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Pathfinder Tales: Stalking the Beast
By Howard Andrew Jones
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Paizo Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Sorcerer's Wand
Melloc screamed in terror as the emerald bolt splattered his bright blue tabard. He stumbled for cover.
Elyana dropped, sliced the nearside straps that buckled the leather armor sizzling beneath his ruined tabard. The cackle of the sorcerer who'd thrown the spell was a distant irritation
"Stay down," Elyana hissed to the young guardsman. His panicked struggles threatened to expose him to more fire. There was precious little room behind the rounded brown stone where he and Elyana had raced for protection. It didn't stretch a full horse length, and if either of them were to rise into a crouch, Onderan could target their heads.
While Melloc fumbled with his other buckle, Elyana heard a loud pop from atop the boulder, like grease in a frying pan. Her gaze whipped up. A green glow burned along the stone's rim.
Nothing to worry about there ... yet. She reached over Melloc to slash his other strap, then rolled to snatch her bow and sent arrows winging across the distance between them and the mad sorcerer. Three shafts arced out over the sunlit meadow, disappearing behind the dappled sienna boulder a hundred yards distant.
She fired three more and then, as the arrows were still airborne, dropped the bow and grabbed the shoulders of Melloc's armor to aid the young man as he wrestled out of the boiling, popping ruin. Once free, Melloc lay panting, his bright eyes intent upon the nacreous green edges of the fist-sized hole in his armor. Steam snaked upward, bringing with it the scent of scorched padding.
"Gods," he whispered. "Thank you, Elyana.
Elyana clapped his shoulder. "You alright?"
"Fine." Melloc's answer was a little too swift to be true. He felt the white tunic he'd been wearing beneath the armor, then lifted it to inspect the muscled torso beneath.
The ends of his blond mustache trembled as he breathed deeply.
"Can he burn through the whole rock? The one we're hiding behind, I mean?"
"Maybe," Elyana answered, "but I don't think he will. That would drain the magic in his wand. He was probably aiming for your heart."
"Relax. We have him pinned." She offered a reassuring smile.
Grace and beauty tended to be the bywords for elves in human societies, and Elyana was like them in that regard, from slender tapering ears to long limbs. Yet she was far from some primped, high-society diplomat. Elyana was a warrior woman, with weathered gear that included the worn black sheath that held her longsword, the battered but sturdy quiver slung over her shoulders, and the finely fashioned recurved bow of bone and yew. Loose black breeks tucked into heavy cavalry boots, and brown sleeved armor of interlocking leather plates draped her from neck to thigh, covering all but a hint of the beige cuffs and collar of her shirt. If the sword belt cinching it all off defined her waist and hinted at curves beneath, it was no concern of Elyana's. Armor was for staying alive, not attracting suitors.
Though her garb was all but colorless, Elyana herself was crowned by auburn hair pulled tightly back from her forehead. Her eyes were a violet so vivid they seemed almost to glow. Those eyes now left consideration of Melloc as she peered at the distant boulder where Onderan had taken refuge.
No one could hope to survive in the River Kingdoms for long without some wildlands knowledge, and Onderan was no novice. But he was not nearly as crafty as he supposed, for he'd managed to be chased into a narrow, steep-sided valley with a dead end.
With its lovely wildflowers, colorful red-brown cliff side, and abundant greenery, the area seemed an incongruous site for a battle to the death.
The sorcerer's voice was a dry rasp, yet deceptively light. "You missed me again, elf!" he shouted. "But I didn't miss your friend. Did I kill him?"
One of several things Elyana liked about Melloc was his composure, remarkable in someone still under the age of twenty. But the young man's brush with death had apparently shattered his good judgment, and he couldn't resist an answer.
"Still alive, madman!"
Elyana held a hand up to him, shaking her head. Melloc's cheeks flushed a little in embarrassment.
"Well," Onderan responded mockingly, "I thank you for guiding me to such a highly defensible position. You did fine!" He laughed. "I have a better shot at you than you do at me!"
"Stupid bastard," Melloc muttered. His eyes narrowed. "I'd trade a lot for a good shot at him."
"You nearly traded everything," Elyana reminded him. Melloc's gaze locked with her own and she saw his jaw shake in rage. "We've got him in a dead end, remember?"
Melloc nodded reluctantly.
"There's nothing he can do unless he gets you angry enough to make a mistake."
"If you get killed on my watch, your father will have my head."
Melloc grinned at that. "Father's too fond of you to take your head."
The lord mayor had, politely enough, indicated his interest, and she acknowledged this with a faint quirk of her lips. "True or not, I don't intend to lose you because of an old fool's taunts. We just have to keep Onderan occupied until Drelm's in position."
At mention of the captain of Delgar's guard force, Melloc glanced at the steep cliff overlooking the east side of the sorcerer's hiding place.
There was yet no sign of the big half-orc. Drelm was not especially nimble, but he was an experienced climber. Elyana expected him to arrive at the summit at any moment. Onderan would be unable to see him from his hiding place.
"If you want to trade insults, go ahead," Elyana continued, softly.
"Just remember why you're doing it."
Melloc brushed the ends of his mustache with grass-stained hands. They shook a little, she saw, reminding her this kind of opposition was new to the young man. A year on the guard force had seen him chase off a few wretched river pirates and break up some brawls, but he'd never faced a sorcerer out to kill him.
Melloc stared into the blue sky above their boulder. "What finally made you snap?" the young man called. "You get tired of living in the wastelands, old man?"
"I got tired of your father!" the sorcerer called back. "Lording it over everyone on the river like some prancy Taldan duke! Course, there ain't any Taldan dukes who'd want an orc in their family tree!"
Melloc's brows furrowed.
"How you feel about that, boy? A green pitchfork in your sister's hay patch?" Onderan cackled gleefully.
Melloc fumed and fumbled at his sword.
"What are you planning?" Elyana whispered tightly.
Melloc pointed at the boulder, in Onderan's general direction. "He insulted my sister and the captain."
Elyana stared at him. "Melloc," she said, "when Drelm and Daylah marry, they're going to be having sex. A lot. You do realize that?"
"Of course I do!" The boy exclaimed, then immediately lowered his voice, and his head. "But it's no one else's business! Least of all his!"
"You'll be hearing about it for the rest of your life," she told him. "And so will they. Best get used to it.
"It's no one's business but theirs," Melloc repeated.
"Do you plan to trim the head off every gossip or old prig you ever meet?"
"Tell me, Elyana," Onderan called to them. "You're good with animals! You ever ride on the orc's green saddle!" He dissolved into titters.
"He goes too far!" Melloc snapped.
"Your sense of honor will get you killed." Elyana liked the boy, but she was losing patience with him. If she'd known they'd end up hunting a fugitive on today's patrol she would have brought Demid or Gered. She raised her voice. "What is it you want, Onderan?"
The madman laughed. At the same moment, Elyana caught sight of Drelm crawling forward to the height of the overhang sixty feet above the sorcerer.
Her friend was broad and thick, and his skin indeed held a faint greenish tint. As he was on duty, the half-orc would normally have worn the same sort of metal helm still shielding Melloc. This he'd put aside so sunlight wouldn't reflect and reveal his position. The blue tabard of Delgar, too, had been removed, and Elyana supposed that was because her fastidious friend didn't want to mar the cloth with mud or grass. Drelm possessed a fine chainmail shirt, but today he was garbed only in the same light leather byrnie formerly worn by Melloc, well browned and matched almost to the color of his hair. A chameleon would have been hard pressed to blend into its surroundings so well.
"What do I want, elf?" Onderan asked. "I already have what I want!"
Drelm's head turned toward Elyana, and she knew he was awaiting her signal. He was no great marksman with a bow, but he had a good eye with his throwing axe, and Elyana was sure Onderan would already be dead if she'd commanded it.
But she didn't want the sorcerer dead. Not yet. She wanted answers.
Why had Onderan, a cantankerous but pliable old hermit, suddenly launched into a killing spree against every living thing at Hamdan's farm? And when had he ever commanded the kind of power he displayed now?
Drelm had wanted to bring Onderan down like the mad dog he was, and, seeing her friend's precarious situation, she was starting to wish she'd let him. Drelm could easily scale down the face of the cliff, but he'd be well exposed doing so.
Elyana signaled to him to move forward on his own call. He raised a hand in acknowledgment, then waited.
She'd have to keep Onderan talking. "There's got to be something you want, Onderan!"
Once more he laughed. "Are you offering yourself? All this talk of fornication get you excited, Elyana?"
"He's disgusting," Melloc said softly.
Elyana's lips twisted in agreement that was not revealed in the tone of her reply. "I'm not up for negotiation."
Drelm must have judged the moment right, for he was lowering himself over the side, seeking footholds. She saw he'd removed his usual gauntlets, but retained his heavy boots. She hoped they had good traction.
"Too bad," Onderan's voice came back. "I've had my fill of wine. And the best food that godsforsaken, puffed-up, filthy village can manufacture. Your father ain't lord of much, Melloc!"
"There's gold," Elyana suggested.
"What do you mean?" Onderan shouted back. "You're offering me gold?" Again came that cackling laugh. "You'll pay me to expose myself to your arrows? How stupid do you think I am?"
Elyana's response was immediate. "That's not what I'm suggesting."
Drelm inched a little farther down the cliff, then slipped out of her sight behind an outthrust rock.
There was a sudden silence, and Elyana felt a stab of fear. If Onderan were to turn his head he'd spot Drelm, and that wand would make short work of him.
She steeled herself to hear a sudden cry of triumph and to see the heavy body of her best friend plummeting through the air, half-dissolved by a sorcerous blast.
But the silence continued. Finally, Onderan asked a question. "What are you suggesting?"
Melloc's smile was wry. "I was wondering the same thing," he whispered.
She ignored the boy and raised her voice once more. "You know I don't care about backwoods farm rats, Onderan! What I need is a sorcerer. One who can do a lot of damage!"
There was still no sign of Drelm. Where had he gone?
Onderan's laugh was shorter this time, not mocking so much as incredulous. "You want to work with me?"
"It's not about wanting, Onderan. The River Kingdoms aren't exactly swimming in competent sorcerers. I had no idea how dangerous you could be."
Elyana knelt, head low so that it didn't rise higher than her cover, then lifted three arrows from her quiver and set one to her string.
"Hah! I'm full of surprises!" Onderan shouted back. "What do you want, and what will it pay?"
She waited until she saw Drelm's foot and leg extend from behind the outcrop that blocked him. Fifteen feet lay between him and the ground now.
"Answers," Elyana shouted. "And there are —"
Onderan's voice rose in a strangled cry of fear and surprise.
A green bolt of energy soared through the air toward the figure on the cliff. Drelm's body stiffened on impact. There was the briefest delay, and then he dropped feetfirst.
Elyana was already launching arrows, seized by cold dread. It was no easy thing to shoot a hidden target, so she was thankful for Onderan's screams of outrage. Each time he shouted impossible things about Elyana's ancestry she had a better chance of homing in on his exact location.
Beside her, Melloc was chattering some worry about Drelm, and asking if it were alright to charge, and how she knew she wasn't hitting the captain. She was too busy firing arrows skyward in rapid succession to answer him. Ten were airborne in as many seconds. The moment the last one left the string she whistled for her horse.
Calda galloped up from where she'd been hidden in the thicket behind them. Elyana vaulted into the mare's saddle without touching the stirrups. At the same moment, she heard a scream of pain. Onderan, not Drelm.
A single touch to her horse's flank set the animal galloping forward.
"He might be faking it!" Melloc called.
Elyana's answer was only a mutter. "Not for long."
The dun mare raced across the meadow at full speed, but it felt impossibly slow to Elyana until she'd rounded the large boulder and saw an armorless Drelm standing over the prone, motionless body leaking blood from a gruesome head wound. A hand axe, the proximal cause of all the blood, was buried deep in the sorcerer's forehead. One of her own shafts was stuck through his thigh.
Elyana grinned in relief, and her keen sight caught the smoking armor a few paces beyond Drelm, discarded by the half-orc. Arrow shafts sprouted like strange plants in the vicinity of Onderan's hiding place.
"Nice work," Drelm said in his low, deep voice. "He was too busy with the arrows to spell me again."
Calda let out a long snort as Elyana swung down. The mare danced lightly with ears erect.
"It looks like you and Melloc are both going to need armor repair," Elyana said. "Any serious injuries? You could have broken your legs."
Drelm patted his left shoulder. "A little scorched. Nothing serious."
Elyana knew better than to ask if he wanted her to take a look.
There was a thunder of hoofbeats as Melloc rode into view, his eyes brightening in relief as he reined in his gray gelding and dropped down. "Are you alright, Captain?"
Drelm grunted, and his small eyes looked briefly over Melloc. He must have satisfied his own curiosity about the young man's health, for he didn't speak.
Melloc then joined Elyana in looking down at the body. He let out a low whistle. "I thought we were going to catch him alive."
"I planned to." Drelm pointed to the axe. "That would have hit him in the arm, but he ducked."
Elyana looked over the body. Onderan didn't look so much like a sorcerer as he did a trapper who'd survived in the wild alone for long years. He wore a furred hat, leather pants, a filthy white shirt, and a threadbare blue vest that seemed mostly fashioned from patches and mud. His beard was wild and thick, its gray shot through with a little brown.
Elyana bent to the long, rather elegant black wand that lay beside the dead man's gnarled fingertips.
"Is that safe to touch?" Melloc asked her.
"Likely so," Elyana told him, although she was scanning it now without laying a hand to it.
Melloc's mouth twisted sourly. "I know you're not supposed to search sorcerers because they trap their clothes. But I'm not sure we'd want to touch him anyway."
"I've never met a spellcaster who trapped his or her clothes," Elyana answered. She didn't add that she'd searched her fair share of dead shadow wizards. Her old friend Arcil had once snorted in contempt at the idea that wizards and sorcerers would booby-trap their belongings, as they'd constantly be triggering the traps themselves.
"Check the horse." Drelm pointed to where a black gelding was tethered by its reins to a spindly elm a good arrow flight toward the end of the gorge. Onderan's mount stood in a bed of clover, munching contentedly.
The horse had been stolen from Hamdan's farm, and, judging from their worn but cared-for look, so had the saddle and saddlebags.
Melloc hesitated. "Do you think the saddlebags are trapped?"
Now the boy was being cautious? Elyana answered without looking up, and kept the rebuke from her voice. "Onderan didn't seem to be much of a planner. They're probably fine."
While the boy stepped away, she crouched and considered the blood-smeared face with its slack, gap-toothed jaw. The protruding haft of Drelm's throwing axe was distractingly just a finger span off true center.
She began the grisly business of searching the corpse by putting her right hand to first his arms, then his chest, then his legs. The battered dwarven bracelet she wore around her bicep was ugly enough that she always hid it beneath her sleeve, but it had served her well for many years. In addition to lending a small enhancement to her physical prowess, the bracelet, by accident or design, thrummed whenever she made contact with any other enchanted item, or a limb favored by one.
Onderan proved remarkably free of any sort of magic, apart from the wand. That and the gold in his coin purse were the only clean things in his possession, unless you counted the stolen food and wine in his saddlebags.
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: Stalking the Beast by Howard Andrew Jones. Copyright © 2015 Paizo Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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