FIC: Chosen Champions (6/?)
His favourite chair creaked beneath Bolus Smeric as he sat upon it. His brow creased in thought as he considered the problem before him. His power and influence like the best of these sort of things was shrouded in darkness, its exact breadth and reach unknowable and therefore close to omnipresent to outsiders looking in. In truth however, his Shadow Fang was disappointingly few in number, just two dozen four men squads.
However few their number were, his Shadow Fang were the dark elite, their methods varying from alchemical, poison, and simple violence, his recruits either trained from childhood, selected from within the empire’s soldiers, or culled from the cream of the assassins of the conquered nations. And according to everything the emperor had sensed about the newcomers his Shadow Fang would need to be at their very fearful best.
Of course, Smeric clenched his fists, wincing at the pain that shot through his arthritic knuckles, he couldn’t send all his squads, three were on permanent attachment to him, acting as rotating, unseen bodyguards, and still others were already on assignment, either hunting down other rebels or infiltrating as yet unconquered lands. But everyone else….
For everyone else this job would have to be their top, their only, priority.
Zolta Carcer glanced up from her note-taking, the position of Justice Minister was a heady one but also one burdened with more than its fair share of paperwork, as the door swung open and her assistant hurried in, the diffident man looking even more mousy and nervous than usual. “Your morning appointment is here.”
Ah, Zolta nodded. That explained her assistant’s timidity, her only appointment today was to deal with the assigning of assignments for five of the empire’s most successful, that was to say most ruthless, bounty hunters, each vicious and cruel scum, but each very necessary for the empire’s continuing success. “Please,” she forced an expression of unruffled poise, understanding that such men would pounce on any sign of fear like scavengers on carrion. “Show them in.”
The first man through the door was of medium-height but with a thick chest, wide shoulders, and the thick limbs of a fireplug, his long black hair was tied back in a pony-tail, and his green slanted eyes glittered like stones from deep within in his tanned features. The stench of mingled sweat and campfire smoke whafted off the warrior’s thick fur, the Nomadian showing no sign of discomfort despite the day’s heat. The Nomadian’s name was Ahmet Sedar and his pack of implacable hunters were called ‘The Soul-Hunters’.
The next man through the door was two heads taller than the first and wide to boot, but
nowhere near as powerfully built, although there was nevertheless a wiry toughness to him.
The tell-tale albino locks of an Urad hung down to the warrior’s shoulders while violet eyes
glared out from within his granite features. Tod Nacht’s group of wolves in human clothing
were the Head-Takers, and were normally stationed in the Northern Reaches, bedevilling the
populace there, but through sheer good fortune had only recently arrived in the capital to pick
up a season’s worth of bounties.
The next figure through the door was a slight, short yellow-skinned man with an effortless
grace that was uniquely Ishanti, a people who managed somehow to make even battle
elegant. Tla Ra Swiftsword ran the Head-Takers, the bounty hunters who specialised in
hunting down targets in the empire’s eastlands.
The next man was both tall and thick-set, with an ugly scar running across his flattened nose,
his less than good looks marred further by his sagging, pock-scarred cheeks and cast to his
right eye, while still another scar ran down the left side of his bull neck. For all his thuggish
appearance, Zolta knew the Lutte, Andre Morte, was far more nimble both physically and
mentally than he looked. Morte had to be to run the Empire’s western group of bounty
hunters, the Prey Sniffers.
The final man through the door was the only black one. Tall, with long dreadlocks that hung
down past his wide shoulders, and wearing a woollen tunic that struggled to contain his massive chest, Abasi Sentwali moved with a nimbleness that belied his considerable bulk, although the coldness in his flinty eyes were a more than accurate representation of his reputation as a ruthless killer, and leader of the Southlands’ premier bounty hunters, the Death Stalkers.
“Gentlemen, thank you for coming here on such short notice,” she nodded, “please take a seat.”
Andre Morte let out a hissing giggle as he dropped into the nearest chair, his eyes fixing to her like a snake seeking to mesmirise its prey. “Why you don’t need to thank us, after all, you paying the bills is all the thanks we need.”
“Then,” she allowed herself a chill smile, “onto business. The Emperor has informed us of a new threat that has entered this dimension. As I’m sure you’re all aware he won’t brook any competition, so he’s put the price of ten thousand gold coins on every head involved.”
“Ten thousand?” Abasi Sentwali leaned forward in his seat, the wooden chair creaking beneath his prodigious bulk. “The emperor has only ever offered five thousand gold coins for national leaders before!”
“These are apparently exceptional people, who if given time to organise could cause the Emperor trouble,” she replied. “Between the five of you, you lead close to a hundred and fifty of the world’s most experienced hunters. Now,” she smiled coldly, “I wouldn’t expect these formidable targets to go down without a fight, but any men you lose mean less to split the ransoms with.”
The earl looked up at the knock at the door and bit back a sigh. It was approaching one of those moments he’d never learnt to tolerate particularly well, that of sending people into danger, something that always weighed heavily on his conscience. “Please,” he cleared his throat then continued, “please, come in.”
The quartet who entered were a varied bunch, the first a towering giant with a thick bear-like body, squashed flat nose, and green eyes like chips of emerald, his thick beard now streaked with grey. The second had a build to match the first, but was far shorter, standing several inches short of six feet, his dark, bushy beard seeming to bristle with ill-temper.
The next duo were also of a similar type, tall, lean men with short black hair and dark, intense eyes that seemed to look everywhere at once and missed nothing.
The earl nodded his grudging approval, the first two men were former soldiers, their days of service pre-dating the revolution, but men still loyal to the ideals they’d once served. Torvas Lamina was a former Master-Sargent in the Watching Steel, an elite legion guarding the highlands border against northern reavers while Tachy Marcello had been a rising star in the Fleet Swords, the army’s cavalry arm, and a rumoured prospect as a potential Vowed-Knight.
The other two men were perhaps even more interesting. Lynx Aiolos was a former poacher who’d been caught poaching on his land but he had taken pity on the criminal’s relative youth and had apprenticed him to become one of his ground’s grounds-keepers, a leniency that Aiolos had paid back a hundred times the night of the rebellion when he’d stolen into his mansion and rescued him from the assassins sent to murder him that very night. Marc Arbor was a local woodsman who had joined the rebellion after his family had been murdered by the Purge.
Four very capable men with very different but equally valued talents. Still it rankled, to send men into danger. Shaking himself, he assumed an inscrutable expression. “Gentlemen, you are of course aware of the dimensional travellers?” he was more than a little disgruntled by their nods. He’d decided that the resistance be spread through the great wood’s two dozen villages, yet despite the wide spread of their members it was nigh on impossible to keep a secret of this magnitude. “Excellent,” he nodded as he comforted himself with the thought at least he wouldn’t have to explain the importance of the stranger, “because of some essence unique to the dimension the group have come from, our mystics have been able to track them heading towards Vicus, some four days’ travel from here. I want you four to head to Vicus and bring them to us. Each of you will get four horses each, make your best time.”
The mid-day sun cast a golden glow over the riverside city. Grand ships and ponderous trade barges clogged the snaking river and filled to bursting granaries and warehouses stood on busy harbours that were sprawled along both riverbanks. Vicus’ streets appeared to be laid out in a precise grid within its high walls, a looming tower stood in each corner while turrets lined the walls two hundred paces apart.
The riverside city was engulfed in a busy bustle. Market hawkers and shopkeepers’ raised voices competed in a din to draw people to examine the vast array of goods displayed either on their tables or in their windows. High born ladies in expensive silks strode through the cramped streets, their bodyguards ensuring none of the shabbily-attired beggars lurking in the city’s dark corners dared ascot them as their employers cast their gazes over the shop windows and market tables before deciding the goods which they deigned to purchase. Cheeky apprentices wearing grease-stained aprons risked their masters’ fury by diverting in their duties to swap flirtations with market girls hawking flowers. Whores selling their bodies as the merchants sold their goods strutted through the city in daring clothes that displayed their alluring contours. In front of many of the city’s taverns there were either musicians playing their instruments or bards spouting tall tales to entice customers.
“Holy crap,” Faith’s eyes were in constant motion, taking in all the sights afforded her. At the moment, Wood, G, Singer, Angel, and MacLeod were at a near-by inn discussing potential strategy while the rest of them had split up into smaller groups to explore the city and pick up some much-needed supplies. “This is like seein’ Robert E. Howard come to life!”
“Robert E. Howard?” Willow glanced at her.
“I read Sabrina, I got eclectic tastes,“ Faith defended.
“Yeah, she even reads Bridget Jones.” Xander snorted when Willow and Kennedy stopped and stared at both them in turn, their mouths dropping open. “You are so gullible.”
Faith’s chuckles died in her throat as she heard somethin’ suspicious coming from an alley to her left. “What is that?” she muttered before starting into the alley, sure that her companions would have her back. Rage filled her as she reached the alley’s entrance and peered into it to find a tall, grey-streaked man struggling with a quintet of soldiers, one corpse lying before the man and a crumpled girl on the cobbles behind him. “Sons of bitches.”
Perhaps sensing her intrusion, three of the soldiers spun to face her and her companions, the remaining two continuing to pin down the aging soldier. “This is Imperial business,” growled the group’s evident leader, a burly bear of a man, “walk off ‘fore you get in trouble.”
“Way too late for that,” Faith laughed before charging into the alley, her blade leaping into her hand as she charged towards the trio then leapt against the right wall, using her momentum to spring-board off the wall, somersault over the trio, and land in a crouch behind them. The rear of the trio started to turn to face her only to catch a rear heel kick to the face that sent him crashing to the ground, his head spinning around with a sickening neck crack.
Another man leapt over his companion’s fallen corpse, leading with a sword thrust that Faith glided inside of before driving her fist square into the man’s nose. Blood spurted out of the warrior’s shattered nose, his legs jerking spasmodically as Faith brought her blade up and back-hand sliced across his throat, Kennedy’s adversary simultaneously dropping to the cobbles.
His heart thudding, Bellator Proelium stepped over the corpse at his feet, muscles aching after the fight in a way they would never have hurt two decades ago and mind reeling at what he’d just seen. He met and fought alongside some female warriors before, some proper talented lasses, but the pair of loose-limbed beauties standing before were something utterly different, stronger, faster, and more skilled than any warrior of any race he’d fought alongside or against in his eventful life. And the one-eyed man who’d taken care of the third of the trio facing him certainly knew one end of a blade from the other as well. “Thank you for your assistance,” he bowed slightly at the waist. “In these troubled times there are few who would dare to risk angering the Howling Hordes.”
A slight smile played on the taller brunette’s full, curved lips, inflaming his heart as well as other less savoury body-parts. “They wanna worry about angering us, I’m Faith, this is Ken, red goes by the name of Willow, and patch is Xander.” The female swordsman’s dark orbs narrowed as she peered past him. “How’s your friend?”
Oh, by the abyss. Bellator spun around, chagrined at having forgotten his charge, the girl he’d risen almost since birth. His eyes squeezed shut as he took in her death. “Oh by the abyss.”
“She’s dead,” he barely managed a croak and a nod. Eyes fixed on the corpse, he rose. “She cracked her skull when she fell.”
“I’m sorry, were you related?” Xander asked as he examined the newcomer, a tall man that had probably once been thickly-muscled but the passing of decades had left had left him lean and stretched by age. The man’s short-cropped hair and bushy beard were peppered with grey, his brown eyes strong and yet compassionate, and his square face etched with deep crevices while an ugly scar ran down the left side of his neck.
After a second the weathered warrior turned to face them, his face haggard with loss and grief. “Related?” the greying warrior shook his head. “No, she was just my failed attempt at paying a debt of honour.” Well that made no sense. Xander’s mouth opened in a plea for clarification. “Nay,” the aging swordsman shook his head, “it is unwise to tally here.”
“What are we waiting for then?” a typically curt Kennedy growled.
Xander shot the younger a warning glance before looking back towards the native and forcing a smile. “I’m sure you’re more familiar with the city than we are, please lead the way.”
The aging warrior nodded then led them through a twisting pathway that spilled out into a busy marketplace, the air filling with competing vendors’ bellows and the smells from dozens of food, herb, and perfume stalls mingling together. “The name’s Bellator Proelium,” the native growled. “I’m a Grom by birth, and spent a decade serving in the old army, but owing to a misunderstanding with a duke’s daughter-.”
“Misunderstanding?” Faith snorted. “Rrrright.”
“I’ve spent much of my life, spending over a decade serving with The Keenest Blade.” None of them had heard of the Keenest Blade, but from the way the man’s chest puffed up at their mention it clearly meant something. “I fought in the Ishanti House Feuds, the Lutte Duchy Conflicts, and the Disputed Lands Uprisings, and in other lands besides. But I became homesick and returned home just before the revolution, taking up a position training soldiers for a minor noble. Then when the rebellion erupted, the girl’s father gave me his baby daughter and ordered me to flee with her, his last command that I look after her. And until tonight,” the man’s face greyed with pain, “I obeyed, but then either I or my charge was recognised by those Hordesmen who chased me into the alley.”
“That’s harsh, dude,” Faith shook her head. “Our tavern’s just a couple of streets away I think. Come with us, our people could do with a guide.”
“Thank you dear,” Bellator managed a wan smile. “Beautiful, brave, and caring. Your young man would have competition if I was but ten years younger.”
Faith snorted and shook her head. “Try twenty, bub.”