“Living always meant killing the weak.”
The next morning, I wake up with the rising sun and feeling well rested. I even feel almost like a human being. After relieving myself, I get the camp cleaned up and drink one more mana potion. The one I drunk yesterday helped and I think that I am now up to stretching my magical muscles. The fact that I drained the captain also helped in restoring my energies.
Afterwards, I invest the time to gather enough firewood to fill the remaining space inside the magical backpack. I doubt that there will be any wood on the mountain and I want to use my power for something else than to heat up stones.
But first, I want to get onto the mountain and reach open terrain. I am on the run and I shouldn't dismiss the possibility that I was followed. They could be searching the forest right this moment. Once I am on the mountain, I'll be able to see an enemy coming from far away. I am much more comfortable with that than with being jumped in this forest.
On my way through the forest, I take it slow this time. I use every chance to catch small critters like birds, rodents and other animals which draw my attention. The biggest one that shows itself is of the size of a small pig and looks like a cross between a bunny and a deer. I don’t know what it’s called, but meat is meat. Animals are easy to hunt with magic. All I have to do, is to pick up a pebble and head-shot everything that shows itself.
Sadly, the animals of the forest must have a hidden communication network. By midday, not even the birds come close enough for me to shoot them. Nobody ever said that wild animals are stupid. But I am satisfied with what I have. My catch should be enough to keep me fed for three or four days. That's more than enough to cross the mountain.
As I travel higher, I leave the trees behind and then the underbrush is replaced by grass and moss. I am heading across the right flank of the mountain, towards a ridge that looks easier to cross than the high peaks. My position allows me a nice view of what's going on beneath me.
Orwen is quite some distance behind me. The black, charred scar in the land is huge. With over two hundred thousand citizens, Orwen was one of the biggest cities in the known world. It was located at the mouth of a large valley between two mountain ranges. These mountains are separating the Empire from its enemies, the Alliance and the Murian Sociocracy.
With a standing force of over fifty thousand soldiers and a whole city filled with mages, Orwen could hold the valley against anything the Alliance might throw at the empire. Now that Orwen and its army is gone, the entire region is a large vacuum of power. The door stands wide open for the Alliance to walk in and take the valley. If they secure the area on the other side of the mountain, they are in a perfect position to strike deep into the heart of the empire.
My eyes wander over the valley and onto the advanced garrison which is holding the border. Without the city behind them, they'll have to retreat sooner or later. The other option is that the Empire sends support from the surrounding villages. Though such support will be costly and would deplete the villages’ resources sooner or later. Orwen's magical infrastructure was unique.
The no-man's-land between the garrison and another set of buildings on the Alliance's side is interesting. The blighted land is marred with craters and mud. “So that's the Eternal Battlefield?” I mumble. People often talked about the stretch of land between the empire and the Alliance.
The Empire and the Alliance have been in a de facto state of war for generations. The mountains are separating the two sides, so the conflict is restricted to this easily passable valley. Leading an army over the mountains was tried many times, but even if you do get an army to the other side, supplies become a problem. Such attacks are usually repelled within a few weeks.
As I watch the scene, a lance of fire shoots out of the garrison and strikes a spot on the battlefield, creating another crater. I am too far away to see their target, but I suppose that it was a lone scout who raised his head too high and was seen. A large mass of people would be easily recognizable. I wonder how long it will take for the Alliance to realize that the garrison is on its own. Once they do, they’ll surely gather troops to overrun the imperial position.
I urge the lemu on and we continue on our way up the mountain. When I find a wind-protected cleft between the rocks, I set up camp. I am still below the snow-zone and I want to use the first light tomorrow to cross that area in one go.
In the remaining time I can use the chance to improve my equipment. First thing on the list is to improve my clothes. The uniform I am wearing is flabby in some places and tight in others. Another important point is to break the lock of my collar. I accomplish both tasks in a reasonable amount of time. Breaking the lock is actually the easier one.
I am not a good tailor, so the improvised robe and trousers I end up with aren't exactly the work of a designer. The most important point is that the new clothes don't look like an imperial uniform. I spend a lot of time with modifying all my gear, removing any sign of the imperial military. Then I bury everything that’s compromising under a large piece of stone.
When I am done, the sun is already setting and I am tired. But there is one more thing to do. I rummage through my backpack, disappearing inside it with my whole upper body. Then I pull out the large dragon rib. I pat the lemu's head. My companion settled down next to the campfire. His warm body is a nice pillow to lean against. The downside is that he stinks.
In this case I don't care because I don't smell good either.
I settle down and study the large piece of bone. It's large, but not enough for a full set of equipment. Maybe I should make one weapon and something that protects my vital areas? I close my eyes and infuse the bone with my power. Then I form a clear image of what I want in my head.
It takes a while to get it right, but it's a good training. After an hour of failed attempts, the bone starts flowing like clay between my fingers. First, I form a piece of moderate chest armour. It's not very thick, but the sturdy nature of dragonbone should give me enough protection. All it has to do, is to protect me from a lethal blow when I get caught off guard.
When I am at full strength, I should be able to heal most wounds that aren't instantly lethal.
I reinforce the area where my heart is located. Another vital point that’s important to me is my spine. I design a set of interlocking plates which run downwards from the back of my neck. At first I have problems connecting the plates without restricting my movement, but it’s just a matter of time until I’ve solved the problem to my satisfaction.
Instead of a helmet, I opt for a white mask. I am working with limited materials, so encasing my whole body with armour isn’t an option. I chose the mask because it protects my face. Additionally, since it is in front of my face, it’s easier to enchant it with various detection spells like night vision and enhanced senses.
Lastly, I am faced with my ruined hands. They are so mangled that I actually consider cutting them off and regrowing everything from scratch. Sadly, that isn’t an option in my state. I wince and pull one of the fibres out of my skin. These idiots should’ve cleaned the wounds first.
With having access to a freely mouldable material, an idea strikes me. I search for a large, flat stone, of which there are plenty, and cut my finger. Then I draw the magical circle which is supposed to fuse the dragonbone with my skin.
I can heal myself and get a permanent upgrade at the same time.
My first idea to create something like armoured gloves quickly goes out the window when I have a better idea. I can avoid the whole design problem if I instruct the spell to create scales. The magic doesn’t care how big or how small I make them, so if I make them as small as possible, I should be able to retain my sense of touch. That’s vastly superior to a clunky glove.
I fiddle with the details of the ritual until I am satisfied, then I place a generous piece of dragonbone on the stone with the magical circle. I drew the circle with my own blood, so using the circle to guide my magic must be possible. With both of my hands on the stone, I invoke the spell.
At first, nothing happens. Then the bone starts flowing up my hands and I feel a prickling sensation as the magic fuses the bone with my skin and evens out the scarred tissue.
Normally, healing the scars would have taken me days, but the spell practically rebuilds my skin as a whole.
After a few minutes, the pull on my magic stops and I inspect the result. From afar, my hands look almost normal, because the scales are so small. I have to hold my hands very close to my face in order to see the scales. The only issue is that my hands are now paler than the rest of my body. And my fingernails are completely white.
Hmmm. The spell replaced my fingernails completely with dragonbone. I admit that I didn’t think about my nails when I created the spell matrix. What happens when they grow? A shudder runs down my spine. This experiment could have gone horribly wrong!
A spell matrix that isn’t guided down to the last detail can do anything. In this case, it covered for the missing instructions by fusing the bone with my nails. I’ll have to observe carefully if this creates problems later on.
I swear to myself not to use my own body for experiments while I am tired. There should be enough unwilling guinea pigs in this world. No reason to risk my own life.
Another idea comes to mind and I concentrate. My fingernails lengthen a little. Not unreasonably long, but the normal, long fingernails of a woman who takes pride in such things. Then I strike at the stone in front of me and create five deep scratches. A smile steals itself onto my lips. “I guess I am the only female in this world who doesn’t have to worry about split or broken nails.”
Okay. That sounded entirely too cheerful. The whole 'freedom' thing is fucking with my mind.
The scales are now covering my arms up to my elbows. I could try to protect my whole body in such a way, but the risks don’t outweigh the gains. I am quite sure that this form of protection isn’t as sturdy as five millimetres of solid dragonbone. And in case that it turns out that something went wrong, I can still cut off my hands.
I study the remaining piece of dragonbone. It’s about fifty centimetres long. If I make it hollow, it would be enough for a staff. Ok, maybe not. More like a quarterstaff. I could use it to make a full helmet out of my mask, but a real weapon would be nice.
After my long slavery, I have to retrain all my weapon-skills anyway, so the choice of weapon comes down to what I prefer. Most magic users I know of would choose a staff.
In absence of a clear idea, I simply allow my creativity to run rampant. What I end up with, is a strange combination of a sceptre and a sword. It has an oversized handle with a straight blade attached to it.
I am not happy with the outcome, but I feel too tired to go on. The sun has already set and the fire is my only source of light, so I decide to call it a day. I lean back against the lemu and close my eyes.
The new dawn wakes me up. I yawn and stretch my limbs, then I climb onto a nearby rock to take a look around. There is no change to the valley and I can’t sense anyone nearby. After a last look at the blackened spot where Orwen was, I hurry to get all my gear ready.
I attach the white mask to my belt and pack everything else into my backpack. The sceptre-sword-thing I created is another matter. I sigh at the sight of it. This is by no means a practical weapon. I have to copy a real weapon once I reach the next town.
The lemu doesn’t protest when I urge it to climb the mountain instead of going down into the forest. Luckily, I found out that it is quite content with eating the firewood I brought with me. I honestly forgot about the stupid animal. No wonder that the lemu became the dominant draught animals on this world.
A map which I found inside the satchel is also a big help. Not only does it show imperial positions and cities, but also quite a few border towns of the Alliance. Once I get down the mountain, I’ve to pass through a high moor. That will take me about a day. On the other side is Tarin, a border town which doubles as a garrison for troops. It’ll be a first test of my ability to function in society.
The lemu stops on a small snowfield, facing a cliff. It’s about a hundred metres high and would pose a serious problem to any normal person. I smile and place a hand on the lemu’s neck. Then I use force magic to negate our weight.
Of course the animal panics as we float upwards and over the edge, but I ignore it. The lemu can’t do anything except flail with its limbs. What greets me on the other side of the mountain is a beautiful, green land with many forests and grassy fields. There is also the high moor which I have to pass before I reach the city.
I land us on a scree which is stretching out above the high moor. The slope looks like the lemu can take it from there on. Letting go of the magic feels better than I anticipated. Apparently, my little trick scraped at my limits. I really have to learn how much I can do.
Using magic isn’t an exact science. No mage knows exactly how much power they are able to wield. It’s a lot like using a muscle. No bodybuilder can say how many times he can lift the bar. He might manage it ten times on an average day and only eight times if he has a bad day.
I lean forward and wrap the lemu’s earlobes around the wrists of my hand. “Now it’s your turn while I take a nap.”
Closing my eyes, I allow the lemu to find its own way. I found out that the animal will keep walking approximately straight forward while someone holds onto the strange appendages. A very convenient thing for the rider.
Except for some pauses, I spend most of the day in the saddle and allow the lemu its own pace. I am afraid that it might wreck the animal if I push it too hard. It turns out that my estimation of distance didn’t take the terrain into account. We advance slowly and I have to re-estimate my arrival at Tarin. It’ll add another day to the trip.
It’s at the end of the second day when I notice that I am not alone in the moor. The traces of magic are faint, but there are at least two other groups shadowing me. I do nothing to inform them that I know of their presence.
One of the two groups is rather large, with at least three magic users and seven normal people among them. They are also the ones who are clearly following my trail. But they aren’t what concerns me. The second group behind them could be much more troublesome.
I had the better part of the day to try out my mask’s boost to my senses. The second group has at least four strong magic users and a fifth person who feels strange. It may be one of the rumoured ability users which I heard about. Back in Orwen, I learned that there are several sorts of gifted people in this world. The two largest groups are magicians and ability users. Ability users can’t use their mana pool freely, but their instinctive grasp on magic allows them to master certain aspects of it beyond imagination. One might call them masters of a single field, hence ability users.
Given the right ability, such people can be quite dangerous.
In the evening, I notice that the lemu is getting tired. Since I don’t want to abandon the good natured animal, my only choice is to make camp in a well hidden area. I have to hope that my followers are just following my tracks and don’t actually sense my magic. But if they do, it would mean that I have to fight them anyway. Possibly in the dark when I am tired.
I don’t like the odds.
And there is also the second, stronger group which is following behind them. With a little luck I might get the chance to play them against each other and escape. Though if they are allies I am surely fucked.
“And another day of choosing between bad and worse. I hope you appreciate that I want to keep you for a while longer, stupid animal.”
I pull at the earlobe and reach for the mask to put it on. My vision sharpens instantly and I feel a slight tug on my magic. It’s just enough that I don’t want to wear the mask permanently, but the buff which it provides during a battle is worth it.
I trace a finger through the air and erect two barriers. One against physical objects and a second one against magic. Then I pull the hood over my head and wait for my pursuers.
The larger group catches up soon afterwards. They are riding on their own lemus and appear out of the moor's dead underbrush. The normal warriors encircle me in a choreographed move which tells me that they've done this many times. But I intentionally stopped next to one of the boggy areas. So unless one of them wants to risk getting stuck, they can’t surround me completely. I like it to have a free back.
“You were right about the fresh tracks. It’s just sad that we caught a freak. Hahahaha!” One of the three magicians speaks to a man without any magical talent as far as I can tell. Unlike the warriors, the magicians kept their distance.
I raise the sceptre and lower my voice, hoping that my imperial accent isn’t too deeply rooted inside me. That one sentence told me that the Empire and the Alliance have some quite different sounding inflections. “What do you want?”
A rather dirty looking individual chuckles. “Look! The chick is trying to intimidate us. Don’t worry honey. I would recognize a woman’s curves under any coat. Why don’t you take off that freaky mask? We might even leave you alive if you satisfy us.”
I feel the corners of my lips curling downwards and abandon the deep voice. “If I have to touch you at all, then it'll only be to spill your innards all over this moor.”
One of the three magicians makes a short gesture to shut up the other two. “She is a mage, so don’t make mistakes.” He turns to me. “Gal, let’s speak clearly. I feel that you are powerful, but I don’t think that you can take all of us. Especially not if the three of us block your spells while our people drag you off your mount.”
I shrug. “You can try, but I wonder how long it will take you? Maybe the party which is following you since this morning catches up by that point. They are just a few minutes behind you.”
One of the other two mages turns to face their leader. “See? I told you that someone is following us!”
The leader stops him with a gesture. “Stop your fantasies! The city would never send soldiers up here to protect some stupid miners. They aren’t worth the money. You are just imagining our pursuers!”
So they aren’t in league with the other group. I grin beneath my mask. If I am not totally unlucky and got followed by two groups of bandits, then I don't have to fight the second group.
He points at me. “Get her!”
Two of the mages blast me with their pure power, which causes a prickling sensation all over my skin. Their attack doesn't cause me any harm, but I have to admit that it is a very effective method to stop me from using magic. It's the same technique which I used on my former owner.
It's simplicity makes it so useful. The whole concept is to flood the area with your energy in order to stop anyone from creating a spell matrix. If this is done by a strong enough individual, the interference makes it almost impossible to cast a spell.
I pull on the lemu's earlobe and roll myself off the animal as it charges into two of the bandits.
Staying low to the ground, I use my sceptre to poke the leg of another lemu. The animal screams and throws off its rider.
“Again! She is still using body enhancement.” The mages double their efforts. It's a lot harder to stop someone from using his power internally. With the three of them, they might even manage it. Normally, they would have to get personal to attempt to subdue my internal magic. In this case they have numbers on their side.
I pull my dagger and throw it at the mage who was able to sense their pursuers. He strikes me as more competent than the leader. Given enough time, he might come up with something to stop me. The dagger hits his shoulder and he screams, but doesn't go down.
Though, he got distracted and the magical pressure eases, creating a chance for me. I propel myself forward and hack at one of the mounted bandits, opening a big gash in his thigh. Except for the two bandits who were thrown off their lemus by my companion, they are still on their lemus. I decide to use that and retreat into the bog.
One of them decides to follow me, but his lemu gets stuck in the morass and falls. The lemus are too heavy, so their feet sink much deeper into the muddy ground. I just have to hope that I don't get stuck myself.
The bandits grumble and get off their mounts. Then they follow me on foot. The first one who comes into reach turns out to be a decent swordsman. We trade a few quick blows and it becomes apparent that I am not his equal.
He locks blades with me and tries to wring the sceptre out of my hand. The fact that he is trying to take me alive costs him his life in turn. They may stop me from using magic, but they can't completely shut down something as simple as moving mana through my muscles. I am still stronger than a normal person.
I lash out and rake my fingernails over his face, clawing out his eyes and a lot of flesh. He screams and goes down.
Somehow, I can free my weapon and swing it like a mace at the next bandit. The first one was a seasoned warrior, so I won't take my chances in another battle of skill. By swinging my weapon with all my might, I can keep them at a distance.
He is quick and manages a shallow cut on my forearm. But the scales rob him of his triumph. He doesn't draw blood. Another quick jab scrapes over my mask. A third cut on my left thigh draws blood. On the other side, all I have to do is to land a single blow and he will go down.
That's when an arrow digs itself into the neck of the unwounded subordinate mage. He fumbles at his neck and gasps for air until he falls out of the saddle. I immediately feel the weight on me lessen. My swings become quicker and more powerful. The bandit who is fighting me also realized that and a hint of fear appears on his face.
Several bandits turn to face the five people who are rapidly closing in on our location.
The leading mage turns to face the new threat. With that, the wounded mage is the only one who keeps me in check. But he alone isn’t enough to even the fight with the normal bandits. My sceptre flies from left to right and my opponent somehow redirects and evades by pure instinct. Then he can't keep up any longer and my weapon cleaves through his chest.
One of new arrivals, a guy in plate armour, charges right into the bandits and collides with the leader. Their lemus moan in pain, but the knight stays in his saddle. He raises his sword and points it at the leader. “Ray of light!”
A sudden flash of light leaves me blinded. I curse at the stupidity of using such a spell. Did he intend to kill me? The bandit who was facing me wasn’t affected at all. If it hadn't been for the sensory input of my mask, the third bandit would've overwhelmed me right then and there.
More arrows fly and those bandits who are able to, hurry to find cover. The archer is a blonde with long ears. A genuine elf.
Another new arrival enters the fight with unexpected ferocity. He is a short man with a halberd. His physique has more in common with a barrel than with a human. But that doesn’t mean that he is slow. His halberd whirls around like a deadly whip, creating silvery after-images. One of the bandits gets too close and is cleaved in two.
I recognize the fourth person as the one who felt strange. It’s a brunette woman with long, furry ears. She whistles and a large bird which rested on her shoulder sets out to attack the bandits. Besides the lemu, there is also a rather large wolf at her side.
The last person is a man in a combination of leather armour and a robe. Unlike the others, he holds back and watches the fight.
Upon realizing that they are losing the battle, the wounded mage-bandit yells out a spell and gestures at me. I raise my hand and pour all my power into my barrier. Not a second too soon, because blue lightning bolts shoot straight at me. But they dance harmlessly over my shield and create a blue, rippling effect as the two spells interact.
I clench my teeth in concentration and redirect the energy into the water. The two bandits who are with me inside the bog scream and twitch as the energy fries their nervous systems. That’s when an arrow hits the last mage in the back and he falls out of his saddle.
The bandit leader fell a few moments earlier against the guy in plate armour. The knight stuck his sword through the bandit’s chest.
Without combatants, the battlefield is suddenly very still. Except for moaning behind me. I turn around to find the man whose face I scratched stumbling towards me. He is blindly feeling around, searching for something to hold onto.
I take the sceptre with both hands and lop off his head in a single, clean strike. Breathing heavily, I return my attention to the five people who helped me out. The only question in my mind is if I have to fight them too.
The lean man who held back earlier, rides closer and smiles. He has short, brown hair. “You don’t have to fear anything from us. I am Tristen, the leader of this party. We have been hunting these men for two days. May I know why you are out here in the wilderness all alone?”
I mull for several long moments over his words. Then I lower my weapon just a bit. “Call me Joyce. I am a miner.”
Tristen raises his eyebrows. “Excuse me, but aren’t you a mage? Why should a mage mine for copper ore in these mountains?”
I lower the sceptre and try to imitate his accent. “I am not mining for copper. I am using my gift to search for crystals and other valuable minerals. The profession is quite lucrative if I don’t get mugged by bandits.”
His eyes wander over the bodies which are swimming in the bog all around me. Then he grins. “Looks more like you are the one who mugged them.”