Xian

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Chapter 1.6: Easy Prey.

“You will have to excuse me if I seem slow today. I’ve had to deal with complaints my staff has submitting. Usually my answer to “unionizing” is to hang the offender’s loved ones in front of the offender in question and then burn said loved ones in front of the idiot’s tear-stained eyes. Unfortunately, these specific creatures don’t have many loved ones. Stupid vampires. Yet as long as you control their supply, these animals will happily do as you ask.

Such is the way of any addict, and therefore any person. Be honest with yourself, all sapient creatures are addicts of one degree or another. Think of the most precious things in your life: your wealth, your beliefs, and your loved ones. Now consider how many wars, purges, and tyrannies have risen from the efforts to protect such things, and all for some “good reason”. Even the mantra of Ends justifying the Means remains addictive, for its executors at least…

********

It had been four days since Abram Xian and his two companions had left Adder’s Fall. Far from the swamps and steeled spires of their home, the riders were barely two days ride away from the city of Ulq. Which was directly held by the royal family, and relieved of feudal obligation to the surrounding nobles. If anyone wished to hide away or move about the country without raising questions, they would go there. Of course, it was still some distance away, which prompted Evangeline and Ylena to argue over whether they ought to camp here or ride on.

Even as she emptied the saddlebags and pitched tents, Ylena couldn’t keep herself from lambasting the party’s stop. “If we’d crossed through the fjord it would cut another half day from our journey.”

Evangeline was occupied with blasting runic circles into the ground. For they would provide mystic protection against the occasional intruder or pest. Still, she was not so busy that she couldn’t offer frequent retorts. “You packed too many extra supplies; it would’ve weighed the horses down. Besides, I don’t see you going for a swim in full plate armor.”

“You could have lifted us over with magic, or froze it.”

Evangeline was now charging her sigils with violet flames that perfectly set themselves in the shape of the runes, which then glowed in an Amethyst shade. “And announced to every poacher and pissant forester that we’re walking around, probably carrying valuable magic? Do you want to get robbed in the night?”

Ylena, ignorant of the concentration required to maintain such a ritual, pressed her point. “Who would be stupid enough to attack two armed knights and a caster?”

“The same people who are stupid and brave enough to break laws in the first place.”

As the two of them were arguing, Abram had already set up the beds, fed and tied the horses, and was now standing defiantly atop one of the tree stumps that dotted the area. His eyes were closed to the outside world, instead focusing inward, upon the image of Echo: the dwarven savant who served in Abram’s entourage.

Echo was excited by this experiment of his power. “Goodness. I’ve never stretched my sight out this far before. I doubt it would work for anyone else besides you though Sir Abram.”

Abram was pleased by this and was intrigued by Echo’s thoughts on the matter. “Why would you think that Echo?”

“Well sir, given your nature and such...most minds wouldn’t be responsive from this distance.”

“I’m happy that I can oblige then.”

Some noise was radiating from Echo, most likely what he was hearing from his position in realspace. Yet even with the third-hand sound quality, Abram recognized the source. “Did Aurora win another match?”

“Yes sir. She remains undefeated in fact.”

“I pity the corpse who manages to even land a scratch.”

A memory came unbidden from Echo, one concerning Aurora’s recruitment. “Didn’t you beat her the first time you met sir?”

Abram pushed past the memory. “You had something to report?”

“Yes Sir. Not a day after you left, Marshall Kiernan began to muster the order into war lines. The apprentices are staying, but all the captains, full knights, and warlocks are on the march. Along with their retinues.”

“That’s around fifteen thousand souls yes?”

“Yes sir...and that’s not all.”

Echo was quiet and more nervous than usual. Abram would normally be able to indulge him, but The Silvered Fiend was on the hunt. He had chosen this road for a reason and hoped to finish his mission quickly. “Don’t keep me in suspense.”

“Well Sir, they’ve mustered hundreds of new recruits.”

“They’re bringing in recruits but leaving the trained apprentices?”

Echo’s surprise mirrored his captain’s. “That’s why it’s strange sir, it doesn’t make any sense. Not only that, but the quarters housing these recruits are kept under guard, and their uniforms are...barely that.”

Abram recognized that pattern, it was one that had been occurring in several regions under the Imperial Flames influence. “Fodder then, most likely for some ritual. This doesn’t confirm my suspicions, but it does make my hypothesis concerning this region more plausible. Until I get more information though, see if you can accompany the main force.”

“What will I tell them, Sir?”

A smile crept beneath the Silvered Fiend’s helm. “The truth. Tell them that I am concerned about the course of my comrades in arms and you are there to update me on their progress.”

“Simple enough, and certainly not malevolent sounding. Alright, Sir. I’ll get right to it.”

“Tell the others to stay behind though.”

Echo was astonished and growing more and more frightened. “You want me to go alone, sir?”

“You have the best chance of leaving unscathed should the situation grow dire. And the apprentices have already been told to stay behind.”

Echo remained silent. But Abram understood why and put a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder. “This will be good for you, Echo. If you truly wish to join the order proper, then you need to be self-reliant, if only a little.”

Echo gulped down his fear, and then managed to push a weak smile through his rampant insecurities. “Yes Sir, I’ll do my best.”

“Good. Keep me apprised.”

Echo nodded, and then the mindscape dissipated. When Abram woke from this semi-dream state, he was not at all surprised to hear Evangeline and Ylena still arguing. This elicited an annoyed sigh from Abram. Who then took a deep breath, and let it out before addressing both warlock and knight. “We’re camping here tonight, that’s final. In the morning we leave and ride hard for Ulq.”

The two debaters looked up at their commander, sensing the finality of his tone. Evangeline shook her head and went back to carving sigils in the ground via violet hellfire. Ylena on the other hand walked right up to Abram, dissatisfaction painted across her face. Upon arrival, she stood there silently, her foot tapping into the dirt with all the fury of a disappointed mother.

When no response came, she stomped in front of Abram, staring into his catlike eyes. “You know the first thing about tactics, Sir Abram?”

“Enlighten me.” ”

“I was taught that one should scout and ascertain the nature of unfamiliar ground. Especially if you’re going to camp on it.”

Abram’s bored eyes were accentuated by his even more laconic voice. “I agree.”

Ylena stared up at him with a puzzled expression. Then turned towards the dirt and pointed out several impressions on it.

“There’s a heaping pile of horse prints on this ground, and not from us. Plus, they run around in different formations. I think this place was camped at recently, and by a large number of people.”

“Again, I agree. Your point?”

Ylena’s temper rose and her hands practically danced in the air as she pointed out all the possibilities that seemed to be eluding her commanding officer. “There’s bandits all around these parts. Now I don’t mind a fair scrape, but only if it’s on my terms. Our own outriders haven’t been able to keep them down.”

“And you don’t find that at all strange? Perhaps suspicious?

Ylena blinked a few times, and her desperate rush towards a reason for Abram’s reasons grew more and more pervasive in her features.

Abram was used to such density from most individuals, except for people like Evangeline. So he did his best to elaborate on his motives. “My hunt for the traitor, while important, is just a single facet of correcting many failings of our order. We have some of the strongest warriors in the country, and yet we let these bandits flourish in our own backyard.”

Abram could, at last, see realization dawning on the dwarven knight’s face, and decided to put on a bit more pressure. “We let supposedly insignificant traitors run free without retribution. And while Kiernan and his cronies are walking-talking turds, they are not without some cunning. There is a reason for their dismissal of these most basic duties, and I intend to find it. I can tell that those some questions are running in your mind right now. Stay in line, and you will have answers to those questions. Understood.”

Ylena spent a moment contemplating something, then nodded and went back to setting up camp. Despite her concession, Abram noticed a curious look in her eyes.

No, not curiosity...skepticism. “We’ll cure her of that.”

When night fell, Abram took the first watch while his companions slept in their respective tents. A rather ornate set up for a field camp, more akin to a set of jousting pavilions. It didn’t dissuade the thundering of hooves that grew louder and louder. Abram didn’t even turn towards the source of the noises. As riders circled the camp: chanting war cries and bearing torches, Evangeline and Ylena did not emerge from their tents. Despite their display, the Bandits weren’t nearly as keen on frightening their quarry as they were on killing them. So, it was a great shock when one of their numbers threw a spear at Abram, and it shattered to pieces against his armor. Even more distressing for them was the fact that when they threw their torches at the tents, the damn things would not catch fire.

Their leader, a tall man clad in well-kept if slightly archaic splint mail, rode towards Abram. “Who the hell are you people?”

Abram finally lifted his gaze from the fire towards the man on his high horse “The worst day of your wasted life.”

At that moment the sigils that Evangeline had placed let off a powerful glow and an eerie high-pitched sound. Lights shot up from that ground and then wove into a solid field of color and crackling sparks. The field enveloped all within the camp and replied to any escape attempts with a slap of kinetic energy that sent the offender flying to the ground.

Once that was done, Ylena and Evangeline emerged from their tents and made ready to kill their attackers with martial force and mystic might respectively. As he stood up, Abram’s catlike eyes locked with the Bandit Chief’s shrinking gaze.

Yet despite the chattering of his teeth, and chattering of his teeth, the petty chief gave voice to those fears. “You...you have demon blood in you.”

“You underestimate me sir...not that it will matter much longer.”

Abram thrust a fist into the ground and a hundred ethereal blades hovered in the air. Most of the bandits gazed up with fearful eyes before they were shut forever by a shower of ghostly steel. The captain toppled off his horse, a blade perfectly centered on the top of his head. Cries of pain from the few survivors rang out within the sorcerous field, and Evangeline set about the task of gathering the survivors and subduing them with glowing chains. The scene was stunning in its carnage, so much so that Ylena couldn’t repress a nervous smile.

Both to assuage his subordinate’s fears, and to keep things moving, Abram placed a hand on the younger knight’s shoulder, before side glancing at Evangeline. “Help Evangeline with the survivors, we’ll need to move quickly if we are to discover their camp.”

Ylena nodded and went about her task, just as Evangeline deactivated the field. Twenty Five riders had gone to raid this tiny camp, three were still alive. These survivors were brought in front of the campfire, their wounds fresh but the blades that made them gone in a flash of ghostly light. Two of them were twin sisters, with a young man chained alongside them.

Abram paced in front of them, fixing each of them with an apprehending glare. “It seems we have some siblings among us.”

One of the sisters spat in Abrams direction, but the spittle was evaporated by a single bolt of flame from Evangeline. This won a curious glare from the prisoners, except for the boy, who trembled in fear. At first, Abram dismissed this as the custom of the average coward until he noticed that the boy’s fearful glances were directed not at Abram, but the twins.

The Silvered Fiend straightened himself. “I see. The two older sisters, and the little brother. I too have a younger sibling, though we’ve grown apart.”

One of the twins was about to say something, before Abram grabbed the younger boy by the neck and lifted him over the fire, holding him just above death. One of the Twins lurched forward, only to trip on her chains. “What do you want!? We have no money, and you’ll get nothing from killing us!”

“It might amuse me. What would make me even happier though, is the location of your hideaway.”

The twins looked at each other, then back at Abram. The one who hadn’t tripped over shook her head and appealed to whatever scrap of pity she could find. “We don’t have a-”

“Do not lie to me. Your armor, though cheap, is well maintained. And unless the surrounding towns have a penchant for banditry, the only conclusion is that you have a hidey-hole in which maintain your equipment and loot.”

“They’d kill us if we-”

Abram lowered the young man’s feet into the flames. His screams and the scent of leather cooking with meat filled the air. The twin who had tripped tried to stand but fell over when Ylena stepped on her chain. Yet even with her face in the dirt, the sister did all she could to save her brother. “You’re right! We do have a hideout! Please! Let our brother go!”

The other twin threw up her hands in a pleading manner, looking up at Evangeline and Ylena for some hope of empathy. She found only deadened faces.

Abram tossed the boy aside and looked at the two sisters. “Speak quickly now.”

One of them pointed east. “Keeping riding in that direction. You’ll find our camp, you can’t miss it. Now please, let us-“

Abram flicked his wrist and two shining knives materialized next to his shoulders and then flew straight into the throats of both women. They fell on their faces, gurgled a bit, and then froze. The brother screamed and tears welled up in his eyes, even as he crawled on his chin and knees towards his sister’s corpses.

Abram’s “mercy” was to slap the man’s brain out of his skull with a flick of his Morningstar. When that was done, he gestured at his companions and their mounts. “We have our lead. Mount up and ride.”

Evangeline climbed up her horse and grimaced at some of the blood at the fringes of her robe. “Weren’t we trying to find muscle?”

Abram’s feet were already in his stirrups, and he examined his still nervous horse for injuries. “Well will find more reliable aid in the camp I think.” His steed was unharmed, which brought some manner of comfort to the Silvered Fiend’s mind.

Ylena, whose own little steed was covered in dirt and grime, had other concerns. “Boss, these corpses were probably their top muscle. There might only be raw recruits and prisoners left at their camp.”

“Exactly the people who wouldn’t miss the men we killed and would search out the power we can provide.”

The dwarf accepted this reasoning, even as the interest in her eyes deepened. “Hmmm...Alright then.”

It took the trio but a few minutes of riding before they found a wooded perch, overlooking a lightly fortified camp. It was complete with wooden palisades and watchtowers. What was surprising was how populated it was. There were several pack mules and what looked to be actual log cabins made by skilled hands and labor. This was far from the shanty or tent littered hideaway that Abram had been expecting. “I should have asked them about the layout. Perhaps I thought we’d lose Atma’s trail if we took more time? Regardless, let’s see what our newcomer can do.”

Abram turned towards Ylena, illuminated only by his eyes. “What do you think Captain? How should we approach?”

The dwarven captain didn’t even pause to consider her words, and Abram alone could see the hunger, the sheer eagerness across her face. “I think you oughta shower them with blades like you did with the others.”

Abram shook his head. “No, we need some of them alive...and the expression on your face speaks of bloodlust.”

“So?”

“I’m convinced you want to get more bloodied before the night is out. So how would you do that?”

Ylena looked over the fortifications, then at the fires...and then at a wall next to the cabins. “Cause a fire at the walls and smoke’em out. Then we cut through them as they leave the fort.”

Abram was pleased with this idea, and then discretely gestured towards the various points of the fort. “Very well. Evangeline will start the fire, and you will cut through the runners.”

Ylena looked put out. “What will you do?”

“I’ll go into the camp myself and put down the scum when they come back in. Perhaps even catch those cagey enough to try and haul the loot they’ve gathered.”

“I got you.”

Ylena left her horse at the perch and then snuck down to the grounds surrounding the encampment. While she kept hidden, Evangeline and Abram slid down the hill on their feet, sheathed in a cloak of reflecting light, provided by Evangeline’s magic, and hiding them from the lazy watchmen. As they walked on, Abam noticed a dissatisfied look on his partner’s face.

He had learned long ago to address these concerns before they developed into something more problematic. “You feel bad about doing this?”

“No, these are bandits. They get what they get.”

“Then why the concern on your face? I like it when you’re happy.”

Evangeline bit her lip at that comment, and Abram wondered why. He had an idea but hoped that it wasn’t the case. But his fears were cast aside when Evangeline stopped and pointed at a literal crack in the wall. “This should be good enough, the woods already rotting here.”

“You’re right...how did you-”

“Just cause I’m not a forge master doesn’t mean I can’t pick up a few things.”

Abram nodded and then they stopped at the indentation in the wall that Evangeline had pointed out. He could see from the corner of his eye that the young Warlock had more to say. Whatever it was, she just rolled her eyes at it and smiled. “See you over the battlements. Try not to stumble.”

Abram titled his head. “Big talk from someone in a robe.

With that, Evangeline left their shared camouflage and entered her own. Abram leaned in as close to the wall as he could and waited. His patience was then rewarded by a great torrent of flame rising into the sky, followed by the cacophony of screams and curses in several languages. Abram knew this place was too well kept for a refugee camp, and it hadn’t been registered the last time he checked the order’s record of military outposts of the various factions in the area. This, coupled with the voices of all races and ages led Abram to a specific conclusion. “This could be one of the slave camps...Wait!”

Abram kicked through the wall with a single blow and charged into the opening. He saw the camp’s occupants running through the main gate, and straight into Ylena’s spear. Her eyes glowed red with the dragon’s blood coursing through her veins, quickening her reflexes and strengthening her blows.

These mediocre bandits had no chance against Ylena, or Evangeline’s intense covering fire, for she had now joined the battle. Just as Ylena pierced through the enemy, Evangeline corralled the survivors into a smaller section of the camp. Using the battle as a distraction, Abram charged into the nearest cabin, just as the remaining magic of his camouflage wore off.

As he opened the door, three people turned towards him. Two of them, an orc woman and a human man, wore well-kept but improvised steel armor. The elf woman in the center though wore polished armor with silver engravings...and the same tabard of the Imperial Flame that hung on Abram’s armor.

The Silvered Fiend approached his enemy with heavy steps. The two bandits drew their weapons but paused in their tracks, recognizing Abram’s armor and obviously confused by it. As they turned towards their leader, the elven lady took a step forward and drew out her sword towards her henchmen’s throats...only to be blocked by demonic blades hovering in the air.

The bandits looked at Abram with surprised faces and were silenced by him before they could say anything. “Join what’s left of your comrades in the yard, they should be surrendering now.”

The mercs did as they were told, and the Elf Knight kept her sword drawn. Her eyes glowed with the Dragon’s Blood, but her face quivered in fear. “This is one of the Order’s operations, Abram. You’re interfering with-”

“Then why kill potential voices, Olivia? Why run away? When you could yell at me with indignation in your voice and the backing of the other Knights?”

Olivia kept her wild eyes focused on Abram, her sword in hand, and her muscles prepared for flight. “Abram, the Order has just accepted a massive contract from...a foreign entity. If we succeed, then we will be the vanguard of a new order that will blaze across Leo, Dante, even Caliph.”

“You didn’t mention Taiyang, or any of the Dwarven Consortiums...I assume it is the former that purchased our services?”

Olivia nodded confidently, smiling as if she had convinced Abram of something. “Most of the Order doesn’t know we’re taking people on the road; they think they’re are criminals or prisoners of war.”

Abram let an “uh-huh” before continuing. “Fodder for blood magic?”

“Demon Binding. It’s insurance against betrayal by Taiyang, and intervention by the Magis Eques or any of the other knightly orders. Kiernan has kept the means quiet though; your new guard would have a fit if they found out we were bringing in fools off the road...let alone financing dirt poor slaving gangs for a share of the take.”

Abram crossed his arms, and his tone rang with even more condescension than usual. “So what you’re saying, is that Kiernan is deliberately subverting the precepts of the order; because there’ll be a civil war when people find out.”

Before Olivia could move or say anything, the blades locked against her sword turned into chains that wrapped around her armored frame and slammed her into an adjacent wall. Abram walked towards her and then patted her down for any effects. He found a letter in her pouch, and a key wrapped around her neck.

He took the key and amidst Olivia’s struggles, Abram found a matching keyhole in a desk hidden away in the back corner of the cabin. As he was about to open the desk, Olivia took a deep breath and then released it in a burst of red flames. Though she had hoped to burn Abram and any evidence of the activities of the camp, Olivia let out a surprised scream when she found the flames turning back against her. A large wall of glowing shields of various designs had boxed her in, trapping the flames and her within an improvised oven.

The screams went on and then silenced. Abram waiting a few moments for his shields to smother the flames. When he finally lifted his shields, nothing was left of Olivia but her sword and armor wrapped in ghostly chains. “I love it when they realize they’re the only ones about to die. Heroic fools and their glorious suicides...”

Abram turned to the opened desk and found ledgers and documentation. He deduced on a cursory reading that these were records and correspondence concerning the operations of this camp and the slaving operations entire. He put the paperwork in a larger bag he found in the room and walked out, knowing that the silence outside deserved his current attention.

Before he was even out the door, Ylena ran up to him. “Captain! The battle, if you want to call it that, was a helluva good time! It’s almost like these hicks had never even been in a real fight, let alone one with magic. Her smile disappeared upon glaring at the ash-covered steel in the room’s corner. “Wait, is that a set of our armor-”

“Indeed, I’ll tell you all about it later. For now, we attend to our hosts. Understood?”

Ylena looked at the armor suit for a moment, then eyed Abram. Gauging his body language, and trying to match his gaze. She then nodded hastily walked off towards her task. “Alright Captain, I’ll herd’em in.”

And true to her description, the horde of bandits and stock of prisoners were centered in a ragtag formation at the camp’s center. These people were dirtied, tired, and frightened out of their minds but there was a clear divide.

A good few of them, nineteen in total, were armored in improvised gear that was caked in still cold dirt. They also were keeping their distance from a larger group. These other thirty-three individuals were former prisoners who kept a hateful watch on their deposed captors. Once Abram stepped in front of them, all fearful eyes turned to him.

Carefully inspecting his audience, Abram let out an affirming grunt. “So, this is the Leo slave trade. 3rd rate scum kidnapping families for people they’ll never even look in the eyes.”

Before going on, Abram looked over the crowd and noticed a crucial detail “Are there no children?”

A young man stepped forward, shaking off the hand of a woman tugging at his shoulder. He pointed at the bandits. “Those bastards killed them! They held us down while they butchered my son!”

A roar of anger tore from the former captives, and the bandits did all they could to shrink away from them. Abram let the noise continue, sizing up the former prisoners. They were mostly twenty and thirty-somethings, in prime physical condition. They would do, but he could not be weighed down by unnecessary baggage. And if what the young man said was true, this next move would be mercy.

The Silvered Fiend raised his voice above all others. “You want justice?”

All turned towards him, and just as Evangeline was about to say something, Abram conjured a massive wall of tower shields that encircled slaver and former prisoners alike. Once that was done, he cast a host of alien blades at the crowd’s feet, and his gaze became like steel. “Fight for it then.”

Being more hardened then their former prisoners, the bandits shook off the shock of Abram’s statement, and reached the weapons before many of the prisoners could. The ensuing violence was a desperate and bloody struggle. One man even had his finger bit off.

Evangeline looked on all this with a troubled expression. She then walked over to Abram and kept her voice to a whisper. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It will weed out those who can fight and those who cannot. I need hunters and warriors, not hangers-on.”

The young warlock looked towards one of the younger corpses. She couldn’t have been out of her teens…“Yeah but, why not just kill the bandits and take on whoever wants to come along? Why do all of this?”

“We can only take the strongest. If we took anyone else, they’d die on the road instead of in this camp.”

Evangeline’s face became serious, and Abram wondered if she might have gotten angry. She only massaged her temples and sighed. “Alright, you know what you’re doing I guess.”

Through sheer vehemence and force numbers, the prisoners defeated their captors. But not without cost, only six of the prisoners still stood. They were beaten, bloodied, and held their weapons in trembling hands.

Abram allowed them a few moments to register their current circumstances, and then addressed his new catch. “You’re angry now. At your captors for abusing you. At yourselves, for not being strong enough to stop it. And me, for rubbing your noses in this fact. But if you want to change this, if you want to avenge your children, if you want to kill the scum who do this for a living, or even just shut me up...then follow me, and I will make you strong enough to do so.”

Whether they were tired, frightened, or perhaps even covetous of the power offered by their dread patron, all six of the prisoners, two elf women, one orc man, two human men, and one human woman; knelt before the Silvered fiend.

Pleased with this, Abram gestured for Evangeline and Ylena to see to their recruits. The latter took up the bandages she had been gathering during the culling and went to work on healing the now bloodied recruits. As this was going on, Abram walked over to Evangeline and put a hand on her shoulder, which elicited some surprise from the young warlock.

He then lowered his gaze to match hers. “I know this is gruesome work. But I’m grateful to you. None of this wouldn’t be possible without you.”

“You always say that.”

“That affirms it then.”

She smiled a gentle smile, then nodded at something in the distance. Abram followed her gaze and saw what interested her so. One of the recruits, the same man who had spoken out about his son, was now crying on the shoulder of the human woman.

Abram, though well accustomed to horror, felt pity for the couple. He knew the loss of loved ones well. And could only guess at how such losses burned when they were one’s own children. So he walked on over to the grieving spouses and offered what comfort he could. “My condolences on your losses.”

The couple turned towards him, but the man still choked back tears, so did his wife, for they both wore the same carved wooden band on their finger. Yet he beat through this sadness and spoke up. “Loses?”

“Great as it was, your son was not your only recent loss...you’ve never killed before have you?”

Both husband and wife shook their head, and a growing and a horrifying realization began to spread across their faces. Yet it was halted by Abram’s strangely soothing tone. “Then I apologize for introducing you to it. There only ever a few people whose deaths bring joy. Where have you come from?”

The husband stood up. “What does that matter now?”

The wife stood with him, whispered something in his ear, and he became calm. She then turned towards the Silvered Fiend. “We were setting up a new house in Skywood Hearth. But when we were out with...with our son, the lord of the manor conjured a light that kept us from going back in the city.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know, but it happened right after that Magis Eques and her apprentice came into town.”

Abram’s heart skipped a beat, and his eyes widened. “This Magis Eques and her apprentice, what did they look like?”

“They were both women. The knight was quite tall, and covered head to toe in black armor laden with skulls-”

“And the apprentice? What did she look like?”

The woman was not ignorant of Abram’s eagerness and was careful about her next words. “She wore leather armor, and a mask and hood. But she had the strangest eyes. In fact, they looked just like y-”

“Get some rest, Ylena and Evangeline will tend to you.”

The couple was confused by this change in temper. But decided not to press the issue, if not out of fear, then out of respect for their new master’s privacy. “Of course, and thank you, sir knight.”

Abram nodded curtly and then waited for them to join the others before addressing Evangeline. “It’s them, they’re in Skywood Hearth.”

“That’s clear in the other direction. We’d lose-”

“We’ll take the Aurelian on the way back.”

The woman with black eyes became angry. “Abram it can’t be that easy. What are the chances that-”

“That we’ll find two people matching their exact description? One in some unreasonable number. Which is why we need to follow this lead. So tend to our newcomers and I’ll fetch the horses.”

Evangeline looked towards the heavens as if to plead their help, then gave up and did as she was told. He was of course aware of this, but Abram had other things on his mind. As he walked towards the stable, a wild grin spread across his face.

“About time we caught up with them. Soon I’ll not need this farce.”

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