A stone-headed arrow punched through the canvas side of the wagon, narrowly missing Marian’s head. She ducked and another poked through right where her head had been. She pulled the front cover up to see what was going on only to have the wagon lurch under her feet as it sped up, throwing her backwards. Marian tumbled over the pile of leather and had to catch and right herself. She grabbed the cord again and raised the cover.
Rain drenched the gray landscape. An arrow stuck out of Hadiin’s shoulder. Two more sailed in from the right side of the road and thunked into the seat and side of the wagon.
“Churls!” Hadiin grunted, in obvious pain. He flicked the reins but the horse was already going as fast as it could.
Several skinny figures wildly danced and fired their bows from just off the road. They had dark skin that looked dried and mummified and they wore distinctive tribal masks decorated with fur or feathers and painted with bright yellow magical runes. They seemed entirely unbothered by the storm.
A greater mino-churl, a minotaur-churl crossbreed standing twice as tall as its fellows and possessing huge muscles and a bull-like head, charged shoulder first at the wagon with a massive wooden shield raised before it. Instead of a mask, a yellow rune had been stained into his shaggy, dark-brown fur, now matted in the rain, and more decorated his long, curving horns. A spray of water churned up in the massive beast’s wake.
Marian fired a fan of flames at the mino-churl, setting the shield ablaze, but the magic was blocked and did nothing to the monster behind. She tsked.
The assault was slightly off target thanks to their speed and the shield attack clipped the back end of the wagon.
Hadiin shouted in dismay. The wagon skidded sideways and tipped over onto two wheels. Marian fell sideways with it, crashing into the bed and smacking her head on the sidewall. She winced and cried out. Damn that hurt! Stupid churls!
The wagon hung in the air for a few seconds, seemingly unable to decide whether it wanted to crash or right itself, before dropping back down onto all four wheels.
More arrows buried themselves in the wagon and its cover.
Marian groaned in pain and pushed herself up. Touching her head, was glad no blood came away on her fingertips. She threw open the side and back covers so she could fight. Only to see them leaving the churls behind.
The monsters lowered their bows and gave chase, the smaller ones hooting and hollering.
“Mage!” Hadiin snapped.
A dark fae mage had popped into view. Evil creatures who seemed born of magic, the dark fae hailed from a mysterious, magical realm and wielded nasty powers. It wasn’t uncommon for them to take control of other creatures with their trickery and fae magic and to lead others into performing foul deeds. Not that churls were particularly hard to convince; the primal tribes loving nothing more than warfare and proving their martial might.
This particular mage floated in a clear bubble of crackling, purple energy. It was the height of a human toddler, otherwise fairy in shape, that is to say humanoid, but with black, leathery wings and solid-black eyes and a mouth full of needle-like teeth. It grinned and pointed a taloned finger. Lightning erupted and blasted Hadiin in the shoulder.
Marian saw his HP drop nearly to zero. He slumped in his seat.
The horse, frightened by the mage directly in front of it and the lightning, sharply veered off the road and into the grass, screaming. Their pace slowed as the wheels slogged through the drenched prairie.
Marian grinned back at the dark fae. Lightning mage with an electro barrier, huh? Perfect. Lightning plus fire go boom. She pointed her hands. Fire erupted, bathing the electrical sphere as she passed. She saw the mage’s eyes widen, then fire and electricity combined, swirling together, and the combined magic exploded.
The mage went flying.
Marian laughed in triumph.
The horse pulled the wagon into a depression in the ground, full of water and mud. The wagon came to an abrupt halt, throwing Hadiin off, launching him into the air. Marian’s fall was cushioned by the leathers again. The horse reared and looked over its shoulder in fear as the churls coming up behind them closed in.
She cursed at how outnumbered they were. They should have brought more people. But she’d had no idea the road to the next town would be so difficult. At the very least, she should have level up a couple more times first.
But there was no time to regret. The monsters were nearly on her. The mage was smoking but very slowly getting back up.
Did she run? Abandon the wagon and the merchant? It’s not as if any of her own coin was invested here, she’d been too smart to risk it. She wouldn’t lose anything if the monsters took all the goods. Not that they’d want the cryo slime, whatever that was for. She was annoyed that he wouldn’t tell her., yet also very curious.
How would Hadiin react if she left him to die and he lost everything here? He’d probably be pissed. But how much? Would he stop associating with her? Trust her even less than he already did? She’d miss out on future opportunities then, perhaps. Then again, he’d be broke and it could take a while for him to get back on his feet, if he did at all.
The mino-churl running at her tossed his burning shield aside as it crumbled into embers, leaving himself undefended but for his massive muscles.
Marian fretted, not liking the pressure. She wanted to run. But if she saved the wagon and goods, she could demand a higher share. And if she killed all of these monsters, she’d probably level at least once.
Before she could overthink it, she jumped from the wagon and sprinted for the mage. He was the biggest threat.
The fae mage flapped his leathery, dragon-like wings a couple of times and regained his feet. He turned. And took a lot of fire to the face. He screeched in pain. Lightning blasted from his hands. But Marian ducked and ran and kicked him in the tiny head.
The body flew back through the air and landed as a corpse.
Spinning, she saw the big mino-churl had turned to go after her while the half dozen smaller ones went for the wagon. Well, Hadiin was screwed. Sucked to be him. Whatever. She had a mino-churl to barbecue. She smiled.
The beast came straight at her, head down, red eyes angry.
It was simple enough to dodge to the side, or mostly simple enough. A shoulder brushed hers and it felt like she’d been hit by a car. Picking herself up from the grass, she fired at him. His wet hair sizzled and steamed in the rain.
The mino-churl grunted in pain and came about, then charged her again. His head lowered, his horns shaper than spears.
This time, she dove to the side and then turned on him, covering him with fire, causing him to scream. The fur was no longer soaking wet. Her first shot had dried him off. This one scorched his flesh, burning the hair away and leaving blistering, black skin.
He staggered and turned again, this time reaching for her instead of charging. There was murder in his eyes. His big, flat teeth ground audibly.
Marian checked her mana gauge. It was low. Very low. She probably had only one more shot. She backed away, keeping her distance and fired at his face, then bolted for the churls. They were smaller than her, and they had weapons. And she needed one.
She saw that three of the six smaller churls had surrounded Hadiin. They were having a lot of fun stabbing him and dancing on his corpse. She left them to it. The other three were at the back of the wagon, investigating. One was already climbing inside, while the other two were fighting each other to get access.
She bowled into the two on the ground, knocking them over. Then she reached into the wagon, grabbed the other churl by the ankles and yanked.
The churl face-planted onto the edge of a barrel and lost half its HP.
She dragged him out of the wagon and dropped him on the wet ground. Then she eyed the barrel. And the buckets. All covered in a coating of ice. An idea came over her.
Leaping into the wagon, she stomped the top layer of ice in one of the buckets. It cracked and revealed the cryo slime within. With a grin, she snatched up the bucket and flung the contents as the churls, taking care to get most of it on the badly-burned mino-churl that was almost upon her.
The blue-white slime hit the rain soaked monsters and the ground and in a pair of heartbeats, they froze under a layer of ice. Even the mino-churl halted, legs encased and frozen to the ground. The bull-like face bellowed with rage and pain.
Marian hesitated only a hair, then jumped to the ground. Her feet slipped out from under her and she fell hard onto her hip. Sharp pain lanced through her. “Ow!” she cried out. That had been stupid. But there was no time to waste. Groaning, she tried to stand.
The magically cold slime started affecting her too, though at slower pace. She ignored the fragile layer growing on her and kicked the arm of the nearest churl. The ice hurt her foot, but it shattered and a rusty sword fell from the monster’s hands. Picking it up, she decapitated him with it.
She smiled wide. She’d levelled up! Her HP and mana went to full. Laughing maniacally, she stabbed the next churl in the back, killing him, too. Then she beheaded the last of the frozen churls.
That’s when the other three came running, leaving Hadiin’s remains behind.
But she had magic again. Both hands came up. All three churls became human torches. Er, well, not human ones. Churl torches. Ugh, so confusing. But anyway, they steamed and hissed in the rain. She waded into the middle of them, naturally resistant to flames, and hacked about wildly, cutting and bashing them. HP bars drained and they soon died screaming deaths.
Marian fell to her knees, chest heaving. Her clothes were heavy from the rain, her lungs felt like they were full of knives from the effort of fighting. But she’d done it. She’d killed them.
The mino-churl bellowed again. Ice cracked like a gunshot.
Oops. She’d forgotten about that one.
* * *
Hadiin respawned and returned to awareness. He looked about. He was back in the starting village, standing in the main street. The place was soaked, but there was only a drizzle now. Though the clouds were iron gray above, the rain had largely moved on.
Remaining currency: 1 sp
1 silver left. He sighed but felt some relief. At least dying this time hadn’t been as painfully costly as the first time had been.
Except, everything that he owned was sitting on that wagon. In the storm. Surrounded by monsters. He frowned and his pulse picked up.
He glanced around. No Marian. But that was to be expected. No doubt she’d put up a fight. Or run. Probably run. And leave all his worldly possessions at the mercy of those damned churls!
He took off at a run. Or, at what a merchant with no stamina called a run, which was more like a jog frequently punctuated by stops where he fell to his knees, breathing so hard he thought he might die.
“I should have put something into Stamina,” he mumbled before he’d even reached the end of the village. But he stumbled on. He had to get to that wagon. He had to prevent the monsters from taking his goods. He had no idea how that was going to work, but he had to try.
He just hoped he wouldn’t be too late.