After a long day of walking and fighting we made camp at a location where the caravan would also always stop at night. Places like this one could be found in regular intervals between Alarna and Cerus. Wide pastures that were usually prepared close to a water source, so people could rest comfortably. The woods were still close though, so we could make a quick getaway, should someone else come by.
‘Feels kind of nostalgic to see this familiar looking cube. Even though it’s only been a few days since we last saw one.’
“If only people knew that trees can give water. The only reason they need water sources during these trips is because the default script doesn’t work as expected on trees,” I said.
“What? Trees can give water?” Berla asked incredulously.
She had seen us produce water a few times now, but not yet from a tree. We had stopped using them just before meeting her, because I wanted to expend some mana during the day, to be able to sleep at night.
“They can, most of them anyway. But the water source script doesn’t work, because of the input location.”
“I’ll show her!” Riala said in excitement and pulled Berla away by her hand, over to a tree, to demonstrate what she had learned. I watched her draw and execute a script, while Berla looked on in amazement.
“Riala would’ve been a good match for you as a Calling,” I said to Miles with a chuckle. “Then again, you probably would’ve gotten into trouble even sooner.”
‘Or we might’ve advanced faster, become much more powerful, and then taken over control of Alarna,’ Miles said jokingly.
“Now you want to be king? Or I guess it would be ‘queen’ with Riala? Praise be to Queen Miles!” I said, laughing.
‘Granted, that might’ve been a little awkward.’
While I was preparing the fire, Riala was still showing Berla various scripts. She had a hard time following the young girl’s ramblings, but she still listened with interest and marvelled at the water streams hopping around in the air. I thought back to what Berla and I had been talking about after we defeated the beasts. She had been in good spirits in the morning, but the strange events surrounding us seemed to have brought her back to reality a little.
If you truly believed that we were only a burden on people and the world, the argument that we’d be better off dead might make sense to some degree. However, I was hoping she would come to see it like me. Even if maybe we had been a burden, going forward, we wouldn’t be anymore. Not if they stopped chasing us. How likely was she to change her long held beliefs though?
“I know it’s weird for me to ask this now... but do you think we can fully trust her? Her questions earlier seemed a little ominous.”
‘You should never trust someone until you really know them. That said, she did help us with those beasts.’
“She did... but her mission was also to bring us back alive.”
‘True. Does it really matter though? You considered the possibility that we won’t be able to rest in Cerus. You’re prepared for it. And if she doesn’t betray us after we get there, we should hopefully be safe. Maybe don’t teach her attack scripts though.’
“Unless she’s faking it, I don’t think we have to worry about that,” I said with a chuckle, looking over to Riala and Berla. The expression on her face, as the girl less than a third her age tried to explain chaining scripts to her, was priceless. “Speaking of Riala... her progress isn’t normal, is it? I have some of your knowledge at least, but she’s learning all this as if it’s nothing. And she hasn’t even properly learned to read yet.”
‘Children do learn faster, but no. She definitely isn’t normal. Maybe she’s a prodigy. At least she hasn’t managed to come up with any completely new scripts yet, that would demotivate even me a little.’
The fire was finally roaring and the two came over to prepare... “dinner.” Berla had insisted we take some of it with us, but I wasn’t entirely convinced yet.
“Are you really sure this is edible?” I said as I took a stick with a piece of meat on it from her, to cook over the fire.
“You have so much to learn about life. What do you think the meat you ate in town was?” Berla said.
I froze momentarily. “I’ve eaten beasts all my life...? My mother always called it deer!”
“Your family wouldn’t have been able to afford deer...” she said with one eyebrow raised. “I guess it’s not entirely your own fault you’re this innocent. Your mother might’ve been a little overprotective.”
The mentioning of my mother still hurt. Looking down in sadness I held the meat over the fire. Berla might’ve had a point, however. I hadn’t known how to handle Charmers, or that old people were stealthily removed from society. I had never gone near the prison, and even what I had eaten all my life wasn’t what I had thought. Mother protected me from everything...
“Oh, I’m sorry...” Berla said.
An apology... apologies are good. ADD[TRUST;1], I thought.
After a few minutes of grilling the meat I carefully blew on and then bit into it, while Riala tried to act gracefully, but quickly burned her tongue. “Ah! Hot!!”
“Drink something,” I told her while chewing. She quickly grabbed a water stone and her cup and ran over to the water source. I giggled lightly. In her pain, she must’ve forgotten that she could just use the script on her arm.
“How is it?” Berla asked.
“A little burned, but good,” I said with a slight smile. “It isn’t so bad out here, is it?”
How would she react to this prompt? We would have to find a place to live, and we had offered her to come with us. However, this complicated our situation further. Going back to Alarna wouldn’t be an option for obvious reasons, but becoming citizens of another town would not be possible either. Not if they had the same laws, which Berla assured me they all did. I wasn’t yet convinced that we couldn’t find another town that would take us, but assuming that she was right, we might have to live in the Wildlands.
“Aside from the talking beasts you mean?” she said with a chuckle.
“‘Isolated incident,’” I said, gesturing that it came from Miles.
“I have to admit, with you guys around, one could almost forget that these woods are filled with dangerous beasts. Just sitting here, in nature, looking at the stars... It's nice.”
“It could be a life.”
“Maybe it could be...” she said.
“This is weird, isn’t it?” a guard said while walking through the southern woods in a group of five. “I heard they were practically stumbling over beasts every few hours, but I’ve never seen the Wildlands more quiet. Especially at night! It almost seems wrong, doesn’t it?”
“Definitely. I thought you were crazy for suggesting that we should keep going at night, Eissen,” another said. “Did you know we wouldn’t encounter anything out here?”
The squad’s leader carefully looked around the forest, using a lantern to illuminate their surroundings. The forest was indeed eerily sereen. “Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are. Even if the category fives are gone, I would’ve expected the usual ones to appear.”
According to the conversation he’d had with Captain Lera before he left for Cerus, the beasts had been everywhere, and it had mainly been the strongest ones you would see around these parts. On his way back, the encounters had lessened, but they still fought a few weaker ones. The complete lack of beasts was a small miracle, and it would make the job of Eissen’s squad that much easier.
“Over there,” he said, pointing at a particular group of trees. “That looks like the location where they split up.”
They found traces of blood, remains of a deer, and signs of battle. Knowing that the captain had moved east and that two other soldiers had run north, the tracks told them that Berla and Pari must’ve gone west.
“Alright, let’s go,” Eissen said.
They kept traveling through the forest until they couldn’t find any more tracks. For a category five to not cause more damage and leave more of a trail, you would need a particular fighting style you would often see with agents. Instead of relying on raw power, like most soldiers, they focused more on speed and agility. They would lead the beasts by the nose and get their hits in without ever giving the beasts a chance to attack.
This had to be where Captain Lera gave up and retreated, for the safety of his only remaining man and himself. Eissen’s squad’s actual search would begin here. They kept traveling west, when one of them noticed something, slightly off their path.
“Hey, Eissen. Is that a grave?” he said.
They walked over and examined it, taking a few rocks off of it.
“This is Pari, Berla’s partner,” Eissen said.
“Did she bury him? That means she’s alive,” a guard said in surprise.
“But why didn’t she come home then?” another one said.
As the group kept walking, they saw a clearing in the distance. Between it and them stood several damaged trees. However, the damage unnerved the guards.
“What happened to these trees!? Why are there wide holes in them!?”
“You’ve read the reports, haven't you?” Eissen said. “The boy probably did this.”
“The boy!? This hole is a meter across! What did he—” As he looked around, the guard’s eyes fell on a large, dark lumb, lying on the other side of the clearing. Holding his lantern in its direction, he realized it was a beast. “Enemy!” he shouted.
The guards immediately readied their spears, but they quickly realized the beast was unmoving and a critical body part was missing. “Its head is gone...”
They started to carefully approach the beast, while monitoring their surroundings. One guard startled the others when he tripped over something lying on the ground. “Ah! What— wait, is that a leg?”
Eissen crouched down to examine it. It was slender and partially covered by black cloth. “This must be Berla’s,” he said.
The pieces were starting to fall into place for him. Berla’s leg had been ripped off during the fight, but instead of her body or a blood trail, they found a dead beast instead. She wouldn’t have been able to decapitate it or bury Pari in her state, and a lack of a grave for her suggested that she was still alive. Someone had come to her help. “She’s with the boy...” Eissen said. It made sense. She had chosen life and went with the guy that could blast away a category five beast’s head.
“That’s it then, right? They probably left yesterday, we won’t be able to catch up to them,” a guard said.
Their mission wasn’t going according to plan. Eissen had wanted to make a good impression on the king, but he had neither found Berla’s remains nor been able to kill her. If she was with the boy and didn’t plan to come back, she would be branded a deserter, and if she showed herself around Alarna again, she would be executed. However, knowing the king’s sister, Eissen assumed she wouldn’t sit idly by if she learned that her daughter was still alive. It was a situation without precedent, because getting lost in the Wildlands usually meant that you were as good as dead. He would have to make a report to the king. Both about the Berla situation and about the boy evidently being even stronger than they had thought.
The group started heading back in the direction of town, relieved that they hadn’t encountered anything that threatened their lives. “If the Wildlands would always be like this, we wouldn’t even need walls,” one of the guards said in wonder.