The crossbow still works.
I didn't notice anything was wrong until Dad told us to get down and stay hidden. The village was visible, but still tiny and far away on the blasted plains. The cart was slowing. The houses were squat, domed structures made from the earth of the plains. They rose like hills with chimneys, bellowing smoke. Too much smoke. Then I saw the licks of fire, and the distant sounds of battle, massacre, pillaging? It doesn't matter what they were. We had stumbled into the middle of a bandit raid. Dad was resting the crossbow on the front rail of the cart. He had one hand on the trigger, and the other on the reins. This was the closest I had ever seen him to anything adventurous or violent. It felt wrong. I looked over at Gloria. She was still deeply absorbed in her book, mumbling the words to herself. I reached over and tried to pull her down. She just looked up at me and shook her head. Then she went back to her book. I let it go. She was small enough to hide if it was bandits.
Bandits. My Grandfather fought them all the time. He never really hunted them or anything, but every so often a bunch of greenhorns would cross his group's path, and find out that it was a lot tougher to intimidate travelers with a broken jaw. Listening to his stories, I always thought the idea of fighting bandits was kind of romantic. It was just something an adventurer did from time to time. When he wasn't robbing others. But those were almost always bad guys, who deserved it, thus squaring the cosmic balance. But this wasn't anything like those fire-side tales. This was desperate and sordid. From somewhere in the direction of the village, A horn was sounding. I couldn't tell what it meant, but soon the steppes were thundering with hooves and paws, They were an entirely mismatched band. They were largely human, with assorted members of the lost races, goblins, bugbears, ogres, even some orcs, all riding mounts of their size. Mostly horses and ponies. Some of them had bundles on their backs, others were carrying struggling women or children behind them. All of them were dirty, ragged and scarred. I could smell the fire now, and it had something else in it, something that made me want to throw up.
“People are burning to death.” My father said. “There are at least twenty of them, and we have nothing but open ground between us and them. Get down, and stay down.” I did. Gloria wasn't concerned. I tried to find that thing inside me. That dragon hiding deep in my soul. I needed more fire. Fear, that was the key, I thought. Fear of losing Dad, fear of dying, those were things that had triggered my “episodes” in the past. I was terrified now. Nothing happened. There was nothing there. I think I've never felt more alone. I was sure I had it. Knew what I was doing. But it was gone again. There wasn't anything there at all! I felt myself crying without really being aware of it. Then I heard the sound of something like a dragon and a stream of silver fire lit the sky. Dad fired the crossbow. I looked up in time to see the bolt slam into the neck of the horn player. He fell, and his horse went wild. A few of the ones nearby bolted as well. There were still too many of them, though,
“Dad! We have to get out of here!” I screamed. The fire in the town was dying, but the riders were still coming. Sixteen of them now. They would be on top of us in no time at all. Dad was loading another bolt into the bow and reeling back the string.
“Where would we run to? And how far do you think we'd get?” He didn't look at me, he was focused on the battle. As if to punctuate his argument, a pair of arrows slammed into the side of the cart. One of them fell a few feet from Gloria. She look at it for a second, then went back to her book. Some people aren't bothered by anything. “These aren't just raiders, Liz. Look at what they're carrying. They've got people trussed on the back of their horses. Ha!” He fired the second round. It flew like a silver comet, sparking with the mystic power of the bow, willing the tiny bolt to go straighter, faster and farther than it had any right to. It slammed into the riding hound of a goblin leading the charge. It whined, buckled, and collapsed, throwing the rider. The other fifteen rode past him. One of them rode over him, in fact. “These are slavers. And I won't let you get caught by them. I certainly won't show them my back. I may not have turned out to be a hero, but I owe your Grandad this much. I'm not going to put his training to waste.” He loaded the third round. I couldn't do anything but watch as the slavers closed in. I tried, again and again to use it, that thing inside me, but I couldn't find it. I prayed, like I did under the hill, but heaven was silent to me. If I can't use my power, my curse, whatever it is I have, when I need it, what good is it? I took out my knife. At the very least, I could defend myself with it if I needed to. Dad fired again, but the riders were getting better. The horseman he was aiming for jumped suddenly, and the arrow slammed into the dust at its feet. The riders closed in. Dad stopped the cart completely, and focused all his attention on the bandits. This was the last stand.
The circled us in a tightening noose. Dad picked off one with the bow, but he stood back up and marched in for the kill. The others followed him. The women and children tied to the backs of their saddles struggled and looked at us with hopeful eyes. I felt sick. This was totally different from the skeletons. Those were just things, mindless monsters. These were people. People that were going to kill me or worse, just to survive. One tried to get into the wagon, and Dad hit him with the stock of the crossbow. He went spilling backwards, but more took his place, with axes drawn. Gloria shut the book.
One of the raiders, a gnome by the look of him, with a gristly beard and a filthy blue cap, climbed into the back of the wagon. I stuck the knife out between us, but Gloria gently pushed my hand away and smiled. It was the first time I had seen her smile since the fair. She was chanting something, but I couldn't make out the words. She reached out and grabbed the tiny highwayman by the hand. He looked as surprised as I was. Then things went strange.
She said two words in clear, ringing common. “Shocking. Grasp.” There was a pop, and their hands flashed blue for a second. Then he was suddenly on the ground, smoking and shaking. The jolt had sent him flying backwards out of the cart. His hat was singed. In the front of the cart, Dad was still holding his own, but barely. One of the bandits caught him from behind, and stabbed him in the back. I heard him wince, and I shouted. That's when the lighting appeared.
It rushed forward like something alive, a squealing, screaming tiger of power. It leapt from one bandit to the next arcing and sparking. I felt my hair stand on end. I looked at Gloria, and she looked at me. “Chain lightning. It's highly advanced magic,” she said breathlessly. Half the raiders were dead, and the rest were in chaos. Mounts were bolting right and left. I reached over Dad, hoping that he was alright, and took the reins, Struggling against the horses. The spell ended, and the slavers fell down dead. Those still upright broke ranks and fled. They didn't get very far before a tall, statuesque bald man with dark skin appeared from nowhere. He raised his finger, and a black ray of inky darkness sprang forth. The remaining villains collapsed, and we were somehow still alive.
A second, silver-haired man descended from the sky in front of the cart. He whispered something to the horses, and they stopped. Beneath from beneath his streaming hair, I could see pointed, elven ears. He approached us and grinned warmly. In seemingly no time at all him companion had joined us. Without a word, the man checked my father's pulse, reached into the pocket of his blue robe, and produced a potion of some sort. He poured a tiny drop into my father's throat. Dad sputtered, coughed, and sat upright. Satisfied, he went back next to his companion. It was the elf that greeted us. “Good Afternoon,” he said as though sitting down to tea. “I am Magus Celon, and this is my associate, Mr. Kay. Would I be mistaken in identifying you as Master Vernes and his charges?”