Update time! Comments and corrections welcome as usual.
The little arrow of pale blue light spun around its axis without being able to decide on a bearing. Aleana visibly relaxed, the arrow fading as her grip on the spell loosened. Laiva was alive, even when she couldn’t pinpoint her position. Deep down she knew she’d have known if anything had happened to her little girl, but she had had to make sure.
It was the smell that got to her. That sickly sweet stench travelling with the smell of fire. She had long passed the point where it made her stomach turn, but it still carried with it memories of things that Aleana would rather not have remembered. Slowly she continued along the road, hand rested at the hilt of her sword.
A few minutes later she was standing in front of a heap that had once been the inn. Even the roof with its massive support beams hadn’t lasted, being reduced to ashes like the rest of the house. The chimney alone had survived the brunt of the fire, many of it’s stones cracked, but still standing against the night sky like a finger raised in warning.
By the looks of it, the rumours of bandits in the area where true after all, and on top of that they had a mage among them; there was no way that fire could have been natural. In a way fire had a personality, an inherent pride – it wanted to be respected, admired. Left to its own resources it would have left reminders of its force – blackened planks, charred beams, half burned bits and pieces; the destruction of the inn, in contrast, had been complete, and, if she wasn’t completely mistaken, far too fast. Too fast to get out in time.
‘May your spirits bath in forgetfulness as your bodies continue the eternal cycle.’
Aleana felt a pang of guilt for shortening the rites like that, but she trusted the dead would understand. She simply didn’t have time to go looking for remains to bury, if there even was anything besides ashes. All that mattered now was Laiva. Somewhere out there was her little girl, on her own, with the only shelter far and wide gone. She had to find her before any bandits stumbled over her.
Her poor little Laiva. All the thing she had to go through because she had failed. Failed her. Laughed at her. She of all people should have understood. The look on her face…
Not this time. She would find her, protect her, try to make up. She could only hope Laiva would ever be able to forgive her.
Mynor jerked his eyes open and lifted his head. He let his senses wander, but there was nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard and nothing to be smelled out of the usual, but the slightly oily quality of the world around left no doubt – there was magic in the air, and plenty at that.
He looked at the child curled up against his side, but Laiva was fast sleep, her breath deep and steady. A bit too fast for her own good, but she would learn. The important bit, however, was that she hadn’t been the caster.
Seconds passed as if they were seconds – Mynor having a rather acute sense of time – without anything happening, but he wasn’t prepared to relax yet. Magic at this scale usually had repercussions.
A few more seconds later he was proven right. The distortion in the magic was huge, and it was coming from the direction of the road. Laiva on his side stirred, but didn’t wake. As exhausted as she had been, even the magical equivalent of a thunderstorm couldn’t rip her out of her sleep. Mynor wanted to jump up, get moving, but he couldn’t just leave her, could he? Not with Laiva counting on him.
Aleana dodged a fireball and a large chunk of tree trunk behind her instantly combusted. The remaining wood creaked alarmingly under the stress for a moment, then with one loud crack the wood gave in and a thousand odd years oak smashed into the ground with all the gravity that had accumulated over the years, taking with it two more trees and a ripping several branches from the others.
A few metres from the carnage Aleana rolled over her shoulder and into a crouch, still clutching the sword with her left hand; her opponent hadn’t moved, the tree missing him by inches. She refused to be impressed. For one thing, he hadn’t moved because he had been paralysed by fear – she could see it in his eyes – but that was only part of it. Mostly, however, she refused to be impressed by that much foolishness.
Nobody in his right mind would have risked a spell like that once, for the fear of backfiring, but this boy, hardly dry behind the ears, was throwing fireballs around by the dozen. Besides, he was wielding his magic like a sledgehammer; no variety, no finesse, no style and a complete lack of proportion. She started to get the impression he only knew that one spell.
Aleana did a jump start, unfolding like a spring from her crouched position and took cover behind a tree; another fireball hitting the spot a split second later. This was getting tedious, but it was meant to. It might have been years since she picked her sword up, but it hadn’t been idle years, and her patience had, if anything, increased. Children did that to you, and Laiva, while not being difficult, could be rather trying sometimes; she couldn’t quite picture this wannabe mage talking her daughter out of keeping a rat for a pet. Not that he’d ever get a chance to lay his hands on her; she would see to that.
A tremor passed through the tree she had chosen for cover as yet another fireball smashed against it, streams of boiling hot air passed Aleana to the left and right. Hitting the tree in front of her? What was that supposed to achieve? Never mind, it was time to act.
The oak slowly tilted and then, with a snap, it crashed into the ground, away from her and towards the mage, who, this time, had taken a few steps back. The more surprised he was when something suddenly jerked at his ankle and he lost his footing. He just managed to look down his leg and notice the faint tinkle of an expended spell before he hit the ground; the next and last thing he saw was Aleana, trusting the tip of her sword into his heart.
She pulled it out of the limp body and wiped the blade clean on his clothes, before sheathing it carefully. This wasn’t quite what she had in mind, but in the end the result was the same: The bandits wouldn’t get Laiva in their fingers.
It had been bad luck paired with an evident lack of skill that had costs the bandits their lives. Bad luck that they had decided to waylay the road tonight and a lack of skill in waylaying. She had spotted the sentries way before they noticed anything, and then it had already been too late. Only the mage had given her a bit of trouble, having decided to turn around at just the wrong moment.
Aleana let her eyes wander, taking in the destruction around her. She didn’t relish in taking lives, but it was probably for the best. The magic fire had been too fast and too punctual to start any forest fires, but sooner or later it would have happened, and then it would not just have been Laiva’s and her life on the line, but all villages in the Southern Forest as well.
Without wasting time on death rites Aleana turned away and backtracked her way to the road. Some performed the rites to prove to the world and themselves how good a person they were, some did them for fear of the dead’s wrath, but to Aleana the only reason had always been showing her respects and these bandits didn’t deserve them. She had better things to do.