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A note from AtlasWrites

In this chapter, our heroes continue their journey through the backwater territory of Volyumenth and, in search of the coin they so desperately need, they take on a contract to hunt down deserters. 

Ruins of Dalághast Chapter 2 – Karensford

Stepping out onto the porch early the following morning, Hulbard tried to ignore the ominously creaking floorboards underfoot. Taking a deep breath of the cool air, he exhaled slowly, readying himself for the march ahead. Beyond the flimsy wooden rail, the plateau was half obscured behind an all encompassing, misting rain, though the sight did little to dampen his spirits so long as it meant leaving The Hunters Respite behind.

“Good dawn to you”.

The low, grating growl could only belong to one ‘person’, if the term was applied loosely. Hulbard spotted Trastgor sitting on the chopping block ahead with a smouldering pipe clasped in one hand. He was not only the final member of their illustrious band of misfits but also the least human in appearance next only to Semekt. Realistically though, Hulbard figured that they were setting the standard pretty low on that account.

Short and stocky, every inch of the Kurgal’s body, with the exception of his head, was covered in a layer of coarse, hazel fur that had always reminded Hulbard of a horse’s coat. His face, on the other hand, was covered by a thick mask of bone both moulded to the shape of his head and sprouting directly from it. The bone curved around the sides of his face, with ridges surrounding his long, pointed ears and two large holes for him to see through. Above, the mask was crowned by a pair of thick, ridged horns, one above either of his large emerald eyes and curving gently backwards.

The mask left his lower jaw free for talking and eating, though he never seemed to do much of either. Two slits for his nostrils sat above this and they lay flat against the mask, with no ridge for an actual nose as Hulbard understood one. The mask curved around Trastgor’s pointed ears, leaving them free to swivel this way and that as needed. What could be seen of his jaw was angular and furred. Even his deep red hair reminded him of a horse’s mane, flowing down to the Kurgal’s shoulder blades in fine strands.

They didn’t believe overmuch in clothing, which was why Trastgor wore a pair of linen pants and little else. Several finger bones hung from a necklace of woven hair around his thick neck, swaying with each step. Much like Semekt, he wore a bandolier across his broad chest, looped from his right shoulder to his left hip. The curved handle of a falcata protruded over his shoulder within easy reach; the Kurgal’s first choice of weapon but notoriously difficult to acquire outside their clans.

One of Hulbard’s old belts was looped loosely around Trastgor’s hips, and it was from this that a heavy kukri hung, its ebony and bone handle glinting in the rain. His shield lay nearby, as nasty a piece of work as any Hulbard had ever seen; its metal face bowed outwards, carpeted in a forest of lengthy, lethally sharp metal spikes. Several had been snapped off in battles past, but more than enough remained to pose a painful threat.

“Good morning to you too” Hulbard nodded before stomping down the porch’s steps, “When did you get back?”

“Hour or two past midnight” Trastgor told him in that deep, throaty growl that served as his voice, “Quintus told me we were moving on this morning”.

“He mention where?”

“Just said something about bandits and missing animals before telling me, and I quote, to ‘Stop touching everything you filthy animal and get out of my room before I set you on fire’. Pleasant, as always. I can only assume that a few bandits have taken an unnatural interest in some farm animals and we are on our way to liberate the poor creatures”.

“Huh” Hulbard laughed, “Around these parts, that sort of thing probably isn’t even considered unnatural”.

“Hmmm” Trastgor hummed as he drew on his pipe, “If not, then it should be”.

He was just tapping out the glowing embers on the chopping block when the door ahead of them swung open again and this time, Knox slipped into view. The hunter wore simple travelling leathers that left his left arm bare save for a bandage wrapped tight around his hand and forearm to prevent the string of his bow catching upon release. Otherwise, his lanky frame was shrouded in a heavy hooded cloak of deep, forest green, expertly tailored to mask his movements beneath its folds, which had always suited the man just fine.

From experience, Hulbard knew that the man could have passed for a travelling knife supplier; equally likely to produce a throwing knife as a meat cleaver at a moment’s notice from beneath that cloak. Now, it was pushed to one side, revealing the longsword at Knox’ left hip but also keeping it out of his way. His longbow was slung over one shoulder in a thick leather sheath to protect it from the elements, alongside a quiver full of arrows. He dragged his hood up against the miserable weather and moved to stand next to the two warriors.

Next to join them was a flustered Skye, emerging from The Hunters Respite with an annoyed flick of her head. She was so absorbed in her own annoyance that she skidded on the top step of the porch and only narrowly caught herself on the rail with a yelp before she could be pitched face first to the ground. Without a word, she huffed and joined them by the chopping block. Another argument with her mentor to start the morning off, no doubt.

When Quintus emerged a moment later with Shankhill and Semekt in tow, he looked no more annoyed than usual, but that was always how it went between those two. The two humans were robed against the weather and carrying packs of their own, while the four armed Dramaskian needed nothing more than the complex bandolier slung across his back.

It formed an ‘x’ shape between his two shoulder blades and housed four wickedly curved scimitars. The handles of two blades protruded over his upper set of shoulders, while the others rested just below the armpits of his lower arms. On top of these, the harness housed a heavy crossbow of jet black, lacquered wood, settled between these blades.

Designed by the serpentine race, the harness meant that he could draw all four swords simultaneously in one smooth motion. Hulbard had seen Semekt do it multiple times in the past, but the sight had never ceased to impress him. He’d also witnessed the Dramaskian utilise all four arms to reload the powerful crossbow with truly brutal efficiency. As they milled out into the open, Hulbard pulled up the hood of his own cloak and turned to face the steaming plateau, frowning into the tepid rain.

He’d donned his armour and it clanked now with every step he took as they left The Hunter’s Respite behind. It was a suit of dull, iron grey plates, designed to slope at every opportunity to deflect incoming blows and flaring points to help protect his joints. It was an odd mixture of ancient material combined with cutting edge ingenuity, especially when the crystals were taken into consideration.

Chunks of golden citrine were set into key parts of his armour; from an obelisk shaped chunk over his breast to the multi faceted gems set into his pauldrons and gauntlets. They lined his gut and glinted at his throat, creating a network of precious points across his form. It had often attracted the worst kind of attention in the past, but had also proven more than a match to ensure that the armour had always remained in his possession.

His helmet, as simple yet intricate a piece of armour as the rest, hung from a hook by his left side, opposite a neatly coiled flail and a one handed war hammer. Hulbard had been carrying both weapons for quite some time and both showed evidence of hard use. Then there was his own shield, a large iron circle hanging loose in his left fist, with four large gems inset into its face in a rectangular pattern. He preferred some form of pole arm to compliment the shield in battle, but his last spear had shattered under the weight of a charging boar. A small price to pay, it had seemed at the time, considering how tasty the beast had been.

Last, but not least, a heavy hunting knife was sheathed at his right hip, while its twin rested over his left ankle; the handle of one engraved with a fox, the other a deer’s antlers. They made up his arsenal of weapons, ill concealed by his own threadbare cloak, and they had served him well throughout the years.

He took the lead, striding through the rain and swirling banks of steam as he wound his way between the hot springs. Shankhill walked by his side, or rather skidded and slipped on the slick moss, where the warrior’s footing was sure. Quintus came next with Skye by his side, both refusing to speak to the other, instead lapsing into sullen silence, while Trastgor traipsed along behind. Semekt and Knox quickly disappeared from sight, ranging ahead.

    They left the steam shrouded plateau behind and quickly found what passed for a main road in Volyumenth; broad but cracked and overgrown paving stones half sunken into the soil that wound their way through rolling hills and snaked around steep gullies. Beyond the hot springs choking mist, the wind was chill, plucking and dragging at Hulbard’s cloak, snapping it this way and that in his wake.

    The wilderness encroached on all sides, leaving weeds and wild flowers to sprout between the stone underfoot wherever they could find purchase. Mile markers, simple four foot high pillars of granite, occasionally marked their progress in place of any landmarks strictly worth noting.

    It was two hours past noon before Hulbard lowered himself down onto one knee beneath the broad branches of a low hanging tree and dragged back his hood. The cool wind caressed his forehead while droplets of rain pricked at his cheeks, soothing against his warm skin. After the punishing pace he’d set throughout the morning, it felt good to let his muscles relax, even if it wouldn’t be for long.

    The area Knox had found for their break was quite scenic; a deep basin of water nestled between the trees perhaps forty paces away from the road, fed by fresh water rippling down over boulders to one side and continuing on to fall over a nearby cliff with a dull roar. A bridge of ancient stone spanned the river, though it, like almost everything they’d passed so far, was also coated in a fine layer of lichen and clumps of moss, giving the entire province a distinctly fungal scent.

    Despite how peaceful the place seemed, and the fact that they hadn’t met anyone all day, Hulbard still raked the area with a suspicious glare, unable to help himself. Trastgor sat cross legged by the water’s edge, smouldering pipe sheltered from the rain by his hunched shoulders. It sluiced off his thick fur in a way that reminded Hulbard of an otter he’d once seen, though soaked his pants so thoroughly he half expected them to fall apart at any moment.

    In sharp contrast, Shankhill was huddled close to the trunk of the tree behind Hulbard, swaddled in his heavy leather cloak, scowling at the rain as if the downpour was an affront to him on a deeply personal level.

“Havin’ fun?” Hulbard asked.

“As much fun as a one legged man in a race” Shankhill told him, before pausing thoughtfully and adding, “Where the penalty for losing is having a leg cut off”.

“A little dramatic, but fair”.

He blinked as Semekt suddenly broke the reed strewn surface of the water nearby, head thrown back and jaws snapping as he noisily gulped down whatever he’d managed to catch. Splashing back down into the water, he slithered between the plantlife, scarcely disturbing it with his passage and quickly slipping from view. Lacking his harness, it was easy to view the Dramaskian as little more than a wild beast, especially when he moved with all the grace of a genuine serpent through the pond. Hulbard knew better than to make that mistake though.

Beneath the trickling water, he heard the soft crackle of burning wood and the sound drew his eye to the tiny fire and the metal tripod above it. A battered kettle hung above the meagre flames, which had only been ignited with some help from Quintus. He rested on a patch of mercifully dry dirt, while Knox lounged in the branches of a nearby tree, one long leg dangling to swing idly back and forth. The rain pattered against the foliage all around them, dripping and dropping in an endless symphony, mingling with the rushing water and snapping logs.

Skye knelt over the fire, busying herself with measuring tea leaves into two mugs, but that didn’t stop Quintus’ deep rumble. At least they were talking again, Hulbard couldn’t help thinking.

“And this” the Sorcerer was asking, holding up a flower he’d just picked for Skye’s inspection.

“Eh...” her brows furrowed as she regarded it for a long moment, “No idea”.

“Lanithos” Knox chimed cheerfully.

“Lanithos” Quintus nodded, “And it’s uses?”

“I wouldn’t know” Skye snorted without even bothering to look up from the cups.

“The bulbs can be used to clean your teeth” Knox supplied overhead, “All you have to do is crush them up.

“Correct!” Quintus snapped his fingers, “Once again! If only our distinguished hunting companion had a hint of the craft in his blood, he could have replaced you years ago and saved me a lot of heartache”.

“And he’d probably have killed you in your sleep long ago” Skye muttered, to a barked laugh from above.

Hulbard smirked ruefully at the scene, hid it behind a cough and turned back to survey the basin as he dug into his backpack and pulled out a piece of salted beef. Tangy, dry and tough, it was a far cry from the home cooked meals they’d all given up, but tasty enough in its own way when you learned to appreciate the small comforts. It wasn’t much but whenever work loomed, ‘not much’ started to seem like a lot.

The next morning dawned dry, if not exactly clear. The sky overhead was still blanketed in clouds as lead grey as his amour, promising more rain, but after the night they’d all just endured, Hulbard wasn’t about to start complaining about small mercies. Sometimes, they were all he’d ever had.

The narrow cleft of stone they’d been forced to shelter under had left them all shivering and foul tempered throughout a ferocious downpour. The wind plucked at his dreadlocks, pricked at his exposed flesh, but the sensations were welcome. It meant he was still alive to feel them.

They’d left the crumbling road behind and ventured out onto the open plains. The ground roiled, creating a vista of uneven hills saturated with enough rain to almost make a mire of them. The country was rife with streams, overflowing hollows between rocks and great spars of grey and brown stone stabbing through the soil, but little else. The going had been solid along the road, but the second Shankhill had led them from it, their progress had slowed to a crawl, even before the merciless weather had driven them into an early night.

“Alright!” he clapped his hands together with a clatter, “Shankhill, what’s our heading?”

“South east” the slender man heaved an irritated sigh as he massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, “We’ll hit another road before too long and we follow that straight to Karensford. We should keep an eye out for anyplace that these bandits could have gone to ground and check them out along the way. See if we can’t arrive in Karensford carrying their heads and speed things along”.

“Promising” Hulbard said, “Let’s get started then. The earlier we get going, the sooner we get where we’re going, eh?”

Throughout the morning, they wound their way through the boggy hills until they found a narrow roadway and began to follow it further east, back into thicker woodland. Along the way, they found several discrete locations that would have been ideal retreats for deserters on the run, thanks to Knox’ and Semekt’s ranging skills.

They ventured into a deep cavern, crept up on an abandoned hunting lodge and investigated a half rotted watchtower of aged timber set on a hillside overlooking the road. All of them would have been perfect for anyone seeking refuge from any form of law, yet each of them in turn proved empty. Considering the fact that Hulbard hadn’t seen another person since The Hunter’s Rest, he could only assume their targets had left those places behind in favour of more profitable roads ahead.

Their own fell in alongside a broad and fast flowing river, leading them ever eastwards. Hulbard was just considering the stony peaks opposite when he caught his first glimpse of their destination and, true to form, Volyumenth architecture failed to impress in every way. He hadn’t been expecting much, but even then it seemed that his estimation had overshot the mark.

Calling Karensford a town had been extremely charitable on Shankhill’s part. Their dirt track of a road curved down into a broad bend that spanned the river with a rickety wooden bridge before forming the main roadway of the village. Two buildings of two stories each stood opposite each other on that stretch of road and the others seemed to have followed suit, flanking the pathway without venturing too far in any other direction.

Though irregular in size and shape, they were uniform in their construction; light grey stone, chiselled into rough rectangles and laid one atop the other with little mortar between them, surmounted by tall, pointed thatched roofs. Some even boasted small windows with lacquered wooden frames to match the narrow doorways. A few buildings that looked small enough to be homes had inched their way up the river bank, though that seemed to be where their individual tendencies had ceased.

Opposite them stood several small fields, hemmed in by irregular slabs of stone stacked together to form what could loosely be called walls, though they didn’t look like they held much in the way of livestock.

“That’s it then, is it?” Hulbard asked.

“Indeed it is!” Shankhill beamed, “And what a beautiful place it is, too”.

“It’s a prime example of what Volyumenth was built upon” Quintus drawled from behind.

“What, rivers?” Skye asked, voice laced with sarcasm.

“Hard work but little ingenuity” her master replied with a glare, “Though I’m not surprised you wouldn’t recognise either of those qualities”.

“Oooooh, scathing” she smirked, “However will I continue now that you’ve compared me to the fine craftsmen of such a beautiful place?”

“They remind me of some of my wives” Shankhill jerked his head back towards the pair.

“You were wed?” Hulbard arched an eyebrow.

“Never for long, my dear man. A marriage isn’t usually the kind of arrangement I aim for in my business dealings but sometimes these things get out of hand”.

Those they passed on the way into Karensford, whether digging in the dirt, fishing by the river or sitting on rough carved benches, all paused to stare and Hulbard wasn’t shy about staring back. He’d learned long ago that avoiding eye contact was a good way to let someone assume you were weak and that a hard stare could end a confrontation before it ever got a chance to get started. Neither seemed too relevant just then. The village’s residents reminded him forcefully of cattle; gathering to stare at something out of the ordinary with no real comprehension of what they were looking at or why. They even had the same wide eyed, vacant expressions, now that he thought about it.

There was a rudimentary forge in one of the gardens they passed, little more than chiselled blocks assembled in a way that they could conceivably be used as a furnace, but most gardens seemed to be given over to growing various different kinds of vegetables. All of which looked a good rainfall away from death, at best. The crops were as weather weary and hard bitten as the people tending them. Elsewhere, he saw tanning racks strung up alongside fishing spits, neither of which were abundantly hung with produce.

Shankhill paused in front of one of the two story buildings and Hulbard looked it over, noting the haphazard attempt at a balcony on the upper floor and the uneven windows breaking up the monotony of its outer walls. A rickety sign hanging outside had the crudest depiction of a loaf of bread and fish carved into it that he had ever seen. Opposite, the other two story building was much the same, except someone had rather optimistically attempted to carve a bed into the sign instead.

“Alright” Shankhill said, “I don’t believe this shop keeper will react well to all of us traipsing in there at once. Might upset him a little bit, so instead, I’m going to go ask him a few questions and see if he has any ideas about where we can find the assholes we’re hunting. You assholes stay here and try not to start some sort of...I don’t even know what”.

Looking around at the village, he scoffed.

“I don’t think you could make this place any worse even if you tried”.

“Get going” Quintus snapped and Shankhill obeyed, but not before an ostentatious bow.

They milled around in the street, awkwardly looking at each other for a moment as their guide disappeared indoors. Trastgor grunted.

“We could probably burn this place to the ground” he mused.

“Let’s resist that particular, primal urge of yours, shall we?” Quintus said archly.

“Hey!” Skye suddenly yelped excitedly, “A puppy!”

They turned to see a mangy mongrel standing nearby, evidently come to see what they were all doing in its territory. Hulbard was no dog breeder, but to his untrained eye, it looked like someone had tried to breed some sort of hunting dog with a badger and failed quite miserably. He grimaced as she hurried over to pet its head and coo over it.

“My apprentice” Quintus gestured towards her with an exasperated sigh, “More inclined towards making friends with the misbegotten wildlife we encounter than learning her craft”.

“Better time spent with him than you” Skye said in that same light, lilting tone she used when speaking to the dog, scratching enthusiastically behind his ears.

Hulbard grinned as he turned away, already scanning their surroundings for anything out of place without conscious thought. He noted areas where ambushes could be concealed, plotted potential escape routes; all the time knowing the effort was wasted but finding comfort in the routine. Too long in the army, he told himself, though the practice had served them well a thousand times in the past. Only after he thoroughly examined the village itself did he turn his attention towards its inhabitants.

Closest to them, two neighbours who had been chatting over a stone wall now leaned against it, watching with an openness that bordered on strangely hostile. Two kids in canvas shirts stood in another garden, the wooden sticks in their hands forgotten as they gaped at the strangers, though he at least understood their curiosity. They were a weather worn people, hardy and unyielding in their own, daft way, but there wasn’t a fighter to be found among those he saw. No one that didn’t look likely to balk at the sight of drawn steel.

His attention was brought back to the mutt as it suddenly growled threateningly and Hulbard turned to see its lips drawn back across yellow fangs, head lowered and hackles raised towards Knox as he cautiously approached, hands held up.

“Hey” he said softly, extending a hand, “It’s alright”.

The dog issued a harsh bark before turning and scampering away down the street, but not before throwing one last, angry glance over its shoulder.

“Awwh” Skye said, rising from where she’d been kneeling in the dirt and slapping the hunters shoulder, “You scared him away!”

“Strange” Knox hummed, “That usually only happens whenever I approach women”.

“Maybe if they could hear you coming and you didn’t sneak up behind them, they wouldn’t mind so much” Hulbard chuckled and the woodsman only shrugged with a rueful grin in response.

When Shankhill re-emerged from the general store a moment later, it was with an infuriatingly satisfied smirk.

“North!” he declared, settling his hands on his hips, “Our quarry returned not two days ago and pulled the same trick again”.

“It’s not really a trick if they just walk in and take whatever they want, you know?” Knox pointed out. “It’s just...raiding at that stage, I think?”

“Nevertheless!” Shankhill flourished a hand to silence the hunter, “They took all they could carry and wandered north thereafter. And, as I recalled from my artfully drawn map, there is indeed a small ruin up that way. Our friend inside, who doesn’t seem to have any personal belief in cleanliness I might add, agreed that it would be a good place to start”.

“Let’s get going then” Trastgor growled, “All this staring is starting to creep me out”.

“They do seem to be expecting some sort of show” Shankhill said thoughtfully, looking back at the two men leaning against the nearby wall, who’d been watching the entire time without moving a muscle.

“Wait” Skye said, “What about some food?”

“What about it?” Shankhill asked.

I wouldn’t say no to something to eat”.

“Good thing no one asked you then” Quintus snapped.

“Ha!” Skye threw her head back in an exaggerated show of laughter, “You’re so funny!”

“If it’s food we’re after” Shankhill intervened smoothly, “Then the...ahem...tavern across from us should be able to provide us with some lovely and not at all questionable fish stew”.

“But the sign over the general store shows bread” Skye said, pointing.

“I wouldn’t” Shankhill told them with a sincerity that ended the conversation then and there.

An hour past noon, with the grey clouds darkening ominously overhead, Hulbard slid smoothly into a shallow hollow between the trees. Though not nearly as silent as Knox or Semekt, he could be deceptively quiet when he put his mind to it, especially considering the armour he wore. Now he dropped into an uncomfortable crouch amongst the mossy rocks and shifted to peer over a tangle of roots ringing the edge of the hollow. Ahead, he got his first clear glimpse of their destination.

A single round tower of jagged grey stone perched on a precipice, overlooking a narrow valley beyond. Through the low hanging branches, he was able to make out several small buildings clustered around it, sprawling back down the uneven hillside towards the tree line where he hid. While the tower looked intact for the most part, these other structures were little more than crumbling shells, the ground between them strewn with rubble.

The entire scene looked like it had once been an outpost of some importance, or at least enough to warrant a permanent presence in the area, but he didn’t know enough about Volyumenth’s history to hazard any guesses beyond that.

Hulbard critically raked the area with his eyes, searching for all the usual signs he’d come to expect from a small camp but finding none. There were, however, plenty of places to hide among the broken walls, which could work for or against them depending on what lay ahead. He discerned no unnatural movement up there, but from where he was crouched and the uphill angle, it was hard to be certain. He’d been on both sides of some very creative ambushes before and had no desire to wander into another.

Hulbard grimaced as he heard a twig snap behind him and shot a glare over his shoulder. Shankhill held up his hands with an apologetic smile, stepped carefully over another branch and hunkered down next to him.

“See anything?” he muttered

“No” Hulbard whispered, encouraging no further conversation.

Instead, he waited as Quintus, Skye and Trastgor all joined them in the hollow, huddling together beneath the thick foliage overhead, all of them somehow managing to make less noise than Shankhill in the process. It wasn’t long before Hulbard caught a glimpse of movement through the trees and Semekt came into view. The Dramaskian slithered across the forest floor with his arms tucked into his sides in the perfect imitation of an true serpent. He slid up to the edge of the hollow before those long limbs unfolded, his lengthy body swirling into a coil behind him as he leaned down to speak into Hulbard’s face.

“Human’s ahead” the Dramaskian reported, “Knox said they are the ones we seek”.

Given what Semekt was and the fact that the common tongue wasn’t his native, the words had quite the lilt to them that had taken Hulbard weeks, if not months, to get a firm grasp of. He didn’t so much as drawl his ‘S’ sounds, as hyper emphasise them and most vowels tended to give the snake beast trouble, so that Knox’s name became ‘No-ax’ in his jaws.

“How many?” Hulbard asked softly.

“Knox spotted three low” Semekt paused to swallow noisily, “Two high. He thinks there are more inside”.

“Then let’s get to it” the warrior nodded, dragged in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Suggestions, Shankhill?”

He shrugged the pack off his back, lowered it gently to the ground and then did the same for his cloak. Reaching down, Hulbard’s fingers found the smooth grip of his chain mace, curled around it. Hefting his shield, he rotated his shoulder one way and then the other as the others followed suit around him.

“You and the fur ball up front” Shankhill replied, making a show of tightening the buckles on his boots, “Shields up in case they have any bows perched on that tower. Keep Knox back in the tree line and let him see who he can pick off and get Semekt moving up on the left. Wait until you two lure everyone out into the open and then hit them from behind”.

“A good plan” Hulbard nodded, turning to stare down at him, “Now, what about you?”

“Well” Shankhill flashed a charming grin, “I was under the impression that I’d wait back here with Skye and Quintus to make sure no one comes creeping up behind us. Keep a good watch for any unexpected surprises”.

“Of course” Hulbard deadpanned, “Because why would we want Sorcery in a fight, hm? When we have our targets cornered?”

“Exact-!” Shankhill began cheerfully before the warrior cut him off.

“You’re bringing up the rear” he told Quintus in a tone that brooked no argument, meeting the Sorcerer’s cold stare with one of his own, “You and Knox will move up on the right and find yourselves some cover. You don’t have to do anything unless they have a Sorc or we start getting into trouble”.

Without waiting for a response, he unhooked the scarred helmet from his belt and held it up in both hands. It was a simple, solid piece of iron grey metal with a perfectly plain faceplate save for the citrine gems embedded into its surface. He paused before slipping it on though, hesitating and swivelling back to them, meeting each of their eyes in turn. It felt like he should say something, but no words came to mind so he settled for, “Good luck”.

Taking a deep breath, he slid the helmet into place over his head, plunging himself into pitch darkness for a long second. A spot of light appeared on the inside curve of the enclosed helmet just in front of his nose and quickly expanded, swirling outwards like coloured water until it resolved into an image of the outside world. Hulbard turned his head from side to side, making sure that the projected scene moved fluidly with his movements. His breath hissed metallic in his ears within the confines of his helm, the warmth stifling.

Rising to his full and considerable height, Hulbard unhooked the chain mace from his side, its weighty, spiked head dragging the chain taut with a soft rattle as it came free. Setting his shoulders, he marched up the bank and towards the ruins, making no attempt to hide his approach. He spotted Knox ahead, pressed back against a tree with his bow in hand. The hunter arched an eyebrow as he saw Hulbard marching towards him, weapon loose.

“Hang back” Hulbard’s voice was a deep metallic growl, “Move left, into the ruins. Protect Quintus”.

Knox nodded and that was that; he knew his part to play. It was one he’d played often enough in the past. Trastgor fell into step next to Hulbard as the others spread out in their wake, spiked shield and falcata at the ready. As if choreographed by some higher power with dramatic timing in mind, it began to rain just as they emerged from the trees, left them behind and stepped out into the broad space between the half collapsed walls. Hulbard made straight for the tower, striding up the steep hill without hesitating for a heartbeat. Hesitating tended to get people killed, after all.

Ahead, three figures lounged near the steps of the tower; clad in a mixture of armour but armed with weapons that looked no worse for wear after their time on the road. Even worn, beaten and travel stained though, Hulbard recognised the distinctive design of the Akarthian breastplate one of them still wore with ease. A single pauldron still strapped to one shoulder, marked by a stylised and curved ridge down its centre, only reinforced the idea that their first assumption had been right. Deserter’s from the Akarthian civil war, fleeing into Volyumenth in search of easy pickings on the road and a place where they could never be found.

He caught a glimpse of another person overhead and spared a heartbeat to hope they had nothing ranged up there, before that same figure spotted them. Jolting upright, he yelled to those below, already gesturing frantically towards the approaching figures. Ignoring the lookout now, Hulbard returned his gaze to the three men out front, watching as they leapt to their feet, suddenly bristling with weaponry. A sword was jerked from its sheath, an axe lifted from the ground, a spear turned and lowered in Hulbard’s direction.

The sight of bared steel sent a thrum of excitement surging through his veins, brought his senses into razor sharp focus, steeled his nerves in a few frenzied heartbeats. That was when the tower’s doorway, a slab of splintered wood they’d clearly cobbled together to bar the entrance against the elements, swung open. Three more figures stepped into view but only two of them dashed through the archway. Only two, he couldn’t help thinking and he would have smirked at the idea if it had lasted more than a second. Just two more people with two more weapons and two more lives.

“Who are you?” the man in the doorway called.

He was a small, slender man with a patchy blonde beard sprinkled across his narrow jaw and a scraggly braid woven into his straw coloured hair. A sword hung by his side but unlike the others, he made no move to draw it, instead placing a hand on its pommel; the gesture of a man threatening violence rather than intending to commit it. Hulbard didn’t answer, he just kept marching up the hill, drawing closer in grim silence. The first three shared an uneasy glance, shuffling uncertainly from foot to foot.

“You picked the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong people” the figure continued loudly.

There was a distinctive ‘thrum’ from behind, followed by the whistle of an arrow soaring overhead. It scythed between the merlons at the top of the tower, struck flesh with a wet squelch, summoned an ear piercing scream to the wind. Everyone twitched and jumped at the sound and Hulbard snapped into motion, charging headlong up the hill. He picked out the sword wielder as his target, holding the weapon least suited to deal with his heavy armour. Wide eyed and panicking, they were caught between rushing forward and running, battling their instincts more than the threat in front of them. Always a mistake, but one that only experience could overcome.

Trastgor slid right, caught the spear on his spiked shield and twisted to let it glance harmlessly aside with a screech. His curved sword slid into view, feinted high and chopped down into the man’s exposed hip with a meaty crunch.

“Oh shit” he saw the sword wielder breathe, before swinging wild.

Hulbard caught the overhead slash on his shield, stepped into the impact and swatted the blade aside before slamming the his shoulder into the deserter’s chest with bone breaking force, throwing him backwards and onto the ground with a yelp of pain. Twisting his body towards the next bandit in line, he ducked back as he caught a glimpse of the axe blade gleaming in the dull light.

It slid over the rim of his shield, hooked into place and the bearded man wielding it dragged against it, tried to pry it from the warriors grip. Sidestepping, Hulbard whipped his chain mace into the axe wielders knee with a sickening, solid crunch. His leg snapped sideways and he went down onto the knee with the beginning of an ear piercing scream. Hulbard took a measured step backwards, gauged the distance and backhanded his mace across the man’s head, reducing it to wet mulch in an instant.

Movement caught from the corner of his eye made him turn, jerk backwards as a sword swept past his face; the first man, back on his feet, teeth bared in a bloody snarl. Everything else faded into nothingness as Hulbard’s focus settled on the man’s chest, breathing slow and measured, watching for the slightest tell so that when it came a second later, he easily caught the thrust and swatted the blade from the bandits hand with a swipe of his chain mace, sent it spiralling to one side.

The deserter dove for the fallen axe, scooped it up and swung low. Hulbard stepped backwards, let it sweep past and drew back his arm. Before he could swing, though, something slid across his back and Hulbard could tell from the impact that it had been limp wristed. Whirling, he brought his shield around into the face of another man, sent him reeling. Turned back in time to let the axe fall short a second time, watched its wielder stagger under the weight of his own momentum.

Calmly, Hulbard whipped the chain mace around in a practiced arc into the bandits lower back, let the weight of its head do all the work. It struck hard, ploughed him into the ground, but not before the spikes had a chance to bite, plunging deep. He turned back to the man who’d struck him from behind, saw him glance at his fallen comrade and inch backwards. He was so focused on the blade in his hands that Hulbard almost missed Semekt appear behind the man.

There was the sharp ‘snick’ of a scimitar slicing and the bandit collapsed, hamstrung, eyes going wide and mouth opening dumbly. Hulbard’s plated foot smashed into his face, cracked his nose asunder and shattered his jaw. Trastgor fought to one side, grunting above the scrape and clatter of weaponry, but Semekt was already slithering to assist the Kurgal. Hulbard’s gaze was drawn to the archway, where the makeshift wooden door had been shut.

His shoulder smashed it off its hinges with a booming rattle and Hulbard skidded into the open centre of the tower. Wooden crates filled the space, strewn with signs of habitation ranging from bedrolls stacked neatly in one corner to lanterns and cooking utensils. A free standing staircase spiralled up the inner wall and it was partway up this that he spotted the one who’d run. At his entrance, the deserter stumbled in his mad climb and peered over his shoulder with a fearful gasp.

Hulbard marched after him; thread quick but heavy, chain hanging loose in his fist. Blondie dragged his sword from its sheath, already gasping and out of breath, hefted the length of steel as he turned to face the approaching, armoured warrior. He had the height advantage and that counted for a great deal in any confrontation, but Hulbard had his shield and the added range of his chain mace. In the end, he knew they would count for more than a few steps of height.

He caught a stroke from the sword on his shield, guided it aside and swung low. The deserter managed to skip over the spiked head of his mace, but landed awkwardly on one ankle and sprawled forward, straight into Hulbard’s waiting shield. Grunting, he heaved Blondie to one side with all his strength, sent him over the unprotected side of the staircase. He fell from view without a sound, too terrified to even scream before he smashed into the ground far below with an unpleasant splatter. Sounded like someone had just dropped a pumpkin down there instead, and Hulbard peered after the man, trying to gauge whether the twenty foot fall had been enough to kill him. Judging by the scattered pieces of his head, it had.

An arrow scythed past, skittered and cracked against the wall behind him. Hulbard’s head came up, eyes narrowing on the second man who’d been on the roof of the tower. Looked like Knox had been right about that one. He was kneeling near the top of the staircase, the bow he held trembling in his grip. He reached for another arrow as Hulbard heard movement behind, but he didn’t spare the sound a glance; knew it had to be one of his own, trusted his gut enough to not even bother checking.

Letting out a low growl of annoyance instead, Hulbard lifted his shield, hunkered down behind it and rushed up the stairs. The second arrow sailed much wider than the first and the deserter turned, bolted up onto the rooftop. Hulbard thundered through the opening a second later, head swivelling to fix on the deserter as he fumbled his sword free of its sheath.

Hulbard stood motionless, let his eyes wander from the man to a second lying on the ground by the parapet. Writhing and weeping, he stared back, one arm hanging limp, the other clawing fruitlessly at the arrow lodged in his shoulder. Knox had always been a great shot. The second archer gaped, blinked and flung down his sword, holding up his hands instead.

“P-please” he stuttered, “I don-don’t want to die. I’ll give you anything!”

Hulbard dropped his chain mace and strode forward. The deserter cringed, but the armoured giants arm shot out, iron shod fingers closing around the man’s throat, squeezed hard enough to make him gag and retch. Hulbard marched forward, slammed him against the parapet, bent him back over the dizzying drop into the valley beyond until his feet left the ground, eyes bulging in sheer terror. Leaning down over him, Hulbard held him firmly in place.

“A ruby and brass broach” he said, voice translated into a vicious growl through his helm. “Where is it?”

“W-what?” the deserter spluttered.

“Karensford!” Hulbard barked, “A ruby and brass broach. General store. Who. Has. It?”

“Lo-Lofric!” he grunted with tears streaming down his cheeks, “Yo-You threw him off the stairs. He has it! I swear!”

He yelped as he was dragged suddenly back onto solid ground and released, just as Trastgor sprinted onto the roof. The Kurgal skidded to a stop, heavy shoulders heaving, eyes alight with the thrill of battle, but he made no move to interfere.

“Go!” Trastgor growled before gesturing towards the wounded man, “Take him with you. Take nothing else”.

They didn’t need to be told twice. Supporting his companion, they disappeared down the staircase as quick as they could and only once they’d vanished from sight did Trastgor’s arms go limp, his muscles explosively relaxing as he exhaled hard.

Opening his hands, Hulbard let the shield clatter to the stones underfoot, reached up and dragged off his helmet, adrenaline still singing through his body with all the force of a river about to burst its banks, heart pounding in his ears until it blocked out every other sound. Gulping in fresh air, he turned his face skywards, basking in the rain, each cold drop a soothing balm against his sweating flesh. He dragged in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, willing his racing heart to slow, dragging his senses back to himself, tried to will his mind to stop replaying scenes from the last minute and a half.

“That” Trastgor’s growled drawl reached him as if from across a canyon, “Was scarcely a battle”.

“Doesn’t matter” Hulbard said and found himself smiling as he said the words, “We’re alive. They’re not. That’s all that matters”.

Then he was laughing, relief finally settling in as his entire body suddenly relaxed. Stepping forward, he thrust out a hand and Trastgor clapped it in his own, gripping it wrist to wrist, his own lips twisting into a relieved smirk. His mind was still racing, thoughts scattered, but the battle was over and they were still standing, which was all he ever really asked for.

“Aye” he rumbled, “You’re not wrong”.

They’d just begun their descent of the tower when Shankhill ducked his head through the archway below and scoffed in disgust as he spotted the bandit Hulbard flung from the stairs, his skull split open and blood splattered across the stone.

“You made a mess of this one” he called disdainfully.

“That’s the one with the broach, I think” Hulbard returned. “You want it, you get it”.

“Oh, of course” Shankhill snorted and then, with no hint of irony, muttered, “Leave me to do the dirty work”.

Hulbard just sighed and shook his head at the comment. By the time they reached the foot of the staircase, he’d found what they were looking for and was holding it up to the light with thoughtfully pursed lips; a small ruby and brass broach of simple and cheap design.

“I hope it means a lot to this store keeper” he said, “Because it won’t be worth a damn thing to anyone else”.

“Sentimentality can be an expensive state of mind” Trastgor shrugged, “I’m surprised they even know what it is around here, but between that and dealing with these deserters, I would wager that we will do quite well out of this for the work we put in, if you place little value upon a life”.

“See what he’s willing to pay” Hulbard suggested, “If it’s not up to scratch, keep it. See if we can turn a profit with it elsewhere”.

“Of course” Shankhill said gleefully, pocketing the broach and turning to stare through the archway at the falling rain, “Speaking of the bandit problem though, I couldn’t help seeing two of them hobbling past me on the way up here. They both looked decidedly worse for having seen us today but definitely alive. In fact, they seem to have even walked out of here with one of Knox’ arrows in their possession”.

“One threw down his sword” Hulbard moved to stand next to the smaller man and peered out at the falling rain as thunder boomed in the distance, “Begged for his life. The other was lying on the ground with an arrow in him. I wasn’t about to kill either. Doubt it’ll be long before they give up this way of life one way or the other at this stage”.

“Figured you’d see it that way” Shankhill hummed, “However, loose ends have a way of coming back to bite us”.

“Not those two”.

“Certainly. Because I sent Semekt to finish what you didn’t”.

Hulbard grunted, stared out at the falling rain for another long minute. He figured he should have felt something at that piece of news. Anger, indignation, sorrow even. Instead, he simply didn’t care. He was content to have avoided the task himself. Such acts were beneath him, but if Semekt wanted to carry the job through, he wasn’t about to stop him. He simply nodded instead.

“With that out of the way” Shankhill beamed, back to business in a heartbeat, “Let’s get this place turned over and find anything worth our time lying around. Gather up any weapons and see if anyone in Karensford wants to part with a few coins for them, try to get rid of them for cheap”.

“And after that?” Hulbard asked.

“After that” Shankhill winked, “We go hunt ourselves a witch”.

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Author's note; I set myself the goal of writing a chapter a month until this novel is done, which means that I don't always get the time I'd like to edit them as much as I would like, so these chapters may have some spelling or grammar errors, as I'm doing this all on my own. So I ask for patience and for any readers to bear in mind that this won't be the finished piece and that they will be subject to minor changes, alongside. 

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About the author

AtlasWrites

Bio: Hello all,
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, mostly fantasy though I dabble in science fiction from time to time. I wrote commissioned pieces of work for several years but found that it was taking up so much of my time that I wasn't ever getting a chance to work on my own ideas so, deciding that life is simply too short, I left that chapter of my life behind and began dedicating all my free time to developing my own stories, whether they are short in stature or full scale novels.

At this point in time, I have several projects on the go and I'm mostly just looking for ways to branch out and reach a broader audience.

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