A Dragon’s Curiosity

Chapter 34

Chapter 34: Entering Blackquarry

The carriage was steadily advancing alongside the forest line, slowly getting away from the endless rows of tent, trying to avoid drawing any unwanted attention to itself.

Some scouts were bound to be scrutinizing the surroundings of the besieged [Blackquarry] at all times, however a single rider accompanying a cart probably wouldn’t make the enemy suspect something.

Nisha was still in awe in front of the unthinkable amount of humans packed in the same area, the possibility of their existence alone being far beyond her comprehension abilities.

“How many people are there? Do you know, Luthais?”

Addressing the experienced half-elf, she wanted to know more about the incredible situation.

“Two army camps … I guess about twenty thousand soldiers, with the support personnel it might amount up to thirty thousand in total. A typical camp needs smiths, healing priests, cooks, tailors, quartermasters, scouts and so on… walking barefooted or with an empty stomach would on the long term be as fatal as a sword or an arrow to the common footsoldiers.”

Thanks to the numerous reports he had done and received in the royal army, and the his experience in organizing expeditions, Luthais had become very skilled in the assessment of numbers, it had thus necessitated him less than five seconds to scan the tents and the nearby scattered armed silhouettes, giving an answer nearly inconceivable for the dragon.

A group of one hundred monsters would be among the largest ones in the Wilderness, but the half-elf had just casually mentioned a number several times larger than she had ever seen, far too huge for Nisha to fathom.

Staring at the army, her eyes wide open so she wouldn’t miss a single detail, she was committing the scene to her memory forever: the terrain was going slightly upwards toward the city proudly standing on a hill, seemingly mocking and provoking the soldiers below, buzzing in a camp that looked like a giant ant hill.

Thirty thousand humans. Thirty thousand. How much do they eat? How do they get along? I don’t think I have ever seen a thousand of anything but plants before, much less thirty thousand…

As part of the  lectures instructed by Eldrin in the cottage, she had been taught arithmetic and calculations, allowing her to understand how the concept of several thousand could exist, yet a visual overview was completely different from some numbers on a paper.

Circling around the camp in the early morning, a milky-white mist obscuring their position,  Nisha finally got informed about the plan that the half-elf and the sergeant had designed the previous day.

The army was most likely settling in the area at the south-east of the city; and as the siege had already lasted for three quarters of the turn, they had made a good use of the remnants of the fortifications still in place when they came back.

“Don’t talk that loudly, we can’t afford to be discovered now. I was saying, we will ride through the forest, but sadly the path we are currently on connects to the road where the army camps, so we can’t take go straight, we will have to ride off road.

There’s another road that connects [Blackquarry] to the capital on the north side of the hill, it’s mainly used by merchants and it leads directly to the second gate of the city, there might be a chance for us to enter before the Terus army notices us or takes action.

But we will need to cross a stretch of open field before we can arrive at the gate, so hopefully the enemy scouts won’t expect an attempt to breach their lines in the middle of the day; if that works like that we will be able to slip in before they send anyone after us.”

Lydia whispered the plan, holding Nisha’s hand, struggling to maintain a calm demeanor in appearance, despite the dread induced by the prospect of going against an army of thirty thousand. Affected by the state of mind of her older sister, the dragon girl squeezed her hand to reassure her.

Distracted by the idea of traveling in a huge mass of humans and the immediate threat of a hostile army, Nisha used her free hand to play with the coin hanging around her neck on a chain, when suddenly a thought struck her.

“I think I can help us to conceal ourselves. I don’t know how useful it can be, but it might work…”

Speaking to no one particularly, the low murmur caught Sergeant Rivers’ attention, he looked at her, an interested gleam in his eyes, driving his horse closer to the carriage.

“What might work?”

His inquiry wasn’t contemptuous, it was just pure curiosity in her statement and her means to back it.

During his service in the army, he had often braved danger and fought beasts more than once in expeditions into the Wilderness, but no soldier would just refuse a possible way to avoid a fight with armed and dangerous fighters, be it beasts with natural armor, sword-like claws and magical abilities, or people of his kind, humans even crueler than creatures killing to stay alive.

If Nisha really had another idea to help them infiltrate the city, the sergeant would not be one to reject her offer without listening to her.

“You see, I have kinda invented an enchantment, I call it [Flickering Cover]. I wanted to give enchanting a try when I was still living in with my grandfather, it’s a fire-based spell, probably of the first or second rank.

It’s carved on this coin too, I can show you what it does.”

Circulating her fire mana, she supplied the coin with energy to activate the spell, spreading a warm feeling in her hand first, and then  down her limbs, finally sealing her whole body in a layer of dancing fire mana, flickering through the air, and obscuring her appearance.

Exclaiming in surprise, the sergeant stared at the young prodigy in wonder, Lydia blinking several times, trying to see through the hex wide-eyed, she was still squeezing Nisha’s hand but couldn’t see her anymore.

The commotion prompted Luthais to stop the carriage and turn around, his eyebrows creasing down in discontent, the clamor was endangering them all.

“What’s going on? You know we have to stay low key, even I can’t win against several thousands of soldiers by myself. And where’s Nisha?”

Annoyed by the noisy interruption, the half-elf scowled at the perspective of the potential delay the young beast girl would generate if she was up to some mischief again.

“I’m right here! You said I shouldn’t wander off and that we have to stay here so I did what you told me to!”

Grandpa never scolded me like that. I did everything I was supposed to do, this is unfair.

Cutting off the mana supply to her amulet, the protective armor of warm energy faded, revealing her figure to the bystanders.

Feeling slighted to have been reprimanded for something she had not done, Nisha was about to pout when Luthais’ surprised her by his reaction.

“What the …!”

Usually a calm and collected man, the half-elf was appearing to be an upright and strict person, definitely not prone to violent outbursts; but that rigorous person was about to loudly curse, giving her the strange yet gratifying feeling that a particularly mischievous prank had succeeded.

Satisfied by the various reactions, Nisha explained her enchantment to her captivated audience.

“Like I said, it’s a spell I call [Flickering Cover]. By feeding my amulet mana, a sphere of mana spreads out to hide the user, it’s like hiding in the shadow between a flickering candle, it prevents people from concentrating on one’s emplacement. I can’t explain it very well.”

Happy to have someone to whom she could boast about her enchantment, she continued to show off by handing the pendant to Annabelle, who looked at the coin like a sacred treasure.

For an aspiring magician, an original charm was hard to come by, it was even rarer to see someone willing to explain how the particular spell worked. Knowing her little sister, she was sure that she’d be willing to detail the the curiosity’s functions, giving her a chance to learn it as well.

Luthais was also looking at the little girl  with a newfound respect; as a noble and a powerhouse of the seventh rank, he had met people exercising the profession of enchanter, and though  most of the various services these tradesmen were providing were fairly common, unique enchantments could also be seen from time to time, they were fetching a high price, and bringing great fame to their inventors.

“This flickering … cover? Did you create it on your own? Not that I don’t believe you, but no one I know has ever designed a whole spell before.”

This time the question did not offend her, rather it was flattering to know that she had achieved something extraordinary.

Due to the death of her grandfather, Nisha never had the chance to share her discovery with her family, and the attention they were currently paying to her made her feel elated and happy, being able to use it in the plan would just be the cherry on the cake.

Grandpa would be so proud of me too … I wish he was here, I miss him so much.

“Yes, I was learning enchanting from grandpa and he encouraged  me to explore the subject on my own. I think I can enchant the carriage with my [Flickering Cover] but we will need much more mana than I can provide to keep it active, and someone with a higher mana rank than me could see through it, it’s not perfect after all.”

Being completely honest about the strengths and weaknesses of her technique, Nisha revealed her secret quite readily, explaining how the enchantment would require more mana the more space it had to cover, and that someone with a higher proficiency in mana would probably easily spot them in spite of the enchantment; showing a great amount of trust – or foolishness – to her comrades.

“I think I can draw the runes on the carriage quite easily, but it will be difficult to do it on the horse.”

The [Flickering Cover], though it had spectacular effects, still fell in the realm of the first or second rank spells, the corresponding  preparations would not delay the plans of the party too much.

“Why didn’t you mention it yesterday evening when we were thinking of what we should do to get into the city? This would have been a great help.”

Disappointed to have never heard of such an outstanding spell before, Annabelle inquired from her little sister.

There’s no way I can admit that I wasn’t listening. But what can I say?

Thankfully someone else came to her rescue.

“It doesn’t matter right now. We would be foolish to disregard the opportunity Nisha has given us. How long does it take for you to set up the spell?

I will ride the horse, give me your medaillon please.”

Unwilling to waste anymore time, the half-elf quickly handled the situation, asking the girl under his care about the method she had in mind.

“I just need to keep supplying mana to the spell for it to last, right?”

Getting busy right away, Nisha took out a familiar bag scribbled with countless runes from the cargo space, the tools it contained had been laying around in the cottage, and as no one had claimed them she had taken them for herself. For anyone but an enchanter, they were pretty much useless anyway.

She first carved a quick set of runes onto the wood behind the driver’s seat, and finished the whole spell within a candle, as the morning fog was starting to fade slowly.

As a final test, the sergeant had to ride slightly away from them while the three women poured all the mana at their beckon into the circle designed for this purpose.

The test could be called a success, Sergeant Rivers described the carriage as a ‘blurry distortion in the air, similar to the flicker of heat on a hot summer day’.

All arrangements done, the party readied themselves to bravely conquer the final stretch to the north gate, more than one heart pounding violently imagining the terrible things the enemy army would do to them if they were discovered.

Unceremoniously the last ride of the day started, Luthais on the horse while Brandon was sitting on the cart’s driver’s seat, the three girls behind him, one hand touching the small circle in the middle of the cargo space. No last announcement, only a single carriage escorted by a lone rider suddenly vanishing from sight, and a strange transparent haze advancing towards a wall of stone, hoping to avoid the prying eyes of a scout skilled in the mana or aura ways that would lead them straight in the manly embrace of a sweaty army.

Said like that, it sounded simple.

Driving in silence, the plains seemed especially tranquil, each cicada’s song or grass rustle  sounding like the trumpet call of the enemy discovering them and giving chase. The weather was particularly vicious with the paranoid group, seemingly mocking them, the bright rays of the sun pouring down on them, changing every polished surface into a possible light signal giving away their position; the soft wind moving the grass blades at the best intensity to brilliantly spread any noise to echo over the open fields; not a cloud on the horizon to cast a shadow that would increase the odds of them arriving safely at the gates by obscuring the party.

The simple action of doing nothing and wait to be discovered soon turned into a nerve wrecking trial; every brush or ditch on their way became the hiding place of a scout they’d stumble upon.

Struggling to keep the protective screen up, Nisha did not have time to observe further away than her immediate surroundings, casting the spell on something else than herself turning out to be a taxing experience, quickly draining her large pool of mana.

The first person to withdraw from the supplying team was Lydia, her first mana rank not providing her with much mana to spare, leaving Annabelle and Nisha alone.

Anna doesn’t seem to be able to last much longer either. I wonder what is Luthais’ mana rank, he didn’t tell me. Probably a lot higher than me anyway.

Halfway between the edge of the forest and the north gate, the oldest girl’s mana was depleted too, and the spell started to dangerously waver as it was only supported by Nisha. It had soon devoured her remaining energy. They were in plain view.

Throwing an alarmed glance at her two sisters, yet refusing to speak up, the nervousness reached the dragon girl, she was repeating the scary number, thirty thousand soldiers, again and again in her head, ultimately spooking her.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. Just run!”

Appearing next to them, Luthais ordered them to race to the gates, kicking his horse in the sides to follow the former carriage riders.

If trying to sneak around the enemy had harshly tested their courage, rushing in plain sight required nerves of steel, withstanding the absolute horror of imagining oneself under the watch of thirty thousand eyes was no joke at all.

The silence of the open sky seemed to scream at them, deafening their ears to any other sound but the hoarse whisper of the wind, their heavy breathing and the loud noise of their feet hitting the ground, carrying them closer to their goal.

Luck seemed to be on their side, as they were at the city’s entrance when they heard the blaring sound of an alarm signal echoing behind them.

Sprinting to the doors of the closed gate, Luthais glanced wearily a few times over his shoulder, and Nisha was gawking in front of the large man-made walls.

She had beheld them from afar, but standing beneath the humongous building didn’t convey the same impression.

The dragon girl knew what a defensive wall was, yet this was the first time she was seeing one, and the fortification seemed to be more than ten to twelve times taller than herself.

How do they even stack up stones when it’s so high? Where did all the materials come from? Humans are so resourceful…

For a moment, the pursuers behind them were forgotten as she stared in wonder at the monument to the greatness of human spirit… until the war cry of the small division sent to capture them reached her ears, Luthais shouting at the city guards on the wall in response.

“Open up! This is Marshall Dharnas, quickly open up and let us in!”