“It was incredibly reckless,” said Elenor, as she pushed a branch out of her way with her baton.
“You’ve been saying that for an hour now. I already apologized,” I said, exasperated.
We were searching for a source of fresh water while the others set up camp. I carried canteens and a metal pot to be filled with water for cooking, while Elenor carried a couple of canteens and tapped her baton in every direction before directing me to move.
“You went up to a member of Inline and whispered in his ear. He could’ve stabbed you, taken you hostage, or bitten you on the neck!”
I seriously doubted he’d have tried to give me a hickie. “I had my eye on him, if he’d so much as twitched, he would have been rolling on the ground, screaming.”
The ground was littered with thorny shrubs and stumpy trees, and Elenor didn’t care to follow the relatively clear animal trails. I remarked at my new robe’s durability. Even if thorns stuck to it, they didn’t leave a single tear or pluck a single fiber. As much fun as it had been roughing it under the stars with only a few dirty rags and wild berries, I appreciated the convenience of having the right gear.
“Don’t let your abnormally powerful reading ability get to your head, it does you no good having a big brain if it isn’t connected to your body,” said Elenor.
I sighed. Elenor was right, I’d endangered myself for a little theatricality and unnecessary intimidation. Ulfric wouldn’t have chased us with most of his team unconscious, and knowing they had been unable to subjugate a single one of us even at full strength and with the element of surprise. At the time, I thought it was a good way to ensure they wouldn’t try to eliminate us before we reached Bass, since they knew we were going to inform the guilds about their actions.
But they wouldn’t have done something so risky for something so trivial. They said all they wanted were some answers regarding Kara Tanner’s death, and we had already said we’d submit ourselves to questioning. Assuming they weren’t lying, the situation was easy to resolve.
However, they were lying. I had noticed discrepancies in Ulfric’s words while I was using The Tempest, but hadn’t pointed them out at the time. First, even if they had the legal right to use as much force as they deemed necessary, why would they think they needed to use so much force to subjugate us? Even if we had killed one Inline agent, sending an entire team after us was overkill, especially considering how any one of Ulfric, Nene, or Gaben alone could have taken us down if it wasn’t for my reading ability.
Second, an organization like Inline should have known Sally, Jerome, and Ben were members of guilds, and were escorting us on a guild-sanctioned mission. If what Sally had said was true, Inline wouldn’t have done something so provocative and risked the guilds’ ire for something as small as the death of an agent they knew had been killed by someone else.
And finally, if they only wanted information about Tanner’s death, they could have accepted my offer to answer their questions there and been done with it. There was no reason to insist we go to Inline’s outpost and be interrogated there. If nothing else, they should have tried to get some answers from us to help corroborate what we said at the outpost or so they’d have some information to work with, in the event we didn’t go to the outpost after all.
No, they wanted to make sure we were caught, and going to Inline’s outpost was most likely a trap as well. Rather than investigating Kara Tanner’s death, Ulfric’s team probably had another agenda: the Soul Orbs. Considering how powerful Skinner had become after using them, it was easy to imagine why a shady governmental group like Inline would want them. Since we knew how they were made, they wanted to silence us.
But if that was true, I didn’t regret my actions at all. In fact, we shouldn’t have let them live at all. They were almost certainly going to attack us again, but this time, they wouldn’t be trying to capture us.
The somber realization didn’t disturb me. If they attacked again, we’d just have to defeat them again. What concerned me was how nonchalantly everyone else treated the situation. Apart from Elenor, who was always brooding about everything, the others barely seemed to care that a group of murderous assassins had us in their sights. They should have realized we’d be attacked again.
In fact, I’d come to this conclusion while playing Ben’s character with The Tempest. At least he should know the danger we were in. Yet when I’d brought up my concerns, he’d brushed them off saying we’d reach Bass way before Ulfric’s team would.
He didn’t know I was using my magic to imitate him, but he’d been giving me weird looks lately. I thought he might be trying to figure out my magic, but if that was the case, he could have just asked, it wasn’t like I wouldn’t tell him. I already knew what his magic did, it was only fair I told him about mine.
Even with The Tempest, I couldn’t figure out Ben’s relation to the Ben who’d dragged me across Sett. I had my guesses, from time travel to long lost twins, but I couldn’t say for sure. The only silver lining was it made me realize the limits of his deductive magic, so I was sure he didn’t know I’d come from another world.
“So reckless.” She shook her head.
“I got it, alright!”
Elenor chuckled. “We’re almost there.”
I grumbled. She really wasn’t letting this go. I couldn’t hear any running water yet, but I didn’t doubt Elenor. She knew what was happening for miles around, in fact, she’d probably eavesdropped on more conversations than she’d admit.
But we’d been at it for half an hour now, and she’d been on the lookout ever since we’d left Ulfric and his team behind. Was she feeling guilty for not noticing the ambush? She had no reason to be, we’d been distracted by that damn tiker. She didn’t need to push herself so much, what if she ran out of magic?
Wait, wasn’t she using burnt magic? Maybe burnt magic didn’t have a time limit like unburnt magic did. Once again, I felt the limits of my knowledge of magic. I resolved to buy a book or something, once I got to Bendeck. The lack of books in my possession was disconcerting.
My foot sank into the ground. I grimaced and pulled it out, a coating of mud plastered all over it. I still couldn’t hear any running water but there was a pond a little further beyond the mud.
“There’s another way around,” said Elenor as she sidestepped the mud.
A warning would have been nice, I thought as I rubbed my feet on the ground. “We came here for the pond?”
Pondwater wouldn’t be very clean, although rivers and streams weren’t exactly Perrier either. Still, it was unlikely a pond like this would have drinkable water. Did Elenor not know about germs and waterborne diseases? That was another thing about this world that I found odd, if they had so many books from our world, why didn’t they have stuff like water purification plants or a rudimentary understanding of biology?
There were no cars, no lights, no modern medicine. To be fair, I hadn’t seen a lot of modern non-fiction books in this world, but all this knowledge and the ability to utilize it directly should have at least started the industrial age.
I followed Elenor over a rocky path, avoiding the patches of mud between the rocky bits.
“This is rainwater, so it should be fine,” said Elenor as she crouched near the water’s edge and dipped a finger in.
The water was a muddy brown color, with weeds sticking out of it. I didn’t know how she could tell it was rain water, but even then, it wasn’t necessarily safe to drink. I doubted her ability could tell what kind of microbes were in the water. Finding cholera with echolocation would be almost as farfetched as finding love in the time of cholera.
“We’ll boil it back at camp.” I crouched and submerged a canteen. Bubbles of air emerged from the canteen’s mouth, popping intermittently. “Did we buy a filter in Devel?”
“What’s a filter?” She filled her canteen too.
“Guess that’s a no.”
It wasn’t that bad, I told myself, I’d been drinking this world’s water for weeks and hadn’t gotten sick yet. Still, dying of dysentery was not on my to-do list, so I kept the canteen near the surface where the water was clearer. The deeper I looked, the darker and murkier it would get.
Elenor cursed and slapped her forehead.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Just a bug,” she answered, wiping her hand on her clothes.
I looked at her. She wore the black cloak I’d picked out for her in Devel, as well as the black shirt and trousers she’d bought for herself. With her shoes hidden in the grass and her black sunglasses on her face, the only color on her body came from the red pin in her hair.
I needed to voice my suspicions, get a second opinion on them. I’d already unpacked the packet of paranoia I’d set aside earlier in the day, and those questions needed answers.
Why did Sally and Jerome suggest we shouldn’t go to Inline’s outpost, in front of Ulfric and his team? Maybe Jerome could be that tactless, but I didn’t peg Sally as someone who couldn’t see the benefit of letting the enemy think we would listen to their request.
Not informing the guilds in Devel about Skinner and Kara Tanner was also strange. Jerome’s excuse for not doing so had been laughable, and they obviously knew being attacked by Inline was a real possibility.
Being attacked right outside Devel was suspicious too. The roads were empty and there were no witnesses, but we could still see the city on the horizon when we were attacked. It would have been safer to bring us down at night, maybe after a couple days of tiring traveling.
My canteens were full and I skimmed the top of the pond with the pot. I breathed. I was probably overthinking things. Sally’s team had put their lives on the line for us several times. They were nice, friendly people, and I liked them. They’d shared plenty of secrets with us, and we’d talked about mundane and serious things together.
Together, we’d survived explosive wolves, political riots, crazy soul sucking murderers, the secret police, and mud. A lot of mud. If they wanted to kill me, they’d had plenty of opportunities to do it. I could trust them, or rather, I had to. Bendeck was only one city away. I was about to complete the first step on my quest to recover the House of Wisdom, and I was not going to let unnecessary paranoia stop me.
“Let me give you some advice.”
I looked up. The pot was full and heavy, and despite my best efforts, still full of dirt. Elenor had finished filling her canteens a while ago and dangled her feet in the water. “What is it?”
She kicked the water, making the clearer upper layer mix with the murkiness below. “Don’t trust them. Sally, Jerome, and Ben, especially Ben.”