It was a surprisingly warm and clear summer day in Anselm. Cadimar weather was rarely so optimistic. Daniel had just returned to the city after yet another successful mission for the Golden Serpent. He’d really found his place in this organization, hunting down miscreants and more recently, working to dismantle the organized crime that was crippling the city. Because of the work of the Golden Serpent, Infidelis, a group of corrupt politicians, had been dismantled. For this reason, many members had recently relocated for their own safety, leaving more and more work to Daniel. He’d used his newfound friends on occasion. Kovak and Kaedo’s magical abilities had proved quite useful, and his handler, the Dutchess, was quite impressed with Daniel’s ability to get the job done. He had in his mind to go and enjoy the wonderful weather and let the aches of his past run wear off, but he saw a familiar chalk mark just inside his front doorjamb and knew that the Dutchess was waiting to see him. He sighed audibly and went inside to put away his things before heading back out the door. On his way to the usual meeting place, he sent two couriers to send messages to Kovak and Kaedo that they might be needed again.
It was a short walk to the Grizzled Penguin tavern, but Daniel usually took different roads each time, just as a precaution. He entered the nearly-empty tavern and headed towards the private room in the back, nodding to the barkeep. The Dutchess waited within. The aging man was still in good shape and his penetrating eyes never looked anything other than serious. He had long white hair and no trace of facial hair, part of what had earned him his lifelong nickname, although he didn’t seem to mind. The custom crossbow at his side was a deadly tool in his hands. Daniel could shoot quickly with a bow, but had never seen someone out-shoot him both in speed and accuracy, let alone with a crossbow. The Dutchess was a dangerous man, and Daniel honestly knew nothing about the man, even after over a year working with him.
“Looks like your my man again,” he said in a gritty voice. Daniel sat down and just nodded. Pleasantries were usually wasted on this man. “We just got an urgent message from one of our agents up north in Orrid. We know it was urgent because she went through the trouble of using a sending spell to get it to me in time, something not easily accomplished. All we got were a few words. Family. Precious cargo. Leaving Orrid today. Vital. That was it. We got it this morning and haven’t heard from her since. So, what I need from you, is for you to assemble a time immediately, head up there and see if you can intercept whatever it is that is important enough for one of my higher agents to risk her life over. We don’t know what this is, so keep an eye out, and if at all possible, see if you can find what happened to her. I expect they’ll use a barge, the fastest way out of Orrid. It’s likely heading to Kaerland, but there’s no way of knowing.” He finished and stared at Daniel who was writing down a few notes on a parchment. “Well, what are you still doing here?” Daniel looked up, realized that he’d lingered and went to see who else was available. The life of a bounty hunter…
- * * * *
Kovak and Kaedo had agreed to accompany Daniel on another dangerous adventure, but because of the apparent importance of this mission Daniel had also asked two of his trusted fellow Serpents along; Leorik, a holy warrior, and Donovan who had joined the order after the tournament. The five had ridden two and a half long days and some nights to get to the where the mouth of the Orrid river opened up into the lake by Grimsbury. If they missed the barge at this point they’d likely never find it. They found a good spot up river a ways and made their preparations. The river was extremely wide, well over two hundred feet, and they didn’t have time to make any sort of barricades. Without a barricade it would be difficult to control the movements of the ship. They’d have to figure out how to get on the ship, assess the situation, and get away. They could just sink the barge, but if there was any chance the precious cargo could be used further against the family, they’d try to keep it intact. Kovak used one of his more powerful spells to create a small series of illusory walls just over the surface of the river to make it look like that part of the river was too dangerous to pass through, forcing the ship to veer close to the south bank and closer to the group. Kaedo had whipped up some flying and invisibility potions for Daniel to use so they could board the barge if need be. With their preparations made, the group waited, and waited.
Early dawn came and the sky began to lighten with each passing minute. As the darkness slowly faded Daniel caught sight of a barge rounding a riverbend not far away. This might be it. He and Kaedo both used invisibility and began to fly to get closer to look. The others would just have to wait. Kaedo perched on a rock near where the barge was headed and drank his extract that allowed him to see magical auras, although this was a much more powerful version than generic magic detection. Using his arcane sight, he watched the boat. He could see the pulsing of both defensive and offensive enhancement magic on two figures within the heart of the boat. Next to them was a third figure who radiated strong arcane magic, and beside that figure was a small box or chest that also had some magic surrounding it, although it had a number of auras that were hard to separate. This must be their vessel.
He waited until the barge was past his location and closer to the rest of the waiting group before he threw two fire bombs on the back of the boat. The bombs exploded against the barge’s upper cabin and the wall immediately burst into flame, igniting the canopy that covered the walkway and dripping liquid fire onto the deck below. The man manning the back of the boat screamed in shock and tried to put out the alchemical fire, but only made it worse. Daniel took his queue and fired arrows at the man, two with his first shot, followed by another single shot. The three arrows sunk deep into the man, killing him instantly. Men began to pour from below, some putting out the fire, others drawing their own bows and firing back at the two flying figures. Arrows whizzed past both Daniel and Kaedo, and even a few spears were hefted, although few found any sort of mark on either of them. Daniel continued to rain down arrows of his own, one shot hitting so hard and directly that it pinned one of the men to the wooden cabin behind him. Kaedo threw two more bombs and the barge’s fire was out of control. With the vessel in chaos, it was quickly at the mercy of the river and began smashing into the few rocks that were close enough to the surface. It spun a few times before firmly crashing into the bank, then ceased to move. Most of the crewmen were down from arrows or had retreated below seeing the deadly aim of Daniel’s bow.
Kaedo moved closer. As he did, three figure jumped off the front of the barge and onto the muddy bank. They looked around, assessing the situation. Kaedo took his opportunity and flew down and grabbed the hooded middle figure, holding his mutagenically-enhanced arms around them so they couldn’t move. The other two brandished weapons and quickly reacted, swinging at Kaedo and inflicting some wounds. The middle figure turned out to be a young girl with blonde hair and green eyes. She wriggled free and waved her hands, inflicting Kaedo with some sort of magic, although he was able to resist its initial effects. He grabbed her again and shot up into the air. The two bodyguards swung hard at him, but he moved too quickly and both hit each other with their weapons. Kaedo could only laugh at their cries of pain.
Knowing that the girl was a wizard of some sort, Kaedo put his mouth over hers to prevent her from successfully adding the verbal components of her spells. She resisted, but was no match for his strength. Daniel just had to watch in shock and giant Kaedo kissed the girl and floated over the river. He shook his head… only Kaedo. One of the crew had thrown a few items overboard, one of which was a large wooden barrel. Daniel was suspicious that they might be trying to offload the precious cargo and float it down the river to be picked up later. He swooped down and grabbed the barrel, then followed Kaedo across the river to the southern bank. Kaedo meanwhile felt the affects of the girl’s spell as all of the air was drawn out of his lungs. He panicked and had to carefully and intentionally will his lungs to inhale. The girl took the chance to try another spell, but Kaedo dropped her onto the bank where Daniel held her at arrowpoint. The other three had made their way down and were helping carry the barrel and the girl into the nearby thicket and away from the crewmen’s sight.
“Don’t try to make a move or we’ll use force,” said Daniel as Donovan tied her wrists. She cursed at them in some eastern-sounding language that none of them could identify. “Doubt we’ll get much out of her. She seems quite hostile.”
They opened the barrel. Inside was a simple iron-bound chest, but Kovak warned them that it was pulsing with magical energy. He touched it to assess the nature of the magic, but recoiled in pain. He began to bleed from his eyes and the flow wouldn’t stop. Kovak began to curse and rub his eyes, mumbling something about backlash. “Put it back in the barrel,” he said, blinking often to clear his vision. He looked hideous, and Leorik took a look at him.
“Yeah, that’s a curse that is. Can’t do nothin for ‘im tho. I can’t cast that high-a seal yet. ‘E need ’im a cleric.” Daniel always strained to understand Leorik’s strong accent, but understood well enough. The group took their horses and headed off back towards Anselm.
- * * * *
The trip back wasn’t as hurried as their trip north, but it was still toilsome, carrying the barrel containing the chest and their prisoner. Daniel kept looking back, expecting to see someone following them, but he never saw anyone. He made sure to push them hard the first few days to get some good distance between them and the burnt ship. On the second night of travel, they made camp in a small dell near some trees. The rations were cold as Daniel didn’t want to risk a fire on the open plains, lest anyone was still looking for them. If this cargo was as important as he suspected, then the Family would likely be after it, and with force. Everyone settled in, except for Kaedo who was chosen for watch. The night was quiet, except for the occasional cicada call. Kaedo was beginning fade as tiredness from the hard rides and the attention it took to watch the girl. She was quite young, around 17 perhaps, and had refused to eat anything they had tried to give her, although Kaedo had heard her stomach rumble several times. They’d have to find someone who spoke her language, and maybe that would help. Kaedo was reading his own notes on alchemical discoveries when he saw what looked like a glint of steel in the moonlight. “Who goes there?” He called out. With no immediate answer he yelled to rouse the others. The attack came quickly. Eight figures came out of the dark surrounding the small group and daggers flashed. Unable to react in time, all of the sleepers took hits from the daggers, but got up quickly to respond. Daniel, still on the ground, knocked two arrows and sent them into the one that had attacked him. The arrows hit home with such for that the humanoid figure in front of him exploded. Shards of wood rained down from the figure’s head and chest. That was not what Daniel had expected. “They’re wood!” he yelled, out of shock.
Donovan also reacted quickly, raining five quick blows down on his assailant, likewise shattering the creature as it dropped lifelessly to the ground. Leorik didn’t get up. Kovak moved away from the two that had run up on him and breathed fire, setting them both alight. They continued to attack for a time, but quickly burned out and smoldered on the ground. Kaedo used bombs to set another two on fire. The fight went quickly, as whoever had sent the would-be assassins had underestimated the team’s ability. They made quick work of the last two. One tried to run, but was easily gunned-down by Daniel. They inspected the bodies. They were carved wood with metal joints and some metal plating, and there were no gears of any sort indicating they were propelled by magic.
“Aye, those be anonymous assassins. Got a small group that makes em and sells em to whoever wants. No way of knowin who sent em. Best make our way before we get any more surprises,” Donovan said, panting on slightly from the exertion.
- * * * *
The rest of the trip back had been uneventful, but Daniel didn’t take any other risks. They worked in paired watches and found more sheltered grounds to sleep. Leorik had been poisoned somehow by one of the assassin’s blades, and would just have to have it work through his system. But with his unconscious body and a prisoner, the going had been slow. When they reached the city, Donovan took Leorik to a healer while Kaedo took Kovak to find a priest to heal his curse. Daniel went to the Dutchess who eagerly waited to hear their report and looked over the chest carefully as it sat on the table.
“I’ll get some of our people to open this up. What of the girl?” he asked.
“Still unresponsive and still not eating. It’s been four days since we got her and not a single bite.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” The Dutchess was known for having quite an array of abilities. One of which was being able to speak almost every major language known on Ilithria. Rumors said he was over a hundred years old, but he didn’t look it. He still had a boyish face. Just rumors. Hopefully they could get this chest open and figure out who this girl was. At the very least that was one less Family member out in the world…