The captains of Alarna assembled their troops in the middle of the night and set out for Cerus within two hours of receiving their orders. They were hopeful to make it to the neighboring town before Tomar and Riala, to catch them off guard. Traveling during the night wasn’t without risk, but the impressive size of their forces would all but guarantee that they would have minimal losses on their way.
Even though most people were fast asleep at this time, a certain group of agents had been persuaded to stay ever vigilant, and they didn’t miss the troops assembling and setting out westwards. Their contacts within the king’s mansion were tight-lipped about what exactly was going on, but after seeing that the captain had returned with only one other soldier, they could infer that the joint venture to capture the criminals had failed. Unless King Hertar was now suddenly declaring war on Cerus, there wouldn’t be many reasons to send such a force in that direction. Especially at this time and with such urgency. They knew the king was going after the targets again. Alone.
“We have to report this to the High Priest...” Nier said.
“He will immediately send us after them though,” Reurig responded with a frown.
“If we don’t, we’ll end up like Dirra and Reva!”
“I hate this so much. My parents told me to get a nice, safe guard job. Why didn’t I listen?”
The High Priest had made an example of their predecessors when they had failed in their job to monitor Tomar. He was not one to overlook such errors, and the king getting his hands on the boy had further fueled his anger.
“You know we don’t have a choice. At least we don’t have to go to the woods like the others...”
“Great, we still have to go after that water source freak. He knocked out Captain Lera! What does that make him, cat six? Maybe seven? And who knows what that little girl can do!?”
“I hear you...”
Not all Fighters were happy about their jobs. Some were born combatants, who lived for the fight, but for many of them it was just work. They had their reservations about going up against strong beasts, but they did it. What was going on at the moment, however, was unusual. Increased beast activity in town, targets with unknown abilities, task forces that were decimated out in the woods, gods getting involved, it was a lot to take in. They felt out of their depth, with situations where their Callings were of limited help.
“Did you know Reva had just become a father? And now he’s gone, just because the High Priest was pissed.”
“Let’s not go down that road. This is our job. Any of us could die at a moment’s notice.”
A somber mood fell over the two.
“Have you ever thought about leaving town?”
“I’m serious, Nier. There have to be better places out there. I never wanted to be a Fighter, and now our friends are falling left and right. Just because of some stupid kids! And we’re supposed to be next? The king’s men at least have a proper force. How many of us is the High Priest going to send?”
The two of them sat in silence for a little while. The past couple of weeks had been difficult. The temple had lost six agents, which was more than they usually lost during fights with beasts in a year. Everybody was on edge, and those who were never truly happy with their job in the first place had an especially hard time.
“It has to get better again once they are caught, right?” Nier said. “Everything that happened was linked back to them. And you saw the forces. There’s no way they’ll get away this time. This is the finale. Let’s go make our report. We’ll survive this one mission, and maybe we’ll even get a chance to capture the two. After that everything will calm down.”
Reurig looked at Nier with sad eyes, but he eventually nodded. Deserting wouldn’t be a real option. He knew very little about what lay beyond the lands around Alarna and Cerus, except for more woods, filled with more monsters. And this place at least had comparatively weak beasts and a strong wall. He wasn’t going to join some town where citizens were regularly sacrificed to category tens, just to appease them, nor was he going to try to live in the woods by himself.
Both of them left the location they had monitored the soldiers from and headed in the direction of the temple. They knew the High Priest would be furious. For being woken at this time, about the news that his agents had been lost, for being behind the king once more, and for lacking the human resources to truly stand against him in this situation. But they would endure, in hopes for better days to come.
I didn’t know what Miles and Berla had talked about last night, but it must’ve been effective, because she was much more open towards us in the morning. She hadn’t lost another word about my unusual Calling, she was friendly, and I had been woken by her playing catch with Riala. That last part had possibly been the biggest surprise.
“They’re called crutches,” Miles explained. He had used a few thick branches we had cut from trees to use for firewood to build a walking aid for Berla, with the help of scripts and my knife. All I had ever seen in town before were canes. Those could’ve possibly helped her a little, but with the crutches she was surprisingly mobile. So much so that Riala had a hard time escaping or catching the agile Fighter.
“One more time!” the young girl said enthusiastically after she was caught again, but Berla was starting to get tired.
“Let’s stop for now,” she said with a smile, “this is more exhausting than just running around.”
She walked over to where I was sitting, watching them, and looked at me with a smile as well. “Thank you, Miles.”
“He says ‘You’re welcome.’”
After getting ready for the day, we left our camp behind and made our way north-west, where we would eventually reach the road to Cerus. Berla and Riala were in high spirits, now that we were back to a more normal walking speed.
“That was nice of you,” I said to Miles, as I was walking a few meters behind the girls.
‘It solved the movement speed issue.’
“It did, but it was also nice.”
After what happened last night I had come to realize that Miles hadn’t been entirely wrong. Helping Berla was a good deed, but not only didn’t I have a real plan, I had actually endangered us. I had also underestimated her, thinking that she wouldn’t be much of a danger in her injured state.
“It seems like you made peace with the situation. I’m happy about that, but I also see that I was a little hasty yesterday. Thanks for covering.”
‘To my surprise it appears to be working out so far. It’s hard to say “I told you so” in this situation. Maybe we’ll find more of a middle ground in the future though. And you shouldn’t let your guard down.’
At some point, as we were making our way through a clearing, Berla turned towards me. “I’ve been wondering about something. Why haven’t we encountered any beasts yet?”
“We’ve seen a few before, but we were able to avoid them,” I said.
“A few? We saw several category fives every day!”
“What’s a category five?”
“The one that got me was cat five. One of the strongest beasts in this area.”
It was the first time I had heard the term, but it made sense that the Fighters would have names for the different kinds of beasts. These bears being one of the strongest ones also meant that we were able to kill the strongest beasts around, which filled me with some sense of safety.
“And you’ve seen several of them? With how dangerous the woods are supposed to be, we did find it weird that we barely ran into any beasts, but we didn’t really think about it anymore after a certain point,” I said.
“Beasts rarely kill other beasts...” Berla mumbled, giving me a suspicious sideway glance.
“Miles says ‘That’s one theory.’”
Berla chuckled. “The dynamic between you two is so weird. Can he talk through you while you’re awake?”
“Honestly, we’ve never tested it.”
Knowing that Miles controlled my body at night was creepy enough, but your own body moving around on its own while you’re wide awake was something I struggled with. I knew that Miles had been kind of stuck with that sensation for weeks now, but I hadn’t been quite ready to give that much control over to him yet.
“Let me watch if you do try it,” she said.
Berla seemed curious about Miles and our situation, but the change in her attitude was still unexpected. She had been mostly quiet yesterday, then she was in a murderous mood last night, and today she was smiling, making conversation, and playing with Riala.
“What have you two been talking about last night?” I asked.
“Nothing special. Boring adult stuff,” she said with a chuckle.
“... adult stuff?” I asked Miles as I raised an eyebrow.
‘She’s just making fun of you.’
Maybe I should’ve been concerned about how well they were getting along after just one evening, but I didn’t even care at that moment. It was just nice that everybody was happy. We continued on, and after a few hours, shortly before noon, we reached the road that would lead us westward towards Cerus.
“Finally out of the woods,” I said.
The road we were standing on was similar to the dirt road that had led us into the woods east of Alarna. It was wide enough for six people to comfortably walk side-by-side, with a generous buffer zone between it and the forest.
“I would say ‘we’re safer now,’ but since you guys are apparently scaring away the beasts anyway...” Berla said with a shrug. “It is nice to travel under an open sky though.”
From here it should take us less than three days to reach the mining town. All I knew about it I had learned from books, but supposedly it was similar to Alarna in many aspects. Unlike our home town, however, Cerus was a merchant town and more open to letting people come and go.
“Have you been to Cerus before?” I asked her.
“I’ve accompanied the caravan a few times, but we never stayed longer than a night.”
“Will they just let us in?”
“As long as you fix your mana it shouldn’t be a problem.”
She was well informed. Apparently Miles and her hadn’t only made smalltalk. He didn’t have a definitive solution yet, but he was getting close to finishing a prototype script, which we would then test.
“Can Berla learn to use scripts like us?” Riala asked.
Berla looked with surprise at the young girl. It seemed like she hadn’t considered the possibility yet, even though it had been all the captain and the priest had been focused on when they questioned me.
“I don’t know if I’d actually want that, but I am curious about the answer,” she said as she looked at me.
Miles and I had talked a bit about what happened with Riala and me, but we only had theories. One was that the water source had infused us with its mana, but since we were actively regenerating it ourselves, that seemed unlikely. The other theory was that the blast had somehow enabled or unlocked our mana. However, when we blasted the captain into a wall inside the prison, we had used a considerable amount of mana as well. If it were that simple, he should’ve started exuding mana. Aside from not knowing enough yet, Miles and I had also decided to keep these particular theories to ourselves for now.
“We don’t know the exact steps yet, so she can’t at the moment,” I responded to Riala’s question.
Both seemed content with my answer. Giving others our abilities was certainly an interesting prospect, but it would also change the world as we knew it, potentially turning even children into dangerous weapons.
As we kept traveling along the road on this mild summer morning, I thought back to how just a few days ago I had assumed my life to be over. In shackles in a prison cell, being experimented on, and awaiting the decision that I was to be executed. Now, walking under the morning sun, talking and laughing with Riala and Berla, it seemed like a bad dream, and I was excited for what might come next.