Lucky Luck – Part 3

Lucky Luck

by AJ Marks

Part 3: A Lucky Job

 

Gwen moved slightly so the server could take the plate away.  Zoe had talked about the town, showing that she could pick up information from people, and even mentioned that some bounty hunter was looking for a woman with powers.  The description was long brown hair, and brown eyes, and a mage.  Gwen felt a bit of relief they were not looking for her, and relaxed a bit.

“So, are we really leaving then?’ Zoe asked, looking around.

“Yeah, a bit too crowded here,” Gwen replied.  The merchants would be here for another couple of days, and with so much activity she felt anxious to leave.  She also knew with what Zoe saved her, she could afford to move on to the next town before looking for jobs.

“Bigger towns mean more jobs,” Zoe said, as if reading her mind.  “You could do some bounty hunter jobs or something.”

“Um, already do stuff like that,” Gwen replied, not going into details about what she had done before.  The customers of the inn, their attitudes made her uneasy.

“You really don’t handle crowds well do you,” Zoe said, catching Gwen off guard.

“Ah, no, old habit, too many people around and I like to keep an eye on that, don’t trust people and pickpockets,” Gwen replied, skirting the issue slightly.  “And the people around here make me nervous as well.”

“Really, here, why’s that?” Zoe asked back, making a point to look around at the people.  “I don’t see anything wrong with these people, most are actually quite nice.”

“They look normal, but each of them has a secret they hold,” Gwen stated, taking a look around at the group before continuing.  “Secrets they don’t want told, of course we all have that, but these people have larger secrets, ones that effect more people, ones that can cause governments to cease to function.  It’s their positions that create such things.”

“Oh, well I guess so, though some normal people might have that,” Zoe said quietly.

“Think so, it’s possible,” Gwen said, recalling her own secret which was dangerous to anyone around her.

“There you are,” a male voice said, causing them both to turn as a man walked up to their table.  Gwen recognized the man as john, who they had met the other day.  “Must be a lucky day, thought maybe you had left town already.”

Gwen privately wished she had gone upstairs to pack, now she would have to listen to some proposal from this merchant.  A look over at Zoe seeing an excited look in her eyes.

“Yep, we were about to head up to pack,” Zoe said.  Gwen had no idea if the girl was excited about leaving, or leaving with her.

“Well then, I am in time,” John said.

“We should pack up and leave, shouldn’t wait too much longer before heading out,” Gwen said, knowing how long it would take to reach the next town.

“Ah, yes, about that, I have a proposition for you then,” John replied.

“Talk fast,” Gwen said, hoping things did not get too complex.

“Hush,” Zoe said, giving a slight slap to Gwen’s hand, who raised an eyebrow at the girl, who merely refocused her attention back to John.

“Well, I prefer we talk about this in private,” John said, giving a glance around, and increasing Gwen’s uneasy feeling.

“Sure, we can talk while we pack, right,” she said, looking over at Gwen in excitement at the fact of a job.  Gwen realized she had no way of backing out without sounding ungrateful, and reluctantly agreed to it.

It took them only a few minutes to reach the room, and Gwen waited until Zoe and John were inside before moving in as well.  She went over, sitting down across from John, as Zoe moved over the bed, bouncing down onto the mattress before looking on.  Gwen thought of a thousand things John might want, and none were good.  Her mind already thinking of ways to reject him.

“It’s like this, I always send back my money in segments, that way I never had it all on me at one time,” John said.  “One of my trusted associates takes it back so I never lose my profits.  The problem is my previous guards went to a rival, and I fear my plans are compromised.  I pay well, for delivery of both trips.”

Gwen was impressed by the amount of foresight John had to prevent losing too much to robbers.  She thought about what he said for several seconds.  “How many other guards, and how many holding the money?” Gwen asked.

“A total of eight people if you both go.  I’m with a friend on this one this time, we each have two associates, one who has the money, the other person is along as a decoy in case trouble happens, and he has hired two guards.  Any bigger of a group might attract too much attention, and slow things down,” John replied back to her.

Gwen tapped a finger on the table surface thinking about the situation.  Looking over at Zoe, she appeared ready to go, almost jumping up and down with excitement.  Eight people, probably walking into a trap, not something she did every day.

“How strong were the ex-guards?” Zoe asked, as Gwen continued to think about the job.

“Not too strong, had some fighting power, probably nothing more than a level nine, eight at the highest,” John replied.  Gwen realized the ex-guards were probably no match for her.  Looking over at Zoe, then back at John, she finally made up her mind.

“All right, but I must be crazy, walking into a trap isn’t my idea of fun, or easy,” Gwen said at long last.

“Walking into a trap and not knowing, that is mad, if you know the trap is there, you can spring it,” John replied back to her, causing her to roll her eyes.

“Sounds like you’ve had some military training with philological statement,” Gwen said.

“Some in my youth, spent two years in the town militia, didn’t rank that high to even make level ten,” John answered.  “Probably a good thing, I bring in more coin to help the town as a merchant than anything I might have done in the militia.”

“So, where do we meet this group?” Gwen said.  “And when?”

“Outside the gates, my associate is Ben along with Fred, my associate’s friends are Randell and Sara,” John said.  “The only thing left is the fee, how about one hundred creds per trip, and an additional two hundred for both trips successful and no losses for a total of six hundred creds”

Gwen thought about the price for a few seconds, realizing the sum would be quite large.  It would make things easy for them in the long run.  She also wondered how much they would be protecting if he could afford so much.  Deciding she did not need to know, she agreed to the sum.

“Then I look forward to seeing you upon the completion of the assignment, and I have no doubt you’ll do fine,” John said, standing.  She stood shaking his hand, hoping the assignment would be as smooth as he thought it might go.

She did not fear the attack, she hoped the others did not do something so stupid to interfere with her ability to protect them.  Watching John leave, she turned to Zoe.

“Well, guess we’ve got a job,” Gwen said to Zoe.

“Yep, can’t wait,” Zoe replied, jumping up to pack.

***

Gwen made her way down the street along with Zoe, who chatted about a story she heard in the market square earlier between two merchants.  Gwen politely listened, but looked around watching to see who might be watching.  Only one person seemed to be watching, but the moment he noticed her looking he turned away.

Her interest in keeping an eye out also extended to Zeltran, the last person she wanted to meet.  She had not seen him since this morning, and hoped he had gone on to another town looking for his target, or whatever.  At the gate she spotted six people, including John who stood there waiting, and waved her over.

“Ah, Gwen, over here,“ John said, as they moved over.  Gwen noticed two of the others appeared to be merchants, two looked to be mercenaries, and the last a woman with black hair slightly longer than Gwen’s.  “This is Celia, the other merchant.”

“Hi,” Zoe said, with a smile, the cheerful attitude seemed to catch the woman by surprise, bringing a smile to Gwen’s face.

“Um, pleasure,” Celia said.

“These two are my merchants, Ben and Fred,” John said.

“And we’re waiting on my two,” Celia said.  “The other two are hired guards.”

“All right,” Gwen said, sizing up the two, and received the same look in return.

“Doesn’t look like she’s much of a fighter to me,” one said, giving a nod towards Zoe.  Gwen figured he was the leader of the two, turning towards him before answering.

“She has other purposes,” Gwen said, allowing them to think whatever they wanted.  She knew they would assume things, and it would eliminate any moves they might make on Zoe later on.

“I bet,” the other one said, with a laugh.

“Now, now, let’s all get along,” Celia said, looking at the two mercenaries, who merely nodded towards her.

“I think I see Randell and Sara,” the one named Ben said.  Gwen looked to see a couple making their way out of the city and towards them.

“Celia,” Randell said, looking at the group.  “Is this the group?”

“Yes, behave, both of you, and I’ll be waiting for your return,” Celia said.

“We really should get going,” Gwen said, looking up at the sky.

“I believe you’re right,” Ben agreed.

They said their good-byes from John and Celia, who whispered something to Sara, before walking off back into town.

Gwen looked over at Zoe, who waited patiently off to the side.  They started out and she made a mental note to keep an eye on the two mercenaries, as they continued to look at Zoe a bit too much for Gwen’s comfort.  Zoe seemed oblivious to attention, or ignored it.

“So, is it true that there are different ranks of fighters?” Zoe asked.

“Yeah, based on a system of one to ten,” Gwen said.  “Usually eight though ten are the low class foot soldiers, then there are the middle class, four through seven, make up the file and rank soldiers, levels two and three are the elites and level one is the top class, the real monsters of the fighting world.”

“Wow, and there are people at each level?” Zoe asked.

“Yeah, but not all of them are nice people, or even that smart,” Gwen answered, not saying anything about who she knew.

“Have you ever met any of them?”

“Some, even a level one,” Gwen said, seeing a look of amazement on Zoe’s face.

“Then you’ve traveled quite a bit,” Zoe said.

Gwen merely nodded, but said nothing about where she had gone, either in the Realm, or the Shadowlands.  She did not know how much other others would know, or what they might say.  She still had a job to do, and a long way to go to complete it.

***

Gwen looked back as Ben called for a break.  The group found a nice spot to sit down, and eat a snack.  Gwen took out two nut bars, handing one over to Zoe, who gratefully accepted it along with some water.

“Well, been doing good, and so far, been peaceful,” Ben said, looking up at the sky.  They still had a few hours of daylight left.

“Let’s not get too lax, we’re still not there yet,” Gwen said.

“Right,” Sara said.  “We still have a lot of ground to cover.”

“Anything can happen, so we shouldn’t let our guard down,” Gwen said to them.  She really wanted to get to the town and back with no problems.

“Got that right, had one year, a large group of raiders dropped in on us, what a fight that was,” Randell said, with a shudder at the memory.  “We didn’t lose anyone, but Gregory did, two guards for three raiders.”

“So how far are we?” Gwen asked, hoping they had gone past the halfway point.

“Passed the halfway point back at the three rocks,” Ben said.

“The most dangerous part of the journey,” Gwen said, watching them all nod.  Raiders usually attacked near the midway points where it took the longest to get help.  Only the smart or stupid attacked closer to the towns.

She glanced up seeing one of the guards walking over, looking at Zoe once more before looking at her.

“So, can you use that?’ he asked, his tone indicating what he thought of her abilities.

“Don’t think you want to find out,” Gwen replied without humor.  He turned his attention from her to Zoe.  Gwen watched, ready to jump in, but did not want to be overbearing.

“Hey babe, how about we celebrate in style,” he said, looking at Zoe, who appeared uncomfortable with the attention.

“Um, no thanks,” Zoe politely replied, as Gwen stepped between the two, earning a chuckle from the seated guard.

“She’s outta your league man,” the seated one finally said.

“Then she’s defiantly out of your league old man,” the reply came back.

“Well, perhaps we should think about heading out if everyone finished,” Ben said interrupting the standoff.  “Don’t want to waste too much light, still winter.”

“Right,” the seated guard said, standing with a stretch.

They started back off down the road, with Gwen leading the group with Zoe.  She looked over at the smaller girl due to the fact she was so quiet.  Such a thing had yet to happen.

“You all right?” Gwen asked, wondering if something had happened, or if she stepped in too soon.

“Thinking,” Zoe replied, not going in to details.

“Did you like one of them?” Gwen asked, wanting to know the answer.  She would not stand in the way if the girl did like one of them, but the image of Zoe with either of the other two did not settle well with Gwen.

“No, not my type” Zoe replied quickly, looking up at Gwen then back to the road.

“Un-huh, so what is your type?” Gwen asked, grinning slightly at the blush that appeared on the girl’s cheeks.

“I-I guess I don’t know,” Zoe replied, not looking up.

“Is he tall, handsome, blonde hair, black hair?” Gwen asked, pressing slightly.

“I’m not sure, maybe tall, or at least taller than me,” Zoe said finally.

“Most people are taller than you,” Gwen replied giving her a smile.

“Ha-ha.”

Gwen started to reply, when she felt auras up ahead.  Looking down the road she saw no one coming towards them.  Extending her aura even more she sense six people up ahead, and knew they had to be hidden.  She frowned slightly as she realized one was a mage, the other five were fighters.  She held up a hand to stop the group.

“What’s up?” Ben asked as the other two guards walked up.

“You two, stay with the merchants, Zoe, stay here as well.  We have five hidden magic users, and one mage up ahead,” Gwen said to them.

“And you’re going to take them on alone?” the bald guard said.

“I can avoid the trap easier by myself than if you were with me,” Gwe said.  “Our job is to protect the merchants, you can do that by staying here with them than by coming with me.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be right here with the merchants,” Zoe said, not arguing with her.  Gwen felt grateful for that, and waited for the other two guards.  They finally agreed, but stayed a bit further out as Gwen continued down the road before stopping close to the trap.

“You can come out, I know you’re there,” Gwen said, speaking up so they could hear her.  She brought forth some fighting power, and kept herself ready for the attack she knew would happen.  She knew the mage could feel her power, but unsure if the others could.

She avoided two arrows easily, slightly disappointed that they had attacked.  Taking some throwing stars she sent them flying towards the bushes, hearing muffled thumps as three thieves dropped from the trees.  Two large bodies dropped down in front of her, holding swords.  She recognized the grunts of the group, as they smiled slightly.

“You can’t take us both on and him,” one said, pointing to a person off to the side.  By the posture she knew he was the mage, and concentrating on starting a spell.

“Yeah, watch me,” Gwen said, launching another throwing star towards the mage causing him to break his concentration for defense as a shield of ice appeared.  Gwen used that break to attack the two fighters in front of her.  In less than a second she had both of them disarmed and looking stunned at what happened.  “You’re no match for me, you have fighting power, but not much, and he is a low class mage, which means he can’t produce a defensive spell while completing his attack spell.  Get lost, you’ve already lost three of your companions, you can be next.”

She watched, waiting several heartbeats as they tried to figure out what to do.  The mage seemed to be the only one with brains as he turned and ran off into the bushes.  Gwen felt him run further and further away, out his spell range.  The other two went for their swords, attacking her as quickly as they could.  Gwen easily blocked the attacks.

“I gave you a second chance and you blew it,” Gwen said, countering the blows with her own attack.  The thieves stumbled slightly barely realizing what happened to them.  Gwen watched as they fell to the ground.

Cleaning her blade before walking back to the group she endured a quick check over by Zoe, who seemed concerned that nothing happened to her.  The others looked on wide-eyes at what she had done.

“Never seen such speed,” one of them said.

“What level are you at?” the bald man said, looking at Gwen.  “I’d have to say at least level seven or higher.”

“Eh, enough to cause problems,” Gwen said avoiding the question.  “Well, the path is clear, so we should get going.”

“What about the mage?”

“He’s still running,” Gwen said, her aura had tracked him running away and the last she felt him, he was still moving away quickly.  “With his group gone, shouldn’t be a problem, especially if we keep moving.”

“Sound good,” Fred said.

The group continued on, but now the other two guards gave her a look of respect, awe and fear.  Zoe alone seemed unaffected having seen her power once already against Stephos.  Gwen hoped nothing else happened on the way to the town.

***

Gwen felt relieved they arrived at the town, with some daylight left.  The torches were being lit, and the last rays of the sun fading away giving birth to a beautiful sunset, which Zoe pointed out to her.  Now as the group made arrangements for the next morning, and when they would leave, the merchants went back to their homes.  Gwen made her way to the inn along with Zoe.

She walked in feeling a strong fighting power nearby, looking around but did not recognize anyone.  She knew it was not the mage from before, as the power was stronger, but despite not seeing anyone familiar thought the fighting power seemed familiar to her.

“How much for a room?” Gwen asked when she reached the innkeeper, trying to remain casual in case someone watched her moves.  She did not want to give away anything.

“Five creds,” the man replied, looking her over.

“All right,” Gwen said, about to ask for two room when she recognized the fighting power, Stephos.  He was close by and probably still after Zoe.  Deciding to not let the girl out of her sight, she replied to him.  “I’ll take one room for me and my friend.”

The innkeeper shrugged but tossed her a key as she handed over five creds.  “Third room on the right,” he said to her, turning to the other two guards that followed her into the inn.  She looked over at Zoe who seemed thoughtful about something, but did not seem upset at sharing a room.

She made her way off with Zoe behind her down to the room.  Entering the room she noticed once more only one bed, but a bit larger than the last one, and two could sleep comfortably on it.  She looked over at Zoe who had a strange weird, happy look on her face.

“Nice, not quite like the last room, but at least its clean,” Gwen said, looking at the wash basin, and the small table and chair before walking over to the window.  She had a view of the street, and only had to wait a moment before Stephos appeared, confronted by several guards.  They talked for a few minutes before he walked out of town, much to Gwen’s relief.  Looking back in the room Zoe had set the backpacks down on the table and going through the items.

“How about something to eat?” Gwen asked.

“S-Sure,” Zoe replied, looking up at Gwen.

“Come on, I’ll treat,” Gwen said walking back down to the eating area.  She spotted the other two guards, who waved them over.  She looked over at Zoe making sure she felt fine with it before heading over.

“Interesting job, eh,” the bald one said.  Gwen had studied them while on the road and knew he was Sven, and the other man’s name was Otto.

“Well, it could be worse,” Gwen replied.

“I hear that, at least this one is legal,” Otto stated.

“Aye,” Sven said, motioning for the waitress, who came over so they could order something.

“You do illegal work?” Zoe asked after the waitress left.

“Who hasn’t in this line of word,” Sven answered.  “When you’re strapped for creds, you’ll reach a point where you’ll accept just about any job to survive.

“Doesn’t mean we’re suicidal though,” Otto said.  “There are some targets out there no one will touch.”

“Like that contract on Stephos,” Sven said, sharing a glance with Otto.

“There is a hit out on him?” Gwen asked, it was something she had not run across yet.

“Must be new, he’s had on one his head now for years,” Otto said, looking over at Sven.

“I’d say it’s been about ten years now, the bounty offices don’t generally talk about it much anymore, not after that last group,” Sven said.

“Oh gods, that was a disaster, what was that, eight years ago?” Otto asked.

“Nope, seven, they had asked me, but I was on another job,” Sven said.  “A group calling themselves the Collectors, six of ‘em, not too good, and he killed them all.  Left their bodies strung up on the road as a warning to others.  Nasty sight,” Sven said with a slight shiver.  “A few try occasionally, but meet up with the same fate.”

The waitress returned with their food, setting down the plates and walking back off.

“No one has come close to collecting that,” Otto said, taking a swallow of his drink.

“Why doesn’t he conqueror a spot and rule it?” Gwen asked.

“Heard that would put in out in public, and add in the Realm which probably would start looking at him closely, and while Stephos is strong, there are many in the Realm stronger than him,” Sven answered.  “Stephos enjoys his power.”

“Times are changing though, especially in the Realm,” Otto said.  “Heard the latest tumors, not good.”

“Oh?’ Gwen asked, her curiosity piqued.

“Rebels are making a scene, attacking the current king,” Sven said.  “They are using the Shadowlands as a hiding place, gathering support.  They want to make a new army, especially after that last try a couple of years ago, big scandal, remember that one well.  Rumor was some sort of fracturing of the Royal Family, someone tried to take over, killed hundreds.”

“Felt that one all the out here,” Otto said.  “Had members of the Realm scouring though looking for someone.  Killed hundreds more doing that.”

“Heard they eventually caught the person, executed her on the spot,” Sven said.  “Was lucky to avoid them back then, that’s when I met up with Otto here.”

“Yep, but that family needs shaking up,” Otto replied.

“So, who is running this rebellion?” Zoe asked.

“Rumor is Ruth’s fiancée is,” Sven answered, causing Gwen to cough at that.

“You okay?” Zoe asked, looking over at her.

“Yeah, swallowed wrong,” Gwen replied, taking a drink to cover her slip up.  She thought about what Sven and Otto said, wondering what happened in the Realm.  She had a much different account of those events, but choice not to say anything at the moment.  She did not believe the rumor about who led the rebellion now, she knew for a fact all the leaders had been killed.  As for who currently led it, she was positive that person had been killed as well.

“So, where are you from?” Otto asked, bringing Gwen out of her thoughts.

“Me, here and there, no particular place.  Parents were killed in a raid, had no one else, had to learn how to survive for myself, job to job, fortunately I was strong enough to get good work,” Gwen replied.

“Yeah, sounds like me, though I have a sister back in Krish, haven’t seen her in a few years.  She married had a couple of kids, wanted me to settle down last time I was there, wasn’t for me,” Otto said.

“Have a daughter back in Blackwood,” Sven said.  “However me and her ma don’t get along, so I don’t visit often.”

Gwen had the impression that like her, they did not tell everything in the story.  However she did not press the issue.  Most bounty hunters had some shady past, and the few who didn’t were usually family who had been in the business for years.  Few pushed for additional details past the original story.

“What about you?  Don’t look like the type to be doing this?” Otto asked, looking at Zoe.

“Never knew my parents, grew up in an orphanage, going from place to place,” Zoe said.  “Guess I was lucky to not be sold as a slave early on.”

“I’ll say, a lot of orphans are,” Sven said.  “So, think anything will happen on the way back?”

“Can’t say, we did deal with that group on the way,” Otto said.

“You mean she did,” Sven said.  “Easiest fight I’ve ever had.”

“You must have had some training,” Otto said, looking at her.

“Some from a man who served in the Realm’s army,” Gwen replied.  Not quite a lie, but the closest she could come with actually giving away anything.

“Yep, there are some old soldiers out here, retired and wanting a peaceful life, though I don’t find it very peaceful out here anymore,” Sven said.

“I guess you were lucky, trained up with that power you have, makes your abilities even better, you must have learned how to use your aura to scan for others,” Otto said.

“Yep, is a real advantage when out on the road,” Gwen replied back to them.

The conversation drifted to other subjects, as Sven told of some of his jobs, entertaining them.  They were not as bad as Gwen first thought, normal mercenaries trying to get through life.  Similar to what she was trying to do.

They ended the meal heading back to the rooms and with a plan to meet up the next morning, eat and then meet with the merchants for the travel back.

***

Gwen strolled along with Zoe, who had been quiet for a change.  Gwen felt unsure if something bothered the girl or not.  Sven and Otto had agreed to guard the rear of the group with the merchants in the middle.

Gwen wondered if Zoe had been awake this morning.  Gwen awoke to the feeling of someone snuggled up against her once again.  Sometime during the night Zoe had snuggled up to her, and once more the girl slept nude, much to Gwen’s chagrin.  The feeling of the girl’s soft skin, the curve of her hips, the soft breasts pressing into her side, all sent her thoughts anywhere but on innocent thoughts.

Something about the girl attracted Gwen’s attention, as much as she tried to fight it yet something drew her in.  True, she had met prettier, and sexier girls in her travels, but none ever seemed to make Gwen want to be with them more than a night.  Zoe had long blonde hair, and a sexy figure, and the girl was cute, but her attitude seemed different.  The mix of shy innocence and sexy vixen contradicted each other.

The combination meant Gwen wanted to know more about the girl, who she was, what she liked, and dislikes.  One big question that came to mind, how did Stephos enter the picture, and why did he want Zoe so much?  She had the feeling they would meet up again, and that his appearance at the town last night was not an accident.  If so, then someone was giving him information about their movements, or they were tailing them.

“What do you think about the clouds, sometimes they move so quickly, and other times, it’s like they are standing still, maybe their alive or something,” Zoe said, breaking the silence.

Gwen looked over to see the girl looking upwards through the break in the tress at the clouds.  She looked up herself seeing the clouds Zoe spoke about barely moving at all, puffy white.

“Probably won’t rain,” Gwen said.  “Light clouds, something I’m grateful for right now.”

“Oh, what’s that?” Zoe asked, looking at Gwen then back up at the clouds.

“Well, this time of year, those dark clouds could mean rain, or snow, or something else, you never know which,” Gwen replied.  “Though I’d rather have the snow than rain right now.”

“Hmm, yeah, I guess that’s true, still,” Zoe said, looking up at them.  “They are beautiful.”

Gwen looked up once more realizing that her companion had the ability to see the beauty in things instead of the practical side.  When had she lost that ability?  She could barely recall a time when she did not look at the world in a certain way, the way she had been trained.  Then came the betrayal and violence, and she wondered if she ever could see the world that way again.

Gwen spotted the three rocks, and realized they were at the halfway point.  The most dangerous part of the trip.  They had passed a few people on the way, no one claimed any problems, even one wagon.  She noted that the bodies of the raiders had been carried away already, either by scavengers or wild animals, she did not know.

Zoe continued talking about some building she had seen back in another town.  She half listened in until she felt fighters ahead.  Signaling for the group to stop, even as two men jumped down in front of them.  She frowned knowing they did not carry anything of value, and wondered what the thieves wanted.

“Well, well, I see we met again,” a voice said, speaking up, one she recognized.  She looked off to the side seeing Stephos walk out of the bushes.  “You interrupted my men yesterday.”

“You’re men, should have guessed, they were not very good,” Gwen replied, feeling around for anyone else.  Stephos would not be so stupid as to do a frontal attack, his character did not work that way.  “Thought you learned your lesson last time.”

“Oh no, we have unfinished business, and as for her, well, she is mine, aren’t you sweetheart,” Stephos said.

Gwen felt two more behind them, and made a signal to Sven and Otto, hoping they caught it and took care of her rear.  “My friend and I are not in the mood for you today,” Gwen said, shielding Zoe from him.

“So, you’re not going to hand her over, thought you’d have gotten tired of her yapping yet, she does talk too much, a bit of an airhead if you ask me.  Pretty little thing, but missing so much on top,” Stephos said, grinning slightly.

“I wouldn’t say that, she’s obviously got more brains than you,” Gwen replied as her aura felt a change, and she realized her mistake.  “Off the road, now,” she yelled out, pulling Zoe with her into the bushes

Zoe protested even as the spell rushed down the road.  Gwen took a second to look around, seeing four merchants motionless by the stunning spell.  Sven and Otto had managed to leap clear.

“Damn it, can’t you do anything right?” she heard Stephos yell.

“Stay here,” Gwen said to Zoe, quickly focusing her aura, and finding what she was looking for, the mage who cast the spell.  She threw several throwing stars, watching as the mage managed to deflect one, and ran off as the other two embedded themselves in the trees splintering them.

“Come back here coward,” Stephos yelled.

“Seems like your little surprise didn’t work as well as you hoped,” Gwen said, looking at Stephos, who was still watching his retreating mage, and now appeared less cocky than before.  She brought up her fighting power waiting to see what Stephos would do next.

The standoff lasted a few seconds, as Stephos looked at her, then the others, before retreating back into the bushes.  Gwen had the impression that once again they would see each other again.  It also brought up the question, why was he so obsessed with Zoe?  It was something she might have to talk with Zoe over again, and maybe push a bit.

“Well, that was fun, but,” Otto said, trailing off and looking back towards the still stunned merchants.  They all looked over, seeing the four figures in the road.

“Not sure, but I don’t think they were after money this time,” Sven said logically.

“He mistakenly thinks that I’m in love with him,” Zoe said, speaking up to them.  “I’ve told him time and again that I’m not interested, but, well, you know how some guys are, thinks if he can capture me he’ll win my heart.”

“Well, some people are strange, and you’re cute, and I wouldn’t mind going out with you, but I’ve found if someone isn’t interested, it’s easier to move on,” Otto said, sounding rather reasonable.

“Yep, plenty of willing people out there to go for rather than focus on one person,” Sven said.

Gwen listened to the girl tell the story but had the feeling it was not true.  She knew Stephos had different intentions for Zoe, and it had nothing to do with love.  She did not show any emotions about the story even as she made a mental note to keep her guard up.

“Well, they should be fine in an hour or so,” Gwen said to the group after checking them out.  “Guess we wait for a bit.”

“It’s a nice day for it,” Sven said, walking over to a fallen tree and sitting down.

“Might as well get comfortable then,” Otto replied.

“Is there no way to undo the spell?” Zoe asked.

“Need a mage, and neither me or Otto are, I know you’re not Gwen, and I doubt you are ma’am,” Sven replied back to her, impressing Gwen with his manners.

“Um, no I’m not,” Zoe replied, looking over at Gwen.

“Nothing I know can undo this except time,” Gwen said.

The group settled down to wait until the spell wore off.

***

Gwen made her way to the room at the inn, the same one as last time they were there.  John had kept the room for them for when they returned.  At the moment she had something important on her mind, and waited until they started getting ready for bed before bringing up the subject.

“Um, Zoe, you know Stephos won’t stop coming after you, right?” Gwen asked, looking over at the girl.

“Yeah, I know,” Zoe replied, sounding slightly defeated.  “I hoped he would forget about me, but it doesn’t look that way does it?”

“No,” Gwen said, sitting down on the bed.  “So, how much of what you told Sven and Otto was true?”

“I-I don’t know what you mean,” Zoe replied.  Gwen wanted to believe the girl on the story, but something about it seemed off, especially after meeting Stephos now for the second time.

“I think you do, if he was so enthralled with you, he would have tried a different tactic when we first me.  He was ready to rape you that day,” Gwen said.  “He has a reason, and will continue to try, but if you share the reason with me, maybe I can help you out.”

She looked over at Zoe, who obviously seemed to be thinking about what she said.

“Are you a slave?” Gwen asked, not really thinking it was that.  If she was, Stephos would have approached the situation very differently.

“No, it’s a complex situation, in a way I was bought, but also taken by him,” Zoe said.  “I have some, talents, and some people wanted those talents, but he refused to hand me over despite getting paid for it.”

Gwen sat back a bit, thinking about what Zoe said.  Stephos appeared the type of man who might go back on his word, or even a business deal.  She accepted the story for now, but the idea of Zoe having ‘talents’ made her wonder.  She did not press at the moment.

“Sounds about right from what I’ve heard of him,” Gwen said, seeing Zoe relax slightly as it appeared the subject would be dropped.

Gwen changed into a night shift before heading towards the bed, and to look at Zoe, who finally stood up after being quite for a few seconds.

“You’re not sleeping nude again, are you?” Gwen asked, not sure which answer to receive.

“Yep,” Zoe replied with a smile.  Gwen groaned slightly before slipping into the bed.  She would have to endure this a third time.

***

Gwen felt relieved to have completed the job with no further complications.  Now back at the inn, and sitting across from John who looked rather pleased.  Zoe had taken off to the market looking for anything they might need after sorting through their supplies.  She had proven quite adapt and taking care of it, at least better than Gwen had been.

“Ah, I knew I made the right choice in asking you for the job,” John said, handing over small bag of coins.

“The price seems like a lot of creds, not that I’m complaining, but how do you afford that?” Gwen asked.

“Make most of my money here in these big cities,” John replied.  “So I have to protect my returns.  Being robbed even once is a much greater concern even if I split it up.”

“I guess,” Gwen replied, adding the coins to her purse, a magic bag which was enhanced to carry more than what it showed. Many coin purses were like this one.

“Are you looking for another job?” John asked.

“Don’t know, probably head out someplace,” Gwen replied, not wanting to stay in any one place for too long.

“Well, if you head over to Setta, look up Hans, he runs a small business, security, always has jobs available, mention my mane and he’ll listen, been a good friend for many years,” John said, Gwen gave it some thought, realizing that it would be good to know people in such places.

“What type of jobs?” Gwen asked.

“Anything to do with security, people look towards him for many things, so the jobs can vary.  I usually hire from him, this year the person he sent wasn’t that good, bailed on me early on when learning about the ex-guards,” John said.  “But anything from guarding a person to a spot.  Never know what someone might consider valuable.”

Gwen agreed with that.  “I’d have to think about it though,’ she finally said.  Having a spot where she could get jobs might be great, but she had problems settling down in one spot for too long.

“Well, I’ll send him a message you might be around,” John said.  “Heard from Ben that you were attacked twice, on the first trip.  I understand the first attack, the second one on the way back makes no sense.  Ben had no idea if it was the same group or not.  He was stunned by a spell, or so he said.”

“It was, something about wanting revenge for spoiling the first attack,” Gwen replied, not quite lying, as Stephos did mention the first attack.  She saw no reason to tell him the real reason behind the second attack.

“And they knew that you’d return, so I can only assume that they had been told,” John said.  “I might have to switch tactics a bit, think of something new.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Gwen said, as a woman walked up to the table.

“A successful trip, my mercs had quite the positive compliments about you,” the woman said, looking at Gwen, who finally recognized the other merchant partner and took a second to remember the woman’s name.

“They were very professional as well,” Gwen replied back to Celia.

“Well, I try to hire the best,” Celia said.  “Where’s your friend?”

“Oh, getting ready to leave,” Gwen said.

“Already?  Shame,” Celia replied.  “Thought you were part of John’s group, want a job?”

“Not at the moment,” Gwen said, watching as Zoe walked into the inn carrying the few supplies with her.

“Ah, got everything,” Zoe said.

“Good,” Gwen said, standing.  “Well, if you excuse me, we need to be off, don’t want to wait too long before heading out, want to make the next town while there is still daylight. Might take your advice and head towards Setta.”

“A couple of days travel, but some good resting towns on the way,” John said.

“Just be sure not to get lost, it can take you out of the way,” Celia said.

“Don’t think they’ll have any problems,” John said.

Gwen took her leave, as she and Zoe went back to the room to pack and leave.

End part 3, continued in part 4

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