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tagSci-Fi & FantasyBanished Pt. 15

Banished Pt. 15

byKousakacomplex©

Author's note: Special thanks to Ardon G. Fowl, Jack Gwen, Reversal, Swedish Millionaire, and VC for helping to make this chapter possible. To my readers: I've also heard your requests for recaps, and your cries have not fallen on deaf ears. I assure you, summaries are coming, though I have no clue when. :S

Enjoy the chapter! And please don't hesitate to leave a comment! I love hearing from you; what you loved, hated, and what you'd love to see more of in the future. :)

***

We left Grenze heading south along the road, but as we passed the spot near the blighted grove where we'd cut our way out of that place, Francesca shot me a questioning look.

"Aren't we going into the blighted grove?" she asked, and I shook my head.

"If Palancar no longer opposes us, then they shouldn't have a problem with us moving through their territory anymore."

"Are you testing them?" she asked, and I smiled.

"Sort of. But I really wanna see what the progress has been with this grove tree of theirs," I replied, and she nodded.

We kept up a pretty rapid pace, since I wanted to use the cover of darkness as much as possible to keep Palancar from noticing our activities despite the foray through their territory.

Both of us now had access to speed three, with Francesca wearing the boots we'd acquired from Vanessa's avatar, while I'd swapped out my regular shin guards for the equivalent piece, but I noted that even so, our speed seemed to pale in comparison to what I remembered of Danica's.

Was she the fastest human in this world? I wondered.

And if she was, just how fast was she?

She'd certainly been holding back when leading me to her lair, but in her fight with Hans, I did see flashes of what she was capable of, and Hans certainly seemed to be quickly overwhelmed by her sheer athletic prowess.

We ran for what felt like an hour when the first signs of light began to appear, but there was no sign of any activity along the road even then.

It took another hour before we encountered anyone, and when we did, it was a small caravan with about twenty travelers.

I signaled to Francesca to slow our approach a bit, so as to not spook them, but as we neared the group, I noted that they seemed to be carrying belongings, rather than items for trade, and there were several children, some in Lucia's age group, in addition to ten young girls who reminded me of those who had offered their service to us the day before.

As we came upon the group, an elderly Kobalt hailed us:

"Bei den Göttern -- By the Gods! That armor... you could only be our immortal reborn! Götze, the high one!"

"Well met, traveler. To whom do I owe the honor?" I replied.

The man bowed, and everyone from their wagons quickly dismounted and knelt before us.

"My humble name is not worthy of one so distinguished," the man replied, and I shook my head, placing a hand on his shoulder, and helping him to his feet.

"Nonsense. I'd sooner renounce my own name than live without learning yours."

The man shook his head, smiling as he did.

"Linus of branch Krämer," the man replied.

"Linus. This is my companion-"

"The little lion of Kleiner Hein; Francesca," the man replied, shaking his head. "They say you cleaved four hunters asunder with one swipe of your spear. The children of the Varsung branch will quake at the very mention of your name for seasons to come."

Francesca blushed at the comment, but merely bowed to the man in response.

"The Varsung branch?" I asked, and the man nodded.

"Rest assured that branch Krämer never believed the treachery spread by Danebe and his cronies," the man said, and mumbles of agreement sounded behind him. "It is why we decided to make the trek to Grenze this day. Our support should be one of action, rather than sentiment."

I smiled in response.

"How is Palancar handling Danebe?" I asked, and the man frowned.

"There is much discussion. The council has been in deliberation for more than a day, but I fear nothing will be finalized while our people mourn the death of our matron. The loss of a matron and a princess is not something even these old eyes have lived to see."

"Well, here's to hoping that you live to see the rise of a queen," I offered, and the man's eyes lit up.

"Then the rumor is true? The seed has been sown?" the man asked, and as I nodded, cheers erupted from around the caravan. "Then perhaps my branch might be grafted onto that of a new growth this day," he continued, and I nodded again.

At the group's insistence, we were treated to a small serving of dried fruit, which I noted had been caramelized, and tasted quite sweet, but we quickly thanked the group for their hospitality, then continued on our way.

"I'm kind of jealous of how easily you talk to people like that," Francesca admitted, and I chuckled a little, as we walked along the road.

"Maybe it's my line of work, but I had to maintain diplomatic relations with clients all the time. So, I guess I do have some experience."

"Investment banker to god-king: the rise of Nathan Van Dyke," Francesca declared, and I snickered in response.

"That would make a terrible story," I replied teasingly, and Francesca shook her head at me.

"One day, people will sing songs of you."

"Of us, my little lioness," I replied, ruffling her hair playfully, and she smiled happily as we resumed our journey at a slightly quicker jog.

We didn't encounter any more travelers along the way, but as the time wound on and we never came to the grove tree, I began to worry a little.

"What's wrong?" Francesca asked, as we came to a stop along the road.

"I feel like if we should have come to that grove tree by now," I explained, as I turned to my right, and caught sight of the cluster of hills off in the distance.

We continued on for a bit, until we came to the place along the road where I was certain now that we'd encountered Palancar's contingent at that time.

"Did we miss something?" Francesca asked, as she recognized the spot as well, and I shook my head.

"No. Fucking bastards were just screwing with us," I replied, shaking my head. "Anyway, let's head into the blighted grove."

As we made our way over to the stream which we'd crossed that day, I noted that the other side of the grove looked completely different from how it did back then, as the menacing shadows that seemed to loom over us were long gone, and the atmosphere seemed so tranquil that the memory itself seemed like nothing more than the figment of my imagination.

"Where are we going from here?"

I thought about it for a bit.

"Originally, I'd planned on stopping by our old campgrounds, but the guildhall should be closer from here. Maybe we can stop by on the way back?"

Francesca nodded in agreement, so we turned our journey westward, but as we moved along for about an hour, I realized that we were probably a bit further south than I was on that night when I'd made the trip with Raul.

"Do you recognize anything?" Francesca asked, as we came to a pause, and I chuckled nervously, shaking my head.

"Everything just looks like trees."

Francesca giggled at the comment, but as I relayed my suggestion that we head north a bit, before turning westwards again, she agreed without complaint, but after another hour or so of running, I was beginning to fear that I wouldn't be able to find even the hall.

"Fuck me! I just remembered we found the hall that night because of Raul's mapping implement."

"Didn't you take that off of him?" she asked, and I shook my head.

"No; the map module I took is the one that helps us get back home. He had an internal map module which showed where the guildhall was, once we got within a five-mile radius of it."

"You mean like this?" she asked, bringing up a module which resembled his, and my mouth fell open as I stared at it.

"What? When did you get that?" I asked.

"Around when we entered Kleiner Hein. Everyone did, I think; Molly, Evie."

I shook my head at her.

"Am I the only person who didn't get that?"

I bit my lip, as I thought about the implications of the development.

"Why didn't you mention it?" I asked, and Francesca shrugged.

"When it came up, it was blank... for the others too, so I thought it was pretty much useless. We thought maybe it was something that would only be of any use much later on. I guess I kind of assumed that everyone got it at that time too."

I frowned.

"Is there anything else like that? That activated automatically?"

Francesca shook her head.

"Not that I'm aware of," she said, and I nodded.

"Alright, well you keep an eye out for the guildhall, but we'll move a little slower for now."

She nodded, and we set off again, but as we continued on for another hour, I began to fear that we'd already missed the place completely.

"Do you think we missed it?" Francesca asked, as we came to a stop, and I thought about it for a bit.

"I think so," I replied. "We've definitely been running for longer than I remember it being, and we should have been closer too."

"What do we do?"

"Let's just move north about ten miles, then sweep back."

We made the trek north at as close to our top speed as we would dare run through the woods, then turned east, and began to move through the forest with Francesca keeping an eye out for the hall, but after another few hours, we came to a stop again.

"Maybe it's much further north than I remember," I said, wiping some sweat from my brow. "Wanna stop for a break?"

Francesca nodded, and we settled down on a fairly open section of ground, sharing a few pieces of roasted meat and a drink of water.

"What're you thinking?" Francesca asked, shaking me from my thoughts.

"The Kobalt are pretty skilled at navigating these woods," I said, and she nodded. "Back at Kleiner Hein, I'd picked up a movement skill related to navigating the forest, but maybe I should spend some time with the hunters when they go out scavenging to see if there's anything else I can pick up from them."

"Is that your skill learning thing?"

I nodded.

"Skill mirroring, I think it's called," I said, and she frowned.

"It sounds pretty awesome," she replied, and I smiled.

"Can't say I hate having it."

"I'm not even sure if I have any unique skills," Francesca said, and I studied her.

"Did you ever check anyone else for comparison?"

She nodded.

"Evie, Molly. Bianca, and Lucia."

"You've never looked at my skills?" I asked, and she shook her head timidly.

I nodded, then focused on her, and peered into her core.

There were the usual physical abilities which I was accustomed to seeing, but also the agility and acrobatics skills which I was able to match to the armor she was wearing.

Then there was the spear fighting skill, and another two that I'd never seen before.

I focused on it a bit, then noted that the bump on one of them was almost at level one already, and I smiled.

"You do have something here," I said. "Never seen this skill before."

"Which one?" she asked, and as I described it to her, she frowned.

"How can I figure out what it does?" she asked, and I shrugged.

"No clue, but if you're leveling it up that quickly, you must be using it. Maybe it's something that enhances your combat ability, considering how good you are in a fight."

She shook her head at me.

"I'm not that good, Nate. You beat me without breaking a sweat, remember?"

I scoffed at the statement.

"Maybe you've never watched yourself fight, but Raul has been terrified just watching you spar."

Francesca blushed a little, but as soon as were done eating, we resumed our search for the hall.

We decided to move another ten or so miles north, before sweeping our way back across the forest, but as we came up empty after another two hours of heading west, I let out a frustrated sigh.

"What are you thinking?" Francesca asked.

"There's no way it was this far north. Maybe we're moving back and forth over the wrong bit of forest."

"Should we try to head back to the stream and retrace our steps to the camp from there?" she asked, and I frowned.

"By the time we get back to the camp, it might be too late in the day to keep up with the running. I mean, my core is already below half capacity."

Francesca nodded in agreement, as I pondered the situation.

"Maybe we should keep heading west until we get to the river? Then at least we can count this day as something other than completely wasted," I suggested, and Francesca shrugged.

"I'll be honest with you, I'm completely out of my depth here with the scouting," she replied, and I snickered at her.

"I'm starting to feel the same way," I said, and we shared a smile, before setting off again headed west.

We moved at a much slower pace this time, in an effort to preserve our energy as much as possible, but after a few hours, I found myself growing tired, and as we came to a stop, I noted Francesca was showing some signs of exhaustion as well.

"If I don't learn speed one after all this, I'm asking for a fucking refund," Francesca said, and I snickered at the comment.

We drank some water, and after a short rest, we resumed the journey west, but after another hour, I began to worry.

"How long do you think it would take a caravan to travel this far?" I asked, and Francesca thought about it a bit.

"Three days?"

I nodded in agreement.

"Three days isn't bad, but if it stretches past a week, then I'm not sure we'll be doing ourselves any favors."

"How close do we need to be to the river?" Francesca asked.

"Close enough to fetch water daily, I think. Although, maybe that depends on how long it takes our grove trees to grow deep enough roots to start getting our own water."

Then again, even during the growing period, maybe we could dispatch a smaller team to manage the trees as they grow, then move the rest of the population over slowly as soon as they were large enough to house them.

Now that we had a stable base, our options were much more open.

"Nolan is our planning guy for setting all of this up, isn't he?" Francesca asked, and I nodded.

"He is," I replied, and she frowned.

"Aren't you worried? He seems to be going off the rails these days," she replied, and I swallowed uncomfortably.

Truthfully, I'd been ignoring him, more or less, since thinking about his actions just... annoyed me, really.

But Francesca had a point.

Given how important he would be, maybe I needed to start thinking about how to get on his good side.

"I have no idea how to manage that. The only thing he wants is-"

"Cameron?"

I nodded sheepishly.

We continued on for another hour before stopping to rest again, and this time, we decided to have another bit of the meat.

"If you asked Cameron to spend time with him, do you think he'd be satisfied with that?"

I shook my head.

"He won't be satisfied until she isn't spending time with me anymore, think."

"I guess Jordan wouldn't be too pleased with that either, huh?"

I nodded in agreement.

As we ate, I studied Francesca, and I suddenly remembered the interaction between her and Cameron that morning.

"What did Cameron say to you?"

"Huh?"

"This morning," I clarified, and Francesca blushed a little.

She swallowed her bite, then fidgeted a little as she replied.

"She uh... she told me to try not to get pregnant," Francesca admitted, and I coughed, as the bite of food seemed to suddenly slip down my throat.

"Fucking hell," I said, wiping tears from my eyes as I coughed.

As I settled down, I looked over to Francesca then sighed, but she quickly shook her head.

"I- I don't expect anything like that to happen or anything," she quickly clarified, and I chuckled a little at the response.

"Over me already, huh?" I teased, and she quickly shook her head.

"No- I mean, it's not that, I just... I've been observing things, and I guess I've kind of noticed that everyone just expects you to meet their needs. Whether it's emotional or physical," she clarified, and I studied her with an admiring smile.

"Really now?" I asked, and she nodded.

"I think Bianca really woke me up to the realization that I was kind of being like that. Like, begging for your attention, basically."

I shook my head at her.

"You of all people would never have to beg," I replied seriously, and she nodded.

"I know. I just... don't want to be a burden."

"You never have been," I said, ruffling her hair playfully, and as she blushed cutely, I suddenly felt the urge to lean in and kiss her, but as I moved to do that, I stopped myself.

"I'm sorry. This is one of those situations that I have no reference for. Do you want me to not kiss you anymore?"

She shook her head, then lifted her face to meet mine, and planted a quick kiss on my lips.

"I'll always want to kiss you," she said. "I'm just letting you know that you don't need to feel obligated to do it."

I shook my head, as I studied her admiringly.

"I feel as if I blinked, and you went from being some kid I was afraid of hurting, to a woman who I could depend on to stand firmly at my side."

I kissed her again, this time a firmer pressing kiss, and as we broke apart, she blushed.

"I worked hard to earn that place," she said, and I nodded.

"You really did. I feel a little badly now, because I've definitely been neglecting you," I said, but Francesca quickly shook her head.

"I didn't work hard to get into your bed; I worked hard so that I could be the one you chose to depend on when it matters most."

I ruffled her hair again, and gave her another proper kiss, before cleaning up and getting ready to head off again.

As we ran, however, I felt a kind of lightness in my heart, and as I studied Francesca, I noted that she seemed to be glowing in the same way.

The next few hours seemed to fly by, and our fortunes finally turned, it seems, as we came to the massive river that we sought.

"Whoa. Is this it?" Francesca asked, as we stood on the bank of the waterway, and I nodded.

"Yeah, definitely," I replied, as I studied the scene.

The river was quite a bit wider here than the northern section we'd encountered, but no less turbulent, as the water rushed quite swiftly by.

"What do you think? Maybe four or five days for a trade caravan?" she asked.

"Probably. Maybe even less when the trail turns into a proper road."

As she studied the river, however, she frowned.

"I thought this was supposed to be like Amazon big, though."

"The main course, maybe. This is just a tributary," I explained, and she nodded, stretching tiredly as she did and sitting down on a nearby rock.

"Are we calling it a day, then?" she asked, and I shook my head.

"The night is going to be really long, and we won't be able to do much. I wanna utilize the light for as long as possible. Do you mind?"

Francesca shook her head, then climbed to her feet.

"What's the plan?" she asked.

"I wanna follow the river south; Gisela mentioned that the river flows into the lands south of here, that Saker Keep is a part of. I'm kinda curious as to how far we'll be from the nearest human towns."

"I thought we were steering clear of those," she asked, and I smirked a little.

"We were; when we sucked. I'm pretty sure either of us could take on someone of Raul's caliber now... or at least, the level he was at when we first encountered him."

She smiled mischievously.

"You wanna hunt hunters?" she asked, and I shook my head.

"I'm thinking we could explore the towns; get a feel for it, and maybe eventually even trade with them. Plus, if Saker is within reach, that's still a starter hall. And according to Casey, there are a few others."

"You want to intercept newbies?" she asked, and I nodded. "For what?"

"Recruitment, eventually. We could train them, strengthen our team. Maybe even save some lives?"

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