“For Laurel! For her Highness!”
Men from the distance shouted.
The sound of armor clanking reverberated from the surroundings, blades glinting from the shadows, and shadows running through the woods. The moon, the stars which lit up the night vanished, hidden by the dark clouds that loomed over the forest. Everything -- was dark. Or so I felt. Everything was turning darker and darker.
I was running, running through the woods dragged by Erina.
Why does Erina look so tall? Why is she here?
My thoughts kept on looking for a conclusion to this ridiculous situation.
Slowly, my body started to wear. It started screaming that it can no longer keep up any better than this. My breathing got ragged and finally, a sound came out from my mouth.
“E-erina I can’t.. Keep up..” A childish voice said. “It’d be better.. To leave me here..”
“Please endure, your Highness.” She said. “You must live.”
This.. It can’t be, right? It’s impossible. How?
It felt like I'm a spectator of my own body.
Soon enough the clouds looming above started to drop tears from the sky. Then gradually the tears multiplied and became a drizzle, then the drizzle turned to a downpour.
It did not take too much time before the firm ground turned to mud.
As we were running, the splattering mud tainted my dress. The rain soaked my body and turned my dress into unnecessary weight. The surroundings, my body, they started to feel cold. The air that I breathe turned hazy. Then finally, my footing gave out and slipped on the mud. I fell face first on the mud-filled ground.
“Your Highness!” Erina shouted as she picked me up. “Please endure, your Highness. We would be able to reach the city soon. So please, just a little more.”
As Erina tried to motivate me, I heard the sound of mud splashing from the back. When it got close it supported my body and turned my face towards the other direction.
“Your Highness please continue running.” She said with a gentle smile as she wiped the mud covering my face with her bare hands repeatedly. “And never forget to keep that bright smile of yours.”
It was a soft and gentle touch that it easily overshadowed the cold and dark surroundings. After looking at her directly in the eyes, I stood there with my quivering legs and gave a nod.
“I-I’ll try.” I said.
This.. Isn’t this Ria?
But afterward, blood started to drip from her sweet and gentle lips.
“Please run, your Highness.” She said before her body fell on the muddy ground with a dagger stuck at her back, blood spreading throughout her clothes. I could never forget it, Ria’s last smile.
“R-ria? You’re okay, right?” I spoke as I tried to prop up her body back up with trembling hands.
No. No. Not this again.. Please.. Stop..
My body tried shaking her repeatedly hoping that she would wake up. I wiped her face as she wiped mine.
“Ria.. Ria! Please.. wake up.. Ria..” Then my sights blurred with tears. “Y-you promised, right? You said you’d eat sweets with me when we get back.. So plea-”
Before I get to finish, Erina grabbed my arm and pulled me. She started to run and dragged me again.
“E-erina! Please wait! Ria.. Ria is still alive! P-please, let’s carry her back at least!” I pleaded bursting with tears as the raindrops struck my face. “Please! Erina! At least Ria!”
“I’m sorry, your Highness,” Erina said in sorrow. “Please respect Ria’s wishes and live.”
“Why?! Why…” I said. “W-what did I do wrong.. First, It was Grandpa. Then it was Mira.. And now it’s Ria.. Why? What did I do wrong? H-have I been a bad girl? Did I hurt someone?”
Slowly, my thoughts darkened and not a single thought other than pleading for it to stop wrapped my mind.
“No. Your Highness is innocent. You have wronged no one.”
“Then why? What did I do to deserve this.. It should’ve been me.. I’m useless.. I’m just a weight! A baggage!”
“Your Highness has never wronged anyone. Please believe me and please don’t speak those words.” Erina said strictly. “You would’ve been thrown long ago if you were just a weight to everyone. Please, your Highness, never forget your smile just as Ria said.”
“But.. I can’t.. I don’t think I deserve to be happy..”
“Your Highness, there will come a time that you will realize that that smile of yo- agh..”
Before Erina finished, an arrow struck her right shoulder. She then unintentionally let go of my arm and fell on her knees while her left-hand holds shoulder.
“No! Erina! Please! Don’t leave me too! I’ll do anything! Please! Please stay!” I said as it tried to hold down Erina from the back.
“Your Highness, I’m fine.” She said as she stood with her right arm limp. “Come, we need to go.”
Then she grabbed my arms again with her left and restarted running.
As we were running, a continuous rustling sound followed from behind. I turned around to look out of fear.
Then there is saw an arrow struck the man in a black garment, but it was too late. A dagger was already thrown inching towards me before the arrow struck.
Then slowly as if time slowed down, everything became visible. The leaves falling from the trees, the mud dancing in the air, the raindrops falling from the sky, the dagger slicing through the air, everything. Everything halted.
At that moment, my thoughts resurfaced.
What? What’s.. happening?
While I was pondering, a voice, a melodious voice echoed through my head.
[How is it O’ pitiful child?] It said.
I looked for the source of the voice and found a shadow from the distance lit up by the moonlight peeking through the clouds. But before I could make up the shadow, time moved again and the dagger closed in on my face, then my body unconsciously closed its eyes.
Followed by the dagger was a sound similar to that of shattering glass.
[Amelia. Wake up.]
I lifted my face as I heard Mon’s voice. When I looked at him, he wore a worried expression.
[Are you ok?] He said as he pointed at his cheeks.
“Huh?” When I touched my own, I felt traces of tears over my cheeks.
“I’m sorry.. Please give me a few minutes.” I said as I huddled again and let my tears flow.
While I cried myself, I grasped the pouch Erina left with me.
It’s okay. It’s still here.
After a few minutes, I stood and wiped my tears away.
“I’m fine now. Let’s go.” I said as I walked in front.
[Are you sure? We can still rest for a while longer.]
“No, I’m fine. Crying in a corner would not do me any good, nor does it to anyone.” I said as I gave a somewhat lonely smile.
I gripped the pouch again as if squeezing it for courage.
[You’re too hard on yourself.]
“Don’t worry, I think I deserve it,” I said as I walked further. “Mon, please lead.”
[Suit yourself.] He said as he started to move ahead of me.
Yes, I deserve this. If only I had not been a dead weight, more of them would’ve survived. Grandfather, Mira, Ria, the Knights, and soldiers, every single one of them... I need to work on their behalf.
I used to have three personal maidservants, Mira, Ria, and Erina. During that time, Mira and Ria died leaving only Erina…
Afterward, Mon and I hiked from the foot of Alabaster. We frequently take a few minutes of rest as we get higher and higher. He said that it was bad to hike up the mountain too quickly. If not, a curse may fall upon me that would make it hard for me to breathe.
“Does it happen when going down?”
[No, it only happens when going up. The Alabaster wishes to keep intruders away.]
Along the way, we spotted several beasts from afar. The noteworthy ones which I should strictly avoid are the Catoblepas, Cerastes, and especially a rare sighting of a golden goat called Amalthea.
The Catoblepas resembled a buffalo, but with a very thick fur, large hooves, and a head pointed downwards most of the time. Mon said that its gaze could naturally turn anything into stone and it has a toxic breath as opposed to its buffalo-like body.
The Cerastes is known to be one of the great predators of Alabaster. Only a very few of them are seen around Alabaster. They are huge serpents with light-brown scales and spikes covering the top of its scales. It has unique thick horns above its head which were said to be used as a channel to cast magic.
On the other hand, Amalthea is considered as the divine goat of Alabaster. It is the symbol of prosperity due to its golden fleece. It also said that it has a control over lightning type magic which is a compound of the second level of the fire affinity. It is also known to be docile and would not attack unless provoked.
There’s another divine beast considered by the Tribe, but Mon said that I would be meeting it at the proving so it’s best to let me see it personally. It was not considered as the divine beast of Alabaster since it is only present during the duration of the proving. The Tribe had several debates whether to consider it as the beast guide of the proving, but some said that it only watched over most of the time.
There are also several others which we passed through like the Fang Wolves, the Orthruses, and Spiked Hyraxes.
Mon also taught me how to avoid most of them and how to stay hidden.
“Can you show me a beast so I could try using dark magic to hide my presence?” I said. “It’d be better if it’s docile. I’ll just check if it could detect me only using dark magic.”
“Yes. Well, I guess it’s pretty rare for the Tribe? Dark magic is usually used to hide presence, but not completely as compared to the light and dark compound.” I said. “It’d be good if I can save up mana using only dark magic to sneak through.”
Then he led me near a nest of Spiked Hyrax. The Hyraxes are small, but twice the size of a horned rabbit, they also have sharp spikes on their backs.
I approached from a nearby bush and chanted the magic for hide. Mon then tried to pique the interest of the Hyrax by throwing a piece of fruit nearby. The hyrax pass through the bush I was hiding, but it stopped midway and tried to sniff the air. After looking at the surroundings for a few seconds, the Hyrax continued towards the fruit.
It’s a success, but my smell…
From the result, it seemed that it wouldn’t work against beasts with an acute sense of smell.
As the day passed, we again made a camp for the night and slept like usual as he filled me in with information that I could use during the proving. It felt like I was cheating, but it’d be better if I return alive like I promised.
At night, I still fell asleep in the middle of the night watch, but I no longer dreamt of my past like the previous day. I was really curious regarding that voice. If I remembered my past correctly, I never heard a voice like that before. I tried to think of several candidates, but it was impossible to think of something I never even know if I had encountered or not so I gave up and put it on hold.
On the next day, I was again fed information by Mon. He also continued to let me borrow his bow so that I could continuously practice. He also told me how to differentiate edible from non-edible plants. He also showed me how to skin a few animals and told me how to process them for temporary use. This continued until the afternoon where we reached the crest of one of the mountains.
From the crest, the view of the Tribe’s residence became visible, as well as the greenery that surrounded the mountains. Clouds resting lowly were scattered here and there, and the majestic sun showered over the rows of cloud above the peaks.
The cold wind blew strong as it passed through my robe producing a rustling sound.