Snapping to attention, he fired off a jaunty salute. Still, he had to admit Canus cut a martial figure. His sharp features boasted a pair of blazing golden eyes set above a long muzzle displaying a formidable array of fangs. Clad only in a bejeweled leather harness, a iron-capped ebony quarterstaff held loosely in one clawed hand, Canus looked like the living incarnation of some primordial war god, come to reap a bloody harvest.
Canus was a Forest Lord, a member of the reclusive race of lupine beings who dwelt deep in the heart of Mistleaf Forest, the vast and ancient woodland that ran along the northern border of the Almaren Republic. Dedicated wardens of nature, wolflings sought to avoid conflict but were formidable foes when roused to anger. They also never forgot a debt. Centuries past, Almareni legions had marched to their assistance during the Shadeskill Wars, saving the outnumbered wolflings from certain destruction.
The Forest Lords had been staunch allies of the Republic ever since. Eldan motioned for Canus to join him. As his pack-brother sank down in a loose-limbed crouch beside him, Eldan caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he saw Blade-Corporal Aleena had partially risen from her concealed position and was staring in fascination at the Forest Lord.
The young woman dropped back out of sight.
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He sighed. Your appearance might… startle them. Canus acknowledged the suggestion with the flick of a tufted ear. He settled himself on the ground, legs crossed beneath him, the iron-ferruled quarterstaff placed on the ground beside him. No matter how many times Eldan had seen his pack-brother shift, it still amazed him. The tall, black-skinned man opened his eyes and rose to his feet in one quick, fluid motion. Reaching down, he picked up the heavy quarterstaff.
He spun it in dramatic fashion, weaving through a series of sweeping figure-eights and complex parry-lunge routines.
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Finishing with a flurry, he struck a heroic poise. The face was as he remembered: long and lean, dominated by a great beak of a nose and pair of dark, gold-flecked eyes peering out from beneath shaggy salt and pepper brows. Strong white teeth flashed from the midst of a thick, well-groomed beard.
Their ability to shift was a gift from the goddess Istenna, a response to the fear and prejudice the Forest Lords frequently faced due to their ferocious appearance. When a wolfling reached his time of Ascension—generally around the tender age of eighty—he was able to choose a single, alternate form to assume at will. Some wolflings, however, decided on more exotic forms.
During his time living among the Forest Lords, Eldan had seen wolflings transform into Aldatian river-sprites, complete with webbed feet and gills. He snorted. Not that a Border Watch company would rate one battle-mage, let alone a squad. He glanced over at Canus. His pack-brother had taken up position behind the boulder and was scanning the road for signs of the slavers. The young lieutenant felt a surge of pride. On second thought, a couple of battle-mages would only slow us down.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes turned into fifteen, then twenty. Just as Eldan started to worry the slavers had made camp for the night, he heard the faint sound of wagon wheels. The other members of the company had heard as well. A hooded head rose from concealment to take a last look around. Tall grass moved against the breeze. Moments later, the Ssylarian wagons came into view. As Canus had reported, the first two were typical slave wagons: long, broad-wheeled vehicles with steel cages bolted onto tough bamboo frames.
Capable of carrying up to a dozen captives, each wagon was drawn by a six-horse team and accompanied by a quartet of white-robed guards mounted on fleet desert ponies. Short and slender, with blunt snouts and plain beige-pebbled skin, the guards stood in stark contrast to the inhabitant of the open-top carriage trundling up behind them.
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Oh, yes. Though seated, Eldan estimated the blood mage would stand a good head taller than the any of the guards and his long reptilian face was covered in bright emerald scales showing the black-diamond patterning of the noblest Ssylarian bloodlines. Which explains the carriage. Eldan shook his head.
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Only a high-caste Ssylarian would insist on travelling in that monstrosity. It certainly made our job much easier. The carriage was a heavy, ornate affair constructed of black oak and decorated with gold leaf and ivory-carved panels. Drawn by a single pair of matched albino stallions, the coach might have made an impressive sight on the streets of Meridon but was wholly unsuited for use in the wilderness.
A burly farmer was attempting to pry apart the bars of his cage by main strength. He attracted the attention of one of the guards riding alongside the wagon.
The farmer bellowed in pain, but refused to release the bars. The farmer convulsed, tiny green arcs of eldritch energy dancing over his body. His fingers opened involuntarily and he fell to the floor of the wagon, shuddering. Studying his handiwork with an air of clinical detachment, the guard gave the man another jolt. The farmer screamed. Satisfied, the Ssylarian moved away. The casual brutality of the act enraged the young lieutenant.
Bracing the small hand-held crossbow across his forearm, Eldan took aim at the slaver. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger, a strong hand gripped his shoulder. Gamble the lives of your men to satisfy your sense of outrage? When he continued, his tone was softer.
Like you, my spirit cries out with the need to wreak vengeance upon these honorless creatures. Yet we are hunters. We need to put aside our emotions, to stalk our prey with a clear mind and a calm heart. Eldan lowered the crossbow.
It was one of most deadly insults in the wolfling language. It also committed him to their destruction, even at the cost of his own life. And where one pack-brother led, another was bound to follow. The two friends clasped arms in the wolfling manner, forearm to forearm. Eldan felt his pulse quicken. Forcing himself to take deep, steadying breaths, he targeted the driver of the first wagon.
For the Republic and the Watch! Eldan loosed his bolt and saw it strike home, throwing the driver from the wagon. Around him, the other members of the company rose from concealment and released a well-aimed volley at the Ssylarians surrounding the slave wagons. Seconds later, the driver of the other wagon was down, as were two of the guards.