Chapter 3:

The Adventurers

The King and His Dancer

I know that he said I was the best for this job, and honestly, I am, but I still can’t believe I’m stuck in this dingy tavern of all placesBookmark here

Hafa was bored, and he hated it. He really hated it, but he would never tell Samson that. Besides, things were going to get interesting soon. That was something he was promised. Bookmark here

As if on queue, a rowdy looking group of men and women entered through the main door. The light armor they wore, along with the fact that they were allowed to openly carry their arms, meant that they were either mercenaries hired by the city, or soldiers themselves. Bookmark here

“I can’t believe that old man fooled us!”Bookmark here

The older looking man who had just said this, sat down at a table and put his head in his hands. Bookmark here

“I’m sure it was just a mistake, Vlad. He wouldn’t do something like that after all of these years.”Bookmark here

Vlad? That’s a southern name. How interesting…Bookmark here

“Besides, we have our own contacts in the merchants league as well. You worry too much, Captain!”Bookmark here

Though the larger man was smiling, the pat on the back he gave their troop’s Captain seemed unwelcome. Bookmark here

Then, the short elf woman spoke up. Bookmark here

“Besides, we still have “that” job we can take, too…” Bookmark here

Whatever she was smiling about, Hafa knew it wasn’t good. But he was sure that it was definitely something interesting. Bookmark here

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“The first city we’ll be stopping at is the Merchant City of Tironoc.” Bookmark here

Hafa’s hand shot up. “Is that the one run by the Merchants League sir? The one with all the fancy steam cars?” Bookmark here

Samson smiled. “That’s exactly right, Hafa. You really did your homework, huh?” Bookmark here

Hafa was proud of himself and it showed. Bookmark here

Samson pointed to the images on the table in front of him. Bookmark here

“Our job is to find and question each of these people. Attached to their images is a dossier for each of them.”Bookmark here

This time, Hilda’s hand shot up. “Sir, some of these are nobles. A few are part of the merchants league. How will we be going about this? We’re likely to step on some toes if we do it the wrong way…”Bookmark here

“There are 11 people we need to get information from. Hilda and I will be handling the nobles, but I leave the other 7 up to the rest of you. Hafa is in charge of this portion of the operation.”Bookmark here

Four of the 11 dossiers were removed from the table, leaving seven. Bookmark here

These all look like-Bookmark here

“Four of these people are merchants, and they all hold influential positions in the League. If anyone would know about magic users recently employed, it would be them.”Bookmark here

“And the other three, sir?” Ekrund asked, looking up from behind the circle around the table.Bookmark here

“They’re leaders of notable adventurer groups. More specifically, they’re leaders of notable adventurer groups that have magic users among them.”Bookmark here

So that’s why he’s given this task to me...Bookmark here

“Hafa will know best how to interact with them, which is why he’s in charge of you all. I don’t care much what happens to them personally, but try to remember that they’re influential people.”Bookmark here

Hafa’s face betrayed his delight.Bookmark here

“Hafa, try not to have too much fun. Please.”Bookmark here

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What is Hafa wearing?Bookmark here

“That’s an interesting outfit you’ve got on, Hafa…” Bookmark here

“It’s how adventurers tend to dress, sir. Especially the free-lance ones!”Bookmark here

At least he knows what he’s doing…Bookmark here

“Is your team ready? I trust you’ve organized properly.”Bookmark here

“Of course! We have everything we could need.”Bookmark here

Do they? I hope he’s not being careless.Bookmark here

“Take this.” Bookmark here

Samson pushed a slip of paper into Hafa’s hand and closed it. Bookmark here

“A list of our safehouses, sir? You should trust me more. I paid attention in training you know!” Bookmark here

Hafa had a frustrated expression on his face, but beneath that, he was thankful.Bookmark here

“Don’t worry, if I can’t remember them all after this long, I don’t expect any of you to, either.”Bookmark here

I hope they don’t have too much trouble, I can’t imagine having to clean up a mess with the league.Bookmark here

“Hafa, please. If you have to do anything, at least try and keep it quiet.”Bookmark here

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Vladimir, or Vlad as his party called him, was a ranger from the Nation of Nesti, in the frigid tundras to the south of the Obsidian Mountains. Bookmark here

Nesti, having been ruled by different Czars and Tzarinas for thousands of years, though the climate is icy and unforgiving, it served to create a people notorious around the civilized lands for their strength, their grit, and their drinking. Supposedly he had been a part of the royal guard at some point in his life. Judging from the notches on the wooden handle of his crossbow, he’s seen more than his fair share of battle. Bookmark here

“I was fiercely loyal to the Czar, and I still am. I’ve charged into battle with three generations of rulers in my lifetime, and I would go do so with three more if asked.” While he said this, Vlad had a melancholic look on his face.Bookmark here

That’s a wound he’s not ready to open yet it seems...Bookmark here

“So, what are your guys’ stories then?” Hafa asked this with a disarming smile on his face and curiosity in his eyes. Looking around the table, he could see the hesitation on their faces, even in the dim light of the fireplace nearby. Bookmark here

I guess I should go first…Bookmark here

“Well, if it would help you guys feel better, I’ll go first! My name is Hafa as you know, but my full title is Hafa Al-Shilman. I was born in the Kharbhuraz Steppes to the far west, and I lived there for about 40 years, give or take.”Bookmark here

I hope that’s enough to satisfy them for now…Bookmark here

“So why should we trust you? What skills do you have, tribal?” It didn’t matter how many times he heard it, Hafa hated being called a tribal. It made him angrier than he knew it should’ve, though he’s long learned to contain his indignity.Bookmark here

I guess it would be bad if I killed him for that…Bookmark here

“Well, apart from my hunting skills, tracking skills, and horsemanship abilities, I would have to think. I’m an expert marksman, for one. On horseback, on foot, it doesn’t matter to me. I can hit anything from almost any distance, with most types of ranged weapons.”Bookmark here

Vlad side-eyed Hafa and gave a gruff laugh. Bookmark here

“We’ll have to have a test at some point, then.”Bookmark here

The other people around the table seemed shocked. Bookmark here

It’s not often that Vlad would challenge someone else like this thought the muscular woman seated to his right.Bookmark here

“So, is that all? We’ve got a ranger, and we all know how to do our fair share of hunting and gathering.” Hafa looked at the man who continued his line of questioning. He was a tall, thin man with a wiry figure and orange hair. The freckles on his pale face would be endearing if the expression he held wasn’t one of disgust. Bookmark here

He played with two large, curved knives, every-so-often flipping them between his fingers. It was obvious that he was uninterested, not with the conversation, but in Hafa as a whole.Bookmark here

Well, as long as this gets their attention, everything will be going according to plan.Bookmark here

Hafa rummaged under his overcoat, reaching into every interior pocket while the others looked on curiously. When they saw what he pulled out of it, the room went silent. Bookmark here

The man with the orange hair put his knives down and leaned forward. Not looking away, he asked “Hey, Susei, is that real?”Bookmark here

The muscular woman seated next to Vladimir stood up and slowly walked around the table towards Hafa. Bookmark here

“May I?” she asked, with an apprehensive voice.Bookmark here

“Of course.” Bookmark here

Susei played with the Dark Steel badge she held in her hand. She traced the golden decorative trim that ran around the badge, taking in every part of the intricate design. She stopped herself when she looked at the gemstone set directly into the center. Bookmark here

“It’s…” Susei was at a loss for words, partly out of terror, and partly out of amazement. Bookmark here

“It’s real.”Bookmark here

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“It’s just like my fathers…” Bookmark here

Oh? This is interesting…Bookmark here

“Your father’s badge is different though, correct? The gemstone, I mean.” Hafa asked the question seemingly unaware of the feeling of dread that filled the room.Bookmark here

“Yeah... yeah, his has a Red Beryl set into it… just like most of the other guards we see around. I’ve never met anyone in the guard with a Pink Diamond in their badge…”Bookmark here

To Vlad’s left, the elf girl that had remained quiet for so long pulled her hood down and adjusted her glasses. Bookmark here

“What do the gems mean, Suz?” The inquisitive looking elf was the only one that seemed to be relaxed now. Bookmark here

“They indicate rank. My father’s officers always had a light purple gem in their badges-”Bookmark here

Hafa cut her off. Bookmark here

“Ohhhh, those are musgravite. They’re the field officers of the guard, though they’re pretty low in the chain of command…”Bookmark here

Vladimir looked the olive-skinned Hafa dead in the eyes and asked “What does the gemstone in yours mean?”Bookmark here

“Oh! Well since it’s an enchanted pink diamond, it would indicate that I was a pretty high rank! Before I left, I was” Hafa had to stop to think for a moment. Where was he exactly in the chain of command? Bookmark here

“I suppose I was third in command? Being at the head of the intelligence division and all…”Bookmark here

Everyone in the room, save for the elf and Hafa himself, was paralyzed with fear. Even the jaded Vladimir couldn’t find it in himself to speak.Bookmark here

“Why are you here then? You have more power than anybody in this city, so what do you want with us?” The short elf spoke without hesitation, and in all honesty, Hafa appreciated it. Bookmark here

“Well, officially I’m not a part of the guard anymore, and when I heard you guys in the tavern, my curiosity got the best of me!” Hafa rubbed the back of his head and laughed, confusing most of the people seated with him. Bookmark here

“Wait,” said Susei, “Nobody’s ever left the Black Guard though. My father always told me that by the time you got through training, you would die before you left the guard. What’s going on here?”Bookmark here

“Well… that’s usually the case, you’re right. I am the first to ever leave of my own volition, but I’m also one of the very few people the guard would ever allow to leave. ” Hafa wasn’t entirely lying here. Though he would never leave the guard, he is one of the few people that could, if he desired. Bookmark here

“I was hoping you guys would show me some fun, honestly. I’ve been really bored lately!”Bookmark here

Everyone around the table looked to Vladimir, the only person with the authority to make the call. Though the old man was weary of the young man in front of him, having a member of the Black Guard, a high-ranking one at that, would be invaluable. “You’re welcome to join us if you like. But first, we’ll have to take you out and see what you can do.”Bookmark here

Hafa’s eyes glimmered for a moment, and the old ranger feared he may have just made a deadly mistake.Bookmark here

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On the walk out of the city, Hafa had learned that the inquisitive young elf that asked him so many questions was named Celawyn. She was the mage of the group, though her family never could afford to determine her affinity. That was the case with most mages, as the rigorous trials and tests needed to evaluate a mage were incredibly expensive. Still, she had been accosted by all the usual militaries and governments that sought to hire her, as is the norm.Bookmark here

“And what about you, Hafa? Do you know any magic? How long did you spend in the guard? Did you ever kill anybody? OH did you know Susei’s father?” Bookmark here

The barrage of questions would’ve thrown off most other people, but Hafa had finally met someone that could match his high-energy personality, and he enjoyed it. Bookmark here

“Well, there’s still a lot I can’t say… But I’ve seen my fair share of action! As for Suseis’ father, well judging from how she described his badge, he would’ve been a part of one of the halberd divisions, so it’s pretty unlikely I knew him,unless he served directly under the commander…” Bookmark here

From on top of his exceptionally large bear, Vladimir looked over his left shoulder at the two walking behind him.Bookmark here

“Are the stories true? About the man, they call the King’s Dancer?”Bookmark here

I wonder how much I should say… I can’t share anything too sensitive, but I also don’t want to make the commander look bad, though I don’t know how much he would care. Then again, if word got back that I made the commander look weak… I don’t even want to imagine that.Bookmark here

“Well, I can’t say much,” Hafa smiled and looked up, straight into the eyes of the grizzled old man. “But the stories probably don’t do him justice.”Bookmark here

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“Vlad, what kind of bear is this? I’ve never seen one so big before!” Bookmark here

Hafa was gushing as he rubbed the gargantuan bear behind the ears and played with its cheeks. The bear, for what it’s worth, was smiling and rubbing his head against the comparatively small man in kind. Bookmark here

“His name is Redwood, and he’s an Arctotherium, though most people would know his as a Giant Bear.” Bookmark here

No way, a giant bear? Does that mean…Bookmark here

“Can he understand us? Giant bears speak common, right?” Bookmark here

Hafa tilted his head and looked curiously into the bears’ eyes. Redwood, seemingly confused, did the same, wondering why he had stopped being scratched so suddenly.Bookmark here

“Hah! That’s just a myth! Redwood know’s four words. Stop, go, help, and dinner!” Bookmark here

This was the first time Hafa had seen the old man smile, and for whatever reason, he found it incredibly comforting. Bookmark here

“So where are we?” Bookmark here

Having stopped in a seemingly random clearing in the woods, Hafa couldn’t help but wonder what sort of test for him they had.Bookmark here

“Well, seeing as you’re not just a normal adventurer, we decided that your test would be a little more challenging. About a hundred meters to the east” Vlad pointed to his right, into the woods “you’ll find a foot-path that’s recently been travelled. If you follow that south, you’ll come to a clearing and a large cave entrance. That cave is occupied by a large group of bandits, with many of them coming from old mercenary bands.”Bookmark here

Vladimir continued, explaining that Leoric, the orange-haired assassin of the group, would follow from above, in the tree-tops. Bookmark here

After casting invisibility on Leoric, Celawyn created an Arcane Eye. Bookmark here

“With this and my telepathic link to everyone else here, we’ll be able to watch and hear everything that happens!” Bookmark here

From behind him, Hafa heard the imposing man draped with a Basilisk skin speak up. Bookmark here

“If you can’t handle it, short stuff, just yell. I’ll be there right away to help!” Bookmark here

The tall, muscular man gave a large, toothy smile and a thumbs up. Bookmark here

“Thanks! I’m afraid I still don’t know your name though…”Bookmark here

The man looked surprised for a moment, then smiled again and said “They call me Helmund, and this axe right here is Baldur!” Helmund lifted his gargantuan axe and rested it over his shoulder. Bookmark here

He might be the strongest one here..Bookmark here

Hafa took a moment to fantasize about how fun it would be to fight the half-giant who stood in front of him.Bookmark here

“Are there any boundaries you need me to operate within? May I solve this issue in any manner I desire?” Bookmark here

“You can do whatever you want, just make sure the bandits are gone before Celawyn’s Eye dissipates’.” Bookmark here

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Hafa had only had to walk for about five minutes before he came upon the cave entrance that Vlad had told him about. Bookmark here

Those two guards outside look pretty disciplined. Maybe they used to be soldiers before they turned to banditry? Oh well….Bookmark here

The night was still until the silence was broken by the whiz of two adamantine bolts, piercing through the darkness and embedding themselves deep into the temples of the two guards who stood on opposite sides of the cave mouth. Bookmark here

I wish I could’ve used the Dark Steel bolts I usually use, but that would bring too many questions…Bookmark here

The invisible man seated in the tree above Hafa was astounded. “Did you guys see that?”Bookmark here

Leoric could never get used to telepathy, especially not hearing the thoughts of the others in his head. Bookmark here

“Yeah, I don’t think I could hit a shot like that this dark out.... And what were those bolts he used in those two small crossbows?” Bookmark here

Vladimir sounded just as gruff and haughty in his thoughts as he did when he spoke.Bookmark here

“Oooo do you think he would let me have a look at those crossbows? They look really cool!” Bookmark here

Celawyn remained as inquisitive as ever.Bookmark here

“Still, he won’t be able to deal with the rest like that. He’s gonna have to fight!” Bookmark here

Helmund relished the thought of watching a good fight, almost as much as he did at the idea of joining in. Bookmark here

“No wonder the guild doesn’t accept contracts on members of the Black Guard…” Leoric was impressed. “Still, if he’s that good with a crossbow, how well will he handle the rest?”Bookmark here

Hafa got to work, using some of his bolts as makeshift stakes, and tying the survival rope he always carried in rucksack into knots around the stakes. After linking them, Hafa hammered them into the soft soil just outside the mouth of the cave with the butt of his larger crossbow. Once he had the tripwires completed, Hafa produced something else from his bag. Bookmark here

Leoric couldn’t tell exactly what the small black sphere Hafa held in his hand was, but he had a feeling it wasn’t very good. He was considering calling Hafa back when the young man turned back to the still-invisible Leoric and, looking him directly in the eyes, told him “You may want to cover your ears” with the most terrifying grin Leoric had ever seen.Bookmark here

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N. D. Skordilis
Real Aire
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