“Govern your fear or it governs you.”
“I don't see how this is my fault! I told everyone that we are trailed by a predator. So what can I do when that idiot goes outside the perimeter to take a piss!?” Kiara screams at the adventurers.
A certain werewolf puts up a smug expression. “You are supposed to be a tracker. And Miles left the caravan in your part of the perimeter. It would've been your duty to stop him.” Chaz looks around and gets agreeing nods from the others. That encourages him to press on. “It would've been simple to order him back to the camp.”
Norwick doesn't say anything. He balances his large battlehammer on his shoulder and stares at the corpse, massaging his temple. I can only imagine how humiliating it must be to lose a subordinate just two days after the start of this trip. We didn't even cover a fourth of the way.
I clear my throat. “I think that this is a clear case of natural selection. And who says that 'Miles' went out for a piss? He must've been very sneaky to get past Kiara's pets. I don't believe that she would've overlooked someone who walked out of the camp.” I turn my attention to Chaz and squint my eyes at him. “And how do you know that he sneaked out through her section of the perimeter? Why not a neighbouring one?”
The werewolf grinds his teeth. He didn't bother to shave, so he looks a little wild despite being in human form. “Because it's the shortest way out from our campsite.”
I scratch my own chin and am reminded that my body isn't troubled by a beard. “Is there anything outside the camp that would warrant going out alone?”
One of the adventurers coughs. “There is moonshade in these woods. Properly dried and ground to powder, the plant can earn good coin at an alchemist shop. It would be a nice addition to our payment for protecting the caravan.”
I raise both eyebrows and try to sound as pleasant and as female as possible. “Enough coin to warrant a sneaky solo run? Enough coin to be careful about who knows of something so valuable? Was Miles familiar with herbs and remedies?” I don't need to have proof. I just have to plant the seed of doubt in their minds.
Everyone looks at me as if I just transformed into an Angel. Okay, maybe I overdid it, but eighty years as a lust-slave are hard to shake off.
“Stop leeching on her, you fools!”
Norwick startles the male adventurers out of their trance. And a few female ones. I really have to be careful about putting up such acts. The other women are scowling at me.
“Yes, Kiara should've spotted him. But the truth is that had I caught him outside the perimeter, I would've killed him myself! No matter the reason! Everyone knew that I forbade tours outside the camp.” Norwick waves his large hammer at us and stomps his foot onto the ground. “Bury the remains and get ready to depart. If I catch someone disobeying me, he'll do this trip without payment!”
He stomps off and leaves us behind. The others disperse, including Chaz who sneers at me. The members of our party stay behind, except for Halberd who wasn't present from the beginning. I suppose he is with the lemus.
Kiara runs a hand over her forehead and sighs. “Thanks for stopping the witch hunt.”
I shrug. “I worship the god of reason. He doesn't take lightly to fools and people who prefer not to think. I am just glad that I didn't have to mention my second theory.”
Tristen tilts his head and invites me to go on. “Why would it be troublesome to mention your second theory?”
I sigh. “If you really want to know, though I think that a lot of people will have their suspicions. It's not like everyone surrendered their brain to Norwick's authority when they joined the caravan. You mentioned bandit attacks and two missing expeditions. Compared to previous ones, the rules for joining this caravan were tightened. Miles could've tried to inform someone of our location. Maybe we are lucky that the fellbear snacked him.”
Fae cringes. “I see why you didn't want to mention that. The last thing we need is that the members of this caravan start suspecting each other.”
Brian sighs. The huge man turns his attention to the bloody remains of what was once a human being. “I guess I'll start digging. Yuck!”
I point a hand at the corpse and form a spell matrix. Then I channel mana through it and a jet of flames shoots out. I direct the flames to the corpse. Fire magic is a matter of optimizing the oxidation process of the molecules. What most people don't understand, is that fire magic is just a form of disintegration. It lowers the strength of molecular bonds.
A fireball spell is just a spell formation which splits air into oxyhydrogen gas, which quickly burns and turns back to water. Most mages don't get the spell matrix right, so it burns and looks like a fireball while they shoot it at the enemy.
I adjust the matrix and use force magic to channel the air away from me until the flames turn blue. The colour of flames is an indicator of how hot a fire is. Orange to yellow means just a few hundred degrees. Blue is around a thousand, while grey to white is above that and ranges up to millions. That's why stars like the sun are white.
There are other reasons why flames can change their colour. Some minerals change the spectrum of light when they burn, but in this case I am just burning air.
After a few seconds, the corpse is crispy and most of the flesh is gone. I stop the spell and step closer. Putting my work to the test, I lightly kick the corpse's left leg with the tip of my foot. A part of it crumples and the leg breaks off.
I smile and turn to Brian. “There, now you can make a neat pile of bones and bury everything in a small hole. And please be careful with that light spell of yours, blinding allies is never a good thing.” Too late I notice their wary expressions. Did I fuck up? Is this something that shouldn't be possible?
“Ahem, that was better than a fireball.” Brian shifts his weight uncomfortably from one leg to the other.
I try to lighten the mood by making fun of the situation. “Fireballs are ineffective. The explosion causes the spell to snuff itself out, which means that most of the power goes to waste. All I did, was control the very same spell matrix to prevent that.”
Turning away, I rush to my carriage. I clearly did something outside their understanding. Great! And the other adventurers and merchants are watching me too. Why didn't I just leave the stupid paladin to his work? I am sure he could've dug a grave in no time.
I return to my carriage and try to look busy with my work. The others leave me alone until the caravan continues on its way. We form up at the rear and Brian uses the chance to strike a conversation. “I wanted to say thanks for making the whole burial issue less messy, but what did you mean when you said that I should be more careful with my light spell?”
“When you guys 'saved',” I emphasise the word, “me from the bandits, you charged in and blinded them with a spell. Only my mask prevented me from being blinded. Try not to hit allies with your magic.”
He blushes. “I am so sorry. I didn't realize that. I just saw them attacking someone and charged in.”
I snort, but since I've to stay with them, I probably shouldn't be a sorehead. “It's okay. Just don't do it again.”
Tristen rides closer. “How is your work going?”
I blink and return my attention to the shield. “I enchanted the spear and the armour. The shield is also ready. I am just making a few final adjustments to the enchantments which lighten the items.” And I am adding a few extras, but the others don't have to know that.
“Did you learn from an enchanter?” Fae asks from her position at the rear.
I nod. “I've had enough time to pick up a lot of knowledge. I regard myself as a seeker of wisdom. Every time I get into a big town, I use most of my earnings to raid the libraries for new things.” At least that's what I'll officially do from now on.
Halberd snorts. “So that's why you are gathering rare minerals for money? Woman, you could be the headmage of a kingdom's court. Instead, you waste your time with us on this road. What about having a lot of money and a nice life for a change?”
I snort and tap my temple with a finger. “Always remember. They can take your money and your clothes, but they can't take what's up here.”
The dwarf shakes his heads and allows his lemu to fall back. It's clear that he doesn't share my opinion.
We travel for the rest of the day. During the night we camp between the trees. I can sense that the people are a little moody because of what happened yesterday. But Norwick and his team do a great job in keeping everyone in check.
The night passes without incident and we travel for four more days. All the time I sense something brushing just past the edge of my senses, but Kiara reassures me that the fellbear is still on our trail. The first success encouraged it to follow us in hope of catching another unwary victim.
On the fifth day, the caravan comes to a sudden halt. I hear screams from the front and stand up on my cart to see what's going on.
Tristen reminds us of the potential danger. “Defence! Make sure to keep an eye on our surroundings! What's going on at the front isn't our business.”
Thankful for the reminder, I turn my attention to our immediate surroundings. I put on my mask and grab the spear. That's when I sense them. Several auras are quickly approaching from our right. And it doesn't look like they'll give me the time to put on armour.
Kiara gasps and readies her crossbow. She must've found them through her connection with the bird. “Goblins!”
Brian and Halberd dismount and put up a united front. They are joined by Kiara's direwolf.
I aim the spear at the underbrush from which our attackers will emerge. Channelling my power, I charge a strong spell to start the battle with something strong. The dragonbone on the tip of my spear starts glowing in a blue light.
Then the first creature emerges from the bushes. It's brown and about a metre in height. Armed with a club and a buckler, it looks more like an ape than a man.
I release the spell and blue lightning arcs towards the first few attackers. Wood splinters and earth is thrown up. Most go down, but four get through the lightning arc. A loud 'twang' from Kiara's crossbow sends a bolt into the chest of a goblin and two quick arrows from Fae deal with another two.
Suddenly alone, the remaining goblin charges right into Brian's and Halberd's waiting arms. They chop it to bits in the blink of an eye.
That's when the main force breaks out of the underbrush. I call for Kiara and Fae to stay next to me, then I raise a barrier against projectiles. Brian casts a light spell in order to blind the enemies. I note with satisfaction that he only blinded our enemies this time. He and Halberd charge and meet the attackers head on.
Cursing, I send a wave of kinetic force against three goblins who made it past the two warriors. The creatures are picked up and sent back into the melee.
Fae stopped shooting after she killed her first two targets. Now she aims her bow at the large group which is surrounding Brain and Halberd. The arrow is glowing in a green light and brimming with power. “Get down!”
She lets the arrow fly and our two fighters throw themselves into the dirt. The arrow passes right above them and explodes in a circle of green energies and splinters. The explosion is restricted to a tight ring, which means that the space right above and below the arrow is spared. The group of goblins takes heavy casualties. But one of them makes it through, despite his lethal injuries, and tries to smash in Halberd's head.
To Halberd's luck, the wooden club doesn't do much against his metal helmet. The dwarf kicks his attacker away, then he jumps to his feet and skewers the goblin with his weapon.
The direwolf rushes in to take advantage of the downed foes.
My barrier blocked most of Fae's spell, but now several little darts draw my attention. They are impacting my shield without doing much. Guessing at their origin, I turn to our left and use the flamethrower spell to torch the bushes next to my cart. Four of the creatures reveal themselves, blowpipes in their hands.
Some horn is blown in the distance and our attackers retreat without hesitation. Those who can, grab their wounded or fallen comrades and run back into the forest.
The attack is over as fast as it began, and all that's left are the moans of the injured. My own heavy breaths join in and I lower the spear. The weapon worked well and fulfilled its job as a focus. I feel dizzy from using so much magic and sit down on the cart.
“Are you okay?” Fae asks with a concerned expression.
“I'll be. Just out of breath from using so much magic.” I close my eyes and lean back. “Just a few minutes.” I feel the dizziness from overexerting my magical muscles. Yes. I definitely should train. My master used me for his weather rituals, so I am not completely out of shape. But I definitely need to get stronger. I am not used to channelling so much power at once. “Why didn't I sense the little fuckers?”
Kiara readies her crossbow for another shot. “Their warriors don't have any magic. Only the leaders of a raiding party and shamans have auras. That makes them the perfect sneaks.”
I watch as Kiara’s bird lands next to one of the dead goblins and starts picking at the corpse's eyes.
Tristen appears out of the bushes, the head of a goblin in his hand. “I took out the raid leader and used his horn to signal their retreat. Is everyone okay?”
“We are fine,” Brian answers.
Halberd returns to his lemu. “Do you want to say that they didn't retreat of their own accord?”
“They didn't. That's why we have to get the caravan going. We have to get out of their territory.” Tristen pulls at the earlobes of his lemu and the animal carries him quickly towards the front of the caravan.
I press my eyes together and force myself to shake off the dizziness. “I've never heard of goblins attacking in such a large group.”
“They don't!” Kiara calls out. She seems to be a little shaken.
“Unless two tribes unite under a strong leader. I've heard of such things. Normally, they are too busy fighting each other, but from time to time a leader is strong enough to control more than his own tribe. Then they attack traders, or even small villages,” Halberd explains.
Brian shakes his head. “That explains what happened to the other two caravans. The merchant guild thought that those caravans were taken by bandits, but the goblins were behind it all along.”
The cart in front of mine starts moving and I urge my own lemu to go on. The animal does as ordered, but not without protest. I've no idea about the state of the rest of the caravan.
Fae shakes her head. “It still doesn't explain how they are managing to take one caravan after the other. I admit that this caravan has thrice the number of guards, but the goblins must have had casualties with the previous caravans. We certainly gave them a bloody nose.”
“We didn't get away unharmed and I am not so sure that they wouldn't have taken us anyway if they had kept coming.” Kiara points at a carriage which was looted and tilted over. Someone pulled it off the path. The owner and two adventurers are lying next to it, dead.
Tristen returns from the front of the caravan. “We've lost eleven adventurers and two merchants. Norwick decided to go on, instead of turning around. He doesn't think that we can escape them anyway. According to the maps, there is a riverbed a little further down the path. At this time of the year it should be dried up, so it should be an easily defensible position for the night.”
I groan. “Does he think that they will come back!?”
“They will and I don't want to be caught a second time on a narrow path through the woods.”