Several hours later, they were well on their way, enough miles down the road that the monastery wasn’t even in sight behind them anymore. Ventyr led the party, walking out in front, with the rhythmic tap of his staff conducting not only him, but the pace of the whole party. Minkus should have been captivated by the shrouded forest spanning off into the distance to the north. Fifty-foot elm and ash trees grew only yards apart, not a hundred feet off the road and for at least a mile beyond that, but the asura couldn’t seem to draw his attention away from the sylvari at the head of the group.
Ventyr was orderly, controlled, focused: all things Minkus had gathered since he’d met the soldier. But, there was something about the Sergeant today that itched at Minkus. “Penny,” he whispered, nudging the woman beside him. “You’ve known Ventyr longer than I have. Is something wrong with him? He doesn’t look— happy.”
“Happy?” Penny snickered. “Biggie, no one in Tyria is as happy as you are.”
Minkus frowned in thought, scratching his ear. “No— I— well, there are happy people in Tyria, but that’s not what I mean. He just— well, I haven’t seen him talk to anyone, really talk to us, since the garrison. Have you?”
Penny rolled her eyes, on the verge of replying when she paused, seeming to think about the asura’s words. “You know, Biggie, you might be right. Come to think of it, he didn’t tell me to watch my mouth once at that monk-house.”
The two walked on a moment more, watching the group’s leader in silence.
“Should we say something?” Minkus asked.
Penny sighed. “Yeah, fine. I’ll go see what’s bunching his panties. Hang on to this.” She handed Buck’s rein to Minkus and strode up toward her friend.
Minkus hung back, intending to give the two some space. Despite his efforts, though, his big ears still caught every word they said.
“Sergeant,” Penny said with a mock salute. “Crusader Arkayd reporting for duty, sir.”
Not changing his pace, Ventyr looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Hello, Penny.”
She dropped her arms to her side and walked a few strides with him, but it didn’t take long for her to crack. “OK, Carrot-stick, speak up. What’s eating you? Biggie’s concerned.”
“Nothing’s eating me, Penny,” he said without looking at her. His concentration rested heavily on the forest.
“Right,” she replied. “ Nothing’s wrong. Is that why you haven’t said more than five words in a row to anyone for the last day?”
He kept his pace and continued looking ahead as he replied. “This is a dangerous region, Penny. I’m keeping us and our cargo safe.”
“Our cargo?” she asked. “You mean my turrets?” He made no reply, turning his gaze to the south, up at the hills of Krytan Freeholds.
Minkus continued to slow his pace, still hoping to give them a bit of privacy for their conversation. As he did, Braxus caught up, sniffing the air as he passed by. “Crusader,” Minkus began, flagging him down and pointing ahead. “Maybe we should—”
“Hey.” Penny’s volume increased, drawing the attention of both the charr and asura. She’d grabbed Ventyr’s staff and brought him to a standstill. The rhythmic tapping stopped, and Ventyr turned to her with a raised eyebrow, neither releasing the staff nor pulling it away from her.
“What are you worried about, Penny?”
She let go and took a step back. “I— I don’t really know, but—”
“Scorch me!” Braxus bellowed, lunging forward between them. He drew a pair of axes as he slid to a stop, hunched low and poised for a fight. All eyes followed.
There was a pair of men now standing in the road not far beyond Braxus. The one on the right had the finer of the two outfits: black and vermilion boiled leather, still sporting something of a sheen. He had a gray sash tied around his waist, and on it hung a sword and a pistol. Arms across his chest, he stood, smirking arrogantly at the party. Looking more like a merchant than a thug, he was almost handsome, were it not for the scar running down the left side of his face. The same could not be said for the taller, almost gaunt man standing beside him with a rifle trained on Braxus’ face. He wore a long, sleeveless, brown coat that was more patchwork than leather, but his face was mostly covered by the wide brim of his hat. All that was visible was his beak of a nose and the edge of a scowl that crept out from behind the barrel of the rifle.
Ventyr stepped forward, laying a hand on Braxus’ shoulder as he passed. “Stand down. I’m sure these men mean us no harm.” He addressed the scarred man, who seemed to hold the authority. “Can we help you?”
The man with the rifle didn’t move, keeping his weapon armed and aimed. The scarred man uncrossed his arms, moving his hands to his hips as he grinned at the sylvari. “Indeed you can,” he said. “You can make our lives much easier and hand over all your valuables now, including weapons.” He nodded at Braxus.
Penny took a half step closer. “And why would we do that?”
“Sassy. I like that.” The man eyed her up and down. “But, to answer your question, depending on what we find, it might be valuable enough to pay off part of your ransom. You see, we’ll be taking you hostage now, and the queen might appreciate any discount she can get when paying to get you back. Besides,” he added with a shrug, “if you fight, we may accidentally kill you, and that’s not beneficial to anyone.”
Still wrapped around the dolyak’s rein, Minkus’ hands began to shake. Yes, Royston had taught him the fundamentals of fighting, but kidnapping and ransoms? He was not prepared for this.
“It doesn’t have to come to that,” Ventyr called back to the highwaymen. “We’re only merchants, of no value to anyone.”
“We’ll be the judge of that,” the scarred man replied. “And I’d stop there if I were you. You can’t see how many of my men have their eyes on you from the wood, but one wrong move— that’s all they want.”
Ventyr continued trying to broker peace, but his arguments weren’t working. Even from where Minkus stood, it was clear the Sergeant’s posture was growing rigid, tense. Braxus’ shoulders rose and fell with his heavy breathing, and Penny drew back the sides of her coat to make her pistols visible.
The three in front seemed to hold the men’s attentions, leaving Minkus and Jindel more or less unnoticed, though that was hardly any consolation for Minkus. He patted the dolyak to calm both of them, but it didn’t work. His hands continued to shake as he gripped the rein tighter.
Beside him, Jindel seemed to prepare herself for a fight, flexing her fingers as she watched her superior’s efforts. She glanced up the embankment and into the trees. Minkus followed her gaze but didn’t see anything other than the trees themselves. If there were additional bandits in those trees, he couldn’t see them, and it didn’t look like Jindel did either. He watched her slowly reach beneath the bag on her back, draw out a pistol, and line up a hipshot on the men in the road.
All at once, a shot rang out from the tree line and Jindel reeled, falling backward into the side of the dolyak. It charged forward wildly, pulling the rein away from Minkus and nearly running over Braxus and Penny as it sped off the road.
Minkus tried to gain his bearing, looking to his friends for guidance, when a thick fog rose from the ground and gathered around the travelers. It made it impossible for the shooters in the woods to get another clear shot, but it also left Minkus and Jindel isolated from their friends. He heard a series of rapid, heavy thuds that must have been Braxus, but they trailed off in the opposite direction, followed by the repeated clang of metal on metal. There seemed to be shots fired from within the fog somewhere, and he heard sounds of more people joining the blind fray as the very earth shook beneath them all. Minkus dropped to his knees beside Jindel, frantically taking in everything at once: the fog, the skirmish, and the wounded woman. Royston had trained him in both defense and healing a hundred times, but sitting there in the midst of something real, he couldn’t remember any of it. It felt like so many days at the College of Dynamics. Before he knew it, he was talking to himself. “What do I do?” he grunted. “Minkus, think. Smoke and sparks, think! What do I— what would Royston do?”
Taking a deep breath, he let the thoughts go and opened himself, casting a shimmering wall of reflection behind himself by pure instinct. The fog had hampered the bandits’ aim, but it hadn’t stopped them from trying. Now bullets ricocheted back into the trees instead of whistling past his ears.
He ripped a segment off the top flap of his pack with his still unsteady hands, knotting it up and pressing the burlap ball into Jindel’s hands. “Stay with me, Jindel,” he squeaked. “Stay with me and squeeze this when it hurts.”
She’d taken a bad blow to the shoulder from that first shot. Her coat, tunic, and flesh were all flayed open. Minkus breathed deeply a few more times before ripping back the clothing.
The bullet had clearly exited Jindel’s body, but not before breaking her collarbone and ripping through part of the joint. Almost panicking again, Minkus remembered the basics of healing: surrender yourself, see the patient healed, and respond first to the immediate need. He paused, opening himself again, and the immediate need became apparent: stop the bleeding. Pressing his hands into the open wounds on either side of her shoulder, he closed his eyes. Compassion filled Minkus to the edges and reached through his hands into Jindel. He envisioned her healed and felt the steady flow of magic as light and color began returning to the image. The hot blood began to coagulate.
After a minute, Minkus had finished; the wound was clotted, which would sustain her for the time being. He stood, not knowing what to do in the fog but certain he couldn’t sit there while the others defended him.
“Penny?” he called, reaching back for his sword. “Ventyr? Where are—” There was a sickening crack, and Minkus doubled over on the ground beside Jindel.
All went silent as Minkus drifted for a moment, only vaguely aware of the broad silhouette that dropped a warhammer to the earth and reached down toward him. The world faded once, twice, and it was gone.