by AJ Marks
Part 1: A Lucky Encounter
Gwen walked down the street, trying to avoid people as much as possible. The last thing she wanted to encounter, a fighter who wanted to prove something to his, or her, buddies. While the chances of such a thing happening was small, she took no chances. Her own high fighting power meant any fights she was in might cause her to stand out. Up ahead she spotted the local market, another place she avoided if possible. The haggling, people, and thieves made her cringe. More than once some idiot tried to pick her pocket.
She made her way towards the inn, hoping it had room for the night. She arrived in the city in good time, and without any raiders. That surprised her. Usually they targeted her, only seeing a lone woman walking down the road and thinking they had an easy target. Many learned too late how powerful she was.
Inside the inn she noticed the clean atmosphere, along with the normal stares she always received. She paid it no mind and moved towards the bar, where the innkeeper stood, sizing her up. Her tall height, dark clothing, armor and sword always attracted attention.
“Need a room for the night,” Gwen stated to the innkeeper, leaning against the counter with a casual air.
“Two creds,” the man replied, wiping his hands on the towel. Gwen retrieved the coins, placing them on the counter. He looked them over for a second, before looking back up at her. “Seems all right, room twenty-two, second floor, last room on the left,” he told her, handing her a key to the room.
Gwen nodded her thanks, then with a quick glance over the people in the inn went upstairs. She spotted no one inside who might be a problem, but did not relax until she reached her room. Placing her backpack on the table, she sighed at how things always seemed to be the same, despite being in a new town. Of course normal was not too bad, but it did not keep her from thinking about her past, and how most of them would run if they heard who she was.
With a shake of her head she pushed the thoughts out of her mind, and turned to her diminishing money supply. She would need to find a new job, and soon. The problem became her skills, if she overdid it, people would start to talk, which she did not want. The last things she needed was to stand out. People asked questions when that happened, and she did not want to answer those.
Her stomach growled, and she decided to look for something to eat first while there was still daylight outside. Hiding her stuff a bit better, she left the room, heading out for the marketplace, steeling herself for the crowds.
The crowds had thinned slightly from when she arrived, something she felt grateful for. She had more room to move around in. Her time as a bounty hunter taught her to have some space around her at all times. Thieves had a harder time when that happened. She looked over the stalls, seeing a baker nearby, and looked over what he had. Finally deciding on a roll filled with meat and cheese, she paid the man, before grabbing some soup at the next stall and headed back to the inn.
The sound of a galloping horse caused everyone to turn and look. Not many had a horse, a luxury of the more fortunate. The speed which the rider came in alarmed the merchants, and a few of the customers. Gwen moved back from the crowd to watch what might happen. The rider seemed more like a marauder, as he thundered into the area.
“Make way you low lives,” he called out, pushing several people out of the way. Gwen made no attempt to do anything, instead moving towards the shadows as the man stopped in the middle of the market, which had gone quiet. “Listen up, Stephos will be here tomorrow, have your payments ready, or else.”
“But-but you’re a week early,” one main said near the rider. He received a boot to the chest, causing him to fall back onto the ground.
“Shut up, there is no excuses,” the rider said. “If you don’t have it, well, then I guess I don’t have to tell you what happens to those who can’t make payments.”
Gwen watched him smile, then turned and rode away from the village. She quickly made her way into the inn and back to her room. The last things she needed, to get involved in some protection racket against this Stephos. She had heard of him during her time in the Shadowland, and avoided him whenever possible.
The rumors of him being a powerful magic fighter meant trouble. Making up her mind, she would leave early in the morning towards the next town, hopefully avoiding any meeting with Stephos. It meant another day before she could get a job, and hoped the next town would have something for her.
Gwen walked down the path, having left the town early in the morning hoping to put as much room between her and it. She also hoped to avoid any men from Stephos. The man on the horse had ridden off in a different direction, but it meant little, a rider on a horse could cover a large distance quickly.
She looked up as her aura felt something along the path. She expanded it a bit more, quickly feeling out the presence of hidden people along the road. A couple of bandits waiting in ambush for her. Their powers were almost low, and nothing compared to hers. She moved along to see what their trap might be, slightly disappointed when one dropped to the ground in front of her. He held a broadsword in his hands, causing her to roll her eyes. Bandits rarely used such weapons, large, slow and unwieldy for such tasks. His armor looked worn, and in need of maintenance. Her appraisal, he was even less than a thug.
“Now, look here, hand over your stuff and you won’t get hurt,” he said to her, smiling a bit, showing two missing teeth. Gwen looked at him, then over at the other two still hidden in the bushes waiting as his back-up.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Gwen said, pointing at him, then his two buddies. “You give me what you have, and I won’t kill ya.”
The bandit in front of her blinked, slightly shocked at her tone. “H-Haha, you think I’m alone, guess again missy,” he said. “If you don’t give us your stuff, you might become our entertainment for the day.”
Gwen saw his hand move out, obviously a signal and reacted. Two crossbolts flew by impacting the ground. She withdrew a couple of magical throwing stars, launching them to where the hidden bandits were. The muffled thump indicated she hit her targets as the bodies hit the ground. She looked up at the bandit in front of her, waiting for his next move. Shock caused him to freeze before turning and running.
She quickly caught up knocking him out. Shaking her head at what they might have done had she been someone else, she almost killed him for that. Instead she retrieved her throwing stars, and went through their pockets, disappointed in the lack of stuff on them. They had a few creds, which she took. Leaving the bodies in place for any scavengers she moved on to the next town.
Gwen glanced up at the midday sun, about time to stop somewhere for a meal. The trail had been quiet since the bandits. She passed only one group, heading the opposite direction and traded pleasantries, and warnings. They had seen no one to the town, and she warned them about the three bandits she had taken care of.
Sounds from behind her caused her to stop, expanding her aura, she waited only a few seconds before finding a group of people heading her direction. She made a mental note at their fighting power, including on strong one, perhaps the strongest she had felt in a while. Not wanting to be spotted she forced her own power down even more, and jumped up into the trees allowing her the opportunity to watch while not being seen.
A short while later a young girl, probably eighteen or so, came running down the path and under where she hid. ‘Unlucky’ she thought about the girl as she tripped and fell, allowing a group of six men to catch up to her. They were much better dressed than the previous bandits she encountered. These guys maintained their armor and weapons, and all had higher fighting power than the bandits. She still felt she could take them on.
She watched as they circled her, and the leader approached her. “Well, looks like your luck finally ran out, or I got lucky,” he said with a slight laugh. “I don’t like girls who try to escape.”
“Let’s teach her a lesson,” one of the men said, indicating what he thought. He wanted to have some fun, and a few of the others seemed to agree with him.
“Oh, we will teach her a lesson,” the leader said, even as one reached forward ripping her shirt open.
The tone made Gwen growl in anger. The thought of them raping the girl was one thing she could not ignore. Jumping down quietly she waited a moment standing in the middle of the road for someone to recognize she was there.
Tired of waiting she unsheathed her sword, and in two swipes cut down two of the group in front of her, leaving four men left. They seemed shocked at what happened, staring at her in shock. The leader quickly recovered, even as the girl scrambled to hide behind her, clutching her torn shirt.
“Lady, I don’t know who you are, but this is your unlucky day,” the leader said, looking at her. “You are cute, you could fetch a pretty price at an auction as well.”
The group laughed at his comment, Gwen narrowed her eyes at him.
“Heard that before,” she said to him. “But I’m still standing, they’re wormfood.”
“A tough girl, I should warn you, this time you’ve encountered Stephos, the strongest warlord in the Shadowlands,” he said to her.
Gwen groaned slightly at the name. She left the previous town with the intention of avoiding this guy, who now stood in front of her. She spent a second evaluating his fighting aura, and guessed it to be around Level five or so. Not bad, but way lower than hers. He might be the most powerful in the area, but she had met and fought even more powerful fighters in her lifetime.
“Perhaps, but you never know how strong your opponent is,” Gwen said.
“You’re a low level, already felt you,” he replied back, stopping slightly as Gwen brought her aura up a few levels. She knew they understood how powerful she was as they paled slightly at the force of her magic.
“Are you sure?” Gwen said, stepping forward, knowing they knew her power. It wasn’t full strength, but enough for them to know who the strongest was.
“All right, for now,” Stephos said, stepping back slightly, looking back at his men. “But, you’ve gained an enemy of Stephos, remember that,” he said, as they retreated back into the brush.
Gwen remained alert, feeling their movements before turning around seeing a girl with green eyes and long blonde hair, as well as a lovely figure, or at least what she could see of it hidden behind torn fabric. Five years ago, she might have tried some moves, today, she only felt tired of everything. She paused in that though, wondering if perhaps she was getting old.
“Thank you, boy was I lucky tripping here,” the girl said. “I’m Zoe by the way, what’s your name?”
“Gwen,” she replied, rummaging through her backpack, tugging out a shirt and tossing it over. “Here, you can wear this.”
“Oh, thank you,” Zoe replied, putting the shirt on, before thanking Gwen once more, who looked away as the girl stripped off the torn shirt. Gwen had caught a glimpse of bare flesh, the girl did not seem to notice, and continued talking. “I’ve never seen anyone who could make Stephos back off before. Do you have fighting magic? Must be pretty powerful, especially being a woman, isn’t that rare?”
“Not really,” Gwen replied, not giving much of an answer back to her. She went through the men’s pockets for anything she might be able to use, considering Stephos had not taken them with him.
“Well, out here it is,” Zoe said, tugging the shirt down, and pulling her hair out from under the shirt, finally satisfied with the fit. Holding up the torn shirt, examined it for a few seconds. “Hmm, think I can fix this, got lucky, but do you have any needle and thread?”
“Um, no, not something I carry around,” Gwen replied back, feeling slightly off balance with the question, not finding much on the man, only a few creds, but aside from that, nothing else and moved on to the next man.
“That’s okay, I’ll find some in the next town, which way are we going by the way?” Zoe asked, as Gwen pointed in the direction of the next town. “Oh good, I can go with you, it’s not safe to travel alone you know.”
Gwen sighed, but also knew if for the truth. Her fighting power allowed her the ability to travel alone with no problems. A single girl traveling alone not a good idea, especially when Gwen could feel no magical ability from her.
“It’s a good thing it’s away from where Stephos was,” the girl stated, as they started off down the road.
Gwen took a moment to look at the sky, realizing the sun had climbed to the midway point. The next town had been some six hours away, normal walking time. She had made good time, and hoped to be at the next town in a few hours.
“Stephos captured me and locked me up, but I got lucky and managed to escape last night. One of the guards left the door to my cell unlocked, must have gotten lucky,” Zoe said, starting her tale despite the fact Gwen never asked for it. “I waited until they all asleep, best time to escape you know, and then snuck out. I can actually be quite quiet when I need to be, but with the drinking splurge they had with Stephos gone, most were passed out. Don’t think a thundering herd of horses would have woken them up, he-he.”
Gwen gave the girl a glance, noticing her green eyes looking every which way but on the path ahead as she spoke. Her long blonde hair caught the sunlight though the trees, highlighting a tinge of red. Gwen looked away quickly before the girl could look over.
“But then I got lost, took a wrong turn and instead of heading towards the town, went away from it. I figured I could run until something happened, and lucky me, something did happen,” Zoe said, never stopping in her story. Gwen rolled her eyes at the expression of her being lucky.
“Yeah, the entire story sounds lucky,” Gwen said putting some emphasis on lucky. She tried to think of what else to say, but to her, what happened felt anything like luck. She now dealt with a talkative companion. The story did bring about a question. “So Zoe, why did they capture you in the first place?”
“Um, I’m not sure. Guess I’m too cute,” Zoe answered giving Gwen a smile. She thought she caught a guarded expression on the girl’s face, but said nothing.
“Okay, your secret,” Gwen said, knowing she had no reason to press the issue. She had her own secrets to keep. Instead she continued walking on in silence.
“I find trees interesting, don’t you?”
Gwen frowned hearing Zoe resume talking. She half listened as Zoe gave her theory about trees, and where they came from.
End part 1