Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIV

by George Gauthier

Chapter 4

The Cult

The rangers searched the dead and found a map of the route to their camp. Their prisoner refused to answer questions till Dylan bluffed, threatening him with unremitting torment as he was alternately tortured and magically healed over many days, even weeks if necessary. Dylan employed the modicum of projective empathy which even receptive empaths like him possessed to seem totally sincere. The captive talked.

Their attackers turned out to be a clan of brigands patterned after the original Thugs in India on Old Urth. The original thugs were a religious cult dedicated to the goddess Kali which preyed on travelers. Their favorite tactic was to join fellow travelers on the road supposedly for mutual safety and to gain their confidence while gathering information on their victims' itinerary, like where they were headed, who might be expecting them, and when. Usually they strangled their sleeping victims at nighttime layovers. Alternatively they arranged ambushes and massacres.

The thugs on planet Haven were a secular criminal society not a religious cult as their namesakes had been. On Haven the thugs lived openly in a colony of their own, pretending that theirs was a community of like minded souls who felt out of step with the modern world and preferring minimal contact with the wider world beyond their lands. At the top was a caste of shape shifters who could take the form of jaguars. Besides their innate shape shifter magic, some of them also wielded magical powers effective in combat such as firecasting and levin bolts. Next in rank was the most numerous caste the dacoits — ordinary humans and elves who were mundanes meaning they lacked even minor combat powers like electrum sparks and calling light which might threaten the domination of the shape shifters.

At the bottom were human slaves. The thugs never married nor formed real families but slaked their lusts on a pool of captive women and youths. The brutes' tastes ran to rough sex involving continual humiliation, whippings, rope burns, and endless multiple mountings. Some restraint was shown toward females who had some value as servants in the kitchen and at domestic chores. No such consideration applied to the youths who were never put to work. They could not be trusted in workshops or stables lest they take up tools as weapons. Kept in restraints and under close guard, these young innocents endured appalling torments to gratify the perverted lusts of their captors.

Females born of unions with dacoits were killed out of hand while infant boys lived with their mothers only until weaned when they were handed over to be raised by older women, those past their childbearing years. None of the boys knew his father nor did the fathers themselves know which boys they had sired. Except for those culled at puberty for manifesting the wrong magical gifts or for too much independence, they boys were raised, indoctrinated, and trained to be dacoits.

It had been that way for several centuries starting with the original six wir jaguars, all brothers and cousins. Over the centuries they had recruited others, raising the number of shapeshifters to seventeen. From generation to generation the thugs changed their base of operations, most recently having moved into the lands on the western slopes of the mountains which the orcs had abandoned for their new homeland in distant Amazonia. The thugs had little interest in the New Forest since it was largely uninhabited, with few there to rob or enslave. Normally the thugs did not kill law enforcement officers lest the deed attract attention, but the slain rangers had accidentally seen too much. On the other hand Sexton and Dylan had been specifically targeted for their prowess which, in time, might have become a threat. Hence the considerable forces committed to the attacks on their two patrols.

These latter day thugs were even more wicked the originals ones on Old Urth. The thugs on Haven sought wealth certainly, but they were not only greedy, they were sadists who enjoyed torturing and raping young lasses and pretty youths. The ruling caste, the shape shifters, went even further. They liked to play with captives they way cats played with mice then finally kill them and then eat their flesh. In their jaguar form these wirs had acquired a taste for "long pig" as they called their human livestock. It was debatable whether that made them cannibals since they consumed human flesh only while in jaguar form.

It was late afternoon when the druid contacted them via Mind Speech. After Sexton and Dylan relayed the shocking news Dahlderon asked them to take their prisoner and maps and documents to their remote ranger station. Two hours later, he opened a rift and stepped through bringing Artor Klarendes with him. From the rangers' reports Artor realized that the cult was not a military threat requiring regular soldiers to put down. Rather it was a law enforcement matter and well within the capabilities of the rural constabulary. That meant two companies of the constabulary including a trio of limber-mounted swivel guns. He also rallied family and some few of his friends for magical support including his father count Taitos Klarendes, the count's spouse Aodh, the most powerful fetcher he knew, Drew Altair, and the war mage Axel Wilde.

The approach of dusk precluded an attack that day on the thugs's Roost so Artor marshaled his forces a short distance away and set out pickets to prevent discovery. The attack would kick off just after dawn the next day.

After their heavy losses in the failed attacks on Sexton's and Dylan's patrols the defenders could muster no more than forty-odd mundane dacoits plus ten shape shifting jaguars who had only a handful of heavy hitters among them: two firecasters a fetcher, and a hurler of levin bolts. The Roost was no fortress, just a base of operations, though the main house for the jaguars, the dormitories for the dacoits and storehouse were sturdily built of stone. Their walls would provide cover from the bullets of constables' air guns. The slave quarters were softer targets, built of clapboard. The plan was to surround the Roost and call upon the thugs to surrender. If, as expected, they refused, the assaulting forces would initially isolate and safeguard the slaves and children before targeting their main strength on the dacoits and their shapeshifter masters.

Artor laid out the details of the plan.

"As far as heavy hitters go, they have a strong fetcher, a pair of firecasters, and a lightning thrower. On our side we have a druid, a fetcher, a war mage cum jumper, two firecasters, and a shape shifter of our own. Now ours may be smaller, but he has poison claws. So we have the advantage in magical support. Our mundane resources are also superior to theirs; we outnumber them three to one. Our air guns can deliver a heavy fire at stand-off distance while our bayonets and butt spikes make our fighters effective in hand to hand combat. Indeed in the latter role, they have longer reach than the single sticks and daggers wielded by the enemy. For ranged weapons the dacoits use only crossbows, their masters fearing that in a mutiny rapid fire air guns might be turned on them."

"A number of constables are gifted with minor combat powers and can fling electrum sparks to distract the foe or call light to englobe skulls or even kindle fire to set clothing or hair aflame. Drew, I am counting on you to counter the attacks of their fetcher and archers. My father and I can easily thwart their two firecasters. That leaves only their lightning thrower."

"Let me handle him," Dahl offered. "To flush him out I'll bait him by disparaging their feeble magical powers when I call upon them to surrender. We can expect the enemy to reject surrender emphatically and violently — most likely by flinging a levin bolt at me to make a point. I won't stand close enough for their firecasters to reach me with a stream of fire given the range. Once my ensorcelled amulet deflects my foe's lightning, I will counter with my most intimidating tactic, turning his skeleton to powder."

Drew Altair shuddered, wondering aloud if that were really necessary.

"Couldn't you just slay him by say inducing a blot clot in his brain."

"Of course, but my purpose is not just to kill a single dangerous foe but to dishearten the lot of them."

"I understand, but they must know that they face the death penalty regardless. Anyway have you reconnoitered for field fortifications?"

"Yes, An aerial reconnaissance looking through the eyes of a hawk showed no trenches or redoubts, which is not surprising since this Roost of theirs was not built as a fortress. The robbers have no curtain wall or towers or bastions. My earth magic did reveal that the slope which offers the most direct route of attack is pockmarked with holes dug amid the high grass to trip up and cripple advancing infantry or charging cavalry. So just before our constables advance, I will heave earth to fill them in."

"Excellent!" Artor then addedL "Axel, you and six constables will be our quick reaction force supported by Aodh, I should think."

Aodh shook his head. "Them yes; me no. Better that Axel hop me over to that forested ridge. It is the obvious escape route from the Roost for jaguars who can take to the trees where only I could stop them. My poison claws and sonic weapon are more than a match for any number of jaguars despite the disparity in size. Besides, the wildcat in me very much wants to tear into them with fang and claw close up and personal."

"Suit yourself."

When Axel teleported back from dropping Aodh off Artor asked him about the odd-looking stick he carried in a scabbard on his back. Axel told him that it was a new type of personal weapon devised by Eike for close combat.

"It's actually a double-ended spear with poison blades concealed within. The shaft is shortened to be midway in length between a single stick and a quarterstaff. It is solid ash except for screw mechanisms at each end which extend recessed blades when you turn these knurled rings. As the blades slide out tiny brushes paint a thin coat of snake venom on the edges.

Now I still carry fist knives, but the half-spear extends my reach, something I appreciate going up against shape shifting jaguars or even foes armed with edged weapons. I can also use the staff with blades retracted much like a quarter staff, and these splint armor vambraces and gauntlets protect my hands and wrists."

In close combat Axel relied on the speed and reflexes conferred by his magically enhanced constitution as well as his ability to teleport so he wore very little armor — just the vambraces, gauntlets, and a brimmed cap reinforced with a cork liner under a steel shell.

"Captain Darren, deploy your constables as you see best to prevent anyone escaping. Once their heavy hitters have been neutralized, launch your assault as we discussed."

"Will do. I shall emplace the swivel guns here atop the ridge to command these slopes and so prevent any mass breakout. I know that you two forest rangers are here mainly to help interrogate captured enemy, but I would like you to stand with us as extra security just in case."

Madden Sexton and Dylan nodded their acceptance of that role.

"One more thing. I don't like saying this, but if the thugs spring some kind of surprise magical or otherwise and things go so badly wrong that we face defeat, then it will be up to Count Klarendes, and me to destroy the cult utterly with white fire [subatomic plasma] regardless of the consequences to the captives. In which case we will give the constables enough time to get into the clear."

Fortunately the assault went largely as planned. Once constables had taken up blocking positions the druid used magic to project his voice and called upon the thugs to surrender. Their response was a levin bolt aimed straight at him but which grounded out well short of his position. At a gesture from Dahl his foe's skeleton crumbled from within as the rest of his body slumped to the ground in a shapeless mess leaking fluids followed by cries of dismay and disgust among the ranks of the thugs.

Drew Altair decapitated the enemy fletcher with an edged discus then constrained their volleys of arrows to fall short. Artor had no trouble extinguishing the clinging balls of fire hurled by the enemy firecasters, snuffing the flames and letting the combustion gasses disperse into the atmosphere. Meanwhile Taitos Klarendes captured and concentrated the heat energy magically manifested by their foes into globes of hot air centered on the enemy firecasters' heads. The intense heat first charred their flesh then flash boiled the blood and brain fluids in their skulls producing superheated steam which forced the mixture of red and grey through the openings in the skull for eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.

The druid shook his head.

"And here I had thought my powdered skeleton technique was grisly and intimidating."

Count Klarendes shrugged:

"Amateurs forget that the real gift of fire wizards is control of heat energy in general, of which flames are only one manifestation. Hence beginners too often opt for flashy effects like streams of fire or clinging balls of flame. "

With the enemy's heavy hitters out of the picture, the assault of the constables was unstoppable. The only iffy moment came when seven jaguars sprang upon the constables from concealment in upper stories and balconies. The jaguars counted on surprise, ferocity, and their partial invulnerability to take out the constables before their bullets or bayonets could find a vital spot. Caught out as they were by an unexpected attack from above, the air guns and minor combat powers of the constables could do only so much. Nearly a dozen of them fell to the enemy attack, mostly just wounded though four were killed outright, a costly sacrifice though they did take two attackers with them. Then Axel jumped the reaction force in taking the jaguars from behind, the constables with air guns and bayonets and Axel with his double ended spear. A slash to inflict a flesh wound to hamper the jaguar was followed by a thrust through an eye straight into the brain to kill it. Once the fighting was over Axel jumped lady healers in to deal with the wounded.

A panicky uphill charge by the surviving dacoits was turned into a blood shambles by the three swivel guns and the air guns of the constables.

Two jaguars took to the trees seeking to escape only to run into Aodh who was waiting crouched on a main branch a dozen feet higher in the canopy. One of the jaguars morphed into his human form to be able to talk.

"A single black panther challenging two jaguars? That's not very smart, little one. Now before I kill you I am curious to see what you look like as a human or elf. Would you care to transform? Out of professional courtesy we shall observe a brief truce while you do so."

Aodh put no trust in his foe's promise of professional courtesy but figured he could switch back to panther form before the jaguars could climb up to him. Besides, his sonic weapon worked just fine in both forms, so he morphed into his human form which looked even less of a threat to two powerfully built foes, each three times his mass. Small, skinny, and smooth muscled, comely as an angel, with a skin like porcelain, and looking utterly fragile and vulnerable especially nude and empty handed as he was Aodh hardly looked like he could take on a jaguar cub much less two adult males.

"Ah, such a lovely youth. I only wish we had time to play with you, pretty one, but alas, we must be off. The good news is that yours will be a quicker death than you deserve."

"Actually, I won't be dying any time soon." Aodh told him evenly. "Instead, this very day, both of you will die a lingering death. Your pain will be so great that you will welcome an end to your agony when death finally claims you."

With that Aodh changed back into a black panther, ending the brief truce. The three felines closed the distance and battled with their natural weapons, but this was a fight which could have only one outcome. It wasn't just his poison claws that gave Aodh the advantage. His tripled strength more than equaled that of a jaguar, and with his speed and lightning reflexes he utterly baffled his foes. In moments the two jaguars had fallen to the ground writhing in agony comparable to that which the venom of the stone fish can inflict. The dying jaguars changed back to human form hoping to heal themselves but the poison was locked inside their flesh and bloodstreams regardless of form. They begged Aodh to finish them off, but he shook his head telling them coldly:

"Now you know what it is like to be on the receiving end when a cat toys with its prey."

One writhing jaguar finally managed to slash his own throat open to bring its agony to an end.

A single wir jaguar escaped the massacre but only because he had been away hunting and was outside the cordon which the constabulary threw around the Roost. From hiding he bore bitter witness to the destruction of the entire cult then turned and sought refuge in the New Forest where he nursed grand plans to recruit fellow shape shifters and train a new corps of dacoits, however long it took.

Unfortunately for its hopes, a couple of weeks later he ran into the shape shifter cousins Leon and Brand. Like all the Snow Elves they had been alerted by the druids to be on the lookout for possible stragglers from the cult, whether wir jaguars or dacoits. In their human forms as naked elf-boys with willowy builds and alabaster skin, the cousins looked like easy prey to the jaguar, but even in their human forms their enhanced senses warned them of the danger in time to transform into spotted leopards.

With their natural weapons alone the pair were more than a match for a single wir jaguar. The cousin's inherent magic had combined with that of the New Forest to confer on them tripled strength compared to the doubled strength of ordinary shape shifters like the jaguar. Moreover, not only could both cousins throw electrum sparks to distract their foe, they were also endowed with poison claws like those of the shape shifter Aodh. Their final advantage was their coordinated fighting style. Though not fully telepathic except when linked by the telepathy of their protectors the white Kodiak bears, the cousins had a rudimentary psychic bond much like the original bond of the the twins. With all their advantages the pair made short work of the last wir jaguar.

The eight dacoits wounded but captured alive soon saw for themselves that justice in the Commonwealth of the Long River was swift and sure. Artor did not turn the prisoners over to the regular courts. Instead he judged them summarily himself, under his plenipotentiary judicial powers as one of the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth. The empathic gifts of Lord Sexton and Dylan confirmed that all were guilty of many past atrocities. Besides they had all taken part in an insurrection against the Commonwealth — all capital crimes. So there would be no appeal to higher authority nor any delay in the execution of the death sentence, which was carried out by firing squad.

The dacoits died so quickly that they hardly had time to feel pain. Afterwards Taitos Klarendes disintegrated their bodies with white fire so that their remains would not foul the planet of Haven.

Some of the sex slaves were denounced by fellow captives as collaborators, but a regular court ruled that, whatever may have happened during their captivity, they had acted under duress. All went free with the assurance of mentoring and financial help in resuming some kind of normal life. The children and their caregivers were treated as kindly and as generously as anyone could have wished for.

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