Emily sat up suddenly.
The words Lessia had just said rang in her ears. "Hey Emily, wake up!"
The younger woman was standing by the door, naked but for her sandals, a bright smile on her face. "Light sleeper? Or did I scare you?"
Emily shook her head. "No, it's just time to get up, I guess." She smiled back at Lessia. She hadn't been scared, and she wasn't a light sleeper at all (she hadn't noticed when Lessia had left the bed), so she wasn't lying, exactly. And once Lessia had told her to wake up, that meant that it was definitely time. "What did you want?"
"Just to show you sunrise over the lake," Lessia said. "There's a beautiful mist rising, the birds are calling, it's just warm enough to be comfortable, it's wonderful."
Emily tossed aside the blanket. "Well, we should get an early start," she said, "we might have a long way to go. So I might as well get moving."
"That's right!" Lessia said. "And after so many years of waking up in that village, it's nice to have a change."
"I bet," the Wanderer replied, standing up. "Wait... lake?"
"Uh huh, we must have walked..." Lessia paused. "Right... past? In the dark?"
"Not that I'd recognize much of the scenery we walked through last night," Emily said, walking towards the door, "but I wonder if we're even in the same place."
Lessia grinned. "Got any handy Wanderer magic to tell you if we've moved?"
"Well... yes, but I'd need to know where we were last night, to begin with."
"Oh. Huh. That'd be a problem."
Emily nodded and headed to the door. After she put her soft shoes on, Lessia led her outside into the cool morning.
Sure enough, she stepped out into the dawn, and not twenty feet away, down a gentle slope, was a significant body of water, glistening in the orange light. As Lessia had said, the mist rising off the lake made for a beautiful painting or luminograph, especially as it filtered the sun. The green trees on the shoreline made it still better.
And the birds were singing, too. Might have been something out of an AV presentation, if it weren't so live. Though some worlds did have media forms that could simulate the cool breeze and the smell of the pollen in the air.
Lessia stepped up behind and beside Emily and put her arm around the Wanderer's lower back, her hand on Emily's hip. "See what I mean?"
"It really is beautiful, you were right." Emily nodded. "I'm surprised you were able to get up this early."
"Huh? I'm usually up with first light."
"Even after that long walk, the fun we had, and the interruption in the middle of the night?"
Lessia seemed confused. "Interruption?"
Emily looked at her. "When the fire came to life?"
Lessia shook her head.
"The Sage visited us?"
"You're sure you weren't dreaming?"
Emily frowned. "Pretty sure. You got a little hypnotized, though."
"A little what? Sorry, Emily, I don't understand."
"The Sage worked a little mind magic on you, I mean," Emily clarified. "Might be why you don't remember it."
Lessia giggled and squeezed Emily from the side. "Maybe you were just having another great dream."
It had felt real enough. Certainly what he'd said about the collar made sense. Emily shrugged, looking out over the view again, scanning as much of the horizon as she could see. "No sign of a mountain out there that I can see."
"Mhmm, I think we came from over there," Lessia said, pointing back past the cabin, "and we were going north, so... Near as I can guess we're on a little peninsula out on the lake, but it goes a little further west than I wanted to check without, ah... getting dressed, at least." She crossed her arms protectively over her chest. "Branches and thorns aren't fun on sensitive skin."
"Not when you don't intend it, no," Emily replied absentmindedly.
"What?" Emily turned back towards the door. "We should probably get ready to go."
"Oh! yeah, we should." Lessia nodded agreement. "I bet we can get to the Sage's home by nightfall."
"Is it a race now?" Emily giggled.
Lessia tagged her on the bottom and ran to the door. "Last one up the mountain makes dinner!"
Emily followed behind, laughing. "Hopefully we'll be treated as guests, and not need to make our own."
"Mmm, what about breakfast, then?" Lessia slipped into the cabin.
Emily smiled. "Sure. I have some dried oats and berries, I can make some porridge."
"Sounds good, I'll get dressed, then?"
Emily dug into her pack, looking for her container of food, as Lessia gathered her dress, pulling it over her head and adjusting it to her upper body. "Where did my belt go?" she asked.
Emily pulled out the tightly-sealed box of oats. "Not really sure. It was dark, things were a bit frantic..."
"Sure, frantic, we'll call it that." Lessia lifted a strip of cloth from the floor. "Nope, that's your... chest... thing." She put it carefully on the bed. "Not sure why I'd think it was my belt, it's about three times the width."
"And the length," Emily said. "Did we check last night, are there any pots in the cupboards?"
"Huh?" Lessia replied, standing up. "Did you... hear... something?"
"No, I just asked if there were pots in the cupboard, I'd rather use the ones here if I can." Emily opened a door over the basin. "Right. Nothing."
"Did you hear that?" Lessia asked, her voice slow and airy. She started to walk towards the door.
"Hear what?" Emily closed the cupboards. "Lessia, what's wrong?"
"Hm? Nothing," Lessia replied, opening the door and walking outside without looking back.
Well I'm not chasing after her naked, Emily said to herself. But I am going after her. She moved quickly to grab her breastcloth and skirt, easily stepping into the latter and carrying the former with her as she hurried to the door.
"Lessia!" Emily called as she charged out the door. The younger woman hadn't gone far, but didn't turn back. Emily turned to the door—it was too easy to get lost in the woods. She made a sign, channelled a small bit of magic, the spell she had told Lessia about earlier, making her able to track her movement relative to the cabin.
She looked back to the woods, starting to wrap her breasts in the cloth she was carrying, and jogged in the direction she'd seen Lessia heading. It wasn't hard to catch up, Lessia was moving slowly and wasn't particularly interested in the easiest route. She managed to attach the magnetic clasp of her garment as she reached her companion's side.
"Lessia? What's going on?" Emily asked, putting a hand on the other's shoulder.
"Emily?" came the dazed reply. Lessia still didn't look back, and kept moving through the rough underbrush. "Do you hear it?"
"Hear what?" the Wanderer asked, frustrated.
There was a soft, low, almost musical tone rumbling through the woods. Not loud, not even really present, it sounded like it might be an animal cry of a sort.
"Yes," Emily replied. "I hear it. What is it?"
"Summons." Lessia kept walking forward, brushing branches out of her way almost casually.
Unconsciously, Emily's hand went to the collar around her neck. She remembered the Sage's words, as he touched the jewelry. That keeps me from influencing your mind. So maybe the horn was affecting Lessia in a way it couldn't affect Emily because of the collar.
"Lessia, is that sound doing something to you?"
Well, that was information. And certainly it wasn't the first time Emily had seen hypnotic sounds be put to use. The strange horn sounded again, noticeably louder now, and Lessia adjusted the direction she was facing before trudging off again.
"This would be easier," Emily pointed out, "if we walked back to the pathway."
"Hrm," Lessia mumbled, but kept making her way through the woods.
A moment later, the two of them walked through a batch of trees into a clearing. A small stream burbled lazily across the middle, and Emily was momentarily thankful that they hadn't approached from that angle. A few bunches of colourful flowers popped through the rocky soil here and there, along with a couple larger stones. A human shape was sitting on one of those stones, a shortish man wearing grey canvas pants and a rough brown shirt, holding some sort of bone instrument to his mouth, about ready to blow. When he saw the two women approaching, he smiled and put the object to his side.
Emily thought quickly. If it's that horn that's controlling Lessia, he's going to expect it to control me, as well. She let her hand fall and made her expression as neutral as she could.
"Well hello," the man said, sounding satisfied and self-confident. "What are your names?"
Emily imitated the dreamy tone Lessia had been using since she'd put on her dress and gave her name at the same time Lessia did.
The stranger sighed, but his smile remained. "You first. Tell me your name." He pointed to Lessia.
"Lessia," came the reply, airy and distracted.
"Emily." The Wanderer did her best to sound the same.
She must have been convincing, since the stranger didn't seem to suspect anything. "Wonderful! I haven't seen a soul since before the snow fell, and today I catch two beauties."
Catch? Emily did the math. He's a slaver? That was the most likely explanation. The Great Law made it unlikely that he was homicidal, or there would have been a hunt on for him ages ago. He'd been here in the woods for months, at least, longer than she'd been on the world; if he was killing people, that would have been noticed. Alternatively he might just be collecting people somehow, perhaps he was mentally unstable or had fallen for some doomer lore and was preparing to convert the world to a sleeper, and while Emily had to admit the possibility, the slaver explanation made more sense.
A slaver for who, was the only question. He wasn't a Grey, and they didn't outsource, which meant he was most likely working for an off-world human faction, and if he was an off-worlder... could he be another Wanderer? A Bard? He did have a musical instrument. She'd never heard of a Sage doing anything of the sort but it wasn't impossible.
So a Bard slaver, said the odds. He beckoned Lessia over, looking her up and down. "Young, a little out of shape, but you'll make an excellent specimen. What do you do now?"
"Odd jobs," Lessia replied. "Whatever's needed."
"And you? Emily? What work do you do?"
"Childcare at the manor house," she answered truthfully. A Wanderer was what she was, not what she did. It was the sort of answer someone under that kind of mind control might give, anyway.
Definitely a slaver, if he's looking for workers. Emily needed some measure of control over the situation, and she had none. If she could get her hands on the horn, she might be able to turn matters in a different direction. She certainly had the advantage in terms of surprise, but that would only work once. The fact that none of them here were equipped for a fight probably made things a lot less dangerous, although Emily didn't know what if anything the Bard might be capable of even without a weapon.
She wasn't exactly defenseless, herself, but she wasn't a fighter.
Of course, the Bard could always turn the entranced Lessia against her, which would just make things worse. And if Lessia decided to tell her to surrender, there wasn't much she'd be able to do.
"There will be a use for you both, definitely," the Bard was saying. "There's always a need for more." He walked over towards Emily.
She saw a chance. Emily lunged forward, catching the Bard completely off guard, stretching forward toward the horn in his hand. In his surprise, he turned away, so her attempt to put her shoulder in his chest missed, throwing both of them off balance. She was able, however, to get her hands on the horn and knock it from his grasp, fumbling it for a moment before she was able to get a grip on it. The Bard recovered then, and grabbed for Emily, managing only to push her forward, causing her to stumble and fall into the stream on her knees.
Use me, the horn said in her mind.
Emily scrambled to her feet, moving away from the Bard as quickly as she could. She could feel the horn—or something within it—pulling on her mind. The collar around her neck felt warm. The instrument in her hand was smooth, made of some sort of animal bone or ivory, and from what she could tell was plain and unadorned.
Use me, it said again. Control them. Sell them.
Hearing the Bard splash into the stream behind her, Emily kept moving. The horn tempted her, but that temptation was worrying in itself. The collar had to be blocking some power that the horn could apply to whoever was holding it.
Which meant that it was probably still holding sway over the rapidly-approaching Bard.
Without a second thought, Emily ran towards one of the rocks, dropping to her knees and smashing the horn down. It broke easily, and shattered violently. The voice in her mind stopped the instant contact was made.
The Bard's hand came down on her shoulder roughly. She could hear his heavy breathing behind her.
"What's... going on?" he said. His grip loosened, and his voice was less assured than it had been, more confused. "Where am I?"
"Emily?" Lessia's voice joined the Bard's. "Where are we?"
Emily let out a laugh of relief and got to her feet, still holding bits of ivory in her hands. "We're in the woods, Lessia." She showed the broken horn to the Bard. "You were being controlled by this, and using it to control others. I think you wanted to sell us for slaves."
The Bard winced. "Ugh. I should have known better. Are you two alright?"
"I ... think I'm fine?" Lessia said, putting a hand to her head. "Just... confused."
Emily looked herself over. "A couple minor cuts on my hands from smashing the horn. A little wet from falling in the stream. Nothing major." She dropped the shards of the horn and dusted off her hands. "How about you?"
"Feeling like a gullible fool, but unharmed." He sighs. "I think I owe you two an explanation."
"Would be a good start," Lessia said, carefully stepping across the stream at a narrow point. "And then maybe breakfast."
Emily's stomach rumbled. "If you have any to share..."
The Bard shrugged. "I don't know if I do or I don't. Not sure where I'm at, or even when I'm at." He looked around. "I just know that I'm not where or when I was."
"Well..." Emily thought a moment. "I had been preparing breakfast when you called to us."
"Oh right!" Lessia exclaimed. "Uh... would be great, but... where's the cabin?"
Emily grinned smugly. "I can find our way back, that's not a problem. I put a home-charm on the cabin, so I can guide us back."
"A home-charm?" the Bard asked. "You're a Wanderer?"
Emily nodded. "And you?"
He shook his head. "A Bard. You?" he turned to Lessia.
"Neither," she replied.
"She's a local," Emily explained. "Let's get to the cabin and eat. Explanations can wait."
"Sounds good." The Bard offered a hand to Emily, which she accepted. "I'm Grant."
"Great. Let's go."
It wasn't too difficult to follow Lessia's clumsy path through the underbrush. It still wasn't an easy walk, and it was mostly taken in silence, except for occasional course corrections using the home-charm where the pathway was unclear, and warnings of uncertain ground or branches about to snap back. Grant held up his end fairly well, walking between the two women and keeping the pace.
"This is where you're staying?" Grant asked as they reached the cabin.
"This is where we stayed last night," Lessia explained. "We walked up here from the manor house. It's about three hours south."
Emily opened the door. "Pardon the mess. Things are a little bit everywhere."
"You should've seen my home before..." Grant shrugged, stepping inside and bending down to unlace his boots.
Lessia gave Emily a kiss on the cheek. "I think you just saved my life," she said quietly.
Emily blushed. "We can discuss a reward later."
"So," Grant said, turning back. "What can I do to help out?"
Lessia stepped inside. "Not really sure that we need much. Emily?"
Emily followed. "Not a lot. Maybe get some water?" She walked to her pack and pulled out her half-gallon aluminum pot. "Not sure where or how we're going to actually cook anything."
"You're a Wanderer, I'm a Bard, we'll think of something." Grant lifted the pot. "This is nice."
"Got it from a Grey galley as a gift."
"Did your two years of service?"
Emily grinned. "Go get the water, we can swap stories later."
Lessia retrieved her belt from the floor, along with Emily's shirt. "You want this?" she said, holding up the garment as Grant headed out the door.
"Please." Lessia tossed the shirt and Emily caught it easily, pulling it on over her head as Lessia tied her dress.
"I think he wants you." Lessia grinned. "The shirt might help him concentrate."
"Huh. I don't read that from him."
"Did you read it from me?"
Emily snickered. "From the moment you started talking."
Lessia laughed. "Well, I didn't think that subtlety would catch your attention." She held up Emily's underwear. "Do you want these back?"
Emily shook her head. "Not right now, I'll put on a fresh pair from my pack and wash those out later." She grabbed her gear, opened the sealed box of oats she had for situations like these and looked at it critically. "I think there should be enough for the three of us."
Grant came back in with the pot. "Alright, so. We need fire."
"We do," Emily agreed. "Clever ideas?"
"You're the Wanderer. I usually stick to places where I don't need to feed myself."
Emily rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "What have you been doing the past few months?"
"That's the thing," Grant replied, putting the pot on the stove. "I haven't got a clue what I've been doing for the past few months. Or even if it's only been a few months that I've been doing it."
"Right." Emily took a breath. "Think the stove's working?"
"With what fuel?"
Emily looked at Lessia, who shrugged. "I think there's firewood out back?"
"Okay, so. Up to me." Emily bit her lip. "Been doing a lot of magic lately." She let out a breath.
"Is that a problem?" Grant asked.
Emily shook her head. "No, I just haven't had to since I got here." She put her hands on the pot. "Harban's taken good care of me, and so have the people at the manor." She focused her gaze on the water and started to concentrate, listening to the other two talk.
"My parsib," Lessia explained, watching Emily closely. "My mother's older sibling, they run the boarding house in the village."
Grant nodded. "I might have to ask for them. Seems I'm a little lost, these days."
"So what is your story, Grant?" Lessia asked, sitting down at the table.
He sighed. "Last I remember, I landed on a sleeper colony that was just starting to wake up. Met the leader, a monster of a Valusian."
"A Valusian. Oh! right! You're local. A group of people who found a way a few generations back to mix powerful sorcery with genetic engineering. Usually about eight feet tall with gleaming white skin and long wings. Painfully beautiful. Every one of them that I've met's been an awful narcissist, too."
"Alright, I think I see. So you met this Valusian..."
"Mhmm, and he asks me to find," Grant let out a another sigh, "women. Ugh, it feels gross of me even to say it. For some reason, this sleeper community was mostly made up of men, and this tall winged prick wanted breeding stock. His words."
There was a moment of silence as Emily, and (she imagined) Lessia, took in the full meaning of what he had been about to do to them.
"And then," Grant continued, "he hands me this horn. Now, I want to be clear that I have to be polite; I'm surrounded by people who tower over me, exceedingly powerful, muscular men, and I'm not much of a fighter. I have to navigate this situation very carefully, because I don't particularly want to find myself beaten and imprisoned. So, I say that I'll have to think about his offer, I touch the horn..."
"There's a voice in your head," Emily said, feeling the heat of the metal under her fingers. "An insidious, overwhelming voice. In only a moment, it had taken you over. You felt a need to indulge it, to do its bidding. Soon it was all you were thinking about, and then you weren't thinking at all. And then," she said, watching the first bubbles float up from the bottom of the pot, "you woke up here, when I broke the instrument of your possession."
"I admit to my shame that I didn't even consider that a possibility," Grant admitted. "I just wanted to get out of the room and then off-world as fast as I could. But you're absolutely right, Emily."
Emily nodded. The pot was getting very hot under her hands. "Because I heard it when I grabbed the horn from you. Fought it off long enough to, well..." The water was coming to a boil. "Lessia, can you bring me the oats?"
"Wanderers do ridiculous things," the Bard said, walking up beside her. "We could have just cut some branches, made a fire..."
Emily grinned, feeling herself starting to sweat with the effort. "Would have taken longer, and besides, got to impress the locals, right?"
Both Grant and Lessia laughed. "I'm already plenty impressed," Lessia said, bringing the oats to the side of the stove. "What do you want me to do with these?"
"Pour them in," Emily replied. Lessia complied. "Slow and easy, good, and... stop."
"How long do you have to hold the pot?" Grant asked.
"I can let go at any time, but if I do, I won't be able to touch it again without burning myself." Emily shrugged. "I normally use it just to get things started, it's faster than waiting for the fire to heat things. Lessia, in my pack is another container with dried fruit, we can throw that in to the mix. Get Grant a spoon, he can stir."
"Times like this I miss some of the more technological worlds. Cooking fire on demand is great."
"Sounds wonderful," Lessia agreed, handing a spoon to Grant behind Emily. "I've been using dried wood and roughpapers for years, and I still only get the sparks to light about once every five or six times."
Emily started giving instructions. "Grant, if you start to stir, gently—don't splash me, please—and Lessia, just calmly pour the berries into the pot..."
Grant put the spoon in the pot and carefully moved it in a slow zig-zag pattern. Lessia very carefully took handfulls of dried apple, strawberry, and blueberry, and dropped them in, keeping out of Grant's way. After a moment of that, Emily judged that there would be enough heat to finish cooking, and took her hands off the pot, gracefully stepping aside to let the other two finish preparations.
"I'll be back in a moment," she said.
Grant nodded. "Understood," Lessia said with a smile.
Emily slipped outside, walked down to the lake, and dipped her hands in the cool water. While they didn't hurt, they definitely felt uncomfortably warm. Between the storytelling and the light spell the night before, and the home charm and cooking spell that morning, she'd used more magic in the span of twenty-four hours—in eighteen hours, really—than she had the whole of her time on this world. It was a little tiring, all told. She was actually looking forward to the walk for a chance to cool down, and for someone else to talk Lessia's curious ear off.
She chuckled, still cooling her palms. Grant seemed more than up to the task. She pulled her hands out of the lake and blew on them gently. They were starting to feel much more normal. She turned back into the cabin, heading inside to join the conversation.