Chapter 54: Inferno

“Wait, calm down, stop using so much mana, and let’s talk. This is a misunderstanding,” Ward said in an attempt to prevent the worst.

“What did I misunderstood? That you tried to backstab us? Sell us out to a f****** mind mage? Do you think I’m stupid enough to believe you’ll give us thirty percent and let us go?”

“Well …” the master mage hesitated, basically affirming that he really thought so.

“Mr. Ward, I am more than willing to help you solve this problem. After all, it is in the interest of all of us that this meeting took place peacefully,” the bitch said, warning him.

She was wrong about that, though. Not everyone wanted this to go smoothly. Definitely not me! 

So, I watched the claws on my hands emerge. I could feel the fangs in my mouth growing and fighting for space with the gag, which was bloody uncomfortable, if I may say so.

As my three cellmates noticed changes on my body, they tensed up. Unable to warn anyone even if they wanted, they could only watch in silence and fright what was happening before their eyes.

It wasn’t just luck that no one else saw what was going on in my cage, as everyone’s eyes were fixed on Rutledge’s crew. Especially on Aspen, who was using dangerously high amounts of mana, more than what was recommended in these woods if one valued her life.

“Aspen, Vik, I’m a reasonable man, and I see you as capable fellows. How about working for me? We don’t have to go down this road!” Ward offered them.

Bruiser growled. “To be a Shadowbreaker?”

“Don’t believe everything they say. Those rumors are used to scare people,” Ward said, unbothered by the fact that he was basically implying that the rumors, whatever they were, were spread deliberately.

“I saw the bodies, Ward,” Aspen said, shaking her head. “It’s not just rumors!”

Ward frowned, obviously displeased with her remark, but no profanity left his mouth. “I forgot you were a guard.”

How he could forget that when it was literally her class was beyond me.

“Those people didn’t know what was good for them. Don’t make the same mistake,” the master mage said, trying hard to think of a way to convince her.

“What about me?” asked the slave trader sharply when Ward did not mention his name. “I’m her master, you need me!”

Ward snorted. “Sorry Arlo, you shouldn’t have taken my job … and you know damn well I don’t need you!”

“Bastard!” cursed Rutledge, knowing full well what it meant for him. The slave link was not unbreakable. It wasn’t some god-blessed bond. When the master died, the slave was free from him. 

That is why every collar had two functions from the very beginning. It forced the slaves to obey the master’s commands and prevented them from harming the master.

“Aspen, forget Arlo, Castiana, and work for me. All the debts you have will be forgotten,” Ward offered Aspen in an attempt to persuade her. “Same for you Vik.”

But she shook her head. “Another lie. Don’t think I don’t know how you and your ilk got my brother into those debts. I have…tss ..”

She twitched her head and fixed her eyes on the mind bitch.

“ can an mere city guard have such mental defenses,” she muttered to herself, bewildered by what happened.

The fireball sent in her direction in response to her mind attack made her jump aside. What followed was utter chaos. 

The fires around Aspen grew brighter, and even I, in my cage a few meters away, could feel the scorching heat. Yet despite that, the Shadowbreakers rushed her. Sheer madness, in my book. 

But what we wanted to achieve with Aspen was no different.

“Watch out!” I yelled in my mind, even though I knew my warning wouldn’t reach her. While gripping the bars so hard it hurt I could only curse my inability to use mana or my voice as I saw Ward’s thief emerge from the shadows behind her. I watched his attempt to stab Aspen with terror in my eyes and released a sigh of relief when his plan was thwarted as his dagger pierced only the barrier surrounding her. It exploded in response to his attack at the breach point and threw him in the shadows of the surrounding trees. 

The archer’s attempt didn’t go any better as their arrows burned in flames that grew stronger every second before they reached her.

First, the air around Aspen shimmered slightly, then a faint whistle reached my ears, and next, I was almost blinded again, but this time by an explosion that appeared where the guardswoman stood. The ensuing boom was so loud that it pierced my ears and rocked the wagon.

One thought immediately flashed through my mind. Did she suicide bomb herself just now?

When I looked at the blast’s location in an attempt to find her, I saw her standing in the middle of the inferno she had caused. The clearing I hadn’t even had time to see and admire, where Ward was to hand me over to the buyer, was now in flames.

Shadowbreakers, fighters, warriors, and the like froze in their footsteps, just a few steps from Aspen, fighting the pressure wave and flames that engulfed them and tried to burn them to ashes.

Unlike them, this fiery mage didn’t hold back.

Not one, but several deep roars from the surrounding woods announced to all participants in this meeting that their efforts and intentions to make the handover of me go smoothly had just been thwarted. What they wanted to avoid and Aspen and I wanted achieved happened. The dwellers of the woods have noticed our presence.

“Now!” Aspen screamed in my head so loud it hurt, but I understood. Now that we had the beasts’ attention, it was necessary to attract as many of them as possible. 

So I did the only thing I could. I took a deep breath and roared from the top of my lungs, knowing full well that the volume of my shout didn’t matter so much as opposed to my emotions. Thus I put my whole heart into it, calling the beasts, urging them to come for me.

In response to my shout, or rather presence, more beast roars came from the woods, delighting my heart and terrifying me at the same time.

“What the…” Rutledge gasped as he came out of his shock. I was so focused on the fight, the clearing, Aspen, and my scream that I didn’t notice him in my domain until he spoke, a mistake that could have cost me my life.

What’s more, he wasn’t the only one staring at me like that. Almost everyone in the clearing had their eyes on me. It came to me as a surprise, as either my presence was more far-reaching than I thought, or their perception keener than I had assumed.

Either way, the key was that the forest dwellers sensed me too.

“Excellent work!” Aspen praised me in the silence that fell over the clearing for a brief moment. “If you can, do it again. I’ll do my best to hold out as long as possible.”

The slave trader wasn’t so thrilled with what I did like her, though. “F*** this….f*** you…” he swore and spat at me, then looked at my cellmates. “You three out. Protect me.” 

When I noticed two open cages and the rest of the slaves standing behind the slave trader, I cursed my lack of awareness even more than before. 

There were thirteen of them, some visibly trembling, their eyes fixed on the ground, the eyes of others darting back and forth over the clearing and the fight that was going on there. Like me, neither of them wanted to be here. Instead, they became meat shields for their master. Rutledge disgusted me, but I couldn’t deny that I played a big part in their unfortunate fate.

The slave trader pointed at me with a trembling hand, hesitating for a brief moment. “You…damn you … do what you want!”

Then he turned his back on me and hurried into the woods, surrounded by his slaves.

I probably could have stopped him, maybe even killed him, but the rush of freedom upon his command intoxicated me. The restrictions binding my movement were gone, the use of skills unlimited, and my speech restricted only by the gag now. 

So I shouted my battle cry again, this time not fighting the collar, giving free rein to my emotions. It was glorious. I felt free.

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The woods seemed to come alive, the leaves of the trees shaking as the beasts rushed through the forest to the clearing. At this point, Ward understood that a clash with them was inevitable.

“Kill her, now!” he shouted at his men. “Don’t hold back!”

At Ward’s command, the clearing surged with energies. That was the best way I could describe it. 

Aspen has so far been like a fire goddess amid a fiery hell she created herself. But I was afraid it wouldn’t last long. She was so hopelessly outnumbered and what’s more, she was alone. It was hard to see in the fire and smoke, but I didn’t spot a bruiser anywhere. The son of a bitch was either dead or ran off like his boss.

To be honest, being in his shoes, I would do the same. The inevitable death that Aspen chose or entrusting his life to Ward were not appealing options.

A deafening blast stopped four Shadows in their tracks, but more were coming. It was beyond Aspen’s strength not to let any of them near her, which was something every magician tried to avoid. She had to resort to close combat when she deflected a swing of the sword that passed through her barrier, with her staff. A bright blast threw the Shadow, who got so dangerously close to her to the edge of the clearing. 

The swordswoman landed just a few steps from the burning trees when the first mossbear rushed out of the forest behind her. Taller than any man, ignoring the surrounding flames, this massive beast didn’t hesitate for a second and pounced on her.

The first ally has arrived. I could only hope the next one wouldn’t want to eat me.

“Get rid of it, but do not kill it!” shouted Ward, who, despite the situation, had not yet taken part in the fight. The same was true for the bitch and her people. 

Unfortunately, even though they stood aside and half the Shadowbreakers dedicating themselves to stopping the mossbear, the pressure on Aspen did not lessen. It was hard for me to admit it, but I was worried about her.

Ironic, isn’t it?

A few hours ago, I was wishing she was dead, cursing her. Now, my life depended on hers as I had no idea how to get out of this situation on my own. I needed her alive. So I did the only thing I could and screamed again into the gag, which, despite my best attempts, I failed to take off.

Even before I finished my battle cry, another mossbear, his approach fanning the flames and fiery sparks of the burning forest, emerged behind the nine mercenaries. It stopped, roared, and attacked the first one it saw.

That’s when I realized one thing. Mind mage, that bitch wasn’t among them. So, where was she?

I quickly scanned the clearing, trying to find her in the smoke and flames, only to feel that strange sensation on the back of my neck again.

A chill ran down my spine as I turned to see her standing at the edge of my perception, her hooded coat smoldering in several places and her eyes hidden behind the mask fixed on me. I could see she was pissed.

“You’re like Redwood Vixen. There’s more trouble with you than I thought,” she remarked, spitting out her words.

Now that her attention was on me, I have to admit. I panicked a little, remembering what Morton had done to me. 

“Maybe I was too hard on Stanley when I called him an incompetent dumbfuck,” she told me like I give a s***. I didn’t even have to look around the cage to know I had nowhere to run. “You know, he did become a mind mage with his first evolution, but I … I was born to it.”

“Trained since I was little to become one,” she said proudly. Then she stepped closer to the cage door just as another beast burst out of the wall of flames behind her. It was so close to the cage I was in that I could look at its strength.

[Mossbear: lvl ???]

This was the first time I had seen three question marks and could only guess his actual level. According to my guts and what Aspen told me before, certainly over three hundred. No wonder that when it roared threateningly, expressing its displeasure at our intrusion into its forest, I peed myself a little, again. Still, part of me was glad the mossbear was here, his black eyes focusing on me and the mind bitch.

She turned to the rushing beast, not taking a step back. I watched in confusion as the mossbear stopped a few steps away from her and whimpered.

Only allowed on

“Back at home, I trained on beasts like this one every day. I hope your expectations weren’t too high,” she said with a hint of satisfaction in her voice. “Sit down!”

The mossbear, the biggest bear I’ve ever seen, the only bear I’ve seen with antlers on its head and tufts of moss growing on his brown fur-covered back, didn’t even growl and sat on its hind legs, listening to her like a trained dog. My confusion quickly turned into a horror of realization. 

After all, it wasn’t hard to figure that it was under her mind control.

I gulped at the thought of what this bitch was capable of now that she didn’t have to hold back. Her previous attack on my mind must have been just a fraction of her true power if she could control such beasts.

“Now you know why I chose this place,” she said, stroking the mossbear’s snout. “It’s the perfect place for me.”

That I saw.

I looked around, trying to find some help, but even though there were now five mossbears in the clearing, including the one controlled by the mind bitch, not much had changed. Shadowbreakers had already defeated one beast. The mossbear was lying unconscious on the ground, and they were fighting two more while the mercenaries were playing with the one that attacked them.

Despite all that, Aspen struggled even against just three Shadows. Her movements showed that the fight was taking its toll, and she was unable to defeat them or run away. What’s more, it was only a matter of time before more joined her fight.

For a brief moment, our eyes met. She knew what was coming and was okay with it. 

Though, I wasn’t and had to suppress tears.

“Sorry Korra, but you don’t have to feel bad about me …” she said, pausing for a moment as she fought. “… at least I will die with some dignity.”

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, especially not in such a reconciled tone. I looked back in front of me, already with tears in my eyes.

“Oh, the union ring. I thought I registered the connection, but it was short, and I wasn’t sure,” mind bitch remarked, untroubled by the fact. “Quite useless tools. They consume an insane amount of mana, short-range … the guardswoman has the second ring, right?”

I said nothing.

“No matter, will you go willingly, or should I play with your brain?” she asked me in her honeyed voice, tapping the head of the mossbear now lying next to her to emphasize her words. “My father didn’t say anything about the state of your mind.”

Her father? Was she the daughter of the man who was trying to get me? Was her father the mind mage hidden in Wagonbrei? So many questions, some of which I was afraid to know the answer to, but right now, all I wanted to figure out was how to get out of here with my mind intact.

“Oh, and if you were counting on Esu, I must disappoint you. As long as I keep it alive or don’t order it to leave the forest, he won’t care,” she said and patted the mossbear on the head, crushing my hopes. “So, what will it be, Korra Grey?”

Go with her willingly? My ass!

I didn’t resist Morton, just to give it up a few days later. I did not fight for my freedom in Labyrinth Square to lose it now without a struggle. She was insane if she thought otherwise.

I couldn’t rely on Esu? So what! My mana was bound, and I was unable to use poison or shield? Who cares! That my hands and feet were shackled, my fangs rendered useless by the gag, and I was still caged on the wagon? It still wasn’t enough to break me.

I still had the [Beast], my presence. Sort of. Even though I might have felt like a beast almost three times stronger than I currently was, I was still too weak to summon more mossbears, let alone King of the Woods.

But, one thought has bothered me since meeting Swordmaster Blaine in the barracks corridor. If he was right, then my presence was based on the beasts from which I was created. I doubted, no I refused to believe that Dungreen would only use beasts of that level in his sick research when seekers were able to catch much more powerful ones.

So my question was why was my presence so limited? I came to the answer a long time ago. It was simple yet frightening. The [Beast] or, more accurately, my partial change only gave me access to part of the presence locked in my mixed genes. It depended on the depth of acceptance of the beast within me, something I’ve dreaded and so far avoided.

The risk was too obvious, as I could lose myself and become what I feared, unable to change back.

Just now, though, I didn’t see the difference between that and the mind-f*** that awaited me from that bitch.

So I prepared my mental defenses as best I could, took a deep breath, and let myself be swallowed up by the beast, just like when I tried to control the skill for the first time. 

It started slowly. The tufts of fur and feathers on my body were getting bigger. But the more I submitted to the change, the faster it went. The fur on my wrist quickly covered my hands, mingling on my forearms with feathers that had grown in length.

“Bad choice!” the mind bitch snapped at me as the white fur that grew between my breasts reached my neck.

Her attack struck my mind with incredible force, destroying my defenses faster than Morton could. Even so, she couldn’t get through them quickly as she imagined.

“Not bad for a [Slave],” she remarked, not hiding pleasure from my struggle.

When the fur reached my chin, and I saw the whiskers appearing on my face, the bitch was just a breath away from getting inside my head. So in desperation, I did the only thing I could and hoped for the best when I roared.

Still muffled by the gag, it resonated strongly in my head. 

“… the f***,” the bitch swore in astonishment as she awoke from the shock my presence had caused her.

Yeah, it worked. I could tell from her reaction that my presence was stronger than ever. Though it wasn’t without consequences, the roar itself was much more exhausting and damaging to my throat than I thought.

“Now you really piss me o…seriously?” she asked in disbelief when the mossbear she was controlling got in the way of a thrown rock.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Tate to my left standing by the wagon with another rock ready in his hand. 

“S…she told me to help you,” he managed to stutter out.

There was no doubt who told him to do it, but the bitch had no appreciation for the workhand as I did. “Kill him!”

The beast, so far standing calmly by its master’s side, protecting her, immediately rushed at the young man while roaring. 

When he saw the beast, Tate jumped under the wagon, rolled over to the other side, where he continued in his frantic escape. To the bitch’s anger, the beast didn’t bother with something like that and ran right through the wagon with the cages, one of which I was still in.

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