Kal was awakened by a rather loud stage-whisper. "Psst...psst.. Hey, there."
He snapped into full consciousness immediately. I don't know that voice. His hand crept toward Cel's sheath, lying by his side, but then he caught another sound...a muffled voice. Viconia!
"Rise and shine!" that unknown voice bellowed, and Kal rose to his feet, stepping out of his tent and drawing his weapons in the same motion. Around him, Keldorn, Nalia, and Yoshimo also stepped out of their tents. Weapons came out, but just as quickly, they saw the situation. A grimy-looking bandit was grinning a wide grin at the party...and holding a knife to Viconia's throat.
"Oh, I hope I didn't disturb ye. My, but isn't this guard of yours a sound sleeper, ‘specially when he should'nay be doin' so. Did'nay hear the approach of us wee little bandits and now look at the mess yer in." The bandit gestured at a hog-tied Anomen Delryn, rocking back and forth ineffectually at the edge of camp.
Damn it! Kal cursed internally. Viconia's shift was right after Anomen's...so they must have tied him, and waited for her to come out. He looked at Keldorn. I'm guessing you never thought he might kill us all, but still...
Keldorn took a step forward. His holy sword, a two-handed blade with the incongruous name of Purifier's Shield, glowed a faint red in his hands, and Keldorn looked as if he was about to use it, as well, despite the bandit threatening Viconia.
Kal looked over sharply at Keldorn. "No, Keldorn. Stop."
"Good idea," the bandit said, flashing an ugly grin. "Stay right where ye are. Wipe the sleep from yer eyes and ye'll see me little friend, a sharp little number right at this here lassie's throat. I would'nay want to...slip." He cackled.
"Don't hurt her," Kal said, grip tightening on his swords.
"Hurt her? Last thing on me mind. Providin'," the bandit added with a shake of his finger, "that ye cooperate. Ye turn over whatever valuables you might be carrying - we've heard ye've got some nice trinkets - and soon you'll be on your way. We get what we want and ye get...well, perhaps we just get what we want. That's good enough for me."
Kal nodded grudgingly. "All right. Take what you want. Just don't hurt her."
The bandit smiled again. "Well, yer certainly being reasonable about all of this. Mind you, I'll just keep a grip on the lassie here until my boys have finished their work. Stand still, will you?"
At least sixteen bandits filtered out of the trees. Everyone stood still as they rifled through packs, removing sacks of gold and gems, and taking the magic suits of armour, as well. Laden down, the bandits staggered back into the trees, leaving the bandit chieftain and five more to face them.
"Now let her go," Kal said.
"Uh uh. Not so quick. Yer weapons, too," the bandit said, eyeing Cel's blue flame greedily. "The money's in the magic, after all."
"Weapons, too?" Kal asked, doing his best to sound aggrieved.
The bandit sneered. "What do we look like? Ilmatari? Yer weapons...NOW!"
"All right, all right." Kal strode forward and presented Cel, hilt-first, to the bandit chief. "Go ahead." As he did so, his eyes met Viconia's. Restrained by the knife, her nod was very short and almost imperceptible. But she knew what to do.
With a grin, the bandit reached for Cel's hilt. "Knew ye'd be reasonable. Ah, what a lovely ruby. Sure to bring a high price on the-"
At that point, he touched her. She responded immediately by blowing his arm off.
The aura of blue flame around her seemed to pulse for a second, and then the bandit's arm flew backward in an explosion of crackling blue lightning. Viconia responded instantly, hands coming up and twisting out of the man's grip. The bandit had enough presence of mind to bring his remaining arm, holding the dagger, in as if to cut her throat, but without his other arm to pin her close, the motion only helped her get free.
Neither Kal nor Cel delayed for an instant. Cel loosed a burst of lightning at the bandit leader which threw him against a tree, clothing blackened and scorched, while at the same time Kal thrust Daystar through one bandit's throat and sank Cel's flaming blade deep into the side of another.
The bandits, stunned, were no opposition at first. Yoshimo's katana took the head of one right off his shoulders at the same time as Keldorn's blade cleaved another in half. Kal took another half step and finished off the leader by sliding Daystar through his left eye, killing him instantly.
At that point the ten bandits which had taken away their gold returned. Drawing weapons, they leapt into the fray, and without armour, Kal's party was at a grievous disadvantage. Kal motioned for a retreat with one hand, and Yoshimo and Keldorn gave ground, the three of them drawing together to prevent flank attacks. Nevertheless, the overwhelming odds kept all their weapons flashing in defensive parries. And two got through to gash Keldorn on the arm and Kal on the shoulder.
Behind them, Kal heard chanting, and risked a look back, swords weaving a net of steel before him. Nalia was moving to even the odds, putting together the motions that even Kal recognized by now as the common incantation of a fireball. Unfortunately, it wouldn't have that much effect, since the bandits were now forming a large semicircle with Kal, Keldorn and Yoshimo pinned inside. A fireball would get two - maybe three, Kal judged, but no more, since she'd have to aim it to the bandits' rear such that none of the party members were caught in it. And less, if the bandit dashing toward her managed to land a blow before she finished casting. By the looks of it, his chances were good.
As he watched, Nalia - in the midst of her fireball spell - suddenly drew off her left hand to the side, locked in an arcane gesture. Small streamers of magic fire swirled around the fingers of her left hand, clearly part of her fireball, but she was not about to waste it on the bandit charging at her. Instead, she snapped the fingers of her right hand at the charging bandit and snarled a single word - and suddenly the bandit tripped and slid backward, as if being dragged by the heel of his right foot. Nalia then brought her left hand back in front of her and finished the casting of the fireball, as if nothing had happened.
To the best of Kal's knowledge, one couldn't interrupt a spellcasting like that. Certainly not to cast another spell in the middle of it. Evidently, Nalia disagreed. Kal turned forward, deflected a few more attacks, and then turned back again, just in time to watch Nalia hurl the dart of light from which a fireball would bloom.
The angle's wrong, Kal's mind told him, and an instant more's observation proved him correct. At that angle, it wouldn't soar over their heads to explode in the bandits' rear - it would detonate almost directly in the centre of the three-man triangle that Kal, Keldorn and Yoshimo formed. It would get all the bandits, and it wouldn't hurt Kal, but would almost certainly kill Keldorn and Yoshimo.
Before Kal could yell a warning, however, the dart flashed through the intervening space and, with a low roar, exploded into fire.
To the best of Kal's knowledge, fireballs always ended up as exactly that - fire-balls. They didn't explode into anything other than a ball, and certainly not into ten separate streamers of fire.
This fireball apparently didn't know that, however, and ten streamers were exactly what happened. Each one snaked its way past Kal, Keldorn and Yoshimo, so quickly that none of them felt any heat, and sought out a bandit all on its own. Each bandit was now the target of his own little piece of a fireball, and judging by the screams, they were not enjoying the experience. Every one of them took off for the trees, still brightly aflame. Seven collapsed after only a few steps. The remaining three staggered off in the general direction of the river, clothes afire and blackened, scorched skin peeling off their bodies. Just like that, the battle was done.
Nalia, however, wasn't. This one involved a much lengthier chant and a number of finger-twists and hand motions that he had never seen before, but at the end of it, Nalia thrust out her right hand, palm upward, and drew it back in forcefully, making a fist. In response to the pulling motion, the three burning bandits and the one which she had sent off originally came sliding back into the camp, dragged by some unseen force. Trees rustled behind them as the concealed wagon upon which the party's riches had been loaded came rumbling out of the woods as well. Yoshimo and Keldorn made short work of the remaining bandits, then moved to the wagon to retrieve their belongings. Kal joined them, still somewhat stunned by what he had seen, and then untied Anomen.
Anomen immediately fell to his knees and began to pray. Kal could understand - falling asleep on watch was bad enough, but Anomen was a priest of Helm, god of guardians...and things such as falling asleep on watch were not looked upon lightly.
Even so, his eyes were partly haunted by a different sort of fear, and Kal had a pretty good idea what it was. Our first battle together, and he doesn't get a chance to show off...
"That was good work, Nalia," Kal told her.
Nalia smiled. "Did you like my fireball? I just made it up right there. I should have made it eleven and not ten, though. I miscounted. Oh well."
"Just...made it up?" Kal found it hard not to goggle at that. Sure, he'd thought that Nalia had memorized some particularly interesting spell variations. He even expected that she'd have composed such variations, given her obvious intelligence. But making spells up on the spot was something that wizards didn't do - and Kal knew, having been around wizards most of his life. "You...you're not like other wizards," Kal managed.
"Tell me something I don't already know," Nalia said. "I found that out when I destroyed Vallirian's tower. Half of Vallirian's tower's third floor. You know what I mean."
"Some additional specifics would be helpful," Viconia not-quite-hinted. "It is difficult to work as a group when we are not sure what everyone can do."
"Well, there isn't that much to say," Nalia said. "Most of the time, I'm not so different. I cast the spells everyone knows. It's just that, a few times every...week, month, year, I don't really know - I can...do something else. It's sort of...well...divine inspiration, I guess, because it doesn't seem to come from anywhere else. I just...know...what to do, to get something done. To get the fireball to spread like I did, I just knew I had to" - she paused to trace a few motions in the air with her hands - "Do...that. And once I've done it I can remember it, and apply it to other things."
"So...you could cause any other magical effect to take on such a shape?" Yoshimo asked.
Nalia nodded. "Yep. I know what that motion does, now. I'd seen it used in some spell scrolls, before, but I didn't figure out what it did until...well, just now. I just added it to the fireball I had already prepared and...."
"You modify spells, then," Keldorn said.
A little bit of enthusiasm came into Nalia's expression. "Not just modify. I know a lot of different words and motions, now. None that are really powerful, but enough so that I can assemble spells from that."
"Like building blocks," Kal said. "No...no, like paint. Other wizards just cast the...the finished paintings, as it were. You can alter theirs...or you can paint your own."
"Paint...yeah, I guess that's what it's like. As good a metaphor as any," Nalia said.
"You just don't...have all the colours, yet. But that means, eventually...," Kal began...and then he stopped.
Nalia nodded. "Yeah, I've thought of that, too. Kinda neat, isn't it?"
"What are the limits of what you can do?" Yoshimo wanted to know.
"Well, compared to ordinary mages, I run out quick. If I start to improvise. If I don't, I'm just like any other mage, I guess, but that's kind of boring. I almost always throw a little personal touch in. When I do, I can't cast as many spells as others can. But what I can cast...well, it's a fair trade." She paused for a moment. "Except for cantrips. You know, little, minor magic effects? I can do those very easily. And...I don't seem to ever run out."
Anomen was clearly making an effort to avoid Kal as they continued on. After an hour, Kal decided that he was going to have to approach him if he was to talk with Anomen.
"How are you feeling, Anomen?" he asked gently.
Anomen looked up quickly, traces of fear still clearly evident on his face, but he calmed when he heard Kal's soft tone. "I...will be fine," he said, but with none of his usual snappishness. "Thank...thank you for asking. I understand if I am not...that I should not have...."
Kal interrupted him. "I know you're a priest of Helm, Anomen...but falling asleep on watch is something everyone does at least once. You're just unlucky in that someone happened by just then."
Anomen shook his head. "No, Kal, you don't understand - I'm a light sleeper, even if I was sleeping I should have heard them. It's a legacy of my father...."
"Your father...? How so?"
"Suffice to say he is a cruel and overbearing man. He is also a heavy drinker, and as a child I'd lie awake, listening to him destroy his chambers in a drunken rage. Noises at night have a startling effect on me to this day - I still clutch at my sheets when I hear a loud thump."
"That can't have been an easy childhood," Kal said. More and more interesting...I think I'm beginning to understand you, now.
"No. No, it wasn't. But I am out of that house now, and away from my drunken father. Still, I should not have...."
"Don't worry about it," Kal repeated. "Again, it's something that happens to everyone at least once. Your misfortune was that it happened on the one night that the bandits decided to stop by, but that's just being unlucky. I still trust you with taking the watch...and so does everyone else."
"I...I thank you for your confidence, Kal."
That night, the last one before reaching Nalia's keep, Viconia pulled Kal aside to talk after everyone was settling in for the night. Camp had been made, and all of the little duties finished, so everyone was gathering for quiet conversation before turning in.
"May...may I ask a question?"
Kal smiled. "Always. What's on your mind?"
"I was wondering. About...this morning. If...if he had not demanded your weapons, thus setting up the fortunate situation where I could escape unharmed...what would you have done? You...you were quite quick to...to give up your equipment...and the money that you could have used to rescue your sister."
"They were just things. I could always get more."
"Just things? Kal, if you do not recall, those things include nearly eight thousand gold pieces...a princely sum by anyone's standards."
"So what? You're more valuable to me than all the gold in the world," Kal said with a warm smile. "I said I loved you...and I meant it."
Much later that night, Kal awoke to the sounds of his tent flap being moved. He thought it was a passing animal, at first, given the softness of the rustle - and due to Kal's penchant for black tents, it was not entirely unexpected. Then he heard a soft footstep and came to full awareness immediately, sitting up. Bandits, again? was his first thought.
It was Viconia, and Kal relaxed. "Spiny death?" he asked wryly.
"What?" she whispered with a blank expression. Then she remembered, and brought a hand up to her mouth to suppress her burst of laughter. When she recovered, she shook a finger at him. "No, not spiny death."
"I'm relieved," Kal said in a dry tone. "So, if not that...."
"I have just finished my turn at watch," Viconia said. "It is...cooler than I had expected, so near to Midsummer. The blanket I brought along is not thick enough."
"I recall saying something like that at the Adventurer's Mart," Kal mentioned, though not with an ‘I-told-you-so' tone.
"You did," Viconia confirmed. "And you were correct - the lighter blanket I chose is too thin. However," she added with a wicked smile, "I have found a solution. Such as a particular warmer, thicker blanket...and the much warmer person occupying it."
That warmer, thicker blanket ended up draped over Cel's hilt for most of the night, but she didn't mind. After all, she reasoned, there were times when she didn't really need to see.
All That Glitters...46
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