"So what you're saying is, none of us actually know where Mistledale is?" Magnus asked.
Taako shrugged. "Hey, don't look at me. I'm super lost."
"And whose fault is that?" Merle's glare was like a physical presence, stabbing into Taako's back. "We'd already be in Mistledale if you hadn't landed our pod in that forest!"
"There were pegasi, Merle! Don't you remember what happened last time there were pegasi?"
"Yeah, the exact same thing!"
Taako rolled his eyes and elected to ignore the angry dwarf. It wasn't like they were in any hurry, after all. The Seekers had yet to locate another Grand Relic, so the Director had begun sending the Reclaimers after other powerful artifacts. Taako suspected it was less about the destructive potential of these items and more about keeping the restless trio of idiots occupied.
So it wasn't like an aimless stroll along a wooded country road would do any harm. Besides, if they got really lost, they could always just summon another pod. The Director wouldn't be happy with them, but when was she ever?
"Hey, why don't we ask those people for directions?" Magnus suggested, pointing to an approaching band of people on horseback. "At the very least we can figure out where we are."
Merle eyed the riders warily. "I don't know, Magnus. I don't like the look of that big one." He pointed at the lead rider, a well-muscled, raven-haired human male who sat astride a jet black stallion.
"We'll be fine. Just--"
Magnus' voice cut off with a sharp inhale, jolting Taako out of his carefully cultivated facade of boredom. He looked up at the fighter and saw what looked like dawning panic on his face.
Taako looked back at the riders. They looked like a normal band of travelers, albeit well-armed and battle-worn. They had their weapons sheathed, their mounts were moving at a leisurely pace, and a few of them were wearing the crest of some noble or other. Just a group of personal soldiers scouting ahead for their lord.
So why did Magnus look so shaken?
"You guys need to hide."
Merle's face echoed the confusion Taako felt. "What? Why?"
"Doesn't matter. Hide. Now. If they see us, run. I'll hold them off."
Merle narrowed his eyes. "Oh, I see how it is. You want to keep all the good loot to yourself!"
With a low growl, Magnus turned around, scooped Merle up by the back of his shirt, and tossed him off the road into the woods. The dwarf landed amongst the bushes with a loud "oof."
Taako had barely a second to appreciate the comedy of the situation when he found himself shoved into the bushes himself. He got to his knees, brushing dirt from his robes, and was about to give Magnus a stern talking-to when he heard the commotion.
As stealthily as possible, Taako and Merle peered out of the bushes. Evidently, the flurry of motion on the roadside had drawn the attention of the riders, who were now charging in earnest towards Magnus.
"It's him!" someone shouted.
"Make sure you take him alive!" yelled the leader.
Magnus shifted his battleaxe to one hand and drew his shield, moving sideways into the center of the road as if to draw the riders away from the bushes. Taako did a quick count of enemies and cursed. Nine to one.
"That idiot! What is he thinking?" Merle hissed. "We have to do something!"
Three of the riders had shot ahead of the rest of the group: two half-elves, one blond and one brunette, and the lead rider. They were closing in fast, the sound of their horses' hooves sending tangible vibrations through the ground. At that moment, Magnus charged forward, aiming for the lead rider. With a deft maneuver, the man jerked the horse out of the way. Magnus went flying past, nearly avoiding a boot to the skull and an axe swung at his head. Before he could catch himself, an arrow lodged itself in his back. The brunette half-elf let out a cheer and a cry of, "First blood, bitches!"
"Ma-!" Merle tried to shout, but Taako slammed a hand over the cleric's mouth.
"Not yet!" he hissed, eyes trained on Magnus' position. The six remaining riders had reached the lead three and were circling their mounts around the fighter, closing him in. Magnus was only about twenty feet away, far too close for Taako to risk a spell. "We need the element of surprise! If they know we're here--"
Merle wrested Taako's hand away from his face and spat, "If they know we're here, they'll leave off Magnus! There's no way he can take on nine guys at once!"
As much as he hated to admit it, Merle was right. Past the bushes, Magnus was weaving and dodging around axes, swords, and arrows. Every time he tried to swing at an enemy, another rider would sweep in from behind and either land a blow or knock Magnus off balance. It was a roiling mass of weapons and equine bodies, not at all ideal for spellcasting, but maybe with the right timing...there!
"Hold on to your butt!" Taako shouted, shoving Merle away and taking careful aim. The air crackled with power as a Thunderwave rolled from his umbrella, tossing three riders in the outer circle from their mounts. The moment the spell was launched, Taako grabbed Merle's arm and began to drag him along the treeline.
"Over there!" someone shouted, and Taako knew they'd been spotted. Pain blossomed in his left shoulder, but he ignored it.
"Hey!" Merle bellowed. "I cast Sacred Flame!"
Taako spared a brief glance to see Merle's spell land before he dove behind a wide tree. The sounds of battle were ramping up, and now their cover was blown. His mind raced, trying to figure out a way out of this. With the riders all clumped up around Magnus, he couldn't risk using his more powerful spells. Merle might be able to buff, but that would mean exposing himself to the enemy. They simply weren't equipped to fight this many people at once.
What they needed was backup.
Taako fumbled with his Stone of Farspeech, struggling to remember the frequency. Shit, shit, shit, what was it? Why couldn't he remember?
A horrible, high-pitched screech distracted him from his task. On instinct, Taako slapped his hands to his ears, dropping the stone in his desperation to block out that awful, awful noise. Beside him, Merle was curled into a ball on the ground, cradling his head in his hands and moaning in pain.
Shit, shit, SHIT! They've got a fucking wizard?
Well, this made everything ten times harder.
Ears still ringing from the Shatter spell, Taako risked a momentary peek around the tree to shoot off Ray of Frost at the nearest enemy. He caught a brief glimpse of Magnus amidst the horses before he had to duck out of the way of another spell.
"I cast Command!" Merle croaked out, pointing a shaking finger at one of the grounded figures. The one in the middle seemed to convulse for a moment before turning around and booking it down the road. There was a shout, and one of the horsemen peeled off from the group to chase down his companion.
"Shit, Taako," Merle said, his voice still tight with pain, "Magnus isn't doing too--oh, no."
"What? What happened?!" Taako demanded, too frightened to look.
"Arrow to the chest, looks like a crit!" Merle staggered to his feet, wincing as the motion made his head swim. Almost instantly, there was an arrow sticking out of his own chest, lodged nearly three-quarters of the way in. With a bloody cough, the cleric staggered backwards.
"Dammit!" Taako shouted. Before he could second-guess himself, he jumped out of hiding and fired a spell at the archer. "Eat a dick, asshole!"
He didn't allow himself the pleasure of watching the man suffer acid burns. He dropped to the ground by Merle, who was fiddling with the arrow and still, somehow, conscious.
"Talk to me, dude."
"I'm fine," Merle insisted, coughing up a bit of blood. "Healing...magic. Just...focus on Magnus!"
As if to drive home the point, Magnus let out a choked cry of pain. Taako whipped around to see the blond half-elf dislodging an axe from the fighter's shoulder, a spray of blood following its path. As he watched, another rider came closing in, charging Magnus and forcing him to jump back--straight into the path of an arrow.
"Gods damn it!" Taako hissed. He glanced around wildly, trying to locate the Stone of Farspeech he'd dropped--stupid, stupid, STUPID--but it was nowhere to be found.
"Merle, can I use your Stone of Farspeech?" Without waiting for an answer, he lifted the stone from where it hung on a cord around the cleric's neck and hastily called the first frequency he could think of.
"Angus McDonald speaking!"
"Ango, we need backup. Tell Killian and the Regulators to get to our position right now!"
"Sir? What's going on?"
"Kid, for once in your life, just do something without asking a million questions!"
When Angus spoke again, he sounded like he might cry. Taako felt a brief pang of regret, but shoved it down. Now was not the time to be getting all sappy and shit.
"Alright, sir, just a moment."
Taako sighed with relief. The Regulators would come and rescue them, Magnus and Merle would be taken care of, and they would all be okay.
Then Magnus screamed.
It took one look for Taako to realize that help couldn't possibly reach them fast enough. Magnus was on the ground, clutching his leg tightly as he tried to stem the tide of blood that poured forth. Taako's stomach churned when he caught a glimpse of severed muscle, soon obscured by the mass of people and horses closing in on Magnus.
The Stone of Farspeech in Taako's hand crackled to life. Somewhere by his foot, a similar crackling noise told him where he'd dropped his own. As he snatched it up, he heard Magnus's voice, choked with pain and terror, utter one word:
And in that moment, Taako made a decision. Magnus was down. Merle was dying. There were seven enemies still remaining, and they'd been unable to kill a single one. The Regulators would never make it on time to save them, and in the meantime Merle might bleed out, healing magic be damned. For the first time since that horrible day in Glamour Springs, Taako couldn't think of a way out. So he didn't think. He acted.
Taako scooped up Merle, turned his back on Magnus, and ran.
Magnus couldn't tell if his companions had followed his order. He couldn't see them past the armed men and women surrounding him, swords and axes and arrows aimed at him from every direction. His leg felt like it was on fire. He gasped for air, every breath making his chest ache where the arrow had pierced it. Somewhere, a man was screaming.
"Magnus Burnsides," the leader said. He was a large man, with muscles that could rival Magnus' in size and pale scar tissue stretched across his neck. He leaned in, placed his sword under Magnus' chin, and lifted it up, forcing their eyes to meet. "We meet at last. Governor Kalen will be most pleased to see you again. He's been searching for you for so long."
Magnus spat blood in the man's face as a reply. His jaw clenched, but he wiped the bloody spittle off with perfect calm.
"We could have done this the easy way, you know," he said, his pitch-black eyes like bottomless pits boring into Magnus' soul. "If you'd only come quietly, you wouldn't be in all this pain."
"Fuck off," Magnus choked out.
"Hey, Saxton," someone said, "should we go after the other two? The elf could be a problem."
The leader, Saxton, waved his hand dismissively. "We'll be long gone by the time they're able to find help. We have what we came for, and that's all that matters." A terrible grin spread across his face as he looked Magnus up and down. The tip of the sword briefly pressed against his Adam's apple before vanishing. "Where's Ajay?"
"He went after Harold, I think," the blond half-elf answered.
Saxton's lips twisted in a grimace. The expression was short-lived, however, as it quickly shifted back into an unpleasant sneer. "Well, Burnsides, it seems you'll just have to wait a little longer to be healed. Be a good lad and try not to bleed out on us, yes? I'd rather not disappoint my employer." Suddenly, Saxton's eyes lit up with exaggerated cheer. "Oh, of course! I almost forgot!"
In one swift motion, he ripped the Stone of Farspeech from around Magnus' neck. He held it up in front of the fighter, tilting it this way and that. "You won't be needing this anymore."
Magnus watched as Saxton closed his fist around the stone and squeezed. When his fingers unfurled, there was nothing left but sand.