“Take a moment to think.”
I awaken for the third time since I checked into the inn. It has been three full days, and I slept like a log for most of the time. The room service brought me food and I found out that I can even order them to get me a simple set of clothes. The maid told me that I have to go out and buy any fancy stuff by myself.
Sighing, I get up and ready myself to get something done. Three days of rest were more than enough to get me back on my feet. I am not in my prime, but neither do I feel like I have to bow down to any random adventurer.
After ensuring that the pouch with the gold is safely around my neck and under my clothes, I head out. It would be embarrassing if a pickpocket steals all my money. Firstly, because I am better than a random pickpocket and secondly, because I would have to get my property back. Not a good way to start my new life. In order to take revenge on this world, I’ve to be smart.
The innkeeper gives me a few directions and points out the good shops before I leave. There are several things I want. On my way across the marketplace, I pick up several luxury items like soap, shampoo, scissors, but also non-perishable food like rice, noodles and other stuff. The list is long and before I know it, the morning is gone.
I shift my attention to clothes and raid the vendors until I get the feeling that I can live for a month without having to wash something. A bra is a necessity in order to feel like a human being. The last vendor on my purchase spree looks extremely happy when I place three gold on the counter and shove the pile of clothes into my backpack. Then I leave before she can comment on the fact that my backpack doesn’t bulge.
There is a distinct possibility that my backpack caused some suspicion regarding my identity. I tried not to get involved in any discussions, so I mostly just paid the asked price and left without haggling.
My new dress-code consists of long, wide trousers, which almost look like a skirt. I’ve looked around, but there isn’t much choice regarding female clothes. A coat with a hood and a long-sleeved shirt finish the outfit. I chose everything because it’s easy to move in and because it fits over my existing armour. I’ve no need for something that will rip in my first battle.
The next stations are the real money burners. Armour, crafting materials and weapons.
The recommended blacksmith turns out to be one of those burly men who think that women should stay in the kitchen. We'd been haggling for more than ten minutes when Tristen enters the shop. He smiles upon recognizing me. “Joyce! Long time no see. Wow, you cleaned up nicely. You are beautiful. What are you doing here?”
“I always was beautiful!” I point at the stupid blacksmith. “I am trying to tell him what I need and he is refusing to work for me.”
The burly, idiotic blacksmith crosses his arms in front of his muscular chest. “And I am telling you that the type of plate armour which you want doesn’t make any sense. If I make it as thin as you described, then it doesn’t provide enough protection.”
I imagine curling my finger around his neck. Then I could squeeze until his eyes pop out. “I told you that I am a mage! I’ll enchant it and it will be stronger than the stuff you are selling to the normies!”
The blacksmith squints his eyes at me and tries to argue further, but Tristen interferes. “Lark, why don’t you follow her orders. Joyce is a seasoned veteran. I’ve seen her fight. She isn’t some new adventurer who will go out and get herself killed at the first opportunity. Your reputation won’t suffer because you make her thin armour.”
Lark huffs. “Fine! But it’s strange. What about the weapon? Any other extraordinary wishes?”
My left eye twitches involuntarily and the thought of levelling this town crosses my mind. All I need is a silent corner and a few random pedestrians. Then again, inferno won’t be nearly as effective in Tarin as it was in Orwen. I just have to take one look around to see that there are much more people without a gift in this town.
I am aware that the blacksmith will remember me because of my behaviour, but it can’t be helped in this case. I need equipment. I use my hand to indicate my own height. “I need a rod of your best steel, as long as I am tall. The springy stuff, not something that bends out of shape. And give me one of those tower shields, I’ll modify it for my own purposes.”
Lark grinds his teeth. “Missy, you don’t make any sense. If you want a staff or a spear, oakwood is the best choice.” But he relents and walks over to his forge, ignoring all the weapons. He chooses a steel rod which seems to fulfil my criteria and hands it over to me. “Such a thing is much too heavy for a-”
I snatch it away from his meaty fingers and whirl it through the air. My test strikes bend the rod, but since the steel is springy, the rod isn’t reshaped permanently. I nod. “That’ll do. I Just need something that can withstand a few earnest blows.” I turn to Lark. “What about the shield?”
Lark closes his mouth and turns his attention to Tristen. The other man looks at the blacksmith with a smug expression on his face, but then his expression turns concerned as he faces me. “I understand that you are using your magic to boost your powers. But what happens if you run out of steam? You won’t be able to wield that thing without magic.”
I draw the sceptre from my belt and attach it to the metal rod, using my power to encapsulate the metal with the dragonbone. Then I attach a long spearhead to the weapon, turning it into a mix of a halberd and a spear. “Don’t worry. I’ll enchant the entire thing to weigh less. And if I run out of magic while my opponent still has power, then I am doomed anyway. That’s the way things go in a magical duel.”
Tristen whistles while Lark’s face turns red. Tristen shakes his head. “I’ve heard that really skilled mages can shape dragonbone, but I didn’t think I would ever meet one.”
Lark points at the spear-thingy, which I created on a whim. “Th- That’s just cheating! Why do you even need to bother me if you can just form dragonbone according to your wishes?”
I snort. “Because dragonbone is rare and I don’t have nearly enough for my purposes. Now, do I get the armour and the shield? And why do the two of you know each other?”
Tristen makes a circling gesture with his hand. “Oh, we don’t really know each other. I only know his name because he repairs my group’s equipment. Everyone says that Lark is the best blacksmith in this town.”
Lark puffs out his chest. “Right! And don’t worry. You will get your armour and your shield. Tomorrow! I just need your measurements.”
I raise an eyebrow. “That’s fast. You aren’t going to cheat me, are you?”
The blacksmith bristles. “I would never cheat a customer! It just so happens that I’ve paladin armour. The previous owner got herself a new one, which doesn’t mean that the old one is bad. She just upgraded to a heavier version, but you said that you want it to be light. I just have to do a few repairs and refit the armour to your sizes.”
All I want are some thin metal plates which I can enchant. But I guess that buying a proven set saves me a lot of time. I glare at the blacksmith. “Don’t even think about groping me!”
Ten minutes and a few threats on Lark’s life later, I am out of the shop. My equipment will be ready by tomorrow. I simply left Tristen to his own problems and told him that I’ve a lot of things to do.
Which is true.
“This town is much too small,” I grumble. Tristen and Lark won’t forget the scene I made. Right. Next goal is the merchant’s guild. I orient myself and start walking. The building isn't far away and since I already visited them, I have no trouble finding it.
I enter the entrance hall and approach the first receptionist who is free. It's a human woman, but as soon as I am in front of her, the guildmaster appears and takes over. “Hello, Miss Joyce. How can we help you?”
I glare at him. “How did you know that I am here?” He must've jumped up and ran as fast as he could as soon as I stepped through the guild’s entrance. His office is in the upper floor. I know that because he invited me there for private negotiations when I threatened to reveal his little spiel with the various prices of raw materials.
The dwarf clasps his hands together and smiles. “My people have their ways. You are quite beautiful now that all the grime and blood are off your body.”
“Don’t try to flatter me!”
“You should be glad that I recognised you. Three days ago, you looked like a beggar.”
A few more seconds of giving him the evil eye don't get me anywhere. He keeps smiling, so I decide to continue with my own business. “I heard that a caravan is going to leave the town. They'll travel to the next big city with a gate? Hormundad?”
He nods. “You are quite right. This humble mining town is located between the mountains, which separate us from the Empire, and the Marshwoods, which are infested with dangerous beasts. That's why the Merchant Guild organized a caravan to transport goods to Hormundad.”
Yeah, he didn't have to go into such detail. “I want to join the caravan as a passenger. What do I have to do for that?”
He starts fidgeting. “I am sorry. The caravan doesn't take any passengers. This is a pure trading expedition.”
“That's a joke, right? I can't pay you to ride along?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “We've had quite a lot of trouble with bandits. They must have inserted their own people into the caravans and attacked once the goods are far away from the military’s influence. You can take the next caravan which is going to depart in a month. They'll take passengers with them.”
I gape at him. Then why are Tristen and his party using that caravan to get back to civilisation? “You are joking, right? What if I simply follow your people?”
Again, he shakes his head. “The guards would attack you. You either have to be a merchant, or a guard. Otherwise there is simply no way to go with that caravan. This precaution isn't foolproof, but there is no way around it.”
The solution is easy. “Then I'll join your stupid guild. Where can I sign up?”
The dwarf sighs. “I am sorry, but that's also no solution to your problem. You would need full membership, which is only achieved after a month on probation.”
That's a bad joke. “Don't mess around. You really want to tell me that I've to sit on my hands for a month and wait for the next caravan?”
“I am afraid that those are the facts. Of course, you could try to join the adventurers and join the caravan as a guard. I've heard that their terms of admission don't include a probationary month. Though it might be a little hard to pass their test until tomorrow. One can always try, yes?”
Maybe I should set his hairy ass on fire, but that wouldn’t help me to join the damned caravan. I could always try to travel alone, but the bandits taught me that I shouldn't overestimate my powers. And I lived in a big city until now, so I've no idea how strong the monsters actually are. Books are fine and good, but they can't really convey a level of strength.
“Miss? Are you done?” A customer from behind me touches my shoulder. I look at him and he steps back. “Sorry.”
I turn back to the dwarf and smile. “I'll try the adventurers then? Their guild is near the garrison?”
“Take the main-street until you reach the garrison's entrance, then you turn left and walk two blocks. There is no way to miss it.” The dwarf nods and offers me his open palm as if he is expecting a tip for the information.
I decide to teach him a lesson and turn away. “Never hand out information before you get paid. And as you said yourself, there is no way to miss it. So why even charge for such petty information?”
Snickering, I leave the building.
“Cheapskate!” The dwarf calls after me, but he doesn't sound angry.
I follow the main street away from the market, entering a residential area. There are much less shops and vendors in this part of the town. Nothing much to see. Just one wooden building after the other. Most are just frame-houses with logs placed on top of each other. It's rare to see a house made out of bricks. There are no signs which identify them as businesses, so I assume that they are privately owned. With much less people on the streets, I make considerable headway.
After a few minutes, I reach the garrison. The military complex is easily recognisable because it's guarded by soldiers. From the outside, it looks like nothing more than a fenced area with a lot of barracks for the soldiers. But since I don't intend to join the military, I don't pay much attention to the structure.
From there I follow the dwarf's instructions until I reach a large building which has similarities with the merchant's guildhouse. “They probably have some kind of theme going on,” I mumble and enter, pushing open the huge door.
Inside, I find a large saloon which looks a lot like a bar. In the back is a staircase. It leads to a second level. To my right is an elevated arena which is encased by a metal fence. The whole area is taken up by long rows of tables. They are occupied by a menagerie of people from different races.
To my left is a long bar with several waitresses behind it. Looks more like a pub than a guildhouse.
A beastman who is more beast than man whistles upon seeing me. He is inside the arena and obviously waiting for an opponent. “Hey, Hottie! New here? Don't you want to enter the ring with me?” He laughs and is joined by his spectators.
I ignore them and head to the bar. One of the waitresses greets me with a smile. “What can I do for you? Do you want to post a quest?”
Do I really look like I would pay someone for doing my dirty work? “I want to join the caravan which leaves this shagged town tomorrow.”
“Oh!?” She studies me as if she just noticed the weapon on my back. It’s hard to hide a staff. “The merchant caravan? Are you an adventurer? I need proof that you belong to the guild.”
“I am not an adventurer,” I answer.
“Then I can't help you. The guild only provides security.” She shrugs.
“What do I need to join the guild?” I ask, annoyed that I've to pull every piece of information out of her nose. “Once I am an adventurer, you can sign me up for the caravan, right?”
“Newbies.” She rolls her eyes. “Sure. Everyone can join. But you start as a level zero. You need to be at least level one to take a protection quest.” She bends under the counter and retrieves a piece of paper, together with a metal plate. “Your name and abilities here.” She points at a few empty lines on the document. “Then you press your thumb to the metal plate. It'll read the document and assert the truth of your testimony. Then you can take the plate to identify yourself in the future. The document is for us. We'll copy it and send it to the capital in order to finish the registration.”
So this thing will test if I am saying the truth? Then I better don't lie. I start filling out the sheet of paper, being as vague as possible with my answers. “Then how do I become level one?”
“Oh, you have to prove that you can deal with monsters. Bring us a direwolf's teeth or a goblin's ears. Of course you need another adventurer to be your witness. I doubt that you'll manage to do that until tomorrow morning. Someone will have to follow you around and that isn't cheap, unless you have a friend.”
Where was I born? Don't know. I was born in a carriage. It's true. I was a slave since my birth and nobody ever bothered to tell me who my parents are or from where they originated. My earliest memory is of being bought by Nemus. So I am not really lying when I say that I don’t know.
I press my thumb to the metal and feel a small tug on my magic. I brace myself for mental intrusion, but there is no attack on my mind, just a general assessment on my feelings and if I am feeling comfortable. Seesh... I could have lied to the sky had I known that the truth test is so rudimentary.
The card displays my name, abilities, and my level. Zero. I smile and pocket the card. Then I turn around and survey the room. There must be someone in here who I can pay to follow me into the wilderness. Then I can kill something and we hike back.
“Come on! Is there nobody who wants to face me in unarmed combat? What a bunch of sissies!”
The beastman inside the arena spreads his hands and taunts the spectators. He is some kind of werewolf. I chew on my lower lip and place my backpack with the spear on the bar. “Look after that. If something is missing when I come back, I’ll take it out on you. And the thing is spelled, so don't even try to open it.”
I walk over to the mob and force my way to the arena. People start murmuring while I climb up into the arena. The beastman is also more than a little surprised. “Hottie, I meant another ring when I invited you.”
I jump down on the other side of the metal fence and rub my hands. “Don't worry about me. I just need a quick way to become a level one adventurer. A ruffian like you seems like the perfect candidate.”
The werewolf points at himself and snarls, showing off his huge, pointy teeth. “You really think that I would help you to become level one? Do you know who I am? I am Chaz, level four adventurer and one of the strongest unarmed fighters! Though, I think you can persuade me to follow you into the woods if you offer a little more than coin.”
I shake my head. “I think you are misunderstanding something. They said that I need a wolf’s teeth.” I point at him. “You are the monster.” Then I gesture at the audience. “They are the witnesses.”
Chaz blinks and says nothing for a few moments. The room turned completely silent.
Then he shakes his head. “Are you weak in the head? Do you know what level four means? You are a zero! And worse, you are a mage! Magic doesn't work inside this ring. This arena is for fighters! You can't do anything except using your inner mana manipulation.”
I shrug and crack my knuckles. “I am not worried about myself.”
The beast shakes himself and gestures for someone at the edge of the ring. The man touches a rune and a blue dome of light envelops us. I can also feel the magical interference which is supposed to stop me from casting spells. It's much weaker than what the three bandits did to hamper my magic.
Chaz approaches and casually swipes at me with a clawed hand. I block and reply with a kick to his guts, testing out my new boots. The beastman is thrown backwards into the force field which lights up with blue waves of energy.
He felt hard when I kicked him. So he must also be a mage, or he has an ability. More likely the latter one. He doesn't feel exactly like Kiara, that's why I am not sure.
Chaz shakes his head and gets back to his feet, a low growl in his throat. “I'll carve you up good!” Claws slide out of his fingertips and he blurs. I realize that he is much faster than me and force my power to my skin in order to shield myself. Something strikes my chest and I stumble backwards into the forcefield.
A furry paw appears in my field of vision and I duck, rolling away. Holy shit! He is a fast one. Something hits my ankle and swipes me off my feet. Two fists come down at my face and I am battered into the ground. The crowd cheers and Chaz walks back into his corner, raising his hands to receive his praise.
I cough and get back up. “Where are you going little doggy?”
Chaz turns around and looks at me as if I am a ghost. I charge him and get beaten down by a paw. We repeat this several times until I notice that he is slowing down. He uses his speed much less and starts avoiding me. I, on the other hand, invested everything I have in my defence.
When he starts avoiding my blows instead of lashing out at me, I can't hold it in any longer. I start laughing.
“Mad bitch!” Chaz lunges and I stop him with my palm to his chest. For the first time since I started this, I feel my strike connect. I quickly follow up by sinking my knee into his side. A quick left, an uppercut, and my fist draws first blood.
It’s exactly like I thought. Most warriors lack the mental discipline to ration their magic. All his hopping around caused him to run out of power before I did. And that’s essentially the end of the fight.
He looks disoriented, but is still up for more. His huge jaws open and he grabs me in an attempt to bite. I react by shoving my entire fist down his throat. He bites down and starts choking, but the scales on my arm stop him from penetrating my skin.
“Ew! Stop slobbering onto me!” I call out and use my left fist like a hammer. After getting a thorough treatment on his right eye, he lets go and stumbles backwards. His guard is down.
It's the golden opportunity I was waiting for all along. I strike out, hitting him with both my palms in the chest. At the same time, I channel all my mana through my arms, back and legs. My whole body is behind this strike. He flips backwards, twice, and lands on his back.
I walk over and step on his chest, then I grab his upper canines. They are big enough to allow me to use my index and middle fingers. With my thumbs as leverage, I break them out of his upper jaw. He howls and covers his snout with both hands, whimpering like a little whelp. Rowing with all his limbs, he crawls away from me into the next best corner, emptying his bladder on the way.
I wrinkle my nose at the smell. “That's why I hate dogs. At first they are all snarly and alpha, but as soon as they get their butts kicked it's over.”
Someone deactivates the barrier and I notice the grave silence in the room. But their mental problems aren't of my concern. I swing myself over the arena's fence and return to the bar. This time, the people give me the proper distance when I walk through the crowd.
The same barmaid watches me approach. Her smile is clearly forced.
I place the two bloody teeth on the bar. “Two wolf teeth and a lot of witnesses. Can I get level one now?” I add my metal card to the bloody offer.
She doesn't stop smiling. “I don't think that Chaz counts as a legal questmonster.”
I turn around and look at the beastman who is being treated by several mages. “He said that he is level four. I am sure that means that he is stronger than the average beast in the wilderness?”
The barmaid's expression falters. “That's true, but Chaz is not a wild beast. And you need someone who vouches for you.”
I want to give her a snippy reply, but a man in a white robe interrupts me. “Excuse me? I am a healer. Could I have those teeth? Sticking them back in is much easier than growing new ones.”
“Only if you make them crooked,” I answer, but nobody laughs. So I sigh and gesture for him to take the teeth. The healer takes the teeth and hurries to his patient.
I return my attention to the barmaid. “I am not so sure about that. I-”
Another person interrupts me by placing a hand on my shoulder. I recognize her. It's Kiara. She grins, showing me sharp and pointy teeth. “That bastard had been making advances on me since we returned. Sooner or later I would have fucked him up myself. I vouch for you.”
The barmaid's right eye starts twitching. Then she is interrupted by one of her colleagues. “Don't always be such a stickler to the rules. Rank her up and be done with it, Melissa. The test is about proving someone’s ability to fight and she clearly showed that she is stronger than a level four. She is a mage and fucked up Chaz without a single spell.”
The human blonde steps next to the barmaid and fiddles with a chain. There are several metal plates on it. When she finds the right plate, she presses it onto my card and the level changes from zero to one. “Have fun with level one.”
I nod and take the card back, then I grin at the barmaid, showing her my bloody hands. “Do you have a place where I can wash off the blood? Oh, and sign me up for the caravan.”
The barmaid points at a door and I follow her directions.
Kiara follows me. “You are joining the caravan?”
I nod. “It's the quickest way to the next city with a gate. The other possibility would be to travel alone, or to wait for a month. There is no way that I would wait in this town for a month, just to join the next caravan. I have business to conduct and for that I need a place with more infrastructure.”
She smiles. “I see. I almost didn't recognize you, I might add.”
“You mean because after cleaning myself, I look like a human being?” I ask. We enter a large restroom and I head for the wash basin. “Neat. They even have running water!”
Kiara shrugs and watches while I wash my hands. “You seem to be no less dangerous. The clean clothes make you look like nothing much. Chaz probably thought that you were just a pretty babe who wanted to play adventurer. At least until you started beating him up with your bare hands.” Her long, bushy ears twitch.
I grunt and dry my hands.
“Do you want to hang out? Fae will soon return from an errand. We could play cards and get better acquainted,” Kiara offers.
I study her expression to guess at her intentions. “Why would we want to do that?”
She shrugs. “We'll be on the same caravan. The journey takes three weeks, so we are bound to work together. Knowing each other helps. And I've seen that you are strong. It's never bad to have someone powerful on your side.”
I play with my hair and consider her words. There are a lot of possible interpretations for her actions. “So you are saying that there might be trouble? And not from bandits or monsters, but from within the caravan?”
Kiara shrugs. “We'll be in the middle of nowhere and people are stupid. Our charges aren't one company or group, but a ragtag team of merchants who pooled their resources to travel safely with protection. You have to keep in mind that they could decide to run off in different directions any time they see a benefit in it.”
I close my eyes. “What did I get myself into? I thought it's safer to travel in a caravan.”
“I didn't say that it will happen. I just pointed out that it can happen. My party witnessed it many times. All I am saying is this, it's good to know that someone strong is on your side. And there is the added circumstance of bandit attacks. Two caravans disappeared without a trace.”
It’s that bad? The stupid dwarf failed to mention that. “Fine. I guess I'll join you for a while. But not for long. I have to buy a carriage.” I scratch my head.
She raises both eyebrows. “A carriage?”
I nod. “A small one. I hate riding and the less time I have to spend in a saddle the better!”
She laughs and leads the way out of the restroom. “What else do you have to buy?”
I shrug. “Actually, I think that’s it. Tomorrow I’ll get my armour and then I’ll head directly to the southern gate and wait for the caravan to assemble.”
The werewolf looks a lot better when we return to the bar. The healer is still trying to attach the canines, but the idiot isn't crying any longer. I ignore him and follow Kiara to a booth in the far right corner of the room. It pleases me that I can have my back to the wall, so I happily take one of the seats which are facing the bar.
Once we are settled down, I decide to return the conversation to the issue at hand. “So you want to propose an alliance in case something goes wrong while we travel with the caravan. What would that alliance look like?”
She shrugs. “Nothing complicated. We just have to show a united front to anyone who wants to do something stupid. Like turning around or leaving the caravan. There are so many things which can go wrong, it's hardly possible to play through every scenario.”
I nod slowly. “So you want that I show my assistance if there is trouble between your faction and-”
She raises her hand. “All I ask for, is that you don't play the neutral party. Today you've shown everyone that you are a decent fighter. At least you are someone who shouldn't be ignored. I don't expect that you can sway an idiot's mind, but sometimes having one more powerful person behind you is the difference between life and death.”
I grunt. “I can't promise that I'll be on your side. What if you are the ones who want to do something stupid?”
She smiles. “Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. We've often travelled with such caravans and after a while you learn to differentiate the stupid moves from the smart ones.”