You have gained the skill, Danger Sense.
Bleary eyed, Leah stared at the notification that had woken her up. No, it hadn’t woken her up, she realised. Something else had - presumably this danger sense which she now had. What had triggered it wasn’t apparent, but she had no doubt that something was afoot. She sat up in bed, her mind already shifting up in gears and the world seeming to slow around her. She felt the bed shift beside her - Cass must have been disturbed by her sudden movements - but heard nothing. No whisper of bedsheets moving, no murmur of voices or rumble of carts outside. Complete and total silence, the likes of which she’d never experienced before. A part of her, still drunk off the excitement of earlier, and of course the alcohol of earlier, was happy to inform her that her tinnitus had apparently been cured when she moved bodies, but that was to be expected. Her hearing had improved in leaps and bounds, so why was it she couldn’t hear anything? Magic. It had to be magic. She shifted her vision.
Yes, there it was. The room was laden with mana. Not just the regular pools and whirls she had come to expect, but overlaid upon it, a thick and cloying mist of greys and deep blues, swirling through the room and leeching into everything it touched. It must be the source of this unnatural silence. Leah thought that, given time, she could banish the effect - if it was mana based, she could force it away with her own - but there was little time to experiment. She sprang up, stepping over the stirring figure of Cassandra, and turned to face the door. The cracks beside it and under it were leaking the strange mana. The source was behind it. Something was outside their door. As she turned to rouse Cassandra, she felt the air stir, and something clip her ankle. White hot pain flared through her leg, and she went down on one knee, hissing silently in pain. Her attention sufficiently taken away from Cass, she looked back to see the door had been taken completely off its hinges, and kicked across the room, catching her slightly as it crossed.
There were figures on the other side. Difficult to make out in the dim light, but clearly armed and armoured. The first stepped through the now very open doorway, wielding some kind of long, dark rod. It saw her, and lowered the rod towards her, pointing the dull flat tip at her. She felt her strength fleeing her body, and had she not already been on one knee, she would have fallen there now. Her still mana influenced vision watched as a string of her swirling mana was caught on the rod, and sucked into it. Her mana bar dropped prodigiously along side it, but she didn’t need it to tell her what she felt. That thing was sucking away her mana! Curiously, it didn’t seem to affect the condensed mana from her Magalyte Mana Pool, but that was little comfort. She hadn’t realised how much the ambient mana surrounding her had helped sustain her. It must be a consequence of her new body, or this new implement assaulting her. She knew that mana exhaustion was a thing, but this felt… wrong. Unnatural, even to her untrained senses.
The figure pointing the rod at her slowly approached her, and pressed the rod against her chest. Even through her clothing, she felt an icy chill spread through her, and her mana bar bottomed out completely. Notifications flashed up, but she suppressed them. There was no time now for distraction. One hand on the rod, its other reached towards her, and grabbed the hand that Leah had been using to try and lever the rod away from her. Not exactly what she had planned, but it would do. She tried something she had little experience in, reached inside herself, and manipulated that store of dense mana that seemed unique to her. It was thicker and slower to react to her presence, but fell under her control in short order, seeping up her arm, through her hand and into the body of the one assaulting her. And through that connection, she made to assault the man - she knew now it was a man - through his mind.
As before, the world fell away, and the two of them retreated into a mental landscape. Leah’s mind became a fortress, from which she was an army sallying forth towards the lone beggar man in the field outside. No defences, no training. This would be easy pickings. The army fell upon the cowering figure, and the scene became a wolf upon a deer, tearing into the innards of the screaming mammal. As her mental representation feasted, Leah consumed the mans thoughts and essence. For a moment, she was him, stomping up the stairs of the inn, the men and women behind him suppressing the lingering adventurers. One of his colleagues pulled the tab on a box of silence, and the inn became the eerily quiet world Leah had woken up to. She consumed more, ate away everything she could find. Then, there was nothing. She was alone inside his head, and she knew immediately that he was gone. She had eaten him. Shivering in revulsion, she returned to the real world, and looked through her own eyes.
The figure collapsed on top of her, the rod pressed between them still as icy cold as it was when it first touched her. A wave of panic rolled over Leah, the disgust at what she had done fleeing before it - she couldn’t the body. She was trapped. And the other figures were stepping across the boundary even as she watched. Two of them, no, three. She couldn’t eat all three of them at once. Two, perhaps, if she let her sub mind take over the task of one of them, but the third would surely notice, and she was defenceless while in her mental realm. She had enough internal mana for maybe one spell, and she couldn’t even call for help with the silence field in place. She needn’t have worried, though. Almost as soon as she saw the mans allies enter the room, she saw a blur from the corner of her eye, in the direction of the bed. Cassandra came in low, tucked into a roll, dagger - from where, Leah didn’t want to think about, they had been sleeping together - swing in a wide arc at the back of her first targets ankle. A silent cry of agony followed the figure down as their leg gave out beneath them, tendons sliced by the withdrawing blade.
Before they had even hit the ground, Cassandra was up and whirling on her next target. This one had better presence of mind, and turned to meet her, the third joining him. Both wielded cudgels, which they handled expertly, and worse, one was left handed. Leah could see the future as if it were happening now - two simultaneous attacks, one from each side. In the close confines of the room, Cassandra could do little - she was going to take a blow. At least, thats what should have happened. Instead, the left handed assailant dropped suddenly to the ground, borne down by a shadow that was already moving off its back to the last man standing. Between the shadows attack and Cassandra, they fell in short order. In a matter of seconds - though to Leah, it felt like it had been weeks - the fight was over. The shadow coalesced into Liam, bending down to finish off the downed attacked with a coup de grace. Cassandra was next to her, boot on the fallen, and as Leah acutely noticed, drooling figure that had pinned her down, pushing him off. Leah took a deep, shuddering breath, and looked away from the listless and dead eyed man beside her. Not dead, she knew. But close enough to be.
She barely felt as she was hauled to her feet, and dragged from the room. Presence of mind returned to her with the sound, as they cleared the silencing mist. The three were stood at the top of the stairs, Liam crouched and peering downstairs cautiously. Cassandra’s attention was firmly on Leah.
“Is anything broken? Can you move?”
“I- Yeah, I can. Bruised, but fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
“Physically, I’m fine.”
That got a concerned look from Cassandra, but she understood the implications, and that it was something that could wait until later. Cassandra turned to Liam, who was giving the two the thumbs up and getting to his feet.
“Admins. We’re either fucked, or saved.”
The three made their way downstairs, confident that there was little point in hiding. The bar area was still and silent, a far cry from the raucous scene from earlier in the night. Five figures waited to greet them. Four wearing mismatched arms and armour, two stood guard by the door and the other two stood beside the last figure. Wizened and seemingly decrepit, but with a spark in her eyes that belied her age, the woman was clearly a figure of authority. Her dress, and entourage, spoke volumes of that. She met the three with an appraising look as they descended. Cassandra and Liam, once on the ground floor, inclined their heads in respect, though Leah noticed they didn’t go so far as to bow. Not nobility then. And Liam mentioned admins. So this was guild business?
“Cassandra. Liam. And, I believe it is Leah? Our latest recruit. How sad it is that on the eve of your induction, such a flagrant violation of terms was carried out.”
Leah could feel the tension leave both Liam and Cassandra. Liam wasn’t joking about them being fucked. He took charge of the conversation.
“Ma’am, excuse my disrespect, but I don’t think there’s time for pleasantries. I trust you are appraised of the situation?”
Her eyes were not hard, but they nonetheless seemed to soften.
“Indeed. I assume they made to kill?”
Cassandra stepped in.
“Armed for capture. And they had a Null with them.”
“A Null, hmm? Interesting. I was unaware of any inquisitorial presence in this township.”
Liam cut in again, gritting his teeth.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but we really must be leaving. We can appraise you fully via messages, but we need to leave-”
“You are members of the guild, no? And is this not guild soil, in a manner of speaking? You may have been failed in our protection thus far, but I assure you now that any that intend to harm you now must come through me. With all the consequences that entails.”
Liam shut his mouth, almost audibly. He could tell when he was beaten, and if the Proxy was stepping in, they were as safe as they could be in this town. She carried on, as if the outburst hadn’t happened.
“Are the assailants dealt with?”
“All but the Null. He, uh…”
Cassandra couldn’t help herself, her gaze drifted to Leah before she could stop herself. The Proxy fixed Leah with a gaze that seemed to pass through her. Leah’s submind rumbled, and she felt a pressure wash over her. Not invading, but… observing. Casing the joint? It was hard to tell, with her limited experience. Book knowledge only gets you so far, after all. She did her best to conceal herself all the same, only realising after that in itself was a give away. She cursed internally, and the older woman smiled.
“Ah, I see. Wily, but inexperienced. And repentant. You will do.”
Leha kept her mouth shut. She had already given away too much, even if inadvertently. She had no proof, but she suspected that this woman knew everything. Barely, but just noticeable to Leah, the woman nodded. In approval? Or had she made a decision. Was it deliberate? She doesn’t seem the sort to give anything away. It can’t be a tell… Her monologue was interrupted by the woman continuing.
“My retinue will handle clean up. For you, I suspect you already know you must leave town. Arrangements are being made. We shall remain here until word reaches me. I trust you will not object to a drink?”
The woman didn’t need to motion. One of her personal guards had already set off in the direction of the bar, vaulted it without breaking her stride, and snatched up a bottle. Clearly already picked out, Leah noticed. Four glasses joined it in her other hand as she returned, setting out places on the round table and filling a measure of drink into each glass. Leah followed Cassandra and Liam as they made to sit down, though she had no intentions of drinking. She decided to initiate conversation this time - there was little to lose, and there seemed to be little danger.
“So, who exactly are you?”
The side of Leah’s ankle flared in pain, as Cassandra kicked the spot the door had already hit. Her grimace and the sucking in of air seemed to go unnoticed, or perhaps ignored, by the table.
“Very new, I see. Your friends have not prepared you well at all.”
The woman tutted, and raised her glass, knocking back a measure in a single motion. Her glass clinked lightly against the table as she returned it.
“My name is unimportant. I am the Proxy.”
“A local representative for the guild. They don’t have names, because they act with the full authority of the guild. Honestly, I didn’t think we’d be meeting one so soon, else I would have prepared you…”
Liam leaned back, rubbing his forehead. He looked tired, far more so than Leah had ever seen him. She had little time for pondering, though, as the Proxy continued.
“Oh, we have names. But they are unimportant whilst we hold our positions. But the rest is correct. As a representative, I have the full authority to make judgements when guild law is broken, such as in this case.”
“And what law was that?”
“Why, you were attacked for the consequences of a quest you undertook.”
Leah shot a look at Liam and Cassandra, who avoided her gaze. The Proxy interjected, perhaps misreading the look as genuine hostility.
“No, nothing you could have avoided. It seems this case has… unique elements.”
Cassandra stepped in.
“How is unimportant to you. All you need to know is that outside interference has made the Baron take… drastic actions. Drastic actions that will face consequences.”
She smiled a thin lipped smile.
“And such a shame too, when this region is facing such a heavy influx of the undead.”
“You plan to leave these people to their fates?”
“That depends on how the Baron reacts to our interference. If he has any sense at all, he will leave well enough alone, and face a hefty fine, and have to give up some preferential treatments. If he is a fool, then he dooms his people. Either way,”
She knocked back another measure, grimacing this time.
“You three shall be fine.”
“And why exactly are you doing so much for us?”
Leah couldn’t help herself. This all seemed so… suspicious. The Proxy noted as much.
“Quite the cynic, aren’t we? This isn’t out of the goodness of our hearts. You are merely a beneficiary of the consequences. The Baron took action against the guild to get at you. We can hardly let him succeed, lest others think they can get away with it and damn the consequences. No, second only to punishing his transgressions, safeguarding you is the local guilds primary objective.”
Liam took a sip of his drink, looking thoughtful before speaking up.
“I didn’t expect you to call a red line.”
“We didn’t expect such a flagrant abuse of our trust. This is a serious matter, and under no circumstances can this behaviour be tolerated.”
Her tone went from calm to clipped and angry in moments. However, she had little time to dwell on her emotional outburst. There was a tapping sound - on glass, though Leah could see no one at the windows - and the proxy tilted her head, nodding.
“I see. So a fool he is, then.”
Pushing her stool back, the Proxy stood.
“Come. We have appointments to make. Unless you plan on making your own way out of town?”
“I think we’re being stitched up.”
Hours later, the three found themselves once again in the wilderness, 100 meters into the woods off of a side path of the main road leading to the Horseshoe mountains. Their flight from the town hadn’t been dramatic - they’d hidden in what claimed to be a nightsoil cart, and were deposited on the road not far outside of town. From there, they quietly but quickly made their escape from town, picking up the supplies and the gear that had been left behind at a designated drop off point. Now, they took a moment to rest and take stock of their situation, where Leah had dropped her thoughts.
“Played for fools. We’re part of some sort of game, and I can’t see the whole picture. But I’m pretty sure we’ll have people pursuing us before long. And if we were to follow the trail of information back, there would be a convenient leak in the adventurers guild.”
Liam pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
“I think you might be right. Shouldn’t have taken the offer of an escape.”
“We’d probably have been followed anyway. At least this way we didn’t have to walk out.”
Cassandra looked between Leah and Liam.
“Ok, you two are clearly more experienced in this than I am, so if you want to clue me in any time soon…”
Leah put her out of her misery, though not for Liam’s lack of trying. Anything to get one over on Cass, even given the circumstances.
“They clearly knew what was going to happen tonight - the fact they showed up right when we were being attacked, and did nothing to intervene, says it all. And with all the undead attacks, and the lucrative business that comes with them, I can’t see the guild wanting to cause political problems right now. They’ll make a show of cracking down on the Baron’s excesses, we’ll accidentally be killed while negotiations are ongoing, Baron will pay a fine, that’ll be returned to him through taxes or some other loophole, and the world will keep turning. Hell, it was practically spelt out for us.”
“So, we’ve been hung out to dry.”
“Maybe, maybe not. We can’t trust that we have a head start though. Can we take a more roundabout route?”
Liam shook his head, and Cassandra answered for him.
“Not exactly. We could, but if they know where we are going, they’ll head off the pass. We’re better off trying to keep ahead of any pursuers.”
“And they know where we are going.”
“Because of where they dropped us off.”
Cassandra stood, and oriented herself in the direction of the mountains.
“Well, we better get a move on then. We don’t have time to waste.”
She turned back, to look at Leah.
“But we’re talking about you when we arrive at Ironshod.”
Leah understood, and nodded her assent.
The first two days were easy going. The group kept a steady pace, moving through the day, and keeping a steady watch over night. Leah offered to keep watch on her own, but she was shut down.
“You need your rest as much as we do, even if you have an easier time of it. Who knows when you’ll need all your strength?”
And she couldn’t argue with that. So, the group moved and rested, with no signs of pursuit. On the third day, Cassandra called the party to a halt. Her head tilted to one side, and she closed her eyes. Ears twitching, she nodded.
“Pursuers. Smart, good, but sloppy. They want to catch us fast.”
“Do you know how far away?”
Liam followed up. Cassandra shook her head.
“Too faint. At least on the other side of that crevasse though. There’s a river ahead, we can mask our trail there.”
The party continued on, moving with greater urgency now that there was proof they were being followed. They hit the river, and moved downstream, leaving the river carefully, and with Cassandra covering their tracks as they moved. It may have bought them time, or it may have been a wasted effort, but all of them wanted to at least try something to aid their escape. They’d reached a clearing as evening was falling, and the three had clustered together to make a decision what to do that night.
“We’re going to need to sleep at some point, and so will they.”
Liam contributed to the debate. Cassandra shook her head.
“We can keep going, and so can they. If we’re going to stop, it would be better to lay an ambush.”
“If we’re going to stay awake, we might as well keep moving. I can keep going, but-”
Leah’s head tilted, as a twang of something unsettling rang through her. She looked behind her, in the direction they had came from.
All further conversation was halted, as a thunk resounded around the clearing. Leah looked down at her abdomen, where a 6 foot long rod of a familiar black material stuck out of her, a creeping cold spreading through her as her mana was drained away. She sank to her knees, as action erupted around her.