"We can't know for sure. The holy symbol didn't react, and my Lie Detection picked up nothing from her."
"Do you have even the slightest clue as to how holy magic works? No, she could be out there right now, killing the guards and running for the hills for all we know. I'm going to get to the bottom of this."
Cassandra's face was twisted in anger, as she turned to leave the barrow chamber. A hand on her shoulder stopped her. Liam waved the parchment they had been huddled over towards her. The edges were cracked and burnt, with splotches of ash hiding most of the writing.
"Look at it. Its barely readable. What if the ritual failed, and you go out there terrorising a poor girl who has no idea whats going on for no good reason? Lets at least go out with a plan of action."
"Liam, she could be-"
"I know, she could be killing the guards and wearing their arses as hats. If she is, she's had plenty of time to have her fill and be long gone, so rushing out there isn't going to help anyone. So sit down, and think for a second."
Liam caught her expression, and his tone softened.
"If you're right, and she's been messing with your head, I won't stop you. You know that."
"And if she's been in your head?"
He smirked at her, eyes twinkling.
"I think we'd both know if she'd been in here. I'm clean, I promise. And for what its worth, you aren't exactly acting out of character either."
Cassandra's hand fell from her swords hilt, her knuckles aching from the pressure she'd been exerting on it. She'd barely noticed how hard she'd been gripping it in her nervous habit.
"I'll talk to her. You stay back, out of sight. If I do anything odd..."
"She won't have time to regret it."
The two of them left the chamber once more, the rogue fading into the shadows as they walked.
Leah awoke in the shade of a tree, a sight she recognised while also being completely new. Hopefully this deja vu from merging her memories wouldn't last long. She sat up, stretching lightly, and took in the sights around her. Being addled, she hadn't got a chance to fully look at the encampment. Set up half a kilometre away from the barrow, and out of sight behind a hill and a copse of trees, the camp was small and well guarded. Only a single, lightly used path ran out of the small clearing they sat in. A campfire was gently smoldering in the morning light, with one of the guards tending to it, a pot of something bubbling on a stand above the small fire. Three of the guards were stationed on watch around the camp, the last two playing a game of cards next to a small, hand pulled cart. Occasionally one of them looked over at her, before returning his gaze quickly to the game.
The air was cold, the sun shining weakly through an overcast sky. Mercifully, any wind was cut away by the trees, but Leah shivered still, quickly realising that the only thing between her and the elements – and more of the guards attention – was a roughly weaved robe. She tried not to think too hard about where it might have come from. A brief thought of examining her new body flashed through her, but the looks from the guards, and the fact that she didn't exactly want to walk away into potential danger, left that idea on the cutting room floor. She did, however, reach her hands up to her ears, that she could now feel were longer than she remembered. A brief touch confirmed it – she had long, pointed ears, oddly sensitive to the touch. They twitched involuntarily from the contact.
"It really is different..."
Leah whipped her head around, searching for the source of the voice, then looked up. Sitting in the tree above her was the elf from before, Cassandra, she remembered.
"Uh... nothing. Just... feeling a little out of sorts."
The elf narrowed her eyes slightly, before shrugging, and lowering herself down from the branch she was perched on. She looked the sitting Leah up and down.
"Well, you certainly don't sleep for long. I was thinking that I might have to wake you up myself, but this makes things easier."
“Makes what easier?”
“Questioning you. We took you mostly on faith in there, but now that we have a moment,”
And now that new information has come to light, she kept to herself,
“We thought we should ask you some questions.”
“Liam is still in the barrow, checking over some things. You don’t need to worry about that, and you don’t need to be asking questions. Thats my job. So, lets get right down to it.”
Leah turned, feeling like this was going to take a while, and made herself more comfortable. She had been resting under a tree, so took the opportunity to lean against it. There was still a tiredness in her bones, proving once more that she hadn’t slept for long. She didn’t feel that she was particularly disabled by it, strangely. The tiredness was there, but she could run a marathon and was thinking at the top of her ability. Another fact for later. Apparently satisfied that Leah was ready, Cassandra moved on.
“So, we’ll start off nice and simple. What is your name?”
Hadn’t she already asked before what her name was? She was sure she remembered that much from the barrow. Her confusion would only grow however. Cassandra’s eyes almost imperceptibly shifted behind Leah, then right back to her. She didn’t have time to process that before the next question arrived.
“And what is my name?”
“Cassandra, look, didn’t we already go through this-”
“What colour is the sky?”
These questions were just getting ridiculous now. A hot wave of indignation rose up inside Leah. Something was clearly being kept from her, and she didn’t like it one bit. Not that she expected them to trust her right away, but they could at least be upfront with whatever problem it was they had. She opened her mouth to voice her complaints, and was silenced immediately. Leah's breath was driven out of her as she was shoved against the tree hard, a heavy leather boot pressing against her sternum and a narrow sword tip pressed against her throat. Cassandra's eyes blazed with a silent fury, her sword not wavering as it drew a single bead of blood. The camp guards dropped what they were doing, now all staring at the pair, hands on their weapons. They eyed each other nervously, unsure of whether they should be stepping in.
“Answer the question.”
It was all going so well. Cassandra had managed to get the basic questions out of the way, and establish a baseline for Liam to do a hard analysis on what Leah was saying. His Lie Detection skill was potent, but it worked best when he had more experience with how a person speaks, when he had seen them tell both truths and lies. Hence the absurd line of questioning he had instructed Cassandra to start with. And then she had to jump straight into bad cop, potentially ruining any future gains. He sighed in frustration, and stepped out from behind the tree, deactivating his stealth skills. He would have to intervene before things got even more out of hand.
"Should have just done this from the beginning..."
Twisting a ring on his index finger, he looked down at his hands, a mixture of longing and disgust on his face. With a sharp twang, a small needle emerged from the ring. He took a deep breath, then rammed it hard into his left palm, carving the sharp implement across his hand and adding a new scar to the collection already there. For the next 12 hours, his already high mental resistances would be doubled, and any attempts to get to his mind would first go through the ring, breaking it like a fuse. His last physical reminder of a past life. If only he didn’t have to use it now. His hands empty but for a single ring and raised, he walked towards the pair.
"Liam! What happened to the plan?"
Cassandra didn't move her weapon, but her gaze whipped around at him, the fury transferring to a new target, to Leah's relief. Liam stopped, hands still raised, and his voice took on a calming tone.
"The plan fell apart the moment you decided you were going to skewer first and ask questions later. We went over this in the barrow. Now, are you going to put your sword away, or shall we continue to let the poor girl soil her new clothes?"
Not moving her weapon, she looked back at Leah.
"We still don't know..."
“We don’t, but I’m going to need to take over now if we have any hope of recovering.”
With a grunt, Cassandra sheathed her sword and stepped away, her eyes not leaving the prone figure. The frozen Leah came to life, gently placing a hand over the injury on her throat. Clearly recognising the change in the situation, she looked over to Liam, the tinge of fear in her eyes being replaced with relief and unhidden gratitude. That, he could work with. He walked over, lowering his hands, and squatted next to her.
"So, Leah. I know you know I can tell when you are lying. I saw that back in the barrow. You didn't see wrong there. I can. And if you lie to me, I'm going to let Cass finish what she started. If you tell the truth, and we like it, we'll continue with what we agreed on before. Does that sound good to you?"
He smiled amiably, in spite of his words.
"Though, I suppose you don't have much of a choice, do you?"
Leah nodded quickly, her relief returning to fear once more.
"Good! See, we can be reasonable! Now, I'm going to ask some more simple, yes or no questions. I want you to answer me simply, or if you don't feel you can speak, just nod or shake your head."
He let the full force of his lie detection skill fall upon her, but this time mixed it in with his intimidation skill. The extra motivation couldn't hurt, and he could always ease things up with a bit of careful diplomacy. He had one more trump card, but he would keep that in his pocket in case he ran up against a brick wall. It took a lot out of him, and it would be better to exhaust other options first, because if he was wrong about Leah, he would need everything he had.
"Do you have any skills or spells that can affect minds?"
Leah froze for a moment, thoughts running through her mind at a pace that she never could have managed before. Deciding against lying, though, she answered,
"M-Maybe? I'm not entirely sure."
A spark of adrenaline shot through Liam, though his expression never changed from its smile. He felt Cass move behind him, readying to attack at any moment. Feeling that things could rapidly develop out of his control, he used his trump card, cursing himself for even thinking for a moment that he could avoid using it. Sods law seemed to follow him around wherever he went, and no matter how much he dumped into luck, it always seemed like the worst case scenario would happen whenever he hoped it wouldn’t. Maybe he should just stop planning for the worst, and stop giving fate ideas. He activated Compel Truth, his most potent ability from the Spy skills he had learnt long ago, and Leah opened up in front of him like a book.
Leah stuttered, feeling her tongue move on its own as thoughts and memories unbidden rose to the forefront of her mind. She felt her submind shut its doors on her and begin to operate on its own, unaffected by the mental assault, and it fed instructions to her main mind on how to operate. A split second passed between the activation of Compel Truth and Leah's answer, and she made the decision that even if she could resist the attack, she should still answer to the best of her ability. She still filed away the knowledge that she could resist this skill far easier than she could the mental attack from before away for later consumption. She allowed the compulsion to take over her words, though she actively scanned what she was saying to prune out anything she wouldn't want to give away just yet.
"I have a skill, that I learned not long ago. It lets me manipulate thoughts and memories, but I cannot initiate a mental attack. I can only affect minds that have already engaged in a connection with me. I have no way of actually doing this myself, and I wouldn’t know how to learn in the first place.”
Relief flushed through him, and he almost regretted acting so strongly after learning this. Not quite enough to wish he hadn’t done it. If she had any actual way of attacking them, they had to know as soon as possible, so he could remove any influences she had placed, and prevent more from taking root. Hell, if it was Latasha, they might even be able to capture her. That would surely make up for the fact they had failed their quest. But, she wasn’t lying, and not even the dread psychomancer herself could resist his Compel Truth. This woman had no skills or spells to initiate a mental assault, and that was just one of the many things that Latasha could do. No, whoever this was, it wasn’t their quarry. She likely lay dead, truly dead, on the floor of the barrow.
Leah, for her part, noticed something about the skill he was using, or at least her sub mind did. When he was using this new one, the old one, that let him detect falsehoods, dropped away, one pressure replacing the other. In a bizarre way, it was actually easier for her to tell him lies when he used this ability on her than with the other one. But it was best not to let him know that. She pruned that away before he asked her anything that might reveal it, and let her unmasked terror hide the fact that she had stumbled upon something useful.
Liam felt the twinge of mana exhaustion run through him, and dropped the skill. He shuddered with relief as an invisible pressure was released from his shoulders, mirroring Leah, who had an entirely different sort of pressure aimed at her. He watched her for a moment, evaluating, judging. Part of him dared her to give him an excuse, so he could end this now. Another was full of both dread and hope, because if he was right about what was going on in the barrow, and another soul had been taken… The possibilities were endless.
"Ok! You pass."
With a start, the tension shattered. Leah blinked, the sudden shift in atmosphere catching her completely off guard. Liam stretched, Cassandra now watching him like a hawk, her head tilted to the side and ears twitching with irritation.
“Pass? Is that all you are going to ask her?”
“Oh yeah. Not much point asking anymore, when I already have the answers we need. Sorry about that whole business, by the way.”
He turned to Leah from Cassandra, and gave a remorseful smile.
“I’m sure you have a whole bunch of questions, and I promise you I’ll give you answers. It only seems a fair trade for scaring the shit out of you.”
He leaned down to offer Leah his hand. In a conspiratorial stage whisper, he added,
“Between you and me, the only reason we had to do this at all is because someone,"
He looked around theatrically, purposefully avoiding Cassandra’s face, which was turning red as she realised what was about to happen.
"Was concerned that her finding you attractive was a result of you getting in her head. Well, more literally, in this-."
A stone whirled through the air, neatly dodged by a laughing Liam. From behind a tree, he shouted,
"Oh, don't deny it, I saw you blushing when you saw her!"
The tension was well and truly gone at this point, and Leah sighed with relief. Whoever - whatever - this group was, she was in the clear for the moment. And while she suspected that Liam had picked up on something about her, he didn’t think it worth killing her over right away. That was a good sign if ever she had seen one. Cassandra had stormed off out of the camp, and Liam was in fits of laughter still over her reaction, calling out further comments at her retreating back. The guards, concern over the situation fading, let out a collective sigh, and returned to what they were doing. It seemed that the fighting for the day was officially over.
Recovering from his giggling, Liam sat down with Leah, putting aside his worries and hopes for her for the moment for the goal of actually explaining to the woman exactly why he had to do what he did. This was going to be awkward regardless of how he went about it, so, he decided to simply jump in to it.
“So. Do you have any idea why we had to do what we did back then?”
Leah had an inkling from the questions they had asked her - at least, the ones that weren’t bizarre, anyway.
“You thought I might try to mess with your heads, for some reason.”
“Yeah, about that. So, that ritual that you saw in there? It was orchestrated by a powerful psychomancer.”
The blank look on her face led him to elaborate.
“A mental mage. We don’t know what her plan was, but there are tales that some psychomancers can transfer their minds into another body, and if she had done that to you…”
“Then I would have been a threat.”
“Exactly. We had to know, for sure.”
“And are you sure that I wasn’t lying? If she was so powerful, couldn’t she make you think I told the truth?”
“She could, usually.”
He held up his hands, showing the ring and cut. She winced in sympathetic pain, which got her a smile.
“Its fine. On this ring is a potent enchantment, a relic from, uh. Well, maybe I’ll tell you about that another time. Point is, when I activate it, my mental resistances are doubled, and any attacks will first break the ring. So, if you HAD tried to do anything to me, I would have had more than enough warning to do something about it before it was a problem.”
The implications behind do something about it were clear. Leah shuddered at the thought of how close she really was to death, and how fortunate she was that whatever the skill was that she had picked up, it hadn’t given her a way to mentally attack someone directly. Who knows what their reactions would have been if she could? Liam continued, glossing over his retroactive threat.
“Of course, the ring only works for 12 hours, and then it falls apart on its own, so, I’m a little annoyed that I needed to use it at all. Had the plan worked…”
He glared in the direction Cassandra had left.
“Then I wouldn’t have needed to intervene.”
“The plan? Does that by any chance have something to do with those ridiculous questions Cassandra was asking me?”
“Yeah. I was trying to get a baseline for your tells. My Lie Detection is strong, but it works best when I have more experience with the target. Had Cass followed the plan, then you would have given me that baseline, and I could have simply listened to you answer her questions without ever revealing myself. Latasha may have been powerful, but she would have to know I was there to do anything about me. And Rogues are very good at remaining hidden when we want to be.”
More RPG stuff. Saving that for another time though, she pushed on, all the talk about mental influences bringing up something that may be important to both of them.
“So, you mentioned mental influences. I don’t know how much this helps, but while I was in the barrow, something was attacking my mind.”
Liam’s reaction was severe. He glared first at her, then in the direction Cass had left, then finally at the barrow itself. All the while, his hand had landed on his dagger and refused to leave the hilt. Still staring, he carefully asked Leah,
“What do you mean, exactly?”
“I’m not entirely sure myself. All I know is, I woke up, and something was in my mind, trying to get me to do things I don’t understand. Fortunately,”
And here, she decided to massage the truth,
“Once I left the barrow, the influence faded.”
Liam looked at her, then back towards the barrow. He had known something was wrong, but had taken it to be a residual effect from the ritual. Had there been something else in the barrow with them? No, he would have noticed it. But she wasn’t lying about being attacked, even if she was stretching the truth in the second half of her comment. He hadn’t detected any residual influences on her throughout their interrogation, so he assumed she was lying about how she stopped the influence. Whatever it was, they might still be in danger even here. He let go of the dagger that he had been holding without any conscious thought, and sighed. Not much good a physical blade could do against a mental construct after all. He turned back to face the elf.
“Dammit. Ok, we still need to go back in there… I’ll need to evaluate anyone coming back, and no one goes in without a partner. Thank you for telling me.”
Leah shrugged, and gave a small smile back at him.
“Well, right now, you are the closest things to friends I have here. It wouldn’t do me much good if you all got yourselves mind wiped, or something.”
Liam’s laugh mirrored her own sentiment, and he began to regret playing things so harsh with her. Especially if he was right about the ritual. Still, she didn’t seem to have taken things too much to heart.
“Indeed it wouldn’t. Don’t worry, Cass and I have experience dealing with mental attackers. Thats part of the reason why we’re out here in the first place. If you feel anything strange, let one of us know.”
Leah nodded, and leaned back against the tree she was still propped up against. She rubbed her chest where the boot had hit her. Liam frowned at that.
“You aren’t hurt, are you?”
“No, I don’t think so. Though I think I might need a change of underwea-”
She was acutely aware, at that moment, that she was completely nude beneath the robe, and while Liam obviously knew that, she had been talking to him the entire time like that. Her blush must have been very evident, as Liam couldn’t contain his laughter. Well, if he didn’t know before, he did now.
“Oh, right. We’ll have to sort you out some clothes as well. Will that make things square between us?”