Ben looked around. Then up and down. Then in a few other directions not normally accessible to humans.
"So is something different today, or is it just me?", the wizard finally ventured.
"What're ya on about now?", Hook returned testily. The dwarf was busily making preparations for a campfire, splinting wood for kindling. It was, Ben sometimes reflected, as if dwarves felt embarrassed to acknowledge the existence of magic. They had excellent mages, true, but what they usually did was enchant existing tools, or make feats of engineering cheaper and faster than was usually possible. No self-respecting dwarf would establish a two-way permanent portal to another dwarfhold, if they could instead laboriously dig a railway tunnel there. Never mind that they used portals to move all the dirt out of the way as they dug.
"Oh, I guess I'm imagining things. You know", Ben tried, "I could just light that for you..."
"And there's this service you can subscribe to, quite cheap, where you get a rune that will heat up any medium-sized rock to cooking temperatures. See, they harmonically link your rune to a master rune in a volcano-"
* * *
He ambulated towards the others. Ciria was sharpening her sword, Nimble was setting up his usual array of traps. And Whats-her-name was skinning a rabbit she'd shot. Ben frowned slightly upon seeing her. Granted, rabbit would certainly be tastier than ration root, and honestly he WAS getting tired of the salami sandwiches - but the presence of an unvetted individual, shielded from all but the crudest aura measurements, still itched in his mind. You don't get to be an old wizard without developing good risk assessment skills, and having a person along who could at any point quantum-collapse into an enemy struck him as Bad Business.
Nimble, of course, positively thrived under such pressure. He was humming a jaunty tune while working, and the play of his emotions suggested he was figuring out one scheme or another to dig at the motivations of their temporary member.
"Hey", the thief said, "Care to enter the betting pool?"
"About our newest addition?"
"Yeah. ten will get you two on 'spy', three on 'saboteur', four on 'opportunist liar', five on 'illicit lover', seven on 'burglar striking it lucky' and twenty on 'werewolf assassin'."
"It's been a while since we had one of those", Ben remarked.
"Yeah, we're due. Oh and 'Just as she seems to be'", the thief added belatedly, "will get you thirty."
Ben snorted. "As if."
"Hey, it's gotta happen sometime."
The mysterious ranger in question spoke up: "I can hear you, you know."
"What, you'd prefer we gossiped about you behind your back?", Nimble shot back.
"Hm. Come to think, this is a refreshing change of pace. Do go on."
A click, from inside Nimble's mind, as another data point slipped into place. Ben sighed theatrically at roguish shenanigans in general, and went over to Ciria.
* * *
"There's probably a spell somewhere to keep your blade sharp and rust-free."
"I guess", Ciria conceded, pausing in her polishing. "If it's cheap and effective, though, why don't more people do it?"
"I could MAKE a cheap efficient spell for it, if I had a week or two." Ben stroked his beard - it gave off a mental purring sound - and speculated: "But no, it's probably about something else. Getting to know one's blade, maybe. Respect for one's tools? Building up some kind of sword-fighting karma?"
"Yeah. Until I have some more experience, I think I'll go on assuming other people have reasons for doing things the hard way." She resumed her sharpening.
"Fair enough. Speaking of monotonous exercise, though..."
Hm. Come to think, the sword was being slowly imbued with her aura, as she worked. The question would be whether this had some actual effect in combat. He'd have to get a look at the thing after a battle. Of course blood would imbue object with an aura all its own... Then again, they had had several battles without, improbably, any overt bloodshed. It really made you think...
"Ben? You were saying?"
"Oh, sorry, distracted by a shiny object. I was going to ask, how did your mental training go?"
Ciria demonstrated the technique - decent for a first try - and Ben helped her refine it somewhat.
"Good, good. This kind of training is really important for a beginning mage. I can honestly say my skills in Mental Resistance and Flexibility is solely responsible for my continued sanity."
A six-sided red-green-purple square wheeled by in two directions, Ben following it with his eyes.
"Did you see that thing? That would have upset me SEVERELY as a youth."
"...Right. But about this mind-reading thing, it's really kind of offensive-"
"Oh, don't worry, it's nothing I haven't seen before. It only takes a year or so before you get used to being the only sighted person in the nudist colony."
He was distracted by Ai's voice: "Ben, care to help with these roots?"
"Oops, sorry - duty calls."
* * *
Ben strolled over to Ai, who had returned from a brief tour of the forest. In his arms were an assortment of edibles, foraged from the surrounding woods.
"No Ration Root, I hope", he ventured, joining Ai near the water bucket.
"Your portion will contain none."
"Good, good." He started shelling wild carrots with a cantrip. "Why DO you suppose the Divinities created a perfectly nutritious plant, common in near every climate, near undetectable by non-adventurers - and then had it be so bland to the taste?"
Ai rolled his eyes. "Because if it tasted GOOD, Nimble and Hook would make a fortune doing nothing but picking and selling it to restaurants." The martial artist started channeling Ki into the roots one by one, causing most of the dirt to drop away.
Ben couldn't fault his logic. The other two in their merry little gang had a somewhat mercenary attitude, and would take shortcuts if they were offered. Ben himself had started adventuring before adventuring even existed, doing the lighter kind of mercenary work for a chance to practise his spells and amass money for new ones. By now, though, he was in the business mainly because of habit. A quest done was a quest done, and the money didn't matter unless it ran out. As for Ai...
Ai said little about his quest, but thought of it a lot. And while his mental defenses were good, he didn't have the awareness of them that a trained wizard had. (Ben reminded himself once again to nag Ai about getting some basic mage training. A talent for theurgy was but one step away from that of wizardry, after all.) One day, Ai would finish his quest, and then he would leave.
Being a puzzle-minded individual with a penchant for prophecy, Ben had of course made a shrewd guess as to how it would play out. That guess had been summarily locked away in his vault for disturbing thoughts - most of his mind seemed to be in there, these days. All he could remember was that it was heart-breaking on multiple levels...
"You are shelling the salad leafs", Ai noted.
Oh. "So I am."
"This distractedness is why you do not get to cook anymore."
"I thought it was because of the Noodle Incident."
"And the Trouble with the Dwarven Bread. And the Sushi Misadventure. And the Eye-of-Newt Problem. And-"
"Yes, yes, fine. But the Sushi Misadventure wasn't STRICTLY my fault."
"YOU were the one who prepared the Wasabi."
And the banter continued, and Ben's mood lightened. Not long after, dinner was had, to everyone's satisfaction. And all was well, the first day and first night of what would be known as the "Princess Trouble" Adventure.