One moment, there was a horde of undead, making good on their promise to bring death to everyone in the church, and Liam was making the hard decision whether to slam the doors shut before everyone in, and then next, there was simply a pile of corpses and silence, only broken by the low moans of a critically wounded villager. No one moved for seconds - they refused to believe it was true. All eyes were on Leah, the one remaining figure stood in what once was a crowd. Then, she collapsed, and broke the spell. A commanding voice boomed across the crowd.
“Right, form up search parties and clear the village. 2 archers, 2 melee. Any survivors, you send them here, any straggling undead, engage if its alone or call for backup if theres more than one. We aren’t taking any chances. You, mercs, get to the gate and secure it- Oh, and take whoever you think you need.”
The remaining mercenaries, those who hadn’t been crushed in the assault on the golem, turned to each other, shrugged, and set off, calling out to random armed villagers as they went. Byrne, having finished giving his orders, walked over to Liam.
“Now I’m not saying this is on you, but you certainly have some questions to answer.”
Liam, who had been staring at Leah, snapped around to face him.
“Questions? I think we just saved all of you, as per our agreement. Questions weren’t part of the bargain.”
Byrne tugged on his beard, tapping his sword against the ground.
“Be that as it may, that girl,”
He pointed to where Leah lay unmoving, Alistair and Cassandra rushing over to her and the heavily wounded mans aid.
“Should be dead. And yet, she stands amongst a pile of corpses, not a hair on her head harmed. I don’t know who, or what, you brought into my home, but if you aren’t going to answer, you need to leave.”
Liam shrugged, and turned back to face Leah.
“Honestly? I don’t know either. I have some good guesses, but this,”
He waved his arm across the devastation.
“This, is new to me. If we want answers, we’ll need to ask Leah.”
Byrne frowned, still tapping his sword.
Cassandra had been the only one to see what happened. Or at least, part of what happened. She had climbed the roof of a nearby home to get a better angle, when she had seen Leah get swallowed by the crowd, which… parted around her. Unharmed, she was set upon by something black, and hungry. Something she had never thought she’d see here, not again. A shade. It shot from the gate, faster than an arrow, passed through the horde of undead like they weren’t there, and simply touched her. She’d seen it before, and it had terrified her then. It tried to consume her soul, but something strange happened. Not only did Leah not die. The shade evaporated, and with it, the rest of the undead. It was a dream come true, and an unsettling question. What had happened, and why? She had no time to ponder these questions, before Leah fell. She leapt down, calling out for aid, and took off at a sprint to Leah’s position. The priest had joined her along the way, without her noticing.
“Leah! Leah! Talk to me!”
“Step back, ranger, please… I’ve little enough energy to do what needs to be done.”
She glared daggers at the priest, but recognising his expertise in the area, she did as she was bid and stepped back. Her eyes never left Leah though, nor the hands of the priest that felt her neck, then her chest. That almost drew her blades, but the priest looked around to her.
“Go. Bind that mans wounds. Do what you can for him, while I recover. This one will survive.”
He sat back, and settled into a meditative pose, before prostrating his body in supplication to something unseen. Leaving the magi to his rituals, she set forward to the injured man, relief flooding her body. Why she was so relieved, she questioned herself about. She’d only met the girl 3 days ago, and already she was treating her like a comrade. No, more? She shook her head. Those thoughts were not for now, and certainly not when sober. She reached the man, and examined him with her limited skill in first aid. His upper body was scratched and torn, but it was his legs that were the real horror. Stripped of flesh completely to the bone, with ragged edges at his thighs, the man certainly wouldn’t live long without major medical attention. The wounds were blessedly not bleeding fast - one of the properties of a wound from a zombie was that blood loss tended not to be what killed you. She set to work applying a tourniquet to the legs, however, with a length of fine silk rope coiled in a pouch. He had mercifully lost consciousness before she arrived, so causing any greater pain was of little issue.
After the bindings to his legs were applied, she pressed a wad of cloth, torn from his undershirt, against one of the more serious wounds, when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“You have done well, but I shall take care of him from here. Take the girl back to the church, and call upon Byrne for a stretcher and men. If Uld wills a miracle, this man may yet be saved.”
“Are you sure she’s going to be ok?”
He looked at her, rolling up his sleeves, the golden glow of life mana already suffusing his hands.
“As certain as I can be. She breaths, and her pulse is steady. I suspect it to be simple exhaustion. Let her rest, and I will tend to her once I have evaluated the more serious injuries.”
With no further questions, Cassandra turned, and picked up Leah. She was surprisingly light, even with her being smaller than the Ranger. She carried Leah carefully back towards the church, being met in the middle by Liam. He looked down at Leah in Cassandra’s arms, his scars bent in lines of concern.
“Priest said she’s just tired. Gods know I don’t blame her, after… whatever it is she did.”
“Yeah, we’ll need to talk about that soon. Byrne is getting suspicious, and I don’t blame him. We’re gonna need answers, or we might just find our stay here cut short.”
Cassandra shook her head, and the two walked on to the church.
“Never a damn moment to breath, is there?”
“I warned you about my luck. Looks like its starting to rub off on us all.”
[Diagnostic systems engaged]
[Source of shutdown: Mana depletion]
[Beginning emergency reactivation of mana accumulators]
[Mana accumulators active. Reading at 34% efficiency]
[Critical mana levels detected: Higher functions remain disabled]
[Hard locking tertiary systems]
[Hard locking secondary systems]
[Soft locking non essential systems]
[Please Leah… wake up…]
Leah woke up. Her eyes snapped open, and now she was in a room she didn’t recognise. Which was odd, because when she had closed them, she was in a street, in the village, wasn’t she? And according to her clock, she’d lost… 16 hours? The memories of before she woke dripped back into her conscious mind. She’d fought off whatever that was - a shade, she remembered - then her internal mana reserve had bottomed out and she’d… woken up here? What exactly had happened? She looked around the room she was in. She was in a tiny box of a room, barely 6 feet across, on a bed that took up half the floor space. A narrow slitted window that she recognised gave her an idea as to where she was. The church. Through it, afternoon light drifted in, filling the room with a soft glow. She sighed, and leaned back into the mattress. Whatever had happened to her, she was still dog tired, though she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. But maybe, just a little rest. She hadn’t had any chance to actually relax since she had arrived, without questions, discussions, or being the watch dog for everyone.
Maybe another hour passed before the door opened, and woke Leah up again. She hadn’t even realised she was asleep until then. It was Alistair.
“Ah, awake so soon. How are you feeling?”
Leah opened her mouth to speak, but only a cough came out. Alistair nodded, and poured a glass of water for her from a jug on the nightstand. She took it gratefully, and soothed her dry throat.
“I’m feeling like this is all very familiar.”
“Never mind. I’m fine, I think. Shouldn’t you be telling me how I’m doing?”
The priest smiled at her, and tilted his head.
“Oh, no. I merely asked Uld for his aid. I truly have no idea how well you are. Now if you had any wounds, I could perhaps have a better idea, but whats inside… that is a mystery even to me.”
Leah sat up, and rubbed her head.
“Well, I still feel tired… but not overly so. Just, want to lie in for just another hour tired, not been up all night studying and now its time for the test tired.”
She cut off his next question.
“Cultural differences. So, um, not to put too fine a point on it… what happened?”
“Well… best as I can tell, and this is second hand information, you were attacked by the shade,”
Leah nodded. She remembered that part.
“Then you did… something to it, Uld knows what, and then all the undead simply collapsed. I’d truly never seen anything like it. We were hoping that you could share some insight into that.”
Leah was about to respond that it was her doing, but not before getting a little more information out of the priest. She still hadn’t satisfied her craving for more knowledge about this world, and doubted she ever would. She cocked her head to the side, doing her best impression of someone confused.
“Really? Is that not normal? I assumed that the shade was the one controlling them, and when the control went…”
“No, we had established that the shade was likely the one who raised them, or at least bent them to its will. However, even when a necromancer raises the undead, they persist for a time after their master dies. Longer, if they have a source of mana to feed on. These died immediately. Almost as if they were dismissed.”
It was Alistairs turn to put on his best expression of confusion. Leah realised that her gambit had probably failed. Damn this priest and his social skills. She would need to make it a priority to learn some of those ASAP.
“I suppose it will forever be a mystery as to what happened to them… unless of course, you had anything else to share?”
“Ok, ok, you got me. Lets not beat around the bush. But I don’t want to have to explain more than once, if I have to, and I know damn well everyone is going to want to hear it from me. So, where’s Cass and Liam?”
“And Byrne. He would kill me if I let you tell your story without him present. But it is of small importance. They are all at the…”
Leah knew it was the tavern, but she still couldn’t suppress a snort of laughter.
“Yes, yes, very amusing. I’ll have you know I was against the renaming of the establishment, but what can be done. I will escort you there.”
Leah swung her legs over the side of the bed, having already established that no one had thought to undress her. That was good. She’d likely have to have serious words if that had crossed anyones mind. You know, unless it was the right person doing the undressing… She hastily scrubbed that thought away, lest she embarrass herself further in front of the priest.
“I’m not a maiden who needs escorting. I know where it is, you are simply accompanying me.”
Alistair tilted his head quizzically. This wasn’t something he was used to, unless…
“Ah, is this another of those cultural differences you are fond of mentioning? It was simply a matter of courtesy, no offence meant.”
Leah stood, looking at him sidelong. There didn’t seem to be any actual ill intent behind his words. Damn these cultural differences.
“Yeah, lets go with that. Anyway. To the… Cock.”
“Shall we just refer to it as the tavern?”
The two made it to the tavern in good time, owing to the fact that most of the villagers were either recovering or still effecting repairs to the wall. Upon leaving the church, they passed a row of shrouded bodies, and a small crowd of mourning individuals. Leah averted her eyes, still not comfortable with the idea of death being so near to her. It had always seemed so far away, like something that happened to other people, on the other side of the world. And then she had seen that man get torn apart in front of her… She shuddered, and realised that she had stopped. Alistair was watching her, the shadow of concern on his face. She shook her head.
“Being around death is a new thing for me. Its… an interesting transition.”
He nodded sympathetically.
“I understand. I have been around death for nearly all my life. Aside from my practises with death mana, care for the dying is among the foremost tasks for a priest, no matter the cloth. Shall we..?”
The two hurried on past, Leah moving on ahead as Alistair stayed a moment to give some words and comfort to the bereaved. After that, they moved on. The tavern was unusually quiet - or at least, Leah assumed it to be so. She had a picture of medieval taverns in her head from fantasies and pop history. Raucous and lively, with ale aplenty and fights breaking out. This, by contrast, was dour and moody. The only individuals there being Cassandra and Liam, Byrne and a man who Leah assumed to be the landlord. They were clustered around a large table in the corner, minus the landlord, who was tending to the sadly empty bar. They all looked up as Alistair and Leah entered.
“Ah, look who’s finally awake. Did you have a nice sleep while we were all working hard?”
That earned Liam a punch from Cassandra.
“Bullshit, Liam. You’ve been finding any excuse.”
“Better than worrying all day-”
He was ready for the next punch, and ducked out of the way. Byrne looked around at them, his face a mask of barely contained anger.
“Children. If you would cease your ‘festivities’…”
He beckoned for the two to come and sit. This table was far larger than the one they had first sat around, what felt like weeks ago, in Byrne’s kitchen. It easily sat the five of them.
“Now that our…”
That earned Liam another look, shutting him up.
“Our… comrade is here, we have some questions.”
All eyes were on Leah, who shrank back into her chair.
Cassandra spoke up, glancing around the table at the others.
“Yes. I saw what happened, and I, well, I just don’t believe it. Even after everything I’ve seen from you…”
Liam finished her sentence.
“Someone of your level shouldn’t just be able to take down a shade. Now, me and Cass, we trust you, we’ve already been over that, but our good friend here…”
“Doesn’t. If what the ranger - Cassandra - says is true, then you took down a monster that should have absolutely killed you. I want to know how you did it, and whether leaving you to recover was the right move.”
She noticed then that he was in full battle regalia still, and the landlord, who had appeared to simply be minding the bar, was watching the group intently, his hand gripping something under the bar top tight enough to make the veins on his arm stand out. She presumed it to be a ranged weapon of sorts - it seemed like enough of a stereotype to carry over to this world. She swallowed, and looked to Liam.
“What is it about me that attracts such hostile interrogations?”
He shrugged, barely concealing a grin. Though it was strained - Cassandra and Liam both looked strained. Whatever the situation was, this was serious, for them both to be concerned. Especially once she noted that Cassandra was missing both her bow and swords.
“I’m afraid I can’t say. Though I must admit, this is looking very familiar.”
Leah shook her head, and looked back to Byrne. She felt anxiety at the situation, but oddly, not as severe as she expected. With how dangerous her life had been since arriving here, the idea of being under attack at a moments notice barely registered as scary to her. Another thing to tuck away for later.
“Well, seeing as your trap was so expertly set up, how could I be so rude as to not give you some answers?”
A twist of Byrne’s lips indicated that now was not the time for humour.
“Right. So, the shade tried to assault me mentally. I have, shall we say, an affinity for dealing with mental attacks.”
“A naturally high mental resistance score, lets say. And some skills that let me handle it better than most.”
Alistair was next to cut in.
“I’m sorry, but I have to interject. Shades do not attack via the mind. Like all undead, they seek to consume their victims soul.”
It was Leah’s turn to be confused.
“But to do that, they would have to go through the mind… Right?”
The silence surrounding her was deafening, and she realised that what she had said, she only knew because of her mental manipulation skill. She swallowed.
“That… thats what they do, then. They take over your mind, and consume your memories by devouring your soul. They are infophages.”
Liam cut in. Leah was getting pretty tired of the interruptions.
“Look, we aren’t going to get anywhere if you keep interrupting me. If you have a question, just… raise your hand or something. Because for all you know, I might just be about to explain what an infophage is.”
Liam shut his mouth, looking sufficiently mollified. She was grateful that Cassandra hadn’t cut in, even though she had seen the elf practically chomping at the bit to ask questions.
“An infophage is something that lives off of information, destroying it and turning it into meaningless junk data. Where I come from they were a,”
She couldn’t say made up, or fantasy, so she went with the next bests thing.
“Theoretical life form. And their existence is actually pretty helpful for understanding a few other things… Anyway. To get back to the point at hand. It attempted to get into my head, and through there, my soul. I stopped it, because of my aforementioned skill in mental defence. Better, I fought back. I dominated it, forced it to dismiss itself, and took the rest of the undead with it. Thats the long and short of things. Any questions?”
There were many.
“But what I want to know is, how do you have these skills in mental combat, if you do not have a way of entering peoples minds?”
“Correction, I have a way now. I learnt it while fighting the shade, and no, it requires physical contact so I couldn’t have done anything since I got back. Liam?”
“Telling the truth.”
He shrugged. He was honestly shocked at the whole story, and the explanations that had followed. Not only had she been attacked by two - correction, three - mental invaders in as many days, she had used her experiences to reach astounding heights in the field. He thought that he couldn’t learn anything that would shock him anymore since meeting the girl, but once more she continued to break his expectations. He hadn’t detected the slightest hint of mental magic since she arrived, and frankly, if she was strong enough to take down a shade, then she could dominate them all with a moments thought. Even if he still had his ring, he didn’t think he could resist her influence now. He shuddered, thankful he hadn’t taken a harder line back at the barrow. Byrne looked at him, eyes narrowed, then back to Leah.
“I’ve faced mental attacks almost every day of my life,”
Technically not a lie, considering this was a new life,
“And so I had to learn pretty quickly how to deal with them. And I have some traits that helped with that, which I… can’t talk about.”
She grimaced, expecting Byrne to dig deeper, but Liam was ready. He hadn’t just been being astounded, he was thinking of a way out of the situation that didn’t involve blabbing all of Leah’s secrets, and risking betrayal. And so, he had been planning the entire time. He knew that the bartender was a rogue like himself - what kind, he couldn’t say, but that made it likely that he had some sort of lie detection ability. So, he had been playing counter intelligence, using a skill to manipulate his intentions as so to fool the lie detection into giving false positives. An expert spy like himself might be able to pick up on the interference, but for a regular thief, they would likely think they were facing someone telling the truth at all times. Provided, of course, he had time to lay the groundwork for a lie or two. He mixed in his deception skill for good measure, because if this failed, then at best they would need to tell Byrne everything. At worst… well, becoming a quiver wasn’t a bad end, he supposed.
“She’s under a geas. Can’t talk about certain parts of her past.”
She looked at Liam with gratitude. She hadn’t expected such a fast response from him, but she knew, at minimum, that showing her genuine gratitude would help them both sell the act. Byrne didn’t look happy, and turned to look at the landlord. He shrugged, and nodded. Byrne looked back, relaxing somewhat.
“I can assure you, though, that at minimum, she’s as much of a danger to you as Ox. She could probably crush you if she wanted to, but she doesn’t have a bad bone in her body.”
A little bit of a lie. He didn’t know that for certain. But most of it being truthful helped it slip by under the radar. Byrne looked mollified, and leaned back in his chair. Alistair, who had been silently contemplating her words the entire time, spoke up.
“Well. If what you say is true - and I suspect it is - then we owe you not only an apology, but also a great debt of gratitude. You saved many lives through risking yourself like that.”
She wanted to sell that angle. She REALLY wanted to sell that angle. But she felt she would get caught out if she tried to big herself up over sacrificing herself.
“Um… I don’t want to sound too humble, but I honestly wasn’t thinking about that back then. I just stopped because I saw that man fall-”
She looked up quickly, her ears springing to attention.
“Oh! I completely forgot! That man, is he ok?”
She addressed her question to Alistair, presuming him to be the one most likely to know. His expression turned grim.
“…Yes. Perhaps. Certainly, he will never walk again. I could not save his legs. But thanks to you, he may yet live.”
Leah relaxed somewhat, and continued.
“Good, good… well, I stopped because I saw him fall, and I had a moments hesitation on if I should go back for him. And then, well. I got attacked. I didn’t even know the shade was there until it got me. That was all luck.”
Alistair looked over at Byrne, who nodded and spoke up.
“Either way, you stopped them. And we don’t judge you to be a threat to us or his lordship, so…”
He stood, drew his sword - causing Leah to almost leap out of her chair, before Cassandra touched her arm and shook her head. He placed it on the table, handle first towards Leah, and bowed his head.
“On behalf of my village, and of my own personal actions, I thank you for your deeds, and humbly apologise for my actions. Please take my head in recompense.”
Leah’s eyes practically bulged, and a strangled noise came out of her throat, before Cassandra spoke up for her.
“We humbly accept the apology, and deny your request. Today you, tomorrow me.”
“Today you, tomorrow me.”
Byrne echoed her, then looked over at Leah once more.
“Again, you seem to be unaware of our customs. Perhaps we should, instead, take part in a more universal act of contrition. Karl?”
He turned around to face the landlord. The man nodded, and released his grip on whatever it was, spinning around to grab mugs for everyone. A moment later, the ale was flowing freely, and Leah found herself quite grateful that at least one tradition seemed to be common amongst them.