Author's Note: This was a "Holiday Special" I wrote to feature one of the OCs of Equation. It takes place a few months after Mia returns to Vane. There are no spoilers.
It was a warm spring, which made the close quarters and lack of facilities a bit more bearable, but even so Artie would have preferred something with an honest to Goddess roof instead of the thin fabric tents everyone was forced to share. Could be worse, she reminded herself time and again, it could be winter. While spring brought with it warm days and tolerable nights, it also brought bloodflies the size of sparrows. She swatted at another of the annoying insects, feeling a grim satisfaction at the soft splat it made between her palm and neck. She looked over to the small rod of smoldering wax, wrinkling her nose. Give it to Robin to come up with something that smells like a burning cesspool to ward the little blood-suckers off. She swatted again, missing this time. Now if it would only work as well as it smells bad!
Progress had been slow, but not as slow as it could have been, in many ways they had been incredibly lucky in finding most of the larger buildings foundations still intact. A little bent here and there to be sure, but still better than she had expected when she first set eyes on the ruins of what had been Vane. The wall that Mia had ordered built around the city was starting to actually look like one, and the rubble of fallen buildings inside the city had finally been fully cleared, allowing new foundations to be poured and old ones repaired. Artie attributed some of this success to the mild winterand a more than a few weather control spells from Nash. This had been the first spring she had ever seen without the normal sudden freezes or downpours. In fact, she could get used to weather like this if it wasnt for all the damn work.
There werent many problemsthe only invaders to speak of it were stray animals looking for food, and those blasted bloodflies, she grumbled to herself as she swatted at what she hoped was the last one still alive inside the tent. Sometimes things would disappear from the supply tent, but the losses had been minor so it wasnt a major cause for concern, since Artie was pretty sure the night watchmen were to blame, it was one of those unwritten rules that those stuck with the graveyard shift were permitted certain liberties so long as they fulfilled their duties otherwise.
Still, while the discomforts of camping annoyed some, she was not one of those people. If she could have had one wish it would have been for better workers, but she was stuck with the men she had. Men. She was sure that was part of the problem, and being the only female (besides Mia) didnt help. While most of the workers respected her, a few didnt, and their rudeness and banter would aggravate her to no end. The workers Mel was paying to build the wall were the worst. She just hoped they would finish their job soon and go home.
Mia was another problem. Prior to her arrival, Artie had the luxury of having her own tent, her own space. The Guildmaster refused any accommodations that would give her any special privileges, and such, wound up staying with the engineer. At first, Artie figured shed last a week and then run back to the comforts of Meribia, but was wrong. Mia didnt complainnot even onceabout camping, which was more than could be said for some of the workers. While that (and her joining forces with the Dragonmaster not even a year prior) had earned her some credit, the question remained as to what kind of leader the shy little girl who never took classes with the rest of school would turn out to be.
The night Artie saw Mia in action started out like any other, but ended with the engineer finally conceding she (and probably everyone else) had been wrong about the prim Guildmaster. It had been a hard dayfourteen hours of work, and everyone was tired. They had eaten a hasty and only half-cooked dinner and decided to go to bed early. Artie went back to her tent, hoping to get some drawings done by lamplight before giving in to her exhaustion.
Sitting down at the makeshift desk, she unfurled the one she had started the night before which was an elevation drawing of the new Guild Manor Ive got my work cut out for me on this one, it has to be special something even more impressive than the original. She wasnt sure how long she worked, but it didnt matter. This needed to be done. Her concentration was broken sometime later by the inane giggling of two very familiar voices just outside the tent. She knew who they were, and tried to ignore them, but it didnt workit just got worse.
She flung open the tent flap and glared at them. The half-dozen sarcastic comments running thru her mind were, with reluctance, squashed as she cleared her throat to let the two know they had an audience. Majesty, I have some drawings done if youre not too busy to look at them.
Mia smiled and pulled herself away from Nash just enough to lead him into the tent. Artie rolled her eyes. They were so inseparable that it made her sick. The worst part of having the Guildmaster around, though, was the fact that since they were the only two females in the camp, Artie was forced to give up half of her tent. She had offered to move some men around and make sure that Mia would have her own, pointing out all the advantages having her own tent would offer and dropping several less than subtle suggestions about privacy and her own tendency to snore loudly. But the mage refused, insisting she didnt want special treatment and that she was here to help, not to be pampered. So as much as Artie didnt want a roommate, she was stuck with one.
Artie handed Mia the drawings and began explaining what each was; floor plans for the second and third floors, and finally the elevation she still had on the board. The Guildmaster gave some words of praise and beamed in excitement as she showed the blueprints to Nash. Artie was exhausted, so at that moment, she announced she was going to bed, and lay down for some well-deserved rest.
Artie climbed into her bedroll and pulled it up over her head as the two of them whispered to each other, inter-spaced by giggles and the soft sound of kisses. The engineer closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. A few well-executed fake snores finally sent Nash on his way. Some nasty words came to mind, but she didnt have audacity nor the strength to use them.
She had been asleep no more than an hour when something or someone started shaking her shoulders. Opening her eyes, she was face to face with Mia. What!?
Artemus could you come out with me?
Artie nodded, knowing full well what the woman wanted. This little scene was nothing new; it was a favor they had both asked of each other from time to time. Secretly, she was happy to have Mia around for this exerciseshe hated having to take one of the guards or, worse yet, workmen with her.
While the only anticipated threat out of doors at night were wild animals, it was always best to be prepared. So, silently, Mia picked up her staff, Artie grabbed her crossbow and a few extra bolts, and they left.
They walked a few strides into the woods west of the clearing where their camp was set, found a bush that was tall enough to hide them from the back, and Artie turned around to stand guard. It wasnt too far, and she could still see their tents. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at all. She heard Mia finish her business and swung the crossbow up against her shoulder.
Something grabbed her. It must have come from a tree above, whatever it was, it grasped onto her shoulders hard enough to throw her face down to the ground. She heard Mia mumbling behind her, and pushed herself up on her hands. Turning her head, she saw creature that resembled a human but had green skin, red eyes, and strange, draconic wings holding its clawed hand over the other womans mouth, while wrestling away her staff.
Artie snatched her crossbow rolled onto her back, pointing the weapon at the monster, or whatever it was. It stared at her, and then gave a cry, something like a bat. The next thing she knew, another animal swooped down and took the weapon right out of her grasp. She got to her feet and looked at the fresh wound on her hand. It stung, but she knew shed live.
The creature holding Mia gave a little smirk, but wasnt ready for what the Guildmaster would do next. Artie watched in disbelief as the woman stomped on the bizarre talon-looking foot of her captor. As it winced in pain, she wriggled out of grip, and turned around to face it. She quickly whispered a few words, crossed her fingers and the would-be kidnapper was struck with a large dagger of ice.
It reeled backwards, but didnt seem to be very injured. As the women took off running, it let out another cry for help. They managed to make it only fifty or so yards into a clearing and stopped to get their bearings. Without warning, a whole army of the green creatures surrounded themcoming out of trees and from the sky. Artie had to guess there were at least twenty, maybe more.
To Arties surprise, Mia growled, and started giving orders that were meant to be followed. Stand with your back to mine!
The engineer didnt even question the command. Another spell and a sheet of ice erupted from the ground encasing the two of them. That should deter many of them, but some might make it through. Hit them with whatever you got!
I dont have a weapon!
Use your body! Just anything!
Although the ice wall clouded her vision of what lay outside of it, Artie could see more of the creatures coming. Mia must have seen it as well, and cast another spell. Giant balls of flame dropped from the sky, struck the enemies, and then formed themselves into pillars of fire to do more damage.
It didnt seem to be doing much good. Mia tried something elsea ball of ice exploded into millions of tiny daggers. Amazingly, the creatures took the hits of the magic without getting hurt much at all.
Mia sworeout loud even. They are resistant to my elements! I cant cast anything else without a staff! She made another protective sheet of ice, since the other had started to give way.
Both of them!? Even Artie knew that it was a rarity that even a Guildmaster of Vane be able to innately control more than one type of magic.
Mia took a deep breath, although she seemed quite calm, given the situation. Im going to try to call for help. It will take me a moment, so if one of them breaks through the ice, youll have to fight them back.
Artie nodded, and readied herself. She had never been in battle before. She decided shed rather spend months slaving over a building and having it collapse on her than do this ever again. She looked to her side; whatever Mia was doing, it required her to close her eyes and whisper to herself while keeping a hand on the side of her head. Artie silently prayed whomever she was talking to would get the message and come quickly.
Just as Mia finished her spell (or whatever it was) the barrier around them shattered, and judging by the force that slammed against it, there was no getting out of this mess. More of the green creatures surrounded them, each step closer making Artie more and more frightened. Mia didnt seem phased. She stood still and seemed to be listening to their attackers. Whatever language they were speaking, it made no sense, but one word was unmistakableAusa.
Artie followed the lead of the Guildmaster and froze in her tracks. The creatures slipped ropes on each of Mias hands and then did the same to her. They pulled them taught, but not tight, and then tied her wrist to Mias so they were forced to march in tandem. Eight of the beasts positioned themselves two on either side to hold the ropes, two in front and two in back. The rest followed as they were led deeper into the woods.
Mia must have sensed her fear. Dont worry Artemus. If they had wanted to kill us, they would have done so already.
Artie nodded, but kept silent. Not only was she terrified, but also she noticed that the trees seemed to move, covering their tracks. Either that, or her mind was so tired it was playing tricks on her.
Finally, after a good hour or so of walking, they came to another clearing. The creatures seemed to get excited as soon as they stopped. Wings flapped, cries were madeand all Artie could think was that they were going to sacrifice her and Mia in some sick ritual. She closed her eyes to pretend it wasnt happening, but it was no useit wasnt a dream.
Mia turned to her, I sense magic here. Artie nodded. As inept as she was, she felt it, too.
A sphere of light came out from behind the trees they were facing and began to revolve and expand in front of them. Artie held her breath, but before she could exhale, a strike of lightning exploded overhead and then spiked out to hit their eight escorts. This time the magic worked, and it worked well. The kidnappers shrieked in fear at the sight of what appeared to be their weakness, and when it hit, fell to the ground, bodies charred.
The rest of the group began to scatter, running in fear of their lives. She knew who it was; Mia knew who it was, and they both smiled.
Nash rode into the clearing, sitting astride his large bay bareback without even so much as a bridle. He was just controlling it with the halter and rope he tied the animal up with at night. He shouted to them, Get over here! Quick!
Mia slipped the rope off her wrist and then removed it from Artie as well. They started to run towards him but just inches away, one of the demons flew behind him and knocked him off the horse, sending him hurling a few yards from where they were standing. Not knowing what else to do, the engineer grabbed the rope, and then pat the animal on the neck.
The creature tackled Nash, biting, scratching and shrieking at him the entire time. Artie watched in shock as Mia kicked the beast, screaming at it to get away, but it wouldnt. The Guildmaster tried a spell, but it didnt stop the crazed demonfor whatever reason, perhaps because its friends had been killed by the mageit wasnt giving up.
And then the light flashed.
A brilliant, warm yellow gold glow immersed them, and the creature flew away. Mia fell down to the ground near Nash and shook him. He groaned, so Artie guessed he was all right aside from some cuts and scratches. She heard Mia whispering to him, but even that slight noise was interrupted by the womanly figure that appeared from the light.
Standing near the two mages, this form appeared to look the same as the green creatures but she wore a crown of flowers and long hair. Artie gulped audibly as the thing addressed Mia. You are the Ausa Daughter, correct?
It was a disgusted response that came from the Guildmaster: Yes. And who are you? This man needs medical care, so I suggest you let us go right this instant.
My name is Toputa, Queen of the Sarki Tribe. Youre not going anywhere until we talk.
We can talk later. Nash is hurt.
Artie watched on in worry. Nash didnt seem to be moving much. She prayed he wasnt injured too bad.
Nash, as you call him, killed eight of my people. He is a murderer. Let him die.
Your people attacked me. He was just doing his job.
Humans fascinate me. Males that protect the females. Quite unusual. Toputa grinned, her fang like teeth seeming to curl with her lips, You seem to care for him. I will trade you his life for your own.
Fine, Mia said without a thought. Give him and Artemus a guide and safe passage out of here.
Nash waved a hand in protest. Apparently he couldnt talk.
You should reconsider. The poison in our talons acts quickly, especially on humans. See how his face swells? It is a waste to try and save him.
No. Mia said with finality.
Nash shook his head violently, and the Guildmaster gave him a kiss on the forehead. Then she waved Artie over and looked to Toputa. There. Now your end of the bargain.
Reluctantly the brunette led the horse to the gathering, and got her first look at her friend on the ground. His clothes were torn to shreds and blood soaked what was left of them. Even more disturbing was the sight of his swollen cheeks; they were making it difficult for him to breathe. You dont have to do this Majesty.
Yes I do. Now help me get Nash on the horse.
The women started to lift him when the Sarki interrupted them. Impressive.
Mia glared at the woman incredulously. What?
You have passed the test.
The test to see what kind of ruler you will be. But now I need your help.
Mia shook her head, Whatever it is that you need it will need to wait.
Artie stared in skepticism as Toputa waved a hand over Nash and his cuts healed themselves, and whatever effects the poison gave him ceased. He coughed, and tried to sit up, but Mia pushed him back down. Easy.
Hell be fine after a good nights sleep, the creature said. Now. Your help.
Mia nodded, but remained on the ground next to Nash. What is it that you need?
For you to stop destroying our forest. I realize you are rebuilding your city but it shouldnt be at our expense. We have lived in these woods peacefully since Althena created the world. We dont bother travelers, and keep to ourselves.
Artie wanted to curse, but held her tongue to see what Mia would say. How could she build anything without an ample supply of wood!
We need the trees as much as you do, Mia said before taking a moment to consider. But perhaps I can offer a compromise. For each one we take, we will return two seedlings.
Toputa closed her eyes, as she seemed to consider the offer. That seems reasonable, but you still owe for the lives of my people. She looked down at Nash, gazing at him as if he was an animal roasting on an open fire pit. Perhaps you would sell that man. His powers are strong, even if he is not. It would be good to have him to protect us.
Mias eyes narrowed as she snapped back at the creature, but her voice never rose. I do not believe in slavery and I certainly would not leave Nash here with you. Ive made you an offer. Accept it and let us leave. Next time you wish to talk to me, just send word to our camp. Sending a group of people to capture me is only going to get them killed!
Fair enough, Toputa replied. I must say you are the first Guildmaster to ever extend such an invitation. Most humans just fear those who are different.
Yes, but when Vane is rebuilt, anyone will be welcome.
A bold move. I am again impressed. You will make a good ruler. The Sarki pointed a long talon in the direction of the rising sun. Follow that path and you will return to your camp.
Thank you, Mia said as she gripped Nashs hand.
A warm yellow light outlined Toputa, but before she was fully immersed within it, she called to Mia: I look forward to meeting with you again, Majesty.
Mia just gave a nod as the light dissipated, but Artie didnt quite know what to do. Her feeling of invisibility got worse as Nash got to his feet; refusing any help Mia offered him. He seemed almost angry but she still embraced him.
He pushed her back gently and said in a whisper, I dont you to ever make the choice that you just did.
Mia glared at him incredulously, What are you talking about?!
Nash ran his fingers through her black hair, Your life is more important to me than my own.
Artie rolled her eyes as they gave each other pathetic looks of longing. She coughed, and then said, Maybe we should head back to camp?
Mia nodded, but still wasnt taking her hands off of Nash.
Today, maybe? Artie asked, turning away while they shared a kiss.
Today, Nash said after he released Mia. You two have had a hell of night. You ride, Ill walk.
Weve all had a hell of a night, the Guildmaster said, the curse falling freely from her tongue, much to the surprise of the others. Lets just get home.