Month 1, Day 17, Sunday 9:15 p.m.
A trio exited the Morrows’ main warehouse near the docks, illuminated only by the crystals of the streetlamps.
Oliver waited to assure himself of their identities, then moved to intercept them with a couple men of his own. He recognized the slightly wide gaits of those who were more used to the pitch and roll of a ship’s deck than the steadiness of dry land. Even if the Morrows did know that they were surrounded and being watched, and were trying to trick him and his people into letting someone important escape, he doubted they would be good enough actors to fool him.
The short man at the front of the trio drew a battle wand as soon as Oliver stepped from the shadows, sinking into a fighting stance. His companions did the same.
Oliver’s wand was in his hand, but he didn’t lift it. “Captain Eliezer,” he greeted. “I mean you no harm.”
The man and his companions had just left a meeting to inspect the latest shipment of delivered goods with Lord Morrow. Captain Eliezer had, some time before, agreed to smuggle certain items for Oliver, but apparently didn’t recognize him by voice alone. “What is the meaning of this?” Eliezer demanded.
With a pop of suction, Oliver removed his mask.
Eliezer recognized him then, but did not seem comforted. “Lord Stag,” he said, his wand still pointed at Oliver. “This seems a rather inauspicious meeting.”
“Does it? I had hoped that wouldn’t be the case. You and I have mutual interests, after all.”
Eliezer’s eyes narrowed, his wand dropping slightly as he peered around into other dark shadows and past curtained windows, where more of the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack forces were gathered. He seemed to realize he stood little chance in an altercation, even with his backup. “I don’t suppose you’re also here to warn me off? No more work with the Morrows, if I know what’s good for me? Things seem to have taken a much more antagonistic turn since the last time I berthed in Gilbratha.”
Oliver smiled at that freely offered piece of information about Eliezer’s meeting with Lord Morrow, knowing it was deliberate. “No. That is not my purpose here tonight. You may deal with who you wish. However, you may have trouble completing future business with the association of people formerly known as the Morrows.”
“Soon to be formerly,” Oliver amended.
Eliezer squinted sun-wrinkled eyes at him. “You are quite confident.”
“I am extremely confident.”
Eliezer paused, assessing the shadows once more. “The majority of my business is with this ‘soon to be former’ group…”
Oliver shrugged loosely. “I’m aware, but don’t worry too much, my good man. There may be some transition pains, as I’m not sure my organization will need the same things as theirs did. You may need to take a few oaths of secrecy for the sake of our security measures, but rest assured that you will have continued business, no matter the name of those in charge. You have a reputation as the best smuggler in the city for a reason, after all.”
“Why the ambush in the middle of the night, then?”
Oliver smiled, not bothering to moderate the expression.
Eliezer tensed, unsettled.
“If I am correct, you haven’t taken any oaths of secrecy yet. I’m interested to know about the shipment they just received.”
Eliezer hesitated, but Oliver just kept smiling at him, and the older man gave in soon enough. “You’ll keep me out of this? I’m in the business of shipping, and that’s all. I’ll have no truck with your power struggles.”
Ten minutes later, Captain Eliezer left with his men, and Oliver knew more details about the internal layout of the building, the number of men within, and the weapons delivered in the shipment than his people had been able to gather with weeks of preparation.
“What a stroke of luck,” Oliver murmured, putting his mask back on.
He sent a couple of his men to tail the captain, just in case the man didn’t want to stay out of the power struggle as fully as he’d proclaimed.
Just a couple of minutes later, spark-shooting wands sent up thick showers of bright green and yellow sparks from high points all around the city. They were clearly visible against the dark night sky, and the Stags and the Nightmares launched their simultaneous, joint attack on a dozen-plus locations and high-value targets at once.
As Oliver and his men closed in on the Morrows’ building, everyone pulled out the battle potions that had been prepared. They only had a few protective bark-skin potions, so the enforcers who would be in the vanguard, and thus mostly likely to take spell-fire, had been assigned those. Everyone had a potion of diviner’s sight in their utility belts, specifically created by another alchemist to counteract the philtres of darkness that Siobhan had brewed for them over the last few months. They also had one-use mask artifacts that would protect against Siobhan’s philtres of stench, which had already proven their effectiveness.
A trio of overpowered concussive blast spells broke open the reinforced doorway, and the men beside it tossed in the philtres of darkness. Clouds of black, light-devouring particles exploded within as soon as the delicate vials shattered, accompanied by surprised, confused cries of alarm from those within.
Distant sounds of impact and screams from the left side of the warehouse told him the same was being done there.
The philtres of darkness were followed by philtres of stench, and the cries from within changed tone to include horror and disgust.
Satisfied that the enemy was mostly neutralized, Oliver gave the signal to enter, but before the vanguard could do so, a shimmering barrier popped to life over the doorway and shuttered windows.
Someone within had activated a building-wide ward.
Oliver raised his wand and tried a concussive blast. The ward rippled from the force, but held. He switched quickly through all the spells in his battle wand, but none penetrated. It made sense, as most wards were created to block at least the most common assault spells. Remembering Siobhan’s workaround for that, he tried to toss another vial of darkness in. It shattered against the ward, spilling a huge cloud of darkness out around the door and covering their group.
He could still see through the magical darkness, though things were greyscale and a little distorted under the effects of the diviner’s sight potion. It might have actually been a good thing, as it concealed them further from any enemies.
He picked up a rock off the street and tried that next. No luck.
He stepped closer and touched his pinky finger to the barrier, which was rippling and shimmering under similar attacks by the rest of the Verdant Stag soldiers. The ward didn’t repulse him, or dissolve his flesh, or anything truly nasty, but it didn’t let the finger through, either.
That was alright. They hadn’t come unprepared. Stronger, comprehensive-purpose wards could either be broken by an exact counter-spell or overpowered through brute force.
His people knew this, and had already started to barrage the ward with battle spells, hoping to bring it down through overwhelming power. That was wasteful—he’d paid for every charge of spells put into their battle wands—and who knew how long it would take?
“Stop!” he called. “Bring out the augers! One on each wall!”
One of the support team Stags rushed forward with the device. The auger was a drill artifact that he’d had imported from his home country, Osham. The drill itself was physical, a spiraling, razor-sharp piece of hardened metal, but its movement was powered with magical energy. This allowed more power and greater efficiency than a purely magical drilling spell. Osham used the drilling artifacts for mining and other difficult excavation, but he was sure they could be utilized in non-traditional ways as well.
The enforcers used a liquid stone potion to anchor the augers to the ground, then activated them. Silently, they began drilling into the ward that surrounded the building like a skin.
The ward rippled violently around the tip of the drill, which kept pressing inexorably deeper.
The clouds of darkness within began to dissipate one minute after they had been released, leaving the Morrows able to better see and navigate. People appeared on the edges of the roof above, shooting spells , arrows, and battle potions down at the anti-Morrow alliance without hesitation.
Oliver’s people quickly poured out large, half-dome barriers of liquid stone, which hardened enough to protect small groups from the weaker offensive spells. They shot back from behind the hastily created shields. Bright flashes with the colors of magic lit up the night, throwing ever-moving shadows about.
Oliver took out a fleetfoot potion, a wit-sharpening potion, and a bark skin potion, using all three in quick succession. Being well-supplied was one of the perks of being the leader. He flitted around, shooting spells at those above with much greater accuracy and avoiding their return attacks. He blasted one Morrow back, sliced deep into the chest of another, and tripped yet another as he was trying to escape.
That man fell off the edge of the roof, slamming into the ground below with a meaty crunch.
The Morrows had known something was coming, and this warehouse, where they brought most of the newly smuggled stock before redistributing it, had been well-protected.
But there were still more of the alliance members than there were Morrows, especially after the philtres of stench had done their job on those unlucky enough to be in the main warehouse area.
A few of his men made it to nearby rooftops, setting up liquid stone battlements to shoot from behind and negating the height advantage of those on top of the Morrow warehouse.
All the while, the augers drilled away, unperturbed.
Under such strain from multiple points, the ward dropped in only a couple of minutes, which seemed much longer than it really was. That was a fifth of the time even the most competent ward-breakers would have needed to bring down such a powerful barrier, and had required maybe a twentieth of the magical power that overwhelming the ward with spells would have taken.
Osham had its own problems, to be sure, but they didn’t stymie non-magical advancements for fear of disrupting the established industries. In Lenore, the results of so much industry being controlled by only thirteen powerful families became obvious. Many of them were impeding the advancements that could come from a freer market due to either complacency or fear of diluting their own power, and it wasn’t just hurting the lower classes, it was weakening the nation.
As soon as the ward dropped, their vanguard threw in new philtres of darkness, but some quick-thinking Morrows within managed to cover and stifle them before the light-absorbing clouds could fully expand, leaving only a dark grey haze over a good portion of the warehouse.
Oliver gritted his teeth and cursed, but there was nothing to be done about it. Delaying further would only put them in a worse position. The vanguard had been prepped for this, and the head of his enforcers didn’t even need Oliver’s command to enter.
Mr. Huntley had a shielding artifact of his own, which he, as the point man, held up in front of the door to shield others entering behind him, but it could only absorb a couple of spells before failing.
Oliver slipped in, moving quickly to circle around the edge of the room with the others. It smelled fishy inside, as if new seafood had been layered over old, crusty, and sometimes putrid remains, and there were still half-processed fish and sea creatures strewn about the tables and floor within.
The enforcers attacking from the left side of the building were entering too, but they had the cover of darkness.
Huntley absorbed a fireball, a stunning spell, and then a maliciously shaped spell that might have been a hemorrhaging curse. The foggy concussive blast spell that finally overpowered the artifact slammed Huntley into the side of the doorframe behind him. He bounced off and fell to the ground, clutching at his ribs.
One of the others dragged Huntley out, shoved a lung-sealing philtre down his throat just in case the broken ribs had punctured them, then sealed him in a quick layer of liquid stone to prevent him shifting around and causing further damage as they retreated with him toward the nearest medic station.
Oliver narrowly dodged a glowing piercing spell that gouged a deep wedge out of the stone wall behind him, then hopped over a puke-green spell that he didn’t recognize. He almost slipped on a slimy octopus tendril—which he was pretty sure someone had physically thrown at him—and would have fallen painfully if not for the fleetfoot potion. His eyes flitted about the large room, searching for dangers and the most important targets.
Toward the end of the room nearest him, farthest from both entrances, was the door to the other half of the warehouse. A tall, hefty man was crawling toward it, eyes and nose streaming with tears and snot, and vomit splattered down the front of his flashy red suit. Another large man in much less ostentatious clothing was trying to support him with one arm while waving around a battle wand in the other.
Oliver smirked. “Well, hello, Lord Morrow,” he murmured, his voice too low to be heard over the sounds of battle. He shot a stunning spell toward the duo.
The man with the wand, probably one of Lord Morrow’s personal guards or a high-ranking member of the gang, adroitly switched his wand’s output to a half-dome shield that sprung from the tip of the wand just in time to block Oliver’s sizzling red attack.
He shot back a concussive blast spell, but his aim was high.
Oliver lunged forward, throwing himself onto his hands and knees as the spell passed overhead, then springing back up to sprint toward them. The spell whumped into the wall behind him, shattering stone and blasting out shards that hit Oliver in the back, but not hard enough to injure him.
He was too close to completely avoid the next blast, which caught him in the arm with enough force to crack some of the bark armor and spin his entire body around. He didn’t resist, switching the output on his wand as he went through a full spin. He pointed the wand at Lord Morrow and his bodyguard as steadily as he could, time seeming to slow under the combined effects of the wit-sharpening potion and adrenaline. He stumbled to right himself, hunching down to brace as the third concussive blast exited the bodyguard’s wand.
He couldn’t dodge the next expanding, foggy blast, but he kept his wand up, activating the personal shield at the last possible moment.
The concussive blast threw him off his feet and wrenched his shoulder, but rather than the spell simply being absorbed by his shield spell, it bounced back at the enemy duo.
They weren’t prepared for that, and it caught them straight-on, slightly weakened but still more than enough to knock both of them off their feet, too.
He switched back to the stunning spell setting on his wand before they could get up or defend themselves, then shot both of them. Twice. Not to be vindictive, just to be sure.
Oliver climbed back to his feet and quickly took the bodyguard’s battle wand. As he was searching Lord Morrow for hidden artifacts or weapons that could be a problem when he woke, the hefty man jerked forward.
Oliver snapped back, barely fast enough to escape the crushing headbutt that Lord Morrow had tried to give his face.
Eyes wide beneath the mask, he punched Lord Morrow in the face before even taking the time to analyze the situation.
One of Oliver’s rings released a bright red pulse upon impact, and Lord Morrow fell back again, his eyebrows sizzling.
Oliver looked appreciatively at the ring artifact that held a pressure-triggered stunning spell. He was so distracted that he almost didn’t dodge the slicing spell that came from the side. He took out the Morrow that had sent it with an idle returned stunning spell, then looked back to the gang leader in front of him warily. Oliver was not a small man, but Lord Morrow was built like a bear, broad and with a layer of winter fat covering his muscles.
Oliver nudged the man with his foot.
He stomped down on the man’s knee.
That caused a frown, but Lord Morrow didn’t seem to wake or try to get away from the pain. The stunning spell didn’t put its victim into a coma or keep them from feeling, so a little response was normal under extreme stimulus, just like one might have when experiencing a nightmare.
Keeping his wand pointed toward the man’s neck just in case, Oliver crouched over him again, his freehand rifling through Lord Morrow’s clothes. He found the cause of the bearish man’s resilience soon enough.
Lord Morrow’s leather-lined jacket was a warding artifact. It must have absorbed the first two stunning spells that hit his body. He had only pretended to be unconscious to take Oliver by surprise.
Moving as quickly as he could while still being wary of the men before him, and the fighting around him, which was quickly dying down as the alliance gained control of the room, Oliver stripped Lord Morrow all the way down to his underpants, inspecting even them to make sure no more nasty surprises were lurking.
Then, he did the same with the bodyguard, who was actually unconscious. By the time he was finished, the other Morrows were also subdued, and his people were searching them, tying them up, and inspecting the rest of the warehouse. The wounded were being treated or taken to the nearest healer.
They had won.
This was one of the most important targets, but hopefully, the distant sounds of fighting throughout the city told a similar tale for the others.
In a single night, the Verdant Stags would go from a small, insignificant organization to controlling one of the largest sections of territory within Gilbratha.
Oliver laughed out loud at the triumph of it, what this meant for the Verdant Stag and all the people they would encompass. He was different from Lord Morrow, and things under his rule would be different. He wasn’t averse to the trappings of power and wealth, and the life that afforded, but it wasn’t his main goal. He felt happy just imagining all the good he could do. That particular feeling of satisfaction was hard to get anywhere else, and it made everything he had to do to achieve it worthwhile.
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