Chapter 36 - Stakes

It was a mother of all headaches that welcomed me as I came to. The yelling match outside wasn't helping in the least. 'I thought my days of nasty hangovers were behind me. What the hell happened?'

As my mind slowly gained awareness, I realized my ankles were bound tight by a frayed rope. There was a rough stinky rag stuffed in my mouth that I dare not move, for fear of lodging it deeper in. My throat was drier than desert sand. Lying down on the surprisingly cool floor, I looked around for clues to my current predicament. I noticed I was inside some manner of a large tent. The shouting outside has not subsided. Focusing on the clamor, I heard a female voice - piercing and shrill not unlike a woman who just found out her man has been entirely honest with her, and a calm male voice, sounding like a man who has had years to develop a wall of tolerance that would put a fortress to shame. Unfortunately, while my imagination filled in the gaps I still couldn't hear the actual words being spoken. Not for long though, as the voices seemed to be coming closer.

Not wanting anything to do with a couple-quarrel, I got up ready to sneak away. Or tried to, at least. Soon I noticed that my wrists were tied up as well. I was fully awake now, and everything that had happened crashed into my conscious as the god-freaking-damn honest-to-goodness pair of Centaurs walked in. I still couldn't believe they were real, despite one having thwacked my head to kingdom come. I pretended to stay asleep.

"I see you are awake, human." The same male voice as previous spoke softly. 'Ah well... There goes that budding plan.'

I moved some muscles that I hadn't used in years and managed to fumble only twice before I was in a slightly more dignified position of sitting on the dirt floor with legs splayed out, straining my neck up to look at the horse monsters staring down on me. The man - no, Centaur dude had a mask of stone for his face. I could barely imagine what he was thinking. The Centaur dudette, on the other hand, was boring a hole in me with barely contained fury and contempt. Funny I could read that despite her eyes being big round balls of black. Cute on small dogs and play dolls, terrifying on horse-human hybrids. Both of them were tanned and dressed to the nines in elaborately sewed clothes, supplemented by painted wooden and bone ornaments.

"Aaffoo" I send a 'Hello' through the rags. I quickly checked if I could target the constraints and slip off using Incendio, and felt a slight relief when I realized I could. 'Will have to wait for the right time.'

"Tyee, this cannot-" the female started, only to be stopped short by the dude, apparently named Tyee.

"Nina, please. At least wait until [Vast Ocean] Kai has had her attendance." The words got a bit jumbled when he spoke of 'Kai' like there was no translation for it. What I heard and what was said seemed slightly off, even though I was pretty sure the guy was talking in English from the way his lips moved. As I noticed the cracks in the simulation for the first time, the lady Centaur, Nina snorted - not in the horse but human way, and walked away with stomping steps. I doubted that was the last I saw of her.

The Centaur Tyee watched her walk away. Once she was out of the tent, he spoke up. "My apologies, both for her behavior and your treatment, this wasn't quite how I imagined I would meet a savior of our world. May I remove your bindings?" I nodded. Tyee then bent inhumanly and helped me stand up before un-gagging my mouth and freeing my hands. "I'm afraid I cannot reach your legs, you must untie them yourself," he motioned as I rubbed my numb palms. Soon I was free of the rope on my legs as well.

"My name is Tyee Tadako, I believe humans would call me a Medicine Man of Tadako tribe. I wish we had met under better circumstances." He did a quick bow. I bet Centaurs did core training since birth, no wonder each one had abs for days.

"I'm Pat. Mage. So what happens now?" I sent a quick Identify in his direction while he mulled over a reply.

[Calm Wind] - Level ??

'Calm Wind? What sort of Class is that?'

"For now, I shall have some food and water brought in. Later, our... Seer Kai would like to have words with you. Please rest assured, no harm will come to you today." He replied. I nodded again, which he must've taken as assent to have refreshments brought in. So the Centaur trotted outside while I began to form possible questions I could ask him and plan for an escape, despite the persistent hammering in my nugget. As I watched Tyee leaving the tent, flap halfway concealing his human body outside, I wondered how their physiology even worked. Do they have the digestive systems of both a man and a horse? Yuck. Biologically, this anatomy made zero sense. My doubts over whether characters in this world were real edged back towards negative.

Before my thoughts could deep dive into that pit, I pull them back towards my current life and death situation. I was likely a prisoner of war, but they needed me for something due to me being a Hero. Perhaps I could leverage it and sneak away? But I need to know where I was first. Hopefully, not too far away from Galihad. I bet Carol & Arya are searching for me and Phillipe already. 'Phillipe? Damn it, where is the kid?'

I started to make way outside just as the flap opened and Tyee strode in with a large tray. I immediately rounded upon him. "Where's the kid that was with me?"

"I presume you speak of the young one that you held on to when the warriors descended? The colt is safe. Us Centaurs do not hurt foals. Our honor demands we meet warriors in fair combat, not little ones who have no glory yet." He handed me a mug from the tray, it was filled with water. "It was only you that the hunting party brought back. The 'kid' was left behind at the unnatural walls."

"I see, that's good then." I took a sip from the mug, after ensuring nothing visible floating inside, surprised to find it cool and refreshing. " I heard you guys wanted Carol. The... Scout Hero."

"Yes, and no. I requested a group of willing humans to set up a meeting with one of the Heroes on behalf of Kai. They mentioned a Scout-Hero, but any Hero would fill the requirement. I assume I must refuse them now that fate has brought another Hero here." He spoke wistfully. 'Does he not know?'

"They... They kidnapped her! Killed her mentor and dragged her day and night to hand-off to you lot!" I almost threw the mug in his face.

"Ah, I'm sorry. It was not my intent to harm anyone. Kai simply wished to speak and I requested the same from them." He did look apologetic, but it was hard to say.

"And why does Kai want to speak with a Hero?" I asked instead, taking another sip. My dry throat was setting down now, but it left the hunger in my stomach to raise its head.

"It is best if Kai herself spoke on that matter." He motioned towards the tray in his hand. I looked around for a place to put the mug but the tent was suspiciously empty of furnishings. I shrugged, put the mug down on the ground, and took the tray from him. It had what looked to be pieces of boiled sweet potato and roasted maize. I took one piece and tasted it. 'Yum!'

"Who were the guys you made a deal with? I thought humans and Centaurs were at war," I asked.

"On the whole, yes, we are. But not all of us fight all of them. Some among our tribes wish for peace. Many others seek glory instead. Most would rather not concern themselves with the war but our hands have been forced, so to speak. That being said, contacts outside of battle-field still happen." He lifted his front hoof and stamped it down. I wonder what it signified. "We helped the humans during the Goblin Wars when the horrid creatures sought refuge in our territories. Since then, several tribes have traded with the humans as well - their tools and scrolls for our crop and cloth."

"I see. I was given to understand that Centaurs love to fight, so why would anyone want peace?" I tried another piece.

"Centaurs warriors love to fight, yes. They seek glory. A worthy challenge. Humans, you fight for conquest. Take freedom from those who lose. It is not our way," he replied.

I had no response to that, mostly because he was right. I decided to ask something else that had been nagging at me for a while.

"So what's Nina's deal then?" I asked as I wondered how to attack the maize without looking like a savage.

"Please forgive Nina, she is... grieving." His hoof scraped the hard-packed dirt floor. "She lost her husband during the harvest when humans first attacked. And her son was injured in the last raid. It is not known if he will survive. She is not herself."

'So she hates all humans with a passion. Can't say I'm surprised.'

"I'm guessing she is not in the lets-make-peace faction." I decided to strike the maize as a whole. I was hungry and not one to stand on ceremony.

"No, she is not." He replied, all too seriously. "She was a wonderful woman once. Kind, playful, always with a smile on her face. But conflict and sorrow have changed her. Brought out the worst in her."

I stopped chewing for a moment.

"Her husband, my brother, was our chief. He wanted peace, but an assassin's dagger struck him in the dark of night. Nina regards humans as honorless tricksters. Now that her son lies injured, she holds the mantle as the tribe's chief until he recovers. Please do not respond to her provocation."

"Of course, I'm not one to ruffle feathers. Don't worry." I got back to the food and made a light conversation with Tyee despite the circumstances.

¤ ¤ ¤

It was late in the evening when Tyee brought me out of the tent. Just about an hour or so after I woke up.

My stomach was still full from the recent gorging session. If not for my brain banging against my skull, I might have been more curious about the ongoings of a Centaur settlement. I may have had a concussion. Where's Arya when you need healing?

As it were, I walked in a sort-of daze when I reached Kai's tent. It was more spacious than the previous one and more colorful to boot. And then I noticed two other Centaurs already present inside. Nina on one side, with her arms folded over her chest, and another who I assumed must be the Seer. She was old. Sparse silvery white hair tied up in a bun graced her hair. Her face had more wrinkles than skin. She was sitting down, her horse half draped in thick woolen blankets and her human half was perched on a big standing pillow on the side. It looked comfortable but I was glad for my human body where I could just lay down when I felt tired.

"Welcome, Hero. I am [Vast Ocean] Kai, a Seer of Tadako tribe." Her voice was soft as a whisper. She took a deep breath as if the words had taken some effort to speak. Yet the smile on her lips never faltered.

"Hello. I'm Pat. Nice to meet you," I replied. The "Vast Ocean" part still coming across weird.

"Tyee was generous enough to treat the bruising on your head, but he is yet to reach a stage where he can fully revert such a wound. Please allow me instead, can't have our guest without a clear head." Her eyes twinkled.

"No, can't have that." I smiled at the pun, "Please go ahead." She gestured me to take a seat, one already prepared for a human-sized posterior. After I sat down, she raised her hands and mumbled words which I assumed must have been a skill. The shine that escaped her hands was light-green in color compared to Arya's golden-yellow, but it worked a similar miracle. I felt as if I had just woken up from a deep refreshing sleep, headache long forgotten.

"There we go." Her voice was now slightly throaty with a slight quiver. Tyee rushed to offer her a mug of water. She took a deep quaff and spoke, "These old bones are no longer what they once were. Not too long ago, I used to heal a dozen Centaurs in a pinch and barely felt the drain." She took another deep gulp and handed the mug back to Tyee, who took it obediently.

"Kai, how much longer will this farce continue? We already have humans scenting our trail now. Let us finish this one and be done with it. Surely the loss of a Hero will be a great setback to them!" Nina interjected, barely sparing me a glance while suggesting my death.

"A farce, you say? Why, the very existence of our world is at stake." Kai chided Nina but then spoke kindly, "Child, I know you are hurting, and I know you seek revenge. But the outcome of this war has already been decided. We cannot escape our fates, little one."

"Then tell us, tell me, why must we not retaliate? They will keep on building their walled cities, and they will keep on taking more of our lands and lives." Nina begged, seemingly not for the first time. Kai lowered her eyes, her smile vanishing.

"Are you seriously asking us to just give up without any reason?" Nina stomped her hoof on the ground with enough force that I felt it reverberate in my bones. "These filthy humans, they march on our ancestral territories and claim it as their own." She jabbed a finger accusingly in my direction, "They sow lethal diseases in our midst, bring conflict among once peaceful tribes." Her arms opened up in a "come-at-me-bro" pose, "And you ask us to do nothing? We are proud Centaurs. Even if we must die, we die with weapons in our hands, our hooves covered in enemy blood."

"Nina-" Tyee tried to interject, only to be steamrolled over.

"No, I will speak my piece. You are our Seer, and I have great respect for you. But do not expect blind loyalty from me. I have a responsibility to the tribe. If you cannot even tell me why you banter with a human, Hero or not, then I must do as I see fit to ensure I do right by our people. I will not have us live as cattle in these enslaved lands that humans so politely call as reserved."

Kai now simply gazed at Nina, her eyes holding back unknown tides of sorrow and regret. Her hunched back bore more than just the burdens of age.

"I am chieftain of Tadako now. The tribes have already gathered for a war council. I make standing for the position of war-chief." She spoke in a voice filled with less spite but more iron. She turned her firey gaze to me. "Even if we lose all our territories as fate demands, I will make damn sure that the humans pay with their blood for every inch of it!"

With that, she stomped off again, leaving a heavy silence behind. Kai looked up at Tyee. He nodded and left the tent, presumable to check on Nina. Then her gaze turned to me, the twinkle of humor had left her eyes long ago. "My apologies for the poor show, Hero. A guest should not be witness to an internal quarrel."

"I- yeah, I understand. It's fine." I hurried to placate her, fishing for a topic. "So, the existence of the world is at stake eh?"

Chapter 35 - The Chase (3)
Chapter 37 - Crypto Keys