With a sound like breaking crockery, the last minion exploded into nothingness. The air was thick with the dust that was left behind after its death. Only a few minutes ago there had been a dozen of the strange red and blue creatures that had infested the land of Albion recently. The villainous Jack of Blades had used them as foot soldiers and after Jack's death they had no way to return to their homeland, wherever that was. I had spent the last year hunting down what remained of the minion army, now reduced to hiding in caves like pathetic Hobbes. I picked my lantern up from where I had dropped it and made my way out of the cave and its choking air.
The oppressive atmosphere of the Darkwoods was not much better, the sooner I reached the idyllic town of Oakvale the better.
The Darkwoods were haunted by all manner of monsters.
Bandits and Balverines, Trolls and Hobbes, even Skorm worshippers, they all seemed to settle in the nightmarish forest like they were drawn to it. I often wondered whether it was the monsters that made the forest or the forest that made the monsters.
At least I could console myself by knowing that I was not far from the notorious Darkwoods Bordello, just another five miles of hell on earth and I could enjoy a night in the lap of luxury. Or with luxury on my lap, as the old joke went.
Through the trees I heard a faint noise. Creeping closer, I recognised it. The familiar garbled speech of a minion, at least three of them. It was time to get to work. When I first became a Hero I took the name Hood but over the last year a new title has been bestowed on me.
My name is Hunter. It's what I am, it's what I do and as the ever-dwindling number of minions can attest, there is no one better at it than me.
The three minions fell easily, two arrows and a fireball spell turned them into dust floating on the cold wind that seemed to blow through the Darkwoods at all times. I had just passed a sign informing me that the Bordello was only three miles away when a voice spoke to me from nowhere.
"Hero!" the echoing voice said "You are required at the Guild. You've received a new quest card."
I felt like shouting at the voice but it was pointless. Trust the Guildmaster to create a system where he could talk and no one could respond!
I threw down my lantern in anger and frustration before reaching for for the guild seal on a chain around my neck. I squeezed the symbol for a few seconds until I felt the tingling in my hand. As I let go my vision was covered in blue sparks.
Before the sparks could clear I took two steps forward and found myself in the main hall of the Heroes Guild.
I tried to stop and center myself (Teleporting is always confusing, no matter how many times a Hero does it.) but I was soon pushed out of the way by another Hero leaving the teleportation pad. I recognised him as Ranger, another Hero tasked with wiping out the minions.
Another followed him. It was Avatar, a Will expert I had trained with when I was studying at the guild.
I noticed that there were already another six heroes gathered around the map table. They were a mixed bunch. Two of them were Reaper and Druid, sworn enemies for years. Battles between the two had been known to level buildings, even having them in the same town was a risk so whatever the Guildmaster wanted must have been truly important. A short elderly man entered the hall. It was the Guildmaster, who I had never liked that much. I was pretty sure the feeling was mutual.
He gestured to the three of us stood to the side, indicating he wanted us to join the rest of the group.
Ranger and Avatar obeyed his order, I was wary but followed a few steps behind them.
There was some jostling for place as everyone tried to get a good look at the map, except for Druid and Reaper who stood on opposite sides of the table and refused to move an inch. Finally the Guildmaster spoke.
"I summoned you all here because this quest is of the highest importance. This quest overrides any you may already have..."
He looked pointedly at me as he said that, daring me to argue.
"... and it cannot be revealed to anyone outside of this room."
It was only then I noticed that there were no apprentices in the hall as there would usually be, and the teleportation pad had been switched off after Avatar had entered the room. I was strangely nervous and slowly placed one hand behind my back, ready to summon a fireball. It wouldn't do much damage to anyone in the room but it would at least be a distraction to aid a quick escape.
The Guildmaster pulled a stack of quest cards from inside his robe and dropped it onto the table.
"One for each of you. To my knowledge, no official quest has ever had this many active Heroes but it is necessary. Albion needs you, all of you, to find Liberator."
A shiver seemed to pass through the group. Reaper and Druid finally broke eye contact and turned to look at the Guildmaster.
Liberator was the one that had defeated Jack of Blades, twice in fact, killing him in his human form and destroying him when he came back as something much worse just under a year ago. He was known as the greatest Hero of our age and he was feared by every other Hero in the Guild. Liberator was a good man. He had trained at the same time as Avatar and I and we had got on well. But no man that powerful could not be feared. He could be vicious when he needed to be. There were few opponents that lasted more than a minute against him.
Twinblade and Thunder, both known as the mightiest Heroes of their respective generations, fell to him in combat with barely a fight.
He was last seen just after his final battle with Jack of Blades. He had appeared at the Guild with Jacks mask strapped to his chest. He went to the Guildmaster, broke his Seal in two, and walked out of the door without a word.
Those who witnessed it say that his stare had been enough to make the Guildmaster cower. I could tell that everyone around the table was thinking the same thing "If Liberator wants to be alone, he'll be alone."
The stack of quest cards still lay on the table, now scattered across the map in a loose pattern.
"You can work together" said the Guildmaster "Or you can work alone. Whatever you do, Liberator must be found."
He stepped back from the table and waited for us take the cards, signifying the beginning of the quest. Ranger was the first one to crack, he snatched up a card and made haste for the teleportation pad.
He hesitated when he realised that it still hadn't been reactivated.
"Not yet." Said the Guildmaster "Only when you have all taken your cards will you be allowed to leave. We can't risk anyone finding out about this quest."
Ranger looked accusingly around at everyone else. Three more Heroes, whose names I didn't know, picked up their cards and stepped back from the table. Avatar reached out her hand, hesitated for a moment, and then took a card.
Reaper grabbed a card and a second later so did Druid. The fourth unnamed Hero, who seemed much too young to have graduated from apprenticeship glanced up at me before letting out a long sigh and taking a card.
The last card lay on the Darkwoods section of the map. Strangely appropriate.
In my peripheral vision I saw the glowing red eyes of Reaper turn towards me and I was sure all the others were glaring at me as well. I ignored them and looked straight into the Guildmasters eyes, trying to judge his emotions.
After a few seconds his eyes flickered in another direction. He couldn't look me in the eyes. He was hiding something.
I slowly put two fingers on the card and with a flourish I slipped it off the table and into my waiting palm.
No words were spoken. The Guildmaster simply turned away and left the hall. The teleportation pad burst into life and Ranger entered it almost instantly, appearing to evaporate inside the blue sparks. He was soon followed by two of the unnamed Heroes, as well as Druid who made sure not to take his eyes off Reaper until he had disappeared completely. Reaper relaxed noticeably in the absence of his rival and casually left through the main door. I followed him outside.
The sunlight was momentarily blinding after the darkness of the hall, not that Reaper seemed to notice.
He was an even more intimidating site in broad daylight. His eyes no longer glowed but the ridges of his black ram-like horns seemed to pulse with the same evil energy that coursed through the bow on his back. Rumour has it he sacrificed many to the dark god Skorm in order to attain the monstrous-looking bow and that a single arrow from it could bring a rock troll to its knees. He nodded towards me before starting down the path that led to Bowerstone, the nearest town. I looked at the quest card that I still held in my hand. It was more of a ceremonial thing than anything else. The areas that should have contained details of the quest and possible rewards were all blank. There was only the words "Find Liberator" at the top of the card and a rough drawing of Liberator, as he looked when he was last seen.
"Notice it doesn't say why he needs to be found."
I managed to suppress a slight jump as I was startled by the voice. I turned to see the young unnamed Hero standing behind me, in the shadow of the Guild. He stepped out into the light and walked past me, following the same path as Reaper.
The young Hero had a good point. Liberator had done more than enough to deserve an early retirement. Why should nine other Heroes risk their lives to search for a man that might just kill them as soon as they find him? This whole quest seemed to be poorly planned.
None of the Heroes had told each other where they would be searching. We would probably all end up combing the same area of Greatwood for months on end! I reached inside my leather chestplate and pulled out my guild seal, focusing my thoughts on Oakvale.
Liberator had grown up in Oakvale before coming to the guild; if there was anywhere he would go to hide its there. I felt the familiar tingling and as the blue sparks began to wink into existence in front of my eyes I let my mind wander to one thought.
"The Hunt is on."