Balanced

A simple tale of a man on a mission to carry out his god's will. Trust and assumption are key.

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1. The mercenaries

            An armored boot sank into the mud; moments later, the boot was removed, leaving behind a footprint rapidly filling with water seeping from the soft earth. Five more sets of footprints soon followed the first; in all, six men crossed the swampy terrain. Each of the men was garbed in shoddily kept steel plate armor, minus the helm. The four-pointed star of Saradomin lay scratched into the left shoulders of each set of plate armor, thus marking their denominations. As far as weaponry went, each man carried a steel weapon of his preference: three carried long swords in addition to kite shields, two carried battleaxes with square shields, while the man in the lead, presumably the leader, carried a two-handed broadsword. Judging by their overall appearance, the men were likely mercenaries employed by followers of Saradomin.

            “I hate this bleedin’ swamp,” the leader spoke, turning his head and spitting into the mud. “Leave it ter a Zamorakian ter hide out inna swamp. Probably ‘cause that Morty place over that sparkly river where all them Zamorakians live got a big swamp. Course Lumbridge got a damn swamp too. Damn Zamorakian.”

            “Then why don’t we just leave the damn fool?” one of the sword-bearing men spoke up. “Not like this is a real job or anything. Sure, he stole a few coins, but we can make that back faster by ignoring him and getting on with our jobs. And it means we can get out of this thrice-damned swamp.”

            “It ain’t about the gold,” the leader growled, looking back to his men. “It’s the prin… prin… idea of the thing. We gone and trusted him, and he stole from us, and turned out ter be a Zamorak feller. We ain’t cowards, and we gonna look like cowards if we don’t hunt him down and stick his head on a spear. So that’s what we gonna do, and if we gotta go through a swamp to do it then that’s what we gonna do.”

            “Could have at least brought an archer along…” the sword-wielder muttered, frowning lightly. “Ground’s not good for running at people, and I don’t like assuming we can just run up and cut him down. Zamorakians are crafty. Even if he’s a Zamorakian.”

            “I told you, we ain’t cowards, and shooting at him is coward fight,” the leader retorted, turning his head to look forward again with a look of deep anger. “And even if it weren’t a coward fight, it wouldn’t feel good ‘nough. This maggot stole from us, so we gonna get close an’ personal if it the last thing we do. I’m gonna make him beg. And then when he’s done beggin’ fer his life, I’ll lop his head clean off.”

            The leader grew quiet, his eyes narrowing in thought. Apparently deciding the matter was not worth pursuing farther, the other man grew quiet, shifting his focus to navigating through the swamp. The entire affair had begun late at night several days ago. After retrieving a stolen amulet and thus completing the focus their latest job, the mercenaries set up camp in the woods north of Falador, having decided they would be unable to reach the white city before the gates closed for the night. The matter of the nightly watch had just been settled and food and drink was passed about the campfire while the leader went over the plans for a larger job he accepted a day prior.

            “Oi, Jeb,” one the men said to the leader after swallowing a mouthful of beer, the man being the one who would suggest forgetting about hunting down a Zamorakian through the swamps of Lumbridge in the future. “We really need to get ourselves some helmets. One of these days we’re gonna get shot at by some archers, and if we don’t have any helmets then we’re not all gonna survive it.”

            “We ain’t gettin’ helmets ‘til we better known,” Jeb replied, frowning somewhat sternly. “We go marchin about with helmets on and they ain’t gonna know our faces. And if they ain’t know our faces, then we ain’t gettin’ ‘smany jobs as we should. We get some helmets once we known ‘round these parts as good mercs. ‘Til then we show our faces.”

            “Bah, fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn yah if one of us gets an arrow to the face,” the man said, taking a swig of his beer. “Anyway, watcha looking over this time? Not like you to act all secretive about a new job.”

            “That’s ‘cause I got us a big ‘un this time,” Jeb said proudly, crossing his arms. “A big important ‘un. This ‘un ‘ll get us well known fer sure. See, there’s some Zamorakian cult all holed up out inna woods, an’ we gonna be the ones to clear ‘em out. Not all guarded and stuff, from what I been told, but enough ter need some good blades to kill ‘em all. I know it’s important, ‘cause it’s on the White Knight’s ter do list. And-” Jeb lowered his voice slightly “-don’t go telling the others, Dan, but I think it’s ‘spose to be a secret, too. Them knights don’t want ter scare the townsfolk.”

            Dan wordlessly arched a brow, then broke out laughing. “Jeb, don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s the craziest thing I’ve heard you say about a job. And you said some pretty crazy things about jobs in the past. Like how this one you wanted to get one of those fancy shields that protect you from dragon fire for this job ‘cause you thought there’d be dragons in the woods.”

            “There are too dragons in these woods,” Jeb growled, growing indignant. “And we’re damn lucky them beasts haven’t shown their faces ‘cause we’d be all burnt ‘n crispy ‘cause you said we didn’t ter get them shields. And these here plans are secret. Probably something right from the Amerk feller’s desk. If he’s got a desk.”

            “Indeed he does have a desk,” a voice suddenly interrupted. A figure emerged from the trees, garbed in a brown, hooded cloak and what looked to be simple leather armor. “And you need not draw your weapons, I’m here with word about that job of yours,” he added hastily, noting some of the more quick-acting members of the group were grabbing their weapons already. “I apologize for eavesdropping, but I was sent by Sir Amik himself on the very matter you were discussing. Indeed, the matter you are handling is one of grave importance, and Sir Amik is most pleased to have such capable men as yourselves on the job. His only regret is his men are too busy to bring his regards more… personally.”

            Jeb eyed the newcomer suspiciously for a few moments, then broke into a triumphant grin. He was quite partial to compliments, even of the minor sort, as many of the mercenaries’ employers would often discover. “I told you this job was one of them important ‘uns! So important that Amerk himself is happy ‘bout it!” His grin faded somewhat as he glanced about, noticing that the rest of the mercenaries had drawn their weapons. “Put those away you bleedin’ fools! We’re good Saradomists, and we ain’t gonna wave steel around at a bringer of good news!”

            Reluctantly, the rest of the men lowered their weapons, though they continued eying the newcomer warily. Dan arched a brow at Jeb, frowning fiercely. “Jeb… You really think it’s a good idea to just trust him like that? He could easily be lying. He’s not a white knight, after all. Looks kind of… rogue-ish. And I doubt anybody would come just to say we’re good at our job.”

            “Indeed they wouldn’t,” the stranger interrupted with a smile before Jeb could answer. “I’ve come because I have a job of my own to carry out. Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Alak, and I’m a freelance mercenary in the employ of the White Knights. No, no, I’m not here presenting myself as a rival or anything like that. You see, Sir Amik has sent me as extra help. He noted you lack an archer in your band, causing him concern for your safety. Since you left on your current job, he came to discover the Zamorakians have a mage in their midst. You certainly are great and powerful warriors, but no warrior can stand against a mage able to bind your legs to the spot and cowardly rain fire upon your heads from out of your reach. So I’m here to help you deal with that mage once the time comes. And don’t worry about your reward. My pay is completely separate from yours.”

            “Mage? Them bloody Zamorakians!” Jeb growled, clenching his fists. “Knew they wouldn’t fight fair. But they don’t know who they mess with. You stay with us fer the night, Alak, we got plenty o’ food ter go round. Then tomorrow we figure out what ter do with them Zamorakians. And if you do well ‘nough, then maybe you could join us our group as the archer. Been needin’ an archer.”

            “I thank you for the offer, my dear Jeb,” Alak replied cheerfully, taking a place around the fire. “And I will certainly think on joining your group, should I adequately prove myself. Your skill as fighters is well known, after all. I’d be silly to turn down a possible offer to join you without thinking on it.”

            Thus, the matter of the newcomer was settled. Dan was far from happy about it, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Jeb had made up his mind, after all, and that man was stubborn to a fault. Of course, that wouldn’t stop Dan from sleeping with a hand on his sword hilt or from eying Alak suspiciously throughout the night.

            The rest of the night proceeded rather simply. Most of the mercenaries were understandably leery of letting a stranger in their midst, but, after several hours, and after more than several drinks, the warriors hardly even recalled that Alak was present. Thus, not a man took notice as Alak slipped past the less-than-attentive warrior on sentry duty, leaving the group burdened with one less purse of gold.

            Jeb tightened his grip on his blade at the memory of waking to find he had been stolen from. He had caused a bit of a commotion (and earned an “I told you so” from Dan) before deciding that hunting down Alak would be their new priority, which, surprisingly enough, was not as difficult as one would expect. Dan was quite proficient at tracking, and Alak had taken no pains to hide his trail. Thus, several days later the band arrived at the edge of the Lumbridge swamps, with Dan claiming they had nearly caught up with Alak. Now it would just be short matter of time before he’d get revenge on that traitor.

            He did not need to wait long; within a matter of minutes, a lone, hooded figure became visible in the distance, dressed in the same gear as Alak had been. Moments after spotting his prey, Jeb shouted a battlecry and dashed toward the man, his sword held high and the rest of the mercenaries charging after their leader. So intent was he on exacting revenge that he did not hear Dan shout a warning to stop, or hear the groaning cracking of breaking timber from just behind. Not until he heard several shouts of pain did Jeb finally stop his charge and chance a look behind himself.

            A large, gaping hole replaced the ground he had just run across. Within were the rest of the mercenaries (minus Dan), impaled on wooden spikes at the muddy bottom of the pit. There had been a weak, rotting cover to the trap; by sheer luck, Jeb had made it to the other side before the covering broke apart. Several rotting wood beams were set up at the edges of the pit, preventing the swampy mud collapsing in on the trap. It had been expertly made, though looked as if it might collapse completely at any given moment.

            Stunned, Jeb raised his gaze from the pit just in time to see Dan fall forward into the pit from the other side of the pit, a single crossbow bolt lodged in his neck. For a few short moments, Jeb simply stared, barely able to comprehend that his entire band of mercenaries was now dead or soon to be dead; however, the feeling quickly passed. Jeb whirled around and charged at Alak again, planning on striking the man down before he could reload his crossbow. The ex-mercenary leader was filled with outrage at the loss of his men; the traitor who had slain them was the only thing he could see.

            “Zamorakian trickster! I’ll tear ye limb from limb fer wh- Ahh!” Jeb suddenly cried out as sharp pain closed around his right leg, interrupting his vocal rage. Unable to stop himself, Jeb fell less than a foot away from Alak, his leg caught in a well-concealed mantrap. Before the warrior could even hit the ground, Alak strode forward, drawing a steel short sword from within his cloak.

            “There is a balance to be kept, my dear Jeb,” Alak began, raising the blade and plunging it through Jeb’s neck in one swift stroke. “And you were tipping the scales far too much. These lands are far too bright, and need to be darkened.”

            The matter of cleaning the mess was a simple one. Alak first retrieved the false documents Jeb had been using to plan the job of clearing out a cult of Zamorakians. They had been written by Alak and passed along to the mercenaries by a trusted associate in the guise of a highly important job. As the information within the documents was entirely fictional, the most sensible thing for Alak would be to retrieve and destroy them, as, should somebody somehow come across the bodies and find the documents, such documents would only serve to raise questions.

            Once the papers were retrieved, Alak simply removed the mantrap from Jeb’s leg and rolled the body into the pit with the rest. A few good kicks to the rotting support beams caused the pit to collapse on itself, burying its gruesome contents in a mass of mud. After a bit of smoothing out, the pit was virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the surrounding swamp.

            Alak eyed his handiwork, and, satisfied that the bodies of the mercenaries would never be found, closed his eyes and bowed his head and uttered a short prayer to Guthix. Then, his job now complete, he recovered his mantrap and slipped off into the swamp, leaving the place as if he had never even set foot in it.

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