At first I thought that someone had deliberately killed Madam Alisa, but judging by the mayhem and the death that was going on in the Ronan camp, that wasn’t the case. There was lots of screaming and running around as the Ronan did their best to try and make it to the hopeful safety of their wagons. What had been a beautiful evening out here in the countryside was shattered mercilessly. There were a few bodies lying in the dirt, but since there were only around 20-30 people in their small caravan, even that low a number was too high. I kept low to the ground as I did my best to find where the shots were coming from.
Even though it was difficult, I tried to recall how the older woman had slumped over when she was shot. The blood had spread from the center of her chest on the front, but had pooled from just above her tailbone in the back. That would suggest that the killer was perched in some kind of tree - but not too high, because then they would not have been able to see into the wagon. Since we were parked at the edge of a grove, that should make it easier to spot the assassin. Occasionally, a shot would ring out, which led me to believe that they still hadn’t finished their mission.
It had to be the Blood Guild, I thought, since they hadn’t killed Dorf or I back in the Arcane District, and they were honor bound to finish their contract. But usually, they have a professional reputation for not killing innocents. Unless…if the purchaser of the original contract paid extra, like say to kill all of the Ronan where we were visiting, then they would indeed slaughter every man, woman and child here. That would imply that the person who hired them knew our whereabouts and was following us in some way, which was not a pleasant thought to be having. There was only one person I knew that was capable of doing that, but why the “bright man” would have hired the Blood Guild was perplexing to me, to say the least.
I only heard the sound of one steam-rifle being fired, thank the Gods, so at least we wouldn’t have to deal with more than one of them. While rifles weren’t a new development, there had been rumors of a high-powered steam-rifle that was capable of being fired from very long distances and with great destructive force. Apparently, the assassin had managed to get their hands on one, since that was the only thing that could account for them being able to make that accurate a shot from that far away.
All of this ran through my head as I crab walked towards the side of the next wagon. Reaching around the side to the front door, I was pleased to find it wasn’t locked. But, before I could turn the handle and open the door, a shot rang out and the bullet barely missed my hand. Granted, I was going to be picking splinters out of my fingers for a while, but that was much preferred to not having fingers at all. Even though every instinct told me to pull my hand back, I left it where it was and finished opening up the door. Another shot rang out, puncturing the door almost where my shoulder was, and after it did I zipped around the opened door and lunged inside, lying flat on the floor. There was no third shot, so either the assassin was reloading, or they were waiting until they knew where I was, so as not to waste ammunition.
Sometimes, my luck is really a beautiful thing, and this time was no exception. Inside the wagon, but laying on the pull-down bed instead of the floor, was my partner. Dorf looked a little pale, but I felt comfortable attributing that to fear and not blood loss. There was no pain in his eyes, so that was a relief. “Hey partner,” I whispered, “how you holding up?”
“I’m getting shot at, you asshole, how do you think I’m holding up?” Getting barked at in a whisper was almost comical, and I barely restrained myself from chuckling. “Did you have the same thought I had, Jonas, that it’s those Blood Guild fuckers that are doing this?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” I agreed with him. “But, since they’ve killed some of the Ronan that would mean that somebody altered their contract. Otherwise, they are killing innocents, and nothing we’ve ever heard about them says that they do that.”
“Well, maybe it isn’t one of the Blood Guild. Maybe it’s just some dick who really hates the Ronan?” Dorf really seemed to be grasping at straws.
“With a high powered steam-rifle?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “How common and cheap do you think those things are?” I kept my eyes on my partner’s eyes, waiting.
Dorf held onto his false belief for just a few seconds before sighing and letting it go. “Yeah, you’re right. I was just hoping we wouldn’t have to face them. After all, it was luck and quick thinking that kept us alive the last time we faced them, all of it thanks to you. No offense, partner, but I don’t want to keep relying on that to pull our fat out of the fire.”
“None taken. I don’t want to rely on that either. Say, where’s Ivana?” I asked, trying to keep my tone casual.
“We may potentially get killed here, and you’re letting the little head do some of the thinking,” Dorf teased me as I tried not to blush. “Don’t worry, she grabbed the children and herded them down the hill heading back towards the city. The rifle doesn’t have that long of a range, a fact I can attest to because his shots fell short of them as I watched them running away. I wanted to join them, but each time I tried to make a break for it, that bastard kept me pinned down so I wasn’t able to, and next thing I know, they made it to safety. At least, as safe as can be right about now. What do you think the assassin is going to do?”
I thought about it only for a bit before replying. “Most likely, they will take their time killing everyone who hadn’t left the caravan campsite; then, after we are all dead, they will hunt down and kill every person that fled, including the children and Ivana.”
“Well, shit on a shingle,” Dorf said so eloquently. “I was afraid you would see it the same way I do. So, we’re not gonna sit here and wait to die, are we?”
“Fuck no,” I gave my partner a savage grin. “We are gonna figure out how to kill the son-of-a-bitch who is picking off innocents, contract or not. And yes, while I know that neither you nor I are what anyone would consider ‘innocent’ I’m including us anyway.”
“Good to know,” he grinned back. “Hey, have I mentioned how fucking sexy it is when you swear? Makes me all tingly.”
“You are such an ass,” I chuckled as I pushed Dorf gently. “So, is your steam-pistol charged up and ready to go?”
“Of course! What did you have in mind?” he asked me.
“You’re going to break this window,” I pointed to the one that was next to the wagon door, “and then I’m going to open the door. They can’t hit both targets at once, but I’m guessing that they will shoot at the door instead of the window. Once they do, I’ll book it to the wagon across the campsite while you lay down some cover fire.”
“But,” Dorf said, “unless I get really lucky, there’s no way in the Hells that any shot I make will hit the assassin.”
“I know that,” I agreed with him, “and you know that, but realistically the assassin doesn’t know that. And, once you start firing on them…”
“…they will try and duck or get to cover, which gives you time to reach the safety of the next wagon.” Dorf finished my sentence for me. “Good thinking, partner.” Looking around the wagon, he reached down and grabbed a cast-iron kettle, which should be heavy enough to break the window, but not so heavy that it completely shatters it. After all, my partner just needs a reasonably sized opening to fire out of, not a gaping hole that would make him an easy target. He hefted it and nodded his approval. Meeting his eyes, I held up my hand and counted down from three to one. On one, we both sprang into action.
Flinging the kettle with all of his considerable might, I was pleased to see it break a hole just about right in the center; at the same time, I flung open the door and waved my hand in the opening. As I expected, the assassin chose to fire on the door, and I just managed to pull my hand out of the way. I swear, the hairs on the back of my hand moved from the force of the shot, that’s how close it was. Then, Dorf popped up, kneeled and fired a couple of shots in the general direction of the shooter, while I ran out of the wagon like a demon itself was after me.
Our plan worked. There was no shots from the assassin as I made it to the safety of the wagon opposite the one I just left. This put me much closer to the grove and, hopefully, getting that shooter out of their perch. I wanted to take them in alive, but the Blood Guild were notorious for dying just when they were placed under arrest or in transport back to the station, so I wasn’t going to hold my breath that we would get any answers from them. Besides, I thought, it’s not like they may even know who hired them. They have superiors who give them their assignments, just like us officers do. Ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do or…yeah, I really didn’t feel like finishing that saying. I didn’t want to identify with the soulless assassin who had just killed some helpless people, I just wanted them to stop doing it.
“Die, you fucker!” I heard Dorf scream out as he fired off the last of his shots. Now, he would have to crank the generator again before he was able to provide any more cover fire for me. From here on out, I was basically on my own. But that was OK, since by this point I had made it around the wagon and was stalking through the grove, trying to triangulate the position of the shooter from the shots they had fired, both into poor Madam Alisa’s wagon, and the one where Dorf was pinned down.
The grove was eerily quiet, and I was reminded of the forest around Aerdale. That comparison did nothing to calm me down, but the mind works in some really messed up ways sometimes, and there was nothing I could do about it. I made my way slowly from tree to tree, making sure to inch my way out before darting to the next one. If my calculations were correct, I was close to the tree that the assassin was using as their perch. And, coming around the corner of the last tree, I spotted them.
What I saw made absolutely no sense. Crouched on a fairly large branch, steam-rifle held loosely in his hands as his head darted back and forth trying to find my position, was Stumpy. But why would Mama Crea’s bodyguard/boy toy (and yes, I shuddered when THAT mental image popped into my head) be working for the Blood Guild? Unless both Dorf and I were wrong, and this wasn’t a sanctioned hit. There were too many questions, and our answers depended on me being able to capture him alive.
Thankfully, there’s just such a spell for things like that. I tiptoed forward until I was just at the back of the tree where the older Dwarf was located. Then, I reached into my handy duster and pulled out some ground up chamomile, blew it up towards Stumpy, and whispered softly thireak, which was the Draconus word for sleep. The cloud from my spell settled over the shooter’s head, and I watched with some grim satisfaction as his head drooped down towards his chest before he took a dive off of his branch. That crash as he hit the grove floor heavily was like music to my ears.
Making the most of the time he would be out (like most spells, there was no tried and true method to determining how effective it was), I opened his mouth and reached around, trying to locate a little cyanide pill that the Blood Guild assassins usually carried with him. However, I couldn’t find anything like that. Grunting in confusion, I pulled out my dagger and cut the older Dwarf’s clothes off to give myself something to tie him up with. Besides, walking around in only your smallclothes tends to keep most people in line. Soon enough, he was trussed up like a hog ready to be sent for slaughter.
It was about that time that Dorf came running up, panting from the exertion. When he saw who I had tied up, something happened that I very rarely saw. He was at a loss for words. “Yeah,” I filled in the silence. “I can’t believe it either. He didn’t have a cyanide pill in his mouth, so our theory that this was a Blood Guild hit may be false. Why don’t you go find Ivana and the children and let the rest of the Ronan know that it’s safe to come out?”
“Sure, partner,” he said quietly. “What are you gonna do while I’m doing that?”
Bending down, I let out my breath as I strained to put the unconscious Dwarf over my shoulder. Once I got him settled, I responded to Dorf’s curiosity. “Me, I’m going to find an empty wagon where we can interrogate this asshole. I’m tired of running around blind, it’s about time we got some light to help us see.” And with that, I headed back towards the campsite.