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    The Silver Wolf-Behind The Mask: The Highwaymen
    Posted on Fri, January 27, 2023 by LordCeb
    CruelSummerLord writes "Her Highness Jolene Sarneth, Mistress of the Celestial Order of the Moons, reflected the mixed heritage that came from Veluna’s long history of racial harmony. Her skin was brown in color, partway between the light tan of the Oeridians and the darker copper of the Flan, her hair the chestnut-brown of the Oeridians but wavy in the way of the Flan, and her eyes were a Sueloise gray. Her moods were decidedly mixed as well, capable of fiery passion one moment and ice-cold calmness the next.

     Chapter Eight

    The Highwaymen

    It was a beautiful day as the companions walked through the lowlands of southern Veluna. The month of Planting was nearly over, and the sun shone brightly over a land that almost seemed idyllic. Many of the fields the companions passed were filled with farmers tilling freshly-planted crops, herds of cattle and sheep, and quaint homesteads, interspersed with small stands of fruit trees and trails connecting to the main road. The sounds of playing children, rushing streams and singing birds filled the companions’ ears.

    All that changed the next day when the companions came within sight of their destination, the town of Vala Real. Plumes of smoke rose into the air from it, and many of the homesteads the companions passed by were empty. The pleasant sounds the companions heard the day before were also gone, replaced with a disturbing silence.

    Frowning, Weimar told his friends to halt as he pulled his spyglass out of his pack. Gazing through it, he took in a grim sight.

    Fires smouldered on several of Vala Real’s buildings, while others simply lay in ruins. Several villagers’ corpses lay in the streets, their loved ones crying over their deaths while Velunese soldiers and town militiamen conferred intently.

    “What in the Nine Hells happened there?” he said in horror. Lowering his spyglass, he saw his friends looking at him with concern.

    “What did you see?” Seline asked.

    “An awful lot of people who look like they need our help,” Weimar said, as he put away his spyglass.

    The companions quickened their pace towards Vala Real, their hands on their weapons.

     “Halt!” the companions heard a shout as they came near to Vala Real. They saw a wall of archers, both humans and halflings, standing between them and the city. The archers all had their bows nocked, seemingly ready to shoot at the slightest excuse.

    The companions immediately obeyed the archers’ command, and Airk, Luna and Weimar all dropped their shields. The rank of archers briefly parted and a group of people approached the companions, their swords drawn. They were a mixed group of humans and elves, dressed in suits of scale and chain mail. The emblems on their shields and badges indicated their ranks as Velunese soldiers. One of them was clearly the leader, a woman whose reddish-brown hair, worn in a shoulder-length bob cut, pointed ears and emerald-green eyes showed her high elven background. She glared at each of the companions in turn, her expression clearly showing her suspicion.

    “What’s your business in Vala Real?” she said.

    The companions briefly glanced at one another, but Luna stepped forward.

    “In Pelor’s name, we mean no harm to you or those you love,” Luna said, pulling her Pelorian pendant out from under her clothes. “I am Luna Roas Del Cranden, and we’re the Company of the Silver Wolf,” she said, before introducing her friends. “May we ask what’s happened here…” she said, trailing off.

    “Captain Larissa Goldpine,” the elven woman said, lowering her sword somewhat. “And what’s happened here was a small army of brigands attacking Vala Real and abducting Her Highness Lady Jolene!”

    Airk and Revafour exchanged glances, and their shoulders slumped.

    “Lady Jolene is mistress of the Celestial Order of the Moons, Veluna’s secular nobility.” Airk said to his friends, as Revafour nodded. “She’s nearly as prominent as His Venerable Reverence, Canon Hazen,” he continued, referring to Veluna’s theocratic ruler.  “What was Her Highness doing here?” he asked Larissa.

    “Touring southern Veluna,” Larissa said. “There was a welcoming ceremony for Her Highness’s entourage when they arrived…and then the brigands attacked. The fires they set forced some of our troops to fight the fires. They couldn’t stop the bandits from abducting Her Highness and many of our citizens. Now they want a large ransom for our people’s return. If we don’t pay it, the brigands will sell their prisoners as slaves. Corellon only knows what they’ll do to Her Highness.”

    The companions exchanged glances again.

    “We might be able to help you with that,” Luna said, as she knelt to pick up her shield.

    At first glance, Durdin hardly seemed like he’d be anyone’s first choice as an ambassador. His clothes were stained from being worn for weeks without washing, his teeth were just as dirty when they weren’t simply gone, his ring mail and sword were flecked with rust, his arms were decorated with decidedly adult-oriented tattoos and his smirk was as insolent as it was repulsive. Those traits didn’t keep him from being one of the bandit gang’s leaders, and the one chosen to receive the ransom for Jolene.

    Standing in the middle of the Southern Dapple Wood, the forest near Vala Real, Durdin was perfectly at ease. He was surrounded by a score of his boys, all of them armed to the teeth and more than ready for any trouble. When one of his scouts returned to tell him that the Velunese representatives were on their way with the ransom, he led his fellow bandits in laughing.

    The woman leading the Velunese delegation was a priestess, as Durdin expected. He was slightly surprised to see that she was a follower of Pelor rather than Rao, but it hardly mattered. Most Pelorians were just as weak-willed as Raoans, and Durdin doubted she’d give him any trouble. He glanced warily at the priestess’s guards, a large Flan man, a blonde-bearded gnome, and the four or five Velunese soldiers behind her, but they remained impassive. Durdin’s eyes lit up as he saw the chest two of the soldiers were carrying. He licked his cracked lips, eager for the prize he knew it contained.

    “Right, then,” Durdin said, putting on his best smirk. “I’m sure ye’re all keen on gettin’ yer pretty-pretty princess back, so let’s be makin’ this quick. Lemme see the goods, then we’ll ‘ave a look at helpin’ ye get yer kin home.”

    The priestess frowned at Durdin, barely able to restrain her contempt. Durdin widened his smirk in response, threading his tongue through one of the gaps in his teeth. She was a pretty one in her own right, and Durdin looked her up and down admiringly. Her guards stiffened behind her but did not react, knowing they couldn’t afford to anger Durdin.

    “Here they are,” the priestess said, gesturing for the soldiers carrying the chest to bring it forward. One of the soldiers opened the lid as they advanced, exposing its contents. Durdin and several of his men close enough to see all cheered as they admired the precious stones it contained. Gems glittered in every color of the rainbow, all of them finely cut and polished. Durdin could tell they worth enough coin to fill the pockets of every member of his gang to bursting.

    “Forty thousand, then?” Durdin asked, as some of his men took the chest and he sealed it with a padlock he retrieved from his pocket.

    “Forty thousand,” the priestess said, “and may Pelor forgive all of you for your actions.”

    “Hah,” Durdin said, scoffing. “I’m thinkin’ Pelor has more important things to worry about, darlin’. Two days for you to gather everythin’, were it? So it’ll be two days for us to return yer princess and people. ‘Til next time, love!” he said, giving a mock salute before he turned to lead his men away.

    As he led his men through the Dapple Wood, Durdin laughed to himself at the gullibility of the Velunese delegates.

    He and his boys intended to honor their agreement to return Jolene…

    …but they didn’t say how many pieces she had to be in when they did.

    Her Highness Jolene Sarneth, Mistress of the Celestial Order of the Moons, reflected the mixed heritage that came from Veluna’s long history of racial harmony. Her skin was brown in color, partway between the light tan of the Oeridians and the darker copper of the Flan, her hair the chestnut-brown of the Oeridians but wavy in the way of the Flan, and her eyes were a Sueloise gray. Her moods were decidedly mixed as well, capable of fiery passion one moment and ice-cold calmness the next.

    She kept that calmness as she sat in a cell in the half-ruined forest keep the bandits used as a lair, still wearing the fine gown she had on when she was abducted. While Jolene’s dress was disheveled from the rough journey to the bandits’ keep, she carried herself with an air of dignity. She looked sharply up at the rattling sound coming from the door to her cell, as if someone was having trouble entering a key in a lock.

    Jolene suspected she knew why, and tensed up as whoever was trying to unlock her cell finally got it open.

    Her worst fears were confirmed as the bandit stumbled into the cell, his jerkin stained with the cheap wine he’d spilled all over himself. He bore a disgusting leer as he shambled towards Jolene, rubbing his hands eagerly.

    Jolene kept a calm expression, and merely stared at the bandit as he advanced on her.

    “Didn’t your boss warn you I wasn’t to be touched?” Jolene asked, tensing in spite of herself. “You’ll likely be flogged for this.”

    The bandit just laughed, the stink of alcohol on his breath causing Jolene’s nose to wrinkle.

    “Boss thinks his crap don’t stink, tellin’ us when we can ‘n can’t enjoy ourselves,” the bandit said, his voice slurring. “Ye’re too pretty to be enjoyed by jus’ one man. You ain’t tellin’ ‘im nothin’, pretty one…if ye do, ye’re headin’ home without yer tongue.”

    Jolene grasped her shackles in her hands. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to fight the man off, but she’d be damned if she didn’t try.

    She didn’t have to. The man suddenly stood stock still, staring vacantly ahead. To Jolene’s astonishment, he collapsed dead on the cell floor in front of her. She saw the reason why when she saw a dagger protruding from the man’s back. A red-haired halfling stood behind the man, kneeling down as she pulled the dagger out of his back and wiped it on his jerkin. Sheathing the blade, she stood up and turned to Jolene.

    “I hope Your Highness is unharmed?” Amyalla asked Jolene, who blinked in surprise.

    Jolene’s surprise soon faded, as a wry grin crossed her face.

    “You’re my rescuer, I take it?” she asked.

    “Amyalla Reorsa at Your Highness’s service,” Amyalla said, curtsying. “I hope you’ll excuse the slight indecency, but I find this to be an excellent hiding place” she said, lifting her skirt to reach for the lockpicks she kept hidden on her garters.

    Amyalla didn’t find the locks on Jolene’s shackles particularly challenging, and Jolene was soon free. Amyalla pulled a dagger from her belt and handed it to Jolene, taking out a second one for herself before leading Jolene out of the cell.

    “I don’t mean any offense, but I hope you’re not my only rescuer,” Jolene whispered as she followed Amyalla down the hallway. “I doubt you’d be able to fight our way out of here on your own. And what about the bandits’ other captives?”

    Amyalla just smiled.

    “Luckily, I’m not your only rescuer,” Amyalla said.

    From his hiding place behind a woodpile near the bandit stables, Weimar threw a stone past the two bandit guards. As the bandits turned in alarm to look where the resulting thudding sound came from, Weimar ran silently at them. He threw a dagger into the back of one guard, striking him dead. As the surviving guard stared down at his suddenly dead friend, Weimar grabbed him from behind and cut his throat with a second dagger, covering his mouth to keep him from screaming.

    Weimar retrieved his other dagger and wiped both of them on the bandits’ clothes, shaking his head. He hated using this kind of trickery, but he didn’t think he really had a choice. He had to get into the stables without the bandit guards raising the alarm.

    The bandits’ horses glanced nervously at Weimar as he walked through the stable, unsettled by the violence they’d seen him commit. They shrank back slightly from him as he opened their pens, before he finally moved to a safe open area at the far end of the stable. Pulling a torch from his backpack, Weimar tied some straw around it to increase its size. Finally, he used his tinderbox to ignite the torch, the extra straw causing it to flash brightly as it caught fire.

    The horses neighed in terror and ran frantically for the stable exit. Already disturbed by Weimar killing their guards, the sudden burst of flame and light drove them into a panic. As they emerged from the stables, they became a full on stampede, running frantically through the keep’s courtyard.

    The barracks where most of the bandits were staying suddenly burst open. Many of the bandits came flooding out, calling to one another as they tried to corral the horses.

    Weimar shook his head again as he doused his torch in a nearby pail of water. As much as he detested killing men with sneak attacks, he hated terrifying innocent horses all the more.

    The companions needed to get the bandits out in the open, and Weimar didn’t see any other way to do it.

    Following the horses out of the stable, Weimar nocked an arrow to his longbow.

    Seline held up her hand as she completed her spell. A flurry of silvery-blue magical bolts flashed from her fingers, weaving past the stampeding horses to strike down several of the bandits. Two of the bandits were instantly killed by Seline’s bolts. The others, briefly stunned by Seline’s blasts, were trampled to death by the stampeding horses. As the bandits cried out in pain, Seline cast a second spell, releasing another flurry of magical bolts.

    A couple of bandits managed to trace the source of the missiles, realizing they were under attack. One of them threw his spear at Seline, but it bounced harmlessly off the protective barrier she’d cast in front of herself. Three more of the bandits charged at Seline, their weapons raised, but Ma’non’go sprang out from behind the barrels he’d been hiding behind. His trident flashed as he slashed one bandit across the ribs, killing the man instantly. The other two men turned to face Ma’non’go, but they were too surprised to defend themselves. Ma’non’go ran one bandit through immediately, before he pulled his trident free. He easily parried the other bandit’s attack and retaliated, skewering the bandit’s abdomen in a single swift move.

    Another group of bandits seemed like it was about to attack Seline and Ma’non’go, but several of them were struck down by Weimar’s arrows. Seline cast another spell at some of the bandits, putting them to sleep so the horses trampled them. Only a few bandits made it past Weimar’s and Seline’s attacks, and Ma’non’go easily killed them.

    After a few minutes, most of the horses had fled into the woods, as had most of the surviving bandits. The companions regrouped, heading for the main keep itself where the bandits’ prisoners were held. They found a trail of corpses, the remains of the bandits Amyalla killed on her way to free Jolene. Soon, they encountered Amyalla and Jolene themselves.

    “You have our thanks,” Jolene said to Amyalla’s friends when she’d introduced them to her, “but there’re still a fair number of bandits out there. They went to take my ransom.”

    “We know,” Ma’non’go said with a smile.

    The pleasurable sensation Durdin felt came as much from the success of his gang’s mission as from the fine wine he was already half drunk on. He and his boys had scored a fine haul of treasure, and their patron’s reward would leave them richer still. It was a pity about Jolene having to die, but their patron’s instructions were crystal clear. They could return the other prisoners to Vala Real if they wanted, but the only part of Jolene they could return was her head.

    Durdin was so pleased with himself it took several seconds for him to notice his men’s screams. They were under attack, as a flurry of arrows shot out of the woods from either side. Sobering up immediately, Durdin ordered his men to fire back. Many of them had already formed up and were shooting their own bows and crossbows, but the attackers’ arrows struck with greater accuracy.

    Durdin’s lieutenant cried out and fell dead from his horse, an arrow halfway through his throat. Durdin recognized the fletching of the arrow as that of the Dapple sylvan elves. Cursing his luck, Durdin drew his sword and wheeled his horse off to the side, wondering what could have led the elves to attack his gang. He charged, determined to get into close quarters with the elves while his men provided cover fire.

    He was shocked to see the priestess of Pelor emerge from the trees, her mace in her hand. Another mace, one made of glowing golden light, flashed in the air above her. Her guards, the gnome and the large Flan man, stood to either side of her. Several of Durdin’s men attacked the priestess’s guards, but the priestess’s guards easily overcame them.

    Durdin only had eyes for the priestess, however. Somehow, he knew, she was responsible for this attack. Raising his sword and screaming a threat, he charged at her, slashing down with his sword. The priestess easily blocked Durdin’s blow with her shield, stepping back as she gestured with the mace she held.

    At first, Durdin didn’t realize what she was doing. Too late, he realized she was summoning her other mace, the magical golden one. Turning around on his horse, he saw the magical mace flying at him. He swung at it, but it ducked around his slash and struck him square in the face, knocking him off his horse.

    Cursing and muttering to himself, Durdin rose to his feet. His head throbbed from the mace’s blow, but he was still able to react as the priestess approached him from behind. He shifted his stance to see both the priestess and her golden mace, gripping his sword in both hands. He easily struck the golden mace as it swung down at him, knocking it back. He moved to attack the priestess, but she was faster. Knocking his sword aside with her shield, the priestess struck him in the side of the head with her mace.

    Durdin’s vision blurred from that second blow, but he saw the priestess’s anger and sadness all too clearly as she struck the third, and fatal, blow.

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