Amara stepped over a gnarled root and then stared up in wonder at the surrounding forest. The towering trees almost made it feel like she was standing in a cathedral. Shafts of light pierced the thick canopy like rays from the heaven, and every sound was swallowed by the dense moss carpeting the forest floor. This place felt older than time itself and gave her a sense of peace and serenity.
Though she knew the sensation was all a dangerous illusion. Based on the available quests she’s seen, there were all manner of hostile creatures dwelling in this forest and even a group of bandits. But she still felt herself relaxing slightly for the first time since she’d arrived in this world.
“I hate this place,” Salamander grumbled. “There are way too many trees.”
Amara stopped at the young woman’s words. “Why are there so many trees?” she asked. “I would have thought a forest this close to the city would have been cut down for firewood long ago.”
“The lord doesn’t allow it.” Salamander pushed back a leaf-laden branch in her path with a disgusted look on her face. “If you try to cut down a tree, you’ll end up in chains faster than a goblin pick-pocketing the king. All the rangers make sure of that.”
“Good to know,” Amara replied. If no one was permitted to cut down a tree, and they could only gather dead wood, her quest might be harder than she thought. The forest might already be picked clean.
With Salamander at her side, they travelled down the well-worn path, keeping a wary eye out for anything dangerous. But aside from a few birds, there didn’t seem to be anything larger than a squirrel living in these woods.
As they walked, she picked up a few sticks, and grimaced as she watched the quest progress bar fill up painfully slowly. She also kept her eye out for the silverbell flowers, praying her herbalism skill would allow her to instinctively identify them.
After hiking down the path for nearly a quarter of an hour, she knew they had to try something different. The area around the trail didn’t have a scrap of firewood, and at this rate, they’d never finish in time to get back for lunch.
They’d have to head deeper into the forest.
“I think we need to leave the trail.” Amara took a deep breath and then tightened her grip on her staff. The thought of heading into a dark forest unnerved her. Back home, the wildest place she’d ever visited had been a city park. And she didn’t have any survival skills to speak of. What if she got them lost?
“What about the flying snakes?” Salamander eyed her, looking fearful. “I really don’t want to end up in a snake’s belly.”
“I remember them,” she said, an icy feeling spreading up her back. She hated snakes. “But everyone has taken all the firewood from here. And I haven’t seen a single flower.”
“Fine.” Salamander brushed back a stray hair and then lifted her hand. After a second, it was enveloped by flames. “I’ll run if we see any snakes, though.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” Amara muttered to herself. After all, it would be stupid to risk her life for a few flowers and a bundle of firewood.
She picked a direction almost at random and then plunged into the forest. But before they’d gone three paces, they heard a cry of pain from the trail behind them. They exchanged glances, and then Amara turned in the direction she’d heard the yell.
Salamander grabbed the sleeve of her robe and tugged on it. “What’re you doing?” she hissed. “My nanna always said run away from danger, not towards it.”
“Someone could be in trouble.” Amara slowed and looked in the direction she’d heard the cry. “And we should see if they need help.”
“Did you get knocked on the head again? Remember, snake bellies?”
Amara sighed. Back home, she would have followed Salamander’s advice. But there, she couldn’t cast powerful spells. And if she helped someone, they just might repay her kindness by showering her with coins. Especially if they needed healing.
“This could be a good way to earn some money,” Amara said. “But you can stay here if you want.”
“And let something happen to you?” Salamander shook her head, strands of golden hair falling over her face. “Don’t forget—I’m a member of your party and a real adventurer.”
Amara fought down a smile at the young woman’s’ concern. It felt good to have someone who cared about her in this world—even if she suspected it was only because she was Salamander’s meal ticket.
After a second to orientate herself, she set out in the direction where she thought the cry had originated. As she walked, she questioned her decision several times. What if it was a large group of bandits attacking someone? Or what if something worse than flying snakes dwelled in these forests?
I’m no hero, she thought to herself. Why am I doing this?
She resolved to stay in cover until she discovered the source of the cries; if it looked too dangerous to intervene, then she could always retreat. Salamander had said there were rangers in these forests, so maybe they could find one of them to help whoever was in trouble.
After pushing through the dense undergrowth toward the sounds, they reached a clearing with a desperate battle raging at the center. A man dressed in leather armor lashed out with twin daggers as flying creatures assailed him from every side; the beasts launched themselves from branches high in the trees, striking at him, and then sailing to the other side of the glade.
She realized with a start that the creatures must be the flying snakes mentioned in the quests. They were nearly six feet long, their scales a verdant green, and when they flew, they flattened their bodies. If anything, they were closer to flying squirrels than the winged creatures she’d imagined.
Already, there were dead or dying snakes in piles around the man. But the creatures had taken their toll on him, and he staggered almost drunkenly with each step. Blood dripped down his face, and there were several punctures visible on his armor.
Amara hesitated for a moment, as she quickly tallied up the number of flying snakes attacking the man. There must be at least a dozen of them.
“We have to run,” Salamander whispered, tugging on her robe. “There’s too many.”
She glanced down at the young woman, who looked ready to bolt, and then at the man as another snake landed on his shoulder and sank its teeth into his exposed neck. If she left him, there was no question that he would be overwhelmed.
“I… I have to try,” she said, trying to bolster her courage. “If I don’t, then he’s going to die.”
“Please, I don’t want to lose you…”
“I’ll be fine,” she said with false bravado. “Stay here. And if anything happens to me, then run for it. Don’t try to help if it looks hopeless.”
“Please, don’t.” Salamander grabbed Amara’s arm, refusing to let go.
She gently peeled off the young woman’s hand and then strode into the clearing. Her knees felt like jelly as she walked forward, and her chest was tight. But she needed to prove to herself that she was more than just a thief.
As she marched towards the creatures, she cast Divine Weapon, and a staggering amount of mana flowed out of her in a torrent. It felt like a raging river of energy, and when she finally completed weaving the spell in her mind, she barely had a drop remaining.
I’d better make sure I don’t need to heal myself.
It took a second for anything to happen, but slowly a weapon took shape in front of her. A flaming sword nearly six feet long appeared in the air, its blade shimmering with energy. It was like a beacon in the clearing and looked powerful enough to slay a god.
She blinked and examined it in disbelief. Was this what casting Divine Weapon conjured up?
But she didn’t have any time to dwell on it, as several of the snakes had caught sight of her. One creature launched itself from a tree, hissing as it soared towards her. She gripped her staff tightly and prepared to meet it.
The snake never reached her as the ghostly weapon slashed out faster than her eyes could follow. The blade sliced the creature neatly in half and she was showered with blood and gore. She winced at her robes being further sullied, but now wasn’t the time to worry about it. She only had a few minutes until the weapon disappeared.
The man finally spotted her—the burning sword impossible to miss—and he waved his arms sluggishly in her direction. “Retreat and save yourself, my lady.”
Amara scowled when she recognized the voice. It was the same sanctimonious jerk who had accosted her near the canal after her run in with the pie merchant. Still, she couldn’t turn back now just because she didn’t like the person in trouble.
She sprinted forward, trusting the Divine Weapon to keep her safe. With every footfall, the blade sang through the air, creating carnage among the snakes. Pieces of dismembered reptiles fell around her like blossoms in an orchard, and when one beast slipped through, she caught it with her staff and knocked it from the air. Then she smashed her foot down on its body, crushing it to paste under her bare heel.
When she finally reached Jonas, she was breathing hard and covered from head to toe in gore. She raised her sleeve to wipe some blood from her face, but stopped when she realized the material was probably dirtier than her cheek.
At that moment, her Divine Weapon cracked, and the towering blade disintegrated like sand blowing away on the wind. She starred in horror as it disappeared, while nearly a half-dozen emboldened snakes launched themselves from the trees in her direction.
She swung her staff awkwardly at the nearest flying reptile, but it changed course and slammed into her chest. The impact knocked her from her feet and sent her sprawling. She hit the ground hard, and pain blossomed in her arm as the snake sank its teeth deep into her flesh.
Amara screamed and tried to wrench the snake free. But its muscular body coiled, and it latched down harder. A fiery burning sensation flared to life in the wound, and her vision swam. She knew almost instantly that the bite was venomous.
Another snake landed on her leg, but she kicked it away. Before it could slither off, Salamander appeared and pressed her burning hands against its scales. The snake burst into flames and twisted around as it blackened.
Amara waved her companion back from the fray. Then she reached up and wrenched the other snake off her arm. She tossed it aside before casting Cloak of Shadows.
The mana reluctantly drained out of her soul, like the last dregs from a bottle, leaving her reserves almost completely dry. But finally, her vision greyed, showing that she’d successfully cast the spell and become invisible.
She stumbled forward a few paces to place herself between the snake and Salamander. Then she took a deep breath to still the pain and threw herself back into the battle. The serpent that had bitten her arm was trying to slink back towards the edge of the forest. But she caught up to it and crushed its skull under the butt of her staff. Then she charged after another one, beating it clumsily with her weapon until it stopped moving.
Amara glanced over at Jonas, who had a snake impaled on his dagger. The creature writhed and snapped at him, but somehow, he avoided its deadly jaws. His face looked terribly pale, but he remained on his feet—even with all his wounds.
She searched the clearing for another enemy, but then realized they were alone. If any snakes still lived, they must have retreated. Nearly a dozen slain ones were scattered around the clearing.
Amara let the Cloak of Shadows drop and then sank to her knees. The burning sensation was quickly spreading from her wound, and her soul felt battered from overuse.
She was in rough shape.
If these flying snakes were like the ones back on her home world, then she needed to deal with the venom fast. Already, the veins on her arm were turning black. Even with low mana, she had to try to cast Heal Wounds.
“Are you alright?” Salamander called out, the worry clear in her voice. “Did one of them bite you?”
She didn’t answer as she weaved the strands of mana together in her mind. As she cast the healing spell, her soul shuddered, and it almost felt like it would tear itself apart. She knew immediately that she was trying to draw on mana that she didn’t have, and she gasped in pain as the energy was ripped from her limbs.
Exhaustion descended across her body like a heavy blanket as the skin on her shoulder knitted back together. But she frowned as the burning only intensified.
The healing spell hadn’t neutralized the venom.
I knew it was a stupid idea to play hero, she thought grimly. Now I’m going to die from a snake bite.
The sensation of something being pressed into her hand nearly made her jump out of her skin. She looked up to see Jonas standing over her, a concerned expression on his face.
“Drink this,” he said. “It’s the antidote to the venom.”
She hesitated for a moment and then upended the small bottle into her mouth. As she swallowed, the pain almost immediately blinked out. And then her vision steadied.
Jonas watched her for a short time before he flopped down in the grass. He wiped off his blades and then sheathed them. “Even with the venom in my blood neutralized, I still have quite a few wounds. I don’t suppose you have enough mana remaining to cast a healing spell?”
“How much will you pay for it?” she asked without thinking. But then she winced as she remembered that he’d given her a bottle of antivenom, wanting nothing in return. Old habits died hard sometimes. She’d never given anything away for free back on Earth.
“I should have known you’d have a mercenary heart,” he said, sounding disappointed. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any coin remaining, having spent my last few coppers on the bottles of antivenom before embarking on this quest.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “I’ll heal your wounds for free. At least I’ll try to once I regain my mana.”
“I’ll wait while you meditate, then.” He rested his arm over his eyes to shield them from the sunlight. “There’s no rush, as none of my wounds need immediate attention.”
“I… uhh… don’t know how to meditate,” she said. “Is that how you get mana back faster?”
He lifted his arm so he could peer at her. “Exactly who are you?”
“It’s a long story,” she said. “And one I don’t particularly feel like sharing.”
“That is understandable,” he replied. “While I am no sage, the advice given to me as a child was to close your eyes, clear your mind, and focus on your soul to draw in mana from the surrounding world. However, everyone develops their own technique over time.”
“That… was… amazing!” Salamander exclaimed once Amara had recovered enough to sit up. “That flying sword of yours was swatting the snakes down like bugs. And I bet we’ll make a fortune from these things. There are teeth, and venom, and scales, and meat—”
“They’re not all ours,” Amara said, interrupting her. “Jonas gets at least half of them.”
“Please, help yourself.” He motioned at the snake carcasses spread around the clearing. “I have little skill in the way of skinning or butchery. The reward from the quest is more than enough for me.”
“We’ll figure all this out later,” she said. “Right now, I need some time to regain my mana.”
Salamander nodded and then gathered up the snakes.
“Be wary,” Jonas said. “These beasts are known to bite for a short time after death.”
While Salamander worked on gathering the snake corpses, Amara knelt in the soft grass. She banished any thoughts from her mind and then focused on meditating. Hopefully, she’d pick the skill up quickly because she had a lot to accomplish before midday. And more than anything, she didn’t want to miss lunch.