At first, Valerian had thought of inviting the men to join in their meal as was the custom of hunters but he quickly tossed that option out when he saw the design of the tattoo they bore. He saw the bearded man at the forefront’s eyes focus on the StormHawk insignia on his own left breast and curse. Valerian strongly felt the urge to do the same.
This was a very bad scenario. Valerian was the grandson of a sitting magistrate. He had recognised the tattoo as soon as he saw it. It was the identifying mark of a bandit group known as the Vults.
They were not a particularly large or powerful group but they were known for their skill and strategy. They operated in a far away secluded, hidden base from which they raided merchant caravans. His mind scrambled for a solution out of this problem.
On the other side, Lait was still cursing. ‘What in the hells were Steelborns doing here at their secret spot?’ he screamed mentally in frustration. His eyes then strayed to the obviously fresh hog and he realised. To have their mission compromised because someone decided to hunt in their area. How unlucky could they be?
His eyes scanned the place carefully, paying special attention to the wall behind the interlopers. Nothing was disturbed. Thankfully, the unwary duo did not know of the treasures behind them or how to open the doorway. Good. Now, what to do?
Avery was up, sword in his hand. His entire form was ready and poised for combat. In his mind, there was only one way this encounter was going to go and he was ready for it. He had to protect his young master no matter the cost.
Valerian rose to his feet as well, slowly, with his hands raised in a non-threatening way. With his eyes, he tried to get Avery to do same whiles communicating his disapproval to him for adopting an aggressive pose so quickly. Hopefully, he would be able to calm everyone down before things got out of hand.
“Hello! My name is Valerian Steelborn and this is my valet Avery. We are pleased to make your acquaintance”, he said.
The bandits were shocked at his civil tone. The ones at the back had expected the man beside him to speak first or even their leader to do so. Who’d have thought the youngest here would take charge and wait… who went hunting with his valet?
“If you really need this place, we are willing to share, or better yet leave it to you and find another. What say you? The hog is big enough for all of us”, he said in a placating tone.
Valerian really did not want this to turn into a fight. The Vults were well-known criminals, smart ones too if his grandfather’s files were anything to go by. They had had strings of successful raids and operations throughout Cragsveil. Their leader was supposedly a strategical mastermind.
Lait was the same. He was one the few who truly understood their group’s strength and the reason for their success. The Vults kept a low profile, most of the time. They did not rob incessantly like other groups. Instead, they relied more on planning and efficiency than numbers or force and they restrained themselves so as not to come off as overly violent or murderous.
The timely, substantial bribes they paid to the necessary people helped too. But best of all, they knew which people not piss off.
The Steelborns were at the top of that list. A previously unknown family that had somehow seized the reins of power in the region with nothing but unmatched might and skill about two hundred years ago. Not even the ancient families of Cragsveil could hold a candle to them.
That was why their gang only attacked major merchant caravans and tradesmen from out of the county. Even then they were careful. They had their periods of heightened activity. But they had even longer periods where they did nothing but stay low and live off the fat of their wealth. Also, they made sure to save for the lean times in a secret vault known only to a small few, such as the six men here today. A vault that now had Steelborns in front of it.
Lait was at a loss what to do. He could not let them go. No matter what, tongues would wag and questions would be raised. Why were there Vults on this mountain, so far out of their usual territory? Why just a small number of them? What was so special about the place?
They had to silence them. But doing so could bring them flak they might not be able to deal with. No organisation could survive with the Steelborns breathing down their necks or dogging their steps. That had to be avoided.
‘We could let them go and then clear the place out’, Lait thought to himself. However as soon he did so he discarded the idea. There was too much stashed in the vault. So much that ten of the interspatial ring he carried would be nowhere near enough.
They couldn’t take multiple trips in the time they’d have without attracting even more attention. Plus, once they did so they’d have to move and truly go to ground. Abandon their base, find a new place, etc.
There was really only one choice.
“Kill them!” he said to his men.
Already expecting the order, they rushed forward, intent on finishing them quickly. Swords were drawn and one pulled a bow off his back. This had to be done hard and fast. Luckily, they knew what to do. Killing people over wealth was their business after all. They just had to kill them and dispose of the bodies as thoroughly as possible.
People disappeared in the mountains all the time. Then they’d finish their assignment and rush back to base. After that, the Vults would just lay low for a while and distance themselves from everything. With luck and some favour from the gods, they wouldn’t even be suspects. If not, it did not matter. Nothing would be traced back to them.
‘Damn!’ Valerian cursed mentally. He too hadn’t really expected to be let go but he had had to try at least. His mind spun rapidly, trying to figure a way out whilst his eyes swept the scene and prepared for the battle to come.
As he did so, he sent more arcane energy into his shield. The pulse of energy made his outline glow gold and bright. Then he quickly cast his support shield, the Mage Guard. It was only when his defence was in place that he reached for his primary focus. Taking it into his hands and feeling its familiar, reassuring weight Valerian poised himself for battle.
The bandits were not idle either. Three of them had rushed forward weapons swinging. Thankfully they met with an unexpected obstacle. Avery had his longsword in hand and was singlehandedly holding them off.
It is not that they were not strong. Far from it, the weakest of the three was in the meridian opening stage with seven opened putting him much further along than Valerian who had three. His strikes were brutal and fast, seeking to take advantage of any openings the others gave him. However, the speed and power of the true clashes kept him on the outskirts of the battle looking in.
The real combatants were Avery and the two manifestation stage tellurians. One was surrounded by an earthen glow and the other was fast with a glimmer of qi focused at his feet. The three came at Avery in an inverted arrow formation trying to pressure him from the sides. The earthen tellurian was the only one who fought directly seeking to match Avery blow for blow whilst his unattributed counterpart struck fast accurate blows.
Avery was a water attributed tellurian. He was also a true practitioner. This ensured that he was far faster than his opponents and that his strikes carried greater power. For a few moments, it seemed like he and the earthen bandit were evenly matched but that was just an illusion. The bandit’s lack of formal training was too obvious and he relied too much on his qi in his blows.
It only took a few strikes to reveal the rather large gap between the two of them. The man fought well but Avery’s longsword just seemed to twist and turn in the air to meet both his and his colleagues’ attacks without much effort.
However, the stalemate was not favourable to him and his charge. There were still three other bandits on the side and Avery understood that they were probably the real threat. He intensified his efforts performing a flourish with his blade that disarmed his primary attacker but before he could press his advantage he heard a yell from behind.
Valerian was paying close attention to the fight, something he knew the remaining three Vults were doing as well. It was apparent that this was just a probing attack. They were trying to gain a quick read on their opponents’ strength before they all pitched in to reduce casualties and preserve strength.
However, there was more to it than that. They couldn’t have too many people attack at the same time in this small space without them getting in each other’s way. That was an advantage that Valerian had to make use of as soon as possible and he had an idea.
“Avery! Out of the way!” he yelled and then trusting the man to do so he thrust his mace and arms forward releasing the spell he had been casting.
‘Scything Blades’, he intoned mentally so as not to give his attack away.
Sharp, fierce beams of golden metal essence appeared out of thin air assailing the bandits in front of him. Each beam was as sharp and as strong as an actual sword and carried nothing but the will to chop down everything in their path.
Avery quickly got out of the way with his superior speed but his opponents had heard the warning as well. This meant that they were not as surprised and unprepared as Valerian had intended. Not stupid, they hurriedly took measures to protect themselves.
The earth attributed tellurian immediately activated a skill, his skin transforming becoming like stone. Then he crossed his arms in front of his face to protect his eyes. The golden blades crashed down on him shattering into bursts of light when they struck his hardened skin.
The wind attributed bandit was long gone, evading with a movement skill but the one remaining bandit suffered terribly. He managed to block two beams and take the last on his breastplate but one succeeded in catching him in the arm. It was not a serious wound but it ruined his momentum preventing him from reacting properly to the others.
He didn’t have to worry though because the three sitting on the sidelines finally decided to act. An arrow tore through the air to make a frightful impact against Valerian’s mage Guard. The glowing blue shroud shuddered and flashed with the impact stunning Valerian.
He had not even noticed he was being attacked until the arrow broke apart on his shield. It broke his concentration, preventing him from casting the follow-up spell he was working on. That wasn’t all. A light barrier appeared before the besieged bandits protecting them from the remainder of the scything blades spell.
His eyes flicked over to the three who had until now stayed out of the battle. There he caught the meridian opener drawing the string of his longbow again and an arcanist whose body was surrounded by bright white light, wand pointing out to maintain the Light Screen that protected the others.
‘A light attributed arcanist is a bandit?’ Valerian questioned mentally.
He did not have time to ponder on this strange happenstance though. Their boss was no longer beside them. Sounds of clanging metal drew him to a spot about twenty yards away from where the man was attacking his minder with a flaming broadsword. That wasn’t good news.
Lait attacked the valet with fast furious attacks forcing the man to retreat steadily. The broadsword in his hands was coated with a thick layer of fire qi feeding of the air to produce bright flames. Each of his strikes carried all the force he could muster and whenever his opponent tried to open space between them he fired streams of sword qi to keep the pressure up.
It was a costly strategy that caused him to expend qi and stamina in a manner he knew couldn’t keep up for long.
That didn’t matter though. He had a plan.
“Jaunt 3!” he yelled out.
His men responded immediately. Their probe had worked well enough. Now they would resort to standard procedure. All he had to do was pin his opponent down. His sword clashed with his opponent’s, the fire qi on his broadsword sputtering when it met the water kind on the longsword. The two remained locked in place, each pushing forward in an attempt to overpower the other with strength.
Lait fumed. The man held an elemental advantage over him, which made the battle harder. The longsword wielder was the greatest threat present and even he wasn’t sure he could handle him on his own. Still he was confident. Elemental advantages were not the only way to win fights.
Avery was well and truly worried now. He looked over his opponent’s shoulder to see the widening gap between himself and his charge. The bandit was deliberately forcing him away and to the side, in lieu of the rock face that towered behind Valerian and formerly himself.
Unfortunately, there was little he could do. He could not afford to waste qi the way the other man was. Not with other foes to face. Two of which, the manifested tellurians, were closing in. A hand left his weapon to pull something from his jerkin. It was a small crystal plaque barely five centimetres long. He crushed it without hesitation.
Lait cursed again as he watched his adversary crush some sort of talisman. By this time his men had taken their place around the man, surrounding him a triangular formation, but the damage was already done. A beam of energy streaked upwards to explode above them like a firework, forming a giant StormHawk a hundred meters in the sky anchored to the ground.
This was the problem with fighting against nobles. Apart from their various defensive artefacts they almost always carried signal beacons in case they run into some trouble. Lucky for them it wasn’t the sort of artefact that communicated directly with another party.
If it was, they were done. At the very least, the other party would also know who it was who was attacking their fellows. They had to hurry even more. This needed to be over before the reinforcements got here. With this in mind, they did not dither.
Lait released a large beam of fiery sword qi at Avery. Simultaneously, four blades of sword qi appeared to lock down any escape routes and the last bandit stabbed his sword into the rocky dirt causing a shockwave to destabilise their opponent’s footing.
It was a beautiful combination. One they had practised and employed many times to great success. Sadly, Avery wasn’t so simple. He had figured they would act together against him from the moment he noticed them taking their places in the formation. He had wanted to strike then but he saw Valerian struggling to endure under the attacks of the other three bandits.
Remembering his duty, his qualms about overly expending qi fled. Before the earthen bandit’s sword could make its way halfway to the ground he gathered his qi, crouched slightly and used one of his famous skills, the Rising Geyser.
The skill forcefully expelled a large amount of water qi downwards, blasting him into the air and carrying him towards his charge, leaving his opponents to deal with the aftermath of their own attacks.