“A monstrous mind inside a beautiful body.”
Tristen clears his throat. “Allow me to introduce the others.” He turns around and points at the idiot in plate armour. “That’s Brian, a paladin.” The man takes off his helmet and reveals blonde hair and a freckled face.
I squint my eyes at the idiot who almost killed me. He doesn’t even have the courtesy to greet me properly. Instead, he just waves his hand at me.
Tristen points at the small man who looks like a barrel. His face is as stocky as his body and he wears his brown hair in a single, long braid. “That’s Halberd, pikeman. Though he wields his halberd like an axe.”
The little man raises his stubby nose and grunts. He returns my glare. “Before you try to turn my name into a joke... They call me Halberd because you surface people can’t pronounce my real name.”
Next, is the woman who commands the wolf and the bird. Her pointy, furry ears are a mystery to me. Her curly hair has several shades of brown. Totally unlike any human I’ve ever seen. Now that I get a closer look, I also notice a big crossbow on her back. “This is Kiara, beastmaster and our tracker.”
I eye the grey direwolf with suspicion. I am no friend of dogs. They are simply too submissive and always expect their master to solve their problems. The bird is equally worrisome. It’s huge and looks like an eagle, but it’s completely black. Nobody seems to be troubled by the fact that the freaky animal is picking out the eye of a dead bandit. It gulps and the eyeball is gone.
“Lastly, we have Faevalur, or just Fae.” Tristen gestures at the blonde archer. “Fae is pretty good when it comes to sneaking around, so calling her a rogue is as good as anything else.”
I nod and return my attention to the beastmaster. I get a strange vibe from her. She is neither a magic user, nor a normal person. In Orwen, I met such people from time to time, but they just rushed past me on the streets. I never got the chance to meet one of them.
It also seems like they have no problems with beings from different races. At least they didn’t see the need to point it out. Back in the empire, especially in Orwen, there are only humans. Belonging to another race automatically lowers a person’s status below a slave’s. Actually, animals get a better treatment than most non-humans.
Contrary to the Empire, I’ve heard that the Allied Lands are made up by a multitude of races. Now I get to see it with my own eyes.
“I understand.” I wade out of the bog and head to my lemu. He took two of the bandits out of their saddles, but I don’t see any wounds on him. “You survived. I didn’t expect that.” The lemu lowers his head as if he is dissatisfied that the bandits didn’t get me.
Having checked on my equipment, I return my attention to my new acquaintances. Tristen, Fae and Kiara are watching me, while Halberd and Brian started the gruesome task of collecting the heads of the bandits. “Do you get paid for those?”
Tristen raises an inquisitive eyebrow. “Indeed, even though it isn’t much. We are adventurers and are travelling through this region. The nearby city gave out a quest to stop the bandit attacks. Since our party has the necessary set of skills, we decided to earn some coin while we wait for our equipment to be repaired.”
He studies me for several moments while his men are busy with chopping off heads. “Excuse me if this sounds too intrusive, but what’s a lonely beastman miner doing out here. You look like you went through a lot. It doesn’t fit the fact that you are carrying a weapon made of dragonbone.”
And I already look suspicious. Great!
There is even more dragonbone on me than he can see. The armour is mostly hidden under my torn clothes. I look down at my own body. The bandits managed a little more than a few cuts. They turned my poorly made outfit into nothing more than rags. If I add the dirt of my travels, blood and the bog’s mud, I really look like a beggar.
But I can steer the conversation to safe waters.
I fixate them with my eyes. “I just returned from a two month journey through these mountains and intended to sell my goods. Searching for minerals takes a lot of time and sometimes I need even more time to unearth them. It’s a hard life, but I chose it of my free will and it earns well. The fact that I was attacked by bandits didn’t help. And I am not a beastman. How would you even get the idea?” I take off the mask.
That causes a few raised eyebrows. Tristen points at my hands. “They look strange. I thought you are from the lizard tribe.”
He has good eyes. I make a dismissive gesture. “That’s a protective spell. I fused the dragonbone with my skin.” There is no reason to lie about it. In Orwen there were many wizards who used magic to enhance their bodies.
Now it’s Fae who doesn’t want to drop the issue. “That’s a high level of skill. A little too high for a wandering mage. Are you sure that there isn’t more to your story?”
I snort and swing myself up into the lemu’s saddle. “I don’t think that my story is of any concern to you. My lifestyle forced me to wield my powers perfectly. Otherwise I would already be a rotting corpse in the wild.”
Tristen smiles again. “Forgive us. We didn’t expect to encounter anyone out here. If you are willing to wait for a few more moments, then you can return to the town with us. It’s much safer that way.”
I play with the thought. In the end, I have to agree that it would only benefit me. These people might let something slip that helps me later on in my role as a miner. I can hone my story with them and they can show me the easiest way to Tarin. Hell, I already look suspicious. “Fine, I guess that I can wait for a few minutes.”
Kiara smiles. “I like her. It would never cross her mind to take shit from us, even though we saved her life.”
I purse my lips. “Who says that you saved my life? The way I see it, I baited the bandits for you. I could have run away any time I wanted, but didn’t want to give up on my lemu and the work of two months.”
“Your greed could’ve cost you your life.” Halberd returns from his work with a jute bag. The red stains on it are growing, so I can guess at what’s inside. “And you are a miner for a living. Are you sure that you aren’t a dwarf? If you were a little shorter, I would ask you to marry me.”
“No, thanks. I’ve already had my share of men for this lifetime,” I grumble, shutting him down.
“Let’s stop prying into Joyce’s business. It’s getting dark and we have to find an appropriate campsite.” Tristen gestures at the setting sun which is disappearing behind the mountains.
I fall in line with the rest of the group and we ride until we find a dry piece of land. It’s the most I was hoping for in this area. Brian is the first to dismount. He is the least talkative of the entire group. I wonder why that is. All in all, I talked very little with them. Though I paid a lot of attention to their bickering.
Tristen is the one who is in charge of talking and calling the shots during battle, though he isn’t the leader of the group. They are more of a democracy when they aren’t fighting.
I find out that they are travelling the allied lands as adventurers. Currently, they have the intention to make their way to the capital. An assignment brought them close to the border. Since the army has a firm hold on the borderlands, there isn’t much money to make. Many tasks which would be handled by adventurers are taken care of by the army. The group’s biggest issue is finding a solid solution to their employment problem. Being an adventurer doesn’t seem to be a lucrative business in this region.
Or they simply aren’t good at their job. That raises the question why they are calling themselves adventurers. They seem more like common mercenaries to me.
I finish setting up my tent and join them at the campfire. “Why did you even wander into this region if there isn’t much need for adventurers?”
Halberd is the one who supplies me with a satisfying answer. “Greed. A merchant paid us a hefty sum to be escorted to Tarin. We took the contract despite the fact that we would have to deal with our return ourselves. It may sound like we have financial problems, but that isn’t true. It’s just that pure travelling without being paid must be seen as a loss.”
Brian nods and, for the first time, speaks more than five words. “That’s why we took so much money from the merchant. He also had to pay for our journey back to one of the big cities. Tarin is just a crappy border-town without a gate. The only reason it is as big as it is, is that there is a garrison and the copper mines. Without the threat of the Empire, Tarin would be just some small village. It’s too close to the Empire.”
I nod and bite my tongue to keep myself from sounding too annoyed. “Tarin has no gate? What a let down. I thought they have one.” Gates are magical wormholes which connect the big cities with each other. I could’ve travelled directly to the alliance’s capital. My stolen map showed Tarin as an important military position, but that’s probably only because the town has a few hundred stationary troops.
Fae raises her eyebrows. “Only big cities and military fortresses have gates. Where would you get such an idea?”
And another screw up. Note to myself, don’t question the positioning of gates.
After a few moments I come to the conclusion that it would be very stupid to place a gate so close to the front. Gates are important military assets. If an enemy takes over a gate, the whole network could be compromised. Only heavily defended fortresses would have a gate. Certainly not a small garrison like Tarin.
I sigh and try to sound disappointed. “In my search for minerals I started at the southern coast and travelled north, following the mountain range. I don’t know this part of the country, so when I met another traveller in the mountains, he pointed me towards Tarin. He said that it’s the biggest city within reasonable distance, so I simply assumed that they have a gate.”
Kiara narrows her eyes and pets the big bird on her shoulder. She pulls out a jar and screws off the lid. Then she feeds the bird with an eyeball. I shudder at the sight. The wolf is somewhere out there in the dark and strolling around the camp. “How many people can you meet in these mountains anyway? They are the border to the Empire.”
I smile. “Smugglers, spies, bandits, deserters, miners… And apparently adventurers. The list is long and most of the folk are of the unsavoury sort. But that’s exactly why there is a lot of money to make in this region. I found some places where I just had to bend down in order to pick up some easy money.”
They look at me with interest in their eyes, but I decide to end the discussion. I fake a yawn and stretch myself. “I’ll excuse myself for today. The attack forced me to use a lot of magic and that made me tired.”
Tristen smiles at me. “Don’t worry about guard duty. We’ll take care of that.”
“Thanks. That’s unexpectedly nice of you.” And it also means that they don’t trust me. I head for my tent and crawl inside. Once I am lying on my mattress, I detach the mask from my belt and place it over my face. There is no way that I’ll let my guard down tonight. They might seem like decent people, but the possibility of easy money could convert anyone into a thief and murderer.
I went with the background of a miner because the bandits mentioned that there are copper mines in this region. The downside is that my story also implied that I am returning from a long trip of searching for minerals. Which means that my backpack is full with valuable raw materials. The funny thing is that this little aspect is true. I stole a lot of stuff from my old master.
I close my eyes and allow the enhancing enchantments on the mask to do their work. A few moments later I can listen in on the conversation of the others. They lowered their voices, but none of them seems to think that I am capable of listening in.
“So? What do you think about her? I don’t buy her story.”
“She certainly looks like someone who spent a few weeks in the mountains. And we saw that she can take care of herself.”
“I think she’s dangerous. She was holding the bandits at bay on her own. As soon as we showed up and turned the tables she even advanced on them. That takes guts and skill, especially since they weren’t bad fighters. I think they were ex-army. Probably deserters. And the last one whose eyes she scratched out… She didn’t think twice when she decapitated him.”
“She is also on her last leg. Have you seen the dark rings under her eyes? Either she hasn’t been sleeping for three days, or she recently depleted her mana pool. That’s dangerous for a mage. I wonder what forced her to do that.”
“There are dangerous things in these mountains.”
Oh, yes. And one of them is me.
“All of you are right. She seems capable and surely didn’t tell us the full truth, but who would do that? She just met us and most of the folk in these mountains aren’t nice people. Just keep an eye on her tent tonight. Tomorrow, we reach the town and then we part ways anyway.”
“Just makes me wonder why she told us so openly that she is carrying around a lot of valuables. A test? She must be pretty confident that she can take us.”
“She probably thought that if we are also bandits, then we would’ve tried to take her stuff as soon as the competition is out of the way. And she already mentioned that she cares about her lemu. After seeing her blocking that spell, I believe her when she says that she can easily escape on her own.”
They continue spinning their conspiracy theories for a whole hour. In the end I decide that they really are what they told me, so I allow myself to close my eyes. I didn’t lie when I said that I am tired. The mask should wake me up when someone comes too close.
A little electrical jolt wakes me up. It’s my mask’s emergency alarm. I try to slow my breath as someone enters my tent. The mask tells me that it’s Fae, but I don’t stir. I want to know why she is inside my tent.
The tent isn’t intended for more than one person to sleep in. The other woman is forced to go to her knees as she crawls closer. There is no other choice for her. Once she is close enough, she places a hand on my shoulder. “Hey-”
I reach up and place my elongated fingernails at her throat. “You have ten seconds to explain why you are in here.”
“Easy! Easy. We called out to you, but you wouldn’t wake up. I drew the short straw and had to wake you up. Had I known that you are that pissy in the morning, I would’ve sent in one of the lemus.” She raises her hands, showing me her open palms.
I access the mask's voice record and verify her words. They indeed called out to me, but I slept like a log. “Sorry. Just don’t crawl up to me when I am asleep.”
“Do you always sleep with that mask?” She asks. “As a mage, you should know that magical deprivation is dangerous and you look like you almost died from it recently. Normally, a case like yours should stay in bed for a few weeks, but you run through this wilderness and sleep with an artefact on your face which is clearly drawing on your power. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
I take the mask off and glare at her. “Getting knifed while I am asleep is also dangerous.”
She smiles and crawls backwards out of the tent.
I close my eyes and draw a deep breath. Then I get up and hurry to pack my things when I realize that the others are ready to depart. Ten minutes later we are on our way and I use the chance to rummage through my backpack. I pull out a healing potion and a mana potion. Then I down them like a person who is about to die of thirst.
“Those potions only postpone the inevitable. I hope you know that they can’t keep you going indefinitely.” It’s Fae again. She rode up next to me to strike a conversation. Seems like she declared it as her task to butt in on my business.
I scowl at her. “Thanks, but all I have to do, is to stay in the saddle until we arrive at Tarin. Once I am there, I’ll sell some of my materials and take an inn to sleep for three days straight.”
I don’t like this elf. And I don’t like the beastwoman either. My eyes wander to Kiara. Her strange otherness gives me the chills.
Fae’s next attempt is unexpectedly blunt. “You can sense that she is an ability user. You always single her out when she sends commands to her pets. That’s rare among mages. As an elf, even my natural affinity for magic doesn’t allow me to sense her from afar. You seem to be extremely sensitive, even for a mage. Would you tell me how old you are? You must be young if you haven’t learned to shield yourself.”
Am I really such a bad actor? She learned a lot, just by watching me. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to travel with them. At least I learned that I have to be a lot more careful once I am in the town. Fae is showing me the shortcomings in my background story. I return my attention to her and tell her the blatant truth. “I am about to become eighty-seven. And my sensitivity is exactly why I prefer the wilderness to cities.”
There she has it. I even told her the true age of this body. With that information she would never get the idea that I am a former slave from Orwen. Normally, nobody would give a slave a rejuvenation treatment, but Nemus didn’t want his special sextoy to get flabby and wrinkly.
Fae raises her eyebrows. “That surprises me. Most wizards of your talent make a name for themselves and take up residence in a big city.”
“Well, I am not most wizards. Is this interrogation over?” I ask.
Her expression darkens. “I am sorry if it felt like that to you.” She allows her lemu to fall behind and creates some distance between us.
Nobody disturbs me for the rest of the way. The others chat while I follow them in silence. It gives me time to think about a lot of things. Mainly about the state of magic in this world. They are stuck in a medieval age. The pinnacle of technology is a double purchase pulley. Everything that’s taxing is handled with magic.
It surprised me to see that while they use magic for almost everything, their magical development was also held back. Without a scientific method, they never discovered rune coding or complex enchantments. Basic magical matrices and rituals dominate all schools.
That’s why they weren’t prepared for the inferno spell. All their defences were aimed at large scale attacks, not something small which spreads like a living organism. Rune coding is totally new to them, which means that I have to be careful when I show off my skills. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag too early.
And I probably shouldn’t underestimate them either. They may prefer rituals and simple spell matrices, but those they've developed to perfection. A perfect example is the mana stone which powered Orwen. It’s a mixture of ritualistic magic and spell matrices. I was utterly baffled when I saw it for the first time.
It’s like seeing a steam engine with fifty thousand PS! In a world with technology, nobody would ever get the idea of using such an approach. But they did it and their solution worked!
The Inferno spell only worked because it took them off guard. It would be too nice to travel the world and set everything ablaze, but I am sure that some mages survived Orwen. If they watched the spell in action, then they have an idea of how it works. Breaking up a self replicating spell matrix isn’t too hard, so I guess that they’ll soon have protections against such attacks.
I am afraid that I already released dangerous knowledge, but I didn’t think in my newly won freedom. No more. I’ve to be cunning and crafty in order to change this world.
While I debate with myself on how to proceed, our surroundings slowly change from wilderness to actual farmland, until we arrive at Tarin. Calling it a city is a stretch, but I guess labelling it as a big town is feasible.
The group decides that they’ll go directly to the adventurer’s guild in order to get rid of their stinking heads. I learn that the guild is located near the garrison, which is at the city’s southern gate. My own goal is to find the nearest merchant and sell as much stuff as I can. For that reason I need a merchant and those are most likely at the marketplace. It doesn’t really trouble me when I wish them goodbye. Their heads started stinking after half a day in the sun.
Tarin’s buildings are widely spaced and the street is broad. I appreciate that on my way to the market. It isn’t hard to find, since all I had to do was to follow the main road. Once I am there, I am confronted with a large marketplace and dozens of stalls. I am uncertain how I should find someone who would buy the stuff which I took from Nemus.
My worries turn out to be unnecessary when I notice the large board on the building which towers over the market. “Merchant’s Guild.”
I make a beeline for the guild and bind the lemu to a post in front of the building. Then I enter and take a look around. There are several receptionists who are taking care of the wishes of customers. I choose one who is free and approach. It’s a young, blonde man and he scowls when he notices how dirty I am.
I ignore his displeasure. “I want to sell raw materials in large quantities. Who do I have to talk to?”
He tilts his head and regards me with a sceptical expression. I already start to doubt his competence when he starts speaking. “Which sort of material are we talking about?”
I go through the mental list of what I took from the storage room. “I can offer about a hundred kilogram of quartz, fourteen of pure sulphur, a few rubies and diamonds. There is also a pretty big stalactite if an enchanter needs a focus.”
His expression turns friendly and he pulls out a list from under his table. “These are the current rates at which we buy minerals.”
I study the list for a while and give him my verdict. “Fuck you. Those prices are extortion. I get that the copper price is very low in this region because the mines are so close, but that doesn’t mean that you can use the same dumping prices for every mineral.”
His face stays expressionless. “Look, lady. I don’t know from which hole you crawled out of, but we are practically sitting on top of a mine. They flood the market in this region with minerals. If you don’t want to sell at the going rate, then I can’t help you.”
Fuck that! I’ve taken care of Nemus’s materials for over sixty years. I’ve a very good idea of this world’s economy and a quarter gold coin for a kilogram of haematite is outright slavery. I start speaking very loud and clearly. “Copper ore is found in certain underground deposits. It’s often found together with lead and silver. Never with-”
A dwarf shoves the receptionist to the side and takes his seat. He came out of nowhere, but his clothes identify him as another member of the guild. “How can I help you?”
It seems like my behaviour drew attention. The negotiations with the dwarf were tough, but in the end I got fair prices. It turned out that he is the guildmaster. He even paid me fifty gold pieces to keep my mouth shut. Being three hundred gold richer, I leave the guild and guide the lemu to a nearby inn which looks like it costs a lot of money.
I still have most of the stolen materials, but I deemed that three hundred gold will be enough to buy lodging, equipment and consumables. Once I’ve taken care of that, I’ll be on the way to the nearest gate and from there my path leads me to the Alliance’s capital.
Entering the inn, I prepare myself for yet another verbal battle. But the woman who checks me in doesn’t even comment on my dishevelled state after confirming that I have money. She simply takes the gold and gives me a room after my lemu got a place in the stable. Apparently, it’s normal for travellers to look a little winded. So why is it not acceptable to appear like that in the merchant’s guild?
I’ve to ask once I am rested. My room turns out to be small, but it’s clean and there is a real, magically-operated bath. That’s probably the reason why they charge a whole piece of gold for a week’s stay. I lock the door and secure it with a chair. Then I check the window.
Satisfied, I clean myself from the grime and the blood of the recent days. Then I throw myself onto the bed and am instantly asleep.