Deep in the dark of night, beneath the trees of a wood on the north-eastern edge of the River Kingdoms, a blinding light flared suddenly; as though a star had arrived on the earth of Golarion. Jac Steele swiftly dropped the glowing rod he held and rolled back out of the clearing. He sprang to his feet and drew an already loaded crossbow in one fluid motion, turning to face the glare just as the three blue-skinned goblinoid creatures scurried back towards the broken log from which they had first emerged. Each of the mites had covered it’s bulging eyes, shielding them from the glow, and one had even left its small flint knife buried in the flank of the horse lying in a pool of its own blood, breathing raggedly, it’s eyes rolling.
“Zon-Kuthon take you bastards,” Jac swore quietly as he allowed himself to feel the pain from his own wounds. One of the creatures had stabbed clean through his left wrist and the surge of agony nearly caused Jac to drop his crossbow. “Why’d you do dat t’ Calathes? I jest bought dat gods damned horse. He’s new!” The man stooped, still watching through the tree line, and picked up the rapier he’d dropped, gritting his teeth against the throb from his wrist as he did so. The lean, dark horse was clearly still alive, though badly wounded and unable to move, and Jac wasn’t about to let those things kill it if it could be helped.
Daring to glance away for a moment, Jac located a large oak whose roots held a recess large enough for a man to lie in. In the light from the sunrod, Jac could make out a small den beneath the tree. His skill as a woodsman and a smuggler told him that it had probably belonged to a badger or other large creature, but hadn’t been used in some time. It would make an excellent hiding spot until Jac’s allies arrived.
With both weapons hanging uselessly from his hands he backed slowly and stealthily toward the tree. His foot struck the roots and he tossed the rapier in the hollow before sliding, feet first, in after it. He braced the crossbow on a root, aimed to cover his wounded horse, and pulled leaves and detritus in to cover him. With some of the natural groundcover balanced carefully on his wide-brimmed hat, Jac settled down and blended almost perfectly in with the rest of the woods. Only the steel glint of the bolt’s head and the shine of Jac’s amber eyes gave away his position. From here he could act as a sniper while his comrades took out the vile creatures below.
He had ridden out a little ahead of them to act as a scout, a natural fit given his experience. He’d carefully left a trail for them to follow and only hoped they’d arrive quickly. The group had set out several hours ago on a mission to disrupt the operations of a group of bandits in the area. Though Jac, himself, had little interest in bringing the men to justice, Svetlana had asked for his help and the gods knew she and her husband, Oleg, deserved better than to be constantly subjected to thugs and petty thieves.
Jac smiled as he rememberd the kiss he had stolen from Svetlana just that morning. He and his party had handily defeated the ruffians who came for their tribute, even capturing three of the four. The kind folk at the trading post had been duly impressed and delighted to have received his help and Svetlana had moved to kiss Jac’s forhead after Oleg ran off to thank the others of Jac’s group. Jac couldn’t resist and had moved to catch her lips with his own in a brief peck. Svetlana may be a motherly sort, but, as Jac was fond of saying, every woman is a flower; some may be more shapely than others, but they all have their beauty. She had not begrudged him the act.
At least I have that to keep me warm while I wait, Jac thought. His mind wandered to the lips of Lilu and her brother, Delrus. The brother was quite handsome, but was also the source of Jac’s suspicion, while the sister had already developed a special report with Jac. Where are those comrades of mine, anyway? he wondered, thinking now of Ser Bannon’s steel sword and the barbarian child Kelak’s well defined muscles. If they’d kept pace with him, they should have been less than a minute behind him and Jac was starting to get concerned. He’d been very careful in checking the path for dangers to his allies. That was how he’d gotten into his current predicament; by checking the broken log near the mushroom fairy ring in the clearing in a hollow in the haunted woods. An obvious jeopardy made more obvious by the chittering noises coming from the fallen tree. When he’d dismounted to examine the precise nature of the risk, the varmints had attacked him, leaping from the darkness with their knives and babbling something in undercommon. Jac was unprepared, having expected, in all honesty, spiders, and the mites had managed to stab him and his horse repeatedly, badly wounding them both.
Still, the rest of the wood had been quiet and without any peril more serious than the thorny bushes he’d passed an hour ago. Jac could think of nothing that would have slowed the group. Not unless Kelak had killed another horse. That kid and horses did not get along.
Something shifted in the clearing, interrupting Jac’s thoughts. His attention swiftly focused on the log and his finger tightened on the crossbow’s trigger. Three full minutes went by without further sign of movement and Jac relaxed slightly, his mind returning to its wanderings.
He was sure that Ser Bannon would have stopped Kelak from doing anything foolish. If not him, Lilu certainly wouldn’t stand for it. She had some strange notion that Kelak’s totem animal was a horse, though Jac couldn’t see why in the names of the gods that would be true. What could possibly be holding them up then, Jac didn’t know.
Maybe Delrus decided I was too much trouble, after all. He and Jac had gotten to bickering a bit over the interrogation of the prisoners. It seemed logical to Jac that everyone be involved in the questioning so that no information was lost and so that multiple avenues could be pursued. Delrus had seemed to disagree and had sent the party away. True, a couple people, Jac included, had pulled weapons on one of the prisoners…
Jac’s concerns had been further aroused when Delrus began offering one of the bandits a position in a new band of brigands, serving under the former pirate. While he had no overt objection to joining a band of benign outlaws, Jac would at least like to be asked, so he took his concerns to Lilu. Delrus had seemed to develop a dislike of Jac from early on, perhaps because the smuggler was so flirtatious with his sister, and had been resistant to engaging with the man. Jac hoped that his report with Lilu would allow him to get some information on the de facto leader of the group and help him set everything in context. What Liluye would reveal would only worry Jac further.
The leaves at the base of an old ache rustled as Jac stirred beneath them, his joints now beginning to ache with sitting still so long. It was now well past midnight and still no sign of his friends. He cautiously moved to set his wounded hand over the pouch strung on his belt. He had stored a piece of paper in that pouch, on which he’d traced the copy of a strange symbol. According to Lilu, that symbol was carved into the hilt of the dagger that was found amidst the slaughter of Delrus’s last crew.
The sister had confessed to Jac that her brother was here, exploring the Stolen Lands for the mayor of Restov, because he was running from the mysterious evil that had killed so many of his friends. While Jac could sympathize, Delrus had put the whole band in danger without warning and it now seemed that he may be genuine in his desire to recreate a gang subservient to him. What purpose Delrus would use such a gang for, Jac could only guess; theft, murder, and revenge all seemed viable options.
Liluye, too, had seemed concerned that this may be the case, claiming she felt she had been tricked into coming along. Jac only hoped she now felt the trip was worth it. After all, she would never have met him, if she hadn’t. He smiled beneath his concealment at his own arrogance.
Of course, Delrus had denied any malicious intent when confronted and had promised to send the captives north to the authorities. Whether or not he really would have done so was made irrelevant when a contingent came from the capital in answer to the requests for aid sent by Oleg and Svetlana.
Jac shivered as he realized he’d begun to lose focus. The sound of hoof beats and a low roaring roused him from his mental meanderings. His gaze shifted to the track he’d left as he heard someone dismounting. A sigh of relief escaped him as he recognized Ser Bannon’s tabbard through the trees. The cause of both the delay and the roaring became immediately apparent as Jac spotted Kelak riding a horse. In customary fashion, the boy threw himself bodily off the animal as soon as it came to a stop, the roar dying as he did so. Stealth would not be an option, even if Jac hadn’t already alerted the mites.
Jac Steele burst out of the treeline and into the path, leaves still falling from his hat and blood dripping from his wrist and soaking his clothes in several spots, his heavy crossbow hanging from his hand.
“What in de hells took ye so long?” he demanded, smiling all the while. Lilu’s gaze fixed on the blood while her brother, Delrus, asked what had happened.
“There are dree mites down der,” Jac pointed to the clearing. “Ah thought you guys’d be right behind me.” Kelak was already running for the clearing, Ser Bannon following at a more practical pace.
“The horse we borrowed for Kelak is already exhausted,” explained the former pirate. Lilu stepped forward and spoke a few strange words, reaching out to touch Jac’s wounded arm. Glowing vines of green light twisted out of her hand and enveloped Jac, burrowing into his wounds before withdrawing, leaving healed flesh in their wake. Jac shuddered involuntarily. It wasn’t the first time he’d been healed by magic, but it was always strange. “Thank you,” he said, tipping his hat to the druid. “Calathes is down der, unconscious.” The elf was the one who had told Jac his horse’s name, so he knew he wouldn’t need to elaborate. Her concerned gaze shifted to follow Kelak.
The child was already in mid-leap, his axe raised over his head. With a thunderous crash, Kelak brought the weapon down on one half of the log, shattering it. One of the mites scurried out just as the tree exploded and tried to stab at the barbarian. Kelak’s axe came up in a back swing and the blue-skinned creature’s body fell away in two pieces.
The other two creatures were now hissing and screaming in their fell language as they braved the light to avenge their comrade, each shooting a dart from their blowguns at Kelak. The boy dodged the first and the second struck him clean in the forehead, bouncing harmlessly off.
Jac’s bolt took the second mite through the chest as it began to charge Kelak, causing the mite to fly across the clearing and pinning its body to a tree. The third was reduced to pulp by the might of Kelak’s blow and the wood fell silent.
“Ah guess Ah jest needed de help of a few good friends,” Jac said.