Leah awoke to something stabbing her in the eyes through her eyelids. A brief inspection by opening them revealed it to be the morning light, and she scrambled to roll over away from it.
“Oh no you don’t. Time to face the day - and the music.”
The voice, which Leah identified through the fuzziness in her head as Cassandra’s, was full of mirth and more than a little schadenfreude. Leah’s voice, by contrast, was raspy and grumpy.
“Oh, you don’t remember getting blitzed last night? You should have warned us that you can’t handle your alcohol, though, that might not have saved you.”
A strong pair of hands pulled away the sheets that she had hastily covered her head with, and the painful light was back. Leah moaned with discontent.
“Nope. Time to get up, we have work to do before we leave. And stories to tell you while they’ll still hurt.”
Leah rolled back over, and blearily looked up at the elf. Matching her voice, her face was plastered with an evil grin. Leah also noticed a blinking notification - something she hadn’t seen them do before. She opened it up, and it split into a series of notifications.
You have become intoxicated. Status: Mild intoxication.
You have become intoxicated. Status: Moderate intoxication.
You have become intoxicated. Status: Major intoxication.
Your intoxication status has faded, and become replaced with: Moderate hangover.
“No shit what? Getting some of your memory back?”
“No, got a notification about my hangover. It was blinking.”
“Ha! You must have been ignoring it all night. It takes a lot for them to get your attention like that. What level is it?”
“Oh, well, that sounds like a challenge. When we get to Ironshod, I’m taking you drinking with some dwarves. We’ll get you to major, or even serious, for certain!”
The strong hands were back, and dragging her upright. Leah could do nothing against this assault, except be manhandled. She wobbled on her feet, and looked down. She was barefoot, and wearing completely different clothes. She had no memory of changing, and she looked up quickly - too quickly. Cassandra laughed, and slapped her shoulder, not helping her balance.
“No, you changed yourself. Quite dramatically too. I’m sure Liam could tell you all about it - he was the one sent after you when you ran off.”
A groan was all she got in response. Though she wondered why it was that she didn’t remember anything. Was she that far gone? Though… no, she had some memories. They started drinking, and she couldn’t get drunk - her systems kept registering the alcohol as a poison, and eradicating it at the cost of her internal mana supply. She’d had to actively suppress it for anything to have an effect. And that seemed to have been too effective. That was something to investigate another time, though. A time when the room wasn’t spinning and light wasn’t actively trying to kill her. She sat back down on the bed, and rubbed her eyes.
“Well, shit. At least I’m not the only one who’s going to be the talk of the town?”
Her voice dripped with hope, pleading Cassandra to say yes. Her grin grew wider, and she shook her head.
“Nope. You were the only one who couldn’t handle her ale. Or, well. The fortified stuff that got brought out after a while anyway. Its good to know that your cheating body has some weaknesses!”
“Noted… So, now that you’ve decided to torture me…”
“We’re getting some food down you, then we’re getting ready. Liam wants-”
“Food? Oh, god, no…”
“Oh gods, yes. Come on. It’ll wake you up.”
An hour later, and a torturous meal driven by Cassandra’s ribbing, Leah felt something resembling human. Or elven. Or doll- Whatever she was. They were joined by Liam, grinning from ear to ear.
“Ahh, I see our light weight decided to face the morning. How are you feeling?”
Leah spoke between mouthfuls of bread. She had to admit that she was hungry, even if her stomach still turned at the idea of food. She swallowed and continued.
“This monster decided to wake me up. And the revenge will be sweet, I assure you.”
She glared at Cassandra, who was looking smug, leaning back in her chair. Before he could speak up, Leah cut Liam a glare.
“And before you start. If you tell any stories about me, I will personally rip the memories out of your head.”
And it would be so easy to do it, as well. No one could stop you.
Her comment was met with shocked silence, and she glanced around the table.
“That wasn’t funny, Leah.”
Both Liam and Cassandra were glaring at her now, and she hastily swallowed a drink of water.
“Sorry… I don’t know where that came from.”
Liam sighed, and cut the tension.
“I’ll chalk that one down to a hangover. But, that does bring up a good point. We’re going to need to talk about your new… ability at some point, because, while useful, its also incredibly dangerous. We got lucky yesterday. I reckon the only reason we got away with what you said is because you helped save the village. Mental mages are hated, and for very good reason.”
Leah nodded, doing her best to ignore the unreadable stare that Cassandra was giving her.
“I kind of picked up on that, yeah. And I probably could have put the pieces together anyway, knowing what I know now.”
Liam shook his head.
“No, its not that… I, look. We’ll talk about it on the trail. I’ve already made arrangements with Byrne, and allayed his fears. The fact you get to live is proof enough of that. But this is serious.”
Unable to bear the eyes boring into the side of her head any longer, Leah looked around at Cassandra, who hastily looked away. Leah frowned, and spoke up to the both of them.
“I’m assuming the way that Cass is looking at me has something to do with this?”
“Yes. It is. I’m sorry, we should have said something sooner, but I didn’t think…”
He threw his hands up in the air.
“Whats done is done. We need to get moving soon, at any rate. When you two are done eating, come meet me out back.
When he left, Cassandra and Leah sat in awkward silence for a moment, before Cassandra spoke up.
“Liam’s right. We should talk about it later. And its complicated. Nothing to do with you personally, but… Anyway, finish up. Sooner we leave, sooner we can talk.”
The two joined Liam behind the tavern, where the he and the landlord were saddling a pair of horses. Liam looked around at them when they arrived.
“Good. So, here’s the situation for your benefit, Leah. We need to get to town as soon as possible, and I managed to wrangle us some horses. Byrne was going to need to send out a messenger anyway, so we’ve been commissioned to deliver the message to the barony about the attack we fended off, and that theres an undead presence in the area. So, the three of us will be riding the rest of the way, which will cut our journey down immensely.”
“What about the mercs? I can’t see all of us fitting on two horses.”
“Yeah, about them. Well, most of them still need to recover here anyway, and as part of their payment, they’ll be retrieving the horses on foot. And getting a healthy sum of money on top of that, about what the messenger would have been paid each. Not their greatest haul, for certain, but for two weeks work, while injured, they can’t exactly complain. And after losing so many, I bet they’d enjoy a bit of a break.”
Liam turned to tighten a strap, and Leah noticed for the first time a bright red burn on his hand, the glove removed. She winced in sympathetic pain, and pointed it out.
“How did you manage that?”
He looked at the injury, and shrugged.
“Must have been last night. I had to literally pull your arse out of the fire, you know?”
“No, no, no stories. Please.”
He grinned, and looked back to his work. His grin was forced, because he knew where the burn really came from.
Connor lay in bed, wincing slightly as he shifted his broken arm. The priest had done good work with it, but he didn’t know any spells to set bones. It would heal faster, with the regular infusions of healing magic he was receiving, but it would still take up to a week for the injury to fully heal. And then they would be setting off for the barony to retrieve the horses. He would have to ditch the rest there, and find a fence. He didn’t know anyone in the town, but there had to be one, surely. His thoughts were interrupted by his danger sense triggering, and he look wildly around the room. He sucked in air once again, as his arm went for a weapon that wasn’t there, and jogged against the sling it was held in. Still, his eyes darted this way and that, trying to identify the threat, and his other hand went to the night stand for a weapon - anything would do. It was stopped by a firm grip, and a knife was placed against his throat.
“You know, I had hoped you’d come clean on your own. You must have known I’d noticed it go missing, right?”
Connor gulped, not daring to look around at his assailant. He reached deep into his rogues skills, and pulled hard on his deception. He had a good idea who it was, and that his talents might not work here, but he had to try.
“Missing? What are you talking about, I-”
The knife was pressed closer against his neck, and a line of blood oozed from a wound.
“Now, now. Lets not play games. The ritual you took. I know you have it, saw you playing with the damn thing since we left camp. And I was content to see whether you’d give it up willingly or not, but plans have changed. So, I’m going to reach down now, and take it. If you move funny, you die. If you call out, you die. Not that it would matter - I’ve already set up the muffle field, so no one would hear you anyway.”
Connor felt the hand release his wrist, and move down to the bandolier that was strung over the night stand. Dammit, he knew he should have insisted on wearing it under the sling. His thoughts rapidly ran through possible scenarios, of ways he could get out of this while keeping that ritual. He needed it, dammit! That was his retirement! He couldn’t let this damn rogue steal it from under him! It was HIS! He heard the buckle catch, and the man behind him curse, and took that as his opportunity. He rolled out of bed, and crashed against the wall on the opposite side. Rather than get up immediately, he kicked at the bed, hoping to knock the other rogue of balance, but the bed struck only air. A white hot pain drove him against the wall, and brought another wince of pain out of him. Almost immediately, it was replaced with numbness. Shit. Poison.
“I take it you’ve gathered that the blade on that dagger is poisoned. So, don’t worry about trying to stop me anymore. You’ll be paralysed for another few hours, and should shake off the effects completely by evening tomorrow. By which time, we’ll be long gone. You’ll never see me again, so don’t plan on getting any revenge.”
Connor saw Liam stand up triumphantly, scroll in hand. He walked around the shifted bed, pushing it back into place, and over to Connor. Leaning down, took hold of the dagger, and dragged it out of the man, drawing nothing but a cold slurp as the cold steel left flesh. Connor felt nothing, proof of the poisons effect, and watched as Liam wiped the blade off on his leg, before stashing it away out of sight. He did his best to try and stop him, stop him stealing what was his, but all he could manage was some slurred speech.
“Thats… give it… back…”
“Sorry, friend. But its mine now, and-”
Liam was cut off by a burning in his hand, and he dropped the scroll, ripping his glove off his hand to see a bright red mark spreading from his finger tips down, slowly but inexorably.
He turned on his heel, scroll forgotten, and fled the room.
“Priest, priest, where the FUCK is that priest…”
Liam shook away the recollection. It was done with now, no need to trouble those two about it. He knew Cass knew something, but she wasn’t about to ask questions that would lead to lies. She knew him too well for that. He’d tell her when he was ready. And Leah… well, who knows with her, but she had no need to know what happened. When he found out more, he could tell her, but for now, well, the knowledge would do more harm than good. He finished tightening the strap, and slapped the saddle.
“All good here. Karl?”
The landlord nodded, and slapped the saddle he was working on. He beckoned for Cassandra to come over and mount up.
“Wait, we’re leaving right now? What about the, um, the cart, and its… contents?”
“Right now. Don’t worry about that. The mercs will be bringing them with when they set out. And the guild will take care of the loot - plus what will happen to them if they don’t follow through. Anyway, we need to get going fast. We have a new quest, don’t you know?”
Liam grinned, and swung himself up onto the saddle. To push away the pain in his hand from the exertion, he decided to change the plans up a little, just to poke some fun at the women in his party.
“Leah, you’ll be riding with Cass today. Don’t worry, she’s a better rider than me, you’ll be in safe hands.”
Cassandra’s ears tilted back in surprise, and she sputtered at Liam.
“Wha- She was going to ride-”
“Yes, yes, she was going to ride with me, but oh, no, would you look at that, I injured my hand. It’ll be oh so difficult managing a horse as it is, I couldn’t possibly have someone riding with me as well… but if the ranger feels she is unable, I suppose I MUST-”
Cassandra, ears tinged red, swung herself up onto her own horse, and patted the saddle behind her.
“Leah. Sit here and, uh…”
Leah was blushing too, and both of them glared at Liam, who grinned and looked away innocently.
“Hold on tight.”
Cassandra finished lamely.
The ride was awkward for both of them. Leah had never ridden a horse before, and despite her intentions, ended up gripping Cassandra’s waist tightly the entire ride, especially after they left the village and set off at a faster pace. She was too busy squeezing her eyes shut and trying to ignore the bumping and jostling underneath her to feel Cassandra’s embarrassment. Though the elf couldn’t say she didn’t enjoy having the smaller elf tucked behind her, squeezing her tight, and maybe it would have even have been an enjoyable trip, had Liam not been grinning the entire way and making comments at the pair of them as they rode. And after she had made so much progress the night before… dammit, no, she wasn’t going to slip back into her old ways. She’d just have to get the other elf drunk again, and then, then they could get somewhere! Once they got rid of Liam, that is. The man seemed hell bent on ruining Cassandra’s day.
The three rode until mid afternoon, when Liam called for a halt. After they had dismounted, and tied off the horses to graze and rest, Leah spoke up.
“I thought we were going to be riding straight for town?”
“Yes, we are. Though, we need to talk, and I’m sure the horses won’t argue with some rest either.”
Leah couldn’t argue with that, and sat down on a log.
“So, what is there to talk about? This ‘serious’ business of yours?”
Cassandra and Liam looked at each other, then back to Leah.
“So, its about your mental magic.”
“Magic. Its basically magic. Ah, we’ll cover that another time… this is just semantics.”
Leah raised an eyebrow, urging him on.
Cassandra spoke up.
“Its a vile and twisted sort of magic, one that should never be practised.”
Leah looked at her, confused.
“…Yes, I thought we covered this. I can understand why its reviled, and I personally would rather not have to use it, but I have these skills now, so-”
“No, I don’t think you understand.”
She sat down opposite Leah, though far out of arms reach.
“Mental magic is… Its one of the higher magics.”
“Long story short, you know about the basic elements. You can mix them up and get new elements. As you mix them more, you get more complex effects. I don’t know the exact details, but this was as much as I was taught. And the higher you get…”
“The more dangerous they become.”
Liam finished her sentence and continued.
“Mental magic is one of the higher tiers, considered beyond elemental magic. And all of the highest tiers come with them risks, simply by knowing how to use them. And using them, well, that only accelerates the risks.”
Leah sighed, and looked them in the eyes, one after the other.
“Look. You are beating around the bush. What are the risks, and what is the issue?”
“The risks are being corrupted. We have a saying here, Power Corrupts. When you have the power to change things with a wave of your hand, to create marvels and bring down destruction, well, it gets in your head. It changes you. Most mages have a way of dealing with it - the Empire mandates that mages abstain for a period of time based on their seniority and skill, the elves, well, Cass?”
“The elves rely on geasa to control their magi. A relic from a time long gone, but a useful one, still.”
“Anyway, the common point is all mages have to learn to control how the power affects them. As a newbie practitioner of magic, you won’t need to worry about that yet, but we will need to get that under control sooner rather than later. And especially given the fact that you know mental magic. And have used it.”
“I’m going to use my vast intellect to make some presumptions here. I’m guessing that mental magic is one of those ones that corrupts you super quickly, and is harder to control. So I’m going to need to get some special education, lest I stare too hard into the abyss and become a monster. Is that about the gist of things?”
Liam looked at Cassandra and she shrugged.
“Yeah, thats about the gist of things. Are you sure you haven’t studied any magic before?”
“No, just read a lot of books in the past. Fine. I get it. So, I take it this Ironshod we’re going to is part of the process?”
“Yeah, Ironshod hold. We’d be going there after anyway, but it just so happens that the dwarves there know how to manage some of the higher magics. They still practise runecraft, after all. So, we reckon that we can trade in some favours and get you what you need while we’re there. And, you know, do some sight seeing, meet some old friends, etc. etc.”
“Well, was that it?”
“That… Was that it? This is kind of a serious thing, Leah.”
“I guess, but its not something I hadn’t planned for. Nothing comes for free, and I was going to see some sort cost for everything I have sooner or later. Plus, my world is full of stories of those who got a taste of power and got hungry for more. I’m not completely wet behind the ears. Though…”
She looked down, suddenly thoughtful. Her mind raced through possibilities, and sent queries to her submind, processing the information it got back. She nodded, right as Cassandra was about to ask what she was thinking about.
“I… what if, and this is complete conjecture here, what if this body of mine, it was designed in part to resist this effect? I mean, I have a built in firewall against outside corruption, right? What if it was designed to work internally as well?”
“That… Thats not a bad theory.”
It was Cassandra’s turn to look thoughtful, and Leah thought she detected a little hope in her expression as well. Liam shut them both down.
“But it doesn’t matter for now. Until we can know for certain that you can keep things under control, the plan remains the same. We need to go through Ironshod anyway, so if you haven’t caused another miracle by resisting the mental corruption of magic by then, which I’m not discounting by the way.”
“If anyone was going to do it, it would obviously be you. But, if that hasn’t happened by then, we stick to the plan, and get you to someone who can help you train. Worst case, you have two defences against the problem, which is hardly a bad thing, right?”
“Right. So, what next?”
“Next? Next, we get back on our horses are ride for town. I’ll have you know that the last part of the ride is awfully bumpy. You might want to hold on extra tight from here on out, Leah.”
Once again, Cassandra’s magical ability to obtain stones out of seemingly nowhere kicked in, and Liam was ducking a projectile, laughing all the while.