common sense.

“I don’t know if the boy is doing something to avoid the beasts or if maybe they’re scared of him, but we haven’t seen any signs of them getting attacked,” the captain said.

The king was unsure how to proceed from here. The more he heard about Tomar, the more he wanted control over the boy. Yet he was slipping further and further away from his grasp. Going back into the woods to follow them would be a fool’s errand. In that case, they would have to be smarter about it.

“They’re making their way westwards, meaning they’re most likely heading towards Cerus,” the king said. “I assume you want to gather more men and catch them there?”

“With your permission, Your Majesty.”

The king trusted the captain. He knew Lera had done his utmost to catch the boy and the girl, and that he would continue to do so if permitted. When the criminals had originally fled towards the east, the king and the High Priest had sent a small, but qualified group, that could move fast and was believed to be able to handle themselves. Now the situation was different, however. If they were to go to Cerus, they would use well-established roads. They could bring provisions, more soldiers, and if they traveled through the night, they might even be able to arrive there before the targets did. The king and his men were going to make one last push.

“Assemble the captains and take one platoon each,” the king instructed, “I’ve had enough of this boy making a mockery of us.”

The one silver lining in this mess was that he could exclude the High Priest from his plans once more, arguing that the criminals had left the jurisdiction of Alarna. Their joint effort had failed and everything the king gained far away from town now would not be part of their pact. Instead he had to worry about Cerus’ mayor, but the king believed himself to be able to handle him. The mayor was a businessman, and even if he got ahold of the boy, the king would simply be able to buy him.

“I know you will do your best, Lera, as always, but tell your men that they will be compensated richly if I have the boy in front of me within a week.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. The men will be delighted,” the captain said. He stood up, saluted the king and left with the soldier to make his preparations.

Based on their presumed speed, the targets would reach Cerus in less than three days. The troops would have to hurry, but it was possible to reach the neighboring town before the fugitives, or to catch up to them, should they be using the roads.

The race towards Cerus had begun.

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