Devran’s heart was stuck on his throat as he observed the surroundings. Not the camp devoid of life, but the woods further back. Had they been discovered by Skanler and this was a trap? No. The former could be true, but the latter definitely wasn't, else the trap would be sprung before they arrived, while they were too engrossed by Samn’s inane jokes.
He took a deep breath, followed by another. If they hadn’t been discovered, and this wasn’t a trap, then where were his scouts?
Looking past the trampled campfire and slashed tents, was his answer. Braton, Samn and two other men worked on digging up the recently disturbed earth. He had every suspicion that that was his men’s resting place.
But how did it happen? Seimon was in charge of this camp, and he wouldn’t let himself get surprised by a squad of Crusaders. The surroundings also showed no signs of a large group passing through.
If not a large group, then a single individual. Either a Paladin or a Warlock could’ve made short work of this outpost. But finding someone like that around these parts was unlikely at best, which was why his parents didn’t worry when setting up the outpost.
“Devran!” Samn called out after he was done digging up the hole. Hopefully, the answers he sought would be there.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the hole was a mass grave. The bodies had started to decompose, particularly the Fighters. Their skin had started to loosen and the muscles stiffen. In a couple more days, the bloating and putrefaction would begin.
Although dead, the Crusaders could be identified by how much slower the decay progressed. Ignoring the wounds, most looked as if they were simply sleeping.
Speaking of wounds…
Devran knelt down to better examine the bodies. Most of them had been killed by a single slash to the neck, except for two Fighters. One took an arrow to his chest, while the other had an arrow shaft sticking out of her forehead.
So it definitely wasn’t a Warlock, but something was odd. Why did the killer use a bow and arrow alongside a blade? Furthermore, the arrows stopped at the Fighter’s bodies instead of piercing through.
“A Fighter shot these arrows,” Devran spoke out, “but the rest were killed by either a Paladin or Crusaders. Given how similar the fatal wounds are, I’m betting on the former.”
“So, we’re looking for a Fighter, a Paladin and some wild beast,” Samn spoke besides a Crusader’s body. From the full salt and pepper beard, Devran knew it to be Seimon.
This pained Devran more than any of the other dead ones. Seimon was the one who came up with the plan to rescue his parents. If not for him, they would both be dead, or worse, still imprisoned by Skanler.
Similar to the others, he also died from a slash to the neck. But unlike them, he also had two large gashes that ran in parallel from the back of the head, through the left ear and all the way to the cheek. Unlike the clean slash through the neck, these were more irregular, as if they tore through the skin instead of slicing. Claw marks, but what sort of beast only has two claws in their paws?
Besides a few more claw marks, Seimon’s yellowed shirt was also soaked red from a large bite on his shoulder.
“Any idea of what beast it is?” Devran turned to Braton who was inspecting the only other Crusader with such marks.
“It wasn’t a beast. I’m sure you’ve noticed the two claws, but look at this bite mark,” Braton lifted the dead man’s arm to display the wound.
Devran didn’t want to imagine what could have such a bite. The teeth were completely irregular, with no trace of symmetry. It had more than one row of teeth in some spots, while in others it had none whatsoever. Furthermore, flat and pointed ones were mixed seemingly at random.
“I’ve seen this before, it’s the work of a Little Imp. A fiendish… thing, created with dark element magic. We’re talking of either an Archmage or a Warlock.”
“Fucking hell,” Devran cursed. The more he investigated, the less he understood what happened here.
“And it gets worse,” Samn declared. “Whoever they were, they looted the place. Everything is gone. Letters, maps, weapons, coins. Even Seimon’s Honour Dagger is missing.”
That was a problem. Those letters were encoded, written in the old tongue, but they still contained critical information about his parents' activities. As for Seimon’s Dagger, it had a symbolic and emotional value attached to it. Devran had to get them back fast.
“Alright, we can assume there were no Warlocks or they could have done it by themselves. And we can also discard the Paladins; they wouldn’t need the spellcasters. So, we’re talking of at least one Fighter, one Crusader and one Archmage. What else do we know?”
Braton was the one to break the silence. “They took everything. I mean, letters and maps were to be expected, and any coin is worth taking, but the weapons? They are too cumbersome for what they are worth.”
“That’s right. Doing that means they must be starved for coins, or at least that they can’t afford to ignore something of value. Furthermore, Seimon told me he and his men had been hunting around here and collecting some trophies. Did anyone find those?” There was a general shaking of heads around Devran. “Then we can assume they also took it, likely for coin too. That’s good, so we can assume this wasn’t Skanler’s doing. If there’s one thing the bastard does right is making sure his men are well paid.”
It was the lesser of two evils. If this was done by the Earl’s men, it could mean that he had access to the ins and outs of his parents' operations.
“There’s also the mass grave. The only reason to bury the bodies is to prevent ghouls from appearing, so we can assume they care about what happens here in the forest.”
“Someone hiding around here, perhaps?”
“Maybe, but it could also be some local nobles protecting their property, or even some overzealous huntsman hiring help. Greenflower is the closest town to here, but I doubt that old man Selter would be able to plan this. But for the sake of turning every stone,” Devran turned to Braton, “does Greenflower even have a huntsman?”
“Huntswoman, actually. Never met her, but she seems to be one scary looking desert woman from what I gathered.”
“Desert woman?” Devran recalled the one who gave him directions to Greenflower. She did happen to be carrying a bow and arrow. “Woman of few words, carries two swords, and is accompanied by a half-bred boy?”
“Actually, yeah. Have you met her?”
“That I did. Samn, before reaching Greenflower, remember that woman who pointed us to town? The child must have shot the arrows, while she took care of the rest.”
Samn scratched the back of his bald head. “I mean, not that I doubt you, but how could a single Crusader do this all by herself?”
“By not being just a Crusader, that’s how. What if she was also an Archmage? Think about it; the boy stands guard while she chants her spell. When it’s done, she rushes into the camp and summons those Little Imps.”
“Sure, but even catching them by surprise, I can’t imagine how she could beat five Crusaders and double that in Fighters by herself.”
“That, my dear friend, is because the only strategy you understand is to keep attacking until the other side dies. No, we’re dealing with someone smarter.” Devran pointed to the center of the camp, “Instead of immediately attacking, she took advantage of the initial confusion to kick and stomp the campfire. If she’s an umbramancer, then she must know a spell to see in the dark, while Seimon and his men could do absolutely nothing.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch.”
“Yes, it is,” Braton added, “but it may also be our only lead to avenging Seimon and his men as well as recovering what they gathered. Unfortunately, she might have handed everything to the baron.”
“Maybe not, she might as well have kept it all to herself, and if so, what are we waiting here for? Let’s go find that woman.”
“Have you learned nothing from this conversation? If the huntswoman is truly responsible for this, then she will also be able to deal with us.”
“She had the element of surprise here; next time will be different. Plus, we will bring some triotium in case she’s really a spellcaster.”
“That’s an excellent idea. If you know where we can find some, then by all means.”
Sensing another pointless argument sprouting, Devran stepped in. “We’re not going after her.”
“We’re not going after her, at least not by ourselves. I’m not taking any chances, we’ve already lost too many people as it is. We need a Paladin. My father is a couple of days away. I’ll go to him and ask him to come. Meanwhile,” he turned to Braton, “I want you to take some men and return to Greenflower. Gather whatever you can find about this woman, but be discreet. If she is the culprit, the last thing we want is her running away.”
Umbramancer: A spellcaster with an affinity towards dark element magic.