Alphonse stared at the gray sky through a narrow break in the canopy. The winding gully near the campsite forced the resilient roots of trees to hold them in place, but were powerless to prevent their submissive bow to gravity. Thanks to this marring of the earth, the outlines of saturated clouds were visible, flaring in the trickling light and melded with splashes of mild color. Alphonse stared at this wondrous display as he waited for the sun to break the horizon.
He was the last to keep watch until everyone else awoke to the early morning. There had been no activity since their retreat through the forest.
His party's timeline had shifted drastically when they saved the family held by the deirgu. Traveling northeast to the nearby hunting village was the best option. The Guild Union outpost would probably ask him to provide a report even though he wasn't actually part of an organization. Maybe they'd throw in some kind of reward. It wasn't the reason they decided to save the family but every little bit helped when contributing to a guild.
And now, with the clouds threatening rain, it seemed Kirie and Asa had plenty of excuses to sleep in a warm bed.
Sitting alone with his thoughts prompted Alphonse to consider his current state in the whole scheme of things. The original intent of his existence in this world had been tossed on its head. The project of cultivating Hovestile for Earth's needs was one of the final desperate attempts to salvage humanity's knowledge and creations. Alphonse's group, the classified first wave of outworlders, had a few simple goals: ascertain the current state of affairs concerning political systems (if applicable), gather data on monsters for future cleansing and gain the trust of the people.
But the family he saved reminded him that their initial purpose was terribly wrong. They were intruding on Hovestile. This was a real world with real people. The leaders of Earth didn't grasp this revelation. And how could they? It was impossible without experiencing it for themselves. But Alphonse had to wonder if they would even care when self-preservation stood at the foremost of their concerns.
The plan changed once they lost contact with Earth. One moment there were voices speaking in their heads, and then...nothing.
Losing contact had been a blessing. Alphonse wanted to make this world his permanent home from the start. Earth held nothing for him. This fantasy world proved just as unpredictable, but at least there was something here that meshed with him. There were obstacles besides the monsters, because humans would always be humans. A person needed to look beyond himself and see the world from differing perspectives to understand belonging. None of that changed. He accepted this and forged on through unmerciful strife to take advantage of the opportunity.
Which led him to now - teamed up with two troublesome catgirls who seemed to drag him along rather than the other way around.
Alphonse chuckled to himself at the last bit.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw that his two sleeping companions had rolled a few feet closer to him. Kirie laid on her back, mouth wide open and a bit of drool crawling down one cheek. Her axe rested over her body instead of a blanket with one arm cradling it. Asa lay face down in a position that looked terribly uncomfortable with a hand still gripping her staff. The other hand reached over her sister.
How the hell do they sleep like that?
Kirie made a loud snort and started muttering, “No...nya...Alphonse, don't do that...”
Alphonse's shoulders slumped. Goddammit...
“No...yah cheated again. Fight me one on one...I can cook it better.”
The hell? Are we fighting or having a cook-off? Alphonse leaned forward and rubbed his fingers along his temples in total perplexity. He suppressed a chuckle and shook his head as she muttered more nonsensical gripes.
He shifted his gaze from the sleeping catgirls when he noticed movement closer to their camp. He brought his short sword up only an inch from the ground on pure instinct when he realized the direction was nearly impossible for an ambush based on the position of their camp. Still, the blade remained hovering until he recognized the father's large silhouette, unmistakable in the dim light as he roused himself. The big man watched his wife and daughter sleeping soundly before turning to regard him. Alphonse crossed his legs and rested the blade on his knees in a more casual stance that still retained some caution. There was a bit of a stumble to the man's step as he made his way over. The blow to the head from yesterday still muddled him.
“Mind if I sit?” he asked respectfully.
Alphonse gestured to the spot next to him.
The father settled himself down and remained silent for a short time. They watched as the forest woke to the songs of birds and chirping insects.
It was alive. Far more alive than Earth.
“I didn't get a chance to properly thank you,” the man said. He offered his hand. “The name's Sebastian.”
Alphonse answered with the new name he'd given himself as precaution and accepted the gesture. “Evan. And don't worry about it. We happened to be passing by.”
“Yeah, but you could've kept going.”
Alphonse shrugged. He wasn't wrong. That sort of mentality about adventurers wasn't uncommon. Unofficial quests didn't reap any real rewards except experience towards gaining a level, and that was only concerning outworld adventurers. Native adventurers lacked incentive unless compensation was offered at a later date. Of course, there were plenty like Alphonse's party that chose to lend a helping hand, but in harsh reality others didn't share this view. He didn't blame some of them if there wasn't enough intelligence to work with and the job seemed risky. But there were too many for his liking.
He thought back to his betrayal in the dungeon -- a prime example of adventurers using any means necessary to gain for themselves, and the unwillingness of others to help out of fear. Death in this world meant going back to Earth for an outworlder. It started as a theory that gained acceptance over time. Those who died never seemed to turn up again, despite the promise of return from the operators back on Earth. Their bodies just simply vanished. No respawns. No logging back in like a game. For an outworlder, going back to Earth may as well be death. Alphonse knew this reason kept people from sticking their necks out for others. Such is the cowardice and selfishness of humans.
“Guess you're right,” Alphonse said. “But what were you doing out here? We examined your tracks. My guess is you didn't hire anyone to escort you through the forest.”
Sebastian frowned. “We did have soldiers at first, but they abandoned us early on. They just saw my family as a hindrance.”
“Soldiers. Not guards?”
He nodded in affirmation. “I was assigned to a fort near the border as a lead blacksmith. Three forts were built a few days west of here. All of them fell to monsters.”
Alphonse rested a contemplative hand on his chin as he considered this. That explains why their wagon was empty. They probably had no time if the attack was sudden. Or perhaps the soldiers took what few supplies they had. But from what we saw, there were no other prints leading in the direction of the village.
Sebastian's next statement answered his inquiry, “We aren't from the Central Kingdom.”
Alphonse reeled back at this. “Wait, what? You aren't from Tevilandis? Then, you're northerners? What are you doing this far south?” He conjured a map of the continent in his head that depicted the three main kingdoms of Hovestile. There were many he perused at the library in the capital and the Submerged Oasis, so he was able to get a rough idea of the layout. “You would've had to skirt the Barrier Mountains to avoid getting caught by Central patrols.”
“Right. Our leaders in Xersceld told us that rare ores were found in the mountain on our side of the border. They needed blacksmiths to maintain weapons, tools and such. Turns out we were being sent to intrude on Central Kingdom territory. Those of us kept ignorant didn't catch on until we traveled too far west. There was no going back for us at that point.”
The pieces started falling together. The wagon was empty because they needed to make a hasty retreat from the fort. If they didn't have time to pack anything, that meant the attack from the monsters was precipitous and well-coordinated. The soldiers didn't stay with Sebastian and his family because reaching the village would reveal that they were intruding on Central Kingdom territory. They must've traveled straight north through the forest teeming with even more monsters than the main path. If they couldn't backtrack and hug the mountains the way they came, then the monsters may have barred that route completely. And so they took what little Sebastian may have possessed and got the hell out. A small family also acted as perfect bait. The monsters would rather attack a defenseless family than take on heavily-armed soldiers.
“This is bad news,” Alphonse said. “An organized attack from monsters. What types?”
Sebastian curled his fingers into fists and settled them on his legs as he took a deep breath. “Goblins, hobgoblins, trolls, ogres. There were even some elemental demons.”
“Jesus! You're sure? All of them? Working together?”
“I know. It sounds crazy, but I saw each type attack in smaller groups during the first days there. They kept to their own like typical monsters do, but I think they were just feeling out our defenses. Then they came full force. The fort fell in a matter of hours.”
“Did they attack all three forts at once?”
Sebastian shrugged. “No idea. They may have attacked the first fort at the top of the formation. Then they moved south. It's the only way they could cut us off from Xersceld. We were just within the western border, but going too far in that direction is suicide. If they did attack all three at once, then their numbers are absurd.”
Alphonse knew a bit about Hovestile's history. The broader details of the politics and individual feuds were enough to get a grasp of the strained relationships that formed between the three kingdoms. The Northern and Eastern Kingdoms held a strict policy of isolationism, but the former retained a stance of outright hostility. And now the leaders of this country had the audacity to intrude on Central territory and pilfer resources from its land.
They needed to reach the village for three reasons now: to ensure the safety of the family, report their findings on the coordinated monster attack and reveal the intrusion of Northern forces.
Geez, and this isn't even an official quest, Alphonse thought.
Sebastian seemed to read the look on his face. “We don't have anything to offer except my services.” He bowed to him from his seated position. “If they have a forge, please allow me to make you something. I know it isn't enough to repay what you've done, but I hope it is a start.”
“We can only stay there a day,” Alphonse said.
A bit of disappointment lined the blacksmith's face at the declaration.
“So, make something for them.” Alphonse cocked his head in the direction of the sleeping catgirls. “Maybe something nice to cover up their ears.”
Sebastian let out a relieved sigh. He watched with a bit of mirth as Asa rolled over in her sleep and accidentally slapped Kirie in the face. The other catgirl simply muttered something that Alphonse figured might have been directed at him.
“I can definitely do something about that," Sebastian said. "I hope I didn't offend the red-haired one. Demihumans are pretty rare.”
“That's another thing," Alphonse said. "I would prefer to not draw any attention. Y'know, since they're demihumans and all that. So nothing too flashy." He attempted to divert the conversation. "Do you plan on staying in Tevilandis?”
“Not much choice. My homeland is a mess, and the settlements near the Barrier Mountains are dangerous. If the village will accept my services, then we will stay there for a time.”
Alphonse grinned. “I'm sure it'll work out. This area is getting popular. As far as repaying the rest of your debt, all I ask is that you hire us if you have any quests.”
“Heh, you're quite the negotiator,” Sebastian said. “Alright, what's your guild name?”
Before Alphonse could answer, Kirie rolled over again in her sleep and rested her head against his back. Asa shifted over in tandem with her sister and slapped her in the face again. Kirie woke with a start this time and jumped up with her axe at the ready. The sudden movement then set off a chain reaction and woke Asa as well. She leaped forward and clung to Alphonse; her arms wrapped around his neck and her legs locked at his waist. He almost went into an outright panic at their sudden outbursts.
He lurched back and forth struggling to get her off.
Kirie relaxed her stance but didn't lower the weapon. “My poor back. I need a bed.”
“You sound like an old woman,” Alphonse commented. He let out a defeated sigh and stopped trying to remove Asa from him.
Asa pressed her cheek against his and gave him a pensive look. The cat ears on her head twitched with disdain. “The hard ground prevents me from getting a proper rest. I can't support our party in this condition.”
Alphonse groaned. “Just get over it.”
They made enough of a racket to wake the rest of their company, but thankfully not so much that the sound traveled beyond their camp. Sebastian's daughter jumped up with a sudden burst of energy when she saw the commotion. She ran over to her father and flew into his arms.
Sebastian suppressed a bit of laughter. “Right. Not all of us are introduced yet.”
“Eve!” The girl nearly shouted, but covered her mouth at the last moment and managed to reduce the last bit to a whisper. Her mother came over and put a finger to her lips. Eve took the hint, but it didn't stop her from bouncing in her father's lap.
Her mother bowed to them. “I'm Reiko. Thank you so much for saving us.”
Kirie introduced herself as she wiped her eyes and lazily bent over to touch her toes. Asa did as well without even looking at them. She stayed latched to Alphonse.
He stood up like he was giving a piggyback ride from the front. “The sooner we eat, the sooner we leave,” he said. “Which means we'll get to the village at a decent time. They have an inn..." He paused for a few dramatic seconds before adding, "...with beds.”
It only took a moment for the message to ring loud and clear. Asa let go of him, rushed to the camp and started preparing breakfast. It wasn't much, just some rations they brought from the Oasis. They agreed that lighting a fire wasn't the best idea since monsters might see the smoke from their elevated position. Kirie was about to move and follow her when she stopped herself and opted to linger near Alphonse.
Sebastian grinned. “It's nice having such lively company.” He rose to join his family and gave him an appreciative pat on the shoulder.
Alphonse shrugged and went back to watching the forest. “Is that right...?”
He glanced over his shoulder and took a moment to watch as Asa passed out some bits of dried meat and fruit from their packs. They'd packed enough to last them for a week's journey just in case an unforeseen issue impeded their progress. Stocking up at the hunting village wouldn't be an issue.
Kirie sat down in the spot previously occupied by the blacksmith and observed the forest with Alphonse. "So, pretty uneventful?"
Alphonse followed her gaze and narrowed his eyes at where he assumed the clearing resided. His eyes trailed the canopy to where they'd crossed the creek and continued along a winding, hidden path they previously used with hard soil. They'd traveled far enough that the copse of trees was no longer within sight, even with his enhanced perception.
"Nothing," he answered. "You find it strange too?"
Kirie bit her lower lip and nodded. "Why did they give up so easily? They followed us for a bit and just seemed to stop. None of us heard a peep on any of our watches last night."
Alphonse agreed. Something was off. To give up so easily on their quarry wasn't normal if they increased their numbers or had a strong leader. Ogres, trolls and other similarly large bipedal monsters held a singular focus on prey. He assumed based on the large prints that it was likely a similar type of monster that led the deirgu. But now, he wasn't so sure.
"Also," Alphonse started as a thought occurred to him.
Kirie gave him a questioning look as he paused to make sure no one was listening. "What is it?"
He raised a hand near his mouth even though his scarf was already pulled up to cover most of his features. "You were muttering about me in your sleep," he whispered. "Try not to use my real name. It's Evan now. I have a new identity, remember?"
Tinges of red blossomed on Kirie's cheeks as she realized what he meant. "I-I was talking about you? Well, I can't help that. Wait, what did I say?"
"It sounded pretty intense," Alphonse said. His expression darkened and he spoke with feigned earnestness. "You told me not to do something. You were pretty passionate about it. And-"
The last bit caught in his throat as Kirie raised her axe and settled it a few inches from his face.
"Not another word," she breathed. Menace seemed to drip from her words.
Alphonse raised his hands in defense. "I'm just joking."