The town bustled, crowded with patrolling guardsmen. Many were hungry for retribution, knowing their allies had been butchered in the catacombs beneath the city. The Bulging Baron’s crew was equally piqued, the loss of their own causing search parties to scour the countryside. No one seemed to care much for the baron himself, excepting that his murder was so brazen as to be unbelievable. His swarthy crew only wondered as to who might replace him, and if the new head would continue their employment.
Captain Tedev issued his orders to scour the dilapidated city, but knew their target would be gone. None had seen him since the encounter in the catacombs. He held no hope that a sign of him would be found and acted with resigned stoicism. After he felt the guard was duly roused and occupied, he asked Gafgarn’s group to join him in his office. As eager as they were to continue their hunt, he insisted, promising to take little of their time. When he mentioned the aged bottle of spirit he kept for particularly difficult days, the party’s interest intensified and all agreed to take the moment to collect themselves.
They made their way through Hausto’s disorienting buildings and streets, passing bristling patrols sending brief salutes to the Captain and awed gazes to Gafgarn. Sully and Dorin had previously mentioned to others their exploits in the catacombs, and apparently word spread about the Wolf floating in the dark, flying like an arrow. Gafgarn returned the flabbergast and dazzle with a sneer; he wasn’t intent on being anyone’s sideshow. He gave sidelong glances--obese with dismay--at his two underlings, who remained silent and avoided all eye contact. They finally came to a teetering building with barred windows and a corral in its back yard, weapon racks indicating the area was used for sparring. Only a few guards remained to watch the mostly empty cells.
On the upper floor they came to the captain’s office. It was a basic and bare affair populated by a sturdy but simple desk and a small cot. With a heavy sigh he sat and indicated all present should do the same. Gafgarn unsheathed his mallet and leaned on it for support. Wither lit his gigantic, curving pipe, sending gentle billowing puffs into the dark ceiling.
“I know you have places to be, but I thought it might be of benefit to stop for a moment and take stock of things,” the captain began. As he did so, several guards brought in soup and bread for everyone, and laid several cups on the desk. The heat and aroma managed to brighten the gloom of the evening somewhat. The uncorking of the bottle Tedev retrieved from a drawer brightened the room even more. He poured into each cup as he spoke, “This AJ is more than some cutpurse. If he’s still in the area, I want to catch him, but it might help to know more about the scoundrel. At least you three know something, right?” he indicated Wither, Illaeda, and Gafgarn and placed the bottle aside.
Illaeda spoke first, “You’d be disappointed to learn that the Guild knows very little. AJ stands for Albino Jester, we don’t know his name. Or where he’s from. Or even what he’s after.”
“Then what do you know? You’re supposed to detect things the Kingdoms’ regular guard won’t, right? So detect.”
She took a pull from her cup and relished the sweet and spicy flavor within, then continued, “AJ acts almost compulsively, so much so that it seems he thinks little before doing anything. In every town and city he’s committed a crime, there’s almost never a communication to anyone about what he wants. No demands, no blackmail, no ransom. He just causes chaos.”
“Often, but not always. Sometimes his crimes are almost juvenile. In a small town he’s accused of stealing everyone’s socks in a night and leaving them in a bear den. Once he changed all the names on a horse racing leger and caused an uproar at the betting office.”
“What’d he change the names to?” Gafgarn asked.
“I don’t remember the specifics, but each was...scatological.”
Dorin chuckled, choking on his laugh when Sully placed an elbow in his ribcage.
“Well, so, why the murders?” Tedev asked, “what’s the point of all this in Hausto? And why are you so passionate about this man professor?”
It was Wither’s turn to speak, “Because, old boy, one of his many villainous deeds includes kidnapping. My sister, to be precise. And I’m very eager to have her back before the scoundrel does something contemptuously more...regrettable.”
“As for Hausto,” Illaeda cut in, “AJ’s actions are usually chaotic, prone to whatever insanity drives him. It doesn’t seem they were all connected...except for the chair thing.” Her one eye regarded Gafgarn.
“Yeah, what’s the deal with that?” Sully asked.
“That bit is obvious enough, isn’t it, old boy?” Wither muffled as he smoked his pipe. They all looked at him and he grinned, pulling the pipe out and raising his cup for dramatic effect, “He’s got a crush on Gafgarn.”
“Ol’ Jokey’s got a thing for Gaffy?” Dorin exclaimed in surprise.
Illaeda chimed in, “AJ is fascinated by him. The bodies in chairs are proof enough: it’s the curse.”
“He’s taunting me, trying to piss me off,” Gafgarn explained.
“Is it working?” Illaeda asked.
“Yes,” Gafgarn growled.
“I can’t blame him for finding your...affliction...interesting, but is he really just killing people to poke fun at you?” Tedev asked.
“I already told you captain,” Illaeda answered, “He’s crazy. This isn’t beyond him.”
“Each killed was in a position of power or authority,” Gafgarn muttered.
“The dead...right, simple enough, I suppose. Though going for the Baron was pretty ballsy. Over-the-top, even.” Tedev said.
“Sir, you have that in common with them too,” Sully remarked to Gafgarn.
“I know. Deposed, but still a leader.”
“I don’t understand,” Tedev said.
Illaeda explained, “The Wolf here has a throne waiting for him back home across the border. Apparently he united all the clans in the wildlands. They won’t follow him if he can’t sit on his throne, however.”
“Wow,” Tedev responded, whiskers bristling, “I didn’t realize I was escorting and arresting royalty. And you united the clans, that’s no mean feat after centuries when the only time you’d see them work together was to fight off an invasion from the Kingdoms. You might make for a valuable political prisoner, you know.” Gafgarn eyed him with angry suspicion, and Tedev responded with raised hands and an innocent look, “But I’m just a captain of the guard, I’m in no one’s army or court. I put myself as far away from that mess as I could. I’m loyal to the crown and all, but I’m done with wars and fool machinations.”
“Is that why you’re in this backwater?” Gafgarn asked
“Yes. Volunteered for it. My men are ill-equipped, undertrained, and hardly motivated, but I appreciate that challenge rather than licking the boot of whoever was born from whoever else’s Void-praised blood.”
“What about the baron?” Sully asked.
“He mostly stuck to himself, as long as I stayed out of his way. We left each other alone, made our lives easier. I cared about the city, he cared about...other things.”
“You know captain, I could use a man like you. You’re obviously capable and wasted here. My people appreciate strength and honor. Seems you’ve some.” Gafgarn said.
“No, no, no big fella, I’ve had enough of politics. I just protect people, and that’s fine by me. No need to make things more complicated.”
“Sounds like there’s a story behind that,” Illaeda said.
“Another life, one full of politics and oaths I’d rather not revisit. My only loyalty is to the people of Hausto now, and I rather like it,” Tedev stated flatly and changed the subject, “Anyway, what would you recruit me for, Gafgarn? Going to invade your own lands and lay claim by force? The Kingdoms were successful for some time, but there hasn’t been a victory on our side in years. How could you expect to do any different? And won’t they still reject you if you can’t sit on the throne?”
“My people appreciate strength. Even a farmer can fight, but not all can lead. I’m in enemy territory, peace or not, I’ll need at least a small troop to watch my back while I work on fixing this.”
“Back to that,” the captain interjected, leaning forward onto his desk, “What in the world was that? Is this really happening? I saw it with my own eyes, but...is there really some sort of magic at work here?”
“It appears so, old boy,” Wither responded, “and it seems tied to those immaculate boots.” Illaeda sniggered in disbelief, giving the room a look of disapproval. Wither continued, “Think what you want, dear, if proof points only to the impossible, then it must be true.”
“So why not just take off the boots?” the captain asked matter-of-factly.
“Tried. Can’t,” Gafgarn said with a shrug.
“Well that’s a shame,” Tedev said, “So you’re just going to be like that for the rest of your life?”
“What’ll you do?”
“Wasn’t too sure...until now.”
Illaeda cut in, “Did you notice something odd about the Baron’s office?”
“Aside from all the dead folk, you mean?” Tedev joked. Dorin laughed.
“Something was missing. None of the Baron’s jewelry, none of his valuables, nothing that could be sold easily and for good coin. Only one thing.”
“Those gauntlets,” the captain answered.
“Indeed, old boy. Those with the same design and spotless affect as these very boots,” Wither waved dramatically at the gilded footwear.
“Why take them, though? What’s AJ’s game now?”
“Like I said,” Gafgarn rumbled, “To piss me off.”
“Translated: it’s to ensure we follow, old boy,” Wither finished.
“He knows we’re interested in them. The gauntlets guarantee Gafgarn will pursue him,” Illaeda said.
“Fine, so the giant and the professor have common cause. And what of you, Illaeda? Surely there are easier bounties? Maybe AJ is worth a great deal, but couldn’t you find easier prey, maybe even make more in a shorter amount of time?”
Illaeda seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if a thought crossed her mind like a blizzard, freezing her. Then she quickly regained her composure, and responded, “I like the challenge. And yes, AJ is worth a great deal.”
“Sounds like there’s a story behind that,” he replied. Illaeda gave him a nasty look. Tedev looked pensive for a moment, then shook his head, “Alright, fair enough. None of my business anyway, I’m just curious. Well, if you’re all done with your food and drink, I’d be happy to let you rest here, we’ve plenty beds…”
“No,” Gafgarn said as he returned his mallet to the place on his back, secured by a tight loop of leather, “we can’t afford to lose him. If we rest, it has to be on the move.”
Exiting the compound, Wither confronted Illaeda in a hushed tone, “It seems you’ve a personal grudge with our wayward jester. I understand, but I assume your vendetta won’t get in the way.”
“It’s just a job, I don’t know what you’re talking about,”
“Keep convincing yourself. Just don’t get in my way. And none of this apprehending him alive, I know the guild often values a mark more when it still breathes. When I find him, I find my sister, and he dies. I accept nothing less.”
“Belive me Wither,” Illaeda hissed, “That won’t be a problem.”
The group left without further delay. Captain Tedev watched them from the rickety wall until moonlight no longer illuminated their place on the road north. He let out a sigh of relief, and left to finish his spirit and sleep.
The party on the road slept on the move, Gafgarn and his two underlings on the roof of the carriage, Illaeda in the saddle, and Wither in the driver’s seat. Many doubted that Wither had slept at all when they awoke in the early morning to find him still huffing on his pipe.
As they trundled along the path, a broad wooded copse ahead and Hausto on the horizon behind them, they saw a figure sitting on the crumbling stone wall on the side of the trail. When they neared, it appeared it wasn’t alone. Its entourage consisted of the bodies of five other individuals in the grass behind the figure. Even closer, they could tell the figure was a woman, and she was cleaning a long, thin, one-sided sword in her lap. Her skin was dark ebony, her black hair braided tightly against her scalp into an intricate design that wove around itself asymmetrically, ending in a tight, boxy spiral on the right side of her head just above her ear. Her eyes, a subdued golden-brown, regarded her blade serenely from a face that could pass as sculpted from polished obsidian, with high cheekbones and a resolute, pointed chin.
She wore a stylized white robe with an ornate, high, narrow collar that plunged to her bosom in the shape of a dagger. Spacious sleeves descended to her wrists, the bottom of her shirt to just above her ankles, the robe parting at her waist. Intricate embroidering followed the edges of the robe around the wrist, collar, and hem. The design was strikingly asymmetric, like the rows of braiding on her head, with interlocking shapes and bisecting lines in a flashy array of gold, orange, various hues of red, and highlights of turquoise. Below she wore loosely-fitting golden pants, and her shoes were simple wooden platforms with prongs reaching to the ground like tiny stilts. A round, flat hat of a woven woody material rested on the wall next to her gently rocking in the light breeze. A shaggy brown horse rested next to her with a large rolled pack in various colors on it’s back. To all present the display was mezmerizing.
It was hard to tell with her attire, but she seemed slim from the shape of her neck, wrists, and ankles. The arm that didn’t tend to her blade hung limply to her side. Gafgarn wondered if it was injured.
The carriage came to stop in front of her. From his vantage point atop the wagon, Gafgarn could see the dead were cheaply dressed, and each wore a red bandana tied somewhere on their bodies. He dismounted, causing the vehicle to rock behind him, and approached the stoic woman, her eyes still lowered to her blade.
“Run into some trouble?” Gafgarn asked.
The woman raised her eyes, which shone in the dull light of the day like a predators’, and responded cooly, “It seems they did. Thieves that thought me an easy target. They thought wrong.”
Illaeda dismounted as well and looked towards the bodies, “Five on one. Hardly a fair fight.”
The woman had resumed tending her blade, “Not fair for whom? They were just brigands, not warriors. Not an ounce of the art between them. It would be a sad waste of life if theirs were worth anything.”
Sully crossed her arms and gave a disagreeable look in response. She had been one of them before, after all, and she felt her life was worth something. But she held her tongue, for now.
“You aren’t from around here are you?” Illaeda asked, regarding the woman’s clothing.
“What gave that away, I wonder?” she replied with a sly smirk.
“She’s from the west,” Wither interjected, “the far west, across an inland sea, a country called Yodoru.” She gave him a curt nod, and he smiled back, “You’ve traveled no trivial distance, miss…?”
“Imadi,” she replied.
“...And your people are something seldom written about, and never seen. What brings you to the Kingdoms?”
“Just a wanderer,” she said.
“Sounds like someone I know,” Wither grinned. Gafgarn gave him a stoney look.
“Your arm looks hurt,” Gafgarn said.
“This? No injury, it’s an affliction from birth.”
“Doesn’t seem to slow you down,” Illaeda said, standing amid the corpses in the grass.
“Not unlike you and your eye, I would guess.”
Illaeda touched the patch over her eye, tracing the symbol on it, “I was born with a pair though.”
“We all lose something. Perhaps we choose whether those losses cripple us or not. You and I decided not.”
Gafgarn huffed impatiently, feeling the woman’s words weigh on him. He heaved himself back onto the carriage. “If you’re fine, then we need to move on.”
“Have you seen anyone strange? An albino with a jester hat?” Illaeda asked.
“He might have a girl with him, likely bound,” Wither added.
“Someone on horseback entered the wood, but they were too far off to see clearly,” the woman responded, “Could be who you’re looking for.”
“Then we should go,” Gafgarn muttered.
“You might not want to go that way,” she said, nodding lightly at the woods.
“Why not?” Gafgarn asked.
“Because the rest of the crew these idiots belong to are waiting in the trees over there. More than these made to attack me, but they fled when I cut down their friends. When they were running away, I heard them say I wasn’t their intended target. Something about a big outlander with a wolf cloak. I’m guessing that’s you.”
Gafgarn hopped off of the carriage once more, causing it to sway and rock again. Illaeda looked to the copse ahead, slipping her shield onto her arm in anticipation. Wither puffed heavily at his pipe. Sully and Dorin traded knowing looks.
“More with those bandanas?” Gafgarn asked, indicating the corpses.
Imadi gave a curt nod and stood, accentuating the movement with the satisfying slide of her sword sinking into its scabbard at her waist.
Gafgarn hefted his hammer, resting it on his shoulder as he gazed into the copse. “Any idea how many?”
She placed her hat on her head, secured around her chin by twine, and said, “Only two ran. I haven’t exactly looked, but it sounds to me like you’ve got the history, so you tell me.” She raised her eyes to his, expectant.
“Seems the lady wants to accompany us into the fray,” Wither announced.
“Why”? Illaeda asked.
Imadi responded, her robe fluttering subtly, “Sounds like a bunch of thieves. That’s as good a reason as any.”
“If you’re looking to loot them, they won’t have much. They fled their camp Gafgarn demolished without taking any time to carry anything off,” Sully explained.
“I’m only interested in their lives.”
The party then witnessed something truly rare. Gafgarn turned to them bearing a grin beaming with glee, his chest puffed in anticipation, and stated with the richest mirth any present had heard bubble up from his gravelly baritone, “Then let’s go claim them.”
Wither chimed in derisively, “Now, you aren’t suggesting we just saunter directly into a trap, are you, old boy?”
“We? No doc, just you. And it won’t be their trap, it’ll be ours.”
Shortly after in the advancing dawn, the carriage trundled through the copse, the trail so narrow that overhanging branches scratched against the passing vehicle. It’s lone driver puffed happily at a basic corn-cobb pipe bouncing with the rocking of the wagon. A stalwart horse tugged the affair along, huffing the comfortably cool air in his own way. Seemingly unbeknownst to either, eyes watched from the brush at either side, peering from behind trunks and among boughs. They watched hungrily, anticipating the valuables they might glean from the coming robbery. Some were disappointed that the wolf-hooded outlander was nowhere to be seen, but they nonetheless relished the chance to murder the suit. Fingers wrested anxiously on bowstrings and around hilts.
Two gruff-looking men stepped from the verge into the path of the carriage, which caused Wither to pull lightly on the reigns, stopping Percy. He puffed and looked expectantly at the two strangers. They wore red bandanas around their heads and brandished an ugly looking sword and spiked mace. Wither smiled at the weapons, noting the chipped blade and that the mace looked like little more than a small piece of lumber with iron spikes driven through it.
“You,” the mace-wielder commanded, pointing his weapon at Wither, “off the carriage now. No sudden movements, or you’ll find an arrow through your brain.”
Wither grinned and puffed, then replied, “The thing about weapons, old boy, is that maintenance, regular and practiced, is key. Now, I see you two fine, strapping lads, and I think to myself, ‘here are some gentlemen, though entrepreneurial of spirit, plagued with poorly maintained tools.’ Indeed, your souls are willing, but how can you capture that evasive seductress called success with such decrepit arms?”
The one with the blade inspected his weapon, a look of dismay on his face, and said to no-one in particular, “Mine is looking a might bit worse for wear.”
“Shut it, idiot,” the mace-wielder replied, “and you, no more talking, no more tricks. Off the carriage or I’ll smash that jaw off myself.”
Wither rose and dismounted, still happily puffing, and continued, “No need to be ashamed, old boy, for I carry the salvation that shall make your murdering and thieving all the more efficacious and pleasurable.”
He stepped to the door in his carriage, opened it, and stuck his body in, undulating with efforts to find some hidden gem within. In moments, he returned to the road bearing a small device composed of two crossed wood slats fixed to a small platform with hinges and springs. The sides of the slats that faced inwards had a polished stone affixed to them so that they resembled shears.
“This, old boy, will keep any blade sharp for years to come,” he began, taking his place in the center of the road. As he continued hocking his invention, he listened intently for a sign from the woods.
Malicious intent silently waited with bated breath in the form of bared blades and drawn bows amongst the brush and trees on either side of Wither. Some high, some low, these loathsome individuals locked eyes on their quarry, ready for Wither to make a wrong move or for any surprises that might spring from the carriage. Some of those eyes scanned for the wolf-cloak, hoping for the opportunity to exact revenge. Hearing about a handful of their comrades being cut down by a wandering swordsman further stoked their ire, so wolf or not, many were eager to take their frustrations out on the thin suit standing in the road. Some recognized him as the wiry figure that came into the camp as the dust settled, dispatching their fellows where he could.
So intent was their attention that none noticed the clandestine approach of others in the wood. Sticking low, Gafgarn, Sully, and Dorin approached silently from one side, while Illaeda and Imadi skulked along from the other, capturing the ambush in a pincer. Wither continued prattling on, hocking his wares and putting on an act of ignorance, while the rest of the group closed in on the bandits
Gafgarn always preferred open battle to sneaking around, but as he saw his prey ahead, he knew the strategy was sound; they were outnumbered three to one. Better to thin their numbers from the shadows before drawing a skirmish. Still, after recent events, the opportunity to bust some heads brought a sense of exhilarated peace to the behemoth. Gafgarn huddled with his cohorts and whispered, “Spread out and stay quiet. Sully, take care of the ones in the trees. Dorin, clean up any that might notice. And watch your footing.” He watched the two split, then approached his first victim leaning against a tree. His great hammer in one hand, Gafgarn reached around the man with the other, his hand grabbing the bandit’s face and slamming the back of his head into the stout trunk. With a satisfying crack the bandit’s body slumped and slid down the timber, leaving a trail of glistening blood in its wake. Nearby, a body fell out of a tree with an arrow from Sully’s bow stuck in its neck, and a bandit near it had his throat slit before he could sound an alarm. Dorin used his victim’s bandanna to wipe his blade as he nodded to Gafgarn, and the three continued.
On the other side, Illaeda and Imadi made swift progress. Illaeda used her shield to knock a woman to the floor, then dispatched her with a knife to her heart. Imadi darted between two sentries, precisely and quickly skewering one and then slashing to the other in one fluid motion. Using her bolas, Illaeda brought an archer down from the canopy, and Imadi glided in to finish him off. Unsheathing her sword, Illaeda cut down another in the brush just as his eyes caught her slinking at him.
Each team moved toward the trail in this way, cutting a swath with a mixture of expertise and luck. Several more were cut down silently until Dorin tripped on a stone, hitting the ground hard behind another target. As the bandit swiveled--his eyes lit with surprise when they caught sight of Dorin scrambling to his feet--an arrow flashed by his side, missing him by inches. He let out a whistle as he saw Sully notching another arrow. His whistle was cut short as, with a bellowing roar, Gafgarn rudely introduced the business end of his hammer to the bandit’s face.
In the road, the two brigands were kneeling over Wither’s contraption, the one with the blade sliding it carefully between the crossed timbers. A whistle and then a roar erupted from the trees, causing the two to look into the wood with alarm. Then they turned to Wither and stood, one with his mace at the ready, and the other testing the sharpened end of his sword with a gentle touch. It’s now razor-keen edge cut through his thumb like butter, a rivulet of blood trickling down his hand onto his wrist.
“Ouch...wow, it is much sharper,” the thief said, while the other moved to attack Wither. “I think we’ll keep it after we kill you,” he finished.
Wither raised his hands and shrugged innocently to show he was unarmed. Suddenly, a bolt shot from his left wrist into the trees, causing a body to fall from a tree into the undergrowth at the side of the trail. The two would-be thieves looked on, dumbfounded, as Wither dawned a bloodthirsty grin, smoke coiling from his corn-cob pipe like a snake prepared to strike. The mace-wielder pounced, swiping his bludgeon down at Wither’s head. Wither stepped sideways, the mace missing his face by a hair. He simultaneously jammed his hand into the bandit’s chest, his secret blade piercing the man’s heart. Finally recovering from his surprise, the sword wielder rushed in, cleaving the air. Wither brought up the blade from his right hand to block and the sword slid off of it with enough force to break the mechanism. The blade hung limply by Wither’s hand, and small pieces of metal and springs fell from his sleeve. Wither ducked under another swipe and brought the bloody blade on his left hand into play, puncturing his attacker’s gut. As he let the body fall, an arrow stuck into the ground near him, and he looked to the wood at his right to see several more brigands erupting from the brush. Wither ducked and ran to take cover behind the carriage, shooting each of his mini-crossbows as he went. One bandit ducked nimbly below a shaft, while another slumped in agony on the road, clutching his side. At the carriage Wither crouched, taking shots at the approaching attackers.
In Gafgarn’s section of wood, madness broke out. The trio revealed, every bandit there turned from the road and pressed the attack. Gafgarn grinned as he charged into the fray, his hammer at the ready. Dorin unsheathed his sword, his dagger still in his other hand, and prepared to defend himself from the onslaught. He was sure he would die; there was a score of armed devils bearing down on he and Gafgarn. The nearest to Dorin collapsed in a heap as an arrow skewered his skull. Sully quickly switched out her bow for her blade and sped to Dorin’s aid. The two worked back-to-back, winding between and around each other as they fended off blows and took advantage of openings. Sully blocked a sword strike and kicked her opponent in the groin, then spun to cut the wrist of a hand clutching a blade aimed for Dorin. Dorin cut an enemy down in the leg, swiveling to cut the throat of the man still reeling from his groin hit. Then he locked eyes with an archer, bow drawn, a deadly arrowhead pointing right at him.
Gafgarn was there in a flash, the hammer breaking the archer’s arm before the shot could be taken. It was as if a dam had burst and Gafgarn was the flood, he, his bulk, and his hammer an overwhelming force flowing around Dorin and Sully, taking all in its path. He was an artist with his hammer, knowing how to perfectly follow through with its weight, each swing an elegant brush stroke moving right into another, launching from one target to the next. He roared and bellowed as he shattered one bandit’s shield, launching the foe into a stump, then continued with the swing into an uppercut at another approaching his rear.
Meanwhile, Illaeda and Imadi took full advantage of the chaos. Distracted by the alarm raised on the other side of the carriage, bandits hopped from the trees and advanced towards the road, their backs to the two women warriors stalking towards them. Both charged, cutting down the unsuspecting force like wheat. By the time any had noticed, six more lay dead and four survivors struggled to mount a defence. Illaeda and Imadi split the rest between each other. Imadi made quick work of her two targets, connecting to a parry from one and feigning an opening to swiftly deflect a blade from the other before cutting the two down in one stroke. Illaeda charged into a woman chucking an axe, the blade sticking into her shield harmlessly. The bandit fell back from the blow, tripping over a stone. Illaeda blocked the swing of a mace with her blade, then caught a second swing with her shield. Feeling the weapon bounce from the impact, she used the opening to cut a fatal gash into her opponent’s gut. Then she spun to finish off the woman with a thrust, catching her mid-charge, dagger in her hand. Confirming the forest lay devoid of the living, the two women approached the road, Imadi flicking her blade to shower blood on an unfortunate shrub.
They found Wither sitting atop his carriage, several dead bodies with bolts in them around and on the carriage. He nonchalantly kicked a body overhanging the edge as he gingerly lit his pipe. Wiggling his mustache, he greeted his companions with a smile and puffs of smoke shooting from his nostrils. Surveying the scene, Illaeda noted only one sprawling body showed any evidence of life; a bandit at the side of the road clutching a bolt in his side, moaning. She made her way to him.
Imadi cut across the trail to the opposite side, stopping short as a body hurtled out from the brush to crash violently and sickeningly against the carriage. Wither rocked with the motion it caused, looking over his shoulder at Gafgarn sauntering casually from the wood. His hammer, slick with gore, rested on his shoulder, and remnants of his bloody work flecked his entire body. He let out a weighty sigh of satisfaction as Sully and Dorin walked out from the brush, still looking about for more attackers. Imadi flicked her blade once more and approached Illaeda.
The hunter kneeled over the last surviving bandit, his life quickly fading, pain on his face.
“Any more of you left?” She asked.
“Screw you,” he answered through clenched teeth.
“This was foolish. Smidgin is dead, there’s nothing to be gained for you by seeking the wolf.”
“We didn’t know he’d be sneakin’ in the woods. And there’s plenty to be earned,” he hissed.
“You guys’re really stupid, you know that? You take out the Bandit King, and think you can just walk away? Mark’s been put on you. Every thief, murderer, and beggar’ll be keeping an eye out for you.”
Illaeda could hear Gafgarn’s heavy footsteps approach and stop behind her as she asked, “Who would care, exactly?”
“Someone close to Smidgin. Someone pretty pissed off by you killin’ him. Someone who thinks your heads are worth somethin’.”
“Family? Brother? Sister?”
The man laughed, coughing blood, “Oh, nothing so pleasant as all that.”
“Who wants me?” Gafgarn growled.
He laughed and sputtered once more, then replied with a bloody, pale grin, “His ex-wife.”