Chapter 170: Old Roots
A haze of magenta and orange spread throughout the horizon, giving life to the tranquil ocean in the distance. Sylvie and I plummeted near the edge of the Grand Mountains. The darkened figures of Mica and Olfred cast a shadow over us as they levitated down above us, preparing to catch me right after Sylvie transformed into her fox-like form.
We were still several miles away from the northern coast but we couldn’t afford flying any closer. Assuming the worst, a scythe might be able to sense substantial mana fluctuations even from this distance.
Sylvie latched onto me as soon as she shrunk. At the same time, I reached out, grabbing Mica’s outstretched hand. There we slowly descended, close enough to the massive mountain range to avoid any unwanted attention. While I was easily able to land, even from this height, doing so meant that I’d likely flatten the trees nearby and perhaps even sink the ground from the sheer force I’d have to use to stop myself. As reluctant as I was to admit, it was much simpler relying on the lance to just carry me down.
“That’s a pretty bad scar you have on your hand!” Mica remarked, her voice barely audible from the wind.
“It’s an old wound.” I cracked a smile. I had made sure to hide the scar on my throat with the concealing bandage, but the scar on my left hand was of little issue to people that didn’t know me very well.
The small lance nodded, the strength of her grip around my arm growing tighter despite her delicate-looking fingers.
We landed at the base of the Grand Mountains, on a field of dry grass and boulders where<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>frigid winds whistled around us.
“Mana from this point on should be kept to a minimum,” Olfred said as he scanned our surroundings for anyone nearby.
I nodded in agreement. I was able to use mana without it being detected through Mirage Walk, but that was information better kept to myself.
“I assume you have a plan in order to find the retainer and scythe in question?” the gruff lance remarked.
“Somewhat.” I took out the white mask I had kept since first becoming an adventurer and the black coat made from the fur of a nightmare fox. This was the outfit I had worn along with the mask since it had the subtle ability to cast one’s focus away from the wearer. Wearing it over my clothes, I also fished out a thick cloak from my dimension ring and draped it over my shoulders. “We’ll need to head toward the main road so take out your cloaks and put up the hoods.”
Olfred studied my black coat with a curious gaze. “An intriguing effect. Were you once an assassin or thief?”
“No,” I chuckled, looking down at my outfit. “I just didn’t want to stand out.”
With a dismissive nod, he and Mica followed my request, each taking out a lavish cloak of rich mana beast fur.
Without saying a word, I walked over to Mica as I took out a spare cloak from my ring. Dropping it on the ground, I stepped on it, staining the brown cloak with dirt and grass before handing it to the small lance. “Wear this instead.”
“Y-You just dropped it and stepped on it!” Mica exclaimed, flabbergasted.
“I know,” answered as I dropped my own cloak and stepped on it, rubbing my heel to thoroughly coat it with dirt and grime. “The two of us are going to be Olfred’s slaves.”
“Why can’t Mica be the master?” she huffed, holding my spare cloak with just two fingers.
“Because you have the appearance of a middle-schooler,” I answered bluntly with an innocent smile. Olfred let out a small laugh as he clasped on his fur cloak.
Glaring daggers at her cohort, she reluctantly put her cloak back into her ring and put on the dirty one I had given her.
“Sorry. This is for safety measures,” I said. Bending down, I dipped my finger on a muddy patch of dirt.
“No, please,” Mica begged, protecting her face with the hood of her cloak.
“We’re slaves that have been traveling a fair distance. It’d only be natural to be dirty, and it’d be a good way to get by unnoticed.” Without waiting for her consent, I pulled off her hood and smeared the moist dirt on her face before doing the same to myself.
I dipped my head down and tousled my long hair until it became disheveled and covered most of my face. After putting on the hood of my cloak, I handed the mask that I was holding to Olfred. “Wear this along with your cloak and if anyone asks, it’s to hide a gruesome scar you received years back.”
Olfred nodded, accepting the mask. As he slid it on over his face and propped up his hood, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my time as an adventurer under the guise of Note.
The blue streak running down to the right eye hole of the mask had faded over the years but with Olfred’s height being similar to how tall I had been when I was an adventurer along with the mask and cloak really brought back memories.
“The mask fits well,” Olfred said, his voice sounding deeper from the effects of the mask. “Oh? It has this sort of function as well.”
“Mica wants to go home,” the small dwarf sulked, her youthful face caked with dried mud while her short hair poked out in messy curls from underneath the dirty and tattered cloak.
How’s my disguise? I asked my bond, turning to face her.
‘It’ll have to do, although it worries me what would happen if someone looked too closely.’ Her small feline head nodded in approval.
Why does that sound more like an insult than a compliment?
‘It’s a bit of both,’ her calm voice chuckled in my mind. Sylvie hopped inside my cloak since she needed to be hidden from view as I posed as a slave.
“You’re positive no one will suspect us?” Olfred’s deep voice rumbled from behind the mask.
“No one’s going to be out looking for lances, and there are quite a bit of adventurers that like to use masks,” I replied, trailing next to Mica behind our temporary master. “Besides, there’s an old saying that the best place to hide is in plain sight. Who’s going to suspect a noble and his two slaves that got raided by bandits on our way up north to escape the battles?”
“While you do make a point, I’ve never heard of such a saying. Perhaps it’s used only by humans?” Olfred asked.
“Something like that,” I chuckled, remembering now that I had learned it in my previous life.
We trudged for hours silently. I constantly used Mirage Walk to strengthen my legs with mana while hiding the fluctuations, satisfied that not even Mica and Olfred were able to notice anything off.
I ran the plan that Virion and I had come up with in my head with Sylvie. Assuming that both Olfred and Mica were traitors, I didn’t know what they planned on doing to me. Worst case was them killing me when they had the chance, while another scenario was them taking me to the Vritra. Whatever the case, the two dwarves wouldn’t attack me so brazenly with Sylvie around. Even if they were able to overpower us, it would be a hard fight and attract attention even in the most remote areas.
If I were them, I’d lead me and Sylvie to the retainer or scythe in order to swiftly dispose or capture us. Having said that, the only real way to make sure that their plan was to lead us to their backup was to intentionally act like I could not find them.
With Realmheart, I could make use of the visible mana fluctuations to find the Vritra ’s base. After a few days of leading them in the wrong direction, they would either give up and want to head back—in which case my suspicions would be wrong—or they would provide me with suggestions or hints to lead Sylvie and me to our demise.
‘Your plan rests on a lot of assumptions,’ my bond noted, shuffling inside the pocket of my cloak. ‘What if they forcibly lead you to the Vritras?’
I highly doubt they’d want to reveal their position. You can’t get much better than having one of the councilmembers as a spy. Which is why it’s safe for me to assume that they’d try to avoid suspicion until they’re sure they can get rid of us without drawing attention.
‘So we’ll just run away if it seems like they’re trying to lead us to them?’ Sylvie asked, her tone doubtful.
If we can head back after finding the location of the Vritra’s base without fighting Olfred and Mica, that’ll be the best case scenario, I responded, following closely behind the masked noble that was posing as my master. But just in case, Virion sent another lance behind us.
Sylvie didn’t answer, but a wave of surprise flooded my mind.
You can’t sense her at all, can you?
‘No, I can’t,’ she admitted. ‘Is it the elven lance?’
Mhm. Despite her demeanor, she was given the code name ‘Phantasm’ because of her abilities to deceive and hide from opponents.
‘An assassin,’ Sylvie noted.
The two of us conversed mentally, shortening the passage of time as we trekked through the rugged plains.
Throughout the way, I activated Realmheart in brief increments, trying to catch any fluctuations of mana around us. I had to be careful to not let the two lances see my eyes, but my hood and long bangs were able to hide the fact that my pupils changed from blue to a light lavender.
As we continued our journey Northwest, trees became more abundant as the plains slowly shifted into acres of woodland. With Mana Rotation, the skill I learned from Sylvia, constantly replenishing my mana supply while I used Mirage Walk to conceal the mana fluctuation around me caused by using magic, the time I spent walking had become a sort of training.
“We’ve made it,” Mica sighed as we finally reached the main road. The dirt trail was wide enough to accommodate two carriages with ample space in between, and while there were wheel tracks from use, there seemed to be no carriages within sight.
“Where to now, boy?” Olfred’s deepened voice rang.
“We follow the road to the nearest town,” I simply answered.
“More walking?” Mica groaned in protest.
“The closest town isn’t too far off,” I comforted.
Mica and I kept our heads low as we followed behind Olfred on the side of the trail. Suddenly, I picked up the faint clack of hooves and wooden wheels.
Both the lances perked up less than a second later, picking up on the sound as well. The three of us stopped and waited for the carriage to appear in our line of sight. Pulled by two brown horses, one speckled near its muzzle, the wooden carriage was driven by an older gentleman in green and brown traveling garb with a young man that appeared not much older than myself.
As they got closer, it was apparent how malnourished the two horses were. Their ribcages were clearly pronounced while their coats and manes had lost any sort of luster they would normally get from the nutrients in their food.
Olfred waved his arms at the approaching carriage. “Hello there!”
With a swift pull of the reigns, the horses and carriage came to a dusty halt.
“You lost?” the older man barked, his eyes scanning Olfred’s garb while the younger one eyed Mica and me suspiciously.
“My slaves and I were on our way up north when our carriage was attacked by some bandits,” Olfred explained, his voice steady while he dramatically told a tale of woe. “They slit my horses and tried to rob us. Luckily my slaves were able to fight off the bandits.”
“These two munchkins?’ The older man’s eyes narrowed.
Olfred shook his head. “No, no. Different slaves, but unfortunately they didn’t last much longer from infection of the wounds.”
“Mmm. And the mask?” the driver asked with a raised brow. He and the younger man both gripped the hilts of their sheathed daggers on their waists. By their awkwardly placed hands, it seemed that their weapons were more for intimidation.
“My father insisted I hide my identity in these dangerous times,” Olfred answered with a weak chuckle as he held up his hands in submission, noticing the weapons as well.
“Dangerous times indeed as you’ve already experienced.” The older man loosened his grip on the weapon. “Fighting slaves are hard to come by and even harder to afford since the war started. Pity for your loss.”
“A great loss,” Olfred agreed.
“Well, times are hard for all of us. I’m not sure my horses can handle the weight of more people,” the older man ran his fingers through his scraggly beard as he let out a cough.
“Naturally, you’ll be compensated,” Olfred replied calmly as he dug into his fur cloak and pulled out two silver coins.
The younger man reached out and snagged the silver coins, testing their pliability with his teeth before giving an okay to the driver.
“Hop on then,” the older man motioned to Olfred. “But your slaves will have to walk.”
“Of course,” Olfred said without hesitation.
I caught a glance of Mica’s devastated expression before she lowered her head again. Without saying a word, I pulled the child-like lance back and waited for the carriage to resume before following after it with Mica.
“Mica is going to kill that old man,” Mica muttered, her face hidden beneath her hood.
“Just bear it for a little longer. The next town is only an hour away.”
“You’re familiar with this rural countryside?” Mica asked.
“Of course,” I said softly. “It’s where my hometown is after all.”