Chapter 9:

Chapter 8. Hidden Settlement

Zero to Hero

The journey that started with hope took a stark turn as we arrived at the concealed village.

“We freaking saved this kid! Why are you idiots acting hostile!” Tina's frustration was palpable as the guards bound her hands with coarse ropes.

“Now you know how I felt.” My attempt at a joke fell flat as the beastman girl shot me a sharp glare with her piercing yellow eyes, bared her pointy fangs.

"Hey, can't you see I'm a delicate harmless girl? These ropes are too tight!" Candace teased the guard, who blushed uncontrollably.

“You didn’t even tie her up properly! Are you even trying?” Tina yelled at the young man like she was in any position to complain or that it’s a bad thing her own companion isn’t getting properly restrained.

Meanwhile, Yami, ever so perceptive, slipped away, sensing the tension in the air before any of the guards noticed her existence.

Marching alongside the guards, my hands tightly bound, I found it peculiar that I, with a blade at my neck and my own broadsword confiscated, was the only one under heightened scrutiny while the girls faced a far lesser form of restraint. Amidst our entourage, Bailee, the young girl we rescued, apologized profusely for the predicament.

"Don't fret about it, Bailee. We'll sort things out," I reassured her in a composed manner, seemingly unperturbed by the circumstances, obviously unbothered by the situation where I could have easily broken free if needed.

Observing my compliance, I couldn't help but marvel at the expanse of this hidden area nestled amidst the mountain peaks, allowing these people to establish and sustain their village. Soon after, our journey led us to the village center, where a gathering of villagers surrounded an elderly man standing prominently in their midst.

"Bailee! Come here," a woman's voice rang out, summoning the young girl to her side.

"Elder, they saved me from the goblins, please don’t harm them," Bailee pleaded earnestly, although the woman, whom I assumed to be her mother, attempted to hush her.

"Hello, my name is Theodore, the elder of this village. I regret that despite saving Bailee, we have you all restrained. Please understand, it's unusual to find humans in these parts," Theodore explained, his tone carrying a sense of caution.

"Do I look like a human to you?" Tina snapped aggressively, her words challenging my role as the peacemaker.

"Hello, Elder. My name is Ken. We mean no harm to your village. We're travelers heading to Ostrium City," I interjected, attempting to diffuse the tension.

"And where did you come from?" the elder inquired.

"We journeyed from the Chelmswell Forest, far up north, where my companion here is a native," I answered, trying to provide clarity.

"Not a friend," Tina interjected, attempting to further complicate matters.

"What’s your relationship with the two ladies?" the elder asked me suspiciously, seemingly influenced by Tina’s unhelpful comment.

"The redhead is a friend. The feisty one is my lover’s younger sister," I responded, attempting to provide context.

"Your lover is a beastman?" the elder inquired.

"He's a huge womanizer! He’s got beastman lovers, merman lovers, lizardman lovers, elf lovers and everything else in between," Tina decided to contribute again, adding unnecessary information that only made the situation more complex.

"Simply put, I used to attend Dragonspire, where I met her older sister. Our current journey is to Ostrium city, aiming to reunite with her siblings," I summarized.

"Dragonspire?" the elder questioned, seemingly unaware of the prestigious academy, a fact that surprised me.

"It’s an academy open to individuals of all races and classes," I explained.

"What a bunch of country bumpkins. Even my tribe knows about Dragonspire! The strongest individuals in the world are all Dragonspire graduates," the beastman girl chimed in again with her perspective.

"The strongest? Are you truly strong?" the elder inquired, evidently curious about my abilities.

"He’s incredibly strong! On his path to becoming the strongest!" Candace interjected enthusiastically, though her assertion was quite far from reality.

"Please disregard their comments. I have no aspirations or ability to be the strongest. However, compared to the average, I might be of some assistance if strength is required," I clarified, hoping to redirect the conversation.

Seemingly interested in my capabilities, the village elder thankfully changed the topic, thereby ending my companions’ efforts to complicate matters.

"Regarding those goblins you saved Bailee from—five years ago, they appeared out of nowhere. Their numbers have steadily increased each passing month, growing more aggressive, trying to expand their territories," the elder continued, shifting the discussion to the goblin threat.

"They aren’t the most intelligent creatures, but they move in packs, making them overwhelming for most of our villagers. Their attack on Bailee implies they’ve gotten dangerously close to our village. I fear the day they discover our hideout and the consequences that might follow," he explained, expressing concern about the safety of their sanctuary.

"Ken, you'll assist them, won't you? We hoped to secure a few horses from a village to hasten our journey," Candace coyly appealed to the elder, garnering noticeable attention from most of the young men present.

"If you could aid us against the goblins, we'd gladly offer you some of our horses in return," the elder responded optimistically, quickly instructing the guards to unbind us.

"Yami, you can come out now," I announced loudly, drawing the attention of the confused onlookers.

Suddenly appearing next to my feet, my winged pet wolf growled and snarled at the onlookers, her fangs bared, hackles raised, and a fiery aura emanating from her. "We're all good now, Yami. Great job staying hidden," I reassured her.

Offering my wolf some positive encouragement and a few gentle pats on the head, the intelligent creature swiftly returned to her calm demeanor.

"Her name is Yami?" Bailee inquired happily, running over to pet Yami now that the tension had dissipated.

"Could someone experienced with those goblin creatures provide me with some details?" I inquired, flashing a smile at Bailee, relieved to see the little girl's anxiety fade upon realizing her saviors wouldn't face trouble from her village.

"I can answer any questions you have," responded a middle-aged, horned beastman. His battle-worn appearance, marked by a missing eye, a horn, several missing fingers, and numerous gnarly scars, spoke of experiences that few could have endured.

"First things first," I began, "How intelligent are they? Do you have an estimate of their population in this area? How large do they grow? What's the average strength of one? Do they operate under a leader? Have they established a hideout? And do they have any specific reason for targeting your people?"

"They're about as intelligent as a 10-year-old child. They reproduce at an alarming rate, reaching maturity in only a year or so. Over the past 5 years, their numbers have multiplied, likely reaching tens of thousands," explained the grizzled man.

"They're not sizable, standing around 2 feet tall, though the larger ones might reach up to 3 feet. But despite their size, their claws and teeth are sharp. They're incredibly swift and as strong as full-grown adult men," he elaborated.

"What began as a single tribe under one leader has now splintered into many tribes, each with their own leader and hideout. They've become indiscriminate, targeting anything and everything as a food resource," he continued.

"In an isolated one-on-one encounter, the average adult in our village could handle them, but they always attack in packs of at least five, using the terrain to their advantage. Most of our unfortunate encounters have been due to ambushes or attacks by large packs," he concluded, offering me a wealth of information that surpassed my expectations.

“Candace, my mom said you're more than welcome to stay in our house,” Bailee happily offered after our meeting concluded.

“I’m starving! Bailee, take me to your kitchen so I can whip up some food,” Tina declared loudly, her mood sour ever since we entered the village.

As Tina followed the young girl to start preparing a meal, Candace and I took the opportunity to greet many of the villagers and familiarize ourselves with the village layout and its inhabitants.

The population was comparable to Tina’s tribe, numbering around a thousand individuals, primarily consisting of goat beastmen, alongside other herbivore beastmen.

Having grown up in a beastman kingdom, I knew that a beastman's animalistic trait largely influenced their strength and, to some extent, their personality.

Contrasting Tina’s village, exclusively comprising wolf beastmen, this village of herbivores appeared weaker on average even when the wolf chieftain decided to open up his tribe and let Lovetta attend Dragonspire because of the limited genetic variety that had progressively made the average individuals in the wolf village grow weaker over the generations.

“Come on, Ken, Candace! Tina made a bunch of food!” Bailee joyfully exclaimed as she bounced around to greet us, her minor wound completely healed, definite work of a healer.

“Hey, Bailee, could you introduce me to the village healer? I'd like to learn some basic healing for emergencies.”

“After dinner!” The young girl replied as she led Candace and me back to her house, a simple structure carved into the mountainside with rudimentary wooden furniture and low-grade artifacts.

“I can't believe Tina can actually cook,” Bailee remarked.

“What do you mean, Bailee?”

“She probably meant that since you're such a hotheaded troublemaker who can’t distinguish when to talk and when to stay quiet, you're probably only good at fighting.”

SMACK! Anticipating the fiery response from the hotheaded girl, I took the harmless hit willingly to prevent further conflict.

Hoping that my words might at least slightly register, we proceeded to set up the table to enjoy the meal Tina had prepared.

“Thank you again for saving our daughter,” Bailee's parents expressed gratitude once more as we gathered at the dining table.

“It was sheer luck that we arrived just in time, so it's all thanks to her own luck,” I truthfully replied while the two girls nodded in agreement.

After the satisfying meal, Bailee guided us to the house of the healer, which turned out to be the village elder Theodore, and the weathered middle-aged man Thane who shared the house was his son.

As the day drew to a close, our stay at the elder’s house was cut short, but what we learned was a tragic tale.

Thane, the strongest warrior in the village, held his kids to higher standards. They had ventured further out compared to the other children. One day, when his two kids didn’t return home on time, his wife ventured out to search for them.

All three ended up missing, and as he searched for them day in and day out, his numerous encounters with the goblins led to the distressing transformation he bore today.

After conversing further with the pair and learning more about the goblins and the village, we retired for the night with Bailee, preparing ourselves for the quest that awaited us.