Wandering Combine (Part 1) Dangerous Roads
The sun was high above Wayhearth as Ela stepped out of the inn. She breathed deeply, smiling as the Summer breeze rustled her long white dress and jet black hair. She tucked a stray strand of hair behind one of the purple horns that curled tightly around her pointed ears. As the door closed behind her, she adjusted the pack on her back for comfort, then set off down the cobbled street, her pointed tail swishing lightly through the air.
As she walked, her solid white eyes looking around one last time for any temple or shrine, she felt eyes on her; tieflings were not common in the small city-state of Braycor, purple ones even less so, and recent events had turned Wayhearth into a tense and suspicious place.
Prior to Ela’s arrival in Braycor, the neighbouring land was occupied and ruled by a powerful Lich. When the Lich was cast down, the conquering forces renamed the land Liber and a mass plundering began. Magical and dangerous artifacts, weapons and items of all sorts were pouring out of the region and into the surrounding lands. By the time Ela arrived in Wayhearth, the border town adjacent to Liber, it had grown from a military encampment into a boomtown with many stores and services rushing to the area to capitalise on the aftermath of the Lich’s defeat.
She had not been in town long, scarcely long enough to find an inn, when she had been approached by a stranger and had agreed to join a caravan carrying items of value to Braycor’s capital of Seaford. Her reasons for so readily agreeing to the work eluded her as she walked to the caravan that day, but she vividly remembered the terms: fifty gold to be paid immediately, another five hundred upon completion, do not touch the contents of the caravan under pain of death. Unwilling to break a promise, even without memory of why she made it, Ela arrived in the square from which the caravan would depart.
Lined up before a large wooden podium were three carts. Numerous people of varying races milled around them, climbing aboard and inspecting the horses. Directed to the front cart, Ela approached to find four others waiting; two elves and a human were sat in the back, while a bright blue dragonborn was alone in the front seat, looking around excitedly.
As she climbed into the back with the others, Ela’s eyes were immediately drawn to a golden chest in the centre. Though small in size, something about it seemed to demand attention. A tall male high elf dressed in tailored robes was examining the box as closely as possible without actually touching it. Beside him sat another high elf, this one female, who was looking around with an almost disdainful expression. Ela sat in the seat opposite the female elf, next to a middle-aged human wearing a thick leather chest plate. As a little show of respect, the man moved aside to give Ela more room.
Once everyone had mounted their carts, one of the two men on the podium raised his voice, letting it boom around the square.
“Travellers, the time is now. You’ve been given your orders. Off you go.”
Seemingly in response to his words the horses began to trot, even as the dragonborn in the front looked bewildered at the unattended reins.
“Do any of you know how to drive a horse?” the blue dragon-like man asked, tearing his eyes away from the road ahead.
“I’ll do it,” said the human, climbing into the front without another word. Relieved, the dragonborn took his place in the back and settled in. It wasn’t long before their cart passed through the western town gates and began along the road; though where the road led, none of them could say.
“We could use a lookout,” the human called back to the group.
“I don’t mind taking the first shift,” Ela said.
“It’s not my job at all,” the male high elf chuckled. Ela nodded politely and climbed into the front beside the imposing human.
“Good morning. I’m Guy Conrad,” greeted the man as Ela sat down.
“Good afternoon,” she replied after a quick glance at the position of the sun.
“Yes,” the high elf noted, speaking to the driver. “You got it wrong.” There was an awkward pause. “So where’s everybody from?”
“My name is Ela. I grew up among the priests of Pelor. I’m a trained priestess.”
“A priestess?” the dragonborn exclaimed. “I didn’t realise we were in royal company.”
Ela looked at him for a moment, confused.
“Oh! I thought you meant princess. Sorry!”
“No, I’m… No. I was taken in by the priests of Pelor when I was very young.” Ela’s tail loosely coiled around her feet. She took a breath and began scanning the areas ahead and around. “And I’ve been with them ever since.”
“So how come you’re here now?” the high elf asked, his tone softening slightly.
“I…” Ela began before stopping. “I’m not entirely sure, if I’m honest. I don’t know what made me take this job… I can only assume it was the guidance of Pelor.”
“How about you, lizard-man?” the elf continued, leaning casually on his staff.
“Lizard-man?” the dragonborn repeated, frowning. “I know us dragons and lizards look very similar…”
“Sorry. Dragonborn. That’s it.”
Satisfied, the blue-skinned dragonborn puffed himself up.
“I’m Bakris Virnuush and I, very simily, have a similar story to our tiefling friend. I have no idea why I’m here, other than I know I should be here, and I’m here with all of you.” He blinked at the elf’s slightly bewildered expression. “I grew up in a town. Outside of a town, with other dragonborn, and unfortunately I’m on the road trying to find my mother and father…” His voice dipped. “As I haven’t seen them since I was a young child.”
“I’m sorry,” Ela commented. “That can be very hard.”
“That’s sad,” the elf said simply. “I’m asking the question, so I guess I’ll answer next. You can call me Erlan. I was born into a rich family, but you know how it is… After a hundred years of living in the same castle, you want to move out, so I decided to get on the road.” Erlan took a breath and looked up at the sky. “I’ve been doing nice things for villages, building houses and the like, but I’ve started to run low on funds and the reward for this is too good to turn down. I’m here for the money.”
“Oh. I see,” Ela muttered, turning her focus back to her lookout duty.
“Only so I can use the money to keep travelling and helping people out where I can,” Erlan quickly added. He then turned to the woman beside him who, up to then, hadn’t said a word. “What about you, quiet elf?”
“My name is Esieh,” she stressed before continuing. “I’m here for the money as well,” she stated in an offhand way. “I think it’s ridiculous that you’re not all being truthful about that.” No one responded, so she sat up a bit straighter. “That’s why we’re all here, right? Money?”
“Always for the money,” Guy the human chimed in, his great moustache bristling. “Always.”
Bakris looked at the others, making sounds of uncertainty and Ela reached up to grasp the pendant that she wore around her neck. Bakris noticed and leapt on the distraction.
“What’s that you’re holding?” he asked curiously.
Ela gave no response and soon the whole cart fell silent.
The caravan trundled along the road, passing fields and the odd homestead. Their cart was just entering the cool shade of a forest when Ela heard a rummaging sound behind her. She turned to see Esieh, her dark cloak hiding her face, digging around among the contents of their cargo. It didn’t take her long to emerge again, brandishing a rolled piece of paper in one hand.
“A map,” she declared, unfurling it atop a packed tent.
“Should we be looking through this cart?” Ela asked curtly, frowning. “Are we not here to guard and transport it?”
Bakris nodded in agreement.
“Yeah. I was told ‘don’t touch the stuff or you’ll die’.”
Even as the words left his mouth, they all heard a faint humming sound emanate from the small golden chest between them. Erlan cocked his head, all of his attention suddenly riveted on its sleek golden surface. Squinting at it he noticed it was covered in runes and, utilising his burgeoning magical abilities, sensed radiating power coming from it; an aura of magic unlike anything he’d felt before. Suddenly fearful, he tried to withdraw his enquiring mind, but was struck by an ethereal force that knocked him against the side of the cart.
Propping himself up into a sitting position, he held his head and groaned. The pain that bounced around inside his head eclipsed the physical injury from his forceful repulsion.
“Are you okay?” Ela asked quickly, stepping into the back.
“Yeah,” Erlan muttered, waving her off. “Don’t touch it, whatever you do. Just leave it alone.” He held his head tighter and sank onto the rough wood of the cart’s bench.
“I said don’t touch it or you die!” yelled Bakris, taking a blanket and throwing it over the chest as if afraid it’d bite him. He looked down at the wincing form of Erlan. “I think we’ve all learned: don’t touch the shiny things. Shiny things are nice…” He glanced at the covered chest. “But not when they do that.”
“These things we’re transporting are incredibly dangerous,” Ela told them, climbing back into the front. “We need to be very, very careful.”
Ignoring Erlan’s injury, Esieh returned to studying the map. After having left Wayhearth via the west gate, they’d followed the main road towards Eshlethas, an elven city. From there they would turn south, crossing a river before finally arriving at the capital of Seaford.
“That’s where we get our money,” Esieh surmised.
Ela subconsciously touched the pendant on her necklace again.
“Are any of you religious at all?” she asked a few minutes later. Bakris shook his scaly head. Carefully removing it, Ela held out her necklace for them all to see the pendant; a white disc emblazoned with a symbol of the sun. “I worship the God of Light, Pelor. This is His holy symbol.”
“A very interesting symbol it is,” Bakris remarked cheerfully. “What does it do? Does it give you powers?”
Ela blinked and delicately hung it back around her neck.
“No. It give me comfort and allows me to feel close to Him.”
“Anyone else worship the sun?” the dragonborn asked, looking at the others.
“That sounded so condescending!” chuckled Erlan from his prone position as Ela’s expression fell.
“I worship Pelor, God of Light.” Ela’s tone was slightly hurt. “Not ‘the sun’.”
She turned back to her lookout duty and left the passengers to their conversations.
Some hours later, as the road beneath the canopy of the woods began to dim into early evening, Guy spoke up.
“Does anyone know when we’re due to make camp for the night?”
The other four looked at each other and found that no one could actually remember the orders they’d supposedly been given for the caravan job. Guy stood and waved at the cart behind, and soon the whole caravan stopped nearby.
Ela watched as Guy and Erlan, still wincing every now and then from his headache, walked away to speak with some of the guards from the second cart. They returned and stated that the others knew nothing either, but a movement in the woods caught Ela’s eye.
“There’s a shape! There’s someone there,” she announced.
“What? Where?” Bakris began looking around wildly.
“I saw a figure in the woods.”
“An animal shape?” Bakris suggested.
“No. A hooded figure. A man.”
As the words left her mouth, instinct told her to move. In that moment, a crossbow bolt whizzed past her face, narrowly missing her. Ela gasped in surprise, but Erlan didn’t hesitate. He immediately ducked into cover beside the cart and closed his eyes. Muttering an incantation, he placed a hand on his own chest and, within seconds, his body was encased in ethereal cyan armour. He rose, a determined expression on his face, but caught a piece of his new armour on the cart and fell to the ground.
More bolts flew towards the parked caravan. Ela dodged the one aimed for her, but Guy wasn’t so lucky. With a sickening thud, he staggered back, a crossbow bolt embedded in his chest. A third bolt flew towards the occupants of the rearmost cart, but was miraculously caught out of the air by a female tiefling with very pale, almost white skin. As Bakris jumped out of the cart and landed beside the dazed form of Erlan, five bandits emerged from the cover around the track, weapons raised.
With an angry roar, Guy snapped the bolt protruding from his chest and charged the nearest bandit. He raised his shield to ward off another shot, drawing his hefty longsword to strike for the man’s head. Wild-eyed, the bandit tried to jump out of the way, but Guy succeeded in drawing blood.
Ela saw Guy charge out of sight and heard the rush of battle cries around her as over a dozen of her companions readied themselves for combat. She stared at the approaching bandits and froze. Seeing one direct their crossbow at her again, Ela ducked into the rear of the cart and dropped off the back, her breath coming fast and ragged. She desperately fought to steady her nerves as the din of battle swelled.
Esieh, confidently levelling a hitherto-unseen short bow at one of the attackers, took up a position at the front of the cart as the guards from the other two carts surged forwards. Bakris, hurrying after Guy, rounded one of the carts to find a bandit coming alongside it. Weaving his clawed hands through the air, the dragonborn produced three glowing shots of magical energy and launched them with perfect accuracy at the bandits. One struck the man struggling to defend himself against Guy, while the other two smashed into the second bandit’s face, sending both highwaymen reeling. Unfinished, however, Bakris breathed deeply and bellowed.
“I have unlimited power!”
With that, he belched forth a torrent of lightning from his mouth, engulfing the already injured bandit before him. The horses bucked and reared as bright blue electricity cast long, flickering shadows over the entire caravan. When Bakris closed his mouth again, blue-tinged smoke escaping from his nostrils and between his pointed teeth, only a blasted skeleton remained, the bandit’s horrified scream fading on the wind.
As Erlan climbed to his feet, he heard the faint sound of music and felt the pounding ache in his head lessen. Looking round, he saw a halfling from the second cart strumming on a little banjo and singing. Erlan gave him a grateful nod then immediately turned his focus to a bandit some way down the track. Carefully picking his moment, he uttered the words of power and reached out with one hand, sending a tiny shot of fire between his charging companions and striking the bandit on the cloak, catching it alight.
Choosing that moment to climb back atop the cart, Ela watched as the bandit’s clothes burst into flame. Despite his distance from her, and the clash and yells of fighting all around, the screams of the bandit as he burned alive reached her clearly. She couldn’t look away as his writhing body fell to the unfeeling dirt, her ears deaf to Erlan’s rejoicing.
Suddenly an ear-splitting crack echoed around the forest, followed immediately by the reverberating of magic. Finally able to look away from the fiery corpse, Ela’s face whipped round to see an ethereal cyan rune fade from the air in front of Erlan. His eyes were wide and deathly, his face turning down to see a devastating crack slowly repair in his magical armour. By the shimmering, ruptured nature of the armour, even Ela could tell that whatever hit him had very nearly destroyed his protection. She turned to the source of the noise to see a red tiefling lower some sort of long crossbow.
On the other side of the carts, Guy and Bakris looked down at the surviving bandit. Bloodied and singed, he was lying on the ground at their feet, begging for mercy. Noticing the man’s abandoned crossbow, Guy picked it up thoughtfully and jogged in the direction of the remaining outlaws. He barely saw as Esieh dropped off their cart, slipped into the bushes, and loosed a shot. Ahead of him, one of the two remaining bandits fell to the ground, clutching at the arrow that was jutting out of his leg.
Behind him, Bakris left the surrendered bandit in the custody of two guards from the third cart and turned to survey the scene. His eyes scanned over the large wooden cart that blocked him from the majority of the action, and a smile cracked across his face. Quickly climbing aboard, he ran along the wooden bench and vaulted onto one of the horses that were hitched to it. His hands were already beginning to move, a defiant shout on his lipless mouth, when he landed poorly. His eyes twitched in sudden pain and he slumped forwards on the animal.
With his fellow guards rushing to get to grips with the enemy, Bakris shakily drew his short crossbow and fired a shot at the last two bandits ahead of him. Despite the pain radiating through him, his bolt struck the strange weapon held by the red tiefling. She dropped it in shock as a caravan guard bore down on her, neatly lopping off her arm before finishing her off.
Seeing the destruction wrought upon his friends, the last bandit turned and fled down the road. Ela climbed down from the cart, walked over to stand beside the musical halfling, and watched the terrified man run. Guy, however, wasn’t content to let him escape; he gave chase, bursting through the undergrowth around the road, using his thick shield as a ram. Across the road from him, Esieh crept forwards quickly, raising her bow, but was unable to land a shot on the bandit. Free from the horse, Bakris strode awkwardly forward, wincing every now and then.
“Don’t worry about it, Erin…Erlan…Esia…Esia!” he called hoarsely, raising his reloaded crossbow.
“Esieh!” the annoyed woman corrected. Bakris turned to shout to Guy.
“This is for the bolt that hit your chest!” he declared, firing without looking.
The bolt flew straight, embedding itself in the back of the fleeing man’s head. The bandit slowed, stumbled and collapsed forward.
Erlan crouched down to examine the bandit who had surrendered to Guy and Bakris. He lay dead with two spear wounds in his chest. Erlan glanced at the two unknown guards with whom Bakris had left the man; one was a man in bronze holding a long elegant spear.
“Why did you chase him down?” demanded Ela, catching up with Esieh, Bakris and Guy. “He was leaving!”
“He was a very bad man,” Bakris replied simply, hooking his small crossbow onto his belt.
“Who had given up,” Ela pointed out. “I don’t see why he needed to die. Especially after all this…” She looked around at the dismembered corpse, the blasted skeleton, and the burning man. Her eyes lingered on the latter as fire still crackled over his body. “Brutality.”
Erlan approached and started throwing dirt onto the fire, patting it until it went out.
“I do feel I have to apologise for…hiding…” Ela continued, looking at the ground. “As soon as…as soon as it all began.”
“That’s okay, little one,” Erlan reassured, striding over. “Some of us have to do the fighting and some have to keep our spirits up.”
Ela’s tail curled around her legs as she turned to Erlan.
“I am not a little girl.”
“Sorry…ma’am,” Erlan said, raising his palms. “How old are you?”
Ela straightened her shoulders.
“If you must know, I am twenty-three.”
“Oh.” Erlan shrugged. “I’m one hundred and twenty, for your information.”
“Kindly do not look down on me because of our age difference.”
“I won’t do so again,” Erlan stated.
With an acknowledging nod, Ela turned and walked back to their cart, stopping to lean against the wooden siding. The others exchanged looks then joined their companions from the other carts who’d already begun to loot the bodies for valuables.
When they returned to their own carts, Esieh had pocketed any money she’d found, Bakris was curiously examining a small red vial and Guy proudly carried the strange weapon the tiefling had wielded. Though damaged by Bakris’ bolt, it was clearly unlike any crossbow they’d seen before; it had a long metallic cylinder and a wooden stock, but no obvious firing mechanism. Erlan carried over two of the bandits’ swords and chucked them onto the back of the cart.
As they remounted the cart, Guy took up his position at the reins and Bakris sat beside him. In the back corner, staring at the rough wood and with her tail wrapped tightly around herself, Ela was silent.
“Are we not going to bury them?” Guy asked hesitatingly as the cart passed the lightly smoking corpse beside the road.
“Let the crows eat them,” Erlan replied flatly.
As if in response to his words, the cries of carrion birds became louder. They all looked up to see a great flock circling overhead. Casting her eyes back down, Ela nestled in a bit tighter.