Hours later, after leaving the crossroad, we arrived at Esulmor Woods.
Aspen and I were expecting an attack, an attempt by the Shadowbreakers to get rid of Rutledge’s crew, including her. Hence my anxiety, which I felt.
The others stared warily at the forest before them, probably evaluating their life choices. The atmosphere was so tense it was hard to breathe. Though, that might have been the stale air under the tarp.
When, even after long minutes of nerve-wracking waiting, nothing happened, Aspen spoke up.
“Good, looks like we’re gonna make it to the woods.”
Personally, I wouldn’t call it good. There were more Shadows and even stronger beasts waiting for us inside.
“What are you doing?” Isaac, the leader of this group of Shadowbreakers, asked sharply, looking at Aspen with contempt. “Don’t you dare use mana inside, guardswoman.”
“Traiana’s tits, calm down. It’s just a little trick to calm my nerves,” Aspen lied. “Not everyone has nerves of steel like you.”
He didn’t take too kindly to her ironic remark. “You think you’re clever, huh? Then listen. That little magic trick of yours could cost us our lives in those woods. I would have thought they taught you that in those barracks of yours, guardswoman.”
Aspen, unbothered by his mocking tone over her class, nodded, letting him know she was aware of that. “But we’re not there yet, are we?”
“Soon, we will. Move it,” he snapped at Rutledge.
Aspen breathed a sigh of relief as the wagon started to move. Her inner voice wasn’t as calm as the one I’d heard a moment ago. “He may be a prick, but he’s right. I’ll contact you if necessary.”
I tapped on the bar once and took a deep breath. This simple action helped, even though I was using [Indomitable Will].
As we entered the woods, the air in the cage cooled noticeably, and everyone, including the Shadowbreakers, got strangely quiet. Only the occasional swearing cut through the tense silence.
“Avoid the stones!” Isaac barked softly at the slave trader as the wagon wheels rattled loudly.
He muttered quietly in response. “To hell with this place! How can I avoid them when it’s so dark?”
Even though it had been hours since we left Castiana, the sun should still be above the horizon according to the system clock. I could only assume that only very little light was getting through the dense treetops.
“Should I put lamps on the wagon, boss?” Tate asked, not controlling the strength of his voice like the others.
“Do it, and you’ll kill us all,” Ruthledge growled at him.
Unlike the slave trader, I liked Tate’s suggestion very much. Whether the lamps were dangerous because the light could attract mossbears or that they used mana to run, I didn’t care.
“Then, can’t you use silencing magic, sir?” Tate asked the leader of the Shadowbreakers helpfully.
I was honestly amazed that this guy had survived so long, but there were times when I loved him for his sincerity like now. It was obvious even to me it was a stupid idea if his goal was not to attract forest dwellers. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly wished someone would do it and cast the magic. Right now, I’d rather end up in the maw of a beast than somewhere on a table in a lab.
Unfortunately, no one was so stupid to cast it.
“Shut up, idiot!” the leader barked at him. “One more word, and I’ll kill you!”
It was amazing how threatening he could sound even though he was whispering.
All this caution and hushed talk made me wish I could scream like in the Labyrinth Square, where it was useless to me. Now that it was much more likely that I would get help, albeit in the form of wild beasts, I couldn’t scream because of the gag I still had in my mouth.
Coming up with another way to make noise was not as easy as one would think when you are locked in a cage and shackled. At first, I thought of the ring and tapping on the bars, but the sound was so faint that it surely wouldn’t attract the mossbears.
For that, I needed a much bigger piece of iron.
At that moment, my gaze fell on my hands. Figuratively speaking, of course. There was complete darkness under the tarp, and without my domain, I would have seen s***. Not even the shackles I had on my wrists and ankles. Which, by the way, were pretty massive pieces of metal, just like the one I was looking for.
Even though my hands were no longer a hindrance. Both healed as well as my ribs. The question was whether to really risk such an attempt and expose that I was able to defy Ruthledge’s orders.
If I were to reveal now that the slave trader did not have me under full control and no beast came to my aid for some reason, it would have disastrous consequences for me. I was sure Rutledge would have told them about the collar’s shortcomings the moment they asked, and with my bad luck, they would have replaced it with a stronger one.
My nasty habit of indecisiveness kicked in again, and I weighed my options for so long that I did nothing until we arrived at the location of the handover. At that point, I had to chuckle at the irony. I had acted just like Aspen.
“Sorry for the delay, sir,” were the Shadow leader’s first words after the wagon stopped.
A familiar male voice reached my ears. “Did everything go well, Isaac?”
It was Ward.
At first, it surprised me that he was already here. After all, he had to leave at the same time as the horse-drawn wagon I was on. But it only took a little thought to realize that the wagon had to be much slower than the horses with the riders, and I didn’t even take the skills into account.
“No problem at the gate, sir,” Isaac told him. “I have seven Shadows with me, Rutledge and his crew, thirteen slaves, and our package.”
“Good, very good,” Ward said, not hiding his satisfaction. “Then let’s finish the deal.”
Since we were even deeper in the woods than before, it came to me as a surprise that they didn’t even try to whisper as they did on their way here. It made me wonder if Isaac, the leader of the Shadowbreakers that came with us, just didn’t want to look like a frightened little boy in front of Ward, especially when the master mage did not scruple to speak normally.
Maybe Ward had something that deterred beasts from approaching, something like a magic tool, artifact, or … I don’t know … the excrement of a more powerful monster. Maybe he was just so bloody confident.
I couldn’t even rule out that the man leading the Shadow unit was simply too cautious on the way here.
Either way, it discouraged me from using the noise to attract the mossbears. Instead of being confident that they would come to my aid I now worried that I would end up like in the square, alone and a joke to everyone.
Somewhat depressed, I listened to the noise caused by the movement of the people around the wagon and their whispering murmurs before Aspen blurted out. “F****** mind mage, are you serious, Ward?
He cleared his throat. “Aspen, don’t forget you’re no longer in Castiana, and right now you’re being rather rude to our buyer”
“Traiana’s tits, Ward? You’re dealing with a damn mind mage,” Aspen said, greatly disturbed by what I had sort of expected.
“She’s a buyer. That’s what she is. We have the goods, she has the money, it’s that simple. I consider her revealing to us she’s a mind mage, a sign of trust,” Ward said simply, but the warning behind his words was impossible to miss.
Was it that easy to hide someone’s class? I didn’t think so. Maybe it was the quirk of the mind mage class.
But before I could give it more thought, a woman’s voice, slightly on the high-pitched side, more honeyed, reached my ears.” Thank you, Mr. Ward, but I wouldn’t expect anything else from a mere guardswoman.”
Aspen took it with less grace than a mind mage. “You…”
“That’s enough!” Ward growled at her. I could only imagine the look Aspen gave Ward. But she didn’t argue further.
Ward spoke again. “Sorry about that, lady. Your package has arrived.”
“And I thought it was a travelling troupe,” she chuckled at her own remark.
“I see no one’s laughing…okay. But I have to say I’m quite surprised, Mr. Ward. After my fellow senior failed so spectacularly, I didn’t think someone would actually succeed. Bravo,” she clapped weakly. “I guess Denholm wasn’t as good as the rumors said.”
“Hard to judge. He simply made the mistake of standing up to the City Guards Captain directly,” he remarked nonchalantly, seemingly unaffected by her bitchy behavior.
I heard her sneer. “Don’t you give too much credit to one woman?”
“You can think what you want, lady,” he said, but I could hear the but in his voice. “But she’s the main reason I’m moving my Shadowbreakers out of the city…well, now from Sahal. I hate her for that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t respect her.”
First, I didn’t expect anyone like him who bribed guards to have respect for their captain. I was even much more taken aback by the fact that he moved his entire company out of the Sahal.
“You are moving the Shadowbreakers from the Sahal?” the Rutledge asked in astonishment, taking the question from my lips.
“Didn’t I advise you to do the same?” disputed the master mage. “It wasn’t a joke, Arlo. Besides, I’ve been considering it for quite some time. The city guards have been on my tail for months now. Doing business in Castiana has been quite hard lately. This … deal is a pretty good reason to move on.”
“Yeah, deal with the mind mage,” Aspen remarked through the ring. “No wonder he’s running away from Sahal.”
The honey-voiced woman snorted. “Your love for this Captain is your problem, and I couldn’t care less. You can cry all you want if you need to, but I want to see the one I’m paying for first.”
She was quite bitchy.
“You can’t blame me for a little nostalgia,” Ward retorted, unoffended by her remark and gestured to his men. “Tarp.”
At his command, they tore down the cover from the cages.
Bloody hell. I whimpered into the gag.
I thought I was ready, but I was wrong. Despite the poor light under the dense canopy of massive oaks, I was blinded by the light yet again. At least I didn’t have to breathe that foul air any longer, and instead my lungs were filled with a fresh one, though it was rather heavy, damp, and smelling of decaying leaves.
“If you want, I can erase your memories of Sahal,” the woman offered freely and with pleasure in her voice.
Her suggestion, however, did not meet with Ward’s approval. “Thank you, but with all due respect, I must refuse.”
“Your loss. So … that’s her.” the woman said, grinning at me. “Finally. I was wondering what she looked like.”
I was pondering the same thing about her, but now that the tarp was gone, I could finally see her in my perception, and it didn’t matter that my eyes were still adjusting to the light.
She was hidden beneath a black hooded cloak, her face concealed behind a grey mask. To my astonishment, her questionable outfit did not allow me to see beneath them, even though she stood within range of my domain. Just a few steps behind bars.
All I could tell about her was the obvious. She was a woman.
“Hmm, I was expecting more … I don’t know … a twisted look,” she said, assessing me. “The bodies of the hybrids I saw were quite revolting.”
There was more to her words than met the eye. How could she see more slaves who had suffered through Dungreen’s experiments? How did she get to them?
“I don’t know how to prove to you she’s the one you are looking for, unless you have someone with you who has …” the master mage looked back at her mercenaries standing off to the side.
The woman stopped him. “No need for identification. I have my way.”
I tensed, preparing for the mind attack that came shortly after. She struck at my defenses, trying to penetrate my mind, causing me a headache.
Her attack, though, left me speechless for an entirely different reason than I would have expected. It was weak. Even Morton’s attack was stronger, and she didn’t strike me as weaker than him. So, why?
I even had a little bit of leisure to look at this bitchy woman.
[Mind Mage: lvl ??]
No big surprises there, and two question marks spoke of her being in the same range of strength as he was.
Ward, on the other hand, was startled or even somewhat horrified by her actions. “Are you out of your mind? Do you know where we are?”
Her attack stopped.
“Calm down. I know what I’m doing. This little mana I used won’t attract mossbears,” she replied calmly and looked back at me. “Interesting. She seems to have quite strong mental defenses and no remnant marks of Stanley’s attack.”
Yeah. It’s not me. I secretly hoped she would think that. You have the wrong girl!
She motioned for one of the mercenaries who came with her to step forward and pointed at me, making me utterly confused. Did she confirm I was the one she was looking for, or not? What about the man then? I panicked a bit when he approached the cage, and I saw his scarred face and his sly look.
[Hound: lvl ??]
She failed, I realized. He was here to confirm my identity instead of her. As he glanced at me, an attack struck my mind. Yet, this time it was different, not so invasive and destructive, but instead more probing or seeking for information that I didn’t manage to hide behind my mental walls.
I’ve experienced nothing like it, and it took me by surprise.
The man took his sweet time to finish whatever it was he was doing. When he finally spoke, it confirmed my fears that I had not been entirely successful in my defense.
“Korra Grey, Slave, level 93. Skills …”
“That’s enough,” the bitchy woman said, raising her hand to stop him.
“Skills I wasn’t able to see,” he finished the sentence nevertheless.
She nodded and looked at me again. “Interesting. We’ll have a lot of fun together, Korra Grey.”
She wasn’t just bitchy, she was a bitch. The way she said my name made my skin crawl.
“So … is this the lady in question?” Ward asked, knowing the answer very well.
The bitch nodded. “Yes, she is. Good job, Mr. Ward.”
“I was happy to help. Aren’t you interested in some other slaves?” he asked, ignoring the fact that they did not belong to him.
And as one might expect his question didn’t sit well with Rutledge. “These slaves are mine and therefore for up to me to sell. But if you’re interested, just say …”
The bitch turned to Ward. “So she doesn’t belong to you?”
If I could, I would shout at them that I didn’t belong to any of them either, but all I could do was think that while looking at them with malice in my eyes.
“Korra, get ready. I’ll make sure this goes south quickly,” Aspen warned me, my heart skipping a beat at her sudden warning. For a moment, panic took hold of me, and I asked myself how I could prepare when I was still locked in a cage, my magic bound as well as my arms and legs.
“Can you still make yourself a beast?” Aspen asked me, her voice stuttering. “I mean your presence. It could attract more mossbears.”
I paused, asking myself why. What was the point? After all, according to swordmaster Blaine, it made me a level two hundred and fifty in his eyes. I was sure that some of those present were stronger than that. But then, I almost slapped myself for not seeing the obvious.
It wasn’t about strength but about how I would be perceived, and that was unlike everyone else present as a beast. There was a slim chance that despite my limited strength, the mossbears in the woods would perceive me as a predator in their territory and attack.
I tapped on the bars once, letting her know I was ready.
“I’m her master,” Ruthledge said before Ward could respond to the bitch’s question. It seemed he gained more courage in the presence of the buyer, now that her attention was on him.
“Oh,” the mind bitch marveled, looking at Ward and then back at the trader. “So I should deal with you.”
The slave trader realized his mistake the moment he looked at a pissed-off Ward. “I’m the master of all the slaves on the wagon, but as for Grey … let’s say … I’m Mr. Ward’s business partner.”
“Really? I heard you were supposed to deliver her to the west.” said the bitch, and then she snorted in joy when she saw Ruthledge turn white. “Don’t worry, trader. I already told your ’business partner’ I’m not interested in you nor your crew.”
So Aspen wasn’t wrong, and Ward really tried to sell them. I smirked to myself. I bet he won’t like what comes next.
“Prepare yourself,” were the only words I heard in my mind before Ward and a few others froze.
“Aspen, what the hell are you doing?” Ward snapped, aghast at her stupidity.
Standing just a few steps away from the wagon, she laughed, “If you thought I’d go down without a fight, you were f****** wrong.”
She stood there in a fighting stance, her left hand was ablaze, right gripping the staff tightly, but despite common sense, she wasn’t in pain, commanding the fire. Quickly checking her surroundings, she made sure who’s standing where for the umpteenth time.
Tate was hiding behind one of the horses. Ruthledge, standing between her and the slaves, watched her in horror, and Vik, the bruiser, seemed as ready to fight as she was, covering her back. It made me wonder if she communicated with him as much as she did with me.
Though, the odds were not in their favor as these two were at a considerable disadvantage against the fifteen Shadowbreakers, who stood spread out around, surrounding us. Eight came with us, six with Ward. The mercenaries that the bitch brought stood aside for the time being, seemingly not interested in the conflict.