It was yet another glorious rat-filled day for Jayna Stiles, formerly of Dernholm.
At first, the idea of joining an “adventuring party” had been an intoxicating one to the young physician. For one thing, it contained the word “party.” Jayna very much enjoyed parties! More importantly, as a keen student of the natural sciences, Jayna had felt stifled to the point of screaming by her childhood in the crumbling kingdom of Dernholm, which had seen the bright future offered by the industrial revolution and had promptly stuck its head in the sand like an ostrich.
As a keen student of the natural sciences, Jayna also knew that ostriches did not actually engage in that behavior, but it was hard to turn down a good metaphor. Good metaphors had endurance and staying power, much like the enormous and remarkably resilient sewer rat currently on the receiving end of the sharp bit of Magnus’s axe.
“Stee doon, ye blaggard!” Magnus spat. Whack. Whack. Whack.
At any rate. Dernholm still clung to the Old Ways—which is to say, healing being meted out by increasingly rare itinerant white sorcerers—with a passion that bordered on the fanatical. Jayna had seen the exciting new practice of modern medicine go from “sniffed at” to “discouraged” to “outlawed” to “actively persecuted” in the span of a single decade. So, when Madeline Chesney (Savior of Arcanum) had breezed into town, bedecked in her high-society dress and her electric top hat, Jayna had been smitten and had practically begged to accompany the gentlewoman-adventurer on her overland trip to the modern steam-and-gas-powered metropolis of Tarant.
This was before Mistress Chesney had revealed herself to be absolutely barking mad, her insanity manifesting in an obsession with scouring garbage cans for sellable items, breaking open anything even remotely resembling a barrel in her field of vision, and most recently, invading the homes of strangers and offering quite out of the blue to run errands for them down in Tarant’s sprawling network of storm sewers.
Jayna hugged a package of sweet honey cakes tight to her muslin-shrouded bosom as a squirt of rat blood shot forth from the corpse of yet another snaggletoothed sewer-abomination, narrowly missing her eyes. Magnus barely had time to raise his blade and utter an oath in his incomprehensible mountain brogue before another rat replaced the first, literally crawling over the corpse of its packmate in its rabid zeal to rend and tear. The party’s right flank was secured by Gar, the World’s Smartest Orc, and a Sebastian, a dour gunslinger of few words, was on point. Virgil was uselessly conserving his precious mana, as usual, and Mistress Chesney stood in the thick of things doing her best to shelter the beleaguered party in a magnetic repulsion field of her own generation. So long as the power on the Mistress’s hat held out, Jayna thought, they could eventually turn back the horde—
—and then, with a dire and sickening hum that faded to silence, the Mistress’s repulsion field powered down. Madeline Chesney (Savior of Arcanum) cried out sharply as a rat maneuvered into striking distance of her leg and promptly did just that. The beast came away with a jawful of organza, crinoline, linen unmentionables and, yes, bright red blood. The Mistress stumbled.
Well, thought Jayna, this is it, I suppose. Killed by rats while searching for a coven of thieves too dull to realize that stolen artwork should be stored in reasonably dry conditions. I had honestly hoped for better. In a twinkling, Sebastian crossed to the Mistress’s side with the intention of helping her up, but with his attention diverted from his suppressing fire, Jayna could see the nigh-unmanageable horde of rats would soon cross the line into “overwhelming.”
“Sebastian!” Jayna shouted. “Stick to your guns! I’ll tend to Mistress Chesney!” If only she could get the Mistress back on her feet, then the Mistress could shore up their line and keep the rats from splitting the party in two. If she could manage that, it might mean snatching victory from the jaws of defeat…
As Jayna lunged forward, she heard the Mistress utter an oath, and suddenly everything became very quiet.
The young physician caught herself, narrowly avoiding barreling into the back of Madeline Chesney (Savior of Arcanum) as the latter stood, patting the worst of the rotting leaves out of her fancy rose and violet gown.
“There we are,” said the Mistress, studying the crowd of suddenly-placid rodentine abominations. “Much better now.”
Absolutely befuddled, Jayna turned back to Virgil, to see if he had worked an enchantment over the rats—but no, the gangly cleric’s staff hung in his hands, unused and idle. It had been a longshot to think that Virgil might prove himself useful, of course, but she could think of no other explanation than sorcery to explain away the still-hissing but no-longer-leaping legion of rats.
“Er, said Jayna, to no one in particular, “What’s… what’s going on, exactly?”
“Real-time combat must have gotten a bit too frustrating,” Virgil volunteered. “The Mistress has elected to activate turn-based encounters.”
“So… they’re peaceful now?”
Gar, the World’s Smartest Orc, gave a sharp, barking chuckle. “Not hardly, Miss Stiles!” he said, the cultured tones of his voice sounding as incongruous as ever coming from his tusked, bestial maw. “As soon as we all take an action, they’ll be on us like lightning.”
Jayna blinked. “This is incredible! We must capitalize on it!” She began frantically rummaging through her healer’s kit, pulling out sterile bandages and phials of merbromin to staunch the party’s many wounds.
“Mistress’s alreeady capitualizing,” Magnus rumbled. “No need ta woory yer pretty haid.”
Confused, Jayna turned back to the Mistress, only to see her fluffing out her many petticoats into a sitting position and rummaging through the party’s supplies, eventually coming up with a box of stiff water biscuits. As Jayna looked on, dumbfounded, Madeline Chesney began stuffing biscuits into her mouth in piles of five and six apiece. Crumbs flew everywhere.
“Sebastian,” said Jayna, eyes locked on the Mistress, “what exactly is going on?”
Sebastian said nothing. Jayna squeezed her eyes shut. “Right, right, sorry. I forgot, you’re not fully voice-acted.” She turned to Virgil. “Virgil, what exactly is going on here?”
“Biscuits restore a trivial amount of health,” said Virgil, distantly. “Accessing the inventory doesn’t use a turn, and items can be used directly from the inventory.”
“She’s eating her wounds away?”
“Very succinctly put, Miss Stiles,” said Gar, as the Mistress crammed a wad of chicken jerky down her throat.
“But… but that’s ridiculous!” Jayna said, watching wide-eyed as the Mistress began devouring an entire rack of lamb she had somehow stashed in the communal pack without getting everything else all greasy. “Yes, the body requires proteins to clot wounds and repair flesh, but there are a number of intervening subtleties! There’s not a direct pipe from the esophagus to the surface of the skin! This is all just basic science!”
“Science does not often factor overmuch into the Mistress’s doings,” remarked Gar, gently.
“I have medicines here! Unguents of my own devising! Surely they would be more effective than just eating one’s wounds away?” Jayna frowned. “I mean, isn’t that why you hired me in the first place?”
“Undoubtedly,” said Gar. “We’re merely saving them for the really tremendous boss fights. Why waste them when you can use food instead?”
“I was sort of looking forward to eating supper tonight,” Jayna said, watching the Mistress polishing off an entire bottle of wine without the aid of a wineglass.
“Ye want food?” Magnus said. “Pick oopa sward an’ put yeerself onna froont lines, lassie! Gar an’ I get oor fill ta’eat when we get nicked!”
“The Mistress isn’t feeding us unless we put ourselves directly in harm’s way?”
“Seems reasonable,” said Virgil. “Waste of perfectly good food otherwise. Listen, do I need to explain to you again how food works?”
Jayna’s jaw opened and closed uselessly for a moment as she prepared a response to Virgil, but just when she had a good one all worked out, the Mistress was suddenly back on her feet and standing right before her.
“Jayna?” said Madeline Chesney (Savior of Arcanum), her mouth all covered with bits of lamb grease and tomato sauce.
She faltered. “Y—yes, Madam?”
The Mistress’s gaze burrowed into her like a gimlet. “Still got a little bit of a boo-boo here on the old leg,” she said.
“Of course, Mistress,” said Jayna. She then offered no resistance whatsoever as Madeline Chesney (Savior of Arcanum) plucked the package of honey cakes from her nerveless fingers. The Mistress wandered back over to the stationary rat horde and began busily munching on Jayna’s cakes as she assessed the situation. In defiance of all that Jayna understood about biophysics, she could actually see the wound on the Mistress’s leg begin to close with every bite.
“We’ll buy you some new cakes, Miss Stiles,” said Gar, patting Jayna gently on the shoulder.
“Gar,” said Jayna, staring, “what is she? Some sort of inhuman monster?”
“No, miss,” replied Gar. “She is a hero.”