GM’d and posted by Jennifer
Naessa looked quickly at the immediate surroundings. A wall of soft stone leaned over them, with a narrow clear area running along its base. The undergrowth began about ten feet from the wall. “So I don’t surprise anyone, don’t attack the trees, all right?” she said and began to gesture and hum under her breath. For several moments, nothing happened, then a mass of roots, branches, and half-rotten tree stumps heaved itself from the stone and assembled into a roughly man-shaped form. Casidhe recoiled, horrified, as it stomped onto the path to stand beside Naessa.
Simon frowned as he felt the searching presence pass over them again—the mage must have sensed Naessa casting her spell. Naessa glanced at the elder mage in alarm, then they both relaxed as they felt the searching pass without stopping. Naessa heaved herself up into a tree in order to get out of sight, while Casidhe and Gheris secreted themselves behind a largish tree. Simon considered for a few moments longer, then walked back along the path until he could achieve a vantage point on top of the rock wall; Lothaire followed him but stayed mounted, prepared for whatever scouts might appear. Only Aidan and Kentrell remained on the path, not certain what else they should do.
“Is everyone ready?” Aidan called.
“Yes,” Naessa said from the top of her tree. Time passed, with everyone growing quite cold and numb from the lack of activity. Then Casidhe spotted something moving through the trees. He hesitated, then made what he imagined was a bird call in order to get Aidan’s attention. The young noble glanced his way just as another of the massive white wolves leapt onto the path. Two men followed on its heels. One of them casually pulled out a bow and shot at Aidan. He winced as the arrow struck him in the muscular part of his thigh, easily finding an opening in his light chainmail. The arrow had done some damage, but there was no time to look at it now. Aidan raised his sword and shield and ran toward the wolf, catching it under the jaw with the edge of his shield as he brought the sword down on its neck. The wolf staggered back, cold gas leaking from the wound. Aidan’s hair stood up as the spell Simon had placed on his sword took effect.
The other soldier turned and ran back into the trees, shouting: “We’ve found them!” in Orlesian. On top of the wall, Simon paled at the sound. He couldn’t think of any good possibilities if these men turned out to be Orlesians. Their presence could indicate the start of another war, and wars tended to be bad for the mercenary business. Kingdoms fighting for their very survival had little coin to spend and the missions were incredibly dangerous.
Naessa’s wood familiar shambled toward the wolf, and the bowman shouted in alarm. A magical bolt from Simon’s staff struck him in the chest, killing him instantly. Aidan dodged away from the wolf’s jaws and drove the point of his sword through its rib cage and into its heart. It collapse, dead, and the sword almost flew from Aidan’s hand as boiling fluid poured from the wound.
“They know where we are now,” Simon said loudly. “We shouldn’t stay here long. Anyone have a plan?”
“Yeah,” Aidan said, panting. “This arrow hurts. Can one of you help me get it out?” Naessa jumped down from her tree and pulled out some bandages.
“It’s not barbed, I should just be able to push it through . . .” Naessa observed. Aidan gritted his teeth as the elven mage shoved the arrow the rest of the way through his flesh and broke it in half, removing both halves cleanly. She then began cleaning the injury and packing it with waxy salve before applying a bandage. Aidan tested his weight on the leg by walking a few steps. It was quite uncomfortable, but didn’t seem to slow him much.
“Thanks,” he said, and Naessa smiled.
“Is that going to be all right?” she asked, making a magical gesture.
“I think I’ll be able to manage!” Aidan said quickly, eyeing her askance.
Casidhe examined the wolf, trying to decide if he recognized it, then gave it up as a bad try. The white wolves hardly had any identifying marks, and he didn’t get a very good look at the one that vanished, anyway. “We should get out of here,” he remarked.
They left the path and circled around the edges of the defile, keeping the faint traces of smoke on their right. After some difficulty hiking through drifted snow, they came to an overlook where they could see down into a large camp. Thirty or forty men were gathered around the fires, and there were many tents and a largish wagon stacked with oddly-shaped crates. They were about six feet long, three feet wide, and only two inches deep.
“That’s a lot of people,” Aidan whispered.
“More than I care to face, friend,” Casidhe whispered back.
“I told you there were a lot of them!” Naessa announced, prompting everyone else to shush her. Gheris rolled her eyes expressively. “That’s why we wanted to report it to someone,” Naessa continued in a much lower voice.
“Hearing it and seeing it are two different things,” Aidan whispered. “Maybe we can just go down and ask what they want?”
“They just tried to kill us, boy,” Simon replied. “And have you forgotten that they’re on friendly terms with those wolves?”
A robed and hooded man emerged from one of the tents and made an imperious gesture with his staff at the nearby soldiers. They began to strike camp quickly and efficiently, in eerie silence. Casidhe frowned, realizing that they really ought to be hear snatches of conversation or even cursing, but there was nothing.
“Whatever we’re going to do, we have to hurry,” Naessa said.
“Maybe we could split them up somehow,” Casidhe offered. He watched as the robed man, presumably the mage, went over to the wagon and lifted a crate off it, propping it up on one of its narrow edges. He then opened two doors on the front of the crate as though it were an extremely thin wardrobe, and one of the huge white wolves leaped out and landed in the snow next to the mage. It shook itself off and pointed its muzzle at the mage’s face; he gestured it aside impatiently.
“That was NOT normal!” Aidan hissed.
“No, it’s . . . did anyone notice any reflections when that wolf jumped out? A shiny back to the box or something?” Naessa asked.
“These people definitely have something to do with Falenath’s disappearance, I’ll tell you that for nothing,” Casidhe said. The robed man made a few more gestures and in short order there were half a dozen wolves crowding around him. “I can make out a bluish glow, that’s it.”
“Blue?” Naessa asked. “Like ice? What are we going to do?”
“I think a retreat is in order,” Simon said grimly.
“We can’t just leave them here!” Naessa protested. “Who knows what they’re up to?”
“Six wolves, a mage with unknown powers, and three dozen armed men?” Simon demanded incredulously. “The odds are not in our favor, here. I don’t even like our odds at running if I fireball the crates from here. Not with those wolves.”
Naessa’s face fell. “I suppose not. I wish Ninnion were here, he was always better at tactics. If I can summon another Familiar, I still think we’ll have a pretty good shot, though.”
Aidan rubbed his leg and winced. Fortunately, the cold seemed to be doing it some good. “I dunno,” he said. “What help can we get?”
Simon frowned deeply. “We won’t be able to get support from Inbolc, he’s already said as much. The Steward at the Banncreag might be willing to lend us men—if we can get in to see him and IF he believes this mad story.”
“I’m sure the Templars in Lothering would love to hear about this magician, but I won’t be the one to tell them,” Casidhe added.
“It would take too long to go back to the fort!” Naessa insisted. “They’re getting ready to leave as we speak! Besides, we can’t just leave Geoffrey and Ferron out here. If we start an attack, I’m sure they’ll join in to help us.”
“Can we contact them?” Simon asked.
“Ferron’s a good scout,” Naessa insisted. “As soon as he sees what we’re doing, he’ll figure it out.”
“Lothaire?” Simon appealed to the chevalier. Lothaire shrugged.
“I just need a good avenue to charge in,” he said. Simon pulled both hands downward over his face.
“I have a spell that should keep me alive,” the elder mage said finally. “Let’s try to find out what’s going on down there. Aidan, Casidhe, come along. The rest of you get ready to fight.”
“All right,” Casidhe said. Aidan looked nervous.
“You won’t be able to charge anywhere on that leg,” Simon explained. “And I’ll need both of you to keep them off me for a few seconds if this goes bad.”
“Right,” Aidan said. The three of them began to circle back to the path. Naessa, Gheris and Lothaire took up their own positions. Naessa commanded an earth familiar to rise from the ground, then sent it and her wood familiar after the diplomatic party, hoping they wouldn’t be needed.
A few of the soldiers began to reach for weapons as Simon, Casidhe, and Aidan came into view, but the robed mage gestured and they stopped. “What do you want?” the mage demanded, his voice oddly raspy. He had a pronounced Orlesian accent. Simon realized abruptly that he recognized the man as Jean-Jacques Benoit, a Circle mage who had passed away a year or two earlier.
“Ser Benoit,” Simon said dryly. “I see you’re in good health.” Casidhe gasped, surprised.
“Better than you will be if you don’t tell me why you’re here.”
“I’m currently investigating some magical disturbances, including those wolves you seem to have summoned. I’m also attempting to find a man who disappeared with one of those wolves. Under contract, of course.”
“I see,” Benoit said. “Then I’m afraid we have little to discuss.”
“On the contrary, I was hoping we might collaborate in our endeavors, or at least avoid stepping on each others’ toes.”
Benoit looked intrigued at the word collaborate. “I’m surprised that you’d make such an offer, but my . . . employer is always in the market for talent. I can arrange for you to meet him if you’d like.”
“This wouldn’t happen to be a contract from Ser D’Artagne, would it? He and I never got along all that well,” Simon replied smoothly. “Or are you working for someone else, now?”
“I left his employment some time ago,” Benoit said.
“That’s good to hear, as you never entered it in the first place, imposter,” Simon said, and began casting a spell. The soldiers drew swords and bows and began charging toward him, so Casidhe and Aidan moved to block their paths.
“The Fade, Simon, warn us next time!” Aidan grumbled.
Lothaire spurred his war horse into the encampment, riding one man down and taking another out with his axe. A storm of arrows sped at him and Simon, but most of them went wide. Lothaire ducked, but Simon ignored them completely, engrossed in his spell. One arrow struck Kentrell in the side, leaving a gash along his rib cage, but the mabari appeared undeterred, grabbing an attacker by the leg and shaking the man violently.
The earth familiar stormed into the camp and smashed a soldier like a toy. The others scrambled to get out of its way as Lothaire circled his horse around the edge of the camp, looking for more targets. Simon gasped in pain as an arrow struck him in the arm, but he managed to finish his spell, hurling a fireball into the mass of white wolves that were charging toward him. The wolves howled and burned with a shocking green flame. Simon felt another arrow impact and ducked behind Aidan, hurling magical bolts from his staff at Benoit while the young noble and Casidhe struggled to keep the wolves back. Naessa’s magical bolts also flew into the fight, dropping more men.
Benoit staggered as the magical bolt struck him and lost the spell he was casting. Simon sighed in relief and directed his attention elsewhere as Casidhe skewered a flaming wolf through the eye. Aidan was struggling to stay on his feet, but struggling well. Gheris surreptitiously stabbed a few of the men circling the Earth Elemental as she felt Lothaire go pounding by her, scattering men left and right.
Aidan knocked a soldier off his feet as Benoit started to sprint away from the combat. A bolt from Simon’s staff caught him in the chest and the mage . . . shattered, like a mirror, spraying shards of grayish glass everywhere. The remaining wolves vanished. Lothaire, looking around for more targets, realized that the only remaining soldier was cowering at the point of Aidan’s sword.
“Perhaps you’d care to drop your weapons?” Simon said after a moment. The soldier threw his sword aside and raised his hands. “Casidhe, if you’d bind this gentleman’s hands and hobble him?”
“I can’t believe you killed him!” the soldier babbled.
“Who did he tell you he was?” Simon asked.
“Uh, Jean-Jacques Benoit, I think.”
“My familiars are chasing the ones who ran off, but they’re a bit slow,” Naessa said, hurrying into the camp. Aidan glanced over at Casidhe.
“Cas, let’s go after them. I don’t really want to watch what Simon does to this fellow.”
“I don’t have much stomach for it, myself,” Cas said. “Let’s go.
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