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Alan spent the next couple of days caring for the horses and sustaining himself with apples and some sweet potatoes from a sack he had found in the corner. He would sneak into town every now and then to search for his family and to gather up some food.

He also washed with a pail of water eventually, scrubbing much of the dried blood and muck off of his body. In his spare time, he tried hiding from the horses. He figured if he had a Skill he might as well work on it, and with only horses around to practice on it was not like he had many options.

His unending hiding game with the horses had only increased his [Hide] next level progress by three points to *61/100. He had no idea if that was good or bad or if the points until the next level even made a difference in his Skill. It couldn't hurt though so he had kept at it.

His family was almost certainly dead. Everyone he had known likely gone.

"You caught me Shelly!" He exclaimed as the horse turned to look at him hiding in the corner.

Shelly was one of the smaller horses. Next to Shelly's stall, he heard Blaire snorting. He tossed an apple over the wall for the jealous horse to enjoy.

Blaire was easily his favorite of the bunch. To be fair, she was everyone's favorite.

A midnight black horse, she was the fastest in the stables. She had been given to Eric's father by the government as a mount to be used by messengers of the kingdom in dire situations where speed was an absolute necessity. He didn't think she had ever been called upon, but Eric's dad was a professional and kept her in great shape, ready to go at a moments notice. Alan planned to take her with him when he left, not that he knew where he would go. In fact, he actively tried not to think about it.

He tried to utilize his Hidden Items ability but was not met with any success. He tried hiding various objects under his clothes, hiding them nearby, hiding things up his sleeve, willing them hidden, once he even tried yelling out "Hide!" thinking there might be some vocal component, but he succeeded only in getting flat unamused stares from the horses nearby.

He passed the time this way, playing his hiding games with the horses, and trying to figure out his new Skills and Stats. But as the days went by, and the food available to both horse and human dwindled, Alan finally decided it was time to go. He had not been keeping close track of time, but he figured it had been around three days now since the attack.

The stables had been a comforting reminder of normalcy. Alan knew that he was avoiding taking any real action and that his lengthy care for the horses was not healthy. His clothes were ruined, his stomach was beginning to ache with the limited food options, and he was becoming less and less able to ignore reality. He also was becoming more worried about the fact that no one had passed through his town after so much time.

Travelers, while not exactly flooding the town of Willowbrook, should have appeared by now. Willowbrook was located along The Road and was not all too far from other neighboring towns. Given the amount of time that he had been hiding in the stables, someone should have appeared and noticed what had happened. The king should have been sending in troops and rescue workers. Something strange was going on.

Alan looked over the items that he had stolen from the abandoned houses.

He had managed to sneak out of the stables a few times at this point. He would search for survivors and, more practically, he would steal anything valuable he came across. Once he was reasonably sure there was no one around, he had become bolder and tried his luck breaking into the various houses in search of money or expensive items.

He had no lockpicking or trap detection Skills so it didn't come as much of a surprise that he was unable to break into any of the various safes that people had used to store their valuables.

While unable to grab too much actual silver, he had managed to find cold cheese and bread to eat and to gather some supplies for his journey out of town. He hadn't planned anything specific yet, but he assumed it was better to be prepared. He had managed to grab a nice backpack, a good amount of food that would travel well, and some of the more expensive looking items he could find that were not locked up.

It was time. He had one more place to visit before he left.

Alan picked himself up and made his way to the Market in the center of town. He was more accustomed to sneaking around at this point and confidently passed through the town square, ignoring the empty houses along the way.

He reached the building, a large brick warehouse that served as the center of commerce in his town. It was hard to miss the giant structure known simply as "The Market". Alan walked through the large font gates cautiously and gazed at the row of empty stalls that covered the area. Taking in the stillness and silence of the building he began to look around for valuables.

Wandering through the Market he noted that the famous town mosaic remained intact on the west wall of the building. It depicted a stylized map of the five Territories. The kingdom of Strength was a bit more prominent in the masterpiece, but each territory was painstakingly depicted using famous scenes from history or legend. It managed to show the unique culture of each territory and convey the essence of their associated attribute.

The Five Territories: one for Strength, Wisdom, Intelligence, Dexterity, and Vitality.

The Kingdon of Strength: his birthplace, was known for its proud warriors and military might. The Holy Toltec Empire: a dynastic empire, it included two whole Territories, Intelligence and Dexterity. Saga, the Wisdom Territory: run by a council of Sages and well known for its merchants and trade practices. Finally the Kingdom of Sine: a kingdom that practiced isolationism and ruled over the Vitality Territory, it was known for its natural beauty.

Each was depicted vibrantly in the mosaic in front of Alan. A small part of him was glad for the mosaic's survival, but realistically it made little difference. He could neither eat it nor sell it.

He quickly moved on and searched the various stalls for anything that might be more practically helpful. He was particularly pleased when he found some new boots and clothes that fit him. His old ones were tattered, dried with blood, and frankly, they smelled horrible. After rinsing himself by the Market water-well he put on his new clothes and felt much better.

He spent the day robbing the various stalls and eventually made his way back to the stable. He organized his luggage, packed Blaire's saddle, and got ready to head out. Still, no one had appeared on the Road, and he grew more suspicious about the circumstances of the raid.

It was starting to feel as if he were the last person alive in a ghost town. The situation felt unreal. Feeling alone, he continued to prepare for his journey. His looting had gone fairly well and night was approaching. Why hadn't the Goblins looted anything?

The strange circumstances nagged at him until he finished packing and eventually went to sleep.

 


 

He woke up early the next day.

Not knowing what else to do, he released all of the horses except for Blaire. Then he took Blaire's reins and began walking. It was time to go.

The sun was bright overhead and the tall grass off the side of the road was beginning to turn a golden color from lack of recent rain. The road stretched on at a slight downward angle and Alan continued on his way. The day was misleadingly cheerful. Not a cloud in the sky, and with a cooling breeze, the smell of dried grass and nature surrounded him as he made his way out of town.

Reaching the end of town, he mounted up and set Blaire to a light trot. He had been on The Road before. He knew the nearby towns well enough. His father had even taken their family on a vacation once to Boulder the capital city of Strength. This was not the first time Alan had been on this road, but this time had a clear sense of finality to it that he had never felt before.

Blaire's hooves sounded deeply against the sturdy smooth dirt.

Alan tried to remain alert, but the next several hours passed in a haze. The rolling hills that separated Willowbrook from the next town blended together in his mind. It felt strange that he had not seen another human in such a long time and the wide road provided little cover as he traveled.

None of the five Territories were large. As such, they did not have much land that was not actively occupied or utilized. A good portion of the land around his town was dedicated to agriculture and Alan passed several farmhouses as he proceeded down the road.

At first, had tried knocking on the doors to see if anyone was there. After several failed attempts he stopped trying. Glancing at the sun Alan set a slightly faster pace hoping to reach the next town before evening. What would he do if the town was empty like his own?

His family was almost certainly dead. Everyone he had known likely gone.

Many uneventful but stressful hours later, just as the sun was setting, he began to make out the neighboring town of Stonewall. He felt a sense of relief he had not expected at the sight of people moving in the distance. He had not realized how alone he had been. Picking up the pace, he felt a surge of excitement he had not felt in days.

Stonewall was larger than Willowbrook. Situated on top of a hill, it had been built around the Road as well. It spread out much further than his hometown however and had a small stone wall surrounding it for which it must be named.

The buildings were made of wood and brick and the streets were paved in the center. It looked peaceful and prosperous. A large bell tower stuck out of the mass of buildings reminding Alan of the one back home. As Alan watched people moving in the distance, going about their days, he felt something almost like hope.

Suddenly his [Hide] level progression exploded to *65/100 all at once. He almost fell off Blaire in shock.

He stopped as fast as he could, once again almost falling off the confused horse. He paused, looking around. There was no one nearby that he could see. Just the tall grass along the roadside swaying in the gentle wind. Looking in the distance he could just make out the tiny figures of people in the town. Nothing seemed changed.

He had been keeping a passive eye on [Hide] figuring if the level progressed it was a clear indicator that someone was nearby. It was an unreliable metric, but he figured it couldn't hurt to pay attention. Unfortunately, it had worked a bit better than he had expected, scaring him half to death in its suddenness.

He moved Blaire to the side of the road and immediately crouched low in the saddle. He waited.

He began to feel more and more foolish as he stayed silent in the roadside shadows. As the minutes went by Alan eased Blaire into a slow walk, staying by the side of the road. The town was just ahead and it wasn't like he was a bandit, so he was a bit unsure why he should be hiding in the first place.

Feeling more and more foolish, he continued the slow pace while keeping his eye on his Skill progression.

"You!" a harsh voice yelled out from his right.

Suddenly appearing as if from the grass itself, two figures on horseback were flanking him on each side. Sitting atop large armored mounts, both figures wore the brass helmets and uniforms that marked them as part of the guards.

More importantly, both had their weapons out and pointed in his direction menacingly. The one on the right who had spoken up seemed shorter and rounder, whereas the one on his left appeared tall and lanky.

"Me?" Alan responded to the shorter guard on his right, at a loss for words.

"Stop Now!" the guard yelled, a deep voice booming beneath his helmet.

Alan stopped as quickly as he could. Blaire wheeled about and the two guards guided their horses to block off any easy exits in case he decided to make a run for it.

"Get off the horse, throw down your weapons. Throw them away from yourself and do it slowly."

Alan obeyed the voice. He had no illusions as to his ability to fight off two trained guards even with his new weapons and horse.

The short round one got off of his horse and began taking off his helmet. The face underneath matched the round body below it. Bright red cheeks took up most of what was already a large face. Balding, yet looking only to be in his early to middle years, the guard scratched at a burly mustache and proceeded to spit enthusiastically on the ground.

"What's goin' on here?" The guard exclaimed, "you wouldn't happen to have your mark by any chance?"

"No, sir." Alan replied seriously, "I'm only fourteen years old."

The guard frowned at that, spitting once more, this time over his shoulder. "Now boy, this road is closed as you well know. So we're gonna have a nice friendly chat with you and just make sure nothing rotten is going on here ok?" As the guard continued to glare at Alan, his partner dismounted and began picking up the knives Alan had thrown away.

He had really wanted to avoid the guards, but this could work too. "Of course sir," he replied calmly keeping his gaze down, "I had no idea the Road was closed and was just looking to find help in town."

The guard paused at that, seeming to take in Alan's appearance for the first time. A dark skinny adolescent boy, looking a bit worse for wear, wearing ill-fitting but not terrible looking equipment, and riding on a magnificent horse. "Where you from boy? You alright?"

Alan stared at his feet, "I'm from the town of Willowbrook further along the Road sir. I don't know if you know what happened there... It's..." Alan took a breath, pushing something within him deep down. Tonelessly, his dark eyes looked up to meet the guard's curious gaze.

He finally forced the words past his lips. "My family is almost certainly dead. Everyone I've known likely gone."

Disquieted and not knowing how to respond to the strange boy, the guard's face settled into a silent frown.

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nolrichard
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