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By: Richard Jeter

The bandits seemed dissatisfied with the family's lack of material goods and had wandered away from the back of the wagon, having destroyed most and stolen the rest. A rather heated discussion had begun, undoubtedly over what they wanted to do now. He could tell by the snatches of muttered conversations he could catch over the constant rumbling of the volcanoes that what the looting had lacked in fun, they felt activities to follow would more than make up for. The glances at his daughter were increasing.

Soon, the raiders closed into a semi-circle around their whimpering huddle; seven of them, that he could see, at least. Their leader -- or at least the one with the largest weapon, which probably amounted to the same thing -- stepped forward.

"We normally let people go, if they can come up with the protection fee. But we been through all your stuff, and we know you folks is a little short. So I think we discuss a little exchange, maybe?" He tossed a longer, more meaningful glance at the girl.

Her father lurched forward, doing his best to lunge angrily without use of his arms or legs. "YOU BASTARD! I'LL KI--"

The rant was cut very short by a vicious boot to the head, sending him flying back against the side of the cart, where he slumped down, half-conscious, nose disjointed and bleeding.

"Excuse me."

The leader spun around to face the sudden and quite unwelcome new voice behind him, his blade coming with him in an arc designed to meet the stranger at what would be head or throat height on a normal man. What it met was the flat edge of a gleaming silver longsword, brought up from seemingly nowhere by the hooded figure in one simple, fluid motion to stop his crude scimitar.

The skill of this maneuver and the craftsmanship of the weapon were both lost on the bandit, in light of the black crossbow in the figure's other hand, which had been simultaneously raised to eye level. He was close enough to see the wickedly-barbed end of the bolt resting precariously in its nock, a green substance glistening on the tip. Funny the things you notice in situations like these.

"Yes, hello there," the new arrival continued, as though nothing of note had happened. "Might I inquire as to your business with these people?

"And I do highly recommend you tell your men not to move. I know they're still confused by this turn of events, and I want to use this window of opportunity to assure them that trying anything...well, I guess heroic wouldn't really be the best term here, so we'll stick with stupid, as it’s basically the same thing...anyway, it just would not be wise.”

Several beats passed, the silence broken only by the ambient seismic rumbling, the stillness broken only by heavy breathing, gravel shifting under feet bracing for whatever came next, and deeply confused blinking.

"Not that I really believe they're loyal to you,” the odd stranger continued. “And I'm sure one of them is thinking 'Shoot the bastard, then I'll be in charge because I've got the second biggest sword' or some rubbish like that, but as you already find yourself on the business end of me, I feel you can speak to the fact that any attempts on my life will only make them next in line. So if you could…pass all that along in language they can understand, I'd really appreciate it. I'm not very good at monosyllabic speech."

Although the majority of his features were hidden in the cowl of his hooded cloak, the stained green light revealed the faintest glimpse of an odd little smile. He gingerly flicked the crossbow, encouraging its target to get on with it.

"Er...right. blokes lay off a moment."

The hood titled to one side, and the figure's stance changed. A slump of a shoulder, a shift of the weight, his whole profile deflating in a disappointed sigh.

"Is that it? I expected you all would have some sort of rich bandit code-speak, firmly rooted in the heritage of outlaws everywhere. Dripping of history and the quiet, misunderstood dignity of your profession. I couldn't even understand the last group when they got going, and they even had a sign language all their own, it was quite amazing to watch. I suspect you're not very proper outlaws at all."

"Well...we do...we do rob people."

This seemed to perk the stranger up a bit. "This is true! What do you do with what you take? Does it fund a guerilla war effort? Do you give it to the needy? Do you have a dark and sinister plan to overthrow a government that needs the cash?"

The bandit leader's brow furrowed deeply as he seemed to weigh where to go with this. Being a small-time brigand didn't require a lot of quick thought. You gave people the usual "money or your life" option, and whatever they did next put them in one category or the other. He wasn't used to questions. And above all, he didn't catch on very fast.

"Er...ale and whores mostly."

Another sigh came from the dark recesses of the hood, and the finger squeezed the trigger.

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