I yawned and sipped my tea, wishing I had more; my travel cup (carved lovingly from wood by an artisan who used to be an artist – a sculptor) was not insulated, and the tea within had long since grown cold. I flexed my fingers in my gloves.
It was an unusually chilly morning, so why was I out in it?
The quarry was covered in a light fog which obscured vision past a hundred feet. Good for us to avoid detection as we sat over it, but bad for us to actually see what was going on below us.
A mining operation, conducted by people ten feet or taller without any power tools. They simply slammed rocks together with enough force to shatter them, then picked through what remained. I knew it was still going on because I could hear it, and we'd watched it happen before the fog rolled in. I also knew about the forges, used to smelt the metal once it was found. So we knew what they were after.
What the stone blocks being made for some hundred feet away from that I had no clue, but houses would be my guess. The entire area was denuded of trees and that left me feeling exposed, even with the fog surrounding us.
Another sip of bitter cold tea and I glanced to our fearless leader.
Karl had been given specific orders. While my mandate from the powers that be at Toledo was to look for magic and magic explanations, Karl's was simple. Ask the Giants to move; if they wouldn't move, force them to. That was the job we'd been given to keep our access to the information network the lord of Ohio was creating.
In a word, it was bullshit. It sickened me. There was some hope for a peaceful resolution, but if these giants were like the kind I'd read about, I didn't have much. Giants were stupid, historically. I'd have to try very hard not to allow that past history with giants to color my current perceptions of them.
“What do you think, Lady Muse?”
“I think we try to negotiate.”
Randolf growled in disgust and almost threw the rock he was holding. He stopped at the last minute only because he wasn't sure if it would give us away; he was even more anti-giant than I was. He wasn't really fond of anything, really. Even his fellow humans.
“Right, no doubt about that, but how do we make sure we all live if negotiations go south? Not wanting to kill is one thing, but....”
“Yeah, I'm with you. I'm thinking.” How could we cover our retreat if we go down there to talk with the people that might be angry, territorial, and the weakest of which could chuck a rock better than a catapult could? If we pissed them off, we'd have seconds, at best.
“I'm actually a fan of not going down there at all. At least, not in person.” I finally decided.
“Illusions and trickery? Smoke and mirrors? I approve but didn't figure you as the type.” Phil stated. I couldn't even see him, he was blended in so well.
“I'm not, normally. But I can handle a simple projection of Karl and add his words to it easily enough.” The elements were more my forte if anything was; I was pretty versatile.
“Sure, sounds like a plan.” Karl agreed. “But am I the one going to be doing the talking, or are you?”
“Well, you are. You tell me what to say, and the projection says it. We will have to be a bit closer for this to work, though. The outskirts of their operation, at least.” My range for such a complex illusion was a bit better than that, but I needed to hear what they said, and with the fog muting sound that was problematic.
Of course, that same effect made it much easier to sneak up on a people who had ears big enough to fit my hand in... if I wanted to do such a thing in the first place. We crept down carefully, near one of the trails the giants made but not on it, and stopped behind one of the frankly huge stone walls that were being erected; I could peek around it and see the broad strokes of what was going on, which was another plus.
“Hm, I can make us all invisible too, if you want.”
Pastor Collins chimed in, his whisper hoarse. “I can further mute any sounds we make.”
“Not sure that's a good idea,” Brian whispered back. “Won't that mute sound coming to us, too? And any communication we need to make?”
Karl shook his head even as Pastor Collins nodded his. “Yeah, let's not do that. Save it though, for a quick getaway if we need it. Having these people not able to pinpoint us could mean the difference between playing catch and not. Go ahead Muse, your show.”
I looked at him,fixing his features in my mind. It probably wasn't important what the puppet looked like, but I wanted to show I meant what I said about Karl calling the shots. Some focus, and more concentration than I expected, and there it was, a clone of Karl made of light and will. I made it walk around. It walked just like him, and the boots met the ground as expected. I could even make him stumble over loose stones, silently.
The steady pressure in the back of my head wasn't unexpected, but it was unwelcome. A mental command and sound was added, at a very low volume; I whispered, and clone Karl whispered in Karl's voice right along with me.
“She sells seashells by the seashore.”
Karl gave me a 'really?' look so I shrugged at him. “Alright good to go.”
Having clone Karl say that right next to me ear was disconcerting. Karl motioned the go-ahead so I had the clone march straight into town as if he owned the place. I also cast a quick as mass invisibility in the meantime. We would all be visible to each other as blue outlines, but not visible to anyone else. It didn't take long for clone Karl to be noticed, and one giant started over. I adjusted the sound.
“Take me to your leader.” Well, that was loud and clear and caused more of the giants to notice him.
I could feel the almost physical pressure of more of those stares from my companions. So I was a nerd and I sucked at improvising; sue me. If Karl wanted something better, he should have told me first.
The clone of Karl was soon surrounded. One giant, standing at fourteen feet tall and bellowing orders, strode up. He also had more of his kind looking for other intruders. I was happy we were invisible. I did notice the language being spoken wasn't one I knew.
Then he switched to English. Or whatever passed as English, now. Some common language all peoples seemed to share, or at least all the ones I've met so far. “Who are you?”
I started repeating Karl; reading his lips and making the sounds come from my illusion.“My name is Karl, and I represent the duchy of Ohio. I came to see what happened to the people who were living here, and the previous scouts.”
The giant tasted the word as if unfamiliar with it. “Duchy of Ohio? We know nothing of this kingdom of Ohio. We needed a home, and this area looked promising, so we took it. There were none to contest us. There were humans who came after, but they attacked us, so we killed them. They were weak. Are you weak?”
“No. What of those?” I had my projection point to the rubble of obviously human made houses.
“They were empty when we came. No one was using them, so we knocked them down.”
So either the mining town that was here vanished in whatever happened or they ran when they saw the giants and the giants decided that meant the place was abandoned. The former seemed less likely since there were reports from and about the town for at least a day after the event. But if not that, then where did the population go? They should have been around to say something if they had just run off, giants or no giants.
If the soldiers behind us decided the giants had done something, there would be bloodshed. I didn't want that if the giants were innocent. If they were guilty, and this one was lying to us, well, I'd probably start things off myself. But we needed proof, and I didn't really see anything definitive here. No graves or bones or anything lying around, no freshly turned earth. Seemed the giants just wanted whatever was in the rock itself, or to shape rock; I didn't know.
Some new/old instinct, perhaps.
Come to think of it, they said they killed the scouts for attacking them; if so, where were those bodies?
Karl came to the conclusion at the same time I did and made me ask. The answer was better than I expected. The boss pointed to the other side of their settlement or camp or whatever. “We made cairns for them.”
There were three, and they were very solid. So, they didn't eat humans, or if they did they were restraining themselves. And no village worth of corpses.
“You have settled on Ohio land, and if you wish to remain, you must submit yourselves to the authority of the Duke.” I stared at Karl as I repeated it; the duke had actually prepared a for this eventuality? Even told Karl to say that line for it? He nodded. Well, things were going to go to hell quick.”
“Is this Duke you speak of strong?”
Well, that wasn't the answer I expected. It was probably leading to it, though.
“Yes, he is.”
The giant nodded. “Good, then we fight, and the stronger one keeps the land. Tell him to come.
You leave now unless you want to fight.”
Yep, it led right where I thought it might.
“I will tell him, and I'll leave. I'll come again.”
The giant nodded again. “Okay. Leave now.”
At Karl's direction, I walked the projection out of the circle of gathered giants, making sure to match the sounds up. Once back to us, I cut it and just managed to hold back the grateful sigh; that sort of thing was hard to do for extended periods.
“Let's get out of here before they realize there's more of us. One guy may not seem a threat to them, but all of us here skulking around? That will piss them off.”
I had no doubt about that, and the fog was beginning to lift. Karl gave pastor Collins the high sign, and an eerie silence dropped. We snuck out. We'd gotten back up the trail successfully, going wide past four different giants who were looking for intruders and were in the clear by the time the silence spell cut out. I dropped my own spell right after, not bothering to stifle the sigh this time.
Phil looked at me. “Why are you on your tip-toes?”
I looked down, then dropped to my feet. Oops. “I was sneaking. Everyone knows that when you sneak, you do it on tip-toes.
“Yeah, sure, whatever.”
I sniffed at him. “You just have no proper respect for sneaking etiquette. A shame really, considering your profession. Well, your new profession.”
Phil grinned widely, taking a drink from a skin I knew didn't contain water. And this early, too. “Old profession too, for all that I didn't get caught. Don't look so surprised, you knew I was a hood; everyone did.”
“I wasn't surprised at that, just surprised that you admitted it, and in front of the local law.”
Karl chimed in. “We never could pin anything on him, and he knew it. Even now, without a specific admission, I can't do anything and he knows it.”
Ethan, who had been so quiet the entire morning that I'd forgotten he was there, finally spoke up.
“As riveting as all this is, can we talk about it later, when we're all safe and not facing death by rock burial?”
He sounded pretty irritated but had a point.
Karl thirded it. “Yep, agreed, time to leave and meet our friendly liaison.”
Our friendly liaison was the commander of the soldiers a few miles behind us. A full hundred men, all armed and armored, led by one captain Kruger Short. Captain Short was cold and aloof, or at least he had been last night when we met him. Our job had been to scout the location and report back, then offer magical support in the event of a threat while his soldiers eradicated the menace. I wasn't sure I liked the word choice.
I had my suspicions, but I'd wait and see.
The hike back, a good two miles down a fully paved cart road, was an easy one. Nothing jumped us, which actually made me more nervous. A little screwed up, I had to admit, but there it was. Captain Short was waiting for us on a field just off the quarry road. While he still had a number of men with him, he was somewhat shy of the hundred and twenty or so he had started with.
That was actually a good thing. With the number of giants down there, even men in armor with a squad of cavalry wasn't enough to actually attack with, so the chances of a peaceful resolution just went up; but I did wonder where the others had gone.
“Ah, there you are, back safe and sound. So, what news do you have for me?” He directed the question at Karl, visibly ignoring me entirely, even though we were walking right next to each other.
“Well, your scouts managed to piss off a large group of giants and got themselves killed.
"Somehow, all three of them. The giants claim the village of workers was abandoned when they found it. They tore it all down and moved in, and are making their own settlement. We didn't see any evidence of graves or corpses, and no evidence the giant's were lying; they buried the scouts, but not anyone else. Admittedly, we didn't look too hard; I thought you should know what's going on before we risked getting discovered.
Captain Short looked us all over, frowning. “That's appreciated, but the job is only half done, then. You need to go back and find any evidence there; if you can, find out where the workers went and where they are now. I've got patrols checking on the towns nearby, so you won't need to do that.”
Ah, so that's where they went.
“Of course, the giants will still need to answer for the lives of our scouts, but the workers and their families are our first priority.”
I couldn't stay silent at that. “What are you going to do? Attack them? Kill them all?”
Captain Short looked at me the first time, his outrage plain to see. “Of course not, don't be stupid. But murders must be answered for. Only the guilty parties will be punished.”
He meant the leader, no doubt, the one who answered our questions. As the one in charge, he was responsible – but that really wasn't a good idea. I had no real idea how the giants might take the arrest of their leader, but I doubted it was well.
Nevertheless, he had a point. Not punishing murderers would cause problems later, and it was the right thing to do besides. At least the decision wasn't mine to make. I wasn't going to support his decision either, not if I could help it. I wasn't along to help kill a bunch of giants who might have been human before, and could have been provoked into killing. Not that anyone knew that yet. With luck, they wouldn't need to find out.
Was the rule of law even the same anymore? It couldn't be, the circumstances were all wrong, and yet I didn't want to believe it was. At the same time I knew that if the giants had found and attacked us, lethal force to escape was an option I wouldn't have hesitated on. It probably made me a hypocrite, somehow.
Of course, it didn't help that I didn't trust Captain Short; it felt like he was looking down his nose at something disgusting every time he looked at me, and trying not to inhale a foul stench. I was half tempted to show him what a foul stench was.
“Alright, time we should be going, right Karl?” Brian stated, moving up to my side, and I realized I'd been staring – well, glaring really – at Captain Short.
I didn't think asking him about his plans was stupid in the least. Antagonizing him, perhaps, but not simple questions.
Karl agreed. “Yep. Time to go. Come on, Muse, let's go find some villagers.”
Together they all but manhandled me away from the Captain and his men, and soon we were headed back down the road towards the giants.
“What are you even doing, antagonizing the armed man like that?” Randolf had the nerve to ask.
I looked to Karl, and he sped up, but not before I could see the disapproval on his face. Brain's face was much more open. “I was trying to make sure he wasn't going to go through like a scythe and kill a bunch of people in cold blood.”
“They aren't people, they are giants. Large, ugly, dumb, murderous brutes.” Randolf scoffed.
Pastor Collins sided with me. “She's right. Murder is wrong, no matter how big the person is.”
I couldn't believe what I just heard. “Not that long ago, less than two weeks, in fact, giants didn't exist. Can you be so sure about that? Them being dumb and murderous? They could have been rocket scientists or physicists before.”
Randolf shook his head in disbelief. “But they aren't now. We have to deal with the now, not the past.”
“No reason we can't try to deal with both. We are trying to figure out what happened in order to reverse it after all.” Thomas answered him - before I could. I couldn't have said it better myself, actually.
Randolf said nothing, but clearly, he did not believe in the mission anymore, if he ever did. On that I wasn't sure I could blame him; this was daunting. It looked like the entire planet was affected, at least from where we sat.
“Alright, enough. Quiet, and focus. I don't want to get buried alive. Lady Muse, can you still cast your invisibility?”
I nodded. “Sure, I can do it again. A few more times.”
“Good, that'll be the plan, when we get close.”
We walked, getting off the road as we got closer. The fog was gone, so we were forced to take it easy and slow to remain as silent as possible. There were still giants everywhere, looking around.
Pastor Collins cast his silence spell, (which ironically was a somewhat loud prayer requesting silence, and therefore not silent itself) and we carefully picked through the remains of the human settlement. The closest thing to a crime was rotten food. No bodies, human or animal.
I was beginning to feel the strain of my spell when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Phil, and he made a bunch of signs. Since I had no idea what the hell he was actually signing, he sighed soundlessly and gestured me away. We all regrouped and he led us away.
I hadn't even noticed Phil leave the first time, but when he led me away from the settlement ruins and to the edge of the forest near a gully, it was obvious he had at some point. At some point in that trek, sound returned, and we were all treated to the lovely sound of Randolf kicking rocks with metal shoes.
We all glared at him, even Karl. Why not? Ethan was fully armored too, and he was quieter.
“So, footprints.' Phil whispered, pointing them out. 'Not a whole bunch, but enough. There was a large number of people, human – or elf – sized, that went through here, and they did it all at the same time.”
Thomas studied the prints. “Yep. About a week ago, maybe a bit longer. Should be easy to track.”
Karl took a look, then stood up. “Lead on, then.”
I didn't bother. Both Phil and Thomas were better than I was, even if I did know what I was looking at, and I wasn't about to go grubbing in the dirt more. I followed along as we dodged giants. It was getting harder and harder to focus, and objects around my peripheral vision were getting fuzzy. I realized my breath was coming in gasps.
This was bad. “Wait. Got to stop....” I released the invisibility spell, and everyone stopped, ducking down and looking around for the threat. I started feeling better immediately.
I slid down a tree and took a seat. “Sorry. Just couldn't hold it any longer.”
Brain crouched beside me, a water skin in hand. “Nah, we should have asked. Still, almost two hours, for all of us. That's not bad at all.”
I took a gulp. “Sorry, it wasn't really affecting me... until it was.”
Karl blocked the light. “You should tell us if something is affecting you.”
“That's just the thing... normally it doesn't work like that. I cast the spell, the spell works, and then cancels when it runs out of energy. That's all. I'm not sure why this spell worked differently.”
“This looks as good a spot as any to take a rest. What do you say, boss man?” Ethan asked.
I looked at him gratefully while he pretended not to notice. Karl shrugged. “Sure. No giants around, everyone take five.”
I was tired, sure, but I wasn't made of glass, and I recovered quickly. Five minutes later I was ready to go – only no one seemed to believe it.
They were all still lounging around, looking almost obscenely fresh. Throwing twigs at each other, or just staring off into the distance. Ethan was braiding rope, of all things. I got up... and no one got up with me. So I could either say 'I'm ready' and look like an ass, or just stand there.
I grabbed my own canteen. Water was all well and good, but skins made it taste weird; filtering it through wood was much better. At least Pastor Collins was breathing hard too.
Brian threw a twig at me; it stuck in my hair. I pulled it out and sent it back.
Randolf got involved. “You know, it is around lunchtime. I could definitely use some lunch.”
“Sure, break out the trail rations.” Karl assented.
I swear it was a plot. I was NOT made of glass. We could even be eating while moving – after all, this was kind of a time sensitive case here.
We ate. I cracked open my book and tried not to glare. I wasn't really needed as a pair of extra eyes. Soon enough I was getting tapped on the shoulder.
“Time to go,” Brian whispered, apologetically. He offered me a hand up, which I took.
Almost a shame, really. Reading about water and how it exists to flow gently and exploit ruthlessly was interesting. Unscientific, but interesting. Also, nothing I didn't already know; the grand canyon exists after all. Or maybe that's 'existed', but the book made it sound like it was an intelligent decision. Or at least that there was more at work than simple cold facts and chemistry.
I wasn't a believer yet, but I was getting there. I'd just made people invisible earlier today, after all; something physics said was impossible. Well, conventional physics anyway.
“Thomas are we still following those tracks?”
“Sure are, Lady Muse. Something you would know if you bothered to check.”
“That's what you're along for.” Well, him and Phil both, really.
If Thomas was feeling confident enough to joke, I was pretty sure we were out of giant country.
We continued to follow the tracks. For hours. We didn't see anything in the meantime; nothing dangerous, nothing harmless. Not even squirrels or birds. It reminded me uncannily of Georgetown, though there didn't seem to be any of the same crackling tension in the air; it was more as if anything alive and mobile had better places to be.
To be fair I still heard creatures stirring, I just didn't see them. Perhaps it wasn't that odd, considering I was walking with two noisy ironworks with legs.
The problem was we still hadn't found any villagers by an hour towards nightfall. We circled to decide what to do about that.
“We can't go on, we don't know enough about what's ahead,” Thomas whispered.
I agreed with that.
“But we should just push through another hour, they might not be that far ahead, and then we're done.” If anything Randolf sounded disgusted with the whole trek. I guess if he viewed the entire expedition as a massive waste of time (as he seemed to), that was reasonable.
The other issue was how to get in touch with Captain Short, and let him know we were still on the job and where; we hadn't crossed any other towns or villages. Which might also be a little odd, but I wasn't sure; wouldn't a group of refugees head towards civilization, and not away from it?
Without a horse, trying to send someone back and expecting them to reach us by morning was stupid. So Karl, of course, turned to – Pastor Collins? What?
“Can you send a message to Captain Short? Will your goddess allow you to?”
Pastor Collins nodded, with a glance to me. Nervous? “Yes, I believe so. I can ask, of course.”
I kept setting up my tent, but when Karl walked by I couldn't keep silent. “I could send messages too, you know. Probably easier than Collins can.”
Collins glanced over from where he was building the fire up as Karl stopped. Yes, he was definitely nervous about something.
“Sure, but Captain Short doesn't like you, and you don't seem to like him much either, so having Pastor Collins do it seemed like a good idea. You can handle the direct report to the Duke's agents at Toledo.”
I gaped at him. Was he going over Captain Short's head?
He grinned at me. “Captain Stone asked for reports too, and while I'm sure he meant from Captain Short, he never said as much and I was there. I'm also sure your friend Twig would like to know what's going on.”
I shook my head. “His name is Stick.”
“Whatever. Will you do it?”
“Sure, but why?” I was already forming the bird of light and air which would relay the messages to the capitol. The bird was more flashy, but it would be easier and more effective in the long run.
Karl shrugged. “Man strikes me as a bit of a bigot, and I want our backsides covered. Going to see about hunting a little.” He ghosted into the woods before I could finish casting and collect myself.
Just when I thought I had him figured out, Karl surprised me. I probably owed him an apology of some sort. I made sure the alarm spells I cast excluded him and tuned out the sounds of the good Pastor's chanting as he started his own message spell.
I was pretty sure mine was more efficient. I was finished with the alarms before he was with his prayers, after all.
Phil came back, throwing his sleeping bag near the fire and throwing himself down on it. I hadn't even realized he'd been gone, though it made sense; there was work to do, after all. Pastor Collins didn't so much as flinch at the noise or production.
“The tracks just keep going.”
I frowned. That was odd. We were fast on foot, despite one of us being a dwarf. We were at least as fast as a group of refugees saddled with gear. They should have bed down for the night close to where we were, as this was close to maximum walking distance for a day and we hadn't passed a campsite earlier. So did they just not stop? And if so, what scared them so much they left their town and kept going? Buildings of any kind were at least cover; it didn't make any sense.
Karl came back as Pastor Collins finished up.
“No Game at all. Well?”
Pastor Collins went first. “Captain short knows and approves. He said to keep going until you find them; his scouts found no evidence of any of them in the other towns or villages around here. Not so much as a farmer had seen them, he said.”
That was odd.
Oh, right. “All parties that need to know will be informed by the end of the night. My bird will bring back all their replies.”
“Good enough.” I frowned. He sounded like he had an issue there, perhaps with the speed of my spell? As if trying to inform a bunch of people and hear their replies could be done all at once.
Sure, anyone could do that for one person, but several?
“Impressive.” Pastor Collins noted. At least he knew the difference.
“As I was just saying before interrupted,' Phil interrupted. 'the tracks keep going, steadily.”
“How deep are they?” Brian asked.
“Not very. I'd have to say unloaded if asked, but I'd be more happy about it if someone else could verify.”
Thomas just nodded and stood up. I threw some trail bread and jerky his way; with no game that was supper. I could hear him crunch down on the stuff as he left, and winced. I'd stick with my own trail mix, less likely to lose a tooth that way.
“Think it's safe to say something is going on,” Karl admitted, taking his own share of the food I was passing out.
Ethan took his share and bit in with gusto. I wasn't worried about his teeth at all; they were probably granite. “Are we safe here?”
“Safe enough,” I answered. “I've got alarm spells and wards all around us, so if anyone or anything that isn't us tries to entire the clearing we'll know.”
Sure, it wasn't perfect, but we wouldn't wake up with giants piling rocks on us.
We all waited. Thomas came back, and I actually spotted him before I had Phil, though I didn't hear him. I busied myself scanning for the light of tell-tale fires nearby; there weren't any.
“Phil's right. The tracks just keep going, even and unloaded. Something is definitely wrong with them.”
“Great. I'm going to bed, enjoy your night. Don't forget to wake me up for watch.”
I wouldn't put it past Brian to try and let me sleep buddy system or not, and I didn't want to miss my bird coming back. Sure, it should last until it reports in, but something weird also happened earlier, with my magic. I didn't want to take chances.
At least there were still crickets to hear and fall asleep to; complete silence would always be eerie.
Morning dawned, bright and early. I was alive and rock free, so plan A was a rousing success.
I dressed and opened my tent; only Karl was awake, poking the fire with a stick and muttering. He looked up as I stepped out, forewarned by the noise. Phil shifted slightly in his ratty bedroll.
"Good morning, Karl."
"Good morning, Lady Muse."
"What, no coffee?" I half joked. I could really go for coffee right now, or even the much easier to make tea.
"I didn't feel like wandering off to collect wood in the dark," was Karl's answer.
I turned to face the rising sun. "A good point. So it was all quiet last night?" I'd almost said after I passed out dead to the world, but that wasn't the impression I wanted to give.
"Yeah. There were some giants that walked by a few hundred yards that way," Karl pointed back the way we'd come. "But they were loud and didn't see us."
"I see." I'd slept right through that. It was a safe bet I hadn't fooled anyone.
"So, what happened to you yesterday, Lady Muse?"
"I don't know. Something about the area we passed through seemed to sap my vitality, and maintaining the invisibility spell on us didn't help; either I'm not well suited for such a spell, or the drain required to hold it goes up the longer I maintain it. I'm still new at this magic thing, so when we hit that area - well, it caught me by surprise, is all."
Karl's face thundered and his voice became a low hiss. "If you think your spells can fail, you need to tell us first! If we rely on your magic and it fails at a critical moment...."
"Bullshit; I did warn you. I told you how long we had, and I kept it up longer. You don't need to act like I suddenly became unreliable. I've told you all the risks so far, at least all I know of. How can I be faulted for a new experience!?! There was something wrong with the ground we moved through yesterday, and it messed me up. Don't act like you didn't notice."
Karl's face twisted into something unreadable, but I didn't need to read it to know I scored a hit.
"Pastor Collins said the same thing." he admitted.
If he wanted to question my competence (again) that was fine. He could get all the second opinions he wanted. The real question was something else, however.
"Did he say what it was?" Because I had to admit I had no clue, other than it felt like being unable to breathe.
"No, he just said it felt evil. Which is great and all, but it doesn't tell us anything."
Maybe it did. And if it did, the good Pastor had to at least suspect what it was. Maybe he didn't want to worry anyone. I certainly didn't; if I said the word, it would end up happening.
My poker face wasn't as good as Karl's. "You know something?"
I busied myself with readying water for boiling; there should still be enough heat left in the embers for that. "I suspect something. I don't want to say it and be wrong."
"Come on, spill." Karl insisted.
I sighed. "Fine, but I could be wrong. I want that clear, here."
He nodded, leaning forward eagerly.
"The key is the pace. The townspeople are walking at an even pace, without varying, through broken terrain, and beating us. They are also not weighed down by baggage, or much baggage. The patch of ground we passed last night could have been unhallowed ground, I don't know what you call it. Something that saps magic or life energy."
I was guessing life energy, myself.
"So you're guessing undead."
I nodded. As chilling as it was, when you undead into the rest of the puzzle pieces, it made sense. But all of the villagers, converted to undead? I didn't want to see it. Even worse, I didn't want to see whatever could do that, and do it so quickly.
"Right, well, thanks for sharing. Next time, no matter how bad you think the news is, don't make sharing your speculations like pulling teeth."
"I don't like sharing weak theories, and this one is pretty weak. But fine."
Karl thought a moment as I broke out the tea... and Phil shifted again. Then he broke the silence again.
"So, no lingering effects from whatever it was yesterday? Also, what do you recommend if it is undead?"
"I recommend not jumping to conclusions until we have more evidence. For all we know, it could be an army of smart kobolds or something."
Karl took some water for his own tea. "Alright, no need to snap. But you feel alright?"
I took a sip and let the bitter and delicious heat warm my insides. "I feel fine. Full of vim and vigor, and all ready to go."
It kind of sucked that I was the only one who was affected by whatever that was yesterday, but it was probably a magic thing.
"Good. So, want some breakfast?"
"Not if it's from this area." I didn't trust it; and Id rather dig into my own food reserves than forage.
"Fair enough," Karl stated... and then he clapped. Loudly. "Get up! It's morning and time to get moving! We have villagers to save!"
There were groans, and the camp started to stir. Ethan shot me a look as he rolled out of an actual bed of rocks, but I couldn't read it at all.
I looked the other way as the neanderthals put themselves back together; the sunrise was very beautiful, and they were not. Wait, I should probably strike my tent; I pulled my gear out and busied myself doing that, mainly so I didn't get tasked for something else.
It was good that I had, because everyone was ready to go by the time I was done; if I'd waited any longer, they would have been waiting on me... and insufferable.
We picked up the trail, and picked up the pace, moving right into what wasn't quite a jog, but was probably as close as one could get in an overgrown area like this. But even with the pace, we didn't seem to make up any ground. If anything we were losing it; there was no evidence of a camp or a any signs that the people we were chasing stopped, even for a moment.
"Lady Muse," Karl broke the rather unnatural science, his face serious. "Can you send another bird with an update?"
"Easily. What do you want it to say?"
"That we are still in pursuit of the villagers, or people who were likely to have seen what happened."
Well, that should help delay any action against the giants. "Alright, got it." I formed another bird of light and air, and set it free. It should take a few hours to arrive... which would be just in time for the important people to wake up, probably. Rich people didn't normally get up at the crack of dawn.
I turned to Thomas. "So, how close are we?"
He looked up from a track, chewing on a stick, and spoke around it. "We lost time. The good news is we can probably make it up. This is a march we're following, not a sprint."
We kept going, and by the end of the day even I could tell that we were gaining. However, that wasn't the only thing that was happening; any game that had been in this forest was gone. The forest itself was dying, the trees stunted and leaves a yellow spotted cliche straight from an early movie days sound stage. Not that you could see the color of the leaves in those movies, but I bet they were this kind of brown spotted yellow.
There was a feeling, pervading it. A sort of tense itch behind the shoulder blades and eyes that only got stronger; I'd noted it yesterday, but it was much more localized today. It made me more than a little jumpy, and guessing by the darting eyes and unsheathed weapons, I wasn't the only one. Even Ethan was actually being silent for a change.
Almost by unspoken agreement we all slowed, focusing more on silence than speed. The forest seemed to conspire against us on that front, proving no shortage of dead limbs and brush to part noisily before us.
But despite the feel of the place, and despite the look of it, nothing jumped out at us. When dark fell we stopped, again by unspoken assent. None of us wanted to go anywhere in this forest in the dark.
"Why are we stopping?"
Well, almost all of us. "Because the footing is treacherous, Randolf. Do you want to break a leg?"
I could just see his scowl at my answer in the deepening gloom. "I don't want to mince round this forest all year looking for these missing villagers. We can still push ahead awhile, I say we do it."
We both looked to Karl. He sighed. "I swear, you guys... alright, show of hands. Who wants to camp?"
Every hand but Randolf's shot up.
"Damn it. Come on! Do you all really want to spend the night stuck here?"
No, I was pretty sure none of us did, but the alternative of fumbling around in the dark was worse. I wanted to say that, but I kept my mouth shut with effort.
"Moon will be up tonight, and bright. There won't be many clouds." Thomas noted almost absently as he leaned back against a tree. He then jumped up as the tree creaked under his weight.
That was surprising. I wouldn't have expected Thomas of all people to come down in favor of groping in the dark.
Karl was surprised too. "If we can see, we can try it, but I make no promises. For now, set up and get some sleep in. Randolf and Ethan, first watch."
Well, if we could see we could continue, no matter how bad an idea it was. Whatever was in this forest was stronger at night, I was sure of it. Even if I was just pulling that idea out of my butt, running around a dark forest at night was a bad idea.
I set my wards in a hurry, and set up bedroll by firelight. As much as I wanted my tent, there just wouldn't be time if we needed to move later.
No one spoke; we all ate in perfect unnerving quiet, ears straining for any sound that could be from an animal instead of a falling tree or branch. This time, everyone ate from their stores; not even Thomas was willing to hunt here now.
I woke with a start to find Matt hovering over me, already back in his armor, and clanking loud enough to raise the dead - or me.
"Lady Muse? Time to get going, the moon is up."
"I'm awake." The moon was indeed up, and while not full, was close enough to it, seeming to over over us with stark brightness, as if to try and rival the sun itself.
Well, I could see well enough; if I wanted. I could draw the scenery, down to each fold of the bark on the trees. The humans probably could too.
We packed up and were back on the trail inside of 5 minutes; the worst time waster was picking up my reusable wards. Pastor Collins and Phil both used that time to rub the sleep from their eyes. I eyed the kicked out fire; tea could have helped.
We walked carefully, as soundless as shadow itself, and heard nothing but the occasional branch falling in the breeze.
Nothing jumped out at us. It was clear that by this point fire was to be the biggest concern. The hours passed and the moon sank below the horizon; by that point we were all tired.
Karl pulled an ember from his pack, and lit a small torch I didn't know he had. "Alright, camp again. I'm not losing a foot to a gopher hole."
I tried, but I couldn't sleep. So I read instead, using the firelight and sort of keeping Matt (who had watch) company.
"So what do you think has infected the trees around here?" Matt asked out of the blue.
Well, I could lie, but I didn't feel like it. "Blight. Death itself."
"Well, that's dark."
I shrugged. "You asked."
"Yeah, sorry about that."
"What does Pastor Collins say?" There was no way Matt hadn't asked.
"He said it was some disease... but he looked a little off doing it. Constipated no doubt."
Matt had made sure Pastor Collins could hear that last as he walked by, smiling all the while. Pastor Collins didn't waste time responding. "That's totally it. I was staring at that thing you call a face, and suddenly had to go or ruin my clothes."
Wow, brutal. "Good one."
"Thank you. But to answer your next question, the woods might be infected with something... else. But without past experience to compare it to, I just don't know. I will admit the terrain makes me feel uneasy."
"I think it does that for us all," Phil stated around is own crude mouthwash... which was basically pure alcohol from what I could smell.
Karl broke us up with "Get ready to march." Then went off to stand at the edge of camp, trying to look like an bad boy or action movie star or something. With a shrug I doused the fire, pocketing the last of the hot water carefully in my travel cup
We all got settled into a rough formation and started off. I had to work at not spilling any tea.
Hours passed in travel before we found the first body.
It was a deer, thankfully enough, but none of us would be eating venison. It was an old kill, rotten and festering, but with few insects swarming it. It looked to have been clawed or chewed apart. Just a few yards away was another... and this carcass was a bear. Similarly aged and similarly stinky, it was also a little light on insects.
Yeah, I didn't like where this was going. Judging from the smell, these two weren't the only ones.
"What do you think?" I asked Thomas.
"Lot's more where these two came from... but the tracks of the animals have been obliterated by the trail we're following.
It was an actual animal graveyard, of everything from squirrels to deer to bears. Everything that could live in a forest was dead here.
There was also more than a little evidence of fire here; the broken husks of trees were blackened and charred, and the undergrowth was so much ash wafting on the fitful breeze.
So first fire, the a truly massive number of animals, then people marching through? It didn't paint a picture I could make ready sense of, and from the looks of it neither could anyone else.
Unless... no; that was too ghastly. But still, I got up close to a few of the corpses, just to make sure. And I saw it.
There was only one reason this squirrel would have thread embedded in it's fur. If it was pieced back together after it died.
"Karl, Pastor. Take a look at this."
Ethan followed the two over. He'd been more quiet and subdued than the rest of us lately, but he took one look and cursed, loudly. Karl's mouth tightened, and Pastor Collins whitened.
"I take it you see this, then? It's not just me?"
"Necromancy!" Ethan spat, and cursed again.
"Unless some needed to perform an autopsy on a tree rat, I have to agree with our short friend." Pastor Collins opined.
Just great. I was too tired for this. "I was kind of hoping I'd imagined it."
"No such luck," Tomas ground out. "And we can't even load the normal standard for this sort of thing. The forest is too dead, any out of control fire risks killing us."
Screw that, I was loading fire anyway. Well, that and water, just in case I needed to put out the fire.
"Come on, let's move. Heads on swivels." Karl ordered, and set off. Ugh.
We tightened up a bit but didn't slow down. Every step further was a step into ground where the earth itself seemed to groan under the weight of evil. Or not evil... maybe entropy? Why would I think the absence of life or presence of death evil, whether it's true or not? Was this another foreign thought invading who I was? I'd never thought of death as evil before - if it was, it was very well camouflaged insidiously among the other thoughts I dealt with; nothing like the in-my-face thoughts I'd had the first day after the incident. Or event, or whatever it was.
I couldn't do anything about it, but I wondered if everyone else was having the same issue... or if it was worse for them. Did they even second guess themselves anymore, if they ever did?
Should I still second guess myself?
Before I could come to conclusion night fell.
"We should keep going." Randolf stated, right on cue.
The moon was already out tonight, fat and low, mocking us.
"It's a very bad idea to try and confront a necromancer in the dark, if we're still making that assumption."
"A worse idea to wait and let the necromancer find out we're here and come for us. We need to hit them first."
"No," Matt said. "We're going. Now that we suspect necromancy, we should move quickly, and try to save as many people as possible. They can't all be dead."
Shame still felt the same. "You're right, Matt. You're right. Let's go."
Even if I thought differently, we should assume there were lives we could save; if we didn't, we would regret this moment for the rest of our lives.
Karl nodded and stalked off silently; Phil ghosted ahead to mark the best route.
We made very good time, and kept going until the moon went under the horizon. Karl stopped and at the all clear hoot from Phil, lit a torch. I took that as my signal to drop like a stone; I was in good shape, but tiring was tiring.
I looked at my tent; it was too much effort. Why hadn't I made one that would set itself up? My bedroll was easy at least. There would be no reading tonight.
Morning dawned as mornings are wont to do; this one was a little more chilly than the last, with a bit more dew on the ground and a fine mist swirling about our feet. That was good, because if someone had to get fire-happy, all the moisture might curtail any spread of it.
Of course it also brought the smell of decay that much closer to my nose, but I'd accept the tradeoff.
"You're cute when you scrunch your nose up like that." Phil told me with a smirk as he walked by.
Ethan strode along in his wake, and made a show of looking me up and down. "I don't see it, man."
"You have to be tall enough to ride the big boy rides, Ethan." Phil told him without breaking stride.
What a jerk.
"How about I chew off your kneecaps, Phil?" Ethan asked as they finished walking out of my range.
Yeah, you tell him short stuff!
Wait, where were they even going? "Karl, where are those two going?"
"To the little boys room. They didn't want to do it in the middle of camp." Well, that was a relief; I was pretty sure no one wanted to see that.
Wait. "Don't bother," Karl continued; "They are using the buddy system, and not going far. No need to worry."
I worried anyway. I packed up, getting ready to move... then realized something.
The trail would be hard to follow until the mist burned off. But the sun was hours away from cooperating from that; it was overcast, and rain was threatening. I took a look; Thomas also decided to take a look.
"Can you follow it?" He asked me.
"Barely. Can you?"
"Sure, it's hardly a small or difficult trail. The targets aren't even trying." he replied. "But it's always nice to have a second and third opinion."
I wasn't sure I liked the choice of the word targets, especially from someone who agreed with us last night on saving lives. But then again, who was I to judge?
"Alright, third or fourth opinion," Thomas admitted. "I haven't actually been doing this as long as it appears."
Good point, I had just been assuming since he was the woodsman he could do it and do it easily, when he had only been a woodsman for as long as I've been throwing spells. I had to remember that while other people were assuming about me, I was assuming about them.
We got ready to move - and Ethan and Phil came back, all but linked arm in arm. I hoped they washed their hands, but didn't have the guts to ask.
We moved in order of line, following the trail beaten into the dead undergrowth. This time however, even I could tell we were catching up. That track there for example, despite being washed out by the dew, it was easy to tell it was laid yesterday. Probably early yesterday, but the leaf fallen in it made it clear the track was laid before the wind gusts yesterday, but not baked well enough to set.
I didn't really need to deal with it though, bracketed how I was. I just needed to deal with the normal idiocy.
"He's right, you know." Matt said from behind me, pointing at Phil.
"Right about what?" The age of the tracks, the length of time the cloud cover would last? Or even how close we were?
"When you smell something rank and scrunch your face up, it makes you look very cute."
Oh my Gods. "Shut up and focus you idiot."
"Oh I am, I am."
"On your surroundings. Your other surroundings."
"Will do. Don't worry Lady Muse, I won't let you take an arrow in the knee!"
He really went there. "That was bad, and you should feel bad."
Matt tended to joke under pressure, and he was really cutting loose this morning. It wouldn't do to take it personally.
I wasn't sure how long the change had... changed, but I noticed about mid-morning.
There were birds in some of the trees. Not many, and not in every tree, but every once in awhile as we traveled, perhaps every hundred yards or so, there was a crow watching us as we passed with unblinking eyes in utter silence.
I signalled Karl, but rather than dropping back he just nodded. So, he knew then.
The stench of old death started to grow, to overpower everything else; even the clean tang of the mist, which if anything, seemed thicker than before.
We were being set up. The final straw was the first sounds we heard from our surroundings in days, carried by the weather and terrain so that it appeared to come from all around us - whimpering and sobbing.
A house loomed suddenly, a short squat thing made of logs, previously hidden by a line of trees. The windows were broken but the structure appeared strong. I was almost certain the sounds were coming from there.
The roof of the house was covered in silent unblinking crows.
There were two bodies near the door; one very old, and one new. The old one was stretched out full length as if running from the house, and the new one was slumped over in a chair on the small porch. They had the old faded burlap garments one would expect from poor villagers.
Karl broke the silence. "Hello?"
I stared at him then quickly refocused. Was he an idiot? You didn't ever give away your position like that! You should always make the horror movie bad guys work for it.
The sobbing cut off abrupty, but the whimpering continued. Then a new sound joined it; a mangled sort of yelling that made my blood run cold.
The crows all flapped their wings at once and cawed, the sound like a gravel-filled scream from a thousand throats.
I started focusing my power, and Pastor Collin's white glow drew my eye; I didn't let it distract me.
The bodies all around us, all standing up as the crows took off as one? That was distracting.
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!" Thank you for the color commentary Matt, I'm aware the crows are diving on us. They broke off the shield I snapped into place. Well, most of them; two got through. Randolf knocked them out of the air with well timed sword and shield blows.
The rest treated my shield as window; which was good, since it was my strongest one and I couldn't keep it up forever. Then I realized they were coming at us in more than the directions my semi-circle was covering; Matt driving me to the ground with a yelled "Get down!" was my first clue.
Being squished by someone wearing mail hurt, and he almost brained me with the shield.
But his heart was in the right place, since I heard the birds bouncing off it silently. If he hadn't held the shield up they would have been bouncing beak first off my unprotected face. A quick glance up showed the birds coming around for another pass, or cutting through my friends.
Then Pastor Collins got involved. "In the name of Minerva, be at peace!"
The rebuke spread in a radius, and bird bodies dropped like noxious hail when it hit them. There were still a few around, but their numbers were cut drastically.
That only left all the human zombies, currently closing in.
A ball of fire washed over my shield, incinerating more of the enemy. My shield held but faded; I'd lost the focus required to hold it, and it was destined to fail. The body on the porch stood up with a cackle I could hear.
Oh. So that was our necromancer.
"Thought you could hunt ole Enas, did you? Thought he wouldn't know? Well, these are my woods! Mine! And I always know!"
Why do they always talk? Yes, thank you crazy person, we know you're crazy. My lightning bolt lanced through the crowd and knocked him off the porch. He'd dodged the worst of it though, somehow; he wasn't jittery or seizing on the ground.
"Lady Minerva, protect us!" Pastor Collins yelled, holding his amulet aloft. The brilliance around it surged painfully, and the zombies who had been attempting to claw our front line apart staggered back, boiling and hissing like disgusting teakettles.
"Annoying." Enas spat, and a bar of pure darkness struck out from his hands to strike Pastor Collins in the chest; Collins went down like a stringless puppet, landing face first in a puddle.
"Matt!" I pointed with one hand, drawing my will in the other.
"On it!" He replied, and started over. Ethan was already there, however, having somehow crossed the distance fast enough to block the next wave of crows from attacking Pastor Collins directly. I left them to it.
Lightning didn't work, huh? We didn't need more fire. An elemental could work. Earth? No, Air. Much harder to spot and nuke.
The call formed in a hurry and I sent it, I could see the elemental form behind the figure of the necromancer, but I doubt anyone else could.
Then I dodged, avoiding a sickly purple beam that shot out from the necromancer's hands more on instinct on anything else. I was beginning to sense a trend here, spell-wise.
I was pretty sure I didn't want to get hit with a beam of any color.
Karl, Randolf, and Thomas were circling the wagons as the undead, no longer held at bay, closed in. Matt and Ethan had our rear, where the undead were already beginning to close in... it looked like their primary target was our cleric.
The good news was the necromancer had already thrown one fireball. if he could manage another we were sitting ducks, but while it was a spell most casters learned, it wasn't one most casters could spam.
The air elemental was a total surprise, apparently. It tore into him with reckless abandon, flinging him a good twenty feet, where I could swear I heard something snap.
I had to give him this much; he was a tough old bastard. He got up, screaming curses and obscenities, and started another chant.
It was then that the door burst open, and people started filing out of the cabin at a run. Living people, mostly kids. Running amongst the aggressive zombies and crows without a care - or as if something worse was chasing them.
"Have fun, shit stains! Chase me and they'll all die!" He then stepped through his conjured doorway, disappearing.
I knew the spell, and it had a low range; I scanned quickly and spotted the tell-tale flash. He had gone North; a direction was good enough for now. The zombies would follow their last command, and the last command was probably to kill everything living.
I sent a new command to the elemental, who was halfway into chasing the necromancer down. I was tempted to let that command ride, but I needed the firepower here.
I focused, relieved to see Pastor Collins sit up, and dropped a wall of fire around us. I left an opening in it, a doorway or threshold almost eight feet wide; wide enough not to burn, and easy enough to defend.
"Anyone alive who can hear my voice, please, come to the wall of fire! It has an opening, and you'll be safe inside!"
I said there was an entrance, but a few panicked people chose to disregard that part, instead focusing on safety. Pastor Collins healed them as we watched the zombies crackle and pop. Occasionally one would get too close to our 'door' and Ethan would shove it back, while the taler of our armored party focused on the remaining crows trying to hassle us. Between my air elemental and Thomas's arrows, we gave more than the illusion of safety.
Most of the survivors were in some kind of shock, with a thousand yard stare into the flames... or at a zombie or corpse they no doubt recognized. A few were staring at the backs of our warriors, their expressions unreadable. A few of the kids were staring at me with open fascination.
The circle began to fill up uncomfortably as people trickled in. All in all, there were maybe two dozen villagers, and of those a dozen were kids. It was standing room only for awhile, until the spell dropped... and the fires lost some intensity,but kept going. Perfect.
"Time to move, so I can do something about the fire."
Now that the spell wasn't maintained and the fire wasn't roaring, it was easy to hear the sobbing coming from those around us. We shuffled out, and I dumped my prepared water spell on the flames while I focused my elemental on starving the flames the necromancer had made.
I looked over to Pastor Collins. "You okay?"
He was gasping, but he nodded. "Yeah, whatever that thing used, it isn't permanent."
I knew what he'd used. a bolt of pure entropy designed to sap the life from a target. And he was lucky, yes it wasn't permanent; otherwise he could have been debilitated for life. I had no idea what the green beam was, and had no desire to find out. I needed to read more, though; there was so much I didn't know.
A woman, her face caked in filth and covered in lines, grabbed me. "You must find the others! This isn't all of us, and my Adam is still out there!"
Phil and Thomas were already moving; I couldn't hold the air elemental anymore, but I could people fleeing in a panic too.
"We're working on it, Ma'am." I shook myself loose and picked a direction the others hadn't. Matt backed me up. I was thankful for that, since I was running low on power and there were still a few of the more confused sort of zombies running around.
"Wait!" Karl shouted, and we all stopped, looking back.
"Let's do this right. No splitting up. People, if you can, call your own, tell them it's safe now, or safer, where you are; it's unlikely they will believe us. If you're going off to track people down, buddy up, and buddy up with us; we can help protect you. If you get into trouble shout, and we'll move to assist you. Got it?"
A surprising number of heads nodded, the villagers seeming to find backbone they were missing before.
Karl clapped, the sound like the crack of a gunshot in the silence. "Alright, let's move; we've got lives to save."
It was the sniffling that gave it away; not the big racking sobs, but the quiet crying of someone who desperately wanted to keep it quiet. With my ears it wasn't hard to pinpoint the source, which was up and to the left. I pointed to the tree; I could just make out a little hand clinging to the bark.
I stopped and waited as Mrs. Castillo, who squared her shoulders and adjusted her ratty shawl and stepped forward. "I think I recognize that voice. Ida honey, is that you?"
Mrs. Castillo worked in social services back before the event, and was someone all the kids recognized. She all but demanded to come with me when she heard I was going South-East. That was where most of the kids had run... and likely the direction where the necromancer had run.
The aforementioned Ida shifted a little, revealing a girl coated in dirt and a ragged dress. She was clinging to the tree like a Koala, and the one foot I could see was covered in mud and more than a little blood.
Smart of her, to climb the tree. With the crows gone, the only undead who could get to her that we'd seen were the squirrels, and they seemed to have no standing orders the way the others had; I had led our small party right by two, and all they had done was watch as we went by.
I still nuked them of course; at the very least they were eyes and ears we did not need reporting in.
"Mrs. Castie is that you?" The girl who was probably Ida asked, almost as if she couldn't believe it.
"Yes honey, it's me. Come down, it's safe now."
The girl wasted little time, sliding down so quickly I winced; she had to be leaving skin up there.
I turned away from the scene, giving them privacy while I scanned our surroundings; some of the zombies had proven... sneaky, after a fashion. One of the villagers had gotten bit by a skeleton missing it's legs, inching it's way through the dead undergrowth on arms alone and all but impossible to spot. He was being treated by Pastor Collins and was expected to make a full recovery, but it stressed the need for vigilance.
A shout from Karl rose above the other shouts with an ease that I envied. "Lady Muse! Check in!"
"Still here and all is well!" I fired back. I was tempted to enhance my reply with magic, but I didn't have any to spare.
If the necromancer were to circle around, I'd need everything I had left. It was unlikely, but I had to concede the option.
"Heading farther East!" I shouted again, and took a drink of water from my skin, watching Ida watch me. I held it out with a small piece of trail bread, and almost lost a hand.
Watching her guzzle started another slow burn of anger in me. That and a little concern; there was no way we had water for everyone, or even all the kids. But I wasn't sure the water around here was safe to drink.
"Not so fast, you'll choke."
Ida nodded and continued guzzling. Mrs. Castillo cut that short when she grabbed the little tyke by the hand. "Alright, come on. Let's go find the others; did you see which way they went, Ida?"
Ida took a moment before replying. "I saw where Bobby went."
"Alright, which way did Bobby go?" Mrs. Castillo asked, much more patiently than me.
Ida pointed a direction out that was a little more North than I was originally willing to go. Mrs. Castillo hoisted her up, mindful of her feet. "Alright then, let's go. Help me call to him so he knows it's us, okay?"
Ida nodded. I followed behind but Matt moved up, taking the lead as quietly and quickly as he could with his sword exchanged for a small smith's hammer.
Mrs. Castillo was pretty strong; she carried Ida without complaint, bellowing louder than I was capable all the while, calling Bobby's name. Ida yelled for all she was worth, and when the first skeleton (a deer) responded to our approach she flinched.
Matt made short work of it however; without any mass, a skeleton ramming into a mailed man wasn't going to get very far; and the hammer put the abomination down.
Neither Mrs. Castillo or I paused; she was confident in us now (or didn't want to show fear in front of the kids) and had to make sure nothing was lurking to take advantage.
There wasn't, and a hundred yeards down in a hollow stump a face peeked out. "Is it gone?"
"Yes, it's gone. You can come out now, it's safe. Well, safer." I couldn't lie to the kid, after all.
Mrs. Castillo shot me a look as she adopted her soothing tone again. "What the nice lady means to say is, it's perfectly safe to come out for now Bobby. Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
Of course he was; none of the villagers had much food or water the last three days. At least he was more careful to avoid spilling than Ida had been. His feet were in better shape too.
We were now at the edge of ready support; if we went any further, we would be out of sight and much more vulnerable. "Any other children go this way, Bobby?"
Bobby looked at me with wide eyes; I was pretty sure I hadn't grown a second head or something, but he was making me second guess. Were they all going to be this mistrustful? If so my headache was only beginning.
Mrs. Castillo snapped him out of it. "Bobby! Did anyone go this way?"
"Only Mr. Peterson! That's the only one I saw, I swear! Ida took the only good tree and I had to run longer, so I found the stump and crawled in, and that deer thing tried to get me!"
Heh; that was some voice of authority there. I'd have to take lessons or something.
"Alright, which way did Mr. Peterson go?"
"Straight last I saw. Right past the stump."
"Fine, let's go find Mr. Peterson." Mrs. Castillo sounded angry. Volcanic, actually. Obviously Mrs. Castillo would have words with Mr. Peterson when they met.
Unless Mr. Peterson couldn't talk anymore. Then Matt would speak to him.
Mr. Peterson wasn't actually that far; barely few football fields away. He was almost grossly overweight, and leaning against a tree, panting. There was nothing threatening near him, which seemed odd to me. Why hadn't the deer followed him?
"Mrs... Castillo." Mr, Peterson panted back.
"Is there any reason you left a child alone against a nightmare and ran away?"
Mr. Peterson and I both winced. Well at least now I know why she was mad. "Mrs. Castillo - no. We don't have time for that. Save it for later."
Mrs. Castillo pursed her lips and frowned. "Fine. But there will come a time, Dan Peterson."
The now fully named Dan Peterson stepped warily over to us. He still had his shoes and all his clothes, which was different from most of the villagers; for some reason most of them were half naked or in rags.
"Is there anyone else past you? Did you see anyone else coming this way?"
Why was the man still panting, over an hour since the fight? If he had sprinted, how was this as far as he'd gotten?
Those questions weren't really important... but I didn't trust this guy to notice who else was around when he was running.
"Alright. Mrs. Castillo, Mr. Peterson... could you escort the kids back to the main group? They need medical attention."
We didn't have a stable camp; we were on the move. I'd argued against it, but after an hour of waiting we were leaving the scene of carnage behind, a mass pyre in our wake.
I thought it unlikely the dead could be defiled again, but the villagers had been insistent. My sole contribution was to burn the cottage down for good measure, with all that was inside; five minutes of simply looking in the place had convinced me it was the better option. Even the bookcases - some knowledge was best buried. Or burned, in this case. And we had already announced where we were to everything around due to the previous fires. The fire shouldn't spread, but I was keeping an eye on it just in case. Truthfully after a look inside the cottage, I was sure the entire forest was a lost cause anyway; the taint, the corruption, was quick and total.
I'd still put it out if the fire got out of control, but fire might be the only thing that could purify this place.
Pastor Collins rushed over to Ida the moment he caught sight of her. "And who is this little cutie, hm?"
Way to sound pedo-bear there, Pastor Collins. Your bedside manner needed some work.
It didn't work for Ida, either; she just buried her face in Mrs. Castillo's sizable assets and dug in.
She looked up as the healing magic took hold though, and watched s her feet knitted themselves back together.
Mr. Busby, a shoe salesman turned cobbler, was ready with a pair of sandals for each child woven from the local dead grass. They were a little large and probably wouldn't hold together for very long, but they would protect their feet while they lasted.
All the children who could or could be healed would have to walk; we couldn't spare enough adults to carry them. We couldn't even spare the energy to heal all the adults, not that most of them wanted healing while there were children in need.
Ida tested them out while Bobby slipped his own on; his feet were made of sterner stuff.
Mr. Busby continued weaving; something he could do while walking apparently. Mrs. Donelson walked up and grabbed his large bundle of usable grasses.
The others were also grabbing bundles or makeshift weapons. Mostly rotten branches or corroded metal bars. Who knew where they managed to find those. A few had some butcher knives. We had shared of course; I had kept mine except for a few daggers that really wouldn't do anything against what we were fighting, but then again my sword and main dagger wouldn't really either; both were too light to bash bones and I needed something to fall back on since my available magic was low.
We formed up with Randolf and Karl in the lead with Pastor Collins behind them, the villagers in behind them, Phil on the right and Thom on the left, and Ethan, Matt, and myself bringing up the rear. The armed villagers, male and female both, were mostly placing themselves on the sides and I appreciated the trust. Or what I perceived as trust. I chose to take it as trust anyway.
The group was bigger by at least twenty people than when I left, and most of those were kids, which made me feel instantly better about the danger we were all in.
As if the entire group didn't make noise enough (the giants had been quieter) every few steps some people appointed to the purpose would bellow the all clear and position check for the benefit of those still missing.
"How far North did you go?" I asked Ethan, more for something to talk about than anything else.
Ethan had been one of a few to go straight North, past the cottage in the search for survivors. Since our destination was the opposite direction, there was only so far people could go in that direction; we were all supposed to stay in sight of each other, but I'd not been able to see Ethan's group - which had been Ethan, Thomas, and Phil. All ghosts in their own right - or short.
"About a mile," Ethan admitted readily.
That put the group a good ten minutes or more out of range of help if something went wrong.
"I know that look. I had the scouts with me, and I can take care of myself. No need to worry."
Fine. "Did you find anyone?"
"Four lost souls, fumbling around in the woods. No children though."
"How did you fool Karl?"
"Thomas did something with his voice; pitched it so it would carry, even through the woods."
That was handy. I could probably do the same with my illusions, come to think of it. But not here; it was all kinds of bad idea to fool the living people like that here, much as I'd like to continue the search. If I had the juice I'd use an air elemental to find the missing; it would scare them half to death (and only that far, hopefully) to be sure... but they wouldn't be alone and in danger. Still in danger of course, but not facing it alone.
The woods were empty. Suspiciously so, now that we knew what they were full of. There were even less signs of life going in, now that the birds were gone. Of course I was happy about that. At first some few people answered the shouts and joined the trek, but other than looking them over to make sure they were dead and faking it, I stayed aloof. The trickle stopped at six (one man, three women, and two children) after the first hour's walk.
Hours later and miles away from the carnage people were beginning to murmur to each other; to slow down. To relax.
I wanted to yell at them, to tell them to focus up, that things may not be over yet, but I didn't really have the heart to. People who had already been pushed past normal endurance just didn't have anything left; only the adrenaline and healing had been keeping them going this long. Karl was in front, pushing things.
"Karl," Just a hint of magic carried my voice to him; I wasn't about to yell over everyone else yelling.
Karl turned and saw what I was seeing. "Right. alright everyone, take five; we camp here."
Randolf all but threw his gear down and tore his helmet off to reveal his reddened face, but didn't say a word. the others were a little more sympathetic; well openly so at any rate, regardless of their true feelings.
I went up to Karl. "How are we set for food?"
"We're out after this," Karl replied. "and there's precious little to go around as is. Not to mention nothing to hunt in this place. The necromancer didn't bother feeding any of them. At least he didn't take the food and water they managed to grab before being rounded up."
"And am I right in assuming water is the same?"
"Yes; we're screwed on water."
"Well I can help on water, at least. But I'd like to borrow the more able of the villagers if possible. Give them something constructive to do."
I knew he'd looked, but how had he not seen? "Look at them a moment."
Karl cast his gaze back over the crowd again, and I knew this time he took in the dejection. "Point taken. As long as it's actually useful."
"It will be - just trust me a little here."
I went over to Mrs. Castillo; she would get things done with the right suggestion; she was one of few with her head up.
"Mrs. Castillo, can I ask you for a favor?"
"What do you need, Lady Muse?"
I pitched my voice to be just loud enough. "I'd like you and some able hands to help me with a project; it would certainly make me sleep easier tonight, and probably will help you all too."
"Oh, and what's that?" Perfect; not only was Mrs. Castillo intrigued, but many other heads were raised.
"I want to collect brush and build a deadfall around camp. The dead, well they aren't agile. A small sort of wall of branches and the like will not only give us warning in the night, but it may well trip them up too. And if we really need to, we can fire it."
"That...doesn't sound like a bad idea. But what if something else fires it?"
A good point. "I guess we build it far enough away that we won't get burned?"
"That sounds like a lot of work." Mrs. Castillo replied. There were a few nods round us.
"I plan on trying to do it myself, but that's why I'm asking for help."
"I'll help," Mrs. Castillo replied immediately, and levered herself up. "But why not stakes or something similar?"
"The wood isn't good for it," I took a branch in hand and snapped it to demonstrate, the sound brittle and loud.
"But it makes a great alarm; I see. We can also spread a few branches like that past the deadfall; that would make stealth much harder."
"A good idea." I really should have thought of it.
Mrs. Castillo and I started gathering sticks and branches; the kids started helping immediately, throwing twigs at each other. Soon enough most of the villagers had joined in, and a sizable wall of sorts began taking shape. One of the adults, a larger man, even shouldered a small tree and knocked it over, then had to get some help dragging it back. When the singing started, I did my best to join in.
I didn't know the words of course, it was some working song about farming.
We finished as the sun started to set, and I started on my next task. "Karl."
"Lady Muse." His tone was light and he seemed set to banter, but I could hear the tension underneath.
"I can't do anything about the food issue, but if you'll see that all the water skins and containers that could be used for that purpose are gathered together, I can fix that one."
"Pastor Collins has been communing... and he says he can fix the food and water issue. I'd rather you worked on a fire that won't rage out of control the moment we set it."
"Alright." A little disappointing, but he could do it I guessed."How big a fire?"
"A bonfire, if you can manage."
"Consider it done."
There was no rock to pile up, so I simply used some magic to pull bedrock up from under the dirt; sure it was temporary (The only reason I'd do it; I didn't really like the idea of long term landscaping) but it would work well enough. Some of the bigger logs pulled in were devoted to the purpose of fuel for it, which I wasn't thrilled about but I saw the need for.
The chill of dusk was more than a lowering of the temperature after all. We needed the light. The humans most of all; they did not have the low light vision Ethan or I did.
A simple flint and steel was all the magic I needed; I watched the fire grow from something small into something as tall as I was. The villagers shuffled closer, hungry hands reaching for the flames. I found myself on the outer circle with Ethan, facing away from the flames, preserving our eyesight.
I tapped him, pointed to myself, and then to the other side. He nodded and stood a bit more straight, facing outward and scanning his side.
When I got to my side, I followed suit.
The sound of Pastor Collins calling to his goddess hit my ears over the general noise. I turned a bit just in time to see a full bakery of bread shimmer into existence on a spread cloth. Several crude clay pitchers of what appeared to be fresh water joined them a moment later.
I had to admit that was better than I could have managed. Not only was it food, but it was more water than I could manage quickly.
The kids were pressed into service to deliver the bread, a loaf per person. Ida brought mine over, her own hanging out of her mouth and her hands full. She was still chewing like a champ.
"Thank you Ida."
"Mrghgh!" she replied and ran off to the next person, one of her own who was fine tuning the branch wall on this side; making it more treacherous.
One bite and I had to control myself to avoid spitting it out; the bread was bland and had a slightly bitter tang. Pastor Collins could make more food clearly, but he couldn't make it taste decently. Of course, that wasn't stopping the villagers from all but inhaling their portion down; it was a good thing Pastor Collins hadn't made more, they were risking making themselves sick as it was.
The water made the rounds too, and it was much better; sweet and pure, almost tasting as if it had been filtered. I made sure to fill up my canteen while Ida tapped her foot with her hands on her hips.
"Thank you again, Ida."
I could understand her this time. "You're welcome!"
Pastor Collins collapsed on a log beside me with a grunt; he looked tired - which meant he probably shouldn't be carrying around logs as chairs.
"The conjuring take that much out of you?" I had to ask; I thought his goddess took on the cost.
"Being able to work miracles, to ask and have your God or Goddess answer, let alone provide at all, takes some getting used to. But in this case, yes. Minerva offers some of her energy and the knowledge, but I provide the lion's share."
That made some sense. "Well then take a load off."
"I plan on it... but first I wanted to ask; why aren't you closer to the fire?"
"You're ex-military; you really need to ask that?"
"You can actually see then?"
I nodded. "Ethan and I both, though I think my vision is better than his. We're keeping watch as best we can. Though soon, we will probably both need sleep. Heck, we all will; we hiked and fought and searched and hiked some more. I do not envy the people drawing the short straw."
"Maybe it won't be necessary."
I turned as much as I could without ruining my night vision to stare in Pastor Collin's face directly.
He gave his best wry grin in response. "Yeah, I don't believe it either. The evil hasn't left these woods."
I couldn't argue with that, and resumed my scan. "I'm going to bed down more or less here. No tent, just shake my bedroll out and siesta."
Far away from the fire, where I might be cold, but with a bedroll I'd be less cold than the villagers would be here. I'd also be in a better position to do things without the worry of friendly fire.
"Sounds like a plan; I'll join you."
I tapped him on the leg. "I'd appreciate the company, but no. Please take the other side, near Ethan if you can swing it."
Having both spell casters near each other while waiting for an attack was the eight of folly; not only could the attack come to the side of us that had no caster support, but if the necromancer was still out there, one dropped spell would take both Collins and I out.
Honestly it had me worried. Pastor Collins was ex-military; where had his military mindset gone? Was he continuing to change? Were we all? I reached for my journal, and wrote everything down as best I could remember, sparing nothing.
I finished and looked up to find Ida and Billy both silently watching me. Like any child, they had questions. The good news was their first question put my fears to rest before they could fully wake.
"Can you really write in this darkness?"
Full night had draped it's blanket across the sky for some time, yet with the firelight behind me this much was easy.
"Yes, Could you read any of it?"
Billy shook his head, but Ida felt the need to explain. "No, but it's not that I can't read or anything. It was just too dark."
"Of course," I told her. I'd been sensitive about my reading skill once upon a time too, when Matt and I were in elementary.
Billy stepped up after seeing that Ida hadn't gotten her hed bitten off. "So what were you writing? Was it a spell? Are you really an elf?"
Oh right, these people had been missing for some time. They probably didn't even know the fate of their homes, come to think of it. Well, I wasn't going to be the one to tell them.
"It was a recollection of the day's events and my own memories, not a spell. And yes I do seem to be an elf. At least one version of an elf. I take it you didn't have any elves in your village after the event?"
"No," Billy answered, his eyes gleaming reflected firelight. "We were just us. And then that guy... he...."
"No need to get into that," I stopped him as gently as I could. "I know what happened, or well enough."
Billy sniffled a little but went silent. Of course that was more because the other kids were now approaching. The small mass exodus garnered the attention of more than a few adults, but none of them moved to save me.
"Are you really a mage?" One asked; she was a blonde girl, bigger and older than Ida.
See Sarah, I told you! She was the one who did the magic!" A dark haired boy said, limping up.
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Yes Giles, you did. You were right, she wasn't a warrior."
Wait, what was going on here? "You thought I was a warrior?"
"Well you do have a fancy sword." Sarah answered. She had a point.
"But no armor." Another boy countered, glaring.
A boy so small he made Ida look big gave his opinion: "You're pretty."
"Um, thanks," Yes, this was rapidly descending into the awkward. "Alright kids, I know you all have questions and I don't mean to ignore you, but I think it's time to get some sleep."
"We don't want to sleep!" Giles complained.
"Yeah, can't you do some magic for us?" My smallest fan added.
"I didn't mean you all. I meant me; I've had a long day and I'm tired. I'll answer any question you have for me... in the morning."
I had to work to pull my bedroll out of my pack without giving away the nature of the bag; I had to wait until the kids were suitably distracted or one of them would sneak around and try it out and lose an arm or something.
Fortunately Mrs. Castillo provided a ready distraction. "Alright kids, you heard Lady Muse. Maybe you could ask Karl or Randolf about their exploits as warriors? I'm sure they have many good stories."
I laid my bedroll out. "At least one of them involves a dinosaur."
The exclamations were almost deafening. "A dinosaur!?!"
The little mass exodus was gone much faster than it arrived, all clamoring noisy for 'the dinosaur story'. I smirked as Karl got all but buried.
Ida had stayed, however. She ducked her head before asking: "Can I sleep with you?"
No idea why she wanted to do that. "That's not a good idea, Ida. If we get attacked out here, I'm a priority target, so being near me is dangerous. Besides, we don't have enough blankets for everyone, so you're going to need to stay close to the fire."
Ida had a pretty adorable pout, but she agreed readily enough. "Alright."
She also moved off closer to the fire... but plunked herself down as close to me as she felt she could get away with; right in a line between me and the fire. She was out of earshot however.
Mrs. Castillo took advantage. "Is what you said just now true?"
"About me being a priority target? Yes it is; the necromancer saw my face, and saw me cast magic to counter his."
"Then I owe you an apology. I thought you were keeping apart because we annoyed you."
I shrugged. "You don't owe me anything, but for the record right now I'm keeping watch. Which I won't be doing much longer; I need sleep badly."
I could admit a small bit of envy for the villagers; I didn't think I was weak or anything, but the stamina they had shown so far was astonishing. I could probably stay up longer myself, but I needed a recharge in the worst way.
"I understand," Mrs. Castillo said, and maybe she did. "I'll leave you to your rest then. Don't worry about a watch, your own party is quite skilled and on the job."
"I'm not really worried," I yawned out, laying down. "I just have better eyes than those guys."
I closed my better eyes as Mrs. Castillo got up to leave.
I opened them to an attack, signalled by the crunching of branches all around our camp. That was the first warning, but it was a good one. The second was Phil's shout of: "Up and at 'em!"
The fire was banked and I could see no sentries, only bodies in ragged clothes camped out on the uneven ground around the fire, just beginning to stir. I could not make out my companions at all, but for once I woke clear headed.
I rolled as the cracking got uncomfortably close, only to watch as what could only be the remains of a deer plow headfirst into the dirt next to my bedroll amidst the snapping of bones. My sword stroke took it's head off cleanly enough, and I turned toward the next victim, only to find there wasn't one.
The fire shrank some more as torches appeared. I had to squint at first, but those torches told the tale; small as the deadfall was, it was doing the job we built it for. All the dead, human and animal alike, were busy being trapped in the deadfall. They were still working towards us, but it was going to be easy to put them down permanently.
Well, all but the squirrels.
They weren't any more agile than their larger counterparts, but they were small and quick, able to dart in between the branches making up our obstacle and charge us almost completely without impediment - and there were hundreds of them. Possibly even thousands. Ida was the only person close enough to grab, (mainly because she had come closer to me when the attack started, rather than running away like a smart kid) so I did and held her close as the swarm closed in.
A quick spell and my control of air was focused and enhanced; I could now produce concentrated gusts of wind. Since the squirrels didn't weigh much, the small cyclone I placed around me swept the ones charging at me away before any of them could reach. Or you know, spit bugs on me or something.
Unfortunately I couldn't do it for the entire camp. Pastor Collins was up and had his prayer or whatever it was already going, with the kids crowded around him. The rest of my companions and the villagers doing their best to respond were in trouble however; my party was mostly unarmored for sleep, and the villagers didn't own any.
Should I fire the deadfall?
No the squirrels were too fast, and there were still deer around; if even one managed to get through while burning they would stand a real chance of firing us in return. I hadn't really accounted for squirrels in numbers like this; how had the necromancer even managed this? Had he de-populated the entire forest by himself, and if so how? That would have taken far too long alone.
I didn't have enough juice to summon an elemental, even a weak one, and that wasn't what we needed here in any case. I couldn't pull another shield like I had this morning for the same reason.
Lightning was overkill, but it was my best bet; I knew how to fork it now, and I split it as much as possible.
It still exploded the crap out of all the squirrels hit, which ws probably a good five dozen of them. Other than some wild hair, none of the villagers had been affected, and more to the point it had cleared them of vermin.
So I followed up with a mini-blizzard.
The cloud formed was no more than twenty feet across, and the range was barely enough to cover my side of camp, but the hail and sleet dropped destroyed anything that came in range utterly. Which was a good thing considering I was about out of energy again. I let Ida slide down as the wind dissipated; she had been clinging so tight my arm was numb. I joined her on the ground.
"Oof, you're heavy kiddo."
Ida didn't even acknowledge me; she was too busy staring at the snowstorm. I kept in range to grab her if she made a break for it - it wouldn't spare her any more than it would the squirrels who were still funneling into it with complete abandon.
Matt slammed down beside me. "You okay?"
"I was until you scared the shit out of me."
He batted a squirrel that had come from another direction to us into my storm. "Not like you to lay down on the job."
I pointed to the storm. "I'm tired. Let me catch my breath and I'll join you."
Matt nodded and turned to face a side. I levered up and took the other - just in time for the attack to be stymied completely as every visible squirrel in the camp just dropped and fell apart. I didn't see it, but I felt the surge of warmth and light flow that ended them flow through me and continue on to hit most of the larger undead.
Those left from that attack or purge or whatever it was, started shambling off in retreat as fast as possible. I didn't have the energy for a fireball, and if they scattered they could spread the fire and kill us, so even mundane fire probably wasn't the best idea... But that didnt stop mundane missiles from taking out as many as we can target. It won't stop little conjured bullets of air either from being effective either.
Thomas fired the first shot, but the rest of us weren't far behind. Even the villagers got in on the action, testing their throwing arms.
But none of us went into the woods to chase.
"Come on," Karl said. "Let's move."
Much as I wanted to, much as all of us did, no one objected.
As morning broke, I found myself pondering the idea of forced marches. I had already done what amounted to one before, and here I was again. But as bad as it was for me, the villagers were feeling the effects even worse; they had walked into this forest surrounded by dead things; one step out of line or one slow step was met with uncaring violence or death.
The undead had also attacked us on the way out, just as soon as they had caught up. They were going to catch up again, simply because most of the villagers were done. They had no more left to give; when Karl signaled the halt as soon as the sun broke, at least half of the remainder of the village dropped where they stood.
This time there was no whistling, or singing, or fancy busy-work. We were all a little too tired for that. For my part, I could probably keep going, but the lack of uninterrupted sleep had really hurt whatever energy I needed to cast spells. I could maybe start a fire, or move a small object without my hands, but anything more and I would be out of gas.
Meanwhile the necromancer behind all this had a full day of rest, and could even now be using that to set a trap for us; I wouldn't put it past the vile human to have some kind of teleportation spell. A shame really, I'd love one of those myself; I could pop back home to check up on things. I could probably learn that spell the necromancer had used to punch a small hole in our dimension and cross the space... but the very idea gave me the cold shakes.
Of course, knowing how things seemed to work for me now, the teleportation spell I had the option of learning would be something worse and even more physics breaking.
Karl slumped down beside me. "Can you do something about this?"
I wasn't sure what he meant. "If you mean the lack of reinforcement here? The best I can do is a type of magical alarm. After that I'll have to sleep; I'll be completely out of juice."
"Right. Well, please do it anyway." He moved off, already gathering steam towards Ethan, from the looks of things.
Well at least he had said please. I gathered the energy and cast the spell, keeping an eye out for kids. The last thing I needed was for some kid to try and figure it out and turn their hair blue or something equally silly.
I felt the spell take hold, taking note of who and what 'belonged' and who and what didn't. Then I spread my own bedroll and sat back.
There was no guard set this time; which was good because there was no need to. Everyone settled down in a hurry, and the clearing we had taken over was quiet save for the occasional cough or stir. But I still found it hard to get to sleep, because the sun was out.
The easiest way was to block out the sun with something cloth-like... but I didn't want to do that because the disorientation of waking up to an attack would already be bad enough.
Instead I tried to distract myself; why was it so easy for everyone else to fall asleep? Was it just simple fatigue, or something else? The sun could equal safety and comfort in the minds of many. It was hard to believe such things as zombies and evil could exist in it, even when I knew better; even though I had experienced the dichotomy before.
What was it that tricked our minds so? What was the underlying cause of that, assuming the premise was true?
....I woke up to the jingle of mail and harness and whiff of the smell of steel and rampant body odor; armed men, and a lot of them.
I disentangled myself from a sleeping ida (When had she gotten there?) and rose just a beat before Karl and Ethan, and we headed toward the noise.
The sun was well past it's high point in the sky, and my energy reserves were likewise above half; if the men picked a fight, they would be sorry.
I made it to the edge of the clearing, took cover behind one of the dead trees, and risked a peek.
Damn; it was worse than an enemy, it was Captain Short and his men.
I cut the alarm right before his scouts walked into out clearing, mainly so the villagers could sleep peacefully. A bit of kindness which the glorious Captain himself did much to undo the moment he rode his horse into the clearing.
"Ah, there you are, Karl. We have been sent to assist you."
Karl winced as the pompous windbag's voice rang out, but he was more diplomatic than I'd have been in his place. "That's great, we could use it. Can you form a picket around our rescues, please? Preferably quietly?"
To his credit the windbag did take a look across the clearing before continuing in a tone that wasn't designed to wake the dead. "Why? Do you fear attack? What is the situation? Why are these people sleeping in the afternoon?"
"As you know, we rescued these people from a necromancer performing experiments into unlife upon them. Since, the necromancer has attacked and herded us; the people were already in poor shape from their ordeal, and the attack last night drained them utterly. So here we are."
"Well then, no fear. We will rout any attacker; just leave it to us."
Pompous jackass. His men didn't even have magical support of any kind - the necromancer would eat them alive. But feeding them into the grist mill first would allow us much more warning than my simple spell, and should turn the odds wholely in our favor. Was it wrong to think that?
It probably was, but it helped that the men and women set to be sacrificed were all volunteers.
But something was wrong; the count was off. There were far fewer soldiers here than there should be. I mean the dead forest made it hard to get a headcount, but there were simply too many gaps; if I had to guess, there were maybe fifty of the original hundred men.
I started counting as they passed by in the clearing, getting back to a now blearily blinking Ida and my bedroll. fifty four, counting the scouts I saw. I smelled something rotten, more rotten than the soldiers themselves smelled.
The last soldier to pass stopped as if caught with a hand in the cookie jar, turning slowly at the sound of my call.
"Where are the rest of you? Your company was a hundred strong a few days ago."
"I am not at liberty to say Ma'am."
Well that wasn't ominous at all. A dark suspicion started to worm it's way around in my gut; the man's eyes had been a little wild. Haunted, for lack of a better term.
The soldiers moved past us and took up positions well out of sight and earshot; now that they were upwind I couldn't even smell them anymore. They hadn't managed full silence however, which meant that by the time they passed out of sight, most of our rescues were awake and watching. There were no cheers.
Ida stirred beside me. "Who are they?"
"Soldiers from the Duke of Ohio, sent to find out what happened to you."
"Well they did a bad job of it; you found us first."
I looked down into Ida's guileless face. "Well, we were sent by the Duke too - we were the scouts. The Duke cares about all of his people."
I hoped it was true.
At least for Ida it was. "That's good. I hope they find that necromancer... and kill him."
I couldn't deny the sentiment, or the fervor with which it was uttered. "The first thing to do is get as many of you out of here safely as we can. Then we worry about the necromancer."
Killing was probably too good for the necromancer, but I wasn't about to give a little kid ideas. "You should probably get some more sleep. We will be moving again soon."
It was clear by the lack of offer that the soldiers only had enough food and water for themselves, if they had any at all. Pastor Collins was going to have to provide another miracle. When he woke up, that is; how could he still be sleeping through all this excitement?
At least Ida wasn't complaining about being hungry. If she did I wasn't sure I could resist handing her some of my stash, even knowing how that would end. I supposed now that we were safer, I could test my hand at providing food. It would take a lot of power for me though, and I was loathe to use it that way. I decided to wait until Ida at least tempted me.
Karl was still occupied chatting in low tones with Captain Short - he knew how sensitive my ears were - but Matt got up and walked over.
"So, what do you think?" He whispered so that only Ida and I could hear.
Ida was already fast asleep again. "I think the good Captain Short slaughtered some Giants on his way here, and that's why he's a few men shy. Though how he managed to do that without losing his entire force is beyond me; the giants should have killed more without backup."
"Yeah, they should have been whittled down more if that were the case; let's not jump in half-cocked and do anything rash until we know for sure. Something doesn't add up here, but we don't know for sure what it is."
Well that was obvious; I just gave Matt my best stare coupled with some silent treatment.
"Right, right," he responded with a total brush off. "Now on to the real reason I came over here. You got any of that wine left?"
He wasn't doing much to calm my concerns. "You want to drink. Now?"
"What better time?" He replied, grinning, "We aren't really responsible for this shitshow anymore, and we're pretty safe. We got out without more than a few scratches. What's not to celebrate?"
He had a point. I dipped a hand into my bag and pulled the skin out, and flipped it at his head.
He had been expecting that and caught it, upending the skin and guzzling what I knew to be a moderately expensive and intoxicating wine with abandon. "Hey, not all of it you glutton."
He capped the skin and tossed it back. I should be more worried about backwash, but it was Matt, and I knew where he'd been. Of course, I wasn't going to dribble wine all the way down my front either; his armor was probably going to rust.
"I've got to admit, that's some good stuff. When we go back to that inn, you should pick up more."
I was on to him. "So you can guzzle it again? Next time you should buy your own."
He clapped hand to his heart, coincidentally finding the spillage. "You wound me, right in the heart! See? It's bleeding."
"That's not blood but it can be, Matt."
"Have I ever told you how scary you can be?" He asked with a grin.
"At least once a day," I spotted Karl coming over, Captain Short in tow. "Cheese it, the cops!"
Karl cracked a smile, but quickly hid it. "Anything I should know about going on over here?"
"Only some on duty drinking and minor mutiny," Matt replied; he was on rare form today.
"Outstanding," was Karl's dry response; he was too, apparently. "Think you can get suited up? We're going to wake the crowd, feed them, and get them moving."
"Sure, I can do that." Matt moved off, clearly not in any real hurry.
I didn't really blame him there. I hesitated to wake Ida again, she was sleeping so peacefully.
I turned to find both Karl and Captain Short above me, almost uncomfortably close. At least only Captain Short was the one scowling - but he was displaying enough disapproval for the both of them.
"Can you send another messenger bird, updating our situation?".
"Um, sure. What is our situation, exactly?" It's not like I've been informed recently, and normally Captain Short would be the one getting a bird.
As hoped, Captain Short broke his silence. "I need you to send message to the castle informing the Duke that we have made contact and are escorting his citizens out of danger, and whatever you may have found out about this necromancer you encountered. And while you are about that, I'd be interested in any such insights you have in that regard myself; you have done well as a small team, but you may have left survivors in the deadened wood, and I intend to correct that."
Captain Short was a braver man than I gave him credit for being. "Do you want me to send that as well? That you want to look for survivors?"
Captain Short shook his head. "I have full authority over my command in the field. You may simply pass along my intent to the Duke. Karl, have your team ready to move; you seem more than capable of escorting the villagers to safety. Remember, directly to the Capital and nowhere else. Now if you'll excuse me I need to send runners to the other villages nearby, so they know the situation."
The good Captain turned his back on us and walked off, heading towards his horse, which he had ridden in a forest. Braver than I thought perhaps, but still a pompous ass.
"Sure, I'll do my thing."
I waited until he was out of earshot then turned to Karl, who had apparently been waiting for me to say something. "Anything you want the bird to say?"
"Just what Captain Short said, and that we are altering course to go straight to Columbus."
"We will still need food and water."
Karl nodded, looking pained. "We're going to have to rely on Pastor Collins at least once more, but We have orders to go directly to Columbus so we're going. If there is another village or town on our straight line, we can stop there for provisions, but I don't want these people out here and our responsibility any longer than necessary."
That was fair. "But..."
"But nothing, Muse. Remember why we're doing this."
Right, we were doing this for access to information; information which was even now pouring into Columbus and kept under lock and key, away from the majority of the populace. Eyes on the prize, and not haring off after justice of one kind or another - no matter how bad the current situation was. I wasn't sure I agreed. I wasn't sure I could agree.
"...Right." But I could act like I did.
Karl looked like he wasn't buying it, but he let it go in favor of going to wake other people up.
I just had Ida. That was enough. "Wake up Ida."
She groaned and stirred. "come on Ida, wake up. It's time to get ready to go."
Ida sat up and stretched. "Already?"
"Yep. Pastor Collins is going to conjure food and water again, we're all going to eat, and then it's back on the road for us."
"Ugh, I hate that bread," Ida confided.
"I'm not fond of it myself," I admitted.
Ida came fully awake whipping her head around. "What about the soldiers?"
"They are going to go back into the forest and look for other survivors - people we couldn't find yesterday."
Ida grew chillingly somber. "They won't find anyone."
I couldn't lie to her, and didn't like the idea of sugarcoating it. "Probably not. But they are going to try."
Pastor Collins was grumpy this morning, by the looks of things, but he wasted no time pulling out the symbol of his new faith and getting to work. I started casting my spell as Ida skipped off to get her bread.
Then five minutes later I joined the line, my own spell cast and my gear packed, and everyone else awake including the kids. Joining at the end of a very long line was a small price to pay, especially when the line moved quickly. A hunk of tasteless bread, a single earthen cup of water, and the person was on their way.
Once I had mine we simply settled into an order for march and set off.
I couldn't resist a wave at Captain Short just as he went out of sight; the man still barking orders.
I assumed Karl gave the good captain a full brief of what we encountered, but maybe that was uncharitable of me. I should have made sure, for all that it would cement my reputation as a busybody in at least one mind.
We turned right almost immediately, and almost immediately after that the forest started showing signs of life for us. One of the biggest things I noted, and the thing that put me most at ease, wasn't the shoots of growth and plants, or the occasional leaves scattered on the trees, but the chittering of the squirrels disturbed by our passing and the off and on snatch of birdsong.
We passed another ten men of the Captain's watching the picket of their horses. Which made sense, of course, and also made me wonder why Captain Short still had his. But it wasn't my problem.
We weren't out of the woods yet. I kept my guard up; anyone who could use spells to appear somewhere else could certainly come at us here. I wasn't sure ten men was enough to watch the horses, but if they were spread out enough they shouldn't get overwhelmed. And they certainly were, and alert besides.
I was more trusting to Phil and Thomas. I was using my own senses as well, but they were in better position to ignore our rather vocal charges.
"Can you show me a trick?" Case in point, rather chatty kids. Billy needed to relax. Maybe not to Ida levels, but just a touch. Speaking of which Ida was ghosting along beside me as best a human kid was able, which was at least better than the adults were managing.
Anyone was going to hear us coming well before they saw us coming. Karl didn't seem that worried. Even the villagers were standing tall; some were even beginning to smile. It was too soon to rest easy, but it felt wrong to remind them of that as well... so I said nothing.
"I'm not that kind of magus," I answered Billy finally. "Besides, I'd rather keep the power ready to defend us all against danger."
Billy stared back up at me with artfully guileless eyes. "But aren't you strong enough to do both?"
Why that little....
Ida sprang to my defense. "Don't be stupid, Billy. Would you really want her not able to cast her shield or wind things?"
Billy hemmed and hawed a bit, but at least he was mostly silent.
Being in my usual position in back was never more nerve wracking than with kids walking alongside me.
"Hey, guys? Why don't you go ask Ethan? I'm sure he knows a trick or two."
There, two birds, one stone.
Billy was gone before I finished the sentence, but Ida spared me a suspicious glance before looking behind us before nodding once and following. Watching not just two, but an entire flock of kids (as Billy had gathered his friends along the way) swarm Ethan was more than a little amusing.
It was kind of nice not worrying about our course at least, though I didn't like not knowing everything going in. I didn't like feeling as if Karl wasn't telling me everything anymore.
Matt bumped me gently. "I still know that look. You're thinking too much."
I shrugged. "Probably."
"Well, relax or I'll drink more of your booze; I need someone to help me out here. Also, good setup, I'm liking this."
We both watched as Ethan proved he was better at entertaining kids than I was, doing more with crappy third rate magician tricks than I managed with real magic.