“There are painful ways to die, and then there are painful ways to live.”
This is new. Being squashed is different. I've been stabbed, blown up, poisoned, eaten, strangled, torn to pieces, that one hurt, ah, not to forget the little incident with the nuke. No, being squashed like a bug is definitely new.
So why have I not been reborn? Did the reincarnation wheel glitch? Did I die in my mother's womb? That would suck. It's dark and I can't move. Oh, wait! I can wriggle my hand.
Someone is calling my name and I feel another hand taking mine.
“Get that thing off of her!”
I realize that I can't move because something heavy is lying on top of me. I am still holding my tower shield, its slightly curved, so it allows me just enough space to breathe. The weight shifts and I scream in pain as the broken bones shift inside me. Suddenly, there is so much light. Someone takes away my shield. It protected the upper part of my body against the wreck of the drum.
Then several unknown people are around me and someone pulls the mask off my face. That was a mistake, since one of the mask's enchantments suppresses pain. With the mask gone, the full sensation of all my injuries comes pressing down on me.
Risking it, I look down and notice that my legs didn't do so well. Yep, being crushed sucks! But I am alive. Seems like I don't get to redo the whole growing-up thing.
One of the healers places a hand on my forehead and I feel an unbelievable urge to sleep. Better not to disappoint him by deflecting his spell.
I take off the white mask and turn it between my hands. Joyce always clung to it as if it was her last lifeline. What a strange woman. Every time I thought that I’ve figured her out, all my theories are thrown out of the window. The spellwork on this mask is far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Not even the enchanted villages of my people can compare to it.
I shudder at the memory of finding her under that piece of debris. Just her hand was looking out and I already thought that she was crushed. Then, despite all odds, her hand wriggled.
Still not believing it, I put on the mask and a storm of sensations almost overwhelms me. Stupid. I am like a child with a new toy. I can hear the mouse in it’s den. I can see the deer in the underbrush as a flaring light of whirling energies. This artefact allows me to see mana itself. And by simply wishing it, I can have it show me other things. I realize that Joyce must’ve listened in on all of our conversations.
Focusing on Tristen in front of me, the mask illuminates his beating heart and energy pathways light up all over his body. And I thought that it must be hard to see anything with this mask on. I theorized that she was conducting some sort of wicked training.
A treasure like this would allow a mage to unravel the nature of magic itself.
My eyes wander to Joyce’s broken body on the cart next to me. The healers managed to keep her alive. Barely. If she survives until morning, they might be able to save her. But first they have to rest. The battle claimed a lot of casualties.
It’s good that I got my hands on her items before anyone else did. Any other mage would’ve gone nuts over such a discovery. But my people always emphasize the importance of thinking through every step before we take action. I am sure that Joyce doesn’t want to share such a secret.
The question is, is Joyce the one who made this artefact? It’s likely. And do I want to make an enemy of someone who can create such a wonder?
I slip the mask into her magical backpack and study the woman who is on the brink of death.
“Who are you?”
I wake up to the rattling of a carriage. Groaning, I open my eyes and sit up. The first thing I notice is that my legs are whole. I wriggle my toes. Oh, the wonders of healing magic in a medieval world. And whoever healed me did a really fine job. It seems like I don't have to bother with rehabilitation. Who would ever get the idea to research real medicine in a world with magic?
“Joyce! You are up!” Kiara's voice draws my attention and I look up. She manoeuvres her lemu closer to the carriage. “You were out for three days. The healers said that you were about to die when we found you. It took them two days to fix all the broken bones.”
“What happened?” I ask and touch myself. Someone else was manipulating my body. Better to make sure that they did good work. Is my chest bigger than before? No. I am surely imagining it. Who would waste his time with enlarging breasts if there are broken bones to fix?
Kiara's expression turns serious. “We wanted to hear that from you. You ran off into the dark and then there was this large explosion and the fear was gone. You saved all of us.”
I pick my ear and try to get the strange, tingling sensation away. Then I give her the short version. “The whole caravan was succumbing to the ritual, so I went out to search for the source and killed the shaman who was powering the spell. The drum was his focus point for the ritual. It blew up and then I was out for the count.”
She nods. “We assumed something like that. With the fear gone, we charged the goblins and killed a whole bunch of them. The battle lasted the whole night until they retreated. It looks like the ones who were blown up also gave the commands, so it took them a while to realize that their strategy failed. They retreated when the morning dawned, but we lost a lot of good people.”
Her expression turns sour. “We are down to thirty-two.”
“We lost half of our people?” I gasp. If I hadn't risked taking out the shaman, we would be goners. “How many goblins were there?”
She shrugs. “We didn't take the time to count. After looting the corpses, we departed and haven't stopped since. A few of the merchants also died. Some goblins got to them when we broke formation to round them up. We've eighteen merchants left. Norwick is really pissed about it. Can't blame him for it. The whole expedition will be a black stain on his career as an adventurer.” She shakes her head.
I get to my knees and test my legs. “But who can blame him? He did his best. Everyone thought that bandits took the other caravans.” I notice my backpack and open it to search for some decent clothes. They dressed me in nothing more than a nightgown.
“The adventurer's guild isn't much different from the military. They will listen to his report and then some smart ass will come up with a totally unrealistic plan of how it could've been done better. Doesn't matter that he wasn't at the scene. Maybe they will rank his party down, maybe not. That's why we never take the responsibility for such huge expeditions. It's much easier to be just a grunt.”
I nod while I put on pants and a shirt. “Where are the others?”
“Brian, Tristen and Fae are with four other adventurers a few carriages behind us. They are looking out for goblins, but the little monsters haven't tried anything since the riverbed.” She lowers her head. “Halberd joined his ancestors.”
I look at her and it takes a moment to get her meaning. “I am sorry to hear that. My condolences. I suppose he was a good friend?” I only knew the dwarf for a few days, so it would be a lie to say that I mourn his death.
She nods. “We always joked that at some point he wouldn't run fast enough with his stumpy legs. But that's the life we chose. We know the risks in our lifestyle. There is no point in complaining about it.”
Yeah. Sucks when you have just one life. Not that reincarnation is much better. I still lose everyone I care about when I die.
“Your mask and the spear are inside your backpack.”
I turn around and glare at Kiara.
She smiles. “Don't worry. We won't tell anyone that it's magical.”
“Fae and I, of course. We cleaned you while you were unconscious. We found out when we searched for clothes. I am sorry for rummaging through your things. Though I have to ask, why do you have a broken slave collar inside your backpack?”
I quickly look around, but nobody is within hearing range. Killing Kiara and Fae might be a slight overreaction. And they fixed me, cleaned me. Maybe I can lend them just a little bit of trust? “It's to remind me of bad times.”
She nods and draws her own conclusions. “I see. Everyone has things which they don't want to talk about.”
I finish dressing myself and decide to redirect the conversation to another topic. “What about my armour?” I pull the mask and the spear out of the backpack, then I retrieve the dragonbone breastplate and the spine protection. Both are broken or crushed in several places.
Kiara winces. “It's a total loss. We kept the dragonbone, since Tristen said that you can repair it. The lower part of the armour is scrap metal and the upper half is so dented that it wouldn't fit. It saved your life. A little less sturdy and your upper body would've been crushed. And there is no way to survive that.”
I see. Maybe I have to thank the stupid blacksmith for insisting on real armour. Back when I requested the set, I didn't manage to come up with a scenario in which a sturdy armour would make a difference. In some way, the piece of debris landing on top of me saved my life. Had it not fallen on me, the goblins would have killed me, regardless of my armour. There is always some weakness to stab a dagger through.
“I'll meld the armour right away. Oh, boy. Look at that. Makes me really happy that I had armour. Imagine how it would be to have your bones broken like that.” I try to joke and gesture at the broken breastplate.
Kiara pulls a grimace. “Your bones were broken like that. The armour just barely allowed you to keep breathing beneath the debris.”
I concentrate on the breastplate and fuse one of the cracks. “Wow. So that's why it hurt so much.”
“I'll fall back and inform the others that you woke up.” Kiara loosens her grip on her lemu and I nod in acceptance.
“I'll use my current status as a wounded person to repair this.” I wave my hand and return my attention to the armour.
During the rest of the day, the others take turns in keeping me company. They are still tasked with guarding the rear. Norwick looks a little miffed when he pays me a visit, but surprisingly he thanked me for taking out the wardrum.
All in all, I notice that the adventurers are looking at me with different expressions. There is reverence and admiration in their eyes. I really hope that they won't spread some insane story about my heroism. The last thing I need is to become famous right away. My plans include a certain amount of fame at some point, but not so early in the game.
Officially, it takes me another day to recover. Then I rejoin the others at the rear. Not a single goblin showed itself during the entire time. Tristen and Brian are of the opinion that the goblins won't come back. Strong goblin shamans aren't exactly common and they won't dare to attack a caravan without the shaman's backup.
But we still keep an eye out for pursuers. Fae is sure that the guild will post a goblin suppression quest as soon as the caravan reaches Hormundad. I can't wait to reach something which resembles civilisation.
One day later, we finally leave the forest, which is replaced by seemingly endless fields of grass and small meadows. Afterwards, the mood within the caravan rises noticeably. I myself am no exception to that. The forest's trees kept giving the impression that someone or something is watching us.
It's only then, that Kiara finally takes a break. According to her, the fellbear had followed us all the way to the edge of the forest. When I asked why it didn't eat all the dead goblins at our battlefield, Brian was nice enough to inform me that fellbears only eat fresh meat. They don't go for corpses.
I use the time to study some of the old tomes which I snatched from Nemus. I also make some adjustments to the books and forge plans for my arrival in the city. Great things are about to happen.