The Drawing of Three

Chapter Three - Part 4

Ambush!

[We pick up the action here after a live session. The party has been ambushed by a large band of black-clad assailants. They are halfway through the battle.]

Jake grips the reins of his mount between his teeth, keeping both hands free to work their deadly business. Now clear of the cloying smoke, the gunslinger takes a moment to orient himself on the field of battle.

A lazy blanket of thick grey smoke covers the ground ahead of him, obscuring his line of sight up the road. He can barely make out the two ambushers who were attacking him ghosting through the fog. The man that Jake knocked flat struggles to regain his feet, but is suddenly tackled by Linus’ spirit bursting from the stand of burning pines on the left flank. The remaining enemy retreats into the smoke as the fire dog tears his companion limb from limb its cruel fangs.

The summoner stands up the hill to his right, flinging gouts of flame downrange from his bare hands. Death screams can be heard up the road where Kelraji and his dark elf companion charged ahead, their swirling melee now engulfed in even more of the caustic smoke.

Two of his own hold their ground behind him, laying down controlled volleys from their semi-automatic rifles. He glances back to see that the rear of the convoy has been covered in smoke as well, where the sounds of another desperate hand-to-hand combat can be heard.

Jake’s arm is numb and unresponsive where one of the martial artists struck him as he was kiting away, and his head continues to reel from the magic-stifling effects of the cursed haze.

Jake wheels, trying to take in the chaos of combat around him. Too much is happening all at once, and his vision narrows; he must trust Linus and Kelraji to hold the right flank as he tries to rescue their vanguard. Henry and Arthur are his responsibility, and he must ensure their protection.

‘Hile! Hile! To me, gunslingers, to me!’, the warcry of his Order breaks loose from his lips and he turns in his saddle, slapping the Old Army back into its sheath. Oathkeeper rises in his left hand, the wooden handle warm in his palm, and he mentally recites the gun’s Oath, locking his eyes on the last soldier standing in the road. He raises the weapon and fires a single round.

A young man’s voice sounds in Jake’s ear as he pulls the Oathgun’s trigger. “As three we came, but one remains—a gunslinger’s life is frail. For Roland, hark my steel.”

The cannon bucks in his grip, lifting the black-clad foe from his feet and blowing his chest apart in a welter of gore. Incredibly, his body can still be seen writhing with life through the smoke. The revolver gravitates toward the downed man, dragged in Jake’s hand as if it were a compass-needle drawn by some great magnet.

Kelraji hears the round discharge, expecting two, and considers glancing back to check on his companion. He has his own problems. His mind feels slow, dull. His feet heavy, his eyes momentarily lose focus. He considers flight, attempting to escape the fog. Deciding against it, he struggles to adapt his usual spinning style to lizard-back. With Tis so close, he can hardly play cowboy and lasso a man, but he manages to adapt a wider and taller practice technique to the unique challenges posed by the scene. He settles on his choice, and attempts to pay homage to his chosen.

The whip lashes at the man between Tis and himself, Kelraji’s face tight in a mask of concentration. If all goes well, he should be able to leave the smoke momentarily, driving over the offered man.

Kelraji spurs his dragon mount into the enveloping cloud of unnatural smoke. He spots an opponent and begins to spin his vajra above his head, but the exotic weapon focus feels heavy and unresponsive in his grip. Even more troubling, the adept himself feels out of sync with his latent powers, as if they were being leeched away by the very air around him.

He pushes the negative effects from his mind and focuses on the man’s neck, lashing out with a horizontal sweep. The opponent squats low, easily avoiding the deadly monowire, then leaps forward with a flying kick. Kelraji twists in his saddle, barely avoiding the strike, and manages to fend the martial artist away with a few lashes of his whip.

Two more of the faceless warriors charge out of the smoke at the adept, poising to attack. Tis emerges behind one of them, riding the hapless man down from the back of his gilded steed. The third fighter gets through to Kelraji, but the monk meets him with shield raised. The enemy rains a flurry of blows on the face of his kite shield, but fails to penetrate the adept’s defenses.

Linus flinches as yet another smoke grenade detonates behind him, this one further obscuring the bridge at the rear of the procession. He can see little more back there than a thick wall of gray smoke. Up the road, Linus can just barely make out the back of his Indian companion through the fog, locked in combat with even more of the shadowy figures. The casing of the summoner’s lighter burns his fingers, and what feels like a trickle of blood begins to leak from his nose as he contemplates his next move.

Linus searches around him for targets. Jake and Kelraji have been so effective, and the battlefield now choked with so much smoke, that he doesn’t know where his nearest target might be.

The summoner raises his lighter and gathers another ball of flame into his open palm as he watches over Kelraji’s shoulder for a clean shot, but between the fighting and the smoke he quickly decides against risking the friendly fire.

Instead, Linus etches a levitation rune into the grass at his feet, holding the impossibly complex diagram in his mind and channeling a controlled stream of mana through it. The spell goes off without a hitch, distorting the frequency of his body’s own gravitational waves to effectively reverse his attraction to the earth. He pauses to consider the implications of astral space upon Einstein’s theory of general relativity as his feet lift from the soil. Gravity is no constant, old man.

The mage accelerates steadily into the air, the mid-level spell pushing him at something like a slow run. He shakes off his errant grad student thoughts and focuses on the war scene devolving beneath his feet. The man with the revolvers sits directly below him, the pace of his volleys dropping a beat as his targets thin. Linus’ fire spirit leaps forward into the smoke to finish Jake’s quarry, ending his life with a wet crunch. A moment later, the spirit begins to howl in pain, the tea-kettle whistle of its voice echoing in the summoner’s mind.

The dwarf and the volunteer merc hold their positions at the gunslinger’s back, their rifles silent. Although the clamor of battle continues to rage from the front of the convoy, the fight taking place on the bridge behind them has quieted to barely a scuffle.

Jake blasts the man in the road clear off his feet and the flaming hound is on him in a beat, tearing at flesh even as it cooks in its jaws. Jake slips one leg over his mount and sheathes Oathkeeper. He grabs his scattergun out of his saddlebags and racks the slide, approaching Russ and Arthur’s lizards carefully. He listens for movement in the smoke, peering into it and calling, “Henry?!”

The oathgun ceases to tug at Jake’s grip as the fire beast finishes his target, clearing the immediate field. The gunslinger listens as he readies his longarm, poised to shoot down anyone else that stands in his way.

The fire spirit retreats out of the smoke as rapidly as it leapt in, its howls slowing to a steady pant as it collects itself on the dirt road. The apparition gazes intently into the puffs of smoke strewn about the battlefield, clearly perceiving more enemies, but weighing the price of the anti-magic effect against delaying his master’s orders.

The fire spirit glances up at Linus, as if petitioning for new terms of service before continuing to attack into the substance.

Jake can hear noises coming from the denser smoke at the rear, but it isn’t much—heavy breathing, some muted grunts and expletives, and footsteps along with a possible dragging sound. He couldn’t be certain without taking a closer listen, but it felt at first pass like the sounds were growing quieter.

SHIT!” Jake realizes what’s going on. The man with the collar had sparked his suspicions, but he had assumed the three Chosen were their targets. ‘How foolish I’ve been! If we lose the ka-mai…

A cold fear breaks across his brow like a wave. ‘The dream. The dream warned me of this. I must not let what happened to that Jake come to pass.’

“Russ! To me!” He will need the dwarf’s trailcraft. The beard won’t hurt, either. He charges into the smoke without another thought.

The evil smoke closes once more around Jake, and the sickening feeling that he has lost touch with his source of strength washes over him once more. All of a sudden, his reflexes slow, his senses dull, and all of the subtler qualities that set apart gunslinger from man disappear like the face of the moon on a cloudy night.

Jake peers through the smoke, now able to make out the stone bridge they had crossed before the ambush. The creek running beneath it is old, cutting a deep gouge into the earth about two meters below the bridge and the lay of the land. Both banks are steep and covered with loose rocks. Though he does not see his companions or any of the attackers, he can hear more grunts and scuffling coming from the murky haze beneath the bridge.

Jake covers his mouth with one arm, coughing, and looks over the edge of the bridge to the water below. It’s a short drop. Gripping his shotgun in one hand, he vaults over the lip and hopes he is not too late.

Jake’s boots splash into the creek bed, and he stumbles forward a half-step to catch himself before looking up. He is suddenly face-to-face with three of the black-clad attackers, their goggled eyes glowing like red orbs in the murk of smoke and shade beneath the stone bridge.

All three are sitting astride monocycles in the shallow water, groundcraft built like a normal hog but with one massive wheel encircling the rider instead of the traditional two. Two of the riders have unconscious figures slung over their laps, and two more of the vehicles stand unused on one bank of the creek, half-covered by a shimmering tarp which has been hastily thrown back.

Jake raises the barrel of Remington 990 almost without thinking, but pauses. The instinctive killer’s heart in him rises, but he shoves it aside long enough to look at the bikers’ captives, trying to see which one is Henry.

Even without his adept powers, Jake’s keen eyes easily distinguish Henry’s camouflaged backside from the slave’s britches of tattered cloth.

The three demon-eyed riders power up their engines with an electric whir. Blue sparks arc from the rims of the nearest bike, lighting up the smoke with an eerie pallor.

Jake levels his shotgun at the rider carrying Henry across his lap, blasting a slug from the semi-automatic weapon straight at the man’s back.

The gunslinger does his best to take a firing stance on the moss-slick creek bed and catches his breath long enough to squeeze off a single round, but the slug goes wide, cracking off the stones of the bridge overhead with a flash of sparks.

The bikers peel out, throwing up sprays of water and pebbles as they rush past him. The last rider attempts to clothesline Jake as he charges by, but Jake ducks his head and leans into the blow, deflecting the man’s outstretched arm and avoiding any serious harm. He turns to watch the three motorcycles accelerate out of the smoke, leaving him alone beneath the bridge. His boots begin to fill with cold water.

Linus watches his quick-shooting companion charge into the smoke at the back of their line and waits anxiously for further results. He hears a splash, then the crash of a big gun amplified and distorted by the acoustic properties of the bridge followed by the sprang of a ricocheting bullet. Suddenly, the air is filled with the hornet’s nest whine of electromechanical engines as three monocycles burst from the smoke beneath the bridge and begin to ride along the creekbed, following it south. They are moving perhaps 15 miles-per-hour and accelerating steadily.

The summoner watches them with disbelief from his vantage point above the lower-level trees. The bodies of the vehicles are like motorcycles, but with a single large wheel circumscribing the rider and chassis. As the smoke dissipates from the bikes in clinging tendrils, he can see that all three are ridden by the black-clad, red-goggled assailants, and is surprised to note that two of them have unconscious bodies slung across their laps.

The antiquated rifle of their dwarven companion cracks once, sending its empty magazine into the air with a distinctive ping. He hits the trailing rider, the only one without a second passenger, tearing a wet gib of meat from the man’s shoulder. The bike teeters on its axis from the impact, but seems to right itself as if it were a giant spinning top.

Linus’ hound gallops after the bikers, eager to be able to carry out his directive once more. The loping spirit easily matches pace with the accelerating bikers, spewing a jet of flame from its mouth as it leaps over Russ and the mercenary. The beleaguered rearguard rider pitches sideways to avoid the attack, barely dodging the licking fire. The blast sends up a cloud of steam from the creek bed and sets a few tufts of grass alight.

At the front of the now-scattered convoy, Tis pushes in to reinforce Kelraji’s flank, chopping down at one of the attackers with his saber. The blade strikes true but fails to penetrate the man’s modern armor, cutting ineffectually over the plate-enforced camo suit.

Kelraji hears only the rattle of gunfire and the roar of flame, though the buzz of the monocycle’s engines draw his attention for a split second before his assailants charge in for another attack. He deflects a punishing kick from the man on his left with the flat of his shield while narrowly avoiding a jabbing fist from the other to his right. The adept lifts his foot from the stirrup and delivers a warding kick to the one on his right, catching his attacker in the chest and sending him somersaulting backwards to keep his feet. Even in his dulled state, Kelraji sees the opening in his opponent’s defenses as he tumbles away, exposing his back for a beat as he springs off the ground with outstretched hands.

Kelraji notices the distant fray, but quiets his mind, forcing out the outside thoughts. He tries to disregard the impudence of his attackers in order to chase down the fleeing men, but his anger and his fury do not allow the thought to catch.

He remembers the man who thought he could break through his shield, attempting to locate and flay the man before he can recover, hoping to finish the melee quickly enough to destroy all those who would oppose. Should they lose the two men, the enemy will lose just as many.

He lashes out at the poor man, speaking softly but audibly in Hindi as he does so.

“What is taken is returned as the wheel turns.”

Kelraji brings his monowhip around his head and slashes through his opponent’s torso as tries to backflip away, cleaving through armor and flesh with equal ease. The hapless man separates cleanly at the waist, his backward momentum carrying both halves of his body into the obfuscating smoke where they come to rest out of sight with two wet thuds.

The mercenary sniper shoulders her rifle and lays down two shots with deadly precision, leading her marks like a shooter at the range. The first round finally overwhelms the rear rider’s evasive tactics, punching through his gut before he has a chance to swerve. His dead weight pulls the gyroscopic bike off center, sending man and machine tumbling over the rocky creek bed. Her second shot finds another one of the riders, blowing a smoking hole in his back. Despite his second passenger and the gouge in his back, the wounded rider manages to keep his bike upright.

Linus watches the remaining two monocycles retreat down the creek, their over-sized tires throwing up fans of water as they continue to accelerate. His feet hang some 15 meters above the earth, and rising. The summoner can feel his spirit’s presence in his mind as it slavers to burn the last two bikes to cinders.

Linus continues to float upwards. The enemies may be mostly dead, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to let the smoke or the slavers get him with his guard down.

The spirit’s fury and aggression is present in his mind, too. He attempts to quench it. “Follow, do not attack,” He implores. “Those men on their laps are ours… do not let them out of your sight”

Linus looks at the cycles, trying to identify their power source. He can’t simply blast the vehicles, now that the slavers have their quarry on board. Perhaps, though, he can take out the engine, bringing them to a halt. Kelraji will certainly finish them off, then.

Linus pushes his glasses up his nose and squints after the bikers as they ride past his position, trying to make sense of their layouts. He thinks back to his embarrassing days in undergrad riding his roomie’s electric Dodge Scoot to class—though it usually just ran juice from the public grid, it did have a removable battery pack in case of off-grid traveling. He spots a rectangular outline on the side of the bike’s chassis beneath the driver’s seat with a handle protruding outwards. If Linus was a betting man, he would wager a good tug on that handle would pull the battery out of the bike, hopefully incapacitating it.

His fire hound heeds his command with a woof of disappointment and continues after the bikes, easily keeping pace alongside them, nipping at their oversized tires but clearly unwillingly to run through the creek.

Jake gasps for breath in the smoke beneath the bridge as his socks become inundated with the silty creek water. He can just barely make out the monocycles driving away from him through the haze.

The gunslinger runs through the smoke heedlessly, pumping the rack of his shotgun and firing as fast as he can at the nearest biker. Saving Eddie doesn’t mean a thing if they all get away; the risk of hitting one of the captives is small enough.

A voice in the back of his head: ‘No, not Eddie. This is another…’ It doesn’t matter. He focuses on the line between his weapon and target.

Jake bursts from the smoke cloud, firing his Remington from the hip as he splashes through the creek after the fleeing bikers. The first blast clips the monocycle’s tire, causing the bike to skew sideways, but the rider quickly recovers. What’s left of Jake’s higher cognitive functions finds it odd that the tire does not deflate after being hit, but the mystery becomes moot as his volleying shot tears the rider’s arm from its socket, ending his life.

The bike wobbles like a top before toppling to one side, spilling its passengers onto the creek’s right-hand embankment before bouncing to a stop like an innertube rolled down a hill. Jake’s eyes, keen once more now that he is clear of the smoke, spot Henry’s unconscious form ragdolling to a graceless stop some fifteen meters ahead of him at the edge of the creek.

Kelraji and Tis close on their remaining enemy, though even in the face of certain death their opponent does not falter. The blademaster feints a low sweep, drawing their quarry’s attention and causing him to leap awkwardly into the air. Kelraji takes advantage of the distraction, lashing out to encircle his opponent’s neck with his monowire. A grin crosses his lips as he pulls the deadly strand free, lopping the last man’s head off with a spray of gore.

The adept pulls his lizard mount about and spurs it out of the smoke after the sounds of the retreating engines. As he clears the smoke, Kel too feels his awakened faculties returning, as well as the bloodthirsty presence of the weapon focus in his hand. He sees that their ambush defense has shifted to a pursuit while he was stuck in, as both the cursed fire hound and the gunslinger are charging after a fleeing monocycle, though for what reason he cannot tell. He hears the slapping gallop of Tis’ lizard steed falling in behind him.

High up in the trees, Linus pumps his fist in triumph as Jake downs the second to last biker. He recognizes Henry’s unconscious form on the bank of the creek, and quickly deduces that the other kidnapped man must be Arthur. The dwarf and sniper below him open fire on the last enemy, and one of their shots hits home with a puff of blood, though the rider keeps his saddle despite the injury. His spirit continues to pursue, but from his high vantage he can tell that neither the hound, nor Kelraji and Tis on their mounts, will be able to keep pace with the vehicle for long.

Their very last foe leans forward, gunning his bike for all its worth and accelerating with alarming speed. He veers right, leaving the trail of the creek to avoid meeting Kelraji and Tis as they ride to intercept him. Linus’ heart sinks as he realizes that they may have partially emancipated Arthur Glass only to get him abducted by some other unknown foe. This may be his last chance to save the poor slave before rider and captive disappear into the surrounding woodland.

Linus reaches out across space. Holding his hand out in front of him, he closes an astral projection of his physical limb around what he hopes is the handle of the cycle’s battery. With a projection of his other hand, he feels around the area for a catch or release mechanism. Hopeful that the battery’s connections will bring the cycle to a stop, he pulls back hard on the handle, throwing himself backward in space.

If they are tremendously lucky, they may even acquire some cycles for their efforts.

Linus creates a pair of psychokinetic hands with a simple exertion of his magical faculties, and reaches out to grasp the retreating monocycle’s battery pack. He feels his left hand close around the handle as he gropes around desperately for a latch or release mechanism, trusting his sense of touch as the bike is too far away to search for the release by sight.

His fingers come across an indentation next to the crease of the battery, and he pushes down on it before yanking back on the handle with all his might. To his dismay, the battery doesn’t budge, and Newton’s law sends him tumbling backwards through space as he loses his ethereal grip. He falls several feet through space as his break in concentration disrupts his levitation spell, but the wily summoner manages to catch himself on a nearby branch.

Jake watches the last bike accelerate away from them with mounting dismay, though he is visibly relieved to have saved Henry at the least.

Jake guesses that the biker is almost out of small-arms range. He lowers the shotgun, draws his father’s revolver carefully and deliberately, and squeezes off the round in the last chamber, hoping for Arthur’s sake that his magical skill with the weapon has fully returned.

Jake languishes in the adrenal crawl of the gunslinger’s battle haze, the return of his adept powers that much sweeter in light of their recent absence. Time stops as he pulls the trigger, the hard caliber revolver bucking in his grip as if it were some living thing. He does not even register surprise as he watches the last of the riders crumple over in pain and tumble from the saddle.

The monocycle wobbles madly before losing traction, throwing the unconscious Arthur free from its deadly tumble. The unarmored slave’s frail body balls up as it rolls before coming painfully to rest at the foot of a moss-covered stump.

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Crusher

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