“A person might be strong, intelligent and charismatic, but is that enough to be a leader?”
I wave to reassure them of my peacefulness. Then I run back into the house and grab a light robe. Throwing it over, I head back to the edge of my property. There is no point in showing up naked.
Finding the four of them was a game of patience. I wanted my visit to be a surprise, hoping that they wouldn't check their communication crystals for my whereabouts. For that very reason I didn't dare to call them and relied purely on my crystal's tracking function.
It turned out that the tracking function is utter garbage. To find them, I flew for two days in concentric circles above the forested area of Abasin Valley. All the trees made it impossible to spot their camp until I practically landed on top of them.
I jump and fall towards the trees. Twenty metres above the ground, I cast force magic and slow my own fall. Everyone is looking at me as if I am some kind of novelty. There are Kiara, Fae, Brian and Tristen, but also some men and women in brown robes, together with a random assembly of various types of adventurers.
The camp is small, but well organized. Several small tents are placed in three neat rows on a clearing. The surrounding undergrowth is thick and doesn’t allow to see more than ten metres into the forest. I can identify three narrow paths which lead out of the clearing.
Waving at my four acquaintances, I touch the ground softly. “Hi! I came to visit.”
“She can fly!” One of the nearby robed men points at me. He has grey hair and seems to be in his fifties.
I sniff and raise my hands to mock him. “Oh, no! Look! She can fly! I've never seen a mage who can levitate!”
His head turns red, but he shuts up.
My attention turns to the large keg above the fireplace. “Is that stew!?” I walk past Brian and Fae and take one of the bowls to help myself. Tristen and Kiara are ogling me with wide eyes, but I ignore them. There is a spoon on the ground, so I take it and clean it with a little magic. “Hmm. That's really good! Vegetables. I hate people who throw meat into their stew. Cooked meat is just an attack on civilisation itself. Meat has to be grilled or roasted, not cooked.”
Fae points at the oval which is floating above us. “What is that!?”
“That's my house! Obviously!” I answer.
All of them shake their heads. “That's no house.” “Obviously?” “It's flying!” “Where did you get it?”
I sigh. Seems like I've a lot of explaining to do before we can get to business. “I made a pretty coin when I sold all my minerals. So there I sat on all that money and thought that I didn't want to go back to foraging for rare minerals. I needed a change of occupation, so I created my own company.”
Fae points at my house. “And what about that?”
“Every good company needs headquarters. And what's better than mobile headquarters?” I grin and take another spoonful of the stew.
“Why are you here?” Tristen asks.
I raise both eyebrows. I honestly didn't expect the sudden wariness. “Well. Because you guys invited me to visit and because I want to hire you. I need someone to guard my back when I deal with the high and mighty.”
“But we are still under contract. At least for another week,” Brian answers sheepishly.
I shrug. “I can wait. It's not like I've nothing to do. There are a lot of things to improve upon.” I gesture at the flying oval above us. “So what do you say? Are you willing to consider working for me?”
The old man who was so shocked about my entrance approaches and clears his throat. “Excuse me, Miss, but these people are working for us. You can't hire them away from under our noses.”
It seems like he listened in on every word we said, so I decide to make sure to show him what I think of that, answering him with a full mouth, “Who said that? I'll hire them once their contract with you ends. What are you doing here anyway?”
“They are inspecting the ruins which are located all around this area,” Brian answers.
“Ruins? You mean the large rock formations?” I try to recall what I saw from above. “Ah, so that's what it is...”
The man in the brown robe glares at me. “What!? Have you seen something from above?”
I shake my head. “Nope. I've my own agenda. Why should I tell you anything?”
He shakes his fists, but there seems to be a shred of reason inside him. He forces himself to calm down and says, “I am sorry for my bad manners. I am Scholar Edmund. My conclave is dedicated to finding out more about these ruins. They were left behind by a civilisation which obviously pre-dates the Alliance or any other known nation. We have no name for it, since they didn't leave anything behind. There are just these huge rock formations, monuments. At the base, the stones are joined together perfectly, but there are no decorations of any kind. It’s a mystery why people who possess such skilful craftsmanship would not leave anything except those monuments behind.”
I nod. “Maybe it was more about purpose than how it looked. Have you tried to sketch out the area on a map?” I use a foot to draw a circle into the dirt on the ground. “There are six little hills around this location. They are arranged in a perfect circle. Your camp is close to the largest structure which is right in the middle of the circle.”
The scholar looks at my rough map and furrows his forehead. “That looks like a huge magical circle. Why should anyone need a ritual that large?”
I roll my eyes and take another spoonful of the delicious stew. “Beats me. Maybe they tried to summon a god? Or to end the world? The fact that they aren't around to tell us their story strikes me as a sufficient reason not to poke my nose into it.”
He gapes at me. “Summon a god?”
I deflate. Is this guy for real? “That was a joke. I don't know what the ritual was supposed to do. I can only tell that if the circle was ever active, then it was a really long time ago. There is no residue of magic in this place, which should be the case otherwise.”
He squints his eyes at me. “Why are you telling us this? It would cost a pretty sum to get assistance from a Consortium mage who is as well-versed in magic as you seem to be.” He looks up at my floating house.
I am doing it to increase my reputation and to spread my name, so I smile. “No worries. Any mage with advanced knowledge about the arcane could've told you that after seeing the site from above. My name is Joyce and I am not from the Consortium. I refer to myself as a free agent of fate.”
I take Edmund's hand and shake it. “Nice to meet you.”
“Ah, yes,” he answers, befuddled.
Then I turn back to the others. “So, how about it? You haven't answered my question.”
They are still looking at me as if I am the ninth wonder of the world. Tristen is the first one to recover. He clears his throat and nods. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t. Especially because being hired by you seems to spare us the trouble of walking back to civilisation.”
The others nod and the matter seems to be settled. They explain that they have to return to their duties, so I don't delay them any longer. The group splits up and I am left behind with Edmund. The scholar seems to be happy enough with my help to show me around. I don't have any additional deep insights for him. The one I had was only due to the fact that I had a slightly different perspective.
My interests lie in the arcane, physics and machines.
We take one of the narrow trails and have to walk for a while before he can show me the central monument, which is nothing more than a large pile of rocks. Edmund reassures me that he and his team measured each rock carefully in order to get an idea of what it was originally. According to them, it was a temple-like structure before it collapsed. He shows me a sketch and I simply take him at his word.
I was serious when I mentioned that it's never a good idea to poke one's nose into unknown magic.
Since I don't want to give Edmund any ideas, I never mention that his sketch of the monument doesn't look like a temple to me. A few lifetimes ago, I lived in a civilisation which called themselves the Cheen. Their mausoleums looked very similar to Edmund's temple.
But I certainly don't want to butt in on his hypothesis, so I keep my mouth shut. This whole archaeology business isn't my thing. Everything is up to interpretation. They find some old foundation walls and immediately conclude how the whole building must've looked like.
When it comes to the purpose of the building, the ideas get hair-raising and the final result is so far from reality that the original builders would've wet themselves.
Edmund continues his tour and I keep nodding and smiling. The old man is a real scholar. Here I am, a mage who showed up with a flying island, and he is more interested in his rocks than in me.
It is midday before I can finally extract myself from his clutches. The only thing that remains on my mind is to flee up to my island, hiding myself. I am not sure what I would've done, had it taken any longer. Blown up the camp?
The next morning, I get dressed and return to the campsite, just to find a little storm brewing between the occupants. Most of the scholars are standing in a large group, feverishly discussing something. The adventurers are taking care of their own business, but they seem to be more alert than the day before. Some are even building an improvised palisade around the camp.
I approach my four friends, who are waiting at the same fire-pit as they were yesterday. “Did something happen?”
“You could say that, though I think that the academics are overreacting,” Tristen grumbles.
Kiara gestures in the direction with the crumbled remains of the monument. “Some of the scholars stayed out late, despite our warnings. They were digging close to the ruins and found something that couldn't be left until tomorrow.”
Brian finishes the story. “They disappeared during the night. We verified just a few minutes ago that they are missing seven people. Now they are freaking out. Some people simply don't get it. They hire guards and then they do something stupid, like leaving the protected perimeter.”
He gestures at the green hell which is all around us. “Even if there weren't all sorts of dangerous critters out there, who would want to hike through the darkness? There is a high possibility that they got tired and headed back to the camp. Maybe they lost the narrow path and meandered into a totally different direction. There is no chance of finding them after the fact.”
I look at Kiara. “Can't your pets track them?” My gaze wanders to the direwolf who is resting next to the fire-pit. The black bird is nowhere to be seen.
Kiara shakes her head. “I already did my best, but there are so many scent tracks around the site that there is no way to discern the old from the recent ones. My wolf and I checked a two kilometre radius around the site, but we couldn't find anything.”
“It's her!” One of the scholars forces his way out of the crowd and points an accusing finger at me. “It has to be her! She shows up and one night later we are missing seven people. We went for a month without incident. Strange coincidence, don't you think!?”