Chapter 35 - The Chase (3)

They use arrows only for two things - hunting and warning shots. Them stick-legs are crazy like that.

~ An unknown soldier on Galihad border

Centaurs are some of the last beast-kin that remain fully independent on the Eastern Alteraz after the mass-migration of humans in the last decades. Some beast-kin are closer to humans like the rabbit-based species. Some are closer to their animal nature, like the rat-based species. Centaurs - based on human and horse species, are somewhere in the middle - quite literally so by sporting a human torso hosted on equine bodies. Two main factors contributed to their independence so far - first, their relatively isolated location coupled with nomadic nature, and second, their fierce blood-thirsty glory-based warrior culture.

The first factor refers to the vast grassy plains in north-eastern Alteraz that the Centaurs call home. The plains are also home to several monster species that roam the lands frequently. When the clans first made landfall, they took over the entire eastern coast before foraying into the central region. The conquest to the south was stopped short by faerie magic. Once the strip of land from the eastern coast to central mountains was under clan control, they turned their eyes north. And thus the Centaur wars began.

Speaking of the war, it was unlike a usual clash of armies. The most common tactic was raiding, either by clan allies on Centaur outposts or the other way around. It was understood that Centaurs were on the losing side - they had no access to magic on large scale. Only known magic casters are the so-called "elders" who would "beg understanding" from their "ancestors" to cast "miracles" - as reported by a High-level Ranger. The clans refer to them as "shamans" in their war-meets. Despite being magicless, the Centaurs are fierce warriors. They ride like the wind herself on their strong horse legs, and their arms carry the strength of a dozen men. One peculiar facet of their culture is their idea of glory. They believe in meeting foes on equal grounds. Clashing weapons as a measure of strength. Usually, they shoot a warning arrow at an unwary outpost Scout to herald their arrival and then ride in like the storm itself. This stratagem works well on open grounds, coming in fast and leaving behind dismembered remains of their enemies.

The clan allies raise enchanted walls.

¤ ¤ ¤

Dawn failed to wake me up that day. So did the moving carriage - granted it was not that bouncy. The efforts of last night's experiments drained me until I didn't even realize when I fell asleep.

What did wake me was frantic prodding on my shoulder. Bleary-eyed, I noticed Arya's just-washed face and messy moist hair - still managing to look cute in a way only cute things can be. And her finger poking me. "Wake up already, jeez dude!"

"Just 5 mo-" I started on autopilot.

"No! We're here already. Get up." Her firm tone registered before the contents of her speech. I was sitting up before I realized the significance.

"So, where is she?" I asked, stifling a yawn. Getting the news last night had really removed a burden from our shoulders.

"They have her. The Ranger corp infiltrated the mansion where they were holding her last night. Carol is safe, and they've caught the culprits already. Now they are waiting on us to transport them back." Arya mentioned lightly.

"Good, good. So you're waking me up now because...?" We already knew she was going to be safe. Indifferent as my attitude might sound like, I did detest being woken up mid-sleep.

"Are you always this grouchy when you wake up?" She raised her hand before I could respond. "Rhetorical. And I woke you up now because we are nearing the mansion. You're welcome."

While I recognized my own irritated state and accepted it as who I was, I did not wish to transfer said state onto another person, who by all accounts was helping me out. I took a deep breath to shake off the last vestiges of drowsiness. And another just to be sure. Then looked up and smiled at Arya.

"I'm sorry. I didn't get much sleep last night, was experimenting with Lumos. And thank you for waking me up."

"Again, you're welcome. I wanna hear more about the spell, but later." She smiled back. The morning sun did wonders to her beautiful face, lit up with a smile as it was. "Now go wash your face. We'll have breakfast with Carol."

¤ ¤ ¤

"Took ya'll long enough." Apparently, someone else was grouchy in the morning. Or not, because the next moment she ran into Arya for a big hug. I was pulled in despite my protests.

After an uncomfortably long hug at the gates of a decrepit mansion, I took a good look at Carol. There were bandages on her left hand, applied recently. Her clothes looked like they had taken a tumble in a hurricane. Her hair had more twigs and dirt than a random bush. Mud cacked her entire right torso. And she smelled like ash and smoke, for some reason. Despite all this, there was a radiant smile on her face. Her beaming face was taking in us both as well, eyes softening when landing on Arya. I glanced by the side to notice moisture forming in Arya's eyes, and her heroic efforts to push a lump back down her throat before it escaped into the world as a sob. I spoke up in her stead. "Took the scenic route. You look like you had a nice blender."

"Nice blender. Hah. Come on, I'm hungry, been waiting for ye slowpokes. I'll tell ya'll about me adventure over some grub." She grabbed our hands and led us inside. The mansion looked decrepit from the outside but from inside, it was a half ruin. If the mansion had any floors above previously, there were long gone. Rubble marked much of the right side, many boulders claimed by the Soldiers as their resting spot. The left side was relatively well-kept. Relatively. There looked to be some doors that were functional still.

Near the doors, I noticed Guard Captain Godard talking with another guy who looked to be in his mid-40s. He wasn't a muscle-head like the Captain, but he had muscles nonetheless - the toned and lean kind you get from doing outdoorsy activities. I guessed he must be the Ranger dude to lead the rescue. Also, Seline clinging to his arm was an obvious clue. She waved at us when she noticed us walking in. I nodded. Arya smiled. Carol waved back.

"How did you know we were coming?" Arya asked as we sat down on a makeshift ledge with our bread that had some manner of thick sweet sauce on it.

"Ah, the Ranger guy told me after they rescued me. He's quite something eh? Just like me tutor. How is he by the by? They knocked me out first, dunno what happened next until I woke up in a basement." She asked as she started tearing into her bread.

Arya looked at me, apparently hoping I would answer. I exhaled. There is no good way to deliver bad news. I decided to be blunt. "He's gone. They got him."

"Oh," was all she said, as her mouth stopped working on her bread. After several moments and a few deep breaths, she continued. "He was a good man. A lot I coulda learned from him. Figured he'd have disappeared. Looks like he stood and fought back."

"I'm sorry," Arya muttered from beside Carol and gave her a side-hug.

"Aye. Thanks. Knew him only for a couple days but still..." Carol let out a sigh.

"Do you know why they kidnapped you?" I asked, hoping to change the topic. The bread didn't look like it would last beyond the day, with how chewy it had gotten already.

"Nae, I was bound and gagged the whole time after they lifted me. And left alone in some damp room. Was knocked out again last night and woke up in here today." She replied, then gestured behind Arya. "By the by, who's the kid? Isn't he the royal one?" Then smirked at me. "Your princess's brother?"

"She's not my princess." "She's not his princess."

I murmured only to have Arya speak over me. Carol's smirk remained. I glanced at Arya, she refused to meet my eyes.

"Yes, his name is Phillipe. He snuck onto our carriage in what I assume to be a rebellion against his old man. Now about your adventure, if it accounted to you being knocked out and left to stew, why do you look like you fought a mud golem and lost?" I changed the topic again. I have been doing that a lot it seems.

"Hmm..." Carol seemed to debate over tease further or not, apparently deciding the latter, "Well they got me good the first time. But I gave fair fight the next time the bloody goons tried to knock me out again. Hurt my arm then. The mud was there when I woke so they must've taken some revenge of their own."

As I mulled over, I heard the prince whisper a question to Arya. "What's a mud golem?" Arya whispered back to him while I continued my conversation with Carol. "They wanted you alive. I wonder why?"

"Can't tell with these culty bastards. Me think they had some ritual prepared. I was prime for a sacrifice." She bit her bread with more force than necessary.

"I mean, that doesn't sound much like a campaign, story-wise at least." Now all three of them stared at me. "I mean like, you are summoned into the world and after barely starting your training, you are sacrificed at a ritual? Makes no sense."

"Pat, I think..." Arya started, "I think there is no storyline. We talked about it yesterday, right? These people are real. How can they be programmed?"

Carol nodded her head. "Aye, I think the same. After my recent experience, I have a hard time believing this be a simulation."

"B-But it is!" I stammered. There was no doubt this wasn't a real world. With the status windows and all. "Betty even confirmed it."

"Aye, I'd be doubting my sanity if I didn't remember the Tutorial. But maybe Betty was lying?" Carol spoke up.

"And even if the world is simulated, how do we know that the people inside it are as well? Aren't we inside the simulation? We are real, aren't we?" Arya supported her.

I had no counter to that. There was no way to prove if these NPCs... were not NPCs. Does that mean there is a chance for real harm to us? How does it translate back to our reality? Does Carol being sacrificed here mean she dies back home? No, Betty said we'd go back home if we die. But was she telling the truth? There is no way to verify that. But I doubt she was lying about anything. She was a chatbot; it is not easy to make them lie. Lying requires imagination, one lie begets another. Her words never contradicted one another. So this world is a simulation, but maybe the people in it aren't? Does that mean the Royal Mage dude really had it in for me? His action to cripple me wasn't scripted? That the maid chose to save me over hurting me was just an incredible coincidence? Holy Moly. I hadn't really processed the attempt on my life, considering it part of the storyline but... damn.

"You okay?" Arya's concerned voice came from beside me. "Yeah, just thinking stuff over," I replied off-handedly. "So assuming the NPCs are human and the whole thing isn't scripted, it means there are a whole lot of people out there who want and potentially could actually hurt us?" This can't be real.

"Aye, so it is," Carol whispered in a somber tone.

¤ ¤ ¤

After breakfast, the mood was still heavy on our group. Seline offered to show us around the city while we had the chance, given we would be leaving immediately after the horses had rested enough, perhaps a bit after noon.

So it was that Arya, Carol, Phillipe, and I trailed behind Seline out of the mansion and onto the streets of Galihad. It looked like the place had been repurposed entirely, from a teeming village to a military outpost. A dark smooth wall rose sporadically surrounding the buildings under construction. Most of them had a pure functional look to them. The entire site was being built from the ground up. Seline pointed over to a large mostly finished structure off to the right. A barracks, she clarified. The place was crawling with soldiers. It was one of the reasons it had been so easy to rescue Carol - the cultists had run straight into the metaphorical frying pan. Seline expounded on the matter more.

"They had no routes planned for emergencies. Idiots. And we found out why they wanted you alive, Hero. My husband had them interrogated after capture." She glanced back at Carol. "Seems like they had a deal with the damn Centaurs, of all things. The Centaurs need a Hero for who knows what, and the New Church decided it was as good as killing them off while making some dough on the side. Damned idiots."

"Why do the Centaurs want Carol?" I asked.

"Who knows what the stick-legs want? Maybe they wanted to chomp on some Hero meat, or maybe they wanted to raise her as their spirit Goddess and worship her?" Seline chuckled, as she led us to the outskirts where a new part of the wall was being raised. "All I can say is that it must be nothing good. They are already at war with us, taking out our Hero would be a good hit to morale, if nothing else."

I could agree with that. Standing in the shadow of newly build wall support, I glanced around curiously to see several Craftsmen - "Mason" as the system identified them - holding wands not dissimilar to mine over chunks of rocks and grit. Soon, whatever Skill they used changed the chunks of rocks into a grainy sludge, like a cement mixture. An Enchanter came over and burned a Scroll over the mixture, giving it a darkish finish that I've seen on several buildings.

"It needs to solidify more, into a jelly. Will be done in a day or so." Seline answered, noticing my gaze. "They will then merge it into a larger set and mount it up inside the wall support. Once mounted, they will cast another Scroll and the thing will stand for centuries." I noticed the men already standing on the aforementioned supports up high, pouring the finished product inside.

"Now isn't that something," Carol spoke softly, perhaps just as amazed as I was. We all kept staring as the men moved on to another chunk of rocks and repeated the process. That was until a man fell down into it.

I didn't realize what had happened until I noticed an arrow in his gut. I recognized Seline shouting something, but I felt like I was in deep water. I couldn't hear anything beyond a mess of gurgles. Even moving my finger felt like lifting a mountain. Nor could I detach my eyes from the blood now coloring the crushed rocks.

Suddenly my vision was filled with Seline's face. I groggily noticed her shaking me with urgency. "Snap out of it! You need to get to safety." She shouted. 'Safety? Are the cultists free? Where did the arrow come from?' She moved to my side, shouting the same to Arya. Arya instead ran to the injured man, apparently trying to heal him. Carol moved to cover her. Seline cursed. "I'm going to raise an alarm. You lot - GET. TO. SAFETY." She reiterated. "NOW!"

"He's gone!" Carol had a firm grip on Arya's shoulder. "We need to move!"

I looked from afar, as Arya nodded and stood up. She looked to be in a daze herself. I was still rooted to the spot, thankfully no longer feeling the pressure of the ocean depths. "You too, MOVE!" I heard Carol shout in my direction. I forcefully averted my eyes from the corpse and stared at the dirt road leading up back into the city. I took a step. I didn't realize until then how much I was shaking. I took another step, it was slightly easier than the first. Seeing Carol drag Arya ahead of me spurred me on. Soon I had enough motor control to start running, even though it felt like my muscles had turned to lead. That was when I heard the hooves.

We all stopped our dazed march and glanced back at the noise. A bit ahead of the wall's foundation, just out of the treeline, came in several dozen men riding on horses. Horses that had no heads. A closer look revealed that the men's torso was somehow fused into the place where the horses' heads would be. Weird as though the creatures looked, they were fast. Far faster than a normal horse. The men were wearing a light-brown sleeveless shirt - was it leather armor? And each had some manner of weapon equipped and unsheathed. And all of them were heading in our direction.

The sight was enough the turn my blood cold. What I saw next almost stopped my heart. The little prince was still standing there, staring at the bloody rubble. Right in the way of murdering horsemen. Apparently, Arya noticed him too, because I heard her screaming his name from behind me. She would never reach him in time. Not to mention Carol had pinned her to her place, despite Arya's best efforts to run back. I looked at Carol, she slowly shook her head. 'Nothing to be done? Leave him be?'

I grimaced in return, watching with a little amusement as her eyes widened. I was absolutely terrified, ready to wet my pants at any moment. So I turned and ran immediately before my survival instinct could raise any justification against my action. I heard my name mixed in the screams. 'Was it Arya or Carol?' I thought as I reached the frozen prince.

I watched the horsemen with a calm gaze that belied the emotional upheaval I felt. 'Heh, Centaurs. How did I forget?' I ran through the Spells I had, concluding that I had neither the power to stand against their number nor the time to raise any proper defense and make traps. I couldn't drag the prince away either, they were almost on us.

I kneeled down and embraced the kid, not knowing what else to do. Soon enough, the first Centaur came into my perception field. I tried to target him, but he was moving so fast that even my sensing skill was addled. Halfway through the field, I managed to lock onto him as he slowed after nearing me, and cast an incendio. He didn't seem to notice. I cast a petrificus and he sped up. Now he was close enough that I could stare into his beady black eyes like a horse's. He stared right back. I raised my hand, more as a gesture of defiance than any fire for a fight.

Time seemed to slow down. I could still hear the screams but they seemed like they were coming from miles away. The Centaur did not falter, instead raised his club-like weapon. 'This is it then? Looks like I will find out if Betty was lying after all.' I thought of saying something brave as my last words, but nothing worth saying came to my mind. Instead, I targeted the man's dark eye as he prepared for a swing. "Incend-" I managed to half speak before the world went black.

Chapter 34 - The Chase (2)
Chapter 36 - Stakes