The silence of the night surrounding the camp was unbroken except for the occasional rustle of the restless wildlife that was more curious about the travelers camp than they were cautious of the campfire at the outskirt. Other than those meager presences were the snores of the former soldiers sealed inside their tiny tents and the crackling of the campfire that Gina sat with her back to.
It was an old sentry trick, keeping your back to the fire. It allowed the light to fall on everything around you while preserving as much of one’s night site as possible by not looking into the flames. Gina also enjoyed the feeling of the fire’s warmth on her exposed tail, but night sight was far more important. Gina had perfected the habit of not looking into a fire while she was on night watches. But she’d recently formed a bad habit on those watches as well.
Gina toyed with the wooden bracelet that she’d been given by the boss, Xander. Her hand rested on her knee at just the right angle to catch the campfire light as it passed her sitting form to illuminate the wooden gift. The features of the bracelet caught and danced in the light, the smoothed surface and contrasting colors creating a light-show of unexpected beauty. It was a visual stimulation unmatched for a common woman in a world without television. But only the upper parts of Gina’s mental processes were engaged. The rest mulled ceaselessly and without progress in the back of her mind.
“Mind a little company,” inquired the voice behind Gina.
Gina’s empty left hand almost went for her service dagger, a broader and stumpier version of the ones issued to regular foot soldiers in the Fulchan military, but her mind recognized the voice before her body moved towards violence. The recognition was not a comfort, and only agitated her further. Gina quickly hid the bracelet and said, annoyed, “Why are you here, Dellon? You’re suppose to be watching the road on the other side of the camp.”
“Oh, don’t say that, Gina,” came Dellon’s, ‘I’m gonna charm my way out of trouble’ voice that everyone in the unit knew. And it annoyed Gina that the voice still often worked. “I was getting lonely. It’s all quiet on that end of camp, anyway, so I thought I’d try to wake myself back up by having a chat with a beauty.”
Gina waited for the punchline of, ‘have you seen one around’ that never landed. While Gina was better looking than average, as she was very glad about, she knew she was not a beauty. Most of her looks came from the grace of retained youth and a balance between her features. She had large and expressive jade green eyes and decent cheekbones that balanced well with her wide jaw to leave an impression that could be more accurately described as a mature cuteness than beauty. Gina’s short and somewhat rounded haircut increased her cuteness as well. But when time started taking hold of her features, Gina would be a mere Handsome Woman, while someone with features like Aase would be an Aging Beauty. Gina was all too aware of her own shortcomings to be strung along by a flatterer like Dellon. Though, like previously stated, Gina was annoyed that she couldn’t just outright ignore him either.
“I’d rather you not try to distract me, Dellon. Watch guard is important work,” stated Gina, trying to brush the man off.
“Not if nothing happens,” retorted Dellon as he sat down uninvited on the old log Gina had been sitting on and that the campfire had been built close to. Pre-cleared and maintained campsites like the one they were using for the night existed all up and down the main highways of Fulchas, and probably all the nations of the world, and were mostly safe. But that didn’t mean they were absolutely safe. Dellon’s complete disregard for his assigned job annoyed Gina as much as his proximity, since he’d sat right next to Gina on purpose. Gina shuffled over on the log to get some distance.
Dellon didn’t say anything else for a moment and made a show of rubbing and warming his hands against the fire very loudly. Gina purposely didn’t look more than a little over at him to avoid having her eyes dazzled by light. Gina was watching the forest side of the camp, so being able to see was important. As was remaining at her post. And there Dellon was, very obviously making a show of warming his hands to emphasis his presence. Finally, Gina said, “Would you please go back to your post, Dellon? I’d rather you not distract me.”
“Heh. You don’t really need my help to be distracted, Gina. You’re doing a fine job of it on your own.”
Gina’s tail curled in annoyance. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothin’, except that I could see you playing with that bangle that the Boss gave you from clear across the camp.”
“I’m not playing with it,” exclaimed Gina softly, so as to not disturb the sleepers around them. Then corrected herself. “I mean- you shouldn’t have been looking my way in the first place.”
Without a beat, Dellon instantly replied, “Well, you’ve got such a nice ass that I can’t help but take a peek now and then.”
Well, Gina had to agree she had a nice ass. It was her best feature in her opinion, combined with her slim waist. It sure as heck wasn’t her typical sized chest after all. But even then…
“Like I said, you shouldn’t be looking.”
“Why not? You’ve been flaunting your ass for a while now, ever since we left Rogert.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Started around the time the Boss gave you the bangle. And, oddly enough, only when the Boss was around.”
“No. I haven’t,” stated Gina emphatically. Though she knew it was a full out lie. I mean, Gina’s ass was her best feature and Xander hadn’t even noticed it until is was right in his face. It was a wound to a woman’s pride. And Gina, she only wanted to know if her can was still worth being noticed. “And- I don’t have anything to do with the Boss, either.”
“But is that by choice?”
That got Gina to reflexively turn towards Dellon, her voice accusatory, “What is-” then on getting a bit of glare from the fire, Gina turned right back to looking at the forest. But continued on without losing the venom in her voice. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just that I enjoy looking at the ladies of our unit. Keeps a man sane between leaves of absence. And I’ve noticed something new in you, Gina. You’re watching the Boss a lot more than you’ve ever watched any other man in the unit.”
“Goddess’ truth, Gina. And you’re watching him in a different way to any of the guys I’ve seen you pick up at bars. Or tricked into picking you up. How do women do that anyway? Is that a trick that can be taught? Cause it’d save me so much time, getting women to pursue me.”
Not wanting to go down Dellon’s train of thought, Gina instead decided to clear up the misunderstanding. “I am not. Into Xander.”
“Well, there’s something with you about him. And I sure as hell don’t know what.”
“There is nothing with him.”
“Then why do you still have that bangle he gave you,” asked Dellon, indicating the bracelet Gina had hurriedly tucked into a pocket of her travel trousers.
“It’s a bracelet,” corrected Gina, not knowing what a ‘bangle’ was. And instantly regretted saying it instead of denying Dellon’s words outright. Dellon kinda verbally rolled his eyes with the word, “Yeah,” and then continued with, “But why do you still have it?”
“It… was a gift.”
“I’ve seen what you do with gifts from guys, Gina. I don’t think a one made it more than two days before you junked it. What’s so special about that one?”
That’s what Gina would like to know. She couldn’t say the words, though. It was true that she’d gotten gifts from guys before. Guys that were trying to bed her. Guys that were trying to cling on after she’d bedded them. Always some shitty little gift. A drink in a bar. A flower or two. Occasionally some accessory to be worn, but always something cheap and picked up because it only looked nice in the display. Every gift she’d received, the guy giving it to her would watch her face, waiting for the reaction of joy and gratitude before trying for gratitude sex. Gina learned to fake those emotions after the second or third time it happened in her life, letting the guys move on with their “seduction technique” before sidestepping it or, if she was in the mood, pretending to fall for it.
But none of the gifts held any meaning. They were all things that guys thought women in general enjoyed. Gina was so use to the dance after four years of experience… that she had seriously not seen Xander’s gift coming.
Xander had not been studying Gina’s face at any point of his gift giving. There was no obvious expectations for gratitude, or even smarmy self satisfaction in giving a woman a gift. He was just… being nice. Gina had never been given a gift like that before. It bothered her.
“Yeah,” asked Dellon after Gina’s lengthy pause.
Gina didn’t know how to react to being given a gift that had no underlying intentions behind it, especially one that the giver had put real thought behind. Xander had gotten it because it went well with Gina’s hair. A real feature, unique to her. Real thought. Real consideration. Not even the gift that Reilly had given Gina back at the orphanage, that cheap brass ring, had held so much consideration for her. His proposal of marriage was little more than an attempt to bind her to him than to really be about making Gina a bride. An attempt to get Gina to give up on joining the military and keep her close. In the end, Reilly’s proposal was just a good opportunity for Gina to abandon her virginity.
“What,” asked Dellon after the next pause.
Gina just couldn’t figure Xander out. He was a guy that didn’t hesitate to kill people even without military training, then beat the living shit out of her unit, then started treating them like his own precious people, got beat up for going out of his way to help a pair of old shopkeepers and then crushing a criminal organization while picking out the most meaningful and well intentioned gift Gina had ever received in her life without having been attracted to her in the slightest! How the hell was a girl suppose to figure that out?! What, is it because he was an otherworlder? Was that it? Was Gina not attractive to him because of that? Because he sure as hell was taking glances at Aase. But, that couldn’t be it, because Gina had caught him sneaking looks at her ass after setting him up for them since Rogert. But whenever she trapped him into those sneaking peaks and turned to look at him, his eyes just lifted up to meet Gina’s gaze and moved right on! No embarrassment at all! What, was Gina too old for him, not young and blooming like Aase? But Gina was still at least a year younger than Xander, but was that not enough?
But Xander got on well with Daphne, too! And she was definitely older than Gina! And Mercy was also older than Gina, but Xander had snuck a look or two at her, too, but she’d got a nice rack! Is that it? Was a nice ass not good enough for him, was he into tits? Well if so, Gina had news for him, since big tits only sagged and got in the way! Gina would probably be dead already if she’d had tits instead of breasts, you know! Even if having a nice rack could turn men’s heads more easily, it doesn’t mean she’d want them, especially if Xander was into them! But it would make it easier to know what that asshole was thinking inside that constantly spaced out head of his to make it easier to turn him down like every other son of a bitch in the world which he most definitely WAS!
“Oh, shut up,” snapped Gina, standing up straight before saying, while already tromping away, “If you’re not gonna go back to your post, I’ll take it over myself.”
As Gina stomped angrily through the camp towards the other watch post, Dellon bemusedly pulled a hip flask out from a pocket, toasted, “To women,” and took a quick pull from it before seriously getting back to his watch duty.
Some time after her blow up, Gina’s anger had subsided and she was left feeling confused and miserable while playing with the bracelet in her hands before releasing a breath in a sigh, to follow up with the quietly muttered words, “If there’s a more pathetic woman in the world than me, I’d like to meet her.”
* * * * *
Mercedes was lying on her back in her sleeping tent, carefully studying the vial with the earth soaked in Xander’s blood in it for the nth time. Mercedes had illuminated the inside of the tent with a gentle light spell to reflect the details of the soiled soil sample. And just like every time she studied the sample, Mercedes was viewing it with magic being supplied to her eyes. The side effect of the use of her inborn physical feature was causing one of her brown eyes to discolor towards the blue end of the color spectrum, and the other toward the red. The effect could be slight or very obvious depending on how much of her magic she used, on how much ambient detail she wanted to record in her mind from the sights in front of her, but the effect was generally the same. A picture perfect record of whatever it was she was looking at.
That inborn gift was what had allowed her to do so well in her studies at so young an age. Because she could just record and recall any information she so chose. A lesser person may have just coasted on the ability through their life, but it only inspired Mercedes to study harder, to truly understand that which she could recall at will. And that devotion to knowledge was what allowed her the chance to study the summoning circle that the Goddess used to call heroes from other worlds!
Mercedes’ mind began to call up and replay the memories she’d recorded of the summoning circle and transposed them over the image she was currently recording in her mind. Seeing one thing while also seeing another. The beauty of the Goddess created runes and lines and formations inspiring Mercedes all over again just like they had the first time, urging her on to try and create something so beautiful and magnificent all over again. Mercedes’ mind wandered over to the recorded memories of the copious notes that Xander had burned in front of her. Truth be told, every single fragment of the paper that had been lit aflame that day had already been committed to Mercedes’ memory. But Mercedes knew that it was not yet time to tell Xander that. Mercedes’ summoning circle seemed to be a sore topic for Xander, and it may not be wise to tell him she had the ability to reproduce it should she be given the opportunity to do so.
At least Mercedes intended to keep that a secret until the caravan stopped traveling. It would not do to inform Xander before Mercedes could get a replacement lab to work in. Maybe one with windows this time. Fresh sunlight would be nice while Mercedes recreated her lost research papers.
But to get that research lab, Mercedes would need to earn Xander’s trust. It seemed he didn’t truly believe in the power of the Enslavement Collars to keep people honest. Maybe there was wiggle room in that compulsory loyalty that people could take advantage of, but not Mercedes. She would prove that to Xander, and get his approval, and a new lab where she could study him properly and improve upon her previous work. And the first step to all of that… was making sure that Xander didn’t get himself killed.
That sickening image of Xander bleeding on the ground leapt back into Mercedes’ mind, as real and vivid as the moment she’d seen it. Looking at the dirt in the test tube always brought that moment back into mind sooner or later. But it was necessary. It was necessary because it had to be avoided. It re-resolved Mercedes to think up ways to be useful, relevant, and perhaps even endearing to Xander. Though precious few methods had occurred to Mercedes, aside from the obtainment of the data that diamonds could channel Xander’s massive potential. And Aase’s too, Mercedes supposed. But honestly, Aase was only the second to survive that summoning portal and was of far less value than Xander. A back up sample for whatever successes the circle had achieved.
Besides, history only cared about the first to do something, not the second. And Xander was the first non-Goddess summoned human to cross the borders between worlds and survive! He would put Mercedes’ name in the history books! Hmmm. But not if he got himself killed before it could happen. Which made increasing Xander’s abilities all the more important because if he died, Mercedes would as well, ending the propagation of her research before it began. Once again making Xander more important to Mercedes’ goals than Aase. But Xander liked Aase so she was important to be on good terms with. Perhaps strengthening Aase as well as Xander would be a good move for Mercedes? Something else to dwell upon sometime; Mercedes endearing herself to Xander by proxy.
But Mercedes would still need to find a way to make Xander fond of her directly. Using proxies would only go so far. Perhaps if Mercedes observed the other women in the camp and made notes of how they become closer to the test subject? Then finding a common point and emulating it may prove beneficial for Mercedes as well? It was a theory worth looking into…
Mercedes then spent the rest of her evening contemplating her own fragile mortality and the achievement of recreating an act of Goddess, visions of formulae and the original summoning circle dancing through her mind. And then she slept, and dreamed of the fantastical lab she would be able to convince Xander to build for her one day for the summoning of more heroes to Meaohr.
* * * * *
“Once again, young man, my answer is no. I am very firmly retired,” stated the wire thin old man who was reclining in the cushioned chair of his expansive manor.
The view from the window showed the back lawn of the estate, with small flower gardens dotted here and there with a riding stable in the distance, with several horses in excellent condition being led about and exercised by the staff of the estate. The building known as Brooks Hall was a fine stone and white brick exterior mansion of a very English countryside variety, as though it had been plucked from a period drama about the British nobility of the 19th century. And some of the great lattice paned windows shone light into the sitting room of the master of the estate, where he entertained a man from the church quite cordially, though completely against his will.
“Lord Brooks, please, I implore you reconsider. There is a new Demon King about that might bring about the end of the world. We are in desperate need of-”
“Pah! There’s always a new Demon King this, or an uprising that, or a wild monster mucking about. You seriously don’t need an old fart like myself cleaning up your messes, now do you? Ah, thank you, Jeffrey.”
Lord Wilfried Brooks completely halted the conversation to grasp the offered cup of tea his butler brought in and took a delighted sip of the fresh brew. With obvious pleasure, Lord Brooks told his guest, “Best you enjoy the tea fresh and fresh, lad. It’s damnably bland once it’s cooled.”
The envoy from the church just kind of looked wonderingly on his host as the elderly British gentleman enjoyed his tea in silence, but for the light slurping of dangerously hot fluids. Inside the young man’s head he freely wondered how such a thin, grey haired, wax mustached man with the strangely high cheekbones and completely random mannerisms could be the man widely hailed as the greatest hero in history. The envoy had been warned to expect a strange negotiation, but he just couldn’t find a place to begin convincing the gentleman to end his retirement.
“Lord Brooks, you know full well that age is not an issue. With the current threat we face, the Elves would be willing to waive their restrictions and grant you youth once again.”
“HA,” exclaimed Lord Brooks, releasing absolute amusement and dismissal in a single loud syllable. “You speak as though I would want such a thing!”
“But Lord Brooks, haven’t you regained your youth twice already?”
“Well, let me tell you- what was your name again?”
“Youth is wasted on the young! Everyone knows that, but it’s just as wasted on the elderly! No one learns from their mistakes, least of all myself. I stumbled through being a young buck three times already and I tell you, it’s damn tiring to always find oneself standing at attention every time a lovely filly enters the room, if you know what I mean. Oh, yes, you do, you sad excuse for a priest. Do you have any idea how surprised I was that the church here actually encourages their priests to have so many wives? Debauchery all around! HA-HA!”
The envoy’s face twisted in silent confusion as the greatest of his negotiation points, renewed youth, the goal of every noble and ruler alike, was so lightly brushed aside. In that case…
“Lord Brooks, you would undoubtedly be handsomely rewarded by any, by every ruler in the world for your delivering us from this crisis! Anything you desire would be-”
“Desire! De-Sires! Those are for the young! All this old man de-sires is to be old, dusty, cranky, and left to mold in this countryside with his piles of wealth, massive estate, endless horse runs, and the best butler in the world serving the worst hogwash excuse for tea on the planet. I’m only joshing you, Jeffrey, absolute magnificent brew, this. Magnificent!”
“My Lord,” bowed the butler from the side.
The envoy was completely flustered by this point, and it showed.
“What of the people, Lord Brooks! They need you! They need their champion to see them through this time of need and darkness! Surely the needs of the people are important enough for you-”
“Let me tell you about the needs of the people, Father, um, um, what was your name again?”
“Serving the needs of the people is like going to your Jewish friend’s dinner party! Excellent chap! Wonderful company! But you just know there’s not going to be any soused hog’s face on the dinner table, and that throws a pall over the whole affair!”
The envoy had completely lost his patience by that point, and just started arguing instead of talking. “Well, what are we supposed to do without the Hero? THE Hero? As in, only one! We need you if we’re going to be able to fight whatever monster this Demon King turns out to be, Lord Brooks! What are we supposed to do if you just continue to selfishly waste away in the countryside?!”
“Oooooh, you’ll be just fine, what-was-your-name,” Lord Brooks wasn’t even pretending to ask at this point. “Just have Lord and Lady Oren pluck some young hopefuls and train them up to-”
“Lord Oren is dead! He’s not going to be plucking anything!”
“Dead,” asked Lord Brooks quietly, his entire manner changing. But the envoy was too impassioned to notice, and just continued on.
“Please, Lord Brooks! What we need is a Hero, even if it’s just as a figurehead!”
“How did Lord Oren die?”
“No one, but THE Hero will do!”
“How did Lord Oren die,” asked Lord Brooks louder and more emphatically, his eyes sharp. The envoy barely calmed himself enough from the tone to be able to actually respond to the question, but not to understand its underlying importance.
“I-I don’t know! Fighting some Heretics somewhere! More importantly, Lord Brooks, if I could at least just have-”
“Get out,” said the Lord of the Manor. As emphatically as before. But the envoy could no longer understand the importance of the words coming from the retired hero’s mouth.
“Not until I convince you to-”
Lord Brook’s form blurred for a moment before reappearing in front of the envoy, hand wrapped around the priest’s throat, choking the man into silent gasps and gurgles. Lord Brooks’ eyes were no longer jovial, playful, or even rational. The greyish blue eyes of the British Lord who became the hero of another world only had a cold killing edge to them as he stated as sharply as a blade, “Get out before I tear you to pieces!”
From behind him, bent forward in a lunge for his life, holding the very edge of the saucer of the cup of tea his Lord had dropped before it impacted with and scattered all over the carpet called the butler, Jeffrey, with, “My Lord, please remember your blood pressure.”
Lord Brooks stiffened a little, then relaxed his grip on the envoy’s throat, turned, and began his exit from the room while saying, in a poor attempt to recreate his prior jovial attitude, “Jeffrey, please see our guest out.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
It was some minutes later when Jeffrey entered the study where Lord Brooks was silently looking out over the meadows and gardens, from a rigid at ease posture that no amount of living could break him from taking. Jeffrey made no sound and merely waited for his Lord to say or do something. That alone was apparently enough, as shortly, Lord Brooks said, “Quite right of you to seat that obtuse fellow in the leather chair. If he’d sat on the sofa, it’d need reupholstering.”
“Yes, Lord Brooks.”
“You’d think a man could hold his bladder on becoming an adult, wouldn’t you, Jeffrey?”
“Yes, Lord Brooks.”
“Jeffrey. Why do you put up with a cranky old bastard like me?”
“Because I and my entire family line owe their entire existence to you, my Lord.”
“Well, that’s a pretty poor reason to put up with me, now isn’t it?”
“I agree, my Lord.”
Jeffrey’s deadpan response finally triggered something like a smirk on Lord Brooks’ gaunt face. He finally turned and told his servant, “Would you mind notifying the stable lad that I’ll have some letters for him to take to the church? Ah, the local one, not the big one in town, no need for the lad to run himself ragged. A little over eager, that one, eh?”
“As you say, my Lord.”
Jeffrey bowed, then departed the room, leaving Lord Brooks to sit at the desk and begin writing two letters. The first of condolence.
My dearest Marisa.
I have only just learned the news of Hector’s demise. While I was unable to get any details due to the lack of intelligence the unwitting messenger possessed, I can only imagine his final fate as being one of great bravery and his attempt to overcome insurmountable odds. And succeeding. If it is otherwise, I pray that you do not tell me, and merely allow me the fantasy of a senile old man.
I do apologize for not communicating with the two of you before now, since my retirement proper. Hiding myself away was something of the point, but only now do I see the folly of such an act, having left you without an extra shoulder in this time of loss. I know how painful such a time is, and my heart goes out to you. And hopefully soon, my shoulder as well. I refuse to come out of retirement, for the idea of prolonged life, and thus, continued separation from my own dearly departed Hannah and Reya, is unbearable. But perhaps these old bones can perform one final act of good in this world, as a tribute to the kindness you and Hector have shown a decidedly unpleasant grump like myself.
I hope to see you soon, so please prepare some decent tea for Jeffrey to brew.
With appropriate affection,
The second letter was to a far less important person.
To His Holiest Raul,
I will not come out of retirement, and that is final. No matter how many jumped up young turds you fling at my doors. I understand that you need a hero. But you do not need this hero. I suggest a compromise. If your Goddess should allow it, go ahead and summon a new hero. Should the ritual succeed, I shall personally train the young hopeful until he is ready to face whatever disaster is looming on the horizon.
Should the ritual not succeed? Well, we’ll talk then. In the meantime, I have business of my own to attend to.
My best wishes in running the entire religion of the world,
Lord Wilfried Brooks
* * * * *
“What are you doing,” asked Callic in his usual icky tone of voice when I was doing something brilliant that his tiny brain couldn’t process. Jesus, it’s not enough that I had to do physical reinforcement practice early in the morning, but I needed his idiocy as well?
“What does it look like I’m doing,” I grunted through the exertion.
“It looks like you’re laying an egg,” responded Callic the dog boy.
“Well, Callic, it’s called the Horse Stance.”
“Okay. Why the hell’r you doing that instead of the sword drills I assigned you to?”
I cocked my head to look up at Callic properly from my position with my knees bent and my pelvis tucked in. I wanted to look Callic straight in the eyes as I told him, “Because your sword drills are stupid, and they’re wasting my damn time. I don’t fight with a fucking sword, Callic. I use a spear, and knowing how to channel my magic into a sword swing is just plain bullshit.”
“It’s the starting point for your training, jackass,” replied Callic, unable to put as much annoyance into his response as I did since he wasn’t experiencing searing pain in his muscles like me.
“Well, it’s a stupid starting point. I’ve been doing this for ten minutes and I’ve already learned more about channeling reinforcement magic through my whole body than all of your stupid drills combined!”
I gasped then. Crap, I talked too much, I was going to get winded at this rate. I gulped down some air greedily, and tried to ignore Callic. The exertion of getting back into my focus was causing the hands I held rigidly palm downward at my hips to shudder.
“Bullshit,” said Callic in full rejection, but with that tiny grain of curiosity coloring the word.
A slow smile crept up on me as I looked up again and asked, “Wanna give it a try and prove me wrong?”
Three minutes later, and-
“My entire body is on fire!!!”
-Callic called out.
“You can quit any time you want, Callic. It would make you less of a man, but you would be done.”
Callic ended up lasting another minute before toppling over. Gotta say, it was a good first attempt. After gathering his strength, Callic said, “Okay, I can see how that could be considered training, even if it looks like you’re laying an egg.”
“Especially if it looks like I’m laying an egg, Callic. That how you know you have the right posture. You wanna try it again?”
“No, no, I’m good! You can, uh, keep doing that if it helps you. I have no idea how, but apparently it does.”
It really did help. By doing the horse stance I had constant exertion going on instead of intermittent, and I could feel the effect of different flows of magic through my body and the effects on my muscles at the same time. It was great for path regulation and junk. I wasn’t ready for melee combat in this world against knights and monsters just yet, but it felt like I was starting to get somewhere. I just needed a good weapon next.
Maybe Arsktun would have something worth using. But the weapon would have to wait. I needed to sell gemstones, get more clothing, resupply on the specialty food items Lloyd and Nina Brenct, our Chefs, and the water mage Clarissa wanted for cooking (why a water mage was spending so much time cooking, I had no idea), wagon repairs, or even new fucking wagons, period, give the soldiers time to relax, masturbate (at long last), and maybe take a decent fucking bath…
There was just a whole host of things to do in town. Since it was a trade town and was important economically and militarily, I could only hope it was better run than Rogert. And there was one other other thing I wanted to do while I was there.
The limitations of a bunch of soldiers, a mad scientist, and a couple of cooks had been slowly becoming far more clear to me. On Earth, travelling bands and military in the dark ages had camp followers. Civilians who helped the soldiers with all the quality of life jobs they couldn’t do on their own. That role had largely been phased out in the modern era thanks to air drops and quality supply routes, but none of that shit existed in Meaohr. We only had what we hauled with us.
So I was actually looking forward to visiting the slave markets and seeing what I could buy. Why pay a large lump sum to add extra mouths to the caravan when I could hire people from any town I passed through? Because I’m not about to trust any Tom, Dick, or Harry with potentially deadly information about me and my caravan without the assurance of a slavery curse that will burn their heart out of them if they try and stab me in the back for profit. Hell. Even if they didn’t learn our secrets, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t stay only long enough to nab our gemstones and run for the hills.
No. Magically enforced loyalty was the way to go in my situation.
…And besides, there might be some super hot woman I could buy to be my personal sex slave. Hey, don’t judge me! I’d be saving her from a life of prostitution to be my personal… okay, yeah, maybe judge me a little. Meh, I’ll just play it by ear.
But no matter what, the caravan would be reaching Arsktun tomorrow and I’ll start dealing with all the caravan’s various needs as they arise. Then we’ll cross the border, and hey, we’ll be in a fine position to escape the grasps of whatever shadowy conspiracy I’ve become involved in against my will. I’ll disappear into Fehkaahl, or use it as a springboard to disappear into another nation and live happily ever after by abusing my authority over a bunch of accomplices to extra dimensional abduction and murder to live the easy life.
Things are looking up!
Did I just jinx it? Heh, no way.
* * * * *
The incense hung heavily in the Cathedral of Passage as a hundred priests of great magical talent stood on the outer ring of the Goddess’ summoning circle, with two hundred guards about them inside the chamber alone. Not only was His Holiest present leading the ritual, but should the ritual be a success, there would be a new hero in need of protection until they were strong enough to stand on their own. Which meant the next few hours were the most vulnerable of The Faith’s in recent memory.
Though the term used for the process was “ritual,” the priests had nothing to do but channel their magic into the circle. Even the number of priests was unimportant, as more or fewer would make no difference except in how quickly their strength waned in feeding their magic into the circle for the Goddess to use. The only one who had an unquestionable purpose on the site was His Holiest Raul, who led a prayer to the Goddess for the advent of a new hero. His voice would continue his solemn requests to the Goddess until he either collapsed or his prayers were answered. And if he collapsed, he would have to continue the ritual every day for a full week of ten days before the pronouncing of a failure. It had been known to happen before, when there was either no one who was suitable to be a hero, or there was no need for one.
It was all up to the Goddess to decide. And the ritual continued on in solemn nervousness. And it was only half a day later that an answer was delivered.
The carved seals of the circle had previously glowed a dull blue before, but suddenly they lit up. Every man and woman present in the chamber felt a great pull of magical power from their bodies, and then felt the pull of the mana in the air as it rushed into the circle. And then a power met it from above. The great spell circle glowed and a pillar of bright blue light encapsulated all the space between the floor and the reinforced ceiling, great and wide. The pillar began to swiftly shrink in diameter, but not in height, until there was only a slim pillar the width of a human reaching from floor to ceiling. The disturbance to the air diminished, and for what felt like an eternity the thin pillar remained in place.
In reality though, it was only there long enough for His Holiest Raul to slowly stride to the foot of the pillar before a blur of darkness in the vague shape of a person was seen at the top of the pillar of light and slowly descended to the ground. When the shape touched land, the brightness slowly began to subside until the figure of their new savior appeared.
His Holiest slowly took one step back, bowed his head, and said in his deep and resonant voice, with the utmost sincerity, “Welcome to Meaohr, honored Traveller.”
End of Book 1: Unwelcome
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