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Probably that bumbling Malic being chased around by a hart again, Al mused to himself; but nonetheless he stood up, tossed his workshop apron aside and pulled one of his heavy lumbering axes down from its mount on the wall. He proceeded outside, and jogged around to the side of his cabin where the shout had come from. Al peered in all directions through the trees that dotted the thin Moonglow forest, but there was no sign of trouble, no sign of anything unusual.
"Malic, you out here?" he called out. "Malic, you old fool, what happened now?" Silence. Al shrugged, figuring Malic or whoever it was must have continued north, right on up the dirt road to town. He turned around and walked back toward his little cabin.
Wonderful. Now I'm three hours behind on Caine's chest. Maybe I can salvage some of the - Al stopped in mid-thought, as he stepped through the door into his workshop. Stooped over Al's furniture dyes in the middle of the room was a fat, ugly ogre. Its right hand held a large club, while its left pawed through the boxes of supplies sitting around the shop floor. Al quietly approached the stooping beast from behind and raised his axe up over his head.
The axe came down into the ogre's back with a mighty thud, metal meeting hide and piercing it easily. The monster jumped up with a furious bellow, and before Al could pull his axe free of its back, the ogre had turned around to face him. It let out a half-yell, half-growl in some harsh tongue, and took a swing with its club. Al fell back just in time to save his head from parting with his shoulders, but the creature spared no time in its backswing, which grazed Al's side and sent him tumbling back a few feet into the workshop wall with the wind knocked out of him.
The ogre flailed its arms wildly backwards, trying in vain to dislodge the big axe from its back. Black-red blood streamed to the floor from the wound, and the beast's pain was obvious. Taking advantage of the pause in the ogre's attack, Al grabbed a hatchet that was propped against the wall near him, and sent it flying with a mighty swing of his muscular arms. The blade took the ogre square in the face, and the force of the impact knocked it over like a chopped tree.
The massive creature lay there on the floor, drained of life, blood pooling up around the corpse. Al kicked it once to make sure it was dead, then dislodged his hatchet and axe. He took only a few moments to wipe off the blade of each. Then he tucked the hatchet into a side slot on his belt and charged back out the door with heavy axe in hand. No more ogres were in the immediate area, but he knew there would be more around - the foul things were always found in packs. Al had spent his life in these woods, and he knew the forest like a mage knows his spellbook. He headed straight for the small dirt road that lay in a clearing just a couple stone-throws away from his cabin. The road was empty in both directions, but sure enough it held tracks, big tracks, and lots of them. The tracks were definitely ogre, but there were other tracks among them. Horses, I'd bet my saw on it. But why so many ogres in one place? Even ogres don't travel in these numbers.
Not unless they are on a raid, that is. Oh no, the town! Al ran as fast as he could up the path toward Moonglow. As he came up to the town, the smell of smoke pervaded the air, and billows of it were clearly visible rising from somewhere at the east gate. The south gate which Al approached lacked the smoke, but there were other problems here. Five ogres and a pair of trolls were smashing their way through the short wooden fence that surrounded the town, and among them rode three humans on horseback - two in black velvet mage robes, the other in full plate with a heavy crossbow in his hand. Citizens of Moonglow were doing their best to keep the attackers back, wielding everything from hunting bows and arrows to axes and pitchforks. Unfortunately, the townsfolk appeared to be losing the fight. Here an ogre's club fell on some poor farmer's head, there a troll's claws cut deep slices through a shopkeeper's leg, and all around men were falling to the masterfully placed bolts from the warrior's crossbow. The two mounted mages seemed oblivious to the battle, with not a single spell flying from their fingertips. Al quickly realized why. A pair of green-robed sorcerers, from the Council of Mages faction, stood atop the roof of the nearby smithy staring out and down toward the attacking mages in black. Four pairs of eyes were unbreakably locked, and Al wondered if the lot of them were fighting some invisible battle of their own with their arcane magics.
Gathering his courage and taking a deep breath, Al charged out from behind a tree next to the road and ran straight for the warrior, who was still firing and reloading his deadly bolts at an amazing speed. Rather than attempt to fight the armored man while he was mounted, Al instead lowered his axe swing and took a wide sweep through the legs of the horse, cleanly shattering both of its hind legs. The animal tumbled to the side, and the warrior, caught off guard by an assault from behind, fell haphazardly to the dirt. Al quickly took a swing for the man's throat, but his blow was parried by a short sword that flashed into the warrior's hands from somewhere on the back of his belt. The parry caught Al off guard, and the warrior used the lapse to take a stab right toward Al's belly. Luckily, the blade caught only clothes and Al rolled to the side to avoid a second thrust.
The warrior rolled to his feet, and immediately charged at Al, sword held high above his head for a devastating blow. Thinking on his feet, Al feigned a dodge to the right, only to come up unexpectedly from under the warrior and plant his axe squarely in the man's side. The man's sword swung wide, brought off course by the heavy blow of the axe, which had landed with luck right in the vulnerable spot where breast plate meets leggings. Al ripped his axe free and took another swing while the warrior was doubled over in pain. Steel met iron in a spray of sparks as the huge axe smashed into and through the warrior's thin neck-plate, and a spray of blood trailed the man's head to the ground. The body followed moments later.
By now the two trolls had noticed the commotion behind them and turned away from the fence gate toward Al, trotting his way with bloodlust in their eyes. Half way to him, the larger of the two fell to an arrow from inside the town. Al silently thanked who ever the shooter was for giving him a chance to get out of this alive. While he still had time, he plucked the hatchet from his belt and threw it with all his might toward the remaining troll. The troll knocked the projectile aside with its hand, losing a finger in the process. Al stood his ground as the beast continued toward him, drool and perhaps a little human blood dripping from its twisted, snarling mouth.
The troll was cautious enough not to walk into swinging range of Al's heavy axe, and instead it began to circle Al, jumping in for a quick swing with its sharp, claw-fingered hands before feinting back out of axe range. Every time Al took a full swing, the beast dodged the axe quicker, and its claws came closer to reaching Al's body. He had to do something else fast, before he became food for the ugly thing. An idea struck him.
He pretended to begin a wide swing, but pulled the axe in close for a shorter swing that forced the troll to step back from its own attack. Al used the time that bought him to reach down and scoop a big handful of dirt from the roadside under his foot. Just as the troll was lunging in for what it seemed to think was its chance to strike a blow, Al flung the dirt from his hand right toward the beast's face, spraying rock and dust into its large green eyes. It fell back with surprise and began clawing at its eyes trying to restore vision. But Al didn't give it a chance, and before the creature could do anything, his axe was buried deep in a diagonal line through its shoulder and into its chest. A kick from Al's boot sent the creature staggering back, and a kick to its leg brought it to its knees, and from there it fell forward lifelessly onto its face. Al gripped his axe and pulled it free; behind the exiting axe followed a river of dark green blood.
By the time Al regained his wits and turned his gaze back toward the gate, he found four of the five ogres lying dead or damn near it on the grass leading up to the fences. The last ogre had broken through the gate and was chasing down Jarod, the keeper of Scholar's Inn. Jarod was unarmed, and the hulking beast was gaining on him, gleefully swinging its spiked club as it ran. Five steps before it caught up to Jarod, a red-feathered arrow sailed through the air in a graceful rainbow arc that ended right in the lower back of the ogre, stopping it in its tracks. A second arrow followed just moments later, landing squarely between its shoulders. It stood wavering back a forth for a few seconds before collapsing lifelessly to the ground.
All four mages still stood right where they had throughout the entire battle, but now one of the black-robes pulled his eyes away from the mages atop the smithy roof to survey the field around him. Al had been cautiously approaching the two riders, but when the mage's gaze met his, any courage he had left was melted, and he began backing away. A few of the villagers were beginning to regroup into a pack and trying to work up the nerve to advance on the magic-users. Before they could act, however, an arrow came gliding toward the mages from a cluster of trees near the edge of the small park west of the smithy building.
"Vas Flam," spoke the closest mage in the arcane language of magic, and held his arm out straight, palm open and facing the direction of the arrow. A small ball of flame immediately shot from the mage's palm, growing quickly as it sailed through the air, intercepting the arrow not ten yards from the mage. The charred wooden projectile landed harmlessly at the foot of the mage's mount. The mage nodded to his partner, and the second black-robe spoke his own words of power.
"Vas Ort Grav." He pointed a long, bony, ringed finger toward the two green-robed mages atop the smithy. Al could see them preparing their own spells as well. Oh damn, this isn't going to be pretty, I know that much he thought to himself, still backing away toward the cover of the trees that surrounded the road.
The first mage began casting a spell as well, but the words were lost to Al, as the previous spell took effect. A crack of thunder shot out from the cloudless sky above, and it was followed instantly by a bright bolt of blue lightning, descending from some arbitrary point in the sky right toward the men on the smithy roof. Before it landed, however, the two green-robed mages shimmered and disappeared, only to reappear one on each side of the mounted mages right outside the fence gate. The second black-robe's ringed finger rose again to a chant of "Corp Por", and the two green-robes followed suit with the same words of power.
A sliver of blue shot up from the ground in front of the first black-robed mage, and it began to shimmer, grow wider and twist in circles around itself. As it widened further, the other three mages each sent flying an arrow-sized bolt of bluish energy. All three bolts struck targets with deadly accuracy, but aside from a grunt and slight doubling over, none of the mages appeared seriously harmed. The blue sliver had now widened to an oval twice the width of a man, and nearly as high as the riders' heads; it had also stopped spinning, and now hovered in place over the ground - through it Al saw a jungle swamp and not far into it a large stone keep covered in green vines all over. As the green-robed mages began their next incantations, the first black-robe ducked his head against his horse's mane and rode into the shimmering oval. The second followed right on his tail, and behind him the portal to that swamp land slipped closed instantaneously. Both of the mages in green gasped heavily and for a moment appeared nauseous, but quickly recovered their composure and turned to face the approaching crowd of townspeople.
"It is over. See to it that the injured are cared for, and the dead given proper burial." He turned and pointed to the ogre and troll corpses near the fence walls, "And see to it those things are burned. We must report what has happened to the Council of Mages." He turned to his partner, flourished his hands and spoke: "Vas Rel Por." Moments later a blue sliver rose from the ground in front of him just as it had for the attacking mages. As soon as the gate was fully opened, both mages stepped through and it closed.
Al looked around him and found only heavy eyes and defeated faces. Some of the other townspeople had began to venture out of the nearby shops and houses, and men were seeing to the dead. Two of the clerics from the Moonglow Healer's Shop, one a master Al knew named Kyla, the other her new apprentice, made their way along the men slouched against the fence and gate, finding and helping the injured. Two streets down, Al could see people running back and forth with buckets, rushing to put out a fire at the east gate. The lightning that struck the smithy roof appeared to have caved in half of it, but there was no indication of fire here. Still, none of the cluster of men standing around Al seemed able to move. They just stood there, slowly turning to survey the bloody grass and dirt around them, to see all too many bodies of friends and acquaintances being carried away. The men began to disperse, meandering back into the town to seek out their families and what comfort they could find after the brutal attack they had just been through. The rebuilding would not begin until tomorrow, perhaps even the next day.
"That was some nice work with that axe of yours," came a female voice from behind Al. Startled, he turned around to face a tall, lithe brunette of perhaps twenty years, wearing leather armor and carrying a long bow. "I watched you take down that warrior like a child with a butter knife. You made fine work of that troll as well." She anticipated his question and spoke first: "My name's Annalise. I was just passing through Moonglow when those bastards attacked." She made no attempt to hide her actions as she eyed Al up and down, taking him in. "So...are you a soldier?"
Al shook his head, not knowing what to make of the woman. "Not a soldier. Definitely not." He swung the head of his axe up in his right hand. "I chop lumber around these woods. I'm a craftsman, not a fighter." He stared intently at the mixture of green and red blood still dripping down the handle. "And this axe here is made for trees, not flesh. It's a tool, not a damn weapon." He walked over to a patch of grass beside the road and wiped the blade off on it. Annalise just watched in silence.
"Was it you," Al asked as he stood up from the grass patch, "those arrows I mean? Alaric's a decent shot, and even Malic can use a bow pretty well when he has to, but no one in this town has the aim those shots took."
She attempted unsuccessfully to mask a proud smile. "Yes, it was I. I'm a ranger, from Skara Brae, though I don't live there anymore. I've been shooting all manner of bows for as long as I can remember. In fact, my master used to say I was born with a bow attached to my hand," she laughed a little, but then her face turned to stone. "I've no love of Minax and her followers, if you are wondering why I lent my help to the fight. Let's just say, I've had some bad experiences with the lot of them. I don't usually get involved in these blasted faction conflicts, but I can't stand by and watch that bitch send her armies after innocent villagers."
Minax. The name sent shivers up Al's back, and set his mind racing. I thought she was done here! I thought the fighting was over after the last attack! The previous attack had come almost a year ago, when the factions first formed in earnest, and all were eager to quickly bring as many towns under their control as they could manage.
The Council of Mages, with its stronghold set up on the arcane island of Magincia, had always had a presence here in Moonglow. Moonglow itself was considered by most a city of mages, despite the fact few mages actually lived in or around the town. Instead, the mages just come through to take advantage of the abundant reagent crops that grow on Moonglow island, dropping purses full of gold into the hands of the shopkeepers who spend their days toiling to harvest the stuff, and then gating away back to their marble-paved palace city of Magincia. And of course the Council of Mages was always meddling in town affairs. They let the townsfolk keep up pretensions that the Town Council was in control, but everyone silently knew that the mages held the strings of power and weren't afraid to pull those strings when they deemed it necessary.
Al had always despised their presence, but no more so than a year ago when a rival faction, the Minaxians, sent a massive assault against Moonglow in an attempt to wrest control of the city from the Council of Mages. The attack had failed, but not without heavy casualties, most of them citizens and not mages. The mages had certainly held up the defense, which would have failed without them, and so no one openly blamed them for what had happened. However, Al couldn't help but wonder if Minax would have even bothered with the island of Moonglow were it not for the fact that it was under control of the Council of Mages in the first place. Rebuilding after that attack had taken weeks, and there was no replacing the men who gave their lives fighting off the hoards of monsters and warriors that besieged the city for an entire day of battle. Since then there had been a few attempts on the lives of the Town Council by Minaxian assassins, but no open attacks. The mages had said it was over. The damn mages!
"Well," Al finally spoke, "I thank you for your help in defending our town. Were it not for your precise shots, Jarod the innkeeper would be dead, and likely myself as well. If there is anything I can do to repay you-"
"A hot meal and a bed for the night would be fantastic," she blurted out before he could finish his sentence. "Don't get me wrong, the woods are my home, but a lady can only take so many nights in a bedroll sprawled out under the stars."
"Certainly, Annalise. You are welcome to the guest room of my cabin for as long as you like. My name is Al, by the way. For now though, I better go see what I can do to help."
As he started in to town, Annalise followed right behind. "Oh thank you, Al. And please, call me Anna."