OPERATION RED SCEPTRE
Delkos wasn't close enough to hear the Lornish sergeant's words, but from his tone of voice, rhythm of speech, and exagerrated hand gestures, he was telling a particularly crude joke. That was good. It meant that he, and the rest of the sentries, were relaxed and not expecting trouble.
With a thought, Delkos zoomed out the enhanced vision of the Omnilens. Now he could see the other guards. Most were paying the sergeant rapt attention, a couple of the others only half listening. These, he guessed, had heard the story before. That probably meant they knew the sergeant well, which in turn meant they were likely veterans. Delkos had seen the scars on the sergeant's face, the distinctly none-standard sword he carried. He'd been in enough fights to pick up experience and souveniers alike, making him and his colleagues a definite threat.
He concentrated on a ghostly grey Icon hovering in the top right of his vision, letting it flare into life. "Two, this is Lead. Once the sergeant is down, drop the guy two metres to his left, the one eating the chicken leg. Five, your primary target is the one standing nearest the camp fire. Confirm." he murmured.
The Icon pulsed "Lead, Two, confirmed." Andrasta replied, her voice as if she spoke beside him, not whispered more than thirty metres away. A moment later Teldo, Five, also confirmed.
He looked around, the night's darkness clear as day through the lens, then triggered another Icon. "Spellcom, this is Wraith Four Lead. Status of hostile patrols please."
The voice of the Spellcom monitor was distorted, flat. The range and local conditions robbed the voice of all inflection, but the words were clear enough. "Patrol one is near the south west tower, but they are heading away from you. Patrol two is north west. If they maintain their current speed and pattern, they will be with you in about two and a half minutes."
"Thank you Spellcom. Please inform me of any changes, otherwise keep communications clear."
"Acknowleged Lead. Good hunting." There had been no hesitation from the Spellcom monitor, suggesting he knew the importance of sitting back and letting the team do the job. That pleased Delkos, he'd been on missions where the monitors had tried to micromanage things. That never worked out well. Like wise he appreciated the way the monitor had been approximate in his estimation of how long the patrol would take. With the resources at his disposal he could have calculated it to the second. But that calculation would have been based on conditions as they are now, and would make no allowance for what might occur. The patrol might be startled by a bat or an owl, someone might get distracted, or try to rush things out of boredom or need to relieve themselves, and the patrol is suddenly moving at a different rate.
Split second timing, Delkos had been taught, is usually accurate to within half a minute or so.
From the look of thing the sergeant was building up to the punchline. That would be the perfect moment to strike. Delkos ran his fingers over the runes engraved on the crossbow bolt. He couldn't feel them through his gauntlets, but the contact with the enchantment was enough to cause the symbols to float momentarily in his field of vision. It was the right bolt. Good. He'd checked it three times already but he always had to make sure.
"All Wraiths, Lead." he sent over the Omnilens communications link. "Stand by, action is imminent. As soon as I give the order, shoot. And not a moment before."
The incoming message Icon flashed briefly into life, then faded just as quickly. Deklos grinned. Andrasta no doubt,stung into response by his comment, biting it down before she spoke. Well, his comment had been meant for her. She was a superb archer, but not one for team work. If she could learn that, she'd probably be the most effective member of Wraith Four. They'd had that discussion before.
The sergeant's voice boomed as he finished his joke, the laughter of his colleagues clearly audible. It was the moment Delkos had been waiting for. Lifting himself onto one knee he took careful aim, not at any member of the guards, but at a spot of ground roughly equidistant between them. The crossbow delivered a solid punch to his shoulder as the bolt spewed forth.
Zooming in the omnilens he could see the sergeant's guffawing face. The laughter faded to nothing, but still the sergeant convulsed. Then an expression of confusion spread. He looked around, leaping his feet, silently bellowing orders. Around him the other guards reacted with surprise, equally puzzled and startled.
"All Wraiths, shoot!" he sent. In his enhanced vision the sergeant jerked, clawing at lips which had suddenly spouted feathers. Even before his body had hit the ground Andrasta had released a second arrow. This too took it's target, the one eating chicken, through the mouth.
Wraith Five, Teldo, did not have the Elf woman's accuracy. But he was a good enough shot to get a solid hit to the torso. And the ultra heavy crossbow needed a half-orc's strength to operate. At this range it punched through the hardened leather armour like it wasn't there, an instantly lethal shot even without the bolt's enhancements.
With all three veterans down the rest stood little chance. Some strange power had rendered them deaf and dumb, their leaders had fallen, and now death rained on them from the darkness. Delkos felt sorry for them, but not so sorry as to stay his hand. He had a mission to carry out, one too important to let his sympathies deflect.
The silence spell would fade soon. He quickly reloaded his crossbow. There were few guards left. One, desperately following orders, was frantically trying to ring his hand bell. Before Deklos could aim, the guard fell in a flurry of bolts from Gravon's repeater crossbow.
And then it was all over. Those not dead were dying, any last sounds they may utter stolen by the enchantments. Delkos muttered a quick prayer to the All Father. These men were his enemies, but that was through the country of their birth, not any personall evil on their part.
He opened the link to the Spellcom monitor, requesting an update on th eapproaching patrol. A little under two minutes. Plenty of time.
"All Wraiths, let's get those bodies moved. Except you, Gravon. Prep the illusion spell. By the time the patrol gets into visual range I want this place looking exactly like it was before we hit."
There were a series of acknowledgements from the rest of the team. He nodded with satisfaction, and looked ahead. The castle was a dull ominous lump, towers rising like the claws of a diseased hand. Taking the sentry camp down gave the team a fairly clear run to it. And that's where things would get tricky...
By Matthew James Barlow July 2018
OPERATION GREY AUDIT
Had Varian the merchant been aware that a striking young redhead in leather would infiltrate his bedchamber late at night, he would have been greatly pleased, and would certainly have remained awake for her. Not even the news that her leather was in the form of armour would have dampened his enthusiasm, he liked women in uniform almost as much as he liked redheads.
Had he suspected the purpose of this visit, however, he would have been most displeased. He would have remained awake, with summoned servants and guards, to stop her. But he did not know, and so he slept.
Jadia watched him sleep. It was not a task she enjoyed. The unusually hot weather had led him to kick off most of his bed clothes, and his was not a body enhanced by minimal coverge. Apparently he employed one of the best private chefs in the city. He looked like someone for whom second helpings were a regular occurance. But still she watched, carefully, patiently, until satisfied that his sleep was not feigned.
Only then did she trigger the communications link on the Omnilens. "Lead, Four. I'm in and safe. Proceeding with plan." she said under her breath.
Deklos' voice was soft, yet clearly audible, as if he squatted on the window sill beside her. "Acknowledged. Keep me informed on developments."
"Will do." Sometimes she resented the Omnilens, not much, but slightly. It was a reminder that she was part of something bigger, that she relied on other people. She had learnt to be self sufficient long ago, and was comfortable with it. Those few times she had worked with others, before joining the Wraiths, they had let her down. Badly.
Also, she could never shake the suspicion that she was always being watched when wearing the Omnilens. They said she'd have to deliberately activate it to communicate, that vision could only be shared with her deliberate choice. But then, they would say that...
She rolled her shoulders, getting the kinks out. The climb, three stories up a smooth stone surface, hadn't been particullarly challenging, though there had been some urgency. This was the good part of town, watch patrols were common, with Elves and others in their ranks for whom a moonless night would offer little barrier to perception. And though the heat meant Varian had left his window conveniently open, he was wealthy enough to worry about security. It had been quite a squeeze to get past the iron bars.
She looked about the room, feeling another stab of irritation for the Omnilens. What was the point of all that time spent in darkened chambers, honing her perceptions, if just anyone could wear an enchanted disc that gave them the night vision of a Dwarf or Elf? Using magic this way felt like cheating!
Well, no, not cheating as such. She had no problem with cheating . It had made her a fair bit of money in the past, saved her life more than once. But this...this was lazy.
She'd been taught to percieve the more common magical traps, and to bypass them. All that training, and now the Omnilens displayed a gently pulsing glow on the carpet on the floor, letting her know a single step would sound alarms. Letting her know like she was just some ordainary person, who needed to be told these things. It was infuriating!
So. Jadia could not simply get off from the window sill without setting off the alarm. And the alarm would probably need Varian to speak a predetermined phrase to deactivate. Offhand she could think of half a dozen ways to deal with that, but none of them were necessary. She'd spotted her true target.
Outside, there were footsteps, irregular, unsteady. Barely audible. But then came a sudden crash and a voice half raised. Varian grunted in response, with a twitch, and his eyes almost opened before he settled again.
She froze, watching him until certain he slept once more. "Two, Four. What was that?"
Andrasta was watching from the roof top opposite. "Looks like a drunk. Staggered against the well, knocked the bucket over." she answered.
Deklos cut in. "That's the sort of thing Jadia should know about before it happens."
"Yes sir. I didn't want to distract her."
Typical of the elf, Jadia thought. An explanation but not an apology.
"Right, I think under the circumstances I will take steps to ensure Varian doesn't wake." she sent.
There was a short pause before Deklos replied. "Alright, you're the one on the spot, you're the expert, it's your call. Just remember the mission parameters."
"Yes sir."She took a few deep breaths and gathered herself. And then, after double checking her footing, she leapt at the bed.
She didn't jump onto the bed itself, of course. Landing on the mattress ran the risk of waking the merchant. Instead she coiled herself tightly around the nearest of the corner posts. The bed shook slightly, but not by much.
Again she gave Varian time to sink back into a deeper slumber. There was no indication he had been disturbered, but she was loathe to take unnecessary risks. Necessary ones were fine, fun even, but it was foolish to invite problems.
Reaching up, she took a good grip on the horizontal panel that supported the curtains. Hand over hand she swung, quickly but carefully, towards the head of the bed. Her movements were in utter silence, and whatever her thoughts on the Omnilens, she had to appreciate the armour she'd been issued with since joining the Wraiths. Apparently it was not magic but some cunning artifice of Dwarven and Gnomish craftsmen that allowed for free movement in leather and mail without it creaking, rattling or clinking.
Her final swing was greater than the others, bringing her legs up to wrap tightly around the post near the top. Jadia allowed gravity to aid her next move, inverting her so she hung upside down, supporting her weight at ankle and thigh, head near the sleeper.
A voice came over the Omnilens, chuckling. "Show off!" That was Wraith Six, Gavron, the wizard. But how had he seen her to comment? Jadia checked her own display. She wasn't transmitting vision. So they WERE able to see through her 'lens without her knowing! That meant they could spy on her at any time, they had lied when they said...
Except, no. There WAS an Icon showing, a visual transmision, but it was incoming, not outgoing. Even as she activated it Jadia knew what it would be. Yes. Andrasta's point of view, zoomed in from the opposite roof,
That was irritating. She'd been enjoying that moment of righteous anger. To find there was no basis for it was bothersome.
Deklos transmitted "Four, is there a problem?"
He'd always been good at picking up on moods. "Ah, no sir. Just making sure of the best way to proceed."
"Understood. Be advised clocks will be stricking shortly. I'd be more accurate if they were."
"Thanks sir." This close to the city centre there were a number of clocks with ceremonial chimes. They were unlikely to wake Varian, he wouldn't live so close if they were regularly disturbing him, but this fell into the catergory of things not to take chances with.
But that was why she'd moved so close to him. Still inverted, she reached up to her belt. She ignored the two sheathed daggers. She was armed as a last resort, to save herself if things went very badly wrong. Her mission would be considered a failure if anyone even suspected she had been there. The same went for the small but effective cosh she carried as much as habit as anything else. Anyone waking up with a bruised cranium would probably suspect that there may indeed have been an intruder...
The belt pouch was padded on the inside, to keep it's contents safe and prevent noise. A useful side effect was that the vials and glass tubes were held secure, even when inverted. Without taking her eyes off Varian she ran her fingers over the tops, selecting the third one along. She knew what it was, she'd packed her gear personally, but checking and rechecking was second nature to her even before she'd joined the military. Those Dwarven and Gnomish armoursmiths had worked their wonders on the gauntlets too, so the thick hide offered no impediment to her sensitive finger tips. She easily read the pattern of bumps, identifyingthe contents. From a second pouch she collected a cloth pad infused with herbs. This was placed in under the silk scarf covering her lower face, over the nose and mouth. Only then did she unfasten the vial.
Carefully, keeping it the right way up, she moved it towards his face. As he breathed in she tilted it, not quite far enough to spill the liquid within. A white vapour poured forth; she could see it drawn into his nose with his inhalation. She let this happen a second time, then a third. A change, barely perceptable, came over him, his snores getting deeper, his body looser. Returning the stopper to the vial she clicked her fingers by his ear. No reaction. And even with his eyes closed, she could tell they were rolled right back.
Vial returned to pouch, Jadia slithered down onto the bed. "Lead, Four. Varian is not going to be a problem. I am proceeding to target."
Deklos responded "Good work, carry on."
"Four, this is Six." Gavron added. "Are you sure you don't want me to hit him with a sleep spell? I can be up on that roof top with Andrasta..."
"Thank you Six, but no." Jadia interuppted. "Trust me on this." The trouble with sleep spells, she'd learnt, is that they can be TOO effective. If a servant came to wake Varian, for whatever reason, a spell might render him insensate until it expired. Her little vial would make him slumber more deeply, rouse more slowly, but not so much as to inspire suspicion.
It was now a simple matter to make her way, over the furniture, to a large and inaccurately flattering portrait of Varian. Earlier that day, from the same vantage point Andrasta occupied now, Jadia had watched the merchant slide it to one side to deposit items into the safe concealed behind it. After a careful check for alarms or traps (there were two, nothing to cause any problems) she moved the portrait herself.
The safe was a good quality one, it would have taken her a good three or four minutes to unlock if she hadn't already aquired a duplicate key from it's maker. A light sprinkling of graphite dust on the hinges would let them open without the stickiness of oil.
There were two items inside, one expected, one not. Jadia almost gasped despite herself, and opened a visual link. "Hey, Deklos, are you absolutely SURE we can't leave any indication I was here? Like...a little something gone missing?"
Deklos was close enough that inflection and tone were clear over the Omnilens. He sounded tolerantly amused. "Absolutely positive Four. What have you found?"
She focussed her sight on the small wooden cube on top of the leather bound ledger. "It's a puzzle box, looks like it's by Fandri or one of her apprentices. Pelios, or maybe N'aal. If it's genuine it's probably worth as much as this house. And I'd bet my reputation it's genuine."
"Would that be your reputation as a second rate thief?" Andrasta said. "Or the other one, so carefully gathered in the docks and back alleys for half a copper piece a time?"
"How dare you." Jadia replied icely. "I'm a first class thief and don't you forget it."
She wasn't sure, but it sounded like a snort of amusement from Andrasta before Deklos cut in. "A little professionalism, please. May I remind you we are being monitored?"
"Yes sir. Sorry sir." Jadia replied. Andrasta, typically, just gave an acknowledgement.
Checking, with a small mirror on an extendable stick, revealed a small glass rod propped up against the back of the puzzle box. Clever. Moving the box would dislodge the rod which, being glass, would be difficult to notice. Varian would carefully place it every time he closed the safe. If it was not in the same location, he'd know someone had disturbed it.
Making a note of it's position---slightly to the right of the second emerald---Jadia carefully placed it to one side. Only after double checking the box for more little surprises did she move that too. And then she applied similar scrutiny to the ledger. It was, as far as she could tell, safe.
She was still transmitting visualy. "Lead, can you relay this to Spellcom?"
"Can do. Standby."
A pause, then "Four, this is Spellcom. we have our observer here, I'm patching him through."
A new voice, one she'd not heard before, came in from Spellcom. "Err, hello?"
The expert, one of the organisation's support personel, not used to actually working with the teams. "Hello there." she replied, trying to put him at his ease. "Is this what you are looking for?" She looked straight at the ledger.
"It might be. Could you open it up please, and look at each page in turn. Thank you."
Standing on a chair in a strange man's bedroom in the dead of an oppresively warm night, Jadia did as she was asked. Occasionally the expert would require she dwell on one page for longer than others, or go back to double check earlier ones. That seemed unecessary to her, her visual transmission was being recorded and could be checked back later. But apparently there was some pressing need for the information, so the expert was trying to verify things in real time.
"Yes, yes, this looks promising." he said at one point.
"You've found what you are looking for?" she asked. As far as she could tell it was a list of transactions Varian had been involved in, deliveries of food and equipment to the military. Nothing unusual in that, he was a major supplier.
"Possibly." the expert replied. "Most of these accounts are entirely straightforward, a record of his own business. There's also some speculation on his competitors, estimates on how much they've been charging for similar amounts. Nothing wrong with that, a shrewd entrapaneur will always be able to come to a fairly accurate idea of what the others are up to. But recently Varian here has been a bit too accurate, under cutting his competitors a lot more often than seems reasonable. So we think he may have a bit of help somewhere, and if it's a leak in the military..."
"Hold on!" Jadia interupted. An Icon flared brightly in her Omnilens. "Magic, powerful magic, nearby!"
If it weren't for the communicative properties of the Omnilens Jadia wouldn't have heard Gavron over the sudden shout from downstairs. "Teleport spell! Very powerful. Long range, at least four people."
Andrasta added "Lights, downstairs. I hear movement. A sword, drawn from it's scabbard!"
Hastily Jadia returned the ledger, puzzlebox, and glass rod to their correct positions. Even as she did so she heard multiple footsteps, heavy and urgent, pounding up the stairs and realized that, though she had time to close the safe and slide back the portrait, she could not cross to the window and escape through the bars before the newcomers arrived...
By Matthew James Barlow August 2018
Operation Stone Helix
Halflings were a cheerful folk by nature, jolly and good humoured. But no one could be like that under all circumstances. During his time in the regulars Gavron had seen them display fear, anger, grief, despair, and more.
But never this though, never anything like this.
Challal stood stock still, save for a trembling, a juddering, that ran through his body. His face was twisted into an expression of rage simultaneously cold and incandescent, and a faint keening noise escaped his gritted teeth. It was not an aspect that suited a halfling, and Gavron found it almost comical.
He sighed, and triggered the communications link in the Omnilens. "Boss, it's me. We can confirm this is part of the old complex."
Delkos sounded pleased. "That's good news! Are you sure?"
His enthusiasm was understandable. It'd been over a century since the earthquake had brought down the roof on what had been both a mine and a Dwarven town. Most of the survivors had relocated, the remainder slowly rebuilding the least damaged south westerly part. But it had been the north east that had traditionally been the most productive. There had been several proposals over the decades to properly survey the area and see what could be salvaged, but nothing had ever come of it. But now, with war looming, all that was changing. The settlement was close enough to the Lornish border to have strategic value, a steady supply of iron and coal would keep the armourers in business. The army might need that one day.
"Yeah, we're sure. That airshaft we climbed down came out in a store room half filled with ore. And we've just found a small shrine to the All Father outside, right wear the old maps said." He paused, then added "And that's where the bad news comes in."
Gavron nodded, even though the human couldn't see him. "Yes, the shrine. It's been---"
"Desecrated!" Challal hissed. "Violated! Defiled!"
It was the first the cleric had said since seeing the shrine, and Gavron flinched at the venom in his voice.
"Desecrated? By who?" Delkos asked.
Andrasta corrected him. "By whom."
"Not now Andrasta." Delkos said impatiently. "So what are we talking about? Gobbos, Kobolds, Gnolls..."
Gavron was aware that Challal was now staring straight at him. "I'm ashamed to say, based on the markings that have been carved into the shine...it's probably my people."
The silence went on far too long for comfort. "You are certain?"
"Aye boss, I might not ken the language but it's certainly Dwarven runes." He forced himself to look closer. The carvings were partially obscurred but still quite distinct beneath dark stains.
"Dark Dwarves?" Teldo asked. "They're a long way out side their usual stomping grounds."
Gavron scuffed his boot on the ground, uncomfortable at the thought that had struck him on examining the shrine. "Yes. A long way. I think that...I think it might actually be...well, a group of survivors from the town."
Another long silence. "That's plausible." Delkos said eventually. "According to the background information at the briefing, there were reports of some sort of disturbance shortly before the earthquake. Some of the townsfolk arrested for...what was the charge?"
Andrasta answered. "Unnatural practices. But there were few details, most of the records were lost in the disaster."
"So what are we saying?" Jadia asked. "A few of these...unnatural practitioners escaped from their jail and happened to be in a safe area to the north east when the earthquake struck? That's pretty unlikely."
"There may have been more of them." Gavron said flatly. "And the disaster may not have been natural. Think about it. If there were enough of them---"
He broke off as Challal suddenely turned, peering into the depths of the corridor. "Someone's coming! Conceal yourself!"
Ducking back into the storeroom Gavron cancelled the Light spell they had been using to see by. Dwarf vision and Omnilens alike required some illumination to work, and this deep underground there was nothing to provide that.. The spell, cast onto a coin, had been at the minimal possible level. A human would not have noticed it at anything more than arms length with the naked eye. It had been enough for them. But if the newcomer was indeed a dwarf, he too would be able to see it.
Presently he became aware of noise, a slow, steady tread. and many voices chanting, the rhythms unfamiliar and unnatural. Taking position behind one of the piles of ore the two were able to see out into the steadily brightening corridor.
An Icon flared on his Omnilens, an incoming message from the team leader. "Do you need any help? I can send Jadia down."
Gavron thought quickly. The thief had a talent for getting into places you'd think impossible for a human. But all the same..."Best not boss. It took me and the halfling time and effort to get down that shaft. I reckon she could do it, but not soon enough to help. Just to be on the safe side, we're going quiet now."
"Understood. Flash us if you need to." It was necessary to whisper to talk to a team mate, something that could give your location away. Opening and closing a link caused the appropriate icon to flash in the recipient's vision, allowing for simple communication.
The chanting was getting close, the language unknown. More than that, it seemed wrong somehow, as if this were something not meant for humanoid mouth. The rhythms, too, disturbed, pausing where it should flow, rising when it should fall.
There was another sound too, the high pitched cries of an animal---a lamb perhaps---in distress.
Gavron found, quite without realizing it, he had unhooked an axe from his belt. His Wizard's Staff was his usual choice for battle, but all dwarves found comfort in an axe or warhammer. The balance of such a weapon for swinging suited the strength of their limbs.
Beside him Challal knelt in silent prayer, flanged mace at easy reach.
The chanters were close now, very close. Gavron estimated there were at least half a dozen. Light flickered through the doorway, and cast shadows on the opposite wall. He hoped it was merely some trick of the light that distorted them so. From the size they were indeed dwarves, but the shape...he shuddered.
Challal tapped his arm for attention, pointed to his Omnilens, then at Gavron's, then upwards. Gavron nodded. Good thinking. In principle the 'lens could transmit to and from anywhere. In practice various factors could affect that, including being deep underground or using the Omnilens' other functions. So, Challal would observe and transmit his point of view to Gavron, who would be free to use all his Omnilens' power to send the transmission to those on the surface.
The cleric crept silently to one side, better to get a view through the door. Gavron shuddered again and grasped his weapons tightly. He did not fear discovery, as Challal was as stealthy as any of his race. But with the chanting reaching a crescendo and the cries of a lamb growing more desperate, he knew with absolute certainty the significance of the dark red stains on the shine.
And if his own people could do that...what must they be? In the hundred years since the earthquake, what had they become? Were they still Dwarves? Or had Dardarrick gained yet another enemy?
By Matthew James Barlow September 2018