Cathan silently returns from around the corner, and Jaycie catches a hint of concern on his face.
“I count at least eight of them. Fortified behind overturned tables,” whispers the elf.
Thelios, emitting a low growl, immediately reaches for his sword and begins to step forward.
“No, wait,” interrupts Alphonse, his eyes twinkling. “Allow me to use my words, and perhaps we can avoid more needless bloodshed.”
“You certain about that? Last time I suffered through one of your ‘speeches’ I’m pretty sure my ears bled,” Jaycie teases.
Alphonse simply grins and turns on his heel, gently clearing this throat. His voice rings out, echoing through the chambers, melodic but forceful with the perfect balance of sincerity and menace.
“You should know that we have defeated no less than a dozen of your companions, as well as several of the giant brutes. Whatever your employer is paying you, I doubt it is enough. We are more than capable of ending your lives today, but there may not be need for that. Walk away. Abandon your post. We require only the wizard, and no more.”
Jaycie raises an eyebrow at Alphonse, who returns with a charming wink. She rolls her eyes, but a creeping smile betrays her. He is charismatic, she’ll give him that.
After a minute, a shaky voice calls out from the other room, “Wha…what’s in it for us, then?”
Alphonse ponders for a moment, snaps his fingers and pulls a small, jingling pouch from his belt. He twiddles his fingers, sending a spectral hand to deliver the purse down the corridor.
“Fifty gold pieces to let us pass. Oh! And the bonus of keeping your lives, of course,” Alphonse adds with a calculated laugh.
“And this petty sum is supposed to convince us, eh?” The second voice is gruff and cocky.
Cathan lets out an impatient sigh, unfastening an even larger pouch from his pack. He darts forward and dexterously launches it into the room, causing a loud thump to resonate through the dungeon.
“An extra 250 gold for your troubles, gentlemen. All we ask is that you kindly show us the way to your leader,” Cathan yells. Alphonse purses his lips, clearly perturbed by the derailing of his negotiations.
“You’ve got yourselves a deal. You’ll find the one you’re looking for through the far door,” the gruff voice yells. Jaycie hears the shuffling of footsteps and murmurs, punctuated by the slamming of two doors. The party exchanges glances, their expressions a mixture of disbelief and relief.
Upon entering the room, Jaycie watches Cathan and Thelios hurriedly move the furniture to barricade the side doors, through which the bandits presumedly retreated. Alphonse chuckles and shakes his head.
“I do believe those doors open inwards, friends.”
Thelios drops the table he’s carrying and grumbles some infernal curses. He reaches into his backpack and produces a length of hemp rope. With Alphonse’s help he ties it to the two door handles, pulling it as taut as possible so as to seal in the bandits.
“Pretty clever,” Jaycie says. “Now can we get this over with? The humidity in here is making my hair frizz.”
The group carefully passes through the far door, entering a dark hallway. Thelios and Cathan take the lead, trying to move as quietly as possible, until the tiefling catches his foot on the uneven ground, stumbling forward into another intersecting passage.
“Who in the hells are you?!” shouts a voice, accompanied by more hollers.
“Brace yourselves,” Thelios roars.
The screams of imminent battle fill the corridors. Jaycie freezes while the others spring to action; despite all of her wizardry training and experience, she still isn’t accustomed to real life combat. Alphonse, however, diplomat or not, leaps forward with incredible initiative. With booming incantations and a flash of magic sparks, he paralyzes four of the six bandits advancing on the party.
“Well done!” says Cathan.
“I was going to do that,” mutters Thelios.
Alphonse withdraws back into the first room beside Jaycie. “What’d you think of that, Hart?” he says with another wink. Jaycie doesn’t even try to conceal her smile this time.
Jaycie spins around in time to see the side wooden doors splintering. With a snap, the hemp rope whips across the room as both doors burst open, allowing the bribed bandits to spill into the chamber, weapons raised.
One particularly mean looking thug rushes up to Jaycie. He jabs at her with a long spear, but she instinctively conjures a shield of force, causing the attack to glance off her ward. The thug follows up with a shield bash, clashing with her own shield. Jaycie digs her feet into the ground and pushes back with all her might, skidding against the wall until she is pinned. A final stab finds its mark, drawing blood from the wizard.
Jaycie cries out, searing pain shooting through her shoulder. “Al!” she shrieks, but out of the corner of her eye she sees that her comrade has his own trouble. Another bandit crashes into the bard with his shield, sending him off balance. With a perfectly aimed lunge, the bandit sinks his spear deep into Alphonse’s stomach.
Alphonse looks down at the weapon buried in his flesh. His face instantly pales and he shifts his gaze over to Jaycie. Eyes glossed over, the half-elf crumples to the ground.
“NO!” Jaycie screams. The bandit leans over Alphonse’s body, raising his spear high above his head and dropping it once more into the torso of the fallen bard. Alphonse lets out a sickening gurgle, spitting blood onto the stone floor. A crack of released energy sounds from the hallway where Cathan and Thelios wage their own battle, the paralyzed bandits now freed from Alphonse’s holding spell.
Jaycie’s heart pounds as she watches the other bandits close in. She’s cornered, with her friend dying by her side, and the only other two able members of her party outnumbered down the hall. The wizard squeezes her eyes shut and screams out in a culmination of panic.
Jaycie opens her eyes. Everything around her has frozen.
Think Jaycie. Think. There has to be a solution.
She thinks back to her days at the Minos Wizard Academy. The mantra of her Practical Abjuration professor pops into her head.
Observe. Assess. React.
Jaycie blinks and looks around, the bodies of the bandits paused in time around her. She has a problem. All she has to do is solve it.
Two…four…six…eight enemies. Proven conviction. Not easily intimidated. Quick, strong, and prepared to kill.
One felled ally. Two more allies in trouble down the hall.
Only confirmed exit across the room. 30 by 30 foot chamber. Low ceiling. Worked stone. Two side doors, wooden.
Time running out. Alphonse seconds away from death. Five, maybe six seconds at most…just enough time for one spell.
Jaycie takes a trembling breath, trying to focus. Her shoulder aches.
Kill the bandits. Cone of Cold? No…area of effect too narrow. Impede their advances. Watery Sphere? Too slow. Confusion? Too unreliable.
Protect Alphonse. Resilient Sphere? He’s bleeding out, he’ll die anyways. Group Teleportation? Nothing prepared…how could I not be prepared? I can only teleport myself.
NO. Not an option. How could I…wait…did he just blink?
The bandits begin to slowly creep forward, regaining their speed. Jaycie’s stomach drops, her blood turning to ice in her veins.
No. No! I’m not done thinking! I need more time!
Jaycie hears a choking gasp. Her eyes dart over to the body on the ground. Alphonse is dying. The bandit standing over her friend has raised his spear once again, preparing the fatal blow.
NO! GIVE ME TIME! I CAN SOLVE THIS!
“GET BACK!” Jaycie shrieks.
Her hands clutch the arcane focus hanging from her neck. Shimmering walls of force spring from the ground. Jaycie sculpts the wall around her foes, knocking Alphonse’s assailant backwards just as he brings down his weapon. Jaycie, panting and covered in a cold sweat, watches as the bandits angrily pound against the force wall. Her enemies are trapped, but the wall now blocks the exit.
“That should hold them,” Jaycie sighs.
Demonic shrieks emanate from down the hall, followed by pained cries that could only be Cathan and Thelios.
“We can’t win this!” she hears Thelios yell. Jaycie then recognizes the familiar incantations and dull pop of magic energy.
“No way…” Jaycie rushes to the door to peer down the hall. There is no sign of her companions. Thelios had teleported Cathan and himself away to safety. A torrent of fiendish spirits fills the hallway, the magic of evil clerics now focusing on her.
“No…no…no….” Jaycie backs away, stumbling over the body of Alphonse. He’s still breathing. She kneels down and places her hands over his wounds, trying to stanch the gushing blood.
“I…I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to solve this,” Jaycie whimpers. Her eyes well up as she grabs and cradles Alphonse’s head. His eyes focus on hers, dipping in and out of consciousness. He’s pleading. Jaycie squeezes Alphonse tightly, tears now streaming down her cheeks.
“Don’t worry Al. They won’t hurt you. Not while I’m here to protect you.”
Jaycie places her hands on his temples and the air around them begins to chill. Ice crystals form across Alphonse’s face as his skin turns a deep shade of blue. His breathing stops.
“Get her!” screams a man dressed in dark robes, who has just appeared in the hall. The angry spirits rush towards Jaycie, but in a blink she vanishes, reappearing on the other side of the wall of force.
She runs until she can’t breathe, and then continues to run. Outside the air is damp and cool. Cathan and Thelios are lying on the ground some distance from the cave, and Jaycie collapses as she approaches them. Gasping for air between sobs, she stares down at her trembling hands, which are still covered in cold blood.