“Contracts are always a serious matter in this world. Especially when they are sealed with magic.”
They filled the pit with earth and left it like that. It's not a foolproof way to close off the entrance to the tomb, but it'll be good enough. I assume that the teleportation spell shuts down if one side is blocked.
On our way back to the camp I study the forest around us. I wonder why the ones who created the monument didn't stay. This place isn’t that bad, but it seems like there was never something like a settlement in this place. So, was the monument just rarely used, or was it a warning for the future?
There is probably no point in thinking about it.
I've to deal with my own problems, or my plans will be for naught. For a start, I've to create a base of operations which shows that I am not someone who can be pushed around. There is the dangerous possibility that I will look too threatening, which will encourage the wrong elements to act against me. But I have to risk it. Having strong enemies is much better than to drown in small fry, of which there will be no shortage, I am sure.
“You look so thoughtful,” Brian notes, and I realize that he is addressing me.
“Just thinking about all the wrong things. That's all. I've to further my plans for a great future,” I answer.
He snorts. “You still haven't explained our new assignment. What exactly are we in for if we take your offer?” His question causes the others to look at me expectantly.
I make a dismissive gesture and laugh. “Isn't that what you would love to know. I am sorry, but the details of my operation will stay a secret until you've signed up with me. Though, I can tell you that your responsibilities will be to guard me. If you have other skills, you can use them for my company. The nature of my business requires us to gather a lot of different people with different abilities.”
They keep pestering me with questions, but I've no interest in answering them. There is too much at stake. If I tell them that I already got the attention of a noble like the ruler of Hormundad, they might bail on me.
We reach the camp and I leave the scholars to sort out their own problems. They look torn between relief and pain about the loss of two of their own. I overhear some of them loudly demanding to break camp immediately.
Instead of listening to it, I retreat to my flying island in order to work on the control interface. Such tasks are never truly done. There are always bugs to fix and features to add, be it for safety or other things.
I also prepare the guest-rooms of my humble abode. The house has a whole second floor which I never used. With four people it will become crowded, but I am about to change that. We just need to get some materials and workers.
The next morning, I return to the campsite and find out that everyone is packing their things. Tristen, Brian, Fae and Kiara are already done, while the scholars and some of the adventurers are taking their time. “Is there a problem? I thought that you will stay at least for a few more days?”
Tristen nods. “That was the plan until the scholars decided to end the expedition. They will return to their institute. Since you are right here, we've struck a bargain with Edmund to end our contract early.”
Brian cringes. “In other words, we've paid them what we owe them.”
Fae laughs. “Yes. That's Brian. A paladin through and through, but when it comes to money he is on the other side of the fence.”
I clap my hands together. “That's great, so you are ready to work for me?”
Tristen raises a finger. “There is just one little issue about...”
“Payment!” Kiara finishes for him.
“That's not a problem. I've had someone prepare the contracts for me.” It pays off to have a merchant guildmaster as a friend. Or should I call him a partner? I reach into my robe and pull out the folded papers which allow us to enter a magical contract. It's common practice in a world like this one. All arrangements of real importance are sealed with magic.
The contracts are partly mind magic and partly conditioned seals. Strictly speaking, the magic used is similar to the one which is used with slave collars. Though the distinct difference is that both parties can break whatever the contract specifies. The imposed punished for breaking a contract can be anything from a broken nose to death. But most contracts are just made to check if one party is violating the rules. Another good thing about contracts is that there is no forgery. A contract is created by mixing the energy signatures of two people, which are like fingerprints. I wouldn't say that it's impossible to fake an energy signature, but it would be extremely difficult.
I hand them the documents. “Take your time and study them. For now, they are the standard version for core employees of my company. I'll go and say goodbye to Edmund.”
While the four of them are taking a look at the documents, I head over to the scholars. They aren't especially quick about packing their things. I find Edmund with the man whom I gave a very special treatment. The guy pales and quickly retreats when he notices me approaching.
Edmund turns to me and smiles. He looks tired. “Joyce, how can I help you?”
“Oh, I just wanted to say goodbye. I hope I didn't interrupt anything important,” I explain.
Edmund shakes his head. “It's nothing. In fact I am glad that you got him off my back. He is just a little man who is trying to advance his own career. I am glad that he doesn't want to be in your presence.” The scholar smirks. Then his professional expression returns. “I hope that we'll see each other again? The Institute of Knowledge would surely be an interesting place for someone like you.” He looks up at my home.
I offer him my hand. “I'll take a look if I am nearby.” We shake hands and I return to my new employees.
The four of them are still studying their contracts with pale faces. “Is something wrong?” Please, let there be no mistake. I've a huge stash of these documents.
Kiara points at her contract. “There must be a mistake! Seven gold per month is too much!”
I raise an eyebrow. “I can give you the simple worker version if you don't want to be core employees. Workers only get fifty copper a month.”
Just as expected, they shake their heads and quickly sign their contracts. I take the documents back and fold them together. Then I touch my left shoulder and call up the control menu of my island. “Are those all of your things?” I point at their four lemus. The animals are packed with equipment.
Tristen nods. “The only question is, how will you get us up there?”
“Just stand close together. Get everything into a five metre radius around me. Ah, and Kiara, you might want to get your bird. There is a barrier around the island. The animal will get hurt if it flies against it,” I instruct.
Kiara whistles and pats her upper leg. Her direwolf comes closer and the bird lands on her shoulder. When everyone is in position, the island picks us up with force magic and we float upwards. Fae squeals and Brian turns an unhealthy shade of green. Seems like the paladin has a serious case of motion sickness.
We land in the garden and I call up the map. Then I set our next destination.
Sawood Village is nothing more than a single, big sawmill. It's located at the northern part of the Marshwoods and according to Dorver's maps, it has just over two thousand inhabitants. They are the source for most of the wooden products in this region. Be it planks, trunks or furniture. Most of it comes from Sawood.
“Oh, wow. You have a real house up here!” Tristen calls out.
“It looks more like she lifted an entire property into the sky,” Fae mumbles.
I nod. “Don't worry. We'll take care of appropriate accommodations for you. This is just the beginning. First we'll visit Sawood to get some cheap workers and a few skilled craftsmen. Then we'll make a round trip to various mines and quarries to gather resources. We have to stay on the move until we've enough people to show everyone that we aren't to be taken lightly.”
Fae's voice sounds worried. “Joyce, just who are you and what exactly do you have in mind? We signed the contract. Isn't it time for some answers?”
I turn and look at the elf, then I smile. “My ultimate goal is to live a long and peaceful life. A life which seems to be impossible without power. For that reason, this place has to grow as strong as it can get. I've already set up a company with the merchant guild. They will trade with spacial chests, which will get us a lot of money and attention. The nobility already has an eye on me. That's why I have to establish my position before anyone can make stupid demands.”
Smirking, I make eye contact with Fae. “Isn't that correct?”
She looks at me, not understanding. Then a light switches on and she starts stammering. “I- I-”
I wave her off. “It's done. But now that you are my employee, I suggest that you be extra careful of clause 12.93-b.”
Before the others can inquire further, I continue. “When you told me about your goals in life, I thought that I could help you to accomplish them. Kiara, if you really want to breed all sorts of animals, then we can arrange that for you. This place will only grow, and at some point we'll also need a source of food. Fae, I think your magical shop will be a good addition to our reputation. I can supply you with all sorts of artefacts.”
I turn to Brian and Tristen. Then I have to think really hard for a few moments. “I admit that I've no idea what your goals are, but I am sure that we can find something that interests you.”
“You forgot!? I wanted to have my own guildhouse and become a guildmaster!” Tristen calls out.
Brian rolls his eyes. He clearly doesn't think much of Tristen's ambition. “I admit that I’ve never thought about what I would do beyond a life as an adventurer. Though, Joyce, don't get me wrong. Your plans sound like they'll get us a lot of enemies. Powerful enemies. Being noticed by people like nobles is never a good thing.”
I shrug and twirl a strand of my hair around my index finger. “It's better to have power than to be stepped on because I am weak.”
Fae squints her eyes at me. “You still haven't explained from where you got all your knowledge. It's clear that you aren't some self-taught country bumpkin who lucked into enough money and talent to make a living.”
I raise my chin and try to sound earnest. “I am an immortal being who is thousands of years old. Honestly, I think that I've forgotten more about magic and technology than you puny mortals will ever know.”
Their blank expressions show me that they didn't believe a single word. Well, that's how it always goes when people like me try to be as truthful as possible.
“Tech- Ology? What's that?” Brian asks.
Fae shakes her head. “And now the truth? At least a part of it? We just want to know what we are in for if it ever comes out.”
I sigh. “I knew that it wouldn't work. I am a former slave from the Empire. My master used my magical talent to empower his spells. For more than eighty years I was his favourite pet, so he kept me alive with rejuvenation treatments. Everything I know, I learned from him. One fateful day, I managed to escape his control and he died.”
Tristen nods. “That's still an outrageous story, but it's better than the first one.”
Brian shakes his head. “Is there a third origin story? Because, honestly, my theory is that you are a rogue mage from the Consortium.” He points at the floating island beneath our feet. “Hint, hint!”
But Kiara takes my second story at full face value. “Oh, so that's why you had the collar. I am so sorry.”
Fae looks actually a little embarrassed. “I won't ask again.”