I wound up landing Bruna on the ground below the outcrop, because it turned out to be too difficult to make a pinpoint landing arranged the way we were. After I flew Ceria down to us, I dematerialized my wings, double-checked the direction and began heading toward the locator stones in the distance.
“Hold up!” Bruna protested almost immediately. I looked back at her in confusion.
She hooked a finger toward her sister. “Ceria’s about done for the day. We need to let her get some sleep.”
Mages are not known for their endurance, even combat mages like Ceria. I looked at the cat-kin and noticed ears and tail were looking a little droopy.
“Yeah,” I nodded, regrowing my wings. “I’ll go up and scout a location for us.”
If I have to, I can miss a night or two of sleep. It’s not optimal, but I had an exhausted mage and a still-recuperating amazon with miasma issues to worry about. Once we had our bedrolls laid out and I was tending to the watch fire, I said as much.
“Not happening,” Bruna immediately disagreed. “Lady, I can stand a four-hour watch and still get some good rest.”
With a shake of my head, I answered, “Not tonight. Your miasma is still dangerously high. Pushing yourself would use your limited supply of stable mana faster. Tonight you get a full night of sleep.”
“I’m more knowledgable about your issues than you realize,” I insisted. “Amazons might be rare in this part of the world, but in this respect you are no different than vampires or succubi. And I can see that the miasma’s too strong inside you. You need to conserve your strength.”
She looked at me speculatively. “Hm. You know, I’ve been thinking you’re strange for a fairy. Now that you say you know a lot about succubi, I’m noticing you kinda look like…”
“I’m not a succubus!” I retorted.
She snorted and grinned, then grew serious and studied the fire.
“I only got hit by one rat,” she complained. “How did it get so bad?”
During a mission, one hit can turn you from an asset to a liability. She’d been around long enough to understand that. Even so, I could understand the frustration in her voice.
Her question wasn’t the root cause of her frustration. It was the fact that a small-fry giant rat was the culprit. I did have an answer for her, though, thanks to all the studying I’d done in knight training. “There’s a subspecies of giant rat that carries miasmic venom, just like a venomous mole. The thing must have hit you with a ton of it. Your arm was pretty badly torn up, so it would have been able to deliver a lot.”
I double-checked the locator stone and verified that my three former companions had not moved at all. “They’re alive, but not moving. Being held prisoner, maybe?”
“How do you know they’re alive?”
“Our locator stone set is fancier than the normal kind. It shows me different colors for alive or dead. They show up as alive. So as soon as we break camp, we head that way.” I pointed at Graham’s stone, since it was in the middle.
“Lady, we need to go that way,” Bruna countered, pointing toward the gnome farms. “We need to check out what happened first. Something overran those guys, and we’d be better off knowing what it was.”
Checking anomalies always took priority for many adventurers, and once I thought about it, I realized she was right. Something out of place usually did equal unknown danger.
I nodded. “Yeah. You’re right. Go to sleep now.”
Bruna was sitting on her bedroll, showing no sign of laying down. She scowled at me. “I’ll stand first watch.”
Gathering the smallest ball of mana in my hand as I could, I turned toward her and said, “No, you will not.”
As I reached out and touched her forehead, she said, “Hey, what…”
I let loose the lightest touch of the sleep casting than I could. And caught Bruna as she slumped.
After carefully laying her out and covering her with her blanket, I turned toward Ceria, who was frowning at me.
“You should ask first,” she stated with a flat voice.
“She is my patient, and I made the decision as her healer,” I answered, affecting Melione’s blunt response to a similar protest she once got from Brigitte. I added, “You need to sleep as well.”
“Before you go knocking me out, let me set up [Alarm Barrier],” she answered, and stood up with her staff in hand.
I was a little surprised to hear she was going to do a third-level spell. It wasn’t [Protective Barrier], a third-level spell which required much more mana, but it was still third-level.
She first muttered out a second level incantation in preparation. “Give heed to the pattern I seek / A hand moves unseen below us / Writing in inks of spirit pigment / [Inscribe Formation]!”
Beneath and around our campsite, a grand pattern of many-sided polygons and symbols glowed and faded, as aether etched a magic circle beneath the surface.
Before the glow fully disappeared, she began her third-level spell, a casting that required her staff, the pattern she had just built, and another incantation. “Make it known within this sacred extent / A region surrounding us / A land no enemy may tread unseen / [Alarm Barrier]!”
The formation flared again, now with wind element mana, and then faded into the dark soil. I could still see the pattern if I concentrated on my fairy sight, but it had become invisible to my normal vision.
Now, anyone sleeping within the effect radius would be immediately awakened when an enemy aiming for us crossed the barrier.
“Lady, I too can stand a watch,” Ceria declared as she took a seat on her bedroll.
“You need to recover your pneuma,” I told her.
She looked a little surprised at that answer. She wondered, “You can see pneuma, too?”
I shook my head, smiling. “Not directly. But fatigue robs you of pneuma, right? Go to sleep.”
# # #
Gnomes are small, usually less than twenty inches tall, so the farms in question were equally small. The lot of Robert’s suburban childhood home had probably been a larger piece of land than one of these fields. Split-rail fences lay snapped and collapsed in several locations, and it was obvious nobody had tended the crops in more than a month. We walked a narrow road between fences in single file, looking for clues as to what had hit them.
Some monsters leave distinctive signatures in how they go about destroying things. There are the obvious clues, of course, like salamanders roasting their prey before consuming it. What is left can look like the aftermath of a drunken barbecue. And there are the less obvious clues, like the shape of bite marks or the pattern of claw marks.
These farms appeared to have been simply crushed. Wherever damage occurred, it appeared to have simply been from the object being batted aside.
“Ogres maybe?” Bruna wondered. She and I were inspecting a field while Ceria stood in the little road, maintaining [Detect Presence]. I asked her to do that so I could keep my attention on the ground around me instead.
After looking around to be sure, I shook my head. “Ogres aren’t this pointlessly destructive. If they managed to overwhelm a gnome village, they would have gone in and taken the livestock. And then they would have left the farms in working order so the survivors could continue being around to be raided later. Ogres plan ahead.”
The amazon looked surprised at me. “You sound pretty sure about that. Have you run into ogres before?”
I noticed a couple depressions near a fallen fence and bent down to examine one of them. “Yeah. When I was still training, two fellow squires and I helped a civilized ogre village against a wild ogre tribe that had stolen one of their girls. A war between ogres is a pretty terrifying thing.”
“Fellow squires…” she muttered.
I looked up, declaring. “This is a Troll print. I have never heard of Trolls living underground though?”
Bruna blinked and came over to look. “I would say it wasn’t possible, but… you’re right, that really looks like Troll.”
Ceria was coming over to us. It was odd, since it would be easier for her to maintain Detect Presence from the center of the spell, and I could feel the spell still operating.
“I didn’t want to call out and alarm him,” she explained as she arrived. “We have a visitor.”
She nodded to one side and I looked, but with my attention called to it, I had already found him in my fairy sense. Peering out from behind a half-collapsed fairy grape vine, a gnome was watching us.