Chapter 56: Herding

Unlike the winning smile on the workhand’s face, Ward and the bitch looked at each other in dread.

“How many?” she asked without specifying what she meant.

Ward raised one finger. “You?”

“S***!” she swore instead of answering. 

I didn’t have to think long to know what that meant. Suppressing the urge to kiss Tate remembered the saying Aspen had told me.

Kill one bear, and you can call it a success. 

After killing two, you should be distressed. 

Killing three is the end for you. 

As the next beast, you will face will be Esu.

The fight did not cease, though.

Shadows, along with the mercenaries, continued to retreat toward the exit of the clearing, an old unused path cutting through these woods. But now and then, some glanced apprehensively at the young man standing triumphantly on the carcass of the mossbear. 

Like me, they couldn’t understand how Tate had managed to kill it.

The only possible answer I could come to was that the man really had more luck than brains. 

However, more important than his luck was the bitch and Ward’s reaction. This was the third mossbear to lose its life here.

After a few shallow breaths of tense suspense Ward’s look of horror turned to relief as nothing happened. The King of the Woods had not reacted to the death of his progeny as he had expected, and I had hoped he would.

“It was just a bunch of b*******,” the bitch snorted as she herself was relieved that the saying didn’t come true. 

A disgruntled growl escaped my throat without me willing it, reminding me of the only thing I could do. That was to challenge the King of the Woods in a final attempt to escape my hated fate as a lab rat.

There was nothing to hesitate over, nothing to wait for. So I took a deep breath and shouted as loud as I could, my intent and my emotions focused on the challenge of Esu.

Usually, I would find it rather embarrassing to scream like that. I’ve basically only done it once on Earth while hiking in the mountains. That time I was alone, not surrounded by people who thought I was a rare wild animal. Here on Eleaden, it was becoming my nature. Although I guess I can thank the [Beast] for not feeling so awkward about it. This skill was affecting me more right now than I was willing to admit and was aware of.

Before the desired answer to my challenge could reach my ears, one of the mind mage-controlled bears knocked me to the ground. Its claws dug deep into my back, leaving behind bleeding gashes. Yet I could only be glad the beast didn’t step on me and crush my bones with its weight.

“You stupid c***, you should know when to stop,” the mind bitch snapped at me, but that was all she managed to do before the air shimmered as in the summer months over hot rooftops and got heavy.

Every man, woman, and beast in the clearing froze, even Ward and the bitch, and looked towards the heart of the woods.

Ward was the first to react, already fleeing for the exit of the clearing, away from the forest. “Run, idiots,” he shouted to his men.

“For f***’s sake, listen to me, you filthy beasts!” the bitch barked through clenched teeth having trouble controlling the three mossbears. In fact, one broke free from her grasp for a few moments and attacked her before she got its mind under control again.

“Take her,” she ordered the beast that attacked me, pointing at me. The verbal command seemed to reinforce her limited control over them. 

As I looked into the maw of the mossbear towering over me, I had to wonder how it was going to take me and feared for my neck if the beast was going to pick me up like a bear cub.

The beast slouched towards me, his mouth so close I could smell his foul breath, his saliva dripping on me. But at that moment, I heard it. The answer to my call.

It came like a ripple spreading through the air that shook the entire forest, followed by the roar of the King of the Woods, as they called him. It wasn’t a loud roar that deafened me, but a deep rumble that resonated in my bones.

Its meaning was quite clear to me. “Who dares?!”

After that, the ground shook as the beast began to move. His every step, accompanied by another tremor and the sound of falling trees. He was approaching fast. 

“Just grab her,” the mind bitch urged the bear while encouraging the one she was sitting on to run away from the forest. Her persistence to deliver me at any cost was unbelievable. I would have thought she would value her life more and try to escape as Ward did.

My attempt to roll away from the bear’s maw ended in failure when the beast put its paw in my way and roared at me. I froze, looking at the fangs that were only centimeters from my face. I didn’t wait for it to bite me and attacked, slashing its snout with my claws.

When, to my amazement, my claws left hardly any marks, and I only pulled out a tuft of fur, I remembered Aspen’s words that these were very resilient beasts. For a second, my mind wandered to Tate, querying how he could kill such a beast when his level was even lower than mine. But he was nowhere near enough to ask.

So, I attacked again and again, desperately trying to stop the mossbear from biting into me.

It didn’t work.

It bit. Only the pain I expected didn’t come. That’s what happens when the beast doesn’t bite you, but the chain binding the shackles on your ankles.

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It immediately hurried to the edge of the burning clearing, following its master and the other beast, dragging me in a strange position behind it. More precisely, dangling by my feet from his maw, I scrubbed my back and head on the ground between the bear’s front paws.

It was disorienting, humiliating, and especially painful as the dirt dug into my bleeding wounds. I couldn’t really tell what was going on around me, as a bear occupied almost my entire domain, and at the speed we were moving, my perception was too blurry. The only thing I could tell for sure was by the heat I could feel on my ass that we were approaching a burning forest. That and the fact that this bear was male, I could see it with my own eyes.

The belly should be a weak spot, at least that’s what I thought, so I dug my claws into it, cutting through his skin. I dug my fingers into the layers of fat underneath, drawing blood. But the beast didn’t even flinch and completely ignored me.

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My mind raced, weighing the options, of which there were few, one worse than the other. Somehow cut the chain the mossbear had in his maw or worse, cut off my legs. They would grow back in time. Still, I found it a bit disturbing, looking for other options. For example, if I could just reach further, between his hind legs, I could…

My train of thought was stopped when the mossbear ran into a burning part of the forest, and I wasn’t just feeling the heat on my ass anymore. It felt like my wings were on fire, which my hair actually was. It was no wonder as the beast dragged me through the burning undergrowth, fallen branches, and needles on the ground. Suddenly I was more worried about putting out the fire going on my head than I was about freeing myself.

By the time I managed to save at least part of my mane, we were out of the forest fire.

“Tss…f***!” I heard the mind bitch hiss, and my ride came to a halt.

I had to twist and bent to look in front of me, but I was left staring when I did.

[Mother Mossbear: lvl ????]

The beast was massive, towering to the height of three men. Its antlers, covered in moss and lianas, were just as imposing and towered even higher. Its grey fur was almost unrecognizable under the layer of moss that grew on it.

The pressure this beast exerted was palpable, making it difficult for me to breathe. My instincts, which had so far told me to run away in the presence of the mossbears I had met, screamed at me to lie on my back and put myself at the beast’s mercy.

I would if I could.

The mossbear started backing away from his mother, dragging me along. This time I scrubbed the ground with my chest and face, eating dirt. At least he didn’t drag me all over the woods like that. The bitch quickly gave the command, running away from this dominating beast. 

Somewhat oddly, mother mossbear did not pursue us.

She just grunted in displeasure at the behavior and weakness of her young ones. How the f*** did I know what her growl meant was the question that kept running through my mind while I was being dragged away from her. I didn’t have [Bear Language] among my skills nor some sort of omnipotent, universal ability to understand all languages.

I would have put it down to a fluke if I didn’t know what the threatening roar of the forest king meant. When another mother mossbear appeared in the path the mind mage had chosen, I knew she was urging us to turn around by her grumbling.

Were they grumbling in Eleaden Standard? Hardly. Most likely, it was my state, or [Beast], which allowed me to understand them. It was amazing and yet terrifying at the same time.

When we encountered the mother mossbear for the third time, even the bitch riding the beast figured she wouldn’t just get out of these woods so easily that we’re being herded. But knowing that and being able to do something about it were two different things. She tried, I’ll give her that. But this wasn’t her backyard where she practiced her skills. This was their forest, their home, and we were just mere trespassers. Dare I say a pest in their eyes. 

Ever since I heard about these woods from Aspen, I have wondered why the Sahal Empire did not eradicate these beasts in it despite what she told me. Sure, there was Esu, but that was only one beast. Surely they must have been able to deal with him somehow, even at the cost of losses. It made more sense to me now. He wasn’t the only powerful beast here. I saw the fourth mother a while ago, and I was sure it wasn’t all of them. How many were there? Even the thought of a dozen of them, led by Esu, was terrifying.

Hence the deal. A wise decision, as far as I can tell.

That couldn’t be said of mine. 

If I hadn’t cut my way out of the pub through that alley, I wouldn’t have met the Fae. If I hadn’t done this and that, I wouldn’t be here. If, if if if….

“If” won’t get me out of here, which seemed impossible anyway. Despite the efforts of the mind bitch and her growing desperation, we found ourselves back in the clearing where it all began.

We weren’t the only ones, though.

My position wasn’t ideal, but I saw the mercenaries the bitch brought with her. Well, only four.

Ward also graced us with his presence, along with the rest of his Shadows. He looked like he had to crawl through mud, his elegance and confidence gone.

“F*** you, c***!” Mind Mage yelled at me, for the umpteenth time. “This is your fault!”

I just smirked. “F*** you, too!” I answered her in the same way for the hundredth time, and as always, she didn’t understand my growl.

“I guess you didn’t have a choice either,” Ward remarked, sympathizing with her frustration.

She threw him an angry look. “Shut up! When my father finds out about this….”

She didn’t finish her threat as the air rippled, taking everyone’s breath away and extinguishing the burning forest. Out of the smoke enveloping the smouldering trees emerged the King of the Woods.

[Esu: lvl ????]

I had to count the question marks twice to make sure I was seeing right, because I saw the same number as the mother mossbears, four. What I saw didn’t match what my gut was telling me, though.

This wasn’t a bear, it was a behemoth. Even in my wildest imagination, I couldn’t picture an animal of that size. I was looking at a hill covered with moss, grass, flowers, and trees. That was my first impression, distorted by my upside-down position.

It was only after my initial shock I realized I was looking at a massive bear. That the hill was his back, his fur covered with moss, and the trees were his antlers, which rivaled the treetops of the surrounding oaks in their size and majestic beauty. For f*** sake, there were birds nesting in his antlers and squirrels chasing each other, somehow undisturbed by his presence.

No, this beast was much stronger than mother mossbears despite what the system was showing me. According to my beast guts, at least ten times stronger than me. But that was all my instinct told me this time. It didn’t scream at me to run away or throw myself at Esu’s mercy. It said nothing.

The King of the Woods, whose eyes reminded me of dark emeralds hidden in the moss, looked around the clearing. A movement that I was sure was just a force of habit. His gaze lingered on the corpses of his progeny.

“Who dares?” his rumble resonated in my bones.

No one was able to answer as they did not know the question he asked them. I wasn’t sure myself if he was asking about who killed his offsprings or about my challenge.

Esu looked like and undoubtedly was an ancient bear, or mossbear, but the patience that should have come with age he did not possess. When no one answered, the air around us thickened, and the pressure increased. His disgruntled rumble rang so strongly through my body that it gave me a headache.

The bitch did not control my mind, but I still felt like I wasn’t in the driver’s seat when my body reacted to Esu’s presence with my own on its own.

It was the first time it happened without me having to scream. Quite an achievement, considering I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of that until now. Under normal circumstances, I’d probably be beside myself with joy. After all, it also removed some of the pressure from me. However, as I might have expected, it drew Esu’s attention to me.

But this time, the bitch and her bloody magic saved me as his focus quickly shifted to the trio of mossbears controlled by her. I honestly admired her courage to do something like that in his presence.

“Thought Fuddler!” he grunted at her. “You dare to cloud their thoughts.”

I grinned inwardly. Thought Fuddler. A pretty good name for someone like her. I liked it a lot.

Even without translation, this thought fuddler understood Esu was unhappy with what she did. Especially when glowing green strands appeared briefly on his antlers and she lost control of three beasts the next moment, one of which she was still sitting on.

She did a quick backflip off of its back and looked at Esu. I could almost read her mind as she weighed her options, pros, and cons. I think everyone present did.

“F*** this!” she eventually cursed, and an extraordinary object appeared in her hand. 

A thirty-centimeter-long hexagonal rod, or rather a cage of that shape, locking the white crystal behind a tangle of black latticework. It’s a design quite similar to the columns I saw on the first floor of the Labyrinth.

In mere seconds, the crystal flashed with white light, blinding my eyes. The thought fuddler had simply disappeared in my perception. On the ground where she had stood only moments ago, only the rod with the burned-out crystal remained, slowly crumbling to dust.

It was a one-use only, apparently.

“Now I feel like I should have asked for more,” Ward remarked, shaking his head as he looked at the crumbling crystal, and the same appeared in his hand.

He looked back at his men. “Sorry guys, I’m not going to die here today. Good luck.”

He disappeared in the same flash of white light as the fuddler, leaving a crumbling artifact on the ground behind. My question as to what was the object that could have been the key to my return to Earth had to remain unanswered for the time being. Esu took their escape with the same displeasure as the people the two left behind.

“Cowardly mice,” he grumbled.

I agreed with him. They were cowards, but who wouldn’t run away in the face of a beast like him. I would if I could, especially after the King of the Woods turned his gaze on me again.

“Let it drop, little one,” he barked at the beast, which from my perspective was not so little and whose mouth I was still hanging from.

It didn’t whine, it didn’t resist, it just obediently spat the chain out of its mouth, and I fell to the ground.

When I looked up, Esu’s head was even closer. “Who are you?” his growl resonated in my bones and my mind. “The challenger?”

I swallowed hard, my heart racing, because this was the moment I was going to die. I was the one who challenged him, and in his presence, I dared not lie nor be rude.Nor I wasn’t going to get down on my knees and beg for my life. So I stood up, straightened up, and holding my head high, I looked into his enormous eyes.

“It was I who in her weakness dared to mount a challenge, King of the Woods,” I said, hoping my sincere thoughts would be conveyed correctly through the growls that escaped my throat. “It was done in my desperation, in an attempt to cry for help.”

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