Chapter 80: Gutted

Raviva offered to guide us out of the caves. Which was great, seeing as how we had no idea of the real layout of the place, but it was hard not to be suspicious of his motives. With trolls, you could never tell what was for real and what was the nexthilariousprank. When Jespert had warned us about trolls having terrible sense of humour, he hadn’t been kidding.

We set off with Raviva at the front and a couple of trolls bringing up the rear. Kaceyton also accompanied us, chatting with Flossie about favourite songs and swapping dance moves. They had become quite good friends, which could prove to be useful later. Or it could be our downfall. Paranoid? You betcha. Not until we were back in the outside world did I intend to let my guard down.

“It’s been some time since we had such an intense match,” said Raviva as he led us through a maze of tunnels. “Shame we couldn’t keep going,” he leaned towards me, which made me flinch, and whispered loud enough to give my hair a new parting, “but Kaceyton’s always been an emotional girl.”

Kaceyton was female. You’d be hard pressed to tell her apart from the males (assuming the others were male), but I didn’t say that out loud. I doubted troll women were any less sensitive than human ones when it came to being told they looked like men.

“It’s so hard finding decent competitors these days,” mused Raviva. “That’s why I was so pleased you were sent to us. Fresh meat is the best meat!”

Did he meant the figuratively or literally? Probably both.

“Are you saying the zombers sent us into the tunnels knowing this would happen?” I asked him.

“Who? Oh, you mean the zombies.” Trolls weren’t too bothered about political correctness, it seemed. “Of course. Normally they send two of their own, but you were sent in their stead. To be honest with you, they rarely pose much of a challenge. Oh they try their best, I mean they have to or everyone they know and love will be killed, but they aren’t the most athletic of people.”

Yes, I thought, everyone they know and love would be killedby you.

“So by sending us, they saved themselves?”

“Such is our agreement. We allow them to live in the crypt above as long as they provide us with contestants on a regular basis.”

After a nerve racking half-an-hour of wondering if he was leading us into another trap, we finally came to a large cave with an exit to the outside world. We were all very relieved to feel fresh air on our faces. Raviva remained in the mouth of the cave and waved us off.

“Come back when you fancy a real challenge!” he called after us.

Yeah. No chance.

Kaceyton led the trolls in a heartfelt rendition of ‘I love bad bitches…’ as we walked out into the bright sunshine. There were no more horrible surprises. The trolls turned out to be gracious in defeat, although I’m not sure that made up for them being homicidal maniacs.

There was a large meadow ahead of us and a forest beyond that. I knelt down and put my ear to the ground. I could hear the distant thrum of the lizardmen still on the move.

Raviva had pointed us in the direction of Dargot with assurances we wouldn’t encounter any lizardmen on the way, but I wanted to make sure. After every hour of walking I put my ear to the ground again to make sure the sound was getting further away, not nearer. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he sent us directly into the midst of the lizard army just for the lulz.

We proceeded carefully, everyone on full alert. It wasn’t until we hit the main road and found it completely deserted that I was able to relax a little.

“I can’t believe Jespert betrayed us,” said Claire.

I could. Sacrificing us to protect his own people made total sense. Although, agreeing to the arrangement in the first place was pretty cold. Knowingly sending two of your people to their deaths can’t have been easy. Mind you, if I had to make that kind of choice I already had a couple of names on my list.

“I thought he was so nice and helpful, but he was just using us.”

“He was never nice or helpful,” I said. “You just saw him the way you wanted.” I didn’t mean it as a criticism of her, just a statement of fact.

“If you knew he was deceiving us, why didn’t you say something?” Claire asked in a needlessly aggressive tone.

“I didn’t know. I’m saying it didn’t matter if he was nice or not. He made us an offer and we took him up on it because why would he lie? And now we know why. His personality had nothing to do with it.”

“It was still a shitty thing to do.”

True, but it was also very useful, for me at least. Next time I got into it with Claire, I could say, “Remember what happened with Jespert?” and argument over. Nice to have in my back pocket.

Mandy, who had been watching me like a hawk ever since we had won our freedom, walked up next to me and said, “Do you have some kind of special device that allows you to heal?” She’d obviously been giving it some thought.

“Something like that.” There didn’t seem any point trying to deny it, but I didn’t want to reveal any more than I had to and tried to cut the conversation short.

“Let me see it.”

“No.”

“How does it work?”

“Let it go, Mandy.”

“Then show me.”

“No.” And so on. She also tried getting answers from the others but they simply shrugged and stammered incoherently. Sometimes it pays to be a social misfit (not very often, though).

Eventually she stopped asking, but from the look on her face I could tell she had no intention of letting it go. It was my own fault for making it so obvious. I would have to be more careful in future if I didn’t want people finding out.

The road to Dargot was long and straight, with nothing on the horizon. We had been in this position before and it was just a matter of keeping going until we got there. Our only real problem would be food and water. We had some supplies left, but water in particular would run out soon.

This was solved a few hours into our journey. A sign by the side of the road pointed into the forest. On the sign it said ‘WATER’ in the squiggly script that almost felt like normal words now.

On the one hand it could be a trap, on the other hand it could be a service to travellers. On the third hand (fantasy world, bound to be some creature with more than two hands) we were thirsty.

We followed the sign and were rewarded by a large pool of water. It tasted clean and fresh, possibly a spring. Everyone felt better after a drink and a wash. There was some childish splashing about and more noise than was sensible, but it was nice to act carefree for once, even if it was only for a few minutes.

It was quite late in the day so it made sense to make camp, but I insisted we move away from the water, deeper into the forest. There was some grumbling at this as there seemed no reason not to set up camp where we were, but if this was a regular watering spot then more people might come along, and I didn’t want any more weird encounters. Better to be a little more circumspect and let others go about their business.

Once we’d sorted out the tents and started a fire, Maurice decided to do some fishing. I had a word with him about not being too obvious when using magic—Mandy would have had a conniption if she saw him standing in glowing water with fish jumping into his arms.

He waded out into the middle of the water and stood there with spear raised over his head. His balance, his posture, his general air of confidence were all completely different to the awkward geek I’d met on the first day here.

No, I’m still not gay.

Do fish live in spring water? The answer turned out to be yes. Using the spearing technique Pitt had taught us, and some subtle fish-calling magic, he managed to snag half-a-dozen fish.

Gutting and cleaning the fish was handled quickly and with little fuss. This part of our new life, where we were able employ basic survival techniques that would have been completely unimaginable back home, was very satisfying.

The mood improved even more after eating, which made me nervous. When things start going well it can only mean disaster is just around the corner. A fairly miserable way to look at life, I agree, but then you don’t have my life. Nature was great when it wasn’t trying to murder you.

Mandy still had her eyes on me, which was annoying, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Once we got to Dargot, I’d be glad to see the back of her.

Even I managed to relax a little as I sat by the fire with no immediate threat of death looming over us. And then I tensed up again at the sound of horses.

There was some neighing, some snorting, a couple of voices. Sending a couple of people to investigate would have been the smart thing to do. Obviously, that wasn’t what we did. We all sneaked through the undergrowth towards the water, about as inconspicuously as a herd of bison across the Serengeti. Oh, but bison don’t live in Africa. Exactly.

Fortunately, there were only two men watering their horses and they weren’t being particularly observant of their surroundings. From their uniforms they appeared to be soldiers, although the livery was different from the one worn by the guards in Fengarad.

“Do you think they’re from Dargot?” Maurice whispered beside me.

“Could be,” I said. “I think they’re just passing through. Let’s just ignore them.”

Mandy squeezed in between us. “What? Why?”

“Keep your voice down.” I tried to speak calmly and keep my voice neutral, but it was hard to not sound irritated. Because she was fucking irritating.

“Why can’t we go talk to them? They’re people, not monsters.”

“I know. That’s the problem. We don’t know what kind of people they are, and since we don’t really need anything right now, why tempt fate? No biggie.”

“Yes biggie,” said Mandy. “They might be able to give us information, maybe help us get to Dargot quicker. Even if they start trouble, there’s seven of us and two of them.”

Nothing she said was wrong, but that didn’t mean it was a good idea. Unnecessary risk is unnecessary.

“I’m going to go talk to them.” Mandy started to stand up.

I grabbed her arm and pulled her back down. “Wait.”

She glared at me. “What happened to, ‘I don’t tell people what to do, they can make their own choices’?

Damn it, she had me there.

“You can. Talk to them all you want, just don’t tell them about us or give away any more information than you have to.”

“Thanks for the advice. I think I can handle a couple of boys.” She smiled sarcastically at me and got to her feet.

We all remained hidden as she walked out. “Hello? Hi there.”

The two men turned around, startled, then relaxed when they saw it was only a girl. She strolled over and within a few seconds the three of them were chatting away like old friends.

Part of me hoped she’d get on the back of one their horses and they’d all fuck off together, but her stuff was back at the camp and my luck wasn’t that good.

To be honest, she was right. The likelihood of these guys posing a threat to us was minimal. Even if they were great swordsmen, we could keep them at bay with arrows and it was hard to think of a reason for them to attack us in the first place.

My thoughts were interrupted by a scream. I looked up to see one of the soldiers pull his sword out of Mandy’s stomach, with an accompanying gush of blood. Mandy slumped to the ground and both men jumped on their horses and hightailed it out of there.

It happened so quickly it didn’t register at first. I looked across at Maurice who was looking at me with a puzzled expression. I turned to the others, all of whom were bouncing around looks of bafflement.

“Shouldn’t we help her?” said Maurice. And then everyone rushed out.

Mandy was lying in a pool of blood, opening and closing her mouth without making any noise. Claire knelt next to her and tried to staunch the blood flowing out of the large gash in her midriff. Everyone crowded around trying to help but not really knowing what to do.

Seeing the life slowly drain out of Mandy was a strangely frightening experience. She was an annoying bitch, but what could she have said to those soldiers to make them do this? A chill ran down my arms and a feeling of ‘glad that isn’t me’ sat at the front of my mind.

I’m not saying that kind of thinking is anything to be proud of, I’m just trying to describe it honestly. I also couldn’t help but think, I bet she’s pissed I was right again.

“Do something,” Claire yelled at me.

I snapped out of my reverie and knelt down next to Mandy. I placed my hands over her wound. She screamed.

“What… What are you… Stop.” Her voice was weak and her body bucked and writhed under my hands. The others grabbed her and held her down. I pressed down harder and my hands began to glow.

It took a lot longer than any of the previous times I had healed someone. After about ten minutes, the blood stopped seeping out between my fingers. After twenty, I raised my hands and the wound was gone.

Mandy sat up, gasping for air, pale and sweaty. She looked down at herself and patted the exposed skin. She was smeared with blood, but other than that there was no sign of the gash. Not even a scar.

She turned to face me, her eyes searching mine. She seemed to want to say something. An apology? An expression of gratitude?

“You… you lying sack of shit!”

Damn. I could have pretended to heal her and let her die. Why does the answer always come five minutes after you needed it?

I stood up and felt dizzy. My hands were dripping with blood. They looked quite horrific. The weird smell and metallic taste in the back of my throat weren’t so great, either.

“You can do magic, can’t you?” shouted Mandy. “Answer me!”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I did the next best thing. I fainted.

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