“We should better concentrate our firepower boys and shoot a volley at those lurkers, first! Then take those of them who survive it in melee, again together with Master Rem. Me thinks they will be trouble if we do anything else...” - That too sounded well, and came from the mouth of a Hood veteran shooter. That case, if anything unexpected happened or their mysterious enemy had more magical items, they could at least protect their behinds. Indeed, Rem spent a couple of sleepless nights thinking about marriage and... kids. Though for that to happen one had to protect the “family jewels” so to speak. It was far better to stand together with those veterans, who despite being expert marksmen, were very competent warriors too.
“Good then, it is decided! We are facing those mysterious six forest fishies tomorrow, boys. Now... who has something to drink?” - said Rem and pulled one travel ration from his backpack. Didn't take long before they were calmly chatting, everyone dining on whatever food it was that their wives, sisters or girlfriends had packed for the trip. Rem took a few blissful sips from the mead Val filled his canteen with and then checked what Felk was doing. In Krart, many undead could visit their tavern of choice, enjoy spirit food or drink and that was considered normal. Once, long, long ago, when it was Rem didn't know, undead had no access to luxuries like these. Indeed those who were dead need not consume food or drink but... well, it was better to have something that brought you some joy. The stuff they consumed was created via magic, of course, and blessed in Kan's temple, therefore those who consumed it could restore some of their Mana. As a Kannite, he was told by learned sages and priests of his faith that someone felt really bad for the unfortunate souls who came back. Dreary their existence was, they spent every moment of their Undeath chasing whatever it was that Kan almighty sent them back into the world of the living to do.
“Without fun, you can see the frown even on a skeleton's face.” - always said one of Rem's teachers.
Now, Felk didn't pack luxurious stuff – he couldn't even if he wanted to. Rem's backpack was loaded with items, supplies essential for the short mission and it would be ludicrous to sacrifice space for a bottle of spirit booze, for example. His lich friend was now floating near the entrance of their hideout, whispering. Rem was not that into magic, but his occupation as an solver of problems meant he had to learn the olden Ork tongue. Magic incantations in Krart were either spoken in the dead high-ork language or ancient elven. In school Rem picked orkish, since the sage who offered a course in it also promised to teach the spoken language which all orks used today. Taking another sip from his canteen, he listened closely – Felk was weaving an alarm spell around himself. That magic was something all alchemists and those who worked with magical items learned early in life. The lich had probably studied under someone really knowledgeable because Rem understood only a few of the words – that spell was ancient and powerful. Felk's whisper gently melted into nothingness and his skull slowly rotated, one glowing eye dimming for a second. Rem chuckled - the lich had just winked at him. Relaxed, he fixed his bedroll and a couple of minutes after everyone ate their food, the solver of problems was fast asleep.
He and the riflemen spent their entire morning looking for a suitable ambush location, and after they found the place, waited for another hour. Finally, the dangerous quarry lurked its way into the range of their rifles. Barely visible, the cloaked shadows they saw only because they had a magical map. Obvious it was that someone had wasted no money and other precious magical resources to protect these six agents from detection. The Hoods used unregistered in any of the magical guilds maps – they were outlaws, vigilantes, not some goody two shoes upright citizens. Yet, even with the help of their map, they could only see the six when those moved, cloaked outlines sticking out from all the greenery. To the riflemen it was beyond clear that these were specialists, maybe even solvers of problems yet, master Rem's reputation they knew well. Whatever he started, the man always finished it! Slowly they leveled their rifles, fingers on the triggers and aimed carefully, trying to lock the ever moving shadows with their eyes.
Rem stood a little bit ahead of them, “Stake” in his hand and shrouded by invisibility. Two could play that game and his shooting hand carefully pulled three arrows from the silenced quiver. One he notched, yet did not draw the bowstring while the two others were still between his fingers. The six shadows were moving closer and closer; sixty paces, fifty, forty and then they, seemingly aware of the Hoods presence, lunged forward. The loud bang of five arcane muskets echoed across the woods. An arching wall of violet flames and gases propelled the shooters' projectiles forward. Rem's iron muscles pulled the bowstring half-way and witnessed how all bullets hit. With a loud and deafening clang, two of the six enemies fell dead on the grassy earth, large holes bored through their chests. The rest, however, were uninjured since some form of magical defense had activated by itself, shrouding their bodies and deflecting the perfectly aimed bullets. It was the same magical shield which only few professionals could procure due to its high cost, and protect themselves against fast or slower flying projectiles. Far better gear this was compared to his cheap shield ring! However great that item these agents used, it had one fatal flaw – once chosen and activated, the type of projectiles which it offered protection against could not be switched. Under the steel mask, Rem's eyes squinted, he straightened his back and pulled the bowstring fully. The four agents, no longer cloaked, darted forward with speed only achieved after many turns of arduous training or high-quality magic footwear. Armed with vicious-looking curved swords, such that even Rem had never seen before, they moved at twenty paces and then each threw one ring-shaped weapon at his riflemen. One of them, the old veteran, managed to somehow duck and the swirling carrier of death flew but two fingers above his head. The rest were not that lucky and although these throwing rings did not kill them, everyone was wounded. Either their legs or arms had these weapons slashed and the Hoods were now bleeding. The enemy who ran straight towards Rem instantly noticed the arrow which appeared out of nothingness and with amazing reaction rolled down on the grass. Second before it halved those twenty paces before him and Rem, the arrow suddenly curved its trajectory and one very unsuspecting enemy found his chest impaled. Instead of moving forward, a loud snap was heard, as the magic infused arrow punched this enemy backwards, both its kinetic force and the body moving with speed clashing. Rem knew what had happened – the man's back was broken. His eyes widened a second after he loaded the two arrows and again pulled the bowstring. Not only were these enemies using speed enhancing magic but also strength boosters! The three of them were now at ten paces and Rem quickly changed how he held the bow. Still on his knee, his hands moved Stake to a horizontal position and from point blank range two arrows flew at the enemy. Both used their swords and attempted to cut or parry the projectiles mid-flight, which they had assumed were aimed at their chests. Instead one of them fell on the ground with a broken leg, Rem's arrow sticking from his thigh. The second one was luckier and his foot moved forward just half a second before the arrow impaled his calf – he got a bleeding wound which impaired his movements. By now, any other team made of professional problem solvers would've long pulled back and retreated to safety. Not these three. Even the guy whose broken foot had all but taken him out of the fight still crawled forward, one hand trying to pull something from behind his back. With sight trained and polished in many a fight, the solver of problems scouted what was this person about to pull – an arcane pistol! The two shadowy enemies had already clashed with his riflemen and Rem quickly pulled Sparrow from its sheath, flinging it just in time to nail the pistol armed lurker. Unable to move quickly and on the ground, this person should've been easy to hit. In yet another remarkable feat of dexterity, the enemy twisted in such a way that instead of his throat, Sparrow impaled his shoulder. By now two of his riflemen were heavily wounded and on the ground. Rem dashed at one of the lurkers, Sap in his hand and attempted a feint. Instead of the obvious slash, he'd change the course of his swing and hit the enemy's plate gloved hand. While he did this, for only a second Rem saw that all Hoods, even the veteran were out of the fight, wounded and probably bleeding to death. So the enemy had swords infused with bleeding magic – gear like this cost tens of thousands! Just as he was about to hit the first enemy, the second one moved behind him, sword pulled aback and ready to stab him. Rem's shoulders twitched, yet he was committed to an attack. Swishing through the air Sap smashed into his enemy's raised plate glove, unleashing its magic. Instead of deflecting an obvious cut, the side of Sap's blade crushed, mangled the enemy's glove and then Rem got stabbed in the back.
Brelt's plated chain twisted, almost snapped under the immense pressure and strength of the blow, yet it did not let the enemy's sword to pierce his back. Twisting and side-stepping, Rem's own blade sliced through the throat of his first opponent, and while his chest armor almost buckled, soaking yet another vicious blow, he called Swallow back. In but a second the trusty dagger flew at her master, aiming to reach his free hand yet, there was someone's body on her path. The reaction which these agents possessed was unnaturally quick and his enemy twisted, rolled and turned, curved sword almost parrying Swallow. That he thought himself safe or able to evade the adversary behind him was but a fleeting hope, because instantly got backstabbed by Rem. More like backbludgeoned... Without even a gasp, the lurker fell dead to the ground, his back shattered under the armor.
“Beware, the last one is trying to blow everything and us with him! Stop the bastard before he drinks this potion!” - Screamed a timely warning Felk, who was pretty much useless in a fight such as this. Eyes always watching when he was around, the knowledgeable alchemist instantly recognized the “suicide” potion. Dashing forward, Rem managed to slice the man's fingers in the nick of time and screamed at his lich friend:
“Don't float like a freeloader Felk – by Kan, do something! Use stun magic on the bastard or whatever spell you have prepared in that blue glowing noggin of yours.”
“Yes, yes, I can hold him, now when he is heavily wounded. Quickly man, you mustn't waste your chance of interrogating this murderous bastard!” - Blueish mana flew out of Felk's eyes and enveloped the last of their enemies still alive, locking his wounded limbs into place.
Rem opened his medical box and pulled the three healing potions. There was no way he'd leave his allies to bleed to death! The old elf, had already swallowed a potion and Rem tossed one his way. Despite his speedy intervention the youngest Hood died, his wounds too deep for a simple healing potion to close. Angered, Rem recalled Swallow and with it in hand knelt next to this would-be assassin, hissing in his face:
“Now, you will tell me who sent you here and why!”
“I... will... tell you... nothing!” - Gargled the lurker, choking on his blood.
“Get back!” - Screamed Felk and something which this agent carried on his person popped, releasing magical energy. Rem, managed to roll away from the now very dead lurker thanks to his friend warning, looked at the mangled, steaming body.
“Kan's Grace... What a gory mess this is! Now we can't learn anything because I doubt anyone sporting such high-quality gear and skill, would carry the missive of their masters on their persons.”
“You know, they need not carry anything, Rem. I am still a lich... and can do things even without the rest of my bones. Now pick his head up and hold it!” - The lich floated closer and while Rem grabbed the blooded head, holding it with apparent disgust, his friend's mana glowed all around it. Entering through the eyes, mouth and ears, the bluish mana soon filled this gory trophy and everyone could hear the powerful, charged with magic words coming out of Felk's mouth:
“Dezanatach! Oh spirit, you who are about to be judged by great Kan, tell me whom you work for.”
Suddenly, the head's eyes opened, projecting ghostly shapes who soon turned into a vision. A shady room and one, magically shrouded form sitting before a group of twelve, identically looking lurkers. Since the Bloodied mouth moved and spoke with another person's voice, replicating what its ears had heard, its mind remembered:
“I want six of you to go after him. Make sure he never leaves the forest and then secure the Countess's chest for me. Do not come back without it, do you hear?! The second group... go to his mansion and snatch her, alive and unspoilt. Even if she resists by use of deadly force, the elf is not to be harmed, otherwise she will be of no use to me! Die if you must but bring her here, so that I can do what needs to be done. Go now...”
The head stopped moving and Felk's mana vanished. Rem dropped the now quickly rotting thing and asked his companions who had just finished rummaging through the lurkers' belongings:
“Did you find anything on them, notes, maps... rings perhaps?”
“Nah, just like ye said Master Rem, they be professionals. Only gear we took, an oh what items they had!” - Answered the old elf, throwing one sad glance at the young Hood, whose body they had covered with a cloak and placed on a stretcher - “Sad that our kid had to go so soon...” - He sighed and shouldered the young man's rifle before asking the question:
“What now Master Rem? Should we go and take care of the useless... or?
Indeed, Rem was aghast with worry for his maid. What if she was under attack right now, fighting against those mysterious agents? Who, by the Vortex was this person that ordered these so well-equipped professionals to go after him and why was he after Val? If Felk wasn't here Rem wouldn't have learned anything from just searching the bodies and without the Hoods backing him up, he'd be dead... most probably.
He could rush across the forest, attack the Useless and together with his Hood riflemen, make quick work of them. Recover that alchemically locked chest for his employer and get the 1000 gold coin reward. Better yet, examine its contents for himself first, before relinquishing something which a person hired multiple professional assassins to recover. He had Felk to help him unlock the thing after all. Rem had faith in his Manor's defenses – they have never failed him, yet. – If that is Rem's choice, post 1 in the comments below.
However, the dead man's head spoke of another group of six lurkers, who were about to assault his manor. Indeed, it was protected by all sorts of defenses and Val was armed but... What if their equipment allowed them to walk past the magical wards, and they were skilled enough to disarm the traps? No, he had to act quickly, the chest be damned! Rem would move with his best speed, Hoods in tow and try to reach his manor in time. – If that is Rem's choice, post 2 in the comments below.
There was another option – he could send the Hoods to take care of that band of Useless. They should be able to easily deal with this common rabble; shoot most of them from afar, then chase the rest and kill them one by one. Rem would run back home with his best speed; hopefully he and Felk were strong enough and able to defeat those six lurkers without help. – If that is Rem's choice, post 3 in the comments below.
Since the Hoods were still alive and with him, Rem could ask their boss for another favor. Although that would cost him more, he'd be able to go after the Useless himself, backed up by rifles, just like he intended to do initially. Meanwhile, his Hood allies would be able to quickly reach the Manor since their village was nearby. Bortom had a fast carriage and his girls were always close by. From what he'd heard of them, all three were capable sorceresses, whom the Hoods had saved in the past and then hired to work for them. For sure Rem would have to part with a lot of gold to compensate them for their services, but the reward for returning the Countess's chest was abnormally large. That way, he'd hit two targets with one arrow, get to learn what was inside the chest (if he decided to open it) and ensure Val's safety. – If that is Rem's choice, post 4 in the comments below.
If you like me to continue writing those short stories every month, please support me on Patreon here.